Classic Rock Review

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The Rolling Stones Undercover (1983)

untitledFrom musicemiisions.com

This album does not get the credit it deserves – among music fans or anywhere else for that matter. Too many times it is written off as a conjunction of the Stones playing at the eighties, with a throwback to the edginess of the punk-dominated late seventies and the Stones missing their aim by some considerable degree wide of the mark. Yet, when all is said and done, this is a good solid listen. The Stones knew their craft and they could belt out some classics when they wanted too. They sure belted out a few on this one despite the negativity.
OK, if you don’t like the Stones you are probably not going to like this. And if you are new to the Stones then I would agree that this is not a place you should start to explore the band and all they have to offer. But the Stones had latched on to a formula for albums and it had worked for them so well over the years, so why change it. That may be the antithesis of what we expect from music these days, but in truth, everyone needs a reference point and the Stones provide musically as a good a reference point as you can get.

The Stones’ later catalogue has been derided as a pale rehashing their old material and relying on a surfeit of sexist and sexual imagery to sell. That accusation does not give due credit to what the Stones are. Simply put, they do not need to pretend to be great rockers – they simply are great rockers. And as for using sex to sell, well surely that is a barb too deep: a) sex sells anyway whether or not the Stones or someone else does it and b) the Stones have been doing it for years and continue to do it better than almost anyone else. They may no longer have been the only ones striking this pose, but they provided a template for others to follow and mimic, and sometimes the pupil can outshine the master.

Whether it is the suggestive smuttiness of “Undercover of the Night”, the brazenly exploitative cover of a naked woman in a pose which suggests bondage and sexual humiliation or whether it is the gore-slaked video of “Too Much Blood” the Stones showed they were still able to engage in controversy when they felt like it. You could argue that the band were simply going through the motions this time and that they were being controversial for the sake of it – an attempt to boost a flagging career with some good honest filth, but again you would be wide of the mark.

So in retort, “the times have changed and the Stones haven’t changed with them.” Maybe that is true, but has no one around here heard of the oft-used cliché, enduring popularity. In truth, when someone writes off the Stones as simply going through the motions, you must remember that the Stones doing that, if that is a fair critique of their approach, then they do it far better than the rest. And apart from anything else, this album has aged a lot better than many of its critics would have imagined it capable of when it first came out.

So come on, listen to this for what it is. A few great tracks and a couple of fillers. That has been the Stones way for decades. When they rock they rock, so rock with it and ditch the prejudices. This may not be the best Stones album of all time – far from it – but it still has plenty to offer and to ignore that offering is to overlook the fact that the Stones were, by this time, the only band who were capable of doing this just as they had twenty years before (albeit in somewhat different circumstances).

March 3, 2013 Posted by | The Rolling Stones Undercover | | Leave a comment

The Rolling Stones Undercover (1983)

untitledFrom starling.rinet.ru

This is the disastrous album that ruined them – well, at least, it ruined them in my eyes, almost entirely. It’s actually a compliment to the Stones that, as much as this record is the closest they ever got to ‘self-parody’, it’s still listenable and, indeed, enjoyable in many respects – but we’re talking Stones standards here, and that’s different. If the ‘Still Life’ tour was the starting point for the ruination of their live reputation (how’s that with words?), Undercover marked the studio downfall. The Eighties finally caught up with the bad guys of rock’n’roll.

And it’s not that the actual melodies are that bad, mind you. Of course, most of them can’t be rated among the Stones’ best, but they are decent nevertheless, and a ‘decent tune’ for the Stones is still miles better than a supersong for most any other band. In fact, on an individual level I’ve grown to love some of the numbers – and I couldn’t even say that there are any particularly offensive ones on here (not when it comes around to music, at least).

The main problem with Undercover is that its main aim was to showcase the band’s status as The Most Raunchy And Debauched Group In The World rather than its status as The Best Rock’n’Roll Group In The World. Thus, the songs are mostly focused on funk, lyrical offense and hooliganry. The general mood is either that of a sexual character (‘She Was Hot’), or of an extreme sexual character (‘Tie You Up (The Pain Of Love)’); or of a maniacal, gory character (‘Too Much Blood’); or of a political character (‘Undercover Of The Night’). All of these except for ‘Tie You Up’ were accompanied by provocative videos, which are harmless fun, but really don’t do too much honour to the Stones, except for being notorious for being banned on a lot of channels around the world. Apparently, these songs were written for the videos – isn’t it far more fun to discuss Jagger being shot through the head by terrorists, Richards blowing the top off the thermometer at the sight of a hot chick, or both Ronnie and Keith chasing Mick with chainsaws than to discuss the actual musical value of the songs?

