The Rolling Stones: Bridges To Babylon

The Rolling Stones Bridges To Babylon

On Voodoo Lounge the Rolling Stones tried their best to recreate the sound and production of their glory years. For the followup, Keith Richards wanted to bring Don Was back as producer but Mick Jagger had other ideas. Jagger, driven as always by a need to be seen as contemporary, wanted to bring in some young, cutting edge producers. The result was a compromise. Jagger would get his producers, but Don Was would be the “executive” producer overseeing the whole project. The result was an album that was as bloated and overlong as Voodoo Lounge, but had a fiercer set of songs and was less beholden to the need to sound retro.

While not really a return to classic form, Bridges To Babylon holds up as the best album they’d done since Some Girls. Granted, that’s not all that difficult. Still, there’s real grit on Bridges, unlike the cartoon-ish tough guy stances of Dirty Work.

The album launched with controversy. The first single, “Anybody Seen My Baby?” bore a striking resemblance to K.D. Lang’s “Constant Craving”. That chorus was so similar the album ended up being released with a co-writing credit for Lang on the song, meaning that Lang has as many co-writing credits with the Stones as Marianne Faithfull. The song isn’t particularly good, and features a cringe-inducing rap sample from Biz Markie, but it does have a really slinky bass line from Daryl Jones and an appropriately sleazy vocal from Jagger, who purrs the words like a cheetah sizing up an antelope. Charlie sounds like he was replaced with a metronome, his drumming lacking all of his usual character, and even the guitars are buried in the production. There’s some nice lead guitar work in the fade, but it’s mixed to be not much louder than the percussion that underlines the entire song.

Far better was the album’s opening track, “Flip The Switch”, which breaks out with Charlie, joined by Keith and Ron Wood, before Jagger comes in with full sneer. It’s a typically defiant Stones lyric, with the twist being that Jagger sings from the perspective of a man about to be executed. “Lethal injection is a luxury/I want to give it to the whole jury”, Jagger sings as Richards and Wood bounce dual lead/rhythms off each other, and the entire band sounds like they’re having the time of their lives just cutting loose. Sure, “Flip the Switch” has been accused of being a “Start Me Up” knockoff, but it’s got better lyrics, better guitar work, and rocks relentlessly…so who cares?

Richards and Wood also dominate “Low Down”, another rocker with deft interplay between the two guitarists. A close listening to the Stones in the Ronnie Wood era is like reading a textbook of how a two guitar lineup should work. It’s not the typical rhythm/lead trade-off that you find in the Mick Taylor era (and in almost all of rock history), with a virtuoso playing lead and a rhythm guitarist slashing the riffs. Wood and Richards play both lead and rhythm, each of them banging chords and playing different, complementary, riffs while unleashing brief flurries of lead work. Jagger’s in fine voice, as he is throughout the album, which features some of the last truly great singing he ever did, but “Low Down” is something of a rote rocker. It’s a good album filler track, and the chorus soars nicely, but there’s nothing really memorable about the song.

Jagger sings “Already Over Me” with a melodramatic, halting vocal that sounds like he’s on the verge of breaking down in tears, as if he’s overcome with emotion. It’s not really a particularly believable vocal coming from a notorious satyr like Mick Jagger. How much time would he spend crying over a woman who left him instead of merely promoting one of the other girls he’s got waiting in line? But whether you believe in Sad Sack Mick or not, it’s a fine ballad, with sweetly subtle piano from Blondie Chaplin and Charlie Watts playing a perfectly empathetic drum part. The closing refrain of Jagger plaintively repeating “What a fool I’ve been” is both a nice departure from his usual sex god persona and a timeless and very human thought. Anyone who’s ever loved and lost has felt this way.

The band cranks it up again on “Gunface”, a song that practically drips with malice and a genuine sense of menace. Directed not to a cheating lover, but rather to the man she’s cheating with, “Gunface” is a flat-out declaration that murder is the order of the day. The lyrics are intense and nasty, pregnant with the threat of impending violence, but they’re also more interesting than that. As the words spill out, Jagger’s voice drenched in scorn and hatred, he implies that he was once the other man (“I taught her everything/I taught her how to lie…I taught her everything/Yeah, I taught her how to cheat”) but that won’t save the man from certain death (“Your tongue licking way out of place/I’ll rip it out, yeah/I’ll put a gun in your face/You’ll pay with your life”). The band sound like legitimate bad boys here. Jagger’s snarling voice and the razor slashing of Keith and Ronnie Wood’s guitars, punctuated by Charlie’s staccato drum fills sounding like so many shots going off are far more convincing than anything dreamed up by bands like Motley Crüe. This is likely to do with their being steeped in the blues, the original bad boy music filled with tales of heartbreak, revenge, and murder. Ronnie’s wicked slide solo burns and ties the track back to the blues of their youth. “Gunface” is a modern rock take on songs like Howlin’ Wolf’s hellacious “Forty-Four”.

After a track that intense, Keith Richards brings down the intensity with the first of three (!) lead vocals on one of his beloved reggae numbers. “You Don’t Have To Mean It” is likely the best reggae song they released after 1974’s “Luxury”, but it also sounds like an outtake from one of Keith’s solo albums. Jagger is nowhere to be found, and the main musical hook of the song is a horn lick. Bernard Fowler and Blondie Chaplin provide the too smooth, too professional backing vocals that immediately make the song sound less like the Stones than they should. It’s a good song, but it could have been so much better with Jagger on backing vocals.

The Stones discovered reggae music in the 1970s, and the next track taps into their other  love from that decade, funk. With a bass line nicked from the Temptations classic “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”, “Out Of Control” tips its hat to performers like Curtis Mayfield in his Superfly days. before the chorus explodes into a more typical Stones-ish feel before settling back down into that funky vibe for the verses. Jagger also breaks out his harmonica, adding a touch of blues to the song, and reminding everyone that he’s a truly great harp player. “Out Of Control”, as well as “Saint Of Me”, got quite a bit of radio exposure back in the day, probably the last time the Stones could be considered radio stars before the internet blew up the music and communications industries.

What’s striking about “Saint Of Me” is the remarkable twist of the lyric. Jagger belts the chorus (“Yeah, oh yeah/You’ll never make a saint of me”) with pure defiance, like a challenge to God. He’s Big Bad Mick Jagger, after all, wearing his mantle of debauchery and dissolution. But the verses of the song can be seen almost as a prayer, seeking a better life and even sainthood. The prospect scares Jagger because he doesn’t want his head on a plate like the martyr John the Baptist, but he begins the song with accounts of famously sinful people who were shown the light. Literally in the case of “Paul the persecutor” who was hit “with a blinding light/And then his life began”. There’s also Augustine who “loved women, wine, and song”, much like a certain Rolling Stones singer, before becoming a saint.

Jagger asks himself if he could stand the trials of becoming a saint (“Could you stand the torture?…Could you put your faith in Jesus when you’re burning in the flames?”) and somewhat surprisingly answers, “I said yes.” He then goes on to say that he believes in miracles, and that he wants “to save his soul” while acknowledging his own sinfulness and that he will “die here in the cold”. Later, he sings of hearing “an angel cry”.

Aside from the fact that “Saint Of Me” is a ripping track that pulls deeply from the sound of the Stones in the 1970s (they even bring in Billy Preston on the organ), this is one of Jagger’s best vocals since Exile On Main Street, and one of the most intriguing lyrics he ever wrote. Jagger’s first-person lyrical excursions have included a lot of bluesy myth-making. He was the one who was born in a crossfire hurricane, howling at his mother in the driving rain. He was the one who took on the role of the Devil, and who once hoped that the band wasn’t “a trifle too Satanic”. On “Saint Of Me” he seems to be saying that that wants to join the communion of saints, but that he’s so debauched he’s beyond hope. Even God can’t save him, and the angels weep because of it. The chorus sounds defiant, but in context with the verses it seems more than a little sad, and maybe even a little angry. He wants to be better. He wants to be a saint, but God isn’t helping.

