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+

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

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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

The Rolling Stones: Emotional Rescue

The Rolling Stones Emotional Rescue

In 1978, Some Girls proved that the Rolling Stones were still a major creative force and a rock and roll band to be reckoned with. In the age of punk, the Stones had proven themselves as fierce as any of the young upstarts who were dismissing them as dinosaurs. By ramping up the guitars, speeding up the tempos, and still being open to the current music scene, the Stones had planted a flag for all the remaining bands of the 1960s.

In 1980, they dug up the flag and buried it under a landfill.

Emotional Rescue is not the worst officially released Rolling Stones album, but it’s certainly near the bottom of the barrel. At least Their Satanic Majesties’ Request was an interesting failure and contained two classic Stones songs. By comparison, Emotional Rescue is a tired slog through the music scene of the day, populated by songs that were recorded but deemed not good enough for the previous album and a handful of new tracks. But even in 1980, the songs here sounded out of date. Disco was still king in 1980, but it was being absorbed by New Wave and post-punk and starting to manifest itself in some interesting ways. Some Girls showed that the Stones were paying close attention to disco and punk; Emotional Rescue indicates that they’d stopped listening to anything new in 1978. It is not the sound of a vital band; it is the sound of old war horses trying to emulate the sounds that the kids are listening to these days.

The opening track, “Dance, Pt. 1”, is as imaginative as its title. It’s a disco/funk track that is better than “Hot Stuff” but nowhere near as good as “Miss You”. It’s actually a pretty good groove, and Mick Jagger is convincing even as the rest of the band is coasting. “Get up/get out/Into something new” Jagger snarls. The nights he was spending at Studio 54 are clearly his muse here, but the lyrics are mostly nonsensical; he seems to have put almost no effort into writing them.

The Stones follow this with a rocker, opening the album with a disco/rock salvo that mirrors Some Girls. But “Summer Romance” is no “When The Whip Comes Down”. While “Romance” is one of the few genuine winners on the album, it’s also an archetypal post-Exile on Main Street rock track. It pales in comparison to the vastly superior rockers on Some Girls, but it’s a good album track here, and probably would have fit on Goats Head Soup or It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll. “Summer Romance” does, at least, have an excellent guitar solo, and Charlie Watts swings like a demon. There’s also an excellent bass line from Bill Wyman. In fact, Wyman is the unsung star of the album. For years his bass had been largely buried in the mix, but as the Stones paid homage to dance music, the rhythm section rose in importance and Wyman’s bass once again came forward. This album is actually a potent reminder of what a great bass player Bill Wyman was, and a sad reminder that the bass that was so prominent in the 1960s had become muted in the 1970s.

“Send It To Me” served notice that the Stones were checking off boxes on this album. “Dance” was the disco track, “Romance” the rocker, and “Send It To Me” is the obligatory reggae filler. It’s a lazy shuffle that Charlie Watts sounds half asleep on. The entire band plays it as if they simply don’t care. Jagger tries to put some life into it, but his delivery is once again undercut by half-baked lyrics about a mail-order bride. The Stones were never particularly convincing when it came to reggae, and this is readily apparent here. There’s no inspiration at all, just lazy playing.

The band returns to rock with “Let Me Go”, but the song simply sits there. Keith Richards and Ron Wood chug along nicely on guitar, but the song sounds like it’s going somewhere only when Jagger and Richards start harmonizing on the bridge. That moment passes in the blink of an eye and it’s back to the chug. There’s a decent guitar solo and once again Wyman plays like an old pro, but Watts now sounds like he’s completely asleep. The drums aren’t bad, especially in the breakdown about two and half minutes into the song, when Watts wakes up and reminds the world that he’s Charlie Watts and he doesn’t play bad drum parts, but nothing could save the song from its mediocrity. In the context of the album, “Let Me Go” sounds better than it actually is because it’s at the very least a rock number, and it’s the Stones playing the music they were born to play. It’s all the more disappointing because the song segues into “Indian Girl”, a too-long acoustic ballad that features some nice, tinkling piano parts and some genuinely lovely pedal steel from Ron Wood. But despite some interesting Mexican mariachi-style horns that add a nice touch “Indian Girl” is boring. The acoustic guitar is so laid back it might as well not even be there. Jagger talk-sings over the fade as the song disappears into nothingness. It’s too bad because on an album where the lyrics can best be described as weak, “Indian Girl” is a political rumination about the indigenous population of Central American countries at a time when that section of the world was being torn apart by conflict. It’s a serious subject and a heartfelt lyric, married to a tune that never happens.

The second side of the album kicks off with another rocker. “Where The Boys Go” was picked up by rock radio at the time because it was one of the few songs on the album where the Stones rocked unapologetically. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good song. There’s a fine guitar solo, but Jagger sings much of the song in a faux-Cockney accent that is, at best, distracting and, at worst, silly. There are also prominent female backing singers that add nothing but stridency to an already half-assed vocal. Yes, it rocks. Yes, Charlie Watts is now fully awake and pounding. But “Where The Boys Go” is tuneless and pointless. Like “Let Me Go” it sounds better in context but this is the weaker song.

The Stones had cut their teeth on blues music. Jagger famously said, in his first newspaper quote, “I hope they don’t think we’re a rock and roll outfit”. But while the blues always underpinned the Stones, the traditional form had largely been eschewed by the band. “Down In The Hole” was the first traditional 12-bar blues the Stones had done in many years. There’s a great harmonica and for the first time on this album the band sounds like they’re fully invested in the music. It’s not a great blues song by any stretch, but it was good enough that the Stones should have taken a cue from it and started doing more straight blues numbers. It’s a style the Stones always excelled at, and “Down In The Hole” provides a highlight on an album drowning in indifferent writing and playing.

The Stones were smart enough to put only one real disco song on Some Girls, and “Miss You” had a bridge that came out of the rock world. While you could dance to “Beast Of Burden” it was disguised enough to pass for a rock ballad on first listen. But the title track for this album is the single purest expression of Jagger’s love of disco that the Stones ever did. It bears almost no trace of rock. There are good things here: as required by the Gods of Disco, the rhythm section is spot-on (Wyman’s bass is outstanding) and the song is an earworm, making it somewhat listenable even when you’re not on the dance floor. There’s also a great saxophone in the fadeout. But there’s plenty of bad here, too. Jagger sings the entire song in a tortured falsetto, and does a proto-rap that is nothing short of excruciating; Richards and Wood are almost invisible; there’s no warmth at all and nary a trace of emotion in the performance. “Emotional Rescue” is a time piece. It’s forever locked into 1980 and it must be admitted that it evokes a time and a place for those of us who were around at that time. As was true of most disco, however, the songs that worked when you were dancing do nothing when you’re sitting at home or driving in your car. That goes double for this song because its style was based on heavily electronic Euro-disco, and not the more organic American dance music. “Emotional Rescue” was shocking enough as a Stones song that many fans started reaching for the torches and pitchforks, but it’s not as terrible as it seemed when it first was released. It’s also not good.

