Thursday, 5 September 2013
Note: a little something extra for you this week, which I thought had been lost, my university dissertation on The Monkees in relation to postmodernism. It was posted at our old site (www.alansalbumarchives.moonfruit.com) but I've developed quite a lot more readers since being here at blogspot so didn't want you to miss out! This dissertation was submitted as part of my English/History degree. (for those who are interested, it was marked as a 2:1 qualification with a mark of 66/100!)Fans of the ‘Head’ film and soundtrack should enjoy it – the rest of you might find it a bit, shall we say, ‘monkeynuts’!!
“Demonstrate the Principles of the Postmodernist Genre, Using the Musical Band ‘The Monkees’ as Reference”
One of the key factors in postmodernism is that there are no boundaries between art-forms and that all culture - ‘high’ or ‘low’ - is deserving of study. With the breaking of traditional borderlines between what constitutes television, music or literature I felt that the greatest way to get to the heart of such a complex and ambiguous movement was to look at an area that dealt with all these genres. I am fully aware that The Monkees may seem like a strange choice for a dissertation subject. However, they represent the pivot of several postmodernist concepts, as at various times television, music, consumerism and the sixties have all been called postmodernist. The Monkees were pioneers in all of these areas and by blurring the boundaries between art and business, television and music, and fantasy and reality they showcase several postmodernist principles that should prove my case that The Monkees is a fully deserving subject for analysis. As the first multimedia experiment to explore Butor’s ideas that man is now surrounded by conflicting information from birth and by creating programmes on the boundaries between reality and fantasy, The Monkees developed several postmodernist ideas.
Before I show this, though, a brief outline of postmodernism is essential. However, there is no one over-riding concept to discuss. Also the definition of postmodernism has changed from the 1960s idea of rejecting ideas of advancement, through the 1970’s notion of revisiting the past with irony to the modern concern of societal collapse and fragmentation. Certainly postmodernism is a response to modernism, a movement of fragmentation following technological advances and social changes such as two world wars and an increased role in the media. Postmodernism builds on modernism, rejecting meta-narratives such as religion and science and emphasising the dislocation in a society now more dependent on media and the impact this has on ‘abstract’ ideas like ‘meaning’ and ‘identity’. “Reality is a description; this was the discovery average Americans made in the 1960s” (Klinkowitz) which led to other concepts like multiple perceptions, truth and distortion that analyse how we view the world. Postmodernism links to anti-essentialism, with even the best scholars failing to re-create the depth of their feelings and experiences in words, so that any text is always open to ambiguity and different interpretations.
Yet “whereas modernism wished but failed to abolish the past, postmodernism revisits it, at any historical time, with irony” (Eco – Notes). Realising this means that the only reliable source of reference is the source material itself, several postmodernist works display reflexivity where the fictitious world present in the novel is destroyed in order to remind the reader that they are reading a book and not the true answer to life’s questions. With only itself as reference, many books also blur the line between art and criticism - a feature also common to The Monkees’ format. In essence, postmodernism is about disregarding categorisation as all previous rules have been too simplistic, and only by taking into account the multitude of ideas by everybody in existence can we see ‘truth’. In 1966, The Monkees were probably the first TV series to make use of this concept; the use of music breaking the boundaries between genres, as well splicing reality with fantasy and continually self-referencing and parodying its status as a television programme. Whereas modernism wanted to bring order to chaos, postmodernism wants to bring chaos to order as this reflects the fragmentation of life – a concept that fits the anarchic and irrelevant comedy of The Monkees superbly.
In particular, “television has sometimes been seen almost as a symbol for postmodernism itself” (Ward 11), making art easily accessible to all and enclosing everything inside it’s own universe. Whilst many television shows merely present information in a direct manner The Monkees took postmodernist ideas to a logical conclusion, continually trying to fool the eye by means of speeded-up shots, broadcast out-takes and a sense of irony that undermines the whole concept of a make-believe world. Braudrillard believes “we can experience the world only through a kind of filter of preconceptions and expectations fabricated in advance by a culture swamped with images” (Ward 60) and “the distinction between simulation and reality has collapsed” (Ward 66) – a consideration evoked by the Monkees’ re-visitation of past stereotypes with irony. The Monkees were also one of the first programmes to fulfil Saussure’s ideas, emphasising production over product by merging scripts and improvisation and referring to scriptwriters and directors as well as revealing the presence of cameras and microphones. Also, whereas Modernism praises ‘originality’ Postmodernism “devalues concepts of uniqueness” (Bertens) and encourages teamwork – which The Monkees fulfil by encouraging cameramen, assistants and electricians to contribute ideas.
