Badly, badly, oh so badly, underrated. The trademark Stones’ ‘groove’ album, Black And Blue doesn’t have any concept, any message, frankly speaking, it doesn’t even have too many songs – just eight, and most of them are grooves. Okay, so it’s obvious that the Stones gave up on “messages” two or three albums ago (depending on your personal views), but nowhere is this so blatantly obvious as on Black And Blue that ‘it’s only rock’n’roll but I like it’ indeed. Only ‘Hand Of Fate’ and ‘Memory Motel’ can be treated as serious compositions brought to finish, and even then they’re not very typical.
Recorded in 1975, right after Mick Taylor got the message (or, rather, sent it – nobody still understands quite well what brought Mick to this decision exactly), this was a serious mess: tons of session players arriving and departing, lots of other friends like Billy Preston visiting, so that in the end you hardly hear the Stones themselves. You can actually see Ronnie Wood, the band’s new guitar player, on the back cover of the album, but there’s not that much Ronnie on the album: at the time of the sessions, he was just another in a series of persons invited for ‘guitar audition’, which included Harvey Mandel of Canned Heat fame, Wayne Perkins, Ronnie (all of which you can hear on selected tracks here), and – as rumours say – even both Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, although I can’t really confirm that. It wasn’t until Ronnie’s previous band, the Faces, had officially split up at the end of 1975, that he took up the official position, and so most of the guitar work here falls on the shoulders of Mr Richards, making it a Let It Bleed of sorts. Joking, of course.
Despite all this, the resulting album was surprisingly strong. The typical accusation is that the compositions don’t really go anywhere – for the most part, things like ‘Hot Stuff’, ‘Melody’ or ‘Hey Negrita’ just represent the band having mindless fun in the studio. But don’t forget that this is not just any band: this is the Rolling Stones, and nobody can make a silly groove and turn it into a near-breathtaking experience as efficiently as these guys. The entire album feels so homely and cozy, as if the band were just sitting in a corner of your living-room and jamming away and you were there watching ’em and admiring ’em.
And if you ever complained of the ‘post-classic’ Stones albums being too slick and polished, here’s ample proof that this wasn’t really that obligatory. That’s not to say the album feels too rough or too underproduced: not at all. All the instruments are firmly in place, and the sound is crystal clear, allowing us to hear basically everything that’s going on, every single little grunt from Jagger and every single little guitar pluck from Keith. This is the Rolling Stones gracefully allowing us into the midst of their creative activities, and at the same time making the final product more ‘artsy’ and accessible.
Another interesting feature is that Black And Blue might just be the most diverse piece of product in the entire Stones catalog – apparently, with the controls set to ‘jam mode’, the Glimmer Twins paid no attention to the exact genre they were practicing. Out of the eight numbers, no two ones fall into the same category, and thus you’ll probably hate at least something on here. But hey, that’s what eclectic people like me are for – I’m perfectly able to identify with every one of these eight songs, and consider this album – together with Satanic, though that one was an entirely different affair – ample proof that the band was always able to reach far further than the ‘rootsy’ tag stuck on them by those who can’t see very far.
Let’s just have a brief overview to prove that. ‘Hot Stuff’ is the band’s first (but definitely not the last) excursion into the world of disco, with a complete mastery of the form – the main guitar riff upon which the groove hangs is impeccably creative, plus Harvey Mandel adds some wonderfully fuzzed-out guitar solos that make your head go round. Let not the length bother you – remember, disco grooves were supposed to be long (‘Love To Love You Baby’, anyone?). Then, a radical change of style with ‘Hand Of Fate’, a desperate bluesy rocker, a fine and passionate vocal performance from Mick, and Wayne Perkins’ ringing solos making a near-perfect replacement for Mick Taylor.
Then – another radical change of style with a reggae sendup, ‘Cherry Oh Baby’, which seems to be one of the band’s most universally despised songs, but I don’t really get why so many people pretend to take this obviously parodic, tongue-in-cheek, goofy number so seriously. I just go wild over the ‘yeh-ay-yeah-ay-yeah-a-a-yeah-a-a-yay-yays’ which might be the funniest moment on the album. And finally, another radical change of style with the moving epic ballad ‘Memory Motel’ with both Jagger and Richards at the piano. This one can bring you to tears.