As if sensing that “Emotional Rescue” was a bridge too far, the Stones followed it with the one legit Stones classic on the album. “She’s So Cold” is the only track on this album that could have fit on Some Girls…probably because it was written and first recorded for that earlier album. Wyman again provides the support; his is the car the band rides in. Jagger’s vocal delivery is excellent and the lyrics contain the trademark misogyny and humor that marked so many of the band’s best songs. As they are throughout the album, the guitars are fairly muted but they are at least solid and Richards and Wood blend seamlessly.

Unfortunately, the Stones couldn’t sustain this level even for one more song. “All About You” has some wonderful harmonies on the chorus, but this is the first of many of Keith’s sleepy, album-closing ballads. Keith hasn’t written and sung a great ballad with the Stones since “You Got The Silver” on Let It Bleed, and “All About You” is never more than pleasant and boring.

Taken as a whole, Emotional Rescue is saved from being the Stones worst album by the fact that it sounds like the Stones at least had songs that they were performing (as opposed to the riff-based jams of Black And Blue). But there’s no question that the album is occasionally painful to listen to, and only once truly engages the listener. Satanic Majesties was a druggy experiment that went awry; Black and Blue was an audition turned into a contractual obligation album. Emotional Rescue was a different animal completely. Emotional Rescue was the Stones doing what the Stones are supposed to do…and failing.

Grade: D+

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls

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The Rolling Stones achieved levels of fame and musical quality that most bands could only dream about in the early 1970s. The middle of the decade was less kind. Drugged, tired, and uninspired were the hallmarks of those middle years. Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Black And Blue all had their moments of greatness, but those moments were dwindling and increasingly outnumbered by mediocre efforts.

The same can be said for rock and roll in general in the mid-1970s, at least as far as the radio was concerned. Singer-songwriters filled the airwaves with sensitive, plaintive ballads. Progressive rock was also big, but it was bloated. How bloated? In 1975, Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman staged a performance of his solo album The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. On ice. By the mid-70s mainstream rock had very little to say to the kids in the street. It’s hard to connect with your fans when you’re flying around in a private jumbo jet with the name of your band emblazoned on the side.

By the time the Stones brought in ex-Face Ron Wood to replace Mick Taylor, the reigning style of music was disco, its pulsating rhythms and repetitive beat blaring in the trendiest night spots in New York and Paris, where jet-setting Mick Jagger was spending a lot of time.

But there was another style of music that was also rising in prominence, especially in England. Punk rock was still relegated to some of the smaller and seedier establishments in New York but over in Blighty the Sex Pistols were being excoriated in Parliament and punk rock was as hated and feared as any music since 1956, when Elvis Presley gave older America a serious case of the vapors. Jagger, always looking to stay current, was paying attention. So was Keith Richards who didn’t like disco but did like the energy and enthusiasm of punk, even while he labored under the mistaken belief that punk rock musicians couldn’t play their instruments. (This was a common belief. After all, the punk rock poster boy was Sid Vicious, who really couldn’t play his instrument.) Punk rock and disco were the ingredients that fueled Some Girls.

People didn’t know what to make of “Miss You”, the leadoff single and opening track on the album. To this day the song divides Stones fans; some think it’s a betrayal of everything the Stones built their career on; some, while acknowledging that it is at base a disco song, recognize all the elements that make the Stones the legends they are today.

What makes “Miss You” a disco song is the beat, which Charlie Watts could play in his sleep. The “four-to-the-floor” beat was the hallmark of disco because it made the music so danceable. The lyrics, steeped in the hustle and bustle of New York City (as were many of the songs on the album), placed the song at the epicenter of the disco explosion. The combination of the beat, the words, and the wordless “ah hah” hook firmly locks the song into the disco era. The Stones were the first of the big-name rock bands to tip their hat to dance music. Virtually every other legendary rock performer would also record a dance song over the next couple of years: Paul McCartney, Elton John, the Kinks, even Kiss.

What the detractors miss is that this is a Stones song, recorded at a time when they were still legitimately bad boys. “Miss You” may be disco, but it’s disco played with far more aggression, passion, and intensity than any other disco song before or since. The justifiably famous harmonica hook, played by bluesman Sugar Blue, ties the song into the roots of the band, and the soaring bridge brings the song back into rock. The saxophone solo, played by Mel Collins, even ropes in Progressive Rock; Collins was a Prog Rock stalwart after playing in bands like King Crimson and Caravan. Jagger’s partially spoken, falsetto-ridden, proto-rap performance is over-the-top but Jagger knows it, which adds to the basic good humor of the song; Bill Wyman’s slinky bass is prominent for one of the last times on a Stones song. From a style of music not noted for songwriting, “Miss You” remains one of the pinnacles of the disco movement. The lyrics both reflect and satirize disco-era Manhattan.

Despite the fact that it became a hit single and a staple of Stones concerts, the reaction to “Miss You” among rock fans was so polarizing that, to this day, there are people who think of Some Girls as the “disco album”. Those people couldn’t be more wrong. Disco shows up on the album in the lyrics but, with the exception of a few tracks, Some Girls is the closest the Stones ever got to punk rock. Lyrically, “When the Whip Comes Down” holds up a mirror to the overwhelmingly gay habitués that Jagger was encountering at Studio 54, the infamous New York disco. The line about “going down fifty-third street and they’re spitting in my face” refers to a spot that was notorious for gay prostitution. It also nods in the direction of the Ramones, who sang about turning tricks for heroin in the song “53rd and Third”. The lyrics are really an update of the notorious unreleased Stones song “Cocksucker Blues”. The lonesome schoolboy has left his position in Trafalgar Square and made it to New York.

Musically, this was the Stones rocking again, harder than they had at any time since Exile On Main Street. The jump in inspiration over the previous three albums is so startlingly obvious that it highlights just how uninspired much of those earlier albums were. The addition of Ron Wood on guitar was a perfect choice: his style meshes perfectly with Keith’s and the two became a pile-driving powerhouse. And let’s all pause for a moment to reflect on the great Charlie Watts…his drumming on this album is some of the best he’s ever done and the breaks at the end of “When The Whip Comes Down” are particularly fearsome.

