Thursday, June 18, 2009

Get up, get out, into something new: The Rolling Stones' Mall Rat Years

"The Mall-Rat Years" is Rob Sheffield's apt description of Ye Olde Rolling Stones between 1978's Some Girls and 1983's Undercover -- the period when the death of disco as a commercial force signaled a return to AOR verities (I would have included Mick Jagger's 1985 solo album She's The Boss; I didn't have MTV but I did hear "Just Another Night" a lot on the radio). The Stones were uniquely qualified to exploit conservatism regnant, as their sales proved. Checking the figures, I was shocked to learn that Some Girls is their best-selling album, period (six million), with Tattoo You not far behind (four million). Then again, "Start Me Up" was a monster hit (Number Two for several weeks); Sheffield rightly points out that teens in that period didn't give a damn about history and context -- the kids "shook mullet when `She's So Cold' or `Little T&A' hit the radio in between Journey and Foreigner." The kids knew the Stones as just another damn fine rock band. This was pretty much my take when I jumped on the bandwagon in 1989 after hearing "Mixed Emotions," which I still rather like.

Despite the welcome news that the 33 1/3 series has commissioned a book on Some Girls, this remains a comparatively unexplored period in the band's history. Credit engineer Chris Kimsey, the engineer who got a thin, hard sound out of the band's guitars (Jagger now joined Keef and Woody, a move which did much to change their sound) and a new suppleness out of Wyman's bass. The first album is an acknowledged classic, part of the oft-used bit of rockcrit taxonomy which includes Scary Monsters and Blood on the Tracks, among others (as in "Bridges to Babylon is their best album since Some Girls...").

The rest:

Emotional Rescue remains underrated, despite "She's So Cold" and the terrible title track; Jagger and Richards were writing so many good songs in this period, together and separately, that any album comprised of Some Girls leftovers will hold up better than Black and Blue (I rep for "Summer Romance" and "Let Me Go"). Hell, on a good day it might even top Some Girls. The great thing about being cynical veterans who've scored a comeback coup is that you have little to prove on your next outing except justifying that advance. Spend more time with "Dance (Part One)," a crunchy punk-disco tune with a great call-and-response Mick and Keith vocal movement that Franz Ferdinand should spend more time studying.

Tattoo You represents their professional peak. It doesn't matter that "Start Me Up" is my least favorite major Stones single; the second and third ones ("Waiting on a Friend" and "Hang Fire") are vulnerable and political, respectively. If you can smell the calculation behind them, well, si si ils est rock stars; their craft helps them simulate vulnerability and political conviction. "Neighbors" is a thrashy number about how Keith won't let Mick sleep. "Little T & A" lets Keith try his best Pepe Le Pew accent ("She's my little rock and roll, haw haw HAW!"). My favorite track, though, is on the second, "slow" side: "Heaven," featuring Jagger whimpering love man jive while playing a heavily phased guitar over minimal accompaniment from Watts and Wyman. It completes a transformation some of us have waited years to see: Jagger into sound effect, voice so distorted and flanged that you wonder if Eno or Lindsey Buckingham snuck in behind the boards (the most moving part occurs when he sings "nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah").

Notorious Stones booster Bob Christgau comes down notoriously hard on Undercover ("what do people hear in this murky, overblown, incoherent piece of shit?"). It's a better album than, say, Steel Wheels, but liking this album depends largely on your tolerance for Mick bellowing lines like "feel the hot cum, drippin' on your thighs." Keef and Woody play their asses off, as if they still think they're recording Some Girls. I think you won't miss it if you forget to buy it. The videos at this point are more entertaining than the songs. Keepers: "She Was Hot," in which Woody's guitar melts in the presence of hotness; and "Too Much Blood," in which Keef runs after a mugging Mick with a fuckin' chainsaw as Sly and Robbie churn a helluva groove (Arthur Baker's twelve-inch mix is pretty phenomenal).

Dirty Work (1986) doesn't fall within the parameters of this discussion. Here's hoping the band realizes the worth of the greatest sleeper of their career.


Hans said...

Funny you post this. I've been looking into my Stones ignorance this week for some reason.
That sounds retarded- but it's true, I don't know the Stones the way I know the Beatles. And in fact, it's very easy not to for most people. I KNOW, say, those 40 Licks songs very well, and some spare change, and that would pretty much be anything anyone needs to know from most mortal bands (how many bands HAVE 40+ songs you MUST know?) But when you have a band with the longevity of the Stones, 50 songs is really just skimming. It makes it easy to be lazy on them for me. And then I just heard a very good early album like "Between the Buttons" and I go like: None of these tracks are famous- I don't know ANYTHING about the Stones!
Something to work on.

Sach O said...

This is appreciated. The danger with a band that's been covered Ad Nauseum like the Stones is that once a critical consensus has been reached about which of their albums are great, there's a huge tendency to take that consensus at face value. Of course, you can't blame people for being weary about "80's Stones" but the reward for digging around those huge catalogues often eclipses the more popular passtime of reissuing some tiny punk label's entire catalogue on one cd.

As for me, I'll always hold Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile as their definite peak, if only because the songwriting was so blistering at that point that they were released filler-free (Some Girls also deserves that accolade). But I'm sure there are cheap copies of Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You with my name on them in some used record store waiting to be bought.

Alfred Soto said...

I'm not creating new hierarchies -- just expecting listeners to dip into an extensive catalogue with the hope of constructing new ones. I WISH someone had weaned me on the Stones' catalogue instead of the Beatles when I was in high school -- it wouldn't have stymied me.