Which is present, by the way. ‘Undercover Of The Night’ establishes a terrific funky groove, replete with echoey fade-in/fade-out guitars and terrifying solos. ‘She Was Hot’ is an excellent piece of uncompromised Berryesque boogie, with stinging poisonous guitars and a brilliant resolution of the vocal melody. I even like the dance-pop number ‘Too Much Blood’ and its wonderful use of the brass section. Who’s playing those New Wave-ish guitars, I wonder? If it’s Keith Richards, I bow my head – it sounds more like David Byrne than anything else. Add to this all that rapping from Mick, and you get arguably the least Rolling Stones-sounding track the Rolling Stones ever released. Heck, I have to confess that even ‘Tie You Up’ constitutes a guilty pleasure for me – Mick plunges headfirst into the world of sex, sadism and raunch on that one, but he is still able to prove that nobody’s able to do that with more inborn grace than he can.

Lesser known songs are all tolerable as well. A couple overproduced, but memorable rockers (‘Pretty Beat Up’, ‘Too Tough’) cool you down after all the genre and instrumentation experiments on the first side – those also including the electronic reggae excourse of ‘Feel On Baby’, a very strange atmospheric track that may drag on for too long, but is still involving. There’s some kind of strange, unequalled longing and passion in the song that may be all fake, of course, but which sucks me in anyway. Plus, it’s drowned in all those early Roxy Music-like noises, wails, bleeps and bloops that form the perfect dreary introduction to the horrors of ‘Too Much Blood’. Stupid? Un-Stones-like? And more than that, but you can’t deny that the song has something in it anyway.

What I’m not really fond of are the other three numbers – ‘I Wanna Hold You’ is Keith on autopilot (it looks like he’d made up one verse of this mediocre love song in about ten seconds and improvised the rest on the spot); ‘All The Way Down’ is Mick on autopilot (a rocker that follows the Stones’ rocking formula on the surface but has nothing for the avid listener to cling to); and ‘It Must Be Hell’ closes the album with a riff borrowed from ‘Soul Survivor’ and little else, if you do not count the preachy preachy lyrics. Still, I can’t even accuse the songs of not being memorable. ‘Dance’ is unmemorable; these sure are.

So why only a five for an album that has no truly bad songs? Because it certainly doesn’t deserve any more. I don’t feel any freshness of approach here, nor do I hear any new, admirable hooks. All I see is dirty, simplistic straightforwardness that DOES prompt me into action, but never really causes me to admire anything about it. We all need something simple and gutsy at times – heck, that’s what all those Kiss and AC/DC records are there for – but until 1983, I did not have the need to judge the Stones on a ‘simple and gutsy’ level. Starting from Sticky Fingers, it was obvious that Mick tended to steer the band in this direction; but it wasn’t until Undercover that I could clearly say ‘this record places the raunch in the foreground and the music in the background’. In this case, I can certainly say that. This isn’t a record that was needed to be made. Nor was the following one, but that’s another story.

March 3, 2013 Posted by | The Rolling Stones Undercover | | Leave a comment

The Rolling Stones Undercover (1983)

untitledFrom blogcritics.org

During the recording of Undercover, the glimmer twins began their feud. Fresh off the hard stuff Keith Richards wanted to contribute a more focused amount of classic blues based rock toward the next Stones album and Mick Jagger who has steered the group successfully through Keith’s cloudy drug hazed years was headed into an altogether more experimental direction. All did not sit well in the camp.

In the end neither side was victorious and Undercover became the Marmite of the Rolling Stones back catalogue. Not ultra modern nor soaked in the blues, it was loved and loathed in equal measures by Stones fans. The record is these days considered an oddity, some would harshly say that in 1983 the band finally jumped the shark. Whilst it is clear to see that any such claims are not completely unjustified, Undercover holds up well today. It did not help that come it’s release that the band decided not to tour the LP, instead the fans had to focus on the somewhat weak videos that were getting heavily promoted on MTV for the Undercover Of The Night and She Was Hot singles. When you consider how old they were even back in the early 1980’s I can hardly imagine the teenage girls going too crazy over these bouncing granddads across the TV screen.