As they did on It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, the Stones went back to the Temptations for a cover song. The Stones bring out the bluesier side of “Just My Imagination”, turning a Motown ballad into a gritty rocker. As it does throughout the album, the Big Apple gets a shoutout as Jagger changes the lyrics from “in the world” to “in New York”. It’s odd, but true, that a band from England made one of the quintessential New York City albums; the city lives and breathes throughout the album, and many of the songs capture with near-photographic quality what the city was like in 1977 and 1978.

The title track is one of the most controversial songs in the Rolling Stones canon. The band achieved a number one hit with “Brown Sugar” in 1971, a song about sadism, masochism, slavery, and interracial oral sex, but it was “Some Girls” that got them in trouble despite the fact that the lyrics are clearly meant to be funny. Jagger sings about the many women he’s known, contrasting the good (who give him money, jewelry, diamonds, etc) and the bad (those who take “all my bread”, give him children he “never asked them for”, and those who leave him with “a lethal dose”), but it’s the litany of ethnic stereotypes that got the band in trouble with feminists and civil rights groups. The song is a blues-based mid-tempo rocker with a great harmonica from Sugar Blue prominent throughout. Taken as a serious meditation on the qualities of women across the world, it’s offensive. But it’s not that. It’s a joke, and a pretty funny one that happens to be married to a great tune.

“Lies” is the fastest rocker the Stones had recorded since “Rip This Joint”, which makes it one of the fastest songs the band ever recorded. It’s a bit slight, and the lyrics are a trifle, but the song is performed with such drive and energy that it’s impossible not to like it.

Side two of the LP begins with another one of those divisive Stones songs. Jagger’s Southern drawl-infused vocal is so exaggerated in its cornpone hillbilly elocution that it’s easy to miss that “Far Away Eyes” has a wonderful chorus and is one of the funniest songs in the Stones repertoire. It’s both a loving tribute to Bakersfield-style country music and a parody of the same. Backed by a shimmering pedal steel played by Ron Wood, Jagger speak/sings a hilarious tale of being on the road, down on your luck, running red lights in the name of Jesus, and meeting the title girl who makes it all right. The backing of a simple guitar, bass, and drums is understated in the finest tradition of Bakersfield, and lets the pedal steel shine gloriously.

“Respectable” is another punk-fueled raveup, marveling at how the bad boys of rock and roll are now hobnobbing with Presidents and other foreign dignitaries, while also putting down a respectable woman who’s really nothing of the sort. Like “Lies” the beauty is in the performance, since the lyrics are mainly two verses and an endlessly repeated chorus. The lyrics here act as a bridge between the ferocious guitar breaks provided by Richards and Wood.

Keith Richards shines on “Before They Make Me Run”, his ravaged vocals highlighting one of the last truly great Richards showcases on a Rolling Stones album. It’s his last genuine outlaw anthem, a chugging riff rocker about his then-recent heroin bust in Toronto. There’s a wonderfully understated pedal steel guitar played by Ron Wood, locking in and weaving with Keith’s guitar solo. The country element in an otherwise straight rocker is perhaps a tip of the cap to Richards’s late friend Gram Parsons, to whom the lyric “another goodbye to another good friend” refers.

The influences that inspired Some Girls are in clear evidence on the final tracks. “Beast Of Burden” is another disco-influenced track, custom-made for a slower spin on the dance floor. As a ballad, it is less recognizably a disco song, but that beat was definitely made for a slow dance. The album closer, though, is another trip to downtown New York. “Shattered” wears its punk influence clearly, a hard-charging riff underpinning the “New York City in 1978” lyrics. The Big Apple was rotting in the late 1970s, and “Shattered” captures the essence of the city almost perfectly. “What a mess/This town’s in tatters” sings Jagger. “Go ahead, bite the Big Apple/Don’t mind the maggots.” “Shattered” is a perfect Rolling Stones song, a concise mix of humor, pathos, decadence, and rip-roaring rock and roll. It’s the only way Some Girls could have ended. This album, and the tour that followed, were the last vestiges of the band that burst out of London in 1964. The Stones would become something else after Some Girls, and this was the last salvo fired by the band that made Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers. They had finally made an album that was a worthy successor to those masterpieces.

Grade: A+

The Rolling Stones: Black And Blue

blackandblue

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.

Grade: C-

The Rolling Stones: It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll

With Goats Head Soup, the Rolling Stones showed some indications that the fuel that had burned in them since 1968 was starting to run out. With 1974’s It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, the band was clearly in a holding pattern. As with Soup there are several real gems on this album. The highlights of the album are at least the equal of its predecessor and might even be slightly better. The lowlights were lower, though, and there’s simply no denying that an audience expecting a new Sticky Fingers or Exile On Main Street was going to be extremely disappointed.

Like some of Bob Dylan’s early 70s albums (e.g., New Morning, Planet Waves), both Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll sound better in retrospect. Time has distanced them from the ragged genius that cemented the Stones legend, and this allows the albums to be taken on their own merits, as well as judged by their own flaws.

It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll is the work of a highly accomplished band. By this point the Stones knew exactly how to craft down and dirty rock and roll in their sleep. That’s actually something of a drawback in rock music. When a band reaches this level the temptation is there to coast, and that’s just what the Stones are doing throughout this period. The mid 70s were a fallow time for rock music. The wave of Sixties titans was largely over: the Beatles were no more and the solo Beatles, with the exception of McCartney who was still riding high, had drifted off. The Who were still releasing great albums but the tour following Quadrophenia was a disaster. The Kinks were releasing convoluted concept albums that made no sense to anyone. By 1974 Glam Rock was nearing its expiration date, with David Bowie, Elton John, and T. Rex peaking a year earlier. Punk rock was emitting its first cries, but was unknown outside of small venues in New York. Disco was arriving, but not quite there. The so-called Progressive rock of Yes, Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, was big in the world of FM radio, but the mid 70s were still very much an AM radio era.

Where there was inspiration was in black music. Funk, reggae, and soul were big. The radio grooved to such soul classics as Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” (which was recorded, but not released, by the Stones for this album). And as they had done in the mid 60s, the Stones turned to this music for inspiration for two of Rock ‘N’ Roll‘s best tracks.

