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The Stones in 1978 by Robert Christgau
Posted by: SwayStones ()
Date: March 18, 2009 14:55

Village Voice, July 10, 1978

Some guys,The Rolling Stones.

This hasn't been the best of decades for the Rolling Stones. Sure they've secured their once-controversial reputation as the greatest rock and roll band of all time-forming their own label, touring, triumphantly, even recording what many (including me) consider their greatest album, Exile on Main Street. Nevertheless, they've been going downhill for five or six years now, and despite reassurances from the big media and the balance sheet, they're worried. The mortality that haunts a former youth music is doubly dire for a narcissist like Mick, and even a cynic like Mick must entertain second thoughts about the company he's kept since hooking up with Ahmet and Bianca. If you play with decadence long enough, you start to decay--or at least your brain softens. When Jagger admitted to Jonathan Cott in Rolling Stone that recent Stones albums have "lacked direction," that's presumably what he meant.

On the other hand, maybe he just didn't want to come out and say they were shitty. After all, Goat's Head Soup and It's Only Rock 'n Roll were not without redeeming cuts, even if these sound quite quirkish now, and while the dense rhythmic textures of Black and Blue haven't led anywhere, they were interesting enough in themselves. Last year's live album had its defenders, too. For me, though, Love You Live was where the Stones came audibly apart, starting with the very first bars--which happened to be from Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, better than Zarathrustra but not by much. This was lazy, unfocussed, desperately mannered music that like all arena rock attempted to make up in obvious gestures what it lacked in subtlety and feeling. The band itself was okay, despite occasional intrusions by Billy Preston and the inability of Ron Wood to fill solo space designed for the more accomplished if less personable Mick Taylor. But the old material sounded old and the new material sounded bad. There were no alternate arrangements that equaled, say, "Live with Me" on Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! And for the most part Jagger was a disgrace. Once his slurs had teased, made jokes, held out double meanings; now his refusal to pronounce final dentals--the "good" and "should" of "Brown Sugar," for example--conveyed bored, arrogant indolence, as if he couldn't be bothered hoisting his tongue to the roof of his mouth. His cries of "oo-oo-oo" and "awri-i" were self-parody without humor. This was an entertainer doing a job that just didn't get him off the way it once had, a job that got harder every time out.

Add to this dispassionate aesthetic judgment Mick's gossip-column activities and the explosion of young bands playing real rock and roll and you will understand why I didn't start marking up my calendar when the Stones announced a summer tour. A round of profit-taking just in case Keith got sent up for heroin, that was the way I figured it. Nor did I expect much of the accompanying album, not even after "Miss You" turned out to be one of those "Angie"-type slow songs that have been a strength of the mature Stones, and not even after the slow song proved fast enough to spawn a convincing 8:36-minute disco disc. The flip, after all, was Mick doping one of his hyper-conscious ethnic comedy routines, drawling on about "far away eyes" in an ignorant English takeoff on a Bakersfield redneck. This was before Jagger and Cott's searching, playful conversation was published, and I associated "Far Away Eyes" with a less savory interchange between Jagger and Jim Jerome of People. In the Jerome interview, done around the time Love You Live was released but only printed in last month's Oui, Jagger, drunk on sake, shifted emphases and accents and personas in a whirlpool of put-ons. This was the terminal irony of someone who had lost hold of his own cynicism, someone who'd been projecting images of self-knowledge/self-doubt for so long that the self itself had finally slipped away.

I got the new Stones album on a deadline Monday that left me so bushed I put on side two first, which is against my religion. The first cut was "Far Away Eyes," and as I lay there in a mild natural stupor I noticed that I liked it. I could hear Gram Parsons effects applied to Jagger's redneck protagonist, a gently waggish character gently conceived; there with humor in the sung, lyric chorus and pathos in the spoken, parodic verse. Then came "Respectable," the likes of which the Stones hadn't attempted since Between the Buttons, and a mournful Keith Richard feature that was almost as fast as "Happy," and a slower one that pleased even if it didn't impress, and an impressive riff song with a throwaway melody and a lot of funny throwaway rhymes about New York City. My God--I'd enjoyed every cut. I raised myself from the couch and turned the record over right away. After a hard day at the office, this is also against my religion.

I liked side one less--didn't think the mock stereotyping of "Some Girls," the album's signature piece, was funny or entirely mock--and found myself playing both sides all the time. It had been quite a while since a new record had cut so deeply into my professional listening time. I began to pay attention to rumors of local stops on a tour that wasn't scheduled to come closer than Philadelphia. But I didn't pursue them too hard. Whether these theatre gigs were strictly for the fans, as the Stones' friends reported, or strictly for the in crowd, as their enemies charged, I figured I'd get in without being pushy or I wouldn't get in at all. For the Ramones at CBGB or the 1976 World Series I have pulled rank and slept on line and contended with my fellow mob. But though I loved Some Girls--by then I was forcing my friends to sit there and listen, which hadn't happened with a Stones album since Let It Bleed--the memory that lingered from 1975 was of Mick scampering desperately up and down a malfunctioning stage ramp at the Garden, reduced from the epitome of live rock and roll to a fading decathlon champion who communicated by semaphore.

Nevertheless, something was going on here--the third week of June was upon me and my thoughts were not turning to Tom Robinson. Robinson's album, Power in the Darkness, was one of the competent-to-good musical endeavors Some Girls had displaced, but with an interview on tap I began playing it again. As product, it exemplified Robinson's penchant for good works, for in addition to a full 10-song LP it included a seven-song bonus record comprising "2-4-6-8 Motorway," TRB-Rising Free, and two B sides. "Glad To Be Gay," "2-4-6-8," and a music-hall number called "Martin"--about the rewards and ambiguities of male-to-male friendship--was each flat-out wonderful in its own way, and "Winter of '79" was in a league with "For What It's Worth," only much less coy. But musically the songs were rather foursquare, not clever enough for catchy pop nor unrelenting enough for hard rock, and Danny Kustow's guitar breaks sold even the guitar-break crowd short. The lyrics were foursquare, too, programmatic and preachy at their occasional worst and rarely suggesting that politics involves internal contradictions as well as oppression. Would the Clash or Arlo Guthrie ever dare simple-mindedness on the order of "If left is right then right it wrong/You'd better decide what side you're on"? Not in the world you and me live in.

Strangely enough, the person who complains hardest about that particular offense to reason is Robinson himself. This was a man who welcomed feminist complaints about condescension in "Right On Sister" out of sheer dialectical principle; his politics were so good he'd even outline his own limitations for you. Like me, he wondered in retrospect whether it wouldn't have been wiser to hold off "2-4-6-8" until a core audience had been consolidated, than take the world with a hit. And like anyone with a pinch of sense, he was of several minds about political songwriting, so that the usual conundrums lurked behind most of what we said: What's more important, to describe what you know or inspire effective action? Is it possible to inspire genuinely effective action if you write around the messier parts of what you know? Is it possible for a musician to inspire action in any case?