God’s probably not helping because he’s Mick Jagger, the guy who follows up the sad pleas of “Saint Of Me” with the answer “Might As Well Get Juiced.” Why waste His time? Right away, we’re back to the Devil’s music, blues, albeit with a very modern, and not wholly enjoyable, spin. Lyrically, this may as well be Jagger once again taking on the role of the Devil and whispering in the ear of the guy who sang “Saint Of Me”:

If you really want to melt down your mind
Crank it up to straight double time
If you really want to have you some fun
Spit right down on everyone
If you’ve got the strength to scream out Hell why?
The wheel of life is passing you by
You might as well get juiced

The vocals are sleazy, Ron Wood plays some nasty slide guitar, and there’s a sweet blues harp solo from Mick. This is the Stones playing to all of their strengths and yet the song remains simply an interesting experiment. This is the kind of blues the band is capable of doing as well as anyone and better than almost everyone, but Jagger’s desire to remain “current” with the music scene, and his affiliation with producers the Dust Brothers (“They were two stoners; one had the record collection and a bong, the other was the knob turner,” according to an engineer on the sessions), led to the Stones being buried under an avalanche of synthesizer swoops, keyboard farts, and electronic squiggles. The song at the base is so good, and so much in the band’s wheelhouse, that it survives the experiment but it’s easy to understand fans wondering what to make of this sudden swerve into electronic music. Keith Richards hated the production, and once claimed that “there’s a great version” of the song somewhere. Hopefully it will see the light of day. Jagger’s desire to be current has only dated the most timeless music of all, blues.

The band missteps with “Always Suffering”. It’s another Jagger ballad, although not as affecting as “Already Over Me”. Lyrically, it’s the equivalent of trying to talk your way out of being dumped. “Please take these flowers, smell the perfume/Let your soul come alive/Let there be hope, hope in your heart/That our love may revive,” sings Jagger. The song follows a similar musical template to “Already Over Me”, and is close enough that it probably should have been relegated to a B-side or left in the vault. Jagger’s vocal is smooth, and Keith and Ronnie play well together, especially when Ronnie answers Keith acoustic lead with some great pedal steel. But it’s almost five minutes long, and that’s at least a couple of minutes longer than it needs to be.

Fortunately, the band steps right back into the groove with “Too Tight”, a Keith Richards rocker, co-written and sung con brio by Jagger. A warning to a clingy girlfriend, it’s a thrilling riff rocker. The Stones are clearly having a blast with this one, featuring some super piano flourishes by Blondie Chaplin and a terrific guitar solo from Keith. The vocal support is by Bernard Fowler and Blondie Chaplin, but also include Keith’s recognizable rasp that adds the proper amount of grit and makes the song sound more raw than the songs where the band is absent from the backing vocals. Charlie’s in his Human Metronome disguise, providing a crisp snap that propels the song as much as Keith and Ronnie’s guitars.

And that’s how Bridges To Babylon ends.

Not really. But it is how the album should have ended.Unfortunately. In the annals of baffling decisions by the Rolling Stones, ending their best album in nearly twenty years with two consecutive Keith-sung ballads is among the most mystifying.

“Thief In The Night” is more of a soundscape than anything else. The song is built on a guitar riff that originated with Keith’s guitar tech, Pierre de Beauport, who gets a co-writing credit. Keith speak/sings the vocals over a far too prominent Fowler and Chaplin and a percussion track that sounds like a hi-hat factory. Charlie puts in some nice fills, and Keith does a nice acoustic guitar solo that’s buried too low in the mix, but the whole song, including the vocal, sounds improvised. Some last-second horns spice it up a bit but they arrive too late and, like everything else, are buried in a bad mix.

It gets better with the album’s closing track, “How Can I Stop”, the title of which should include a parenthetical (“And the Story Of How I Couldn’t”). The mix here is much better but once again it’s the sound of solo Keith Richards. At nearly seven minutes, it’s one of the longest songs in the Stones studio canon, and while it’s considerably better than the song that precedes it, it still never really achieves liftoff until the end, when Wayne Shorter steps in to play a terrific sax solo and Charlie Watts starts to amp it up a bit. Keith’s vocal is very nice, maybe the perfect vehicle for a song like this, which Jagger probably would have over-emoted. If they’d kept the ending and shaved two minutes off the beginning, “How Can I Stop” would have been a great way to close the album, but every bit as much as Keith Richards, Mick Jagger is the Rolling Stones and keeping both “Thief In The Night” and “How Can I Stop” makes it sound like the band’s frontman took a powder before the album was even finished.

Bridges To Babylon was largely praised by critics, but mostly ignored by the public. At the time it was seen as just product for the next tour, but hindsight reveals it to be a genuinely good album. The running time clocks in at over an hour, but if you remove “Always Suffering”, “Thief In The Night”, and “Anybody Seen My Baby?” the album suddenly bounces up from good to near-great. It’s not Sticky Fingers, or even Some Girls, but it’s as good as, or better, than most of their second-tier albums, and probably the best album of their post-70s career. It’s the 1990s equivalent of Between The Buttons, a lost gem that’s worth discovering. It was also the last Rolling Stones album for nearly a decade.

Grade: B+

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The Rolling Stones: Voodoo Lounge

VoodooLounge94The Steel Wheels tour (later dubbed the Urban Jungle Tour when it hit Europe) was a long, grueling exercise in money-making for the Rolling Stones. At the time it was the most lucrative tour ever done, grossing nearly $100 million dollars. But it was also a musically valid tour, with the Stones not only selling out arenas but rocking them with abandon. Yes, in some ways it was The Rolling Stones On Ice: lots of supplemental musicians and singers, fireworks, huge projection screens so the guys in Row ZZ could feel like they were there, and even two massive inflatable women that bounced and swayed while the band played “Honky Tonk Women”. It was also true that the band was very tight and in fine form.

After the tour Richards went back to the X-Pensive Winos and released a second solo album in 1992, Main Offender, which was a worthy successor to the excellent Talk Is Cheap. In 1993 Mick Jagger released his third solo album, Wandering Spirit, and, much to everyone’s surprise, it was as good as Keith’s efforts. But the Stones were also shocked after the tour when Bill Wyman announced that he was retiring, possibly to provide daycare for his wife. Wyman’s departure wasn’t announced until 1993, when the band reconvened to begin work on a followup to Steel Wheels. Partially as a reaction to the overproduction on their comeback, the Stones chose to go with producer Don Was, the guiding light behind the band Was (Not Was), whose own 1989 album What Up, Dog? was a bizarro funk/soul classic. Was wanted to bring the band back to their earlier sound, the sound of Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers, much to Jagger’s chagrin. The sessions were fraught with tension between the singer and the producer. Jagger’s always been obsessed with keeping the Stones contemporary, and this throwback to 1970s-style production was anathema to him. Richards, however, wanted the band to get back to basics with a stripped-down sound and raw production.

The result was Voodoo Lounge. The album has a more live, organic sound than Steel Wheels, but production isn’t everything. Overall, it’s a better album than its predecessor but it’s also bloated. At over an hour in length, it’s longer than any previous Stones album with the exception of Exile which makes Voodoo Lounge a de facto double album. Exile it’s not. The earlier album breezed by, an effortlessly enjoyable listening experience. By the time Voodoo Lounge reaches its conclusion, you’re exhausted. Had four or five songs been trimmed, Lounge might be talked about as the undisputed best Stones album since Some Girls, but the album’s excessive length and the mediocre quality of some of the songs ensure that the album remains a good, but lesser, effort in the band’s canon.

There is some material that comes close to greatness here, though. “Love Is Strong” opens the album with a superb groove and bluesy harmonica. The production is much cleaner but the song itself wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Exile. It was released as the first single, their strongest since “Miss You” in 1978, but flopped in the charts despite a lot of FM and MTV airplay. Jagger’s vocal is a sultry seducer’s voice and his harmonica playing is, as usual, excellent. New bassist Darryl Jones makes his presence felt immediately; he and Charlie Watts provide the groove that Keith and Ron Wood punctuate with short, stabbing leads and chunky chords. If there’s a flaw on the track it’s the too professional backing vocals, but it’s churlish to complain about a band sounding too good. Don Was’s production is perhaps best seen here: the separation between Richards and Wood is clear and every instrument can be heard clearly and cleanly, but without the plastic sheen of Steel Wheels or Dirty Work. Voodoo Lounge is the best produced Stones album since Some Girls.

“You Got Me Rocking” follows. It’s a by-the-numbers song that extols the joys of, you guessed it, rocking. It’s stadium-ready, with its “Hey! Hey!” hook, and has become something of a concert staple for the band since 1994, but it’s not a particularly interesting song. Jagger bellows sad sack lyrics about how miserable he was until [cue the big anthemic hook]. Richards and Wood play great guitar throughout, and once again Darryl Jones shines. He’s a better bass player than Wyman was (which shouldn’t be understood as a slam of Wyman, who could be extraordinary), and for the first time since Undercover the bass is actually clearly audible in the mix. But the song itself is still a bit flat, the Stones addressing the need for another “Start Me Up” for the forthcoming World Tour. “Sparks Will Fly” is better, with an actual melody in the chorus and bridge. It’s most reminiscent of the sound of Some Girls, and would have fit perfectly on that earlier album. Three songs in and it’s clear that Voodoo Lounge is classic Stones in sound and form, even if not in song quality.

