The Rolling Stones have been old for so long that it's hard to picture them young -- scruffy, pimply upstarts wrestling with blues covers, learning to write their own material, and slowly transforming into the jaded, pampered rock lords we've come to know and love. The band's current tour, which squeezes in just a few songs from the '60s, isn't likely to evoke that period either. To get the full effect of Mick, Keith, and the gang in their sullen, insubordinate greenness, you have to go to the source.
The week before the Stones trudged on stage for the first show of their Licks trek, ABKCO rolled out that source: remastered editions of 18 albums the Stones released between 1964 and 1970, plus four subsequent repackages. (Remember, this was when acts would routinely release two or three LPs a year, a scenario now hard to comprehend.) In addition to sporting remixed sound, each disc can also be played on an SACD machine. A guide to the high and low notes within this overwhelming minimountain of music, from which the Strokes and White Stripes got some of their guitar bite and the Hives' Pelle Almqvist his haircut:
THE ESSENTIALS Always one of their finest hours (40 minutes, to be precise), the ruminative and ragged ''Beggars Banquet'' (1968) now features its original bathroom-graffiti cover and (slightly faster) tape speed, as well as magnificent retweaked sound. Rarely has digital separation served songs better than with the awesome crispness of the acoustic and slide guitars in ''No Expectations'' and ''Stray Cat Blues.'' (Note: A regular CD player, not one that reads SACDs, was employed for all these reviews.) ''Let It Bleed,'' released the following year, is almost as impeccable, although no amount of sonic makeover can remove the dread from ''Gimme Shelter'' or the raunch from ''Live With Me.'' ''Between the Buttons'' (1967) is a cheeky set of sardonic Swinging London vaudeville rock. Each: A
THE HITS COMPILATIONS Of the five reissued here, you may as well splurge for Singles Collection: The London Years (1989), a triple disc that has all the recognizable hits along with must-own obscurities like the psychedelicious ''Dandelion'' and the scathing ''Memo From Turner.'' A-
THE REALLY EARLY YEARS At one time, debut albums truly were raw, unvarnished first works rather than the buffed studio concoctions they are now. So it goes here: The Stones' first three U.S. LPs -- England's Newest Hit Makers, 12 x 5 (both 1964), and The Rolling Stones, Now! (1965) -- are quaint blueprints, loaded with covers jejune (''I'm a King Bee'') and ill-fitting (whose idea was it for them to remake ''Under the Boardwalk''?). Sounding fresh and squeaky, the band honors a foundation they would soon destroy and remake in their own image. Hit Makers and 12 x 5: C+; Now!: B-
THE IMPORT QUESTION Like the Beatles, the Stones were not immune from having their British albums altered for the U.S. market. Aftermath (1966) is available in both versions, but opt for the Brit take, which includes extras like the biting parental putdown ''Mother's Little Helper.'' The U.S. Out of Our Heads (1965) has ''(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction''; the U.K. version doesn't. The second half of the outtakes jumble Metamorphosis (1975), here available only in its expanded U.K. version, holds up surprisingly well: Why did the band shelve ''I'm Going Down,'' anyway? Aftermath: A-; Heads and Metamorphosis: B
THE REST, MORE OR LESS The frivolous Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967) confirms that the Stones were never meant to be beatific hippies. Of the live albums, the monolithic Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! (1970) is the keeper; ''Midnight Rambler'' spooks both us and the band. On Got LIVE if You Want It! (1966), we fight to hear the band amid a barrage of crowd screams -- yes, the Stones as teen idols -- but the band still manages a biting ''Under My Thumb.'' Satanic: C; Ya-Ya's: B; Got LIVE: B-
THE MUSIC-GEEK QUIBBLES Since ABKCO went to all the trouble of upgrading this back catalog, couldn't they at least have taken the time to include the albums' original release dates -- or offer new liner notes, bonus tracks, or detailed musician credits omitted from the LPs? Personally, I've always wanted to know the story behind that grinding noise in ''Paint It, Black'' -- or, for that matter, the reason there's a comma in the title (some ambiguous racial dig?). Then again, in these Osbournes days, perhaps a little old-fashioned rock & roll mystery is worth a ya-ya or two.