“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” is a fierce, rocked up version of the classic Temptations song. Kicked off by Charlie Watts, a man who never played a bad drum part, and featuring both a funky clavinet and barrelhouse piano from guest Billy Preston, this is one of the most convincing non-blues Stones covers. Jagger never tries to emulate the soulful vocals of the original, opting instead simply to be himself. The soul is stripped from the song, turning it into a visceral, drunken howl. “Luxury” is the first attempt by the Stones to do pure reggae. The Stones make their mark in the guitars, which are more distorted and raw than you find in reggae, but there’s no mistaking this song as anything other than proof that the Stones were listening to a lot of Bob Marley. Reggae was a well from which the Stones would draw a lot of inspiration over the next ten years or so, but to these ears their first attempt was also their best. “Luxury” has a melody that would have made Marley proud, and the toughness of sound at which Peter Tosh excelled.

It’s a shame in some ways that the Stones fell back into by-the-numbers rockers and extended ballads. With the exception of the title track, which is still about two minutes too long, there’s nothing else on the album that you haven’t heard before. “If You Can’t Rock Me” is a fine, hard-charging album opener, now rendered redundant by the fact that the Stones seem incapable of putting out an album that doesn’t have at least one song extolling the virtues of “rocking”. But as good as “You Can’t Rock Me” is, it also never rises above the level of professional, competent rock music. It’s enjoyable, and not particularly memorable.

The same criticism can be leveled at the rest of the rockers on the album, but those tracks are usually not even as memorable as “You Can’t Rock Me”, which at least benefits from being the first thing you hear. “Dance Little Sister” is okay, the kind of song that sounds better live. It, too, is helped by Charlie’s unerring sense of swing. His rapid fire fills and the sterling guitar work from Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, and Jagger’s excitable vocal all combine to make something this is…meh. Once again, it’s a matter of coasting over inspiration. Yes, this is good. Coming from another band, it would probably be a career highlight. Coming from the Stones, it’s just an album track that is enjoyed, and forgotten. Far worse is “Short and Curlies,” a throwaway track that is about exactly what the title implies. It’s a dumb attempt to write another raunchy, not-fit-for-radio song in the mold of “Star Star”, and best forgotten.

The Stones draw more inspiration from black music with “Fingerprint File”, this time tapping funk music. At six and a half minutes, it’s far too long and far too repetitive. The basic groove of the song is good, but there is a lengthy jam in the middle that goes nowhere. Cut down to three minutes, “Fingerprint File” might have been one of their better funk moments, but at this length it merely sounds like self-indulgent album filler.

With “Angie” from Goats Head Soup, the Stones hit chart gold and discovered singer/songwriter-ish balladry. “Till The Next Goodbye” is It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll‘s “Angie.” A spare, acoustic number with lilting piano from Nicky Hopkins and a lovelorn lyric and vocal from Jagger, it’s actually a better song than “Angie.” But once again, it suffered. Because “Angie” came first, and the Stones were likely wary of putting out a too similar ballad as a single, this lovely song is almost unknown. “Time Waits For No One”, which immediately follows “Till the Next Goodbye”, is both a genuinely great Stones track and a prime slab of Radio Friendly 1974. Although it was not released as a single (it creeps toward the seven minute mark), the sound of the song almost defines the era. “Time” is the ballad version of Sticky Fingers‘s”Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” It’s a lengthy song that is end-loaded with an extensive guitar solo from Mick Taylor (his last brilliant moment with the Stones). Taylor wisely avoids the “Santana lite” jazz he played on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” in favor of a fluid, lyrical solo. It was not only Taylor’s last truly great moment with the Stones, it was the last time such a solo would ever be played on a Rolling Stones song. It’s a sad reminder of what the Stones miss with Taylor’s absence: a genuine virtuoso who for several years managed to keep his ego in check and lend a dimension of musicality the Stones never had before and haven’t had since.

As good as “Time Waits For No One” is, there’s also “If You Really Want To Be My Friend.” One of the problems with It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll is that there are three songs that crack the six-minute mark. The Stones have always been at their best when they were more concise. Sure, there are exceptions like “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and the live “Midnight Rambler” but as a general rule, the more songs that hit that five and six-minute length, the more you know the Stones are running low on ideas. “Friend” is one of the low points of the album, with an overwrought vocal from Jagger and a backing vocal section from the soul group Blue Magic that is completely unnecessary. The extended, jammy fade seems designed to add gravitas to the song, but it falls flat.

The Stones had been brilliant in their career, and had failed gloriously with the experimental Satanic Majesties. What they had never been up to this point was boring. The album is redeemed by the classic title song, co-written with Face, friend, and future Stone Ronnie Wood, and a handful of great album tracks, but is ultimately undone by the undeniable mediocrity of the rest. Shortly afterwards, Mick Taylor left the band to pursue stardom with the mercurial Jack Bruce in what remains the stupidest career decision in rock history. The Stones were about to change again, becoming yet another type of band. But first they needed to make a transition.

Grade: C+

Life, by Keith Richards

Who would have bet, thirty years ago, that Keith Richards would be around long enough to write his autobiography? This is the man who, for several years running, was consistently voted “Most Likely To Die” by culture mavens everywhere. At this point, he’s being voted “Most Likely To Outlive Cockroaches And Bacteria” by those same people. Say this for the man: he seems to be damn near indestructible.

Life is the story of the man, told from his point of view. From his youth scraping by in post-war England, when food was rationed and bombed out craters were playgrounds, straight up until his noggin-cracking fall against an unyielding palm tree that sent him for brain surgery, Keith Richards lived a wild life.

Whether the reader finds it refreshing or, frankly, sociopathic, Richards tells his tale with no sense of shame or regret. His life was decadent, immersed in rock and roll, drugs, and sex (in that order). But rather than wearing a politically correct hair shirt and throwing himself on the mercy of a public that wants their musical heroes fresh out of rehab, Richards shrugs. It’s his life, and he had a great time living it.

The book concentrates its energies on the 1960s and 1970s where the reader is introduced to the two great loves of Keith’s life. In the 1960s, that love is music; in the 1970s it becomes drugs. Life isn’t that neatly divided, though, and there’s considerable overlap. The best music of Keith’s life was written and recorded when he was a regular heroin user. But not long after 1972’s Exile On Main Street, the drugs began to take center stage. Keith was no longer a user. He was a junkie.

Richards does acknowledge that his true junkie years were when he lost the path, and that his life became about getting the next hit. Where the early Stones tours were marked with concerns about getting to the gig on time and what to play, the Stones tours in the 1970s were all about where to score heroin in each new city. Knowing that the police had their eye on him didn’t slow him down. Even when he was unable to get good drugs and had to resort to what he calls “MSS” (Mexican Shoe Scrapings), he steadfastly refused to believe that there was a problem.