However, The Monkees ultimately balance the concepts of originality and mass-production, being both a synthetic creation intended to make money and pioneers in being the first to use interaction between media. Perhaps even more than television, music is integral to The Monkees’ format and works by quite different means. More serious issues could be raised away from the comedic scripting, dealing with self-criticism and the absence of centre crucial to postmodernism. Whilst harder to pinpoint than television scripts, I will also be analysing relevant lyrics and during section one will be combining the two fields where appropriate before discussing in more detail two examples that concern The Monkees attempting to take control of their own destiny – a common feature in postmodernist works.
As Dumas claims, “The Monkees were the first post-modern rock band. A creation of the media looking for a way to cash in on the emerging counter-culture, The Monkees sang about themselves (‘Hey! Hey! We are The Monkees!’), starred in a self-titled TV show about themselves and the characters in the band had the same names as the actors who portrayed them: Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Davy Jones. It was the epitome of self-referential pop art, and back in 1966, people confused the line between fantasy and reality” (Internet One). Yet there is no “unified intellectual movement with a definite goal or perspective” and postmodernism “does not have a single dominant theoretician or spokesperson” (Ward 3). As a result, I shall be looking at several differing and occasionally contradictory arguments put forward by several postmodernist deities, well-known and obscure, as well as comparing examples of the Monkees’ work to novels by established postmodernist authors. Overall, this dissertation is intended to show that postmodernism is not only incidental but integral to The Monkees’ concept and that this could not have taken place without the mind-set of postmodernism philosophers becoming mainstream.
One of the reasons I have chosen to study this particular group is that the Monkees concept addresses two key postmodernist ideas. As “the first time that television and mass industries combined forces in a concerted attack against the American consumer” (Baker 37), The Monkees epitomise the theory of business dictating art. Jameson considers postmodernism to be “a condition arising out of the development in the sixties of a late, consumer phase of capitalism” (Rice/ Waugh 290) and the influence of businesses on the art-world has changed our perceptions of abstract principles like ‘beauty’ or ‘identity’. Best even takes this further and sees consumerism as a deliberate ploy of societal control, a form of brainwashing by marketing majority groups and acceding to their needs at the sake of individualism (Chaos and the Void Web-site). By creating it’s own musical group, the music and television industries at first held a greater control over their ‘product’ than at any time previous and were able to maximise their profits by having the one genre encourage the sales of another. However, The Monkees also fit a second concept as “Like an actor playing Hamlet who suddenly refuses to die at the end of the play, The Monkees wanted to become what they’d been hired to portray” (Dumas – Internet One). By taking control of their own products, The Monkees mirror the attempts of characters to escape authorial control in the works of Vonnegut and Gray. “The concern of many postmodern novels is precisely this: the simultaneity of power and subversion” (*Hagemann?!*) and can be seen in the allegory of the institute for capitalism in ‘Lanark’. Generally postmodernism is concerned with the individual attempting to determine their place in a consumerist society and The Monkees can be seen as a microcosm of this, trying to establish their own identities and musical ideas despite the ‘demands’ of business practices.
Another major concept is that The Monkees were an early experiment in multimedia. Mass media plays a key role in postmodernism, as the information current generations receive comes less from first-hand experience and more from that given to us by a mediator – bringing up the debates of bias and interpretation. By working in multiple genres, The Monkees also demonstrate the inability of any one strand to show the whole meaning of life as that has to be viewed from a number of different perspectives. Returning to Butor’s idea that media have surrounded mankind with multiple ‘voices’, we have also seen the difficulty in determining fact from opinion. Previously the arts have been seen as an alternative to this, for the main part spreading fantasy not reality, but now the genres have become confused with authors such as Banville and Capote creating novels from their own re-visitation of real-life murder cases. “Once upon a time there were the mass media, and they were wicked of course, and they were a guilty party. Then there were the virtuous voices that accused the criminals and art (ah what luck!) offered alternatives, for those who were not prisoners of the mass media. Well, it’s all over. We have to start again from the beginning, asking one another what’s going on” (Ward 29). By providing information from two areas, The Monkees more closely relate to the border between media and art-form, reject rigid genre distinctions and demonstrate the interaction between two separate sources.