Robinson realizes that all he can achieve is bits of input, but he's also aware that bits add up, which is better than subtracting. He's proud of the huge Rock Against Racism rally that preceded electoral setbacks for the National Front, and humble about how hard it will be to organize against the more insidious reaction of the good old Conservative Party. So he remains of several minds. He regards "Winter of '79"--in which the epochal repression of that season is recalled from some further future as a hard but by no means (compare David Bowie, Black Sabbath) decisive or apocalyptic piece of history: politics is struggle, life continues--as his most satisfactory song. He hopes to write others of comparable complexity. But he doesn't want to go too far: "You become impotent as a songwriter, because you can't say anything clearly any more if you disappear up your own @#$%& worrying about it."

That was Tuesday. On Wednesday the Stones' p.r. people proffered one ticket for the Capitol in Passaic that night, and I stood up my wife to go. The show, scheduled to begin at 8, didn't go on until after 9, and I whiled away the interlude asking people how they'd come by their seats. I'd heard that many tickets had been sold in local bars and record stores, but, aside from the two guys whose buddy had happened to be in the Harmony Hut in Wayne when the sign went up, talked to no one who'd gotten in that way. Instead I found employees of Sound companies and college booking agencies, a mechanic at the Passaic police station, two kids who'd gotten theirs from a friend arrested on a drug charge, someone whose brother was "a big wheel," someone else who'd scalped an upfront pair from a ticket agent for "over $200," quite a few sticklers for reportorial courtesy, and record-bizzers @#$%& galore. The place was like a convention. I wouldn't say these weren't Rolling Stones fans, but I'd guess that their zeal was at least as questionable as mine and that, like me, many of the most zealous had been overexposed to live music. I had joined the in crowd at last, yet somehow I didn't feel honored.

Etta James's apologetic set did not improve my mood, and when the Stones opened with "Let It Rock" my ass was willing but my spirit weak. I stood because everyone was standing, and averted my eyes as Mick thrashed about in frenzied simulated stimulation. But I was sustained by the sight of sixth Stone lan Stewart bashing his piano and re-bop king Charlie Watts beating his drums. Captured by Stewart's Johnnie Johnson barrelhouse riffs, I entertained my first doubts about the hardnosed media smarts that forced the blokeish-looking pianist to the sidelines of the group in 1963; analyzing Watts's driving, jazz-derived figures, I recognized my prejudices against swing in rock and roll. Listening to the music through those two guys was like discovering the two artisans who'd really put the cathedral together, and had Bill Wyman been better mixed, I'm sure he would have made three.

Cynics claim, no doubt with some justice, that the tour is basically high-powered promo for the new product, and for that I soon became grateful. Somewhat sick at heart, I had continued to contemplate lan and Charlie through "All Down the Line" and "Honky Tonk Women" and "@#$%&," the throwaway rocker that survives as the most standard Stones standard since Exile, and which dropped the Passaic onlookers to their seats. But on the first song from Some Girls, "When the Whip Comes Down," the music lost its mechanical aura--through the next eight selections, seven more from Some Girls plus "Love in Vain," it gathered power and conviction. Suddenly Jagger seemed interested in what he was doing. It would be going too far to call it sincerity, but there was an ingenuous enthusiasm to his performance that I'd previously encountered only in a callower version on the early albums. By omitting "Some Girls," the one new lyric that demands an "ironic" reading, he remained consistent, projecting both anger and vulnerability with gratifying immediacy. Equally important, the guitar that he played on most of these songs contained him physically, kept his hands occupied so that he couldn't go looking for trouble while the band played on. Instead, his restless intensity was channeled through his vocal cords. At least on the new songs, the Stones were doing something new.

Carried forward on this music, I rose with the crowd for a raucous "Sweet Little Sixteen" and was content to stay up through "Tumbling Dice" (although Mick was no Linda), Happy" (although Keith was no Keith), "Brown Sugar" (vaguely offputting), and "Jumping Jack Flash" (a proper climax). The only major disappointment was the mumbled lyric on "Street Fighting Man," the encore, and while I stick with the judgment I returned to jealous acquaintances--"quite good"--I will add that this was the most revelatory of the eight Stones concerts I've seen.

Granted that I preferred, the audience at the Palladium gig of five nights later--although a good many extra tickets from the WNEW postcard lottery were scalped by amateurs for a less than shocking median price of $40, at least they were scalped on the street to other amateurs. But perhaps because I was put in the loge with the goddam in crowd (Walter Becker left early, as did Hall, or was that Oates?; Paul McCartney stayed), not even my wife, who spent most of the concert diddybopping in the aisles, could make the show new for me the way the first one had been. The high spot actually preceded the Stones' set, when Mick did a dancey duet with new Rolling Stones Records signee Peter Tosh on the Temptations' "Don't Look Back," and I didn't get it when Jagger started waving his cock through his polyurethane pants--with both hands yet, what showmanship. Anyway, the third time through any set, drawbacks begin to come clear.

The second time had been Saturday at JFK Memorial Stadium in Philadelphia along with some 100,000 definitively amateur fans. My side location was about as far from the stage as the deepest reaches of Madison Square Garden, and a good half of the crowd was even worse off. I'm informed that the sound was quite adequate 40 yards downfield from the music, but where I was it was barely loud enough to qualify as rock and roll. Mick was once again held in check by the guitar, and the relative wit and elegance of his most hyperkinetic moves was put in perspective by the dull attitudinizing of Lou Gramm of Foreigner, the opener. This didn't matter much, though, and if it's true that Mick was feverish and off form that day, that doesn't matter either. Rock and roll can't be perceived through binoculars. The crowd was up well past "@#$%&" anyway, but they seemed to be flying on automatic pilot.

Meanwhile, the big rock and roll event of the third week of June proceeded apace, with WNEW preparing to broadcast Robinson's Thursday Bottom Line debut even as it cut of its deal for the Stones tix. That night the club was jammed to the aisles with a crowd that was above all . . . straight, in the nonsexual sense. Even the record-bizzers were minimally flashy, and they fit right in with gays who were neither glitter queens nor shorthaired neatnicks and punks with nostrils and brain pans intact and (I'm guessing) politicos who looked like schoolteachers and, of course, real people. Despite his sly, cheery, winning stage manner, Robinson couldn't conceal his nervousness. But this crowd didn't care. They hailed one protest song after another, and nearly went berserk when Robinson paid his respects to geography by substituting "New York police" for "British police" in the first line of "Glad To Be Gay." Nor were the record pros less enthusiastic the than their fellow fans--I've heard lots of corporate applause, and this was different.