This impression continues with the band’s return to country for the first time in many years. “The Worst” is a Keith Richards-sung country ballad with some exquisite pedal steel from Ron Wood and acoustic guitar from Keith. But it’s the following song that truly signals the band’s march back to their past. “New Faces” takes the band all the way back to 1966’s Aftermath. After a hushed count in, Jagger sings of a doomed love over a musical backing that mimics “Lady Jane”. Some very nice acoustic guitar work from Richards and Wood compete with the harpsichord. Jagger had gone this route on his Wandering Spirit solo album with the “Lady Jane” knockoff “Angel In My Heart”, but it works better here. Still, it’s an almost shocking anachronism in 1994: an Elizabethan ballad whose musical heft is borne by an instrument Bach would have recognized. It’s redeemed somewhat by those acoustic guitars, but it sounds like an obvious effort to regain that classic sound of the band in their peak years of 1966–1972. On Aftermath “Lady Jane” fits perfectly with the eclectic times; on Voodoo Lounge “New Faces” sticks out like a sore thumb.

Things get back to normal with “Moon Is Up”, a mid-tempo, mostly nondescript song that neither offends nor inspires, and the second single from the album, “Out Of Tears.” The single was another flop, despite some considerable airplay on FM radio. It’s a nice, piano-driven ballad and yet another broken heart lyric delivered by Jagger. Credit Don Was for getting the best vocal performance out of Jagger in years, especially noticeable here. Jagger’s mannerisms are most noticeable on the slow tracks, and here they’re kept to a minimum. Vocally it’s far from “Wild Horses” but it’s still effective. There’s also a lovely pedal steel guitar solo from Wood, but at five plus minutes it’s a song that drastically needs some pruning. The song’s got a nice melody on the chorus, but that’s not enough to save it from being somewhat boring. “Out Of Tears” is followed by “I Go Wild” which is an almost totally pro forma rocker. Charlie’s drums are good as always, but the guitars are repetitive and Jagger’s back to his debauchery in the lyrics. There’s also a stadium sing along ending that is pretty transparent in its effort to create a “moment” for the stage.

“Brand New Car” is more musically interesting, but lyrically it’s atrocious. The metaphor of a car for a woman and driving for sex is bad enough, but “nudge nudge wink wink” lyrics like “Give it some stick”, “Slinky like a panther you can hear her purr”, and “Fill it with juice” are cringe-worthy. Better is “Sweethearts Together”, a song that could have been done by Buddy Holly. There’s a nice Mariachi/country vibe to the music, complete with a subtle accordion, while Charlie shuffles along on the drums. Keith is heard singing harmonies on the chorus, rather than the usual complement of backup singers. It’s a quiet gem of a Stones ballad, with a good vocal from Mick.

The professional backup singers return to put a too-polished spin on “Suck On The Jugular”, which may just be the worst song title in Stones history. The song itself isn’t bad, a funky shuffle that once again lets Jagger show his skill as a harmonica player. Charlie’s drumming is, as usual, stellar, but his snares sound like they were airlifted from the Steel Wheels era. Daryl Jones provides a good bottom end, and little touches of wah-wah guitar, keyboards, and horns add to the retro-70s party feel of the song.

“Blinded By Rainbows” follows, a pretty ballad that has a smooth vocal from Jagger. Lyrically it’s a bleak assessment of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the violence described in the lyrics only serves to make the song more poignant..

Did you ever feel the blast
As the Semtex bomb goes off?
Do you ever hear the screams
As the limbs are all torn off….

You’re blinded by rainbows…

It’s a much heavier subject than the Stones usually embrace, seemingly coming down on the side of the English Protestants against the Catholic IRA.

Do you see the light?
Is the end in sight?
See the face of Christ
enter paradise?
I doubt it

As is usual for the Stones, their politics offer no solutions, just commentary. Still, it’s one of the best lyrics on the album, and one of Jagger’s best performances. Keith’s opening guitar licks wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Let It Bleed, and Charlie’s drums and Daryl Jones’s subtle bass kick the chorus into a higher gear before the song settles back down in the verses. There’s also a nice keyboard throughout, played by Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, and a distorted, bluesy guitar solo from Keith. “Blinded By Rainbows” is one of the highlights of the album.

The highlights continue with “Baby Break It Down”, a bluesy shuffle with a simple, but irresistible, chorus. Vocal hooks were never really the band’s strong suit; they tended to leave the catchy choruses to the Beatles. But even though it’s lyrically simple, the chorus is a nice earworm. There’s a really nice pedal steel solo from Ron Wood, and more than any other song on the album, “Baby Break It Down” catches the spirit of Exile on Main Street that Don Was seemed determined to recapture. If it had been rocked up a bit, with a sleazier production and Keith a little more prominent in his backing vocals, this track would have fit almost perfectly on side three or four of Exile.

Keith puts a ravaged vocal over the top of the torch song “Thru and Thru”. The electric guitar is a series of delicate, circular, licks, but it’s Keith’s vocal that carries the day. Only Keith, with his weathered, hoarse tones could get away with a verse like:

I only found out yesterday
I heard it on the news
What I heard really pissed me off
‘Cause now I got those fucking blues
I got those awesome blues
Babe I got those nothing blues

At around the four minute mark the rest of the band kicks in and brings no small degree of power to the finale. At just over six minutes, “Thru and Thru” is a tad long, but there’s enough tension in the music and vocals to get away with it.

“Thru and Thru” would have been a fine album closer, but the Stones rolled out one more rocker with “Mean Disposition.” It’s another Exile-style throwback with a great, jamming finale. As with the other tracks, it’s lacking the damp basement, raw, junkie blues vibe of Exile. It’s a fast rocker that would have been well-served by making it even faster, à la “Rip This Joint”. As it is, it’s a fine song, though not particularly memorable.

Voodoo Lounge was the sound of the Rolling Stones trying to sound like the classic, pre-Ron Wood version of the band. Unfortunately the technology of 1993 and 1994 was just too advanced. Don Was got a great sound from the band but, try as he might, the Stones caught lightning in a bottle in that era. The production matched the songs and the final albums were a part of a larger zeitgeist. Despite Mick Jagger’s later insistence that he wished Exile had “sounded better”, it was that grit that gave the album much of its power. Voodoo Lounge is what Exile would have sounded like if the production had been cleaner and clearer, but it’s an unfair comparison because the songs weren’t anywhere near the caliber of classics like “Rocks Off”, “Torn and Frayed”, or “Tumbling Dice”.

Still, this was a good effort. Trim some songs, cut some songs completely, and whittle down the album to forty minutes and it’s actually got a lot to recommend.

But not the album cover. The album cover is awful.

Grade: B

The Rolling Stones: Steel Wheels

steelwheels

The best Rolling Stones album of the 1980s featured no vocals from Mick Jagger, no drumming from Charlie Watts, no bass from Bill Wyman, and no guitar from Ron Wood. The 1988 Keith Richards solo album Talk Is Cheap, despite being dogged by the too clean production of the age, was a blast of bracing rock, blues, and soul. For some fans, it was a clear indication that the Stones were finished. Their last album had been drenched in acrimony and bitterness and now Keith had proved that there was life beyond Mick. Jagger followed Dirty Work with his second solo album, Primitive Cool, which was neither, and possibly the worst single of any major recording act (and certainly the worst video), the truly atrocious “Let’s Work”. Keith’s album was a shot across Mick’s bow: Jagger’s solo career was off to a terrible start but Keith had assembled a tight band and worked with them to produce a truly great album. Talk Is Cheap was notice that Keith could thrive in a post-Stones world. Working with the X-pensive Winos inspired Keith even as it scared Jagger, so by 1989 the stage was set for a rapprochement between the two.

Released at the end of August in 1989, Steel Wheels was considered a comeback album and on those merits it largely succeeds. But it’s a hollow comeback. Dirty Work, for all of its many flaws, was also the last blast of the band as a unit driven by passion. When it was recorded the Stones were still a group, albeit one that had been splintering for several years. When Mick and Keith reunited in 1989 to begin work on Steel Wheels, they were simply a band that was brought together by mutual respect and a desire for the audience’s money. They were now a professional recording group and their albums would reflect this. The passion was gone, replaced by competency and an innate knowledge of what the Stones were supposed to sound like.