Take the lead track here, harshly voted one of the worst tracks ever shafted onto the public from a great band by Mojo Magazine, it’s heated political lyrics and broken riff refrain make it an obvious single choice but when it finishes, that’s when the record really begins. She Was Hot follows in triumph, usurping that before it with swagger and balls. It may have flopped as a single but in this context it is Undercover’s heartbeat. Fans will know that it has recently been reintroduced into their live set where it belongs. It lays the foundation for the return to writing new materiel after the 1981 mega selling Tattoo You disc which comprised of stellar leftovers and outtakes from their more than illustrious 1970’s output.

Thank goodness for Keith though. I get the feeling if Mick was left to his own devices on this the bands twenty-third album, tracks such as Undercover Of The Night and Too Much Blood which is the only true weak point here would have filled the album. Richards offers up some low down grit with his Wanna Hold You effort. His unenthusiastic vocal provides much needed respite from the over excitable Jagger, a shame when you’re only at track four. It’s because of this for me the album doesn’t reach the same heights as the more classic Rolling Stones offerings such as Let It Bleed and Some Girls, in fact it doesn’t even have the same repeat play factor of 2005’s A Bigger Bang to entice you into uncovering hidden treasures. Undercover gives us an up front and laid bare Stones, even with a few misfires you have to remember it is still The Rolling Stones and The Rolling Stones don’t mess about when they get going, no matter what their combined age.

The second single, “She Was Hot,” is a rocker that suffered from the aforementioned overproduction. I would have liked to have heard this song stripped down to its basics. The song did not crack the American top 40.

The Ron Wood song, “Pretty Beat Up,” features a nice sax solo by David Sanborn and Ron Wood’s competent guitar. Naturally Mick and Keith took a co-writing credit. Ron Wood still performs this song in his live solo act.

There was a lot of not so good material on the album. “All The Way Down” was just grinding it out rock ‘n’ roll. “Wanna Hold You” is an average Keith Richards song at best. Such songs as “Too Much Blood,” “Feel On Baby,” and “All The Way Down” equal more filler than any Stones album past or present. “It Must Be Hell” closes the album and is an inept song about inept political leaders.

I wish I could say the main problem with Undercover is that it does not hold up well but the problems with this album go much deeper. The song structures and particularly the melodies are not up to Rolling Stones standards. There is also no real classic song to build around, nor are their any memorable ballads. The final test, for me at least, is that I do not play this album as I do with many of the other Rolling Stones releases, and that is the most telling criticism.

March 3, 2013 Posted by | The Rolling Stones Undercover | | Leave a comment

The Rolling Stones Undercover (1983)

untitledFrom magnetmagazine.com

In one of the most starkly honest moments of Life, his remarkable autobiography, Keith Richards describes his awakening of sorts, beginning in the late ‘70s. After being busted in Toronto for heroin possession, the Stones guitarist luckily avoided jail time and cleaned himself up (for the most part). With his cookies relatively un-fazed, Richards soon realized the amount of control that Mick Jagger now had over the band. During the previous few years, the frontman was forced to keep the house in order, so to speak, while his Glimmer Twin was semi-indisposed (though still managing to write incredible rock songs). As he attempted to take back some of the reins after his recovery, Jagger was reluctant to oblige and, in Keef’s words, “started to become unbearable.” All was not well in Stonesland, with the future seemingly in jeopardy—“When you think about it, we’d been together 25 years or so before the shit really hit the fan. So the view was, this was bound to happen. This happens to all bands eventually, and now’s the test. Does it hold together?”

Of course, since we’ve seen this movie, we all know that they did hold together, currently holding the title of greatest sexagenarian rock band in the world. It’s staggering to think about, but there has been an entity called the Rolling Stones for more than 50 years; most of us haven’t lived a day where there wasn’t such a thing—they’ve always just been there. So if any of us are around to see the day when the comfort of the Stones is no more, it will be a worrisome change. (Though don’t count on it; as the old joke goes, the only thing to survive an atomic bomb will be Keith Richards and the cockroaches.) But like everything else, the Rolling Stones will eventually come to an end, and in the ‘80s, just like nuclear warfare, it almost happened.