But there was a problem and it’s clear to the reader, even if it’s not so clear to the writer. The early part of the book is filled with the stories of the early Stones, and Keith’s love of music is pressed on to every page. This is the first rock musician autobiography I’ve read where the author uses barrels of ink to talk about the musicians who influenced him, the thrill of creating music, the love of listening to music and sharing your thoughts with like-minded friends. Living together in a small flat, Richards, Mick Jagger, and Brian Jones sat around listening to and dissecting Chicago blues, talking about it constantly. Even leaving the apartment to be with a woman was considered a betrayal to the first mistress: music.

Drugs were present early, but mainly confined to marijuana and pills. LSD reared its misshapen head in the mid-60s but despite dabbling Keith claims never to have been that much of an acidhead. Still, the hallucinogen played havoc with the band inspiring the worst album they did in the 1960s (Their Satanic Majesties Request) and driving self-appointed band leader Brian Jones over the edge.

Despite Keith’s blood brother allegiance to Ron Wood, the other Stones who get the most press in the book are Mick Jagger (of course), and Brian Jones. In interviews Keith has usually skirted around Jones, painting a picture of a man who was a screwup and who let the team down by putting drugs before the Stones. In Life, that portrait is fleshed out and it’s not a pretty picture. Jones is portrayed as a horror, a petty, vindictive, mean, girlfriend-beating narcissist who, despite loads of talent, was an albatross around the band’s neck as early as 1965. Keith describes his stealing of Jones’s girlfriend Anita Pallenberg not as a betrayal of his friend Brian, but as a rescue of a monster’s girlfriend. If the portrayal of Jones here is accurate (and I’m inclined to think it is), then Keith actually stands on pretty solid ground here.

Mick Jagger is the other main character in Keith’s life, and is the relationship that receives the most attention from the author. Keith and Mick were best friends for decades, sharing a bond that survived even their brief affairs with each other’s girlfriends (Mick had an affair with Anita Pallenberg while filming the movie Performance; Keith didn’t mind so much because he was having an affair with Marianne Faithfull at the same time). What eventually drove them apart were the drugs and what Keith’s addiction meant to the Stones.

Shortly after Exile, Keith’s addiction led to a more carefree attitude about the band. Decisions that had always been made together were now being left to Jagger alone, and Mick discovered that he liked the power. By the time Keith got off the smack, not too long after being arrested in Toronto, Jagger’s grip on the business side of the band was absolute. When Keith wanted back in to the decision making process, he was told that his services in that regard were no longer needed. It was now Jagger’s band. (Keith maintains that during the 1981 tour one of the large video screens introduced the band as “Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones” until Keith screamed bloody murder about it and Jagger backed down.) Jagger’s using the Stones contract negotiations to secure himself a solo contract was a mortal blow to their friendship and, to Keith, a far worse betrayal than merely bedding down Anita Pallenberg. Jagger was now cheating on the Stones, and that was an unforgivable sin to Keith.

While they managed to hold it together for a few more albums (Undercover and Dirty Work), Richards became even angrier when Jagger refused to tour with the Stones, opting instead to tour as a solo artist. It clearly still stings Richards to this day (he dismisses Jagger’s first album with the withering line “I’ve never listened to it all the way through. Who has?” Ouch. True, but ouch.) The relationship now is best described as love/hate. Keith still refers to Mick as “Brenda” or “Her Majesty” but makes it clear that nobody else better insult Mick or they’ll pay the consequences. They are distant brothers who get along fine when they are alone together, talking or writing music. But when business intervenes, Jagger is still the King and Keith still resents it.

The other Stones are peripheral players. Charlie Watts receives nothing but praise, Bill Wyman barely gets mentioned, Mick Taylor’s skill as a guitarist is highly praised but his abilities to blend in with the Stones are dismissed, and Ron Wood is seen as Ron Wood: likable, happy-go-lucky, usually drunk and/or high, although Richards does confirm the rumors that Wood was close to being fired during the 1981 tour because he was so wasted he could barely play.

It’s all here in Life. As the drugs take center stage the music gets pushed aside, and some albums (Between the Buttons, It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, Tattoo You) don’t even rate a mention, but that’s the life of a drug addict: everything else that you love takes a back seat and becomes subordinate to the next high.

At over 500 pages, this is a lot of Keith to digest. Mixed in with the rock and roll and drugs are celebrity cameos (John Lennon makes a brief, but hilarious appearance hugging the bathroom floor at Keith’s house after a night of partying, Gram Parsons, Paul McCartney, John Phillips), groupies, marriage, children, grandchildren…there’s even Keith’s recipe for bangers ‘n’ mash which is the funniest recipe ever written.

I’m not sure how much of the book was actually written by Keith and how much by his co-writer James Fox, but it’s irrelevant. The voice is entirely Keith’s. I’ve seen and read enough interviews with the man to know that whatever Fox did he did using Keith’s style. And Keith is a great storyteller, which makes Life a quick, satisfying read and an in-depth look at the Rolling Stones from someone who was there at the beginning.

The Rolling Stones: Goats Head Soup

There really was simply no way for The Rolling Stones to surpass the triumph of their previous album, one of the greatest in rock’s history. The fact that between 1968 and 1972 the Stones were about as flawless as any band has ever been made the job of an Exile On Main St. followup even more difficult. It is the lofty expectations placed on the band that have made the critical reviews of 1973’s Goats Head Soup so untrustworthy. I’ve been guilty of this myself, at one time in my life dismissing Goats Head Soup as a largely terrible album. It is not a terrible album. Nor is it a great album.

Soup marks the point where, as Keith Richards once said, “I picked up the smack and Mick picked up the slack.” It is very much Mick Jagger’s album, evidenced by the atrocious front cover (the back cover is an equally atrocious Keith picture). For this reason, the album sounds much less unified than their previous efforts. For me, Goats Head Soup is a precursor to what the band has turned into over the past 30 years: a professional touring and recording act making solid, workman-like albums that run high on sound and low on inspiration.

Unlike their albums from Beggars Banquet to Exile, Goats Head Soup today sounds very much of its time. It should have “1973” stamped on every groove. That’s not to say that there isn’t an awful lot of good, and even great, stuff on the album. There are two Stones classics on the album, the ballad “Angie” and the rocker “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” and two songs that should have been Stones classics, “Silver Train” and “Star Star.”