That’s not to say that Steel Wheels is bad. Pound for pound, it may be the best real Stones album of the decade. It’s certainly miles better than Emotional Rescue, side two of Tattoo You, and Dirty Work. While it lacks Undercover‘s experimental side, it has more of a rocky, back-to-the-roots, sound. The production is clean to a fault, instantly dating the album back to the 1980s, but the performances are tight and Charlie Watts once again plays like he’s clean and sober.

What’s really missing here is inspiration. Back in 1973 and 1974, both Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll sounded like the Stones were reading from a “How To Write A Rolling Stones Song” manual. There were some great songs on those albums, and there are on Steel Wheels as well, but the songs on the earlier albums were helped by the recording techniques of the day. There’s a certain sleazy, raw sound on the albums from the 1970s that gave even half-baked songs a great vibe. Steel Wheels doesn’t benefit from this, and even the best songs have to overcome the way they sound coming out of the speakers.

The album begins with crashing guitar chords, but they sound different than the ones that open the previous album. Dirty Work sounded angry from the first note, but the chords that open “Sad Sad Sad” sound loose, like the band is once again having some fun and just enjoying rocking out. Charlie crashes in, sounding invigorated in a way he hadn’t sounded in the previous decade, but Jagger’s transformation from singer to shouter is pretty much complete. There’s a mass of guitar interplay between Richards and Woods. Throughout the track Richards and Woods duel on rhythm and lead and who can tell the difference? There seems to be a million overdubbed guitar lines on the song, dancing between the speakers…little stabs of picked lead, chunky chords, and quick slides. It all leads up to a thrilling track that kicks open the door and swaggers in like John Wayne, ready to dispatch some bad guys.

It was the second song on the LP that heralded the Stones “reunion”, though. The first single, “Mixed Emotions”, was the Stones sounding like an actual unit again. Keith and Mick sing harmonies over a too fussy backing. Charlie really shines and once again Richards and Woods weave their different guitar parts beautifully, but the song sounds so commercial it might as well be playing behind an advertisement on television. It’s clearly written about the feud between Jagger and Richards and their reunion, with lyrics about bickering lovers reuniting and seeking to strengthen their bond. “Button your lip/And button your coat/Let’s go out dancing/Let’s rock and roll,” Jagger barks. In one of his trademark magnificent one-line slags, Keith quipped at the time, “Shoulda been called ‘Mick’s Emotions’.”

“Terrifying” follows a slinky groove with a nice bass line from Bill Wyman. There’s absolutely nothing terrifying about it, with lazy lyrics taken from the Big Book of Similes, but Jagger actually sings this one so well it’s possible to hear the singer he used to be. “Terrifying” might have been a good outtake or B-side from the late 70s or early 80s, and it’s certainly not bad, but it’s also nothing special. It stands in stark comparison to “Hold On To Your Hat” which proceeds at hurricane velocity. Jagger’s back to shouting and seems to be channeling the Angry Mick that was so prominent on Dirty Work. But here Jagger sounds like he’s working with the band, not yelling at them. It’s an underrated gem from this period, with particularly good guitar lines from Ron Wood.

A very nice bridge saves “Hearts For Sale” from mediocrity. A good guitar solo (Keith, I think) doesn’t save another shouty Jagger vocal and a repetitive guitar lick. Again, and this is a criticism that can be applied to a lot of post-Dirty Work Stones, there’s nothing wrong with “Hearts For Sale.” It exists on a pleasant plain where it is enjoyed, and quickly forgotten. It’s certainly better than “Blinded By Love” a faux-Mariachi ballad the likes of which Los Lobos would have discarded as embarrassing.

The biggest hit from the album was the ubiquitous “Rock And A Hard Place”. Buoyed by the incredibly popular and successful Steel Wheels Tour, “Hard Place” received a lot of play on both radio and MTV. It’s a fair stadium-ready rocker, like a faster version of “Start Me Up”, though the lyrics are more thoughtful than they sound on the first, or ten thousandth, listen. The motif for the tour was steel and construction, with giant girders around the stage, and “Hard Place” was about a vanishing countryside, being consumed by ever-growing cities. This made it the perfect song to plug both the album and tour, though the song itself is hurt by Jagger’s mannered vocals and an annoying, halting chorus. Despite the lyrics, it became something of a rock and roll anthem, with people never realizing that the rock of the title was literal, and the hard place was a city landscape. That’s bound to happen when you play to 70,000 people and the hook of your song is shouting the word “Rock!”

Fortunately, Keith swings in with “Can’t Be Seen”, a terrific rocker that bears more than a hint of Talk Is Cheap in its grooves. Over a solid guitar line, Keith sings of an affair that must be broken off because it’s simply no good for either party. “You’re married anyway,” Keith sings before tossing in a subtle “Oh shit”. Charlie is his usual solid self and the bridge is one of the catchiest moments on the album. If there’s a flaw it’s the backing vocals that make it sound a bit too much like a Richards solo vehicle, and not a true Stones song. Bernard Fowler is especially prominent on the backing vocals, as are Lisa Fischer and Sarah Dash, and they’re great. But it leads to the inevitable question: where’s Mick? Consider “Happy” for a moment, Keith’s greatest song. Jagger provides the strong backing vocal but as great a song and performance as “Can’t Be Seen” is, it sounds oddly disconnected on the album.

The flip side of “Can’t Be Seen” is “Almost Hear You Sigh”. The strong ballad was written by Keith and sounds much like something from his solo album but now the question is: where’s Keith? The vocal, a good one, is from Jagger and he’s backed by the professional backup singers the Stones were using. Keith plays guitar, of course, but there’s little of his personality on the track. Smooth harmonies were never the band’s strong suit, but their ragged glory lent a swagger to even the slower songs, and some backing harmonies from Keith might have elevated “Almost Hear You Sigh” to the upper reaches of Stones balladry. As it is, it sounds like a Keith solo track with a guest vocal by Mick Jagger.

The most startling moment on Steel Wheels, probably the most startling moment on a Stones album since Their Satanic Majesties Request, is when the ghost of Brian Jones suddenly makes an appearance. In 1967 on a trip to Morocco, Jones became enamored with a group of local Sufi trance musicians who went under the name The Master Musicians of Joujouka. Suddenly, twenty years after Brian Jones slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the bottom of his pool, the Master Musicians turned up on a Rolling Stones album. “Continental Drift” is, to my ears, one of the best songs on Steel Wheels because it is so different and so unexpected. It’s a relentless, driving song, propelled by African pan flutes and percussion providing an Eastern sound. There’s nothing else like it in the Stones canon. Even the trippy psychedelia of Satanic Majesties sounded like Western music, albeit drugged. It was a rock band going psychedelic. The beauty of “Continental Drift” is how prominent the Master Musicians are. It’s their song, and the Stones are just along for the ride. It’s one of the most daring and different songs the band ever recorded, and its place on an album of such slick, over produced rock songs makes it stand out. It’s too bad the band didn’t feel like taking some more chances like this one. An entire album of the Stones doing Sufi trance music may have been a bit much, but the experiment is grand enough to leave you wanting more.

“Break The Spell” continues the more daring aspect of the album. It’s a swampy, sleazy shuffle, like something Junior Kimbrough would have recorded. Jagger’s vocal is suitably mud-caked, and his harmonica drives the song. Mick rarely gets credit as being one of the great blues harmonica players, but he is, and it’s a pleasure to hear this side of the band. Much like “Continental Drift”, “Break the Spell” sounds like it was airlifted in from another album, but it’s a very welcome diversion. Keith ends the album with “Slipping Away”, a slow ballad that strikes the perfect note. Like “Can’t Be Seen” it sounds like an outtake from Talk Is Cheap but they were smart enough to have Mick play a prominent vocal role. Of the three songs that most sound like a Richards solo effort, “Slipping Away” is the one that most sounds like the Stones. It’s the best ballad on the album, and the best they’d done since the 1970s. “Slipping Away” is a near perfect album closer. The last three songs on Steel Wheels is the highest quality block of songs the band had created since side one of Tattoo You, and has the benefit of making the listener believe the entire album is better than it actually is. Steel Wheels started strong, and finished stronger, but much of the middle is simply filler product, devoid of any real inspiration or creativity.