With Some Girls, the Stones proved their relevance in the aftermath of punk; Emotional Rescue waded deeper into the funk and disco they had previously flirted with; Tattoo You and the resulting American/European tours not only cemented their Rock God status, but heightened it. So now what? They had given enough blood to the world that they certainly didn’t owe anyone anything. If they ended it right then and there, their legacy was already intact—though the same could have been said five, 10 or 20 years prior. We can’t answer why they kept going, and most likely, neither can they. But so far, the Rolling Stones were smart enough to keep a step ahead of the seasons of staleness; as they prepared to record their next album in late ’82, Jagger knew this most of all.

As the band had done for the past few years, they chose to record the bulk of the next album at Paris’ Pathé-Marconi Studios, with the production help of Chris Kimsey. First working with the group years earlier as engineer on Sticky Fingers, Kimsey had since become their regular co-producer, from Some Girls on. Before the rest of the band arrived in France, Mick and Keith spent a few weeks that November recording demos in a small studio, instead of writing while recording, which they usually did. Soon after, the full group assembled at Pathé-Marconi, working for the better part of a month, before breaking for the holidays. Tensions were beginning to run high, but perhaps the time off would cool things down.

It didn’t. When sessions resumed in February, the creative tug-of-war between Jagger and Richards had gotten even worse. Richards wanted to keep the band’s blues-rock roots for the most part; Jagger, on the other hand, wanted the group to experiment and keep up with the dance pop of the time. As Richards describes in Life, “Coming back after a few months apart, I realized that Mick’s taste in music had often changed quite drastically. He wanted to lay on me the latest hit he heard at a disco. But it’s already been done, pal. At the time we were doing Undercover in 1983, he was just trying to out-disco everybody. It all sounded to me like some rehash of something he heard in a club one night … Mick was chasing musical fashion. I had a lot of problems with him trying to second-guess the audience. This is what they’re into this year. Yeah, what about next year, pal? You just become one of the crowd. And anyway, that’s never the way we’ve worked.”

It’s easy to see both sides of the argument. By sticking with the familiar, you run the risk of retreading yourself; however, you don’t want to lose integrity by becoming a replica of something else. Mixing these two opinions through compromise would seem ideal, but there was more between these two than musical differences—“This situation was a culmination of things that had been going on for several years. The immediate problem was that Mick had developed an overriding desire to control everything. As far as he was concerned, it was Mick Jagger and them … Now there was Mick’s world, which was a socialite world, and our world … The band, including myself, were now basically hirelings. That had always been his attitude to everyone else, but never to the band. When it dripped over onto us, that was it.” Of course, that’s only one side of the story and we can only theorize what Jagger thinks. Perhaps, there was some resentment towards Richards for wanting to take back control after Jagger steered the ship during his heavy drug periods. With only an outside view, one can’t even fathom what Mick and Keith went through all those years—from children to rock stars, and everything in between. The only certainty is that their relationship was never the same.

After other overdubs in the Bahamas and New York, and in spite of all the conflicts (plus the worsening drug addictions of Charlie Watts and Ron Wood), Undercover was finished in August ’83. Released in November of that year, “Undercover Of The Night” was the album’s opener and first single. Listening to the fiery funk beat, it’s clear that this is mostly Jagger’s composition. Though the lyrics deal with the political corruption of South America, an important element from Jamaica drives the song: the rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. The duo were a major force in reggae music, producing and playing with some of its biggest names (including Black Uhuru, through which, they met the Stones). Shakespeare replaces Bill Wyman here on bass, but his sporadic playing suits the paranoid feel. Among other percussionists, Watts’ driving backbeat is mixed with the dub-echo of Dunbar’s electronic drums, giving the track an interesting, though very period, soundscape.

Before being banned on MTV because of viewer complaints, the original unedited video for “Undercover Of The Night” featured a mini-movie based around the themes of the song. Jagger plays a detective investigating the kidnapping of a teenage girl in South America, though he’s trailed by the party responsible, a mob leader played by Richards. The climax of the video culminates with Keith graphically killing Mick’s character with a machine gun. Like most of the album, the subtext is too obvious to ignore. The tension during the recording had seeped into the music, whether consciously or subconsciously. Angry, violent lyrics abound on Undercover, particularly on songs like “It Must Be Hell,” “Tie You Up (The Pain Of Love)” and “Pretty Beat Up.”

