Asswork, if we want to be more correct. That’s what most of the band were using during the sessions, especially Mick. The band was on the point of disintegration by that moment, with Keith doing most of the job in the studio and Mick just arriving at the last moment and overdubbing his vocals. (Which just goes to show that, contrary to rumour, not everything Keith produces is supposed to turn to gold, as some of the more rabid Richards fans believe it to be). As for Charlie, his presence was probably just unnecessary – most of the drums are electronic, or at least electronically enhanced, once again, so the old man’s steady rhythmic punch, so vital for the band’s sound at one time, goes flying out the window.
But what’s even more horrible, most of the songs are absolute bullshit (mark it down – it’s not often that I use such lexics in a Rolling Stones review). Sure enough, they are rip-roaring, energetic, fast and furious: but this resulted rather from the personal tensions between the band members than from any careful elaboration. Keith was pissed off at Mick for not paying enough attention to the Stones, Mick was pissed off at everyone because he thought everybody was trying to push him off the edge, and so they went along nicely, recording this pile of rubbish to (probably) fulfil their contractual obligations. I mean, Keith was interested in carrying on – but nobody else really was, and in this situation even Keith seemed to have lost direction.
Ten songs on here (plus a couple boogie-woogie cords in memoriam of the late Ian Stewart, who suffered a heart attack right at the time of the recording sessions), and out of these ten only one, as far as I’m concerned, can be rated on any significant level – the grotesque ‘Had It With You’ (guess who had what with whom!). I love it because it’s just a simple, unadulterated boogie, with Mick playing harmonica and the band really cooking it up; the song sounds quieter than most of the rockers surrounding it, but this only makes the instruments stand out and gives us an opportunity to hear Bill’s pulsating bassline. A couple of vocal hooks embellish it further; you’ll keep on chanting the chorus for hours on end, particularly since it’s one of the few really chantable moments.
Four more tracks feature Mick’s barking over grungy guitarwork. These lowlights include the completely idiotic number ‘Fight’ which has no melody to add to the energy, just a bunch of disgusting Kiss-like power chords that put Keith’s name to shame; the slightly less forgettable title track, which is at least tighter and features some traditional lightning-speed interplay between Keith and Ronnie in the vein of ‘Respectable’; the mid-tempo pointless ‘Winning Ugly’ which sounds like a cross between late-period Kinks and a shitty mid-Eighties synth-pop band like Europe; and finally, the totally unlistenable shitty mess ‘Hold Back’ which is by far the most horrible track ever recorded by the band. Too bad the song opens with a nice-sounding riff and ends with some interesting ‘guitar-weaving’ ideas, because the vocal melody is absent – it is replaced by random rambling barkings from Mr J. that will give even the stoutest Stones fan a headache of a lifetime. One can only wonder to what extent did the people assembled in the studio on that day hate each other and the world, to produce such a hideous sonic monster.
The “less venomous” songs don’t give much consolation, either. Jagger’s attempts at dance-pop (‘Back To Zero’) don’t hold a candle to their earlier (and later) disco experiments; it’s even weaker and less memorable than some of Mick’s contemporary solo grooves. The opening rocker ‘One Hit (To The Body)’ somewhat redeems the situation with its strong acoustic/electric interplay and the only bit of what might be genuine emotion on this album, and the cover of ‘Harlem Shuffle’ is at least decent. However, the two Keith-sung tracks are ridiculous: ‘Too Rude’ is yet another reggae excourse with childish lyrics and singing over a mess of electronic drums, and ‘Sleep Tonight’ is yet another wailing in the vein of ‘Coming Down Again’. Never mind, though, – the lack of melody only serves to hide his lack of singing abilities.
So here you go – one entertaining song, two or three vaguely interesting ones, and horrid bullshit music everywhere else. How on earth could they make an album that bad is what baffles me completely. Oh well, they probably were just so pissed off they just couldn’t do anything more solid than this. On the face of it, this is an interesting historical document featuring their ‘bad times’. Rename it ‘The Story Of Two Friends Turned Enemies’, have a listen and throw it away (if you’re not a completist, of course).
P.S. An important notice: bad as the record is, it IS the Rolling Stones. See, I have a theory that when a genius is a genius, the presence of the genius is felt even in the weakest things he produces – and Dirty Work fully corresponds to this theory, seeing as how I maybe only gave this record four or five full listens in my life and I’m still able to remember more or less how every song goes. Yes, even ‘Hold Back’. Isn’t that amusing? Stupid simplistic bunches of power chords, and they’re still attention-capturing. Certainly gives you some food for thought, doesn’t it?
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.