All this surprised me a little, especially the biz part, because my experience of bizzers is that their politics stop at the door to the a&r department. The rationalization, I'm sure, was that TRB is good old commercial rock and roll; as WNEW's Richard Near assured a his listeners, "This is not political--it's a musical trip." But this time I think the realist was Vln Scelsa, who introduced Robinson with some heartfelt praise for songs about things that mattered, an approbation I'm certain this audience shared. For the pros, it was enough that (unlike the punks) Robinson espoused the principles of music that sells, even if there was only one "2-4-6-8" in his kit so far. Given that orthodoxy, their passion was inflamed by his desire to change the world. Maybe they were feeling scared, maybe they were feeling guilty, maybe they were feeling nostalgic for their own idealism, or maybe they had never abandoned that idealism, but they wanted to help change the world.

Good for them. and so do I. Nevertheless, I couldn't escape the feeling that, spiritually, Tom Robinson was an exceptionally hard-rocking folkie. No matter what his principle, the words took priority. This wasn't necessarily because the musical talent wasn't there--the key was that the band's conceptual inspiration was fundamentally verbal. Of course, the same was true of Elvis Costello less than a year ago, before the Attractions--a band identical in lineup and basic an attack to the TRB--took over his soul. Maybe Robinson's new keyboard man, Nick Plytas, a veteran of a worthy post-pub group called Roogalator, can work a similar conversion, get something more explosive than those arbitrary rolls out of Dolpin Taylor and spur Danny Kustow to find licks as funny and sharp and spontaneous as his tough-guy stage poses. Robinson's got reason to believe.

Which leads us to the question: What was the big rock and roll event of the third week of June? My surprise answer: There were two. For music, Television at the Bottom Line Sunday, first set. Ficca and Smith are hardly Watts and Wyman, and Tom Verlaine is worlds from the singer Jagger can be--at the Palladium, the emotional twists from "Love in Vain" to "Beast of Burden" (that slower one that didn't impress me) to "Shattered" took on a resonance and directness that up to now Jagger has barely played with. But Television's syntheses promise a future the Stones can no longer imagine, and when their music comes together they're more exciting than the Stones, not only in theory but in the physical/psychological fact. For culture, though, I'll take the last four songs by Bob Marley at the Garden the following Saturday. It took us so long to escape the Stones' scene in Philly that four songs was all we caught, but maybe it was better that way, because it thrust us into the middle of a sweaty revelry that the most passionate Rock Against Racism event would be hard-pressed to approach. Not that swaying to "Kaya" will end war in Babylon--or begin it, if that's your analysis. But the biracial spontaneity of the crowd was a political event in itself.

The Stones and the TRB, however, also left me with wonderful memories, some of them preserved on plastic.

In the end, I didn't think the musical gains of the two Stones theatre concerts I saw justified their exclusivity, especially if debacles like Philadelphia are part of the deal. Better they should do like Bob Marley and settle for the Garden. But at least temporarily they seem to have sensed that irony is a perilous mode in this bitter time. It's significant, too, that they're not trying to write songs that will trigger new jumping-jack climaxes, because that mode seems less and less natural for them as well. There is a wonderful looseness to Some Girls that redeems (perhaps even requires) its sloppy solos and half-finished lyrics. The Stones aren't going to change the world any more, not even unintentionally, but at least they prove that a bunch of old pros can have fun. The TRB have their own future. After their show I went home to find words for the B plus I was finally convinced their album deserved. To my amazement, one song after another began to kick in for the first time. Not always real hard, and not without the problems I've explained, but enough. Good record. They may yet change the world, intentionally. Which would make that June gig a very big rock and roll event indeed.

Village Voice, July 10, 1978

Re: The Stones in 1978 by Robert Christgau
Posted by: tatters ()
Date: March 18, 2009 15:04

One of my fav rock writers. Unfortunately, I think nowadays he's almost exclusively into African music and doesn't have much to say anymore about rock and roll.

Re: The Stones in 1978 by Robert Christgau
Posted by: dcba ()
Date: March 18, 2009 15:54

Funny Chet Flippo had EXACTLY the same opinion : Passaic pretty good, JFK pretty awful. Thx for sharing, Sway! thumbs up

Re: The Stones in 1978 by Robert Christgau
Posted by: KSIE ()
Date: March 18, 2009 16:42

One of my fav rock writers.

Mine too. He loved Dirty Work!

Re: The Stones in 1978 by Robert Christgau
Posted by: dcba ()
Date: March 18, 2009 17:25

"He loved Dirty Work!"
Ahem and he totally destroyed a then-unknown-in-the-US Jimi Hendrix when he 1st saw him at Monterey in June 67 (a "psychedelic Uncle Tom" how low can you go Robert?)

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2009-03-18 17:27 by dcba.

Re: The Stones in 1978 by Robert Christgau
Posted by: SwayStones ()
Date: March 18, 2009 17:32

One of my fav rock writers. Unfortunately, I think nowadays he's almost exclusively into African music and doesn't have much to say anymore about rock and roll.

I read some of his music reviews and essays but didn't know he was only involved nowadays in African music;may be he misses the old good days..

Funny Chet Flippo had EXACTLY the same opinion : Passaic pretty good, JFK pretty awful. Thx for sharing, Sway! thumbs up
You're welcome.
I love to read reviews from these know I am always astonished

Very very long,I apologize,but very interesting point of view on Jagger.

Mick Jagger was never a rocker. He wasn't a mod, either. He was a bohemian, an antiutopian version of what Americans called a folkie. That is, he was attracted to music of a certain innocence as only a fairly classy--and sophisticated--person can be. Unlike John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and Bob Dylan), his ambitions weren't kindled by Elvis Presley; his angry, low-rent mien was no more a reflection of his economic fate than his stardom was a means for him to escape it.

Something similar went for all the Rolling Stones. "What can a poor boy do/ Except sing for a rock and roll band?" was the way they opted out of the political involvement that most young rebels found unavoidable in the late Sixties. But not only weren't they poor boys when they played that song, they never had been--except voluntarily, which is different. Only two of them--bassist Bill Wyman, the son of a bricklayer, and drummer Charlie Watts, the son of a lorry driver--came from working-class backgrounds, and both were improving their day-job lots dramatically by the time they joined the Stones. The other three, the group's spiritual nucleus through the scuffling days, were in it strictly for the art. Lead guitarist Keith Richard, although he grew up fairly poor, revolted against his parents' genteel middle-class pretensions; rhythm guitarist and all-purpose eclectic Brian Jones came from a musical family headed by an aeronautical engineer and wandered the Continent after leaving a posh school; and Mick himself, the son of a medium-successful educator, did not quit the London School of Economics until after the band became a going proposition in 1963. This is not to say the Stones were rich kids; only Brian qualified as what Americans would call upper middle-class. Nor is it to underestimate the dreariness of the London suburbs or the rigidity of the English class hierarchy. But due partly to their own posturing, the Stones are often perceived as working class, and that is a major distortion.