From the very beginning, The Monkees displayed its postmodernist philosophy. Unlike standard productions, there is no introduction of The Monkees to the audience, no ‘block characterization’ in a move that enables them to be seen more as people and real life, or perhaps that their ‘world’ existed long before a television crew ever arrived there. This mirrors the works by most postmodernist authors, who introduce their characters by their actions and thoughts, not their setting – although notably Caryl Churchill creates this effect by parodying traditional works and having her characters introduced by descriptions from the others – only for these descriptions to be laughably false. The first scene ever broadcast follows this strategy by setting up what appears to a factual genre of an interview with a member of the public, before breaking our illusions and our concept of reality when The Monkees finally appear :
Reporter: Welcome tonight to our man-in-the-street interview. It’s a wet night tonight, but we’re going to ask you a few questions. Now, sir, do you mind if I ask you a few questions please?
Man: Why surely
Reporter: Your name please?
Man: Dr. Turner. Lionel B Turner
Reporter: Dr. Turner, I see. Recently in our fair city there have been many acts of violence committed right here on the streets in full view of people like yourself
Reporter: They have just stood by and watched people being brutally attacked
Reporter: How do you feel about that sir?
Man: Disgusting. It is each man’s solemn duty to protect his fellow citizens
Reporter: If you saw a fight or a man being beaten, what would you do?
Man: I would involve myself physically. I would come in fist and feet flying. I would…
[Monkees arrive with DJ being attacked by other three]
DJ: Help! Oh, will some innocent by-stander please help me? How about you sir? [points to Turner who then runs off screaming, protecting his dignity by helping a little old lady cross the street; After they have crossed she then charges him $15 and places the change into a mini-cash till she is wearing]
In common with postmodernists, The Monkees also disrupt impressions of traditional story-telling, such as plot, narration and linear time development to better represent fragmented modern life with it’s randomness, biased outlook and memories. Both Vonnegut and Gray reveal their plots early on, as if to degrade our notions of what ‘answers’ the conclusion might reveal. Many television series – including The Monkees – dispense with a narrator, with the audience witnessing the characters first-hand, but here also there are a series of captions that comment on the action taking place challenging the ‘naturalness’ of the action taking place. One particular example, ‘episode #781’ (TX: 1/ 1996) , has the network return to The Monkees in 1996 as if the television series has never finished. By imprinting our linear time on a make-believe world, the episode - scripted by Nesmith – plays around with our concept of time. The plot also mirrors ‘The Man In The High Castle’ where “there is no plot, but only a great many characters in search of one” (Notes) by having the cast reject plot-lines they have already used before deciding their programme is better without one:
DJ: Hey guys, you don’t think that we really need a story-line?[…]
MN: Not really, not as long as we’re having a good time
DJ: You mean you think that it’s perfectly alright to have no visible means of support?
MD: Who says our means have to be visible?
DJ: Don’t you think we should have some dramatic tension, some drama, some distress, some…some…
MN: Why? I mean, we’ve been hanging around like this for years. I mean, once in every five years a good story comes along but other than that…On the beach, life is a bowl of oysters, what could be better?[…]
DJ: I’ve got it, alright, the landlord, he comes to the door to demand the last rent, right? And all of a sudden, we’re on a desert island, and we’re the other side from some buried treasure
MN: No, I mean we probably own the house by now and besides, who wants to do a story just for the sake of doing a story?
By using actors to effectively play themselves and by utilising improvisation over scripts, the television series emphasises postmodernism’s “ major pre-occupation… with the question, ‘what is reality?’ (Phillip Dick, net 3). “It is often through an internal boundary between art and life that the novel develops the self-commentary that gives it critical self-consciousness” (Currie 4) and this pull between the two is a chief concern here too. The interplay between real and imaginary also creates a self-conscious element that we are watching a television programme and makes us question the role such media play in our lives. Several postmodernists have studied this concept; Saussure has claimed that in a society of mass-production, production has replaced product as a source of originality, and by including interruptions from the director or by inserting interviews into the finished product, the Monkees could be said to do this. Ward further decrees that as reality now exists only by ‘codes’ or symbols, there is no boundary between the two. Freud also studied the concept of ‘under erasure’ and how mistakes still have an imprint on the finished product. In a way, the use of outtakes and improvisation on The Monkees resemble this with elements of ‘production’ permeating the final product, especially interviews with the cast that feature on half-a-dozen episodes and break the illusion of a fantastical world. One example in particular deflates the image of The Monkees as a carefree fantasy and reveals the ‘real’ work behind the series:
BR: Hey, Davy, tell me more about the pressure that builds up at the end of the day
DJ: Well, everybody’s tired, and they get irritable, y’know, and everybody starts getting mad and y’know everybody wants to go home, man. (Tears up paper, jumps to feet and kicks staircase in mock-anger) It’s a drag sitting here talking to you!