The end of the decade saw the Stones in a stronger position than the beginning. Steel Wheels was a satisfying comeback, if not exactly a true return to form. Mick and Keith were posing for pictures and smiling again. Most importantly, the band embarked on a massive worldwide tour that was both musically excellent and financially lucrative. The fighting and backstabbing in the press had mortally wounded the band that came out of the London clubs in the early 1960s. The band that recorded “Satisfaction” and Exile On Main Street was dead, killed by drugs and ego. The band that rose in its place looked familiar and even sounded familiar at times, but it wasn’t the same. With Steel Wheels the Rolling Stones embarked on the final stage of their career: professional recording and touring artists. There would be better albums in their future, and some truly great songs where all the elements meshed, but the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World was now just a shadow of its former glory.

Grade: B

The Rolling Stones: Dirty Work

The Rolling Stones Dirty WorkSomewhere out there in this big beautiful world, there is a person whose favorite album of all time, the album that he or she considers the greatest album ever recorded, is Dirty Work.

That person is not me.

The Stones nearly imploded in the years following Undercover. Mick Jagger announced his intention to launch a solo career, much to the indignation of Keith Richards. The two band leaders feuded openly and bitterly in the press. Jagger’s solo album She’s The Boss, a truly lamentable slice of mid-80s pop rock was released in 1985 and spawned a couple of hits. Later that year Jagger teamed up with David Bowie for a truly embarrassing video for “Dancing In The Streets” which premiered during the Live Aid global broadcast. Jagger himself appeared at Live Aid, singing with Tina Turner. Keith Richards and Ron Wood showed up at Live Aid, as well, backing an almost incoherent Bob Dylan. All of this time, they were dogged with questions about the Stones: what’s next for the band? The reactions from both Mick and Keith were disheartening to any Stones fan. The anger was real between them, and boiling over.

The band managed to drag themselves into the studio in mid-1985 to begin work on Undercover‘s successor, but the bad vibes between Mick and Keith continued. Jagger wasn’t particularly interested in the project, and wanted to spend the time promoting his solo album. This led to several songs being credited to Jagger-Richards-Wood, as Ronnie picked up the slack from Jagger’s disinterest. Credits to the contrary, none of the songs were actual Jagger/Richards collaborations.

The result was an album that was full of inchoate passion. It’s unquestionably the angriest album in the Stones canon, from the opening “One Hit (To The Body)” and “Fight” to “Had It With You” and “Dirty Work”. Dirty Work is certainly the effort of a band that was being riven by animosity.

That could have worked for the band if the songs themselves hadn’t been so lackluster. There’s a feeling you get when listening to the album that the band spent most of the time in the studio thinking, “Let’s get this over with.” The result is a largely unlikeable listening experience.

To be fair, there are a few true gems buried on the album. “One Hit (To The Body)” features some slashing guitar work from guest Jimmy Page. Jagger roars his way through “Fight”. “Dirty Work” and “Had It With You” straddle the line between pissed off and funny. “Sleep Tonight” is a nice Keith ballad that ends the album on a quiet note. There’s a brief coda by Ian Stewart.

And then there’s the rest of the album.

Dirty Work is mercifully short, with only ten songs clocking in at 40 minutes, and as dysfunctional as the band may have been at this point they were at least savvy enough to start strong and finish strong. “One Hit (To The Body)” starts the album in a welter of slashing electric and acoustic guitar chords from Richards and Wood. Charlie Watts plays one of the most uninteresting drum parts of his career while Jagger shouts the lyrics, backed by a chorus of guest stars (including Bobby Womack, Bruce Springsteen’s then backup singer, now wife, Patti Scialfa, and Kirsty MacColl). There’s a sloppy guitar solo played by Jimmy Page, at the time wasting his career with Paul Rodgers in The Firm. The song, along with the one that follows it, is an attack. The experimentation of Undercover is gone here, replaced by an in-your-face production that sounded raw on a first listen but still retains the overly bright sheen that hid the rough edges of rock music in the mid-80s. “One Hit” is good, but not great. It is the hardest rocking Stones song in many years (in some ways, Dirty Work is their hardest rocking effort since Some Girls), but it doesn’t sound like the work of a real band. There’s no real sense of interplay in the music, and Jagger’s “So help me God!” lyric is embarrassing. The anger behind the song was clearly real, but this song also marks the first time the Stones don’t sound like a real group. “One Hit”, like the rest of Dirty Work, is faceless.

If anything, “Fight” takes it up a notch. “Gonna pulp you to a mass of bruises/Is that what you’re looking for?” shouts Jagger. “Got to get into a fight/Gonna put the boot in.” The song rocks relentlessly hard, putting even “One Hit” to shame. Like the earlier song, this one is credited to Jagger/Richards/Wood, meaning that the music was written by the two guitar players and represents their anger at the singer, who reciprocated with his lyrics and abrasive performance. At first listen, it’s thrilling. But then you listen closely. Charlie’s keeping a steady beat as he always did, but he sounds like a metronome. There’s a very good, raw, guitar solo and God knows the chords are hit like anvils, but the only thing the song really convinces you of is that it’s played by angry musicians. The band members were all at odds and, amazingly, the components of the music sound the same way.

Perhaps sensing that they were overdoing it, the third song completely retrenched. It’s a cover of Bob and Earl’s R&B classic “Harlem Shuffle” and, surprisingly, is one of the most cohesive songs on the album. It’s not a great cover. Their versions of R&B chestnuts from “Pain In My Heart” and “That’s How Strong My Love Is” up to “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Just My Imagination” throw the weakness of “Harlem Shuffle” into sharp relief. It’s not helped by Steve Lillywhite’s neon production. The fact that “Harlem Shuffle” was the leadoff single for the album is testament to how both the band and the record company felt about the original songs. This was the first time the Stones had released a studio-recorded cover song as a single since “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” in 1974, and only the second time they’d done this since 1965, when they were still learning to write originals. Once again Charlie hits a metronomic beat that drags the song down. The beat on these songs is steady, but Charlie Watts is never boring and the drum tracks on these songs is flat and lifeless. What Stones fans didn’t know at the time was that Charlie, long considered the “straight” member of the band, was deep into a nasty heroin addiction at this time (Jagger later said he didn’t want to tour after Dirty Work because he was concerned about how it would affect Charlie). Chalk it up as yet another source of tension within the band and in the record’s grooves.

“Harlem Shuffle” was one of the more musical numbers on the album. It still had that disconnected feel between the instruments, but at least Jagger was singing. On “Hold Back” Jagger is angry, my friends, like an old man sending back soup in a deli. Over a tuneless musical accompaniment, Jagger offers words of wisdom that sound an awful lot like he’s lecturing Keith about his reasons for putting out a solo album. But who knows? You can’t actually understand the lyrics because Jagger shouts them without any regard for melody or rhythm. Jagger bellows like he’s been brushing his teeth with an X-acto knife. “Hold Back” is a full-on assault that will leave the listener cowering in a corner…and not in a good way. By the time its interminable four minutes have ended you feel like you’ve just gotten life advice from some pilled-up lunatic who spends his days screaming about chemtrails and his nights hitting himself in the groin with a plank of wood.

After this sensory overload, the Stones again step back to a cover song. “Too Rude” is the first of Keith’s spotlight moments on the album. Jagger is nowhere to be found. The song is another attempt at reggae from the band, who really hadn’t done a particularly good job at this style since “Luxury” in 1974. “Too Rude” is no exception. Drums with heavy echo can’t disguise another flat beat, and unlike their previous attempts at reggae “Too Rude” sounds nothing like the Stones. It’s clearly a Keith solo song, slapped on the album as filler to close out side one of the record. And yet, despite that, it towers above the two songs that opened the second side of the record.

“Winning Ugly” was the second single, and is almost certainly the worst single the Stones have ever released. Astoundingly, it received an enormous amount of radio exposure in the spring and summer of 1986, reaching number 10 on the rock charts. Once again, Mick’s angry. This time he’s mad at people who will do anything to come out on top. The most obvious targets of the lyrics are the Wall Street fund managers (this was the ’80s, after all) and politicians, though nobody specific is named. Still, a listener could easily think that this is another swipe at Keith with lyrics like

I wanna win that cup and get my money, baby
But, back in the dressing room
the other side is weeping

It’s another largely incoherent rant lyrically speaking but what really kills the song is the production that’s brighter than the pants Jagger’s wearing on the album cover. If “Too Rude” was a solo Keith number, “Winning Ugly” has all the hallmarks of a mid-80s Jagger solo song: the heavy use of female backup singers, the shiny keyboard sound, the prominent disco funk bass (by John Regan, not Bill Wyman). Ever-so-slightly better is “Back To Zero”, another in an endless parade of 80s pop and rock songs about impending nuclear annihilation. Credited to Jagger, Richards and Chuck Leavell, it’s another faux funk track that simply screams “solo Mick”. Listening to it, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that the Rolling Stones are playing on the track (in fact, the guitar is being played by Bobby Womack). Once again Charlie Watts sounds like he was propped up behind the drums with an elaborate pulley system to raise and lower his hands as he held the drumsticks. Dirty Work is like the musical equivalent of Weekend At Bernie’s, with Charlie taking the place of the movie’s titular character.