Working class is more like Elvis and the Beatles, who loved rock and roll at least partly because rock and roll was a way to make it. Their propulsive upward mobility thus became inextricably joined with the energy of the music they created; their will to be rich and famous was both heroic and naive, a key ingredient of the projected naturalness that was essential to Elvis, and the projected innocence that was essential to the Beatles. For disapproving elders to dismiss this naturalness/innocence as mere vulgarity--without observing, as Dwight Macdonald did about Elvis, that genuine vulgarity has its advantages in earthiness--represented more than a "generation gap." It was open-and-shut snobbery, motivated like most snobbery by class fear.

With the Stones all of this was more complicated. Their devotion to music itself was purer, but insofar as they wanted to be rich-and-famous--and they did, especially Mick, who had always been into money, and Brian, a notoriety junkie--they were neither heroic nor naive, just ambitious. And insofar as they wanted to be earthy--which was a conscious ambition too, rather than something they came by naturally or (God knows) innocently--they risked a vulgarity that was mere indeed. Inspired by the coaching of Andrew Loog Oldham, the publicist/manager who undertook the creation of the Stones in their own image starting in the spring of 1963, they choose to be vulgar--aggressively, as a stance, to counteract the dreariness and rigidity of their middle-class suburban mess of pottage. Perhaps they aspired to the earthiness of the grandfather who passes wind because he doesn't fancy the bother of holding it in, but in the very aspiration they recalled the grandson who farts for the sheer joyous annoyance value of it--and then calls it youth culture.

It would be quicker, of course, to suggest that they sought only to live up to the earthiness of the rhythm and blues music they lived for. But although there's no doubt that Brian, Mick, and Keith were passionate about hard-to-find black records that were as crude and esoteric by the standards of English pop and beat fans as they were crude and commercial by the standards of old-bohemian English blues and jazz cultists, the Stones have never been very specific about just what that passion meant emotionally. Only their affinities are clear. Elmore James was Brian's man, while Keith loved Chuck Berry, but they by no means defined the group's poles: one of the laborers in the rhythm section, Charlie, had jazzier tastes than Brian, while the other, Bill, was working in a straight rock and roll group when he joined the Stones in late 1962 or early 1963. Mick's preferences, predictably enough, were shiftier; as he once told Jonathan Cott: "We were blues purists who liked ever-so-commercial things but never did them onstage because we were so horrible and so aware of being blues purists, you know what I mean?"

What he means, one surmises, is that the Stones' artiness never deadened their taste for certain commercially fermented blues-based songs--not as long as the songs were pithy and hummable and would induce people to dance when played loudly. But by mocking the blues purist in himself he elides "purism"'s image potential. Symbols of the English "R&B" movement--thought in 1963 to be challenging beat (and hence the Beatles) among British teenagers--the Stones had it both ways. Their first bit British hit, that winter, was Lennon and McCartney's "I Wanna Be Your Man." They scoffed virtuously at the notion of "a British-composed R&B number," but wrote their own tunes almost from the start, and ranged as far pop as "Under the Boardwalk" and Buddy Holly in their early recordings.

It is sometimes argued that such modulations of sensibility belie the group's artistic integrity; in fact, however, the Stones' willingness to "exploit" and "compromise" their own bohemian proclivities meant only that they assumed a pop aesthetic. Most artists believe they ought to be rich-and-famous on their own very idiosyncratic terms--the Stones happened to be right. To sing about "half-assed games" on the AM radio (on Bobby Womack's "It's All Over Now" or glower out hirsute and tieless from the Sunday entertainment pages was integrity aplenty in 1964.

Perhaps most important, the Stones obviously cared about the quality of the music they played. If this music recalled any single antecedent it was Chuck Berry, but never with his total commitment to fun. It was fast and metallic, most bluesish in its strict understatement. Clean and sharp--especially in contrast to the gleeful modified chaos of the Beatles--this striking but never overbearing music was an ideal vocal setting, and if it was the guitars and percussion that established the band's presence, it was the vocals, and the vocalist, that defined it. Quite often Jagger chose a light, saucy pop timbre that was also reminiscent of Berry, but something in his voice left a ranker overall impression--something slippery yet unmistakable, as lubricious and as rubbery as his famous lips. (For a simple example, listen to his tone of voice on most of "I'm a King Bee"--and then to his half-playful, half-ominous pronunciation on the word "buzz" in "I can buzz better baby/ When your man is gone." Nor was this just a matter of being sexy. Just as there was a pointed astringency to the band's music, caustic where Chuck Berry was consciously ebullient--listen to the acerbic tinniness of Keith's lead lines, or to Brian's droning rhythm parts, or to the way the added percussion lags behind the beat--so there was a hurtful tinge to Mick's singing, especially on the slow, murky originals ("Tell Me," "Heart of Stone," or "Time Is on My Side," composed by Jerry Ragavoy but defined by the Stones) that served the group's change-of-pace needs the way ballads did the Beatles'.

The Stones' high-decibel, high-speed approach was rock and roll, not rhythm and blues. Nevertheless, they did admittedly appropriate many of the essential trappings of their music--like hooks and solos--from black sources. Jagger, however--despite his rhythmic canniness and cheerful willingness to ape a drawl--was no more a blue stylist or a blues thief than Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney. He simply customized certain details of blues phrasing and enunciation into components of a vocal style of protean originality.

Although pinning down the voice of a compulsive ironist like Jagger is impossible by definition, it is perhaps most notable for a youthful petulance that has faded only gradually. His drawl recalls Christopher Robin as often as it does Howlin' Wolf; his mewling nasality might have been copped from a Cockney five-year-old. Jagger's petulance offends some people, who wonder how this whiner--a perpetual adolescent at best--can pretend to mean the adult words he sings. But that ignores the self-confidence that coexists with the petulance--Jagger's very grown-up assurance not that he'll get what he wants, but that he has every reason to ask for it. Even worse, it ignores the fact that Meaning It is definitely not what the Stones are about. Jagger didn't so much sing Muddy Waters's "I Just Want to Make Love to You" as get it over with, and although he did really seem to wish us "Good Times," he made the prospect really sound doubtful where Sam Cooke enjoyed the wish itself.

It seems unlikely that at this point any of the Stones were conscious about this. All of them, Jagger included, were attracted to the gruff, eloquent directness of so much black music; relatively speaking, they became natural, expressive, sexy, and so forth by playing it. What set them apart was Jagger's instinctive understanding that this achievement was relative--that there was a Heisenberg paradox built into the way he appreciated the virtues of this music--and his genius at expressing that as well. The aggressiveness and sexuality of the form were his, but the sincerity was beyond him--partly because he was white and English, and especially because he was Mick Jagger. He loved the blues for their sincerity, yet their sincerity was the ultimate object of his pervasive anger. He wanted what he couldn't have and felt detached even from his own desire; he accepted his inability to sing from as deep in his heart as Sam Cooke, he sometimes reveled in it, but he wasn't sure he liked it, not deep in his heart. "An empty heart/ Is like an empty life," he sang in one of his early lyrics, adding nuance to qualification as always, so that even as it adhered to all the lost-love conventions, the song evoked the most basic condition of his existence.