Though it’s meant as a critique of ‘80s culture, “Too Much Blood” contains the most convulsive imagery on the entire record; it’s also its highlight. Featuring another mutant disco beat from Watts and Dunbar, alongside a bed of rhythm guitars, Mick delivers a half-rap that references The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and details the horrifying true story of Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who murdered his date, then devoured her body piece by piece. Over the oddly alluring horns and slick, reverbed overproduction, he yelps, “I can feel it in the air, feel it up above/Feel the tension everywhere, there’s too much blood!” (The single also featured a disturbing video, as Richards and Wood chase after Jagger with chainsaws.) It’s undoubtedly one of the strangest songs in the Stones’ catalog, a warped look at a pop-culture landscape that’s only gotten more perverse as time drags on.

Amid all the gore, there’s very few happy moments on Undercover, but the pure glee of “Wanna Hold You” almost balances it out. Written and sung by Keith, the song takes the standard pop conceit of a poor man who can only promise his woman love, and creates a dazzling positivity, one reminiscent of another Richards classic, “Happy.” It’s a simple pop song, but it inverts the dour, blood-and-guts feeling that pervades the record, giving it a much-needed break.

Though its sales were successful, Undercover has come to represent a dark period for the Rolling Stones. It’s now considered one of the band’s weaker releases, which is unfair; there are more than a few stunning moments throughout, and it’s, dare I say, the last quality studio album in the band’s history. Unsurprisingly, the Stones have distanced themselves from Undercover in recent years, which to them, features little more than bad memories. For the Glimmer Twins, it’s the start of a downhill relationship; for Wood and Watts, it’s a sobering reminder of their struggles with drug and alcohol addiction; Wyman isn’t even in the band anymore. Though they went on hiatus a few years after, the Rolling Stones have continued to soldier through the muck, unwilling (or unable) to let it keep them from their rock ‘n’ roll. Take comfort in them now, ‘cause they aren’t gonna be there forever.

March 3, 2013 Posted by | The Rolling Stones Undercover | | Leave a comment

The Rolling Stones Undercover (1983)

untitledFrom wallernotweller.wordpress.com

During the recording of Undercover, the glimmer twins began their feud. Fresh off the hard stuff Keith Richards wanted to contribute a more focused amount of classic blues based rock toward the next Stones album and Mick Jagger who has steered the group successfully through Keith’s cloudy drug hazed years was headed into an altogether more experimental direction. All did not sit well in the camp.

In the end neither side was victorious and Undercover became the Marmite of the Rolling Stones back catalogue. Not ultra modern nor soaked in the blues, it was loved and loathed in equal measures by Stones fans. The record is these days considered an oddity, some would harshly say that in 1983 the band finally jumped the shark. Whilst it is clear to see that any such claims are not completely unjustified, Undercover holds up well today.

It did not help that come it’s release that the band decided not to tour the LP, instead the fans had to focus on the somewhat weak videos that were getting heavily promoted on MTV for the Undercover Of The Night and She Was Hot singles. When you consider how old they were even back in the early 1980’s I can hardly imagine the teenage girls going too crazy over these bouncing granddads across the TV screen.

Take the lead track here, harshly voted one of the worst tracks ever shafted onto the public from a great band by Mojo Magazine, it’s heated political lyrics and broken riff refrain make it an obvious single choice but when it finishes, that’s when the record really begins. She Was Hot follows in triumph, usurping that before it with swagger and balls.

It may have flopped as a single but in this context it is Undercover’s heartbeat. Fans will know that it has recently been reintroduced into their live set where it belongs. It lays the foundation for the return to writing new materiel after the 1981 mega selling Tattoo You disc which comprised of stellar leftovers and outtakes from their more than illustrious 1970’s output.

Thank goodness for Keith though. I get the feeling if Mick was left to his own devices on this the bands twenty-third album, tracks such as Undercover Of The Night and Too Much Blood which is the only true weak point here would have filled the album. Richards offers up some low down grit with his Wanna Hold You effort. His unenthusiastic vocal provides much needed respite from the over excitable Jagger, a shame when you’re only at track four.

It’s because of this for me the album doesn’t reach the same heights as the more classic Rolling Stones offerings such as Let It Bleed and Some Girls, in fact it doesn’t even have the same repeat play factor of 2005’s A Bigger Bang to entice you into uncovering hidden treasures. Undercover gives us an up front and laid bare Stones, even with a few misfires you have to remember it is still The Rolling Stones and The Rolling Stones don’t mess about when they get going, no matter what their combined age.

March 2, 2013 Posted by | The Rolling Stones Undercover | | Leave a comment