True story: I was eleven years old when Black and Blue was released. At the time, I had recently discovered my brother’s worn, scratchy copy of Hot Rocks, the gateway drug to the Rolling Stones for almost everybody of my generation. I was also very familiar with Aftermath, from my sister’s record collection. I was a budding Stones fanatic. I listened to side two of Hot Rocks obsessively, losing myself in “Mother’s Little Helper”, “Paint It Black”, “19th Nervous Breakdown”, and “Under My Thumb”. When I found out that the Stones were about to release a new album, I was practically giddy with anticipation. I begged my mother to take me out to buy it as soon as it came out, which she did. I may have used my mother’s money, but Black and Blue holds the place of honor as the first record I ever bought.
When I got home, my sister and her infant daughter dropped by, forcing me to sit and be with our guests while all the time that slab of vinyl was burning a hole in my brain, teasing me. Finally my sister left and I raced to my room to put the album on. Visions of Aftermath, “Let’s Spend The Night Together”, “Ruby Tuesday”, and “Satisfaction” swirled in my head. I put the record on, put on my headphones, and lowered the needle on to the first groove.
“What the hell is this mess? This is the worst music I’ve ever heard!”
Time has been a little kinder to Black and Blue than my original reaction, but there is no question that this is one of the oddest of all Stones albums. Even after all these years, the album opener “Hot Stuff” is five and a half minutes of suck. The song sounds like a meandering jam over a slinky funk/disco groove that repeats itself endlessly. Of course, that’s what most of this album is.
Black and Blue is the most groove-oriented album in the Stones collection precisely because the Stones were using the recording sessions to audition guitar players to replace Mick Taylor. There’s a very loose, jammy feel to much of the album. With a few exceptions, the songs are little more than ideas that are taking a rough shape.
At the time of recording, the Stones were actively auditioning numerous guitarists. Everyone from Jeff Beck to Rory Gallagher to Steve Marriott passed through the doors. In addition to Keith Richards, there are three guitar players on Black and Blue. Taylor’s eventual replacement, Ron Wood, plays on half the album and is credited as “inspiring” the song “Hey Negrita.” For “Hot Stuff” and “Memory Motel” the lead guitar duties are handled by Harvey Mandel, while Wayne Perkins plays lead on “Hand of Fate” and “Fool To Cry” and acoustic rhythm on “Memory Motel”.From the repetitive funk/disco of “Hot Stuff” the album segues into the best track, “Hand of Fate.” This is the tightest, most fully realized song on the album, featuring Wayne Perkins’s extraordinary imitation of Mick Taylor. “Hand of Fate” is a lost gem in the Stones catalog: a tough, hard-hitting riff rocker with a great lyric. Lyrically it takes a cue from the outlaw anthems of reggae, telling the tale of a man on the run from the law. The song carries a reggae groove to it, but remains indisputably rock. The Stones would have done well to break this song out of the closet for some of their recent tours, but Black and Blue as a whole has largely gone down the memory hole and this unheralded Stones classic is collateral damage.
It’s not surprising. “Hand of Fate” is sandwiched between “Hot Stuff” and the reggae cover “Cherry Oh Baby”. About the best thing that can be said of the latter song is that it’s the shortest on the album, falling just short of four minutes. Again, this sounds like the Stones sitting in the studio and doing a loose jam on a song they all liked. It’s not a great song, but it’s a decent jam. At four minutes it’s at least a minute too long, maybe two. Coming after “Hand of Fate” it’s an incredible let down.
“Memory Motel” continues the schizophrenic tone of the album. The closing song of the old side one, the sound of “Memory Motel” is a distilled essence of 1976 radio. As such, the song suffers from sounding like it was entombed in a tar pit during that Bicentennial year. However, it’s a lovely song featuring a great vocal from Mick on the verses, while Keith chimes in as the lead voice on the “she got a mind of her own” hook. At a certain point in the song, the listener can be excused for thinking, “Is this song still playing?” At over seven minutes, it’s one of the longest studio songs the Stones ever released. Pretty melody or not, “Memory Motel” falls victim to the jamminess of the album. The Stones had a good song here but didn’t know when to stop, and the song overstays its welcome. Still, at the right time and in the right mood, “Memory Motel” is one of the highlights of the album.
Side two opens with “Hey Negrita” and it’s difficult to see this as much of an improvement over the side one opener, “Hot Stuff.” Like the earlier song, “Hey Negrita” is little more than a riff with a shouted, mostly nonsensical lyric grafted on top. It’s almost impossible to imagine that this song would have been seen as more than it is: a Ron Wood riff that led to an impromptu jam with probably extemporaneous lyrics.
Even worse is “Melody,” a loose, piano-led lounge song that sounds like it was recorded after a night spent at the studio bar. Even a nice horn arrangement that comes late to the party can’t save the song precisely because there is no real song to save. The fact that this trifle is nearly as long as “Memory Motel” but lacks the sweet instrumentation and solid vocal performance of the earlier track makes the situation even worse.
“Fool To Cry” was the hit single from the album, reaching the Top 10 in America and England. Musically, it’s a continuation of “Memory Motel”, bearing an almost identical keyboard sound. At the very least, it is one of the only fully realized songs on the album. Sure, it drags on too long, and Jagger’s falsetto vocal can be a bit tiring, but at least “Fool To Cry” sounds like somebody came to the studio with an actual song, rather than a bag of riffs. That said, despite the ear-worm chorus, “Fool” is one of the lightest and most forgettable singles the Stones have ever released. It’s not the worst they would ever release, but it was the worst to this point. One can only imagine why “Hand of Fate” was skipped in favor of “Fool To Cry” and “Hot Stuff” as single material. My hunch is that as funk and disco were starting to become more mainstream and more popular, Jagger wanted the band to sound apace with their contemporaries. “Hand of Fate” was a prime slice of vintage Stones. “Fool To Cry” was the Stones in 1976.
Black and Blue does end well. “Crazy Mama” is another tough rocker, concise at four and a half minutes, with an impassioned vocal from Jagger and nice guitar work from Richards and Wood. It’s easy to see with “Crazy Mama” why Wood made the cut as Taylor’s replacement. It’s the earliest example of Wood and Richards practicing what Richards calls “the ancient art of weaving.” It’s also a foreshadowing of where the Stones would go next. Now that the auditions and jams were over it was time to hone everything to a razor sharp edge and use the twin rhythm/lead guitar attack in a way they’d never done before. Black and Blue isn’t a very good album for repeated listens. There are too many formless songs, loose jams, and lengthy tracks. Throwing it on at a party every once in a blue moon would probably make it sound better than it actually is, but the sad fact is that this is near the bottom of the barrel for Rolling Stones albums.