Jagger is obsessed with distance. He forces the Stones' music to gaze across (and down) the generation gap and the money gap and the feeling gap and the meaning gap. But then, powered by the other Stones--all of them, like most of the Stones' fans, somewhat more simple-minded than Jagger--the music leaps, so that as a totality it challenges that frustrating, ubiquitous, perhaps metaphysical margin between reach and grasp that presents itself so sharply to human beings with the leisure to think about it. This dual commitment to irony and ecstasy makes the Stones exemplary modernists. Without a doubt, it has been their readiness to leap that has won the Stones their following--no one has ever rocked on out with more ecstatic energy. But it is their realism, bordering at its most suspect on cynicism, that makes all that energy interesting, and ensures that their following will never be as huge as that of the high-spirited Beatles (or of a technocosmic doom show like Led Zeppelin, either). After all, not everyone wants to be reminded that it is salutary to think and have fun at the same time. But that is what it means to get up and boogie to "Street Fighting Man," or to party to a paean as steeped in irony as "Brown Sugar."

Jagger's distance from the Afro part of his Afro-American musical heritage was especially liberating for white Americans. Whereas for Elvis and those natives who followed him the blues bore an inescapable load of racial envy and fear, Mick's involvement was primarily aesthetic. Since as his English blues preceptor, Alexis Korner, once remarked, Jagger's chief worry was whether the music was "performed properly," he betrayed no embarrassment about being white. Not all Englishmen were so uninhibited--an obsessive like Eric Burdon (of the Animals) emulated black Southern intonations sedulously. But Jagger got off on being a white person singing black songs, and he put that across. His mocking, extravagant elocution, as wild as his hair and the way he pranced around the stage, was more than vaguely self-amused, achieving a power that compared to that of its origins because it was true to itself.

For the English audience, however, the Stones' distance from the U.S.A. itself was edifying. Because the English were far enough from American affluence and mass culture to perceive them as sources of vitality rather than of oppression, a natural perspective was commonly built into all Beatle-era rock and roll, but whereas for the Beatles it manifested itself innocently--in fun, silliness, play--the Stones' version was weirder oddball and therefore more sophisticated. They wove a mythology of America around R&B novelties like "Route 66" and "Down Home Girl," and then exaggerated every eccentricity with some vocal moue or instrumental underline. The image of the States that resulted was droll, surreal, maybe a little scary--fascinating, but no hamburger cornucopia.

It was also a cleverly differentiated musical product that rose to number-two status in England upon the release of the first Stones album in mid-1964. In the U.S., however, the Stones were number two only in publicity, with sales well behind the Dave Clark Five and Herman's Hermits and just slightly ahead of arty rivals like the Animals and the Kinks for the first year and a half of British Invasion. Then came their seventh U.S. single, "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." It was the perfect Stones paradox--the lyrics denied what the music delivered, with the vocal sitting on the fence--and it dominated the summer of 1965, securing a pop audience half of which was content to shout "I can't get no" while the other half decided that the third verse was about a girl who wouldn't put out during her period.

By then the Stones were Mick and Keith's band, although opening for Alexis Korner at London's Marquee Club in early 1963 they had been "Brian Jones and Mick Jagger and the Rollin' Stones." As vain and exhibitionistic onstage as Jagger, Jones later boasted of having been the group's "undisputed leader," a status he maintained, as Al Aronowitz observed, until it was "worthwhile for someone to dispute." Jones wanted to be a star so much he took it for granted; his relationship to the audience was self-indulgent and self-deceiving. But since outrage was essential to Jagger, Richard and Oldham's product--aggro-sex image mongering, lyrics both indecipherable and censorable, and the longest hair known to civilization--and since Brian was the most genuinely outrageous (and crazy) (and generous) (and cruel) of the Stones, he remained essential over and above his musical input. He was the one people remembered after Mick--especially the teenybopper girls who were still the Stones' most visible contingent.

The Stones got the teenyboppers because Oldham was sharp enough to extend Little Richard's First Law of Youth Culture to his scruffy band--he attracted the kids by driving their parents up the wall. But although we can assume Oldham initiated his campaign of world conquest in a spirit of benign, profiteering manipulation, something more was in store. The bohemian-revolutionary vanguard, like the Diggers, who in the mid-Sixties welcomed the Stones to San Francisco as brothers in struggle, were even more symbolic (if less numerous) than that proliferating network of hip collegiate Stones fans heir to a beatnik myth that had passed from media consciousness when San Francisco's bohemian community moved from North Beach to the Haight, none of these fans really knowing how many hundreds of thousands of arty allies they had across the country. Call them predropouts because dropping out then barely knew its name. Soon, in their fashion, they would consider the Diggers and do likewise, just as the Stones' teen hordes would consider them and do likewise later on. What it all portended was just what parents had always feared from rock and roll, especially from this ugly group: youth apocalypse.

I remember the first time I ever saw the Stones perform, at the Forum in Montreal in October 1965. I purchased my tickets on the day of the show, and even from deep in the balcony got more from Mick's dancing around the "droogy" stance of the others than I did from the music, which was muffled by the hockey rink P.A. and rendered all but inaudible by the ululations of the teenaged girls around me. It was only afterward, when I happened to walk past the bus terminal, that I glimpsed what had really just happened. There in the station were hundreds of youths, all speaking French, waiting to complete their pilgrimage by plunging back into the cold of northern Quebec. I had never seen so much long hair in one place in my life.

What was about to happen was an unprecedented contradiction in terms, mass bohemianism, and this is where the idea of "pop" became key. Pop is what the mod Oldham shared with the bohemian Stones, and what they in turn shared with the teenyboppers. Applied first to low-priced classical concerts and then to Tin Pan Alley product, the word was beginning to achieve more general cultural currency by the mid-Fifties, when London-based visual artists like Eduardo Paolozzi were proposing that a schlock form (e.g., science fiction pulp) might nurture "a higher order of imagination" than a nominally experimental one (e.g., little magazine). Shocking.

Youths like the Stones--who had never known a nonelectric culture, and who were no more wary of distribution and exposure in the modern media bath than they were of their own amps--automatically assumed what older avant-gardists formulated with such difficulty. Their pop sensibility led them to a decidedly nonslumming bohemianism--more unpretentious and déclassé than the bohemianism of the Twenties and before. This was the gift of mass culture, compulsory education (especially English art-school routing) and consumer capitalism to five young men who comprise a social sample that would have been most unlikely, statistically, to group around the arts 40 years before. Not that the Stones were untainted by avant-garde snobbishness--in their project of rebellious self-definition, exclusivity was a given. They never figured they'd spearhead a mass movement that went anywhere but record stores. That mass potential, however, was built into their penchant for pop itself.

