Classic Rock Review

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The Rolling Stones Dirty Work (1986)


For better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That’s why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Let’s start with the cover: the five Rolling Stones, in harlequin haberdashery, scattered like spent shells across a couch. To a man they look dreadful. Mick Jagger, bare feet protruding from Winnie the Pooh-colored pants, holds the camera with insolent, tight-lipped scorn. Bill Wyman and Ron Wood pose like middle-aged leches. Even the redoubtable Charlie Watts can barely contain his disinterest.

Only Keith Richards manages to keep his equipoise—no small feat when you’re wearing a sports jacket Sonny Crockett would gladly have sold at a rummage sale. It’s to Keith (and, to a lesser degree, Ronnie) that we must turn as we try to defend Dirty Work, an album which, then and now, inspires nothing but loathing. Everyone knows the back story: Jagger, ego swollen by the moderate success of his first solo album (the pneumatic She’s The Boss) and Live Aid performance opposite Tina Turner (“sizzling” in a New York Rockettes kind of way), could barely hold his contempt for the four men whose combined assets paid for all the blow Jagger snorted in Studio 54. Richards and Wood cobbled together 10 tracks (two covers!) which in most cases relied on outsiders like Jimmy Page and Anton Fig to play the parts Wyman and Watts were too bored or strung out to play. Journeyman producer Steve Lillywhite’s hamfisted mix and cavernous drum sound accentuate what’s missing.

None of this sounds appetizing; but Dirty Work is a tattered, embarrassed triumph, by far the most interesting Stones album since Some Girls at every level: lyrical, conceptual, instrumental. For one, Dirty Work lacks any concession calculated to win a segment of the marketplace: no disco crossovers like “Emotional Rescue”, no AOR anthems like “Start Me Up”. What gives Dirty Work its fitful power is the aggression the Stones’ handlers have hyped since they were supposedly the anti-Beatles. Except now they’re not “channeling” (read “exploiting”) anger, as they did on the marvelous secondhand belligerence of Some Girls: they’ve surrendered to it; they’ve agreed to loathe each other. Hence the most venomous guitar sound of the Stones’ career, and Jagger’s most committed vocals. Despite copping to tired ‘80s subjects like nuclear apocalypse (“Back to Zero,” the album’s lone turd), all this aggression is reflexive. As Robert Christgau—still the album’s most lucid defender—noted, these are songs of conscience only well-known sons of bitches can get away with.

The obscure second single “One Hit (To The Body)” is an ideal introduction, remembered for the infamous video (in which Jagger and Richards duck and feint like Ali and Foreman). What a striking opening! An acoustic strum, followed by an electric crackle that’s like an elbow to the ribs, and then Jagger, making the explicit case for love-as-violence that 1983’s Undercover argued in more puerile a fashion. “Fight” and “Dirty Work” are more of the same, although the latter’s pointed condemnations are remarkable coming from a man for whom emotional stonewalling is as natural as fucking models: “Let somebody do the dirty work…find some jerk, do it all for free”.

But it’s on “Hold Back” where Jagger, the “voice of experience”, really lets it rip. That Keith and Ronnie add particularly sympathetic fills to a song defending self-interest underscores its malevolent irony. Jagger, “caught in this tree of promises for over 40 years”, gives us lesser mortals the sort of advice that only a plutocrat who’s never worked a day in his life can offer. See, since Stalin and Roosevelt “each took their chances”, you gotta trust your gut reaction, so don’t hold back. Mick’s performance is irony-free; he’s pissed about something, shouting and braying like he wants to gnaw at the microphone. Lilywhite earns his paycheck: the guitars surround, taunt, and goad; the drumming by Watts or Wood or whoever shoves Jagger down a flight of stairs. The rhythm guitar coda is superfluous, an afterthought; how could it be anything else? In “Hold Back” the Stones, finally, embrace their image: they’re dangerous, they don’t wanna hold your hand, they want your money. It’s a masterpiece.

Richards is rarely given credit as a singer; he doesn’t sound a thing like Jagger, and that’s a plus. Whether it’s Exile on Main Street’s “Happy”, Emotional Rescue’s “All About You” or his tear-inducing segment on “Memory Motel”, he wipes the irony his partner smears indiscriminately like cum on a rag. When “Sleep Tonight” creeps in, ushered by ghostly piano, it’s like tomato juice for a hangover. Possibly Keith’s best ballad, it offers the reconciliation that “Had It With You” (in which Jagger refers to you-know-who as a “dirty, dirty rat scum” and “mean mistreater”) denies. But with Jagger so defenseless on most of Dirty Work, Richards’ junkie-Dean-Martin vocals echo instead of foil, conferring grace on an album which embraces the deadly sins with diabolical abandon.

It’s “Sleep Tonight”’s most poignant irony that two songwriters who’ve spent 40 minutes bitching like Golden Girls affirm their partnership’s continuing vitality. “Those thoughts of you / They’re chilling me / The moon grows cold in memory”, Richards croaks, and you know why the dirty, dirty rat scum is smiling: Steel Wheels awaits three years later, and then Voodoo Lounge, followed by—somebody stop me. Plutocrats never know when to quit.

February 23, 2013 - Posted by | The Rolling Stones Dirty Work |

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