The album kicks off with “Dancing With Mr. D,” yet another song wherein Jagger sings about a malevolent identity, in this case the personification of Death. Coming after “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Midnight Rambler,” not to mention other songs wherein Jagger trips the dark fantastic (“Let It Bleed,” “Monkey Man,” “Brown Sugar”), “Dancing” sounds like a cartoon version of the theme. The music, led by Mick Taylor’s great slide guitar, Nicky Hopkins’s piano, and a snaky bass line (also played by Taylor) is great. It’s cleaner than the murky Exile, but it’s still raw enough to have real bite. The lyrics are Jagger on autopilot. Sex? Check! Death? Right here! Intoxication? Got it! It’s not a bad way to start an album, but after album openers like “Sympathy For The Devil,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Brown Sugar” and Rocks Off,” it is perhaps inevitable that “Dancing With Mr. D” should sound downright anemic. The music tries but the lyrics don’t, which makes the song both enjoyable and forgettable at the same time.

One of the undeniable highlights of the album follows. The funky clavinet (played by Billy Preston) and a liquid guitar solo from Taylor give “100 Years Ago” a fantastic vibe. Jagger’s vocal is one of his best, and the lyrics are a great ode to nostalgia and fond memories of days gone by. There’s a brief interlude where Jagger camps it up by singing about how he’s a “lazy bones/ain’t got no time to waste away” but that’s soon overpowered by a return to the solid melody and a fine, raving end.

“Coming Down Again” is Keith’s showcase, a piano ballad that he’s been rewriting ever since. Again, a triumph of sound and feel and not songwriting. Like its later rewrites (Dirty Work‘s “Sleep Tonight,” especially), “Coming Down Again” takes an interminable length of time to say nothing. Other than a wicked line about slipping “my tongue in someone else’s pie,” most of the lyrics are just an endless repetition of the title. The piano is quite nice, and Keith’s vocal is excellent, but “Coming Down Again” is at least three minutes too long.

Goats Head Soup picks up dramatically from here with a run of great songs. “Heartbreaker” wears it’s Stevie Wonder influence on its sleeve but, run through the Stones more rock-oriented prism, emerges as a singularly funky tale of sadness and murder, and features a solid beat and great fills from Charlie Watts. “Angie” is solidly in line with some of the great Stones ballads, with its delicate acoustic guitars and Jagger’s plaintive vocals.

“Silver Train” is catchy, countrified blues with a great bass line from Keith Richards and a magnificently slurred vocal from Jagger and one of the few songs that might have fit on Exile On Main Street. It’s a souped-up “Sweet Virginia,” and a great showcase for Taylor whose blazing slide is everywhere.

The only thing that mars “Hide Your Love” is a vocal that is so blurry and indistinct it becomes little more than background noise. This, too, could have fit on Exile, but what is a standout on Soup would have sounded like a cross between “Ventilator Blues” and “Just Wanna See His Face” on the earlier album. It’s a great lost Stones track, with fine piano played by Jagger and Ian Stewart, and again Taylor struts his stuff.

The lovely ballad “Winter” presents something of a problem. It’s one of the best Stones ballads, with excellent lyrics and vocal from Mick Jagger. There is a lush string section underpinning the song, and some searing lead guitar from Mick Taylor. It’s a wonderful song. Unfortunately, it was a wonderful song two years earlier when it was called “Moonlight Mile” and was the closing track on Sticky Fingers. As good as “Winter” is, it’s still really a copy of a superior song. It’s still far better than “Can You Hear The Music,” which doesn’t know whether it wants to be rock or reggae, and fails at both.

The Stones turned up the salacious aspects of their career for the album closer, “Star Star,” an X-rated look at groupies set to a Chuck Berry riff. The lyric is funny, and Jagger’s delivery is spot-on. It’s not fit for the kids, and definitely not safe for playing at work, but it showcases the band’s sense of humor which has always been their secret weapon. The lyrics prevent “Star Star” from ever being played on the radio, so it’s not one of the band’s most well-known songs, but it’s a good way to end an album.

Goats Head Soup has its problems. There are some uninspired songs and performances, several of the songs linger past their stay fresh date, and the energy level of the band has clearly dropped a notch from the previous albums. Still, there is a bit of greatness and enough good material to praise. The Stones had done far better, but they will also do much, much worse.

Grade: B

The Rolling Stones: Exile On Main St. (Deluxe Edition)

When news broke in late 2009 that Exile On Main St. would be rereleased in a deluxe package as a 2-CD set with ten previously unreleased bonus tracks, there was a great deal of anticipation among hardcore Stones fans. Possibly the best album of their career would now have ten additional songs that had been left on the cutting room floor. Then the news came out that many of the tracks were left unfinished. Some had no lyrics, some were missing crucial elements (like lead guitar). The decision the Stones made to go in and write new lyrics, add new vocals, and new overdubs was greeted with a great deal of skepticism.

Turns out, there was no need for skepticism.

I’m not going to parse what’s “authentic” and what’s not on the bonus tracks. As a whole, they’re excellent whether the vocal was done in 1972 or 2009. To my ears, they all sound like they’ve been mastered using modern technology, and Jagger’s vocals on the unheard material sounds suspiciously like it’s a more recent vintage…but they’re still the best vocals he’s laid down in ages. From a sonic perspective, the unreleased songs sound brighter and cleaner than Exile‘s famous murkiness, but that’s not really a drawback.

“Pass The Wine (Sophia Loren)” has a killer harmonica solo and the soul sister backing vocals that highlighted many of the Exile tracks, but in some ways it sounds to me more like a Goat’s Head Soup outtake overdubbed to sound like Exile. All the same, while it’s not of the same quality as songs like “Tumbling Dice” or “Loving Cup,” it blends in nicely with those songs, carrying a similar groove and vibe.

The second track, and single release, is “Plundered My Soul,” which features newly overdubbed guitar from Mick Taylor, who was invited back to put his special touch on the song. It was a wise choice. Taylor was the best guitarist the Stones ever had, and his distinctive blues picking is a pleasure to hear after so many years of the Keith Richards/Ronnie Wood rhythmic “art of weaving.” The vocal sounds suspiciously recent, but it’s excellent. It’s a fantastic track that gets better with each listen and the best single the Stones have released since God knows when. Maybe since “Tumbling Dice.” It’s the kind of song that’s easy to imagine blasting out of a portable transistor radio in a 1970s summer and if there were any justice in the world it would be a lot more successful than the latest single by the chart toppers of 2010.