There were solid economic reasons for the rise of mass bohemianism. Juxtapose a 20-year rise in real income to the contradiction in which the straight-and-narrow worker/producer is required to turn into a hedonistic consumer off-hours, and perhaps countless kids, rather than assuming their production function on schedule, will choose to "fulfill themselves" outside the job market. But traditionally, bohemian self-fulfillment has been achieved through, or at least in the presence of, art. Only popular culture could have rendered art accessible--in the excitement and inspiration (and self-congratulation) of its perception and the self-realization (or fantasy) of its creation--not just to well-raised well-offs but to the broad range of less statusy war babies who in fact made the hippie movement the relatively cross-class phenomenon it was. And for all these kids, popular culture meant rock and roll, the art form created by and for their hedonistic consumption. In turn, rock and roll meant the Rolling Stones.

Of course, it also meant the Beatles and Bob Dylan and the Who and the Grateful Dead--and Grand Funk Railroad. But the Beatles' appeal was too broad--parents liked them. Dylan's was too narrow--as an American bohemian, he remained suspicious of mass culture, and stayed virtually out of sight from mid-1966 until the hippie thing was done with. The Who and the Dead hit a little too late to qualify as myths; they also proved a little too committed to the mass and the bohemianism, respectively , to challenge the Stones' breadth. And Grand Funk and so many others simply couldn't match the Stones' art.

From "Satisfaction" to the end of the decade, the Stones' aesthetic stature became more heroic. Their R&B phase began with two very good albums that culminated in a classic third, The Rolling Stones Now! Then came their long middle period, beginning with two very good transitional LPs--Out of Our Heads and December's Children (and Everybody's), both of which contained many R&B covers but sold on the strength of their originals--that seemed slightly thin only when compared to those that followed. Aftermath, Between the Buttons, Beggar's Banquet and Let It Bleed are all among the greatest rock albums, and Flowers, although it includes three previously released album cuts, sounds every bit as valid on its own. Furthermore, although the 3-D/psychedelic/year-in-the-making response to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Their Satanic Majesties Request, is remembered as a washout, the tunes prove remarkably solid and the concept legitimate in its tongue-in-cheekness. I would rank it as a first-rate oddity, and note that the title alone was the single greatest image manipulation in the Stones' whole media-happy story.

After "Satisfaction" it was no longer satisfying to accuse the Stones of imitation; after Aftermath, their music came almost entirely out of their heads. Blues-based hard rock it remained, with an eventual return to one black classic per album, but its texture was permanently enriched. As Brian daubed on occult instrumental colors (dulcimer, sitar, marimbas and bells, on Aftermath alone) and Charlie molded jazz chops to rock forms and Bill's bass gathered wit and Keith rocked roughly on, the group as a whole learned to respect and exploit (never revere) studio nuance. In the fall of 1967, they announced a split from Oldham, whose image-making services had become superfluous and whose record-producing capabilities they have since disparaged. They were making mature, resonant music by then--they could permit their pace changes some lyricism now, there was warmth as well as white heat, and Mick's voice deepened, shedding some of its impertinence.

By proclamation and by vocal method--he slurs as a matter of conviction, articulating only catchphrases--Jagger belittles his own lyrics, an appropriate stance for a literate man who has bet his life on the comparative inexplicitness of music. Nonetheless, Jagger's lyrics were much like the Stones' music, aesthetically: pungent and vernacular "Who wants yesterday's papers"; achieving considerable specificity with familiar materials "You got me running like a cat in a thunderstorm"; and challenging conventional perceptions more by their bite than by any notable eloquence or profundity "They just get married 'cause there's nothing else to do". But whereas the Stones' music extended rock and roll usages, Jagger's lyrics often contravened them. He wrote more hate songs than love songs, and related tales of social and political breakdown with untoward glee. The hypocrisy and decay of the upper classes was a fave subject--many songs that seem basically antiwoman (although certainly not all of them) are actually more antirich. He was also capable of genuine gusto about sex (not as often as is thought, but consider the openhearted anticipation of "Goin' Home" or "Let's Spend the Night Together" and wrote the most accurate LSD song ever, "Something Happened to Me Yesterday."

But that was as far as it went. Traditionally, bohemian revolt has been aimed at nothing more fundamental than puritan morality and genteel culture. That's the way it was with the hippies, certainly, and that's the way it was with the Stones. They did show a class animus--even though it wasn't proletariat-versus-bourgeoisie ("Salt of the Earth" evokes that struggle no less sensitively than it evokes Jagger's distance from it), but rather the old enmity between the freemen of democratic England and its peerage--and a penchant for generalized social criticism. They earned their "political" aura. But their most passionate commitments were to sex, dope, and lavish autonomy. Granted, this looked revolutionary enough to get them into plenty of trouble. The dope-bust harassment/persecution of individual Stones did keep the group from touring the States between 1966 and 1969. But their money and power prevailed; in the end, their absence and their apparent martyrdom only augmented their myth and their careers.

Throughout this time, the Stones were heroes of mass bohemianism. They lived the life of art, their art got better all the time, and as it got better, remarkably enough, it reached more people. But although their art survives, its heroic quality does not; the Stones betray all the flaws of the counterculture they half-wittingly and -willingly symbolized. Their sex was too often sexist, their expanded consciousness too often a sordid escape; their rebellion was rooted in impulse to the exclusion of all habits of sacrifice, and their relationship to fame had little to do with the responsibilities of leadership, or of allegiance.

Not that leadership was Mick's--or any ironist's--kind of thing. All he wanted was to have his ego massaged by his public or bathed in luxurious privacy as his own whim dictated. This he got, but it wasn't all roses--it was also dead flowers. Early on, in "Play With Fire" or "Back Street Girl," say, he had attacked decadence with a sneer--it was something that happened to others, especially the idle rich. By "Live With Me," or "Dancing With Mr. D.," the implication was that Mick's life of pop star luxury was turning him into a decadent himself.

But if Mick was a decadent, he was also a professional. His project of radical self-definition flourished where so many others failed. Most bohemians can find ways to waste themselves--it's often fun for a while, and it's certainly easy. But the bohemian art hero has polar options--he or she can persist and make a career out of it, becoming more exemplary as his or her success becomes more unduplicable. His talent, his resilience, his sure pop instinct, and a boom market in creativity all contributed to Jagger's singular preeminence. Among the many who couldn't match up was Brian Jones. Originally the key to the Stones' rebel-purist image (and reality), he proved to be the group's natural decadent. Despite what those who consider Mick a prick suspect, it is rather unlikely that Brian was forced out of the group because his attraction to the bizarre endangered Mick's self-aggrandizing aesthetic calculations. Quite simply, he seems to have @#$%& and doped himself past all usefulness. Brian was one of the damned by choice of personality. He drowned in his own swimming pool on July 3rd, 1969.