And that’s just the first side.
The second side opens with the Latin-tinged rockin’ groove ‘Hey Negrita’ (Ronnie Wood’s participating – the first example of the classic Richards/Wood interplay), continues with the oddball jazz sendup ‘Melody’ (Billy Preston on keyboards) that’ll definitely have you caught up in all the fun with a terrific ‘chaotic’ coda, and culminates in the cute ‘soft-pop’ ballad ‘Fool To Cry’, which some also despise because it reminds them of Barry Manilow, but hey, once again, people just don’t feel the tongue-in-cheek character of the song. Hint hint hint: pay closer attention to the lyrics. Another hint hint hint: listen to Jagger’s wailings of ‘I’m a fool baby yeah’ at the end of the number, which is pure delight. Last hint: pay close attention to Keith Richards’ neat tricks on the guitar. The line which leads from the last refrain into the coda (right before Jagger starts wailing ‘I’m a fool’) is what I’d characterize as ’emotional killer’. And we fizzle out with a bombastic glam-rocker, ‘Crazy Mama’, which is more Slade than Stones, but since I have nothing against Slade, that’s all right by me.
As a deep lover of diversity – particularly successful diversity – I have no other choice but to give the album a 13. Simply put, this is one of the finest ‘lightweight’ albums in existence, and I applaud the Stones, and Mick in particular, for deciding to let it out as it was, without over slicking the performances and without depending too much on contemporary fashion to avoid any possible accusations of ‘bandwagon-jumping’. I don’t care that the songs are underdeveloped or unfinished, because this is what they’re meant to be – the record is so deeply adequate it almost hurts. This (and not It’s Only Rock’n’Roll) is a fine and respectable swansong to the Mick Taylor era, and no Stones lover should overlook it. As they – unfortunately – often do.
Black and Blue album was released in April of 1976 and was recorded while the Rolling Stones were auditioning for a replacement of Mick Taylor. They eventually chose Ronnie Wood, formerly off the Jeff Beck Group, to be the replacement. The albums is a huge display of the Stones’ tendency to enjoy flirtation with different musical genres.
Hot Stuff – “Hot Stuff” is a mix of funk and reggae that doesn’t please me all that much. The lyrics and general music are subpar for the Stones, but Keith has some nice guitar on here. 2/5, this song is the reason I have a rating of 4.5/5.
Hand of Fate – This is a classic example of why the Rolling Stones are called the World’s Greatest Rock Band. It grabs the listener by the collar and never lets go. Again, the guitar licks are great. 5/5
CHerry Oh Baby – This is the only song on the album that wasn’t written by Keith and Mick. It’s a slow reggae jam that doesn’t highlight the guitars as much as it should. It’s just a repetitive 3-chord progression. It does have some nice background riff though, and Bill’s bas is infectous though simple. 4/5
Memory Motel – “Memory Motel” shows the softer side of the generally stoned-and-***ing rock star image of the Rolling Stones. It’s a slow piece of balladry that I very much like. The lyrics are memorable and the piano/keyboard parts add to the aura of the song very well. 5/5
Hey Negrita – Another reggae song, but this time more up-tempo. It also uses Ketih and Ron’s talent in a much wiser way. The riff in the backgrkound is absolutely infectious. 5/5
Melody – I see it as a sort of lounge-oriented R&B number…it’s hard to classify. It’s a good song with really simple lyrics and instrumentation, using minimalistic jazzy piano, a few seconds of keyboards, some guitar riffing, light drums, and barely noticable bass. 4.5/5
Fool To Cry – “Fool…” is another song that shows the Stones’ softer side, much like “Memory Motel”. It’s a long ballad, and though I like “..Motel” better, it’s still damn good. 5/5
Crazy Mama – Hard rock Stones at its best -fast, fun, sleazy, catchy, all that needs to be said. 5/5
Overall, 4.5/5. I would recommend anyone that’s trying to get into the Stones to buy Sticky Fingers, but if you are already an avid Stones fan, I would recommend picking this up.