“I’m Not Signifying” slows it down with a great boogie piano worthy of Johnnie Johnson. Jagger’s vocal is slurred and thick, and Charlie Watts rides the beat like a demon. The drums on these tracks are apparently the only instrument that didn’t need any touch up…they were perfect as is. Just more proof that Charlie Watts is a human drum machine. This track is the one that sounds most like a finished song from 1972, and it’s easy to picture it on the album in place of a similar song like “Hip Shake” or “Casino Boogie.” It’s probably why the song was left off the album, because there were other, better, songs of the same style.

Jagger did record brand new vocals and lyrics for “Following The River,” a gospel-infused piano ballad in the style of “Shine A Light.” Recent vocal or not, this is a gem with a sweet and simple backing vocal that sounds like a church choir, and a rousing chorus. If it’s not Nicky Hopkins on the piano it should be. If it is, isn’t it about time someone inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman? The guy was brilliant.

“Dancing In The Light” is another diamond in this rough patch. The elegant country-style guitar picking suggests Mick Taylor and Jagger’s vocal sounds young and strong. Once again, there’s great piano (truly the underrated star of Exile) and the vibe of the song is that of a band that is loose-limbed and having the time of their lives.

A lightly picked guitar that sounds like it’s trying to play the sitar part of “Paint It Black” kicks off “So Divine (Aladdin Story).” It’s another song that sounds like it was mostly figured out in 1972, and features one of the catchiest choruses the Stones have ever done. The ghostly vibes that underpin the melody add a depth to the sound and elevate the song into the realm of the other great tracks from the album.

The next three tracks are alternate versions of Exile tracks. “Loving Cup” is a very different version, slowed down to a crawl. It’s a great curiosity, but inferior to the version used on the album. In his Rolling Stone review of the album, the normally pretty sensible David Fricke wrote:

The highlight of the bonuses is a striking variation on the closer, “Soul Survivor,” sung by Richards instead of Jagger in an enraged bray, as if the guitarist just got up from a vicious beating. I would gladly pay extra to hear a tape of the two debating which version to use.

Frankly this just proves that Fricke was either wasted when he wrote the review or he’s listening to something that I’m not. The Keith Richards vocal on “Soul Survivor” is simply an extemporaneous guide vocal with made up lyrics that are slurred or mumbled deep in the mix. This is not the highlight, David. This is just a rough run through of the song with junk words that were made up on the spot (“I may be a fool/You have my tool…My big blind eye/My swollen nose/Every time she walks by”). Absolutely nothing special here, and I’m sure the “debate over which version to use” lasted approximately one second.

“Good Time Women” dates back to 1969 but is included here because it’s an early version of “Tumbling Dice.” The song’s not there yet, so there’s no surprise it wasn’t used on either Let It Bleed or Sticky Fingers. Most of the lyrics are entirely different and the song sounds like a rehearsal and not a finished track (probably for a pretty good reason). There’s a similarity in the melody to the Exile track, but the track necessarily suffers in comparison to the classic Stones song. It’s very good, and probably better if you’ve never heard “Tumbling Dice,” but it also comes under that heading of “interesting curiosity.”

The last track is a throwaway, a brief instrumental that sounds like nothing more than a loose jam. The song is so unfinished it doesn’t have a real title other than “Title 5.” Still, it’s a good little jam and not a bad way to end the disc of bonus tracks.

As ten songs left over from Exile, the second disc is an excellent addition. As ten Stones songs you’re probably not familiar with, it’s the best album they’ve released in years.

Grade: A

The review of the album Exile On Main St. is here.

The Rolling Stones: Exile On Main St.

Exile On Main StreetAfter the triumph of the career- and era-defining Sticky Fingers, there was only one way to go. Simply put, you don’t put out a better album than Sticky Fingers. Unless, of course, you’re the Rolling Stones at their peak, in which case you put out a double album that transcends pretty much every album you’ve ever made and almost every rock album made by anyone else, as well. Exile On Main St. is that album.

There’s an enormous amount of mythology wrapped up in the making of Exile. The bare bones of the myth is that the Stones left England to escape onerous taxation, and they set up shop in a mansion in France. Drunk, high, and decadent, they recorded Exile in the basement of the mansion. That’s partially true. They did leave England for tax reasons, and much of Exile was recorded in the basement of Keith Richards’ villa at Nellcôte. There was also an enormous amount of drugs and decadence going around. But the Stones were not sharing a house, and an enormous amount of the final record was recorded, overdubbed, mixed, and mastered in the decidedly less glamorous world of Los Angeles.

With Exile, the mythology of the making of the album is inextricably linked to the final product. The myth of the Stones endlessly working out these songs as a tight five-piece unit in the basement of a French villa, swigging whiskey straight from the bottle, is so evocative because that’s exactly how the album sounds like it should have been recorded. Los Angeles or not, there’s a lot of “basement” vibe on the album. It’s murky, sludgy, dark, and dank. As a recording, it leaves a lot to be desired. As a rock album, it’s one of the best ever made, a collection that isn’t flawless but whose greatness towers above almost every other album of the rock era. There are some artists that have put out albums as good or better, but those albums are few and far between and the artists are the titans of the music business: The Beatles, The Who, Bob Dylan. And even their best only shares the rarefied air of Exile On Main St.

In order to get to the music, one must first get past the artwork that adorns the sleeve. Outside, a collection of photographs of freaks, geeks, and sideshow attractions with the name of the band and the album titled scrawled in what looks like lipstick adorn the front cover while similar photos of the band are on the back. Inside, pictures of the band and scrawled slogans that would turn up, sometimes modified, as lyrics: “I gave you diamonds. You gave me disease.” “Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes.” Mick Jagger stands coyly in front of a movie poster for an X-rated film, a poster that contains a small and very explicit photograph if you look closely enough. The inner sleeves of the album contain more photos, many of them duplicated like a negative of a film roll (the still photos were taken from a film shot by the photographer). The song titles are scrawled with partial information about who plays what instruments. The original version of the album contained 12 inscrutable postcards. All photos in black and white or with a slight color tint. The Stones clearly had gone all out on the packaging, and the cover and sleeves were a perfect manifestation of the music: there is so much going on in the cover it’s hard to know where to look (although almost everyone seems fascinated with the one photo of the man with three oranges in his mouth).

