Rolling Stones – Undercover | Review


Undercover album cover

Rolling StonesUndercover Rolling Stones Records 90120-1 (1983)

The Stones’ first studio album after the surprisingly excellent Tattoo You comes across as one of the last times they were writing stuff that they seemed genuinely interested in, however odd that stuff may be.  Richards’ guitar draws on Chuck Berry influences.  Jagger’s lyrics are at their seediest.  The title track opener is pretty strong, sounding of the time and of a piece with the band’s history without succumbing to pointless studio fads and without becoming mired in nostalgia.  No, there aren’t any canonized hits here.  But the album as a whole avoids any major missteps and is listenable top to bottom.  While a step down from Tattoo You, this is still a middle-tier Stones full-length—better than truly bottom-tier albums like Goats Head Soup and much of what came later in the 80s, 90s, and beyond.

The band was clearly losing touch with ordinary folks but here that very fact comes through, which makes that trend less jarring than in the coming years. “Too Much Blood” finds Jagger writing about a murder and decapitation and also how he doesn’t like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  But it’s like the way people “reply all” to email flame wars to ask others not to reply all, or that old saying about how the censor shouts aloud what he seeks to suppress…it is self-defeating and contradictory to write and record a song about there being too much glorification of violence while at the same time doing it too!

There are backing horns in places.  Sometimes it comes across like conventional rock saxophone.  But at times (the end of “Too Much Blood”), somewhat down in the mix, you can hear wailing free-jazz style sax and that is intriguing.  There is also another attempt to fuse blues rock with dub reggae (“Feel on Baby”), which seem like absorbing fads in the absence of anything of their own to offer, but it is inoffensive.

“Too Tough” is a flawed but still worthwhile song.  The melody is catchy enough.  The lyrics, though, are not all the way there.  They range from nuggets of hard-bitten wisdom to stuff that is just skeezy.  With some lyrical revisions it might have been a top-shelf Stones song.

The Rolling Stones – It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll

It's Only Rock 'n' Roll

The Rolling StonesIt’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Rolling Stones Records COC 59103 (1974)

A step up from Goats Head Soup, but still well short of the best Stones albums.  The title track is great, and some of the later throwaway songs (“Time Waits for No One,” “Luxury,” “Dance Little Sister”) still have a catchy quality to them.  But on the minus side, some forced and vapid songwriting (“Till the Next Goodbye,” “If You Really Want to Be My Friend,” “Fingerprint File”) can really drag.  There is a dull cover of a great Temptations song (“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”).  In a way, this could be seen as the Stones following the pattern of their early-60s albums just updated with mid-70s studio gimmickry.

The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers

Sticky Fingers

The Rolling StonesSticky Fingers Rolling Stones Records COC 59100 (1971)

I always find it annoying that people never recognize how weak the middle of this album is.  The strained guitar solo on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and the pathetic attempts at delta blues on “You Gotta Move” and “I Got the Blues” (which pale compared to the Stones’ stuff back around ’65) come to mind.  Still, the two ends more than make up for that. Apart from the hits, be sure to take in Paul Buckmaster‘s arrangements that brilliantly complete the last bit of the record. Not to mention that “Dead Flowers” is probably the most romantic, the most pained, the most hopeful, the most dedicated, the most sincere, the most beautiful country song ever written.  What keeps the album so very good is the general weariness which precludes the easy ways out, keeping the Stones attentive, more or less.  They are sensitive and without comfort.  Restless as if there is no rest for them, at least not the kind of rest that would satisfy them. The high points on this eclectic disc are about as high as the Stones got.

The Rolling Stones – Emotional Rescue

Emotional Rescue

The Rolling StonesEmotional Rescue Rolling Stones Records CUN 39111 (1980)

Like Black and Blue, this is one of those Stones albums that lacks any certifiable “hits” but is nonetheless pretty decent all the way through, for the most part.  It’s rather light fare, vaguely bluesy rock with little undercurrents of disco, ska/reggae, and punk circulating throughout.  Probably not the first Stones album that comes to mind and yet this has to be near the top of the second tier in their catalog.  I do rather like “Let Me Go” and “Dance (Part 1).”  This one has grown on me through the years and it is one of the better later period Stones albums.  Oh, why not say it, “Let Me Go” deserves to be considered up their with the band’s best songs too.