Two days later the Stones introduced previously hired ex-John Mayall guitarist Mick Taylor at a free concert in Hyde Park that served as Brian's wake, and that November they commenced history's first mythic rock and roll tour. They hadn't swept the U.S.--or anywhere--in three years; the world had changed, or so it seemed; Woodstock hung in the air like a rainbow. It seemed only fitting to climax all that long-haired pomp and circumstance with yet another celebration of communal freeness. The result was Altamont--one murdered; total dead: four; 300,000 bummed out. It seems more a chilling metaphor than a literal disaster in retrospect, as much the Grateful Dead's fault as the Stones'. But the Stones are stuck with it--if it is typical of their genius that their responsibility is difficult to pinpoint, it is typical of their burden that everyone who's into blame blames them anyway.

But in the end that's typical of their genius too, for it means that whatever the specifics--pinpointing is always difficult--the Stones acknowledge their complicity in a world in which evil exists. Above all, they are anything but utopians. They never made very convincing hippies because hippie just wasn't their thing. Jagger's taste for ecstatic community was tempered by that awareness of limits that always assured the Stones their formal acuteness. A successful artist may epitomize his or her audience, but that is a process of rarefaction--it doesn't mean conforming to the great mean, even of the time's bohemianism. So while it is true that the Stones' flaws and the counterculture's show a certain congruence, ultimately Mick is congruent to nothing--he always leaves himself an out. He doesn't condone the Midnight Rambler or Mister Jimmy, he just lays them bare. His gift is to make clear that even if the truth doesn't make you free, it needn't sap your will or your energy either. As with most bohemian rebels, his politics are indirect. He provides the information. The audience must then decide what to do with it.

And yet that is perhaps too kind. Somewhere inside, the Stones knew that any undertaking as utopian as Altamont was doomed by definition. If their audience didn't understand it that way, it was because the Stones themselves, in all their multileveled contradiction, were unwilling to come out and tell them. They would suggest it, yes, embody it, but they wouldn't make it plain, because the nature of the Truth is that it isn't plain. If a male fan wants to take Mick's struggle with male persona as an invitation to midnight rambling, well, that's the nature of the game.

After Altamont, the Stones played with a vengeance. Sticky Fingers, in April 1971, appeared to trifle with decadence just when some retribution seemed called for, and on its two masterpieces, it definitely did. "Moonlight Mile" re-created all the paradoxical distances inherent in erotic love with a power worthy of Yeats, yet could also be interpreted as a cocaine song; "Brown Sugar," in which (if you listen with care to a rocker so compelling that it discourages exegesis) Jagger links his own music to the slave trade, exploits the racial and sexual contradictions of his stance even as it explores them. Exile on Main St., released in conjunction with the 1972 American tour, was decadent in a more realized way: weary and complicated, barely afloat in its own drudgery, with Mick's voice submerged under layers of studio murk, it piled all the old themes--sex as power, sex as love, sex as pleasure, distance, craziness, release--on top of an obsession with time that was more than appropriate in men pushing 30 who were still committed to what was once considered youth music. It stands as the most consistently dense and various music they've ever made.

Arguably, those two albums are the Stones' summit. It is now as long since Altamont as it was between Altamont and the Stones' recording debut, and the Stones, their halfhearted fantasies of a new cultural order long since forgotten, have found their refuge in professionalism. Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. both featured Mick Taylor, a young veteran of the rock-concert tradition of the boogieing jam, and session hornmen Bobby Keys and Jim Price; in a way they are both (Exile especially) triumphs of Taylor/Keys/Price-style musicianly craft over the kind of pop-hero mongering that can produce an Altamont. But if that's so, then Goat's Head Soup and It's Only Rock 'n Roll are mere product, musicianly craft at its unheroic norm, terrific by the standards of Foghat or the Doobie Brothers but a nadir for the Stones. Even the peaks--"@#$%&"
and "If You Don't Rock Me," respectively--had déjà entendu musical and lyrical themes, and it's hard to imagine the Stones putting their names on tunes as tritely portentous as "Dancing With Mr. D" or "Time Waits for No One" in their prepro days. Only rock and roll indeed.

A similar distinction can be drawn between the 1972 and 1975 tours. In '72 the mood was friendly; "Sympathy for the Devil" was not performed; the gentle Taylor wafted through the proceedings; and Mick undercut his fabled demonism by playing the clown, the village idiot, the marionette. Very professional, yet their most rocking show ever. In 1975, with ex-Face Ron Wood aboard in place of Taylor, they worked even harder, but rather than celebrating professionalism they succumbed to it. Jagger's hyperactive stamina was an athletic marvel, but his moves often looked forced, and although Wood and Richard often combined for a certain bumptious dirtiness, the musical energy seemed forced as well. The 1976 album, Black and Blue, put the Stones' recent failures in context, however. It was no masterpiece, but it was rock and roll that didn't deserve an "only," a genuine if derivative departure that showed off artistic professionalism at its best--creative ups and downs that can engross an attentive audience. Not what we want, maybe, but what we can use.

Only rock and roll? The Stones are the proof of the form. When the guitars and the drums and the voice come together in those elementary patters that no one else has ever quite managed to simulate, the most undeniable excitement is a virtually automatic result. To insist that this excitement doesn't reach you is not to articulate an aesthetic judgment but to assert a rather uninteresting crotchet of taste. It is to boast that you don't like rock and roll itself
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1976

Re: The Stones in 1978 by Robert Christgau
Posted by: SwayStones ()
Date: March 18, 2009 17:38

"He loved Dirty Work!"
Ahem and he totally destroyed a then-unknown-in-the-US Jimi Hendrix when he 1st saw him at Monterey in June 67 (a "psychedelic Uncle Tom" how low can you go Robert?)

Here is his review on "Dirty Works"

a bracing and even challenging record

Winning Ugly
I never thought I'd get off on a new Stones album this much again.