But all is not lost. Dirty Work concludes with the three best songs on the album. The title track is another broadside at an unnamed person that could easily be about Keith’s abdication of responsibility during his heroin addiction and his Jagger’s subsequent unwillingness to turn the reins of power back over to his band mate. But damn if “Dirty Work” doesn’t swing like a prime slice of vintage Stones. Even Charlie sounds like he’s been roused from his torpor, though most of the swing comes from the guitars. Jagger’s vocals are again shouty and harsh. By this time almost all evidence of the guy who once sang, really sang, ballads like “Wild Horses” or “Love In Vain” is gone in a storm of affectations. But “Dirty Work”, unlike the songs the precede it, has a sense of humor: “You let somebody do the dirty work/Find some loser, find some jerk/Find some greaseball.” The song sounds like the band is once again an actual unit. The tension between Jagger’s vocals and Keith and Ronnie’s guitar is palpable, more than in “One Hit” or “Fight” certainly.

This sudden and dramatic increase in quality gets even steeper with the next cut. “Had It With You” got a bit of radio play in the week leading up to the album’s release because it was the far superior flipside of “Harlem Shuffle”. Then the album came out, with a lyric sheet, and “Had It With You” would never be played on commercial radio again. “I love you dirty fucker/Sister and a brother/Moaning in the moonlight” sings Jagger over a Chuck Berry-style guitar riff. Lyrically it’s the culmination of the entire album. All of the anger that was fuelling Jagger and Richards erupts here: “Loved you in the lean years/Loved you in the fat ones/You’re a mean mistreater/You’re a dirty, dirty rat scum/I’ve had it with you.” Yet, oddly, there’s almost joy in the music. It’s the sound of the Stones playing to all their strengths and sounding, ironically, like they’re having fun. Even Jagger delivers the closest thing to a traditional Mick vocal on the track. His voice is still raspy and filled with odd growls, as if he was chewing sandpaper, but at least he’s not shouting like someone hit his toes with a hammer, like he is on the rest of the album.

The last song on the album is “Sleep Tonight”, a lovely Keith Richards piano ballad that is a bit too long, but still endures. Keith’s been rewriting this song ever since, but never as well as he did here. The production hurts the song as it does the entire album. The drums are too loud and clean (played by Ron Wood, who shows more verve here than Charlie Watts has shown through the rest of the album), and the backing vocals are too prominent. However, it’s a fine ballad that would have fit perfectly on Keith’s later solo album Talk Is Cheap. The song is followed by a raw, bluesy boogie-woogie piano for 30 seconds, a brief excerpt from “Key To The Highway”. Sadly, it’s easy to imagine this being the only thing on the album on which the band could all agree: a brief tribute to Ian Stewart, the straight arrow blues master and sixth Stone who had kept them in line for over 20 years before dying of a heart attack in December of 1985. Dirty Work is dedicated to Stewart, and his piano coda is a genuinely touching moment on an album not known for sentimentality.

Dirty Work was not an interesting experiment gone awry, like Their Satanic Majesties Request. It wasn’t a freeform guitarist audition like Black and Blue. It wasn’t a disinterested filler album like Emotional Rescue. Dirty Work was a bitter, invective-filled divorce-in-progress that left an acid taste in people’s mouths, including the band themselves. It was easy to dismiss Majesties, Black and Blue, or Rescue as anomalies in the band’s storied career. It was much harder to dismiss this album because for the first time it seemed that the Stones were trying really hard to be the Stones, but that they didn’t know what that meant any more. Dirty Work is the album where they lost their identity and ended up sounding almost like a parody of themselves. Afterwards, Jagger went right back to work on his second solo album, and Keith eventually followed that route with far better results. For all practical purposes, the band split up. When asked about the band, they took turns ripping each other and shrugging off the possibility of a future. But the band did have a future, although it would be markedly different from the past it had shared. This was a good thing because it meant that the nadir of their recording career would not be their last gasp.

Grade: D+

The Rolling Stones: Undercover

undercover

In 1983, the Rolling Stones released yet another album that polarized fans. Undercover was their last blending of dance music and rock, and it was buried in “contemporary” production techniques that sound almost impossibly dated today. The music of the 1980s was blighted by these production standards: drums that sounded like machines (even when they weren’t), a clean, bright sound that smoothed over any and all rough edges, an over-reliance on synthesizers and sound effects, a shrill keyboard sound. Much of the music on Undercover, and even the album cover, was garish and brightly lit: like the decade itself. It’s hard to describe a sound of production techniques but the sound of the 1980s is all right there on side one, track one of Undercover.

“Undercover of the Night” is an almost perfect example of a song from the 1980s: the lyrics are about revolution in Central America, it was a rock song that had a dance groove, the drums sound like they were played on a computer, the bass is very prominent, the guitars slash but don’t really sound like guitars until the terrific solo, there is a wash of synthesizers over everything. But “Undercover” works, as so many other songs from this era failed to do. The production techniques of the time wrapped songs in a gauzy haze. The sound was pristine, but indistinct at the same time. There was no hint of musical interplay. For too many songs, there was no sense of real musicians playing instruments. Everything sounded processed by machines. Many great songs from this era are still difficult to listen to because they sound so bad. The quality of the writing, playing, and singing needed to be extraordinarily good to rise above the production values. Some albums succeeded despite their production (e.g., XTC’s Skylarking is a perfect example of an album where the songs were so good they rose above the neon shininess of the production), but most mainstream albums were suffocated before they had a chance to breathe.

“Undercover of the Night” is an exception. Perhaps it’s because the Stones embraced the new production values that they sound refreshed throughout most of the album. They were no longer even attempting to sound like the band that recorded Exile on Main Street. Instead, they sounded like the most vicious New Wave band on the planet. They brought their trademark aggression and encased it in a sound better suited for Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet. The final results were admittedly spotty, but that had more to do with the material than the production. “Undercover of the Night” is a great song, full of tension and violence. The video, featuring Keith Richards as a skull-masked assassin looking to kill Mick Jagger’s stuffed shirt diplomat, solidifies the impact. Taking a cue from dance music, Bill Wyman’s thick, rubbery bass is the lead instrument, swapping lines with the guitar over Charlie’s mechanized, effects-enhanced drums. Over the backing Jagger barks his lyrics about Communist insurgency in Central America, wisely avoiding choosing sides (there were no good guys in those conflicts). This being the Stones, Jagger makes even revolution sexual as he sings about the prostitutes “done up in lace, done up in rubber” servicing “jerky little GI Joes/On R&R from Cuba and Russia”. It’s a kitchen sink production, with the backwards loops, dub-influenced echo, and phased drums, but still leaves space for a ferocious guitar solo from Ron Wood. “Undercover of the Night” was the first single released from the album and was shocking in a way that the Stones hadn’t achieved since “Miss You”, and for the same reason. The song was the Stones wading into the production values of New Wave and dance music, and emerging with a tough rocker that you could dance to, and a video violent enough to be banned from MTV until it was edited. You can change the sound, but the Stones were still the Stones.

This was proven by “She Was Hot”, a comic sex-romp about groupies who are so steamy they leave even Mick Jagger burnt out. The effects of the previous song are gone here, leaving the band to sound natural again. Charlie Watts and Keith Richards benefit the most from this. Charlie lays down a steady beat and Keith plays a distorted, thick solo. Jagger shouts the funny lyrics, a vocal style that he would use more often as he got older. Undercover has a lot of great singing from Jagger, but also marks the point where his voice started to change into what you hear today: over-enunciated, shouting. The man who sang “Wild Horses” is still there, but time and life were conspiring to change the timbre of his voice.

This vocal style is even more pronounced on “Tie You Up (The Pain of Love)”, Jagger’s nod-and-a-wink song about S&M. In a way it’s a companion piece to “She Was Hot”, just another experience pulled from Jagger’s bottomless well of libertine decadence, but you never get the feeling that Jagger actually means it. When it came to sex, the Stones were always a little cartoonish, and this song fits right in to the milieu. Indeed, Keith has said that the song was something of a joke meant to annoy “mouthy little feminists” who had given the band a difficult time over their perceived misogyny since the days of “Under My Thumb”. Bill Wyman is again the real star of the song, which is a straight rocker with one foot in dance rhythms. There’s also a completely unnecessary conga break that adds nothing but a distraction.