The Rolling Stones – Tattoo You

Tattoo You

The Rolling StonesTattoo You Rolling Stones Records CUN 39114 (1981)

Wait, what??? Where did this album come from?  Where did it come from??  The Stones ditched the attempts to sound contemporary of Black and Blue, Some Girls and Emotional Rescue in favor of something a bit more in line with what they had been doing ten years earlier.  Yeah, strangely enough it works.  What’s more, the ballads and slower material of side two are about as strong as the rockers on side one.  A weird anomaly and really the last time The Rolling Stones sounded like they had anything worthwhile to offer.

The Rolling Stones – Black and Blue

Black and Blue

The Rolling StonesBlack and Blue Rolling Stones Records COC 59106 (1976)

Black and Blue is something of the black sheep of 1970s Stones albums.  There are no classic tunes to be found, and the songwriting in general just doesn’t impress.  Yet, there is something to say about these simplistic yet gritty jams.  Iggy Pop once gave an interview where he commented about his own most recent record being stupid rock music and sometimes you just need stupid rock music.  Well, Black and Blue is precisely that kind of stupid rock music!  The jams are often quite danceable, especially those with a disco flavor, and work out all right with the help of a rotating cast of guitarists.  This one plays best as mood music, background music.  If that’s not what you want, it’s time to look elsewhere.  You wouldn’t even have to look far, because two years later Some Girls took the stylistically varied approach of this album and combined it with more focused songwriting to generally more acclaim.

The Rolling Stones – Their Satanic Majesties Request

Their Satanic Majesties Request

The Rolling StonesTheir Satanic Majesties Request Decca TXS 103 (1967)

The Rolling Stones made one out-and-out psychedelic album. It was Satanic Majesties. The record is a non-stop creative journey. While perhaps the most idealistic Stones album, Satanic Majesties also has a gritty, cynical realism just under the surface. Somehow this lends power to the dreamy psychedelia. It makes the music more legitimate. The uplifting qualities aren’t escapist.

“She’s A Rainbow” is such a wonderful song. It opens with an electronic and found sound segment before leading into sweet piano melody. John Paul Jones (future Led Zeppelin) provided string arrangements. While there is a lot of effort to organize the music, this is still more instinctual than perfectionist. It feels so natural. Even the eeriness seems to belong where it is. The array of instruments used, from horns to a xylophone, make songs like “Sing This All Together” vibrant. Each little sound contributes something unique.

Two more of the very best songs are “2000 Man” and “2000 Light Years from Home.” The disillusionment and desire of “2000 Man” make quite a potion. The acoustic guitar seems to merge with the sitar. I sometimes think it is a song about a homosexual in a heterosexual marriage, but I see that as only one of many interpretations. It also is about modern alienation and the desire to cure intractable loneliness. The spooky “2000 Light Years from Home” has a Moog synthesizer slinking along a rather hip rhythm.

“Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” tends to get a critical thrashing, but this is unfair. This post-modern sound collage went down before Captain Beefheart, Funkadelic, Miles Davis or just about anyone else in rock, pop or jazz dared actually try such a thing–though The Mothers of Invention did some similar things around the same time.

“Citadel” is a rocking song about New York City. Jagger throws in some references to some locals including Candy Darling (also the subject of The Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says”).

“Gomper” and “In Another Land” tend to wander a bit, though they still are for the most part good songs if taken on their own terms.

People tend to dismiss this album as a failed attempt to match The BeatlesSergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  I have never been convinced Sergeant Pepper’s is so great an album, even if it has a few great songs.  But more to the point, this album is more like Pink Floyd‘s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn than Sergeant Pepper’s anyway.  In any event, Satanic Majesties is a wildly unique, modern and enjoyable album–not just among Stones albums.  I start listening to it to try to entertain myself but then I always go further and open my mind to new ways of hearing and thinking.

The Rolling Stones – Goats Head Soup

Goats Head Soup

The Rolling StonesGoats Head Soup Rolling Stones Records COC 59101 (1973)

After the artistic triumph, and commercial failure, of Exile on Main St., The Rolling Stones brought forth the thoroughly mediocre Goats Head Soup.  It is essentially an entire album filler (though “Dancing With Mr. D.” is at least good quality filler; it would have fit on Let It Bleed).  “Angie” shows up on some best-of compilations though it is a very weak song.  On many of the songs the guitar solos seem downright lazy.  This was their worst studio effort so far by quite a large margin.  It rocks about as hard as gym class, and the songwriting flirts with inspiration only on a momentary basis.  Mostly this feels as contrived and inauthentic as a political photo op.  Sorry sports fans, but this set the stage for a lot of what came later.