After almost two decades on top, they seemed too convoluted to come out with such direct, hard-driving music, but it's folly to underestimate their survivorship, so I'm not surprised that they did. The sure thing was that they couldn't make me care about it--that no adjustment in the music or persona could jolt what they said or how they said it past my sensorium and into my soul. And I was wrong. Dirty Work (Rolling Stones) is a bracing and even challenging record. It innovates without kowtowing to multiplatinum fashion or half-assed pretension. It's honest and makes you like it. It's only Rolling Stones, yet it breaks down their stifling insularity, as individuals and as an entity. Since the last time the Stones released a surprising record--Some Girls, eight years ago now, a third of their famous career out the window--the Stones have turned into exceptionally disgusting rock professionals. That doesn't mean it's been possible to dismiss them or their music--what's made them so disgusting is that you couldn't. Who gives a @#$%& if that smarmy has-been Mike Love seeds the PMRC or Ritchie Blackmore feeds his runs into an emulator? Who gives a @#$%& if Ozzy Osbourne gets fat on raw chicken or David Crosby gets fat on raw coke or Pete Townshend invents the rock novel? All these guys are pathetic clowns no matter how much money they make, pathetic clowns even if you have to respect them in a way, as I do Townshend and Osbourne. There's nothing pathetic about the Stones. That's what's made them worth hating in the '80s.

I mean, People and Rolling Stone don't go to Ron for comic relief or Keith for cautionary parables or Mick for thoughtful regrets--they go to them because they're almost as classy as Ahmet Ertegun. And though the music has been mostly dreck if not literal outtakes, there've been top-10 singles with every new studio release, deft and heretical and even nasty videos, and just to be contrary, one Good Stones Album. Some Girls it wasn't, but Tattoo You was better if not braver than Black and Blue and more attentively crafted than anything they'd recorded since their tenure as a vital force ended unexpectedly with Exile on Main Street in 1972. You were free not to like it much anyway, but you had to do backflips to explain why, eventually landing on one old saw or another, "commitment" or "inspiration" or something equally crucial and unempirical. You knew damn well that whatever you called it had gone thataway. And yet there were Ron and Keith and especially Mick (leave Bill and Charlie out of this), pulling that world's-greatest routine like there was no tomorrow.

Five years later, with only Undercover to show for it, the same saws are sure to bombard Dirty Work, in many ways a disgusting development indeed. First, it's the group's debut for CBS, which bought their myth even bigger than it did Paul McCartney's, squandering corporate resources that younger bands deserved. Then recall their special-achievement Grammy, accepted with hardly a smirk by a bunch of cynics who'd been blackballed back when they really were the world's greatest, followed by the rubber-lipped stereotyping of Ralph Bakshi's "Harlem Shuffle" video. There's the public disaffection of the band's fearless leader, who wouldn't start work on the album because he was promoting his last solo effort and won't tour behind it because he's starting work on the next one. Finally, there's coproducer Steve Lillywhite, who whilst proclaiming back-to-basics turned Dirty Work into the cleanest-sounding Stones album ever.

In the end its the production that will make or break this album critically, where it's sure to put off purists, skeptics, and snipers, and commercially, where it's almost sure to pull in trendies, children, and curiosity-seekers. Not that it isn't plenty basic, don't get me wrong. Based on riffs worked up by Ron and Keith before Jagger sullied his consciousness with them, the arrangements are the simplest on any Stones album since Some Girls if not Aftermath. There are no horns, the backup singers know their place, and Jagger doesn't bother with the melismatic affectations that have turned so much of his '80s product in on itself. What's more, Lillywhite claims that all the songs, including many keeper vocals, were recorded live in the studio. But I wouldn't expect the pear-shaped guitar breaks that finish off both lead cuts of Mick Taylor, much less Ron or Keith (Jimmy Page gets a credit). The up-front drums--some supplied, I hear, by computerized Charlie, with the inevitable loss of subliminal unpredictability--are pure Lillywhite. And so is the overall sound of the thing. As a matter of technical principle, Lillywhite goes for a mix that's as spacious as the arena-rock simulations of the '70s yet doesn't murk up details, and he gets it every time. Anybody who thought "Miss You" was a sellout is going to puke all over this one.

Me, I'm a Marshall Crenshaw fan who thinks Field Day is the man's strongest album, and I like the way Lillywhite and the Stones collide. Just as his drum mix underscored Field Day's depth, his clinical spaciousness recasts Jagger's fascination with distance, which of late has made Mick sound more lost than anything else (and without even knowing it, poor old guy). But where Lillywhite unbalanced Crenshaw's commercial appeal, the Stones have the mythic clout to take him on. This record is going to @#$%& the heads of the young chime addicts who think U2 and Big Country are guitar bands. It's clean and even modish, but until the side-closers it's utterly unpretty, and its momentum is pitiless. Jagger bullies up into a steady bellow that has all the power of Plant or Hagar and none of the histrionics. Catch me in a perverse mood and I'll even defend the video--better they should offend by meaning to than by breathing.

Anyway, "Harlem Shuffle" is hardly the first good song betrayed by its promo, and now please turn the album over--the second side is the prize. I give you "Winning Ugly," "Back to Zero," and "Dirty Work," their meanest political statements in 15 years, and not for want of trying. These songs aren't about geopolitical contradictions. They're about oppressing and being oppressed. Jagger always plays dirty, always robs the other guy, and it's beginning to get to him; he misuses the jerks, greaseballs, @#$%& and dumbasses who clean up after him and that doesn't make him feel so good either; and for all his class he's another nuclear subject who's got no say over whether he rots or pops even though he'd much prefer the former. For once his lyrics aren't intricately ironic. They're impulsive and confused, almost jottings, two-faced by habit rather than design, the straightest reports he can offer from the top he's so lonely at. They're powerful because they're about power, a topic unpretty enough to fit right in. And together with the hard advice of "Hold Back"--"Don't matter if you ain't so good-looking/If you ain't sharp as a blade/Don't be afraid/Don't hold back/Life is passing you by"--they're winning hints of a moral center somewhere in the vicinity of the singer's perpetual disillusionment. They contextualize the ironic persona-play of "Fight" and the unrecontructed send-off of "Had It with You" and the found sexism of "Too Rude" and the slum-hopping groove of "Harlem Shuffle." They set up the dog-tired compassion of "Sleep Tonight," which Keith turns into the Stones' most poignant ballad since "Angie." They assure that Dirty Work is a Very Good Stones Album.

All that's missing, in fact, is one identiriff classic, a "Jumping Jack Flash" or "Tumbling Dice" or "Start Me Up" that could define a summer and shove the tough stuff--"Winning Ugly" and "Dirty Work" are two of the most unpleasant songs anybody's going to write about the '80s--down America's throat. Identiriffs are Keith's department, and thus I'm not inclined to trumpet this artistic comeback as his vindication. Sure it's his recidivist guitar that makes Dirty Work hot, but if you'll pardon my saw, it Jagger's offhand input that makes it matter. We should be thankful the old reprobate didn't lavish much personal attention on it, that he just plugged into his Stones mode and spewed what he had to spew. Let him express himself elsewhere. The individual Rolling Stones can have their own disgusting lives and careers--I don't care. What I want is the Rolling Stones as an entity, an idea--that's mine and yours as much as theirs. And it's the Rolling Stones as an idea that Dirty Work vindicates.

Village Voice, Apr. 15, 1986

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