Those dance rhythms are gone in “Wanna Hold You”, another winner in Keith’s string of rockers that dated back to Some Girls‘s “Before They Make Me Run”. From a technical perspective, “Wanna Hold You” is a mess. The backing vocals are all over the place, the lyrics are a throwaway, and Keith slurs the lead vocal. But Charlie Watts once again rides the beat like the old pro he is, and Ron Wood plays a solid bass line. It’s sloppy, but effective, a throwback to a time when the band was more concerned with the feeling of a song and not the perfection of a recording. Four songs in, and Undercover is firing on almost all cylinders. It won’t make anyone forget Sticky Fingers, but it’s clearly their best album since Some Girls.

All of which makes “Feel On Baby” even more disappointing. To call it a half-hearted stab at reggae would be overestimating it. Musically it’s a dull, phony dub/reggae tune mired in awful production values, electronic drums, shrill harmonica, and a go-through-the-motions lyric about hooking up with a girl while on the road. It’s one of the worst songs in the Stones canon.

The nadir of “Feel On Baby” is all the more unfortunate because it’s the one song on the album that’s truly bad. “Tie You Up” isn’t great, but otherwise Undercover is a strong album, more interesting and inspired than the overly praised Tattoo You. The second half picks up with “Too Much Blood”, another love-it-or-hate-it song that comes from the dance world. Once again the drums are processed beyond recognition, leaving the listener baffled as to why the Stones would put the great Charlie Watts in an electronic box. The guitars are barely noticeable, but offer a constant plucking and picking that drives the song. Once again, it’s Bill Wyman’s show, though he’s assisted by a punchy horn part. Over it all is a superficial lyric about just wanting to dance in a world that’s gone crazy. What makes the song different, however, is Jagger’s two extended raps. The first is a straight telling of a true murder story from Paris, about a Japanese man who murdered and ate his girlfriend. The second is, to me at least, an hilarious rap about the then-current trend of slasher movies. “You ever see the Texas Chainsaw Massacre? ‘Orrible, wasn’t it?” Jagger asks. “Oh no, don’t saw off me leg…don’t saw off me arm…When I go to the movies I like to see something more romantic. You know, like Officer and A Gentleman‘”. Both of the raps were off-the-cuff vocals, and they make the song. “Too Much Blood” succeeds because it has a great bass line, and because it’s funny. The video, with a campy, scared Jagger running away from chainsaw-wielding Keith and Woody, is even more amusing (in an admittedly dark way).

In a way, it’s easy to see why many fans dismissed Undercover. The middle of the album is a three song sequence that starts with the awful “Feel On Baby”, continues to the dance/rap hybrid of “Too Much Blood”, and culminates in the funk of “Pretty Beat Up”. If the Black and Blue album is what funky dance music sounded like in 1976, then “Pretty Beat Up” is what it sounded like in 1983. It’s a junk lyric, but it’s got a solid groove and a good sax solo from David Sanborn. Still, it’s the third song in a row that can’t really be classified as rock and roll or blues, so it’s the Stones playing outside of their strengths. “Pretty Beat Up” is good. It’s closer in spirit to Tattoo You‘s “Black Limousine” than Black and Blue‘s “Hot Stuff”, which makes it one of the band’s better excursions into funk.

The fans who stuck with the album through these three songs were paid off with “Too Tough”, “All The Way Down”, and “It Must Be Hell”. Jagger plays the strutting macho man of “Too Tough”, a riposte to an aggressive, possibly psychotic, woman who tried (and failed) to put the singer under her thumb. It’s the flip to “She Was Hot” with Jagger boasting of his victory over his female adversary. It’s a thoroughly convincing rocker, with Charlie once again on target and Ron Wood tearing into a quasi-heavy metal guitar solo.

Even better is “All The Way Down”, a sleazy rocker about a youthful affair. Jagger has commented that the song was based on an old relationship and the opening lyric, “I was 21, naïve/Not cynical, I tried to please” would seem to indicate that the girl in question may be Marianne Faithfull who, in 1983 when Undercover was released, was deep in the throes of drug addiction. “Still I play the fool and strut,” Jagger sings in a proto-rap style before shouting “Still you’re a slut!” It’s a harsh, angry song but there’s an undercurrent of lost affection in the bridge as Jagger croons “She’s there when I close my eyes” and also a real sense of lost time, innocence, and youth. “Still the years rush on by/Birthdays, kids, and suicides…Was every minute just a waste? Was every hour a foolish chase?” With Keith and Woody lending strong support, the chorus line of “She went all the way/All the way down” can serve as the obvious sexual reference it is but, assuming the song is about Faithfull, also a judgement about her life, now that the beautiful songbird of Swingin’ London had become a croaking, haggard junkie (she has, fortunately, cleaned up her act).

“It Must Be Hell” ends the album as it began, with another foray into politics. In this case, Jagger compares his life in the West with the one lived by those on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Lyrically, it’s a little sloppy. Jagger has admitted that the words weren’t as clear as he would have liked, especially in the first two verses. The closing summation makes his point, though, that as troubled as the West may have been, things were far worse under Communist rule:

Keep in a straight line, stay in tune

No need to worry, only fools

End up in prison or conscience cells

Or in asylums they help to build

We’re free to worship, free to speak

We’re free to kill, it’s guaranteed

We’ve got our problems, that’s for sure

Clean up the backyard, don’t lock the door

Musically, “It Must Be Hell” draws on a more unlikely source: the Stones themselves. The main guitar riff is a slightly altered variation of the chorus riff on Exile on Main Street‘s “Soul Survivor”. (Hey, it’s a great riff…Slash ripped it off for Michael Jackson’s “Black or White”, too.) At just over five minutes, “It Must Be Hell” overstays its welcome a little, but it’s a fine, propulsive rocker with scorched earth guitar work from Ron Wood.

Undercover was an experiment, an attempt to sound very contemporary. It was the last time the Stones would be this daring on an album. Experiments would be few over the rest of their career, which is unfortunate. Soon after this album the band would settle into workmanlike songwriting and playing that provided lots of good material, almost none of which were as memorable as their best music. In 1983 the Stones were fracturing. Keith and Mick were at each other’s throats, which is clearly evident in the lyrics on Undercover. It’s an album where the songs are steeped in violent metaphors and allusions. Even sex, Jagger’s leitmotif, has become violent. Nearly every song carries this theme: “Pretty Beat Up”, “Tie You Up”, “Too Tough”, “It Must Be Hell”, and that doesn’t even include the themes as shown in songs with more innocent titles: revolution, recrimination, bitterness, anger. What you’ve got with Undercover is an album where the band was working as a unit, but where the two songwriters and leaders were filled with passion. The anger would be even more pronounced later, but by then the unity was gone. By the time the unity returned, the passion was lost to an uneasy détente. That makes Undercover the last album made by the Rolling Stones as a vibrant, intense rock group. From here on they would be a working band, driven by habit, finance, and professionalism. Undercover has its flaws, but is a largely underrated album in the Stones discography. It’s the last album where the Stones sound like they were really trying, and that has to count for something.

Grade: B

Two Of The Greats Are Gone

They were never as widely known as the people they played with, but the recent loss of Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan marks a sad week for rock and roll fans.

Bobby Keys was a saxophone player out of Texas who had played with everyone from Little Eva to Little Anthony and the Imperials. He met the Rolling Stones while they were on their first tour of America and became friends with the band, especially Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. He was primarily a session player, but in 1969 he became an unofficial Rolling Stone when he played the sax solo on Let It Bleed‘s “Live With Me”. He was Keith’s sax player of choice afterwards, adding an extra dimension of musicality to the band’s extraordinary string of albums in the early Seventies. When people think of the classic Rolling Stones sound, Bobby Keys is an integral part of that mix.

He toured with the band throughout the rest of his life while also playing sessions for rock’s royalty. The sax on John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through The Night”? The Faces’s “Had Me A Real Good Time”? George Harrison’s epic All Things Must Pass? Joe Cocker’s raucous Mad Dogs and Englishmen? These, and countless others, were improved by Bobby Keys. He played the sax with the soul of a jazz musician but the heart of a bluesman and the muscle of a rock star. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that most Stones fans have never even heard of the man, though it was the Stones with whom he was most closely associated. But any fans of rock music, and Stones fans in particular, have grooved to the music he made.