The cover was dark and strange, and the music offered no comfort. Over the course of 18 songs, the Stones take the listener on a tour of the dark underbelly of American music, from Delta blues (a ripping cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down”) to a Southern Gothic gospel (“Shine A Light,” “Just Wanna See His Face”) to true country music (“Sweet Virginia,” “Torn and Frayed”) to barn-busting rock (“Rip This Joint,” “Rocks Off,” “Happy”). Exile, in essence, is a roots album. Unlike, say, Stephen Stills’s similar Manassas album that explored the different types of American music over its four sides, everything on Exile comes out sounding like the work of a band that had so completely absorbed their influences that they have become second nature. “Sweet Virginia” is both 100% American country music and 100% English bad-boy blues rock. It’s a pretty neat trick when you get right down to it, one that few bands have ever replicated and one which the Stones themselves were never able to do again.

There are several hard-charging rock and roll songs on the album. Side one boasts “Rocks Off,” the fearsome ode to the sex and drugs lifestyle being lived on the French Riviera, as well as the souped-up Little Richard blast of “Rip This Joint,” the fastest song in the band’s repertoire to this day. Side three begins with the greatest Keith Richards-led moment in the band’s career, the driving “Happy,” which Richards sings as if his heart was going to explode. In the long, storied life of Keith Richards, “Happy” remains his defining moment: three minutes of sheer exuberance, conceited boasting, and wistful loneliness. The verses of braggadocio and jaded living (“Always took candy from strangers…Never wanna be like papa/Workin’ for the boss…Never got a lift out of Lear jets…”) end in the desperate chorus of “I need a love to keep me happy/Baby, won’t you keep me happy?” This is Keith’s moment to shine on Exile, and shine brightly he does.

Then there is one of Exile‘s most overlooked tracks, “Turd On The Run.” The song will never be played on the radio because of the title alone and it is one of the Stones songs that’s known only to purists and hardcore fans. Musically, it’s essentially a rewrite of “Rip This Joint,” but the lyrics are some of the nastiest that ever came from Jagger’s pen. A tale of obsession and lost love that turns into a wicked revenge story, the lyrics are Jagger at his most sinister. The sex-crazed predator of underage girls from “Stray Cat Blues” and the demonic narrator of “Sympathy For The Devil” merge together as Jagger recounts the time and energy and love he “lost,” becoming increasingly bitter (“Diamond rings, vaseline/You give me disease”) before concluding with a bold threat (“Tie your hands/Tie your feet/Throw you to the sharks/Make you sweat/Make you scream/Make you wish you’d never been.”)

But Exile would probably not have the grand reputation it enjoys today if it were nothing but hard-driving rock tunes. Side two, boasting “Sweet Virginia,” “Torn and Frayed,” “Sweet Black Angel,” and the epic “Loving Cup” is dripping with country elements, from the drunken sing along of “Virginia” to the magisterial pedal steel of “Frayed,” to the acoustic jam of “Angel.” “Loving Cup” is a perfect synthesis of rock ballad, grand piano, and country drinking song. “Gimme little drink! From your loving cup,” drawls Jagger, but the jokey nature of the chorus is undermined by the beauty of the verses and, especially, the bridge where Jagger claims to be “humbled with you tonight/Just sitting by the fire…what a beautiful buzz.” The verses are sweetness and romanticism; the chorus, a good time drinking tune. On paper, it shouldn’t work. On record, it works beautifully. “Loving Cup” is one of the greatest of all Stones songs, mired in the obscurity of being an album track on a densely packed record that most fans of the band in this day and age have probably never heard.

The blues gets its due on Exile, of course. “Stop Breaking Down” has a loose, jammy feel of a well-rehearsed band breaking out a song they all know and love. There’s also a cover of Slim Harpo’s “Hip Shake,” retitled “Shake Your Hips” and an ode to the overheated, stuffy basement at Nellcôte entitled “Ventilator Blues,” the only song in the Stones canon that carries an official co-writing credit for guitar ace Mick Taylor. There’s really nothing all that special about these latter two songs, nor is “Casino Boogie,” the other blues-oriented song from side one, anything to write home about. None of these songs are bad, but they also don’t stand up outside of the context of this messy, sprawling album.

The same is true, in spades, of “I Just Wanna See His Face.” It’s an odd quasi-instrumental jam with extemporaneous lyrics from Jagger about Jesus. Overdubbed backing vocals from Clydie King, Vanetta Fields, Jerry Kirkland add a hint of gospel music, but the song sounds like it belongs on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. As a song, it’s really nothing, yet to my ears it’s crucial to the fabric of Exile. Without it, Exile would be lessened in much the same way that the White Album would suffer if it were to lose throwaways like “Wild Honey Pie” and “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road”. More serious attempts at a gospel vibe are made in “Let It Loose” and “Shine A Light” which both rank in the top-tier of Stones recordings. The songs rock with a steady assurance and a confidence that borders on obscene, but the instrumentation and vocals, particularly the backing vocals, are lifted straight from the churches of the American South.

The remaining tracks also represent the cream of the crop from the Stones. “All Down The Line” and “Soul Survivor” are blistering rockers that bookend side four of the record. “All Down The Line” still gets performed today by the band, despite the fact that it was never a hit and the Stones are nothing if not a traveling greatest hits show when they tour. “Soul Survivor” has a riff so good that it was stolen by Slash for his work on Michael Jackson’s hit single, “Black Or White.” It was also stolen by the Stones themselves, when they reused it in 1983 for “It Must Be Hell.”

Which leaves “Tumbling Dice.” Many critics claim that this is the best song the Stones have ever done. Along with “Happy” it’s the only song from Exile that has managed to achieve “classic” status. It was a Top 10 single in the States, peaking at #7, but it has managed to seep into the consciousness of Stones fans everywhere. It’s a slow, languid groove featuring some incredible guitar from Keith Richards, a seamless merge of Charlie Watts and Jim Miller on drums, and a slow, almost lazy vocal from Jagger that nonetheless manages to perfectly match up with the lyrics. “Tumbling Dice” is the sound of the Rolling Stones and the American blues becoming one and the same.

Exile on Main St. is the Grand Finale of the Rolling Stones. They would release many more albums, some of which were very good, but they would never again climb to these heights. It’s probably not even possible to do. As such, much of their later work suffers for the sole reason that it is compared to Exile, which is unfair. For this reason, Exile stands at the peak of 1970s rock music, yet is also an albatross over the career of the band that made it. It’s no surprise that Mick Jagger is ambivalent about the quality of the album, complaining that it doesn’t sound good and that the mix is terrible. It’s a natural reaction to being told that everything you’ve done for the past 38 years doesn’t match up to what you did back then. But the fact is simply this: Mick Jagger’s denunciations of the album and his confusion about its popularity are just plain wrong.

Grade: A+

Exile has recently been re-released in a deluxe edition with ten extra tracks. These are reviewed separately.