And if losing Bobby Keys wasn’t enough of a hit to the Rolling Stones camp, news yesterday announced the death of the great Ian McLagan. Mac was probably better-known than Keys because in addition to his session and tour work with the Rolling Stones, Mac was also an essential ingredient in two legendary bands that shared a name and personnel. Ian McLagan was the keyboard player for the Small Faces in the 1960s, and provided exemplary work on their classic albums (he also wrote and sang one of my favorites, “Up the Wooden Hills to Bedfordshire”). After singer Steve Marriott left, McLagan stayed when the Small Faces recruited Rod Stewart and Ron Wood and changed their name to Faces, and their sound from dreamy psych pop to raw blues rock. Mac’s piano playing was always a highlight of the band. He played broad boogie woogie, swirling psychedelia, and even the prominent electric keyboards on the Stones’s first excursion into disco, “Miss You”. He played sessions for everyone from Bob Dylan to Paul Westerberg, as well as releasing several solo albums. He also wrote one of the great rock autobiographies: All the Rage: A Riotous Romp Through Rock and Roll History. The rock and roll universe is a little dimmer now.

The Rolling Stones: Tattoo You

tattooyou_cover

The Rolling Stones had almost nowhere to go but up after Emotional Rescue. With the exception of Some Girls, the band had spent nearly a decade floundering. Five studio albums of varying quality and a mediocre live album had tarnished the reputation of what had once been considered The Greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll Band In The World. Their singles could still be counted on to chart, and their albums were still selling, but Emotional Rescue proved to be the final nail in the coffin for many fans who were put off by the icy disco and rote rockers. For the next record, the Stones needed to recapture what made them so good.

They succeeded. Partially.

The first single, and leadoff track, was a return to full-on rock, led by a choppy Keith Richards riff, Charlie Watts in full swing, and a Mick Jagger vocal that combined humor and raunch. “Start Me Up” was such a refreshing change after Emotional Rescue that it instantly became a Stones classic. The band, it seemed, was back with three and a half minutes of reckless abandon. To my ears the song hasn’t held up as well, over 30 years later. The lyric is repetitive, the riff a bit too simple. At the time, the song was a cause for celebration for Stones fans everywhere. It’s now a staple of their concerts, along with “Satisfaction” and “Jumping Jack Flash” but it doesn’t belong in that category.

“Hang Fire”, the song that follows, is better. It’s shorter, punchier, with a better lyric, and better guitar interplay between Richards and Ron Wood. The wordless backing vocal provides the real hook in the song. Both “Hang Fire” and “Start Me Up” rock with total abandon, like the best of Some Girls did. And there’s a good reason for that.

Tattoo You, it turns out, was not a real album at all, in the sense that it was not a collection of new songs. Tattoo You was compiled by Chris Kimsey, the engineer, from the Stones’s musical vault. In most cases, the songs were incomplete. Jagger had to write lyrics and record vocals and some overdubs were added, but the basic recordings on the album go all the way pack to 1972. That’s Mick Taylor playing guitar on “Tops” and “Waiting On A Friend”, both originally cut during the Goats Head Soup sessions. Wayne Perkins, who played the extraordinary solo on Black and Blue‘s “Hand Of Fate” is the guitarist on “Worried About You”, originally recorded in 1975. “Slave” was also cut during those sessions. Other songs were from the Some Girls sessions, and even the Emotional Rescue sessions.

It didn’t matter. The instrumental tracks from those sessions were given new life by Jagger in 1980 and 1981, as the band prepared a massive tour. Tattoo You‘s sole reason for existing is the 1981 tour. The shows were booked and the band felt they had no time to write and record new material, so the vaults were plundered. Chris Kimsey chose wisely for the most part.

Side one of the album is one of the best sustained slices of music the Stones have released post-Exile. There simply isn’t a bum track. From “Start Me Up” through “Neighbours”, Tattoo You sounds like the World’s Greatest Band having fun again. “Slave” is a mostly instrumental groove piece (you can tell it’s from the Black and Blue sessions), but the groove is irresistible and the minimal vocals that are there (including backing vocals from the Who’s Pete Townshend) are a hoot. There’s also a sax solo from jazz legend Sonny Rollins as the cherry on top. There’s nothing much to the lyrics; it’s basically a chant of “Do it! Don’t wanna be your slave!” with a funny mini-rap from Jagger thrown in, but in this case the song stands on the music, which is terrific.

The obligatory Keith Richards-sung track, “Little T&A” is another superior rocker with what may be Keith’s best vocal since “Happy”. What would have easily been the best song on Emotional Rescue was, strangely, left off that album. The lyrics keep the song from being as good as “Before They Make Me Run” or “Happy” but it’s still very close to that standard, and features a throbbing bass line (played by Keith). It’s followed by “Black Limousine” a blues powered by Ian Stewart’s masterful boogie-woogie piano, a terrific guitar solo, and Jagger’s harmonica. It’s often overlooked, but Mick Jagger is one of the premier blues harmonica players, as his playing here proves.

That great side of music ends with “Neighbours”, a Some Girls-style rocker that’s one of the band’s fastest songs. Jagger’s vocal is wonderfully hammy and fun while the band plays as if they’re careening down a curvy road at ninety miles per hour. Side one ends in crashing chords and howled vocals and it was clear that the Stones were back after the misstep that was Emotional Rescue.

Then, there’s side two.

Tattoo You was released in 1981, but in some ways it’s a perfect summation of the post-Exile Stones in the 1970s. With the exception of Some Girls, the Seventies Stones swung wildly between moments of greatness and uninspired banality. Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, Black and Blue, and Emotional Rescue all had high points worth hearing and low points worth ignoring. Tattoo You has the same issues, but in this case the highs and lows are equally divided and split into different halves of the album.

Not everything on side two of Tattoo You is bad, and none of it is truly awful. “Waiting On A Friend” is considered a Stones classic ballad, with another sax break from Sonny Rollins, but nobody is ever going to confuse it with “Wild Horses” or even “Angie”. As Stones “classics” go, “Waiting On A Friend” is strictly second rate. It’s good, but not much more.

Probably the best song on the side is the opener. “Worried About You”, which dates back to the Black and Blue sessions, has the same keyboard sound (played by Billy Preston) as the songs from that earlier album, and a mostly falsetto vocal from Jagger. It also has a fiery lead guitar solo from Wayne Perkins. And in the final two minutes Jagger mostly drops the falsetto and brings it all home. It’s a far better song and performance than the hit single “Waiting On A Friend”, but the song clearly harkens back to an earlier time. It’s also better than everything on Black and Blue except the mighty “Hand Of Fate”.

“Tops” goes all the way back to 1972 and has Mick Taylor on guitar, but stylistically it sounds more like mid-70s Stones. There’s an undeniable dance groove and the falsetto (again) vocals recall the Seventies Soul pastiches that featured on Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll. Again, it’s not a bad song but it sounded dated in 1981 and sounds even more dated today. The same goes for “Heaven”, recorded right after the Emotional Rescue sessions and featuring yet another falsetto vocal from Jagger over an admittedly slinky reggae/dance groove. The only Stones on the song are Jagger, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts, but the main sound you hear is the high vocals awash in Wyman’s synthesizer. “Heaven” could have been better with a full band backing and the vocals less processed. As it stands, it sounds like the drugged homecoming from a night at Studio 54.

Before “Waiting On A Friend” ends the album on a high note, “No Use In Crying” is another ballad from the Emotional Rescue sessions. For the fourth song in a row Jagger breaks out the falsetto, though sparingly this time. I guess even Jagger probably didn’t think the song was worth straining to hit those high notes. It’s no wonder after this that “Waiting On A Friend” sounded so good: it shuffles where the earlier songs lay there, the falsetto is relegated to a few “doo doo doo” backing vocals, and there’s Rollins’s terrific sax solo.

The second half of Tattoo You doesn’t ruin the album. Of the five songs, two are very good and the other three are not as bad as almost anything on Emotional Rescue. But Jagger’s overuse of the falsetto and a reliance on keyboards and dance ballads to close the album can certainly leave the listener feeling disappointed. Side one is fantastic; side two is mediocre. The only other album I can think of that is this evenly divided between wheat and chaff is John Lennon’s Double Fantasy, and that’s because half of those songs are Yoko’s. Tattoo You would probably have been served better by nixing “No Use In Crying” and “Heaven”, adding two more rockers (they had plenty of great ones in the can from the Some Girls sessions), and mixing the album up to blend rockers and ballads. As it stands, it brings the Stones back, and drops them down again.

Grade: B