The producers may also have been trying to create a contrast to the imaginary sequences, as Sarup has claimed “When the borderline between the real and imaginary is eroded, reality is no longer checked, called to justify itself. It is ‘more real than real’ as it has become the only existence” (166) or ‘hyperreal’. The interjections of the director also mirror the author’s position as a character in the works of Vonnegut and Gray. Like the two authors, the directors are not fully in control as whilst they have the final say, the characters have a habit of improvising and partly escaping their director’s control. This technique means we are reminded that the work cannot ‘hold all the answers’ because we see it in process with all the mistakes and are reminded it is being made by ordinary people who have no more answers to life’s problems than we do.
This thin line between reality and invention is a key aspect of The Monkees’ concept that continues through each member’s respective solo careers, such as Nesmith’s album “Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash” which has Nesmith reaching out and physically merging with a painting so that the audience cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. (Appendix One). The Monkees was not a ‘programme’ in the traditional sense but a compromise between a ‘closed’ imaginary world and an ‘open’ live show that blended scripts and improvisation. “Complete scenes were sometimes discarded in favour of ad-lib conversations conceived on the set, often captured when actors presumed that the cameras had stopped rolling” (Baker 41). All characters used their own names and had a number of similarities to the past they played, as the producers “wanted four guys who could play themselves” (Reilly 3-4) – although the characters could also be very much separate from the actors’ characteristics, especially Tork’s. This fits a postmodernist viewpoint, as particularly Vonnegut felt that “there are no longer characters [in fiction] because people are the playthings of such enormous impersonal forces they defer representation within the conventions of traditional liberal bourgeois fiction” (Waugh 60s 70-71). The various script-writers also demonstrate this merging of a real and make-believe world, as from one week to the next they could be dealing with realistic issues like fighting over the same girl or losing a fixed talent contest before intercepting spy missions or meeting pirates . We also see ‘romp scenes’ where The Monkees temporally become super-heroes, gangsters, bull-fighters or any number of universally recognised symbols, with the camera presenting their imaginations to us rather than ‘real life’.
This point can be discerned by some examples from the televised output. In ‘The Picture Frame’ (TX: 18/9/67) The Monkees are deluded into thinking they have been cast as gangsters in a film, only to discover that they are taking part in a genuine robbery. The episode continually debates the differences between reality and creation, as for example The Monkees criticise a genuine policeman for not looking the part or performing in the right way. ‘Art for Monkees’ Sake’ (TX: 9/10/67) has Tork discovering that his paintings are so detailed that they resemble real objects and throughout the episode has characters mistaking his artwork for reality. This episode also closely resembles a plot feature of Phillip K Dick’s novel, “The Man In The High Castle” as Tork is forced to copy famous paintings to be sold which makes the original with it’s un-seen historical value even more valuable. A final example, ‘The Monstrous Monkee Mash’ (TX: 22/1/68) sees The Monkees entering their traditional fantasy sequence, only to find it manipulated by a vampire who wants to make their imaginations become real. The issue is further confused by having The Monkees call out to the director and their make-up man, making the audience believe that this is ‘genuine’ rather than scripted:
DJ: Hey someone’s coming, someone’s coming
MD: Don’t be silly, this is a fantasy sequence!
Vampire: I see you are already dressed, straighten up Davy Jones you have much to be proud of!
MD: What are you doing in here? This is our fantasy!
DJ: Yeah we’re the Monkees, you see in every show we do a fantasy sequence where we romp around, jump and do funny things and nobody interrupts us, nobody!
Vampire: It seems this show is different.
MD: Look, I’m warning you, get out of our fantasy sequence
DJ: Yes, ours
Vampire: You say in this fantasy sequence you can do whatever you want…is that so? [both agree] then perhaps you try to take off your monster make-up ha-ha-ha
MD: Of course I can get off this…[tugs] Make up! Make up!
DJ: Pops! Jack Williams! Ok, that’s enough, cut that camera, we are through, we are leaving
[camera cuts to reveal another camera which appears to have been filming last scene and a director’s chair…only in it is the vampire]
Vampire: You are wrong my friends if you think this is a fantasy. This is reality – and you are not in charge here, I am and I can control you any time I want simply by thinking about it. Wolfman, chain these two up. The fantasy is over, This is for keeps!
These examples demonstrate some very specific areas of postmodernism. However, The Monkees also fulfil much of the general philosophy of postmodernism, as “if there is a summarising idea it is the theme of the absent centre. The post-modern experience is widely held to stem from a profound sense of ontological uncertainty” in the midst of nuclear warfare, the Holocaust and two World Wars, making mankind re-evaluate all he has striven for in the name of progress (Seldon and Widdowson, Notes). Mass media and education have led to people being less convinced by concepts that had previously been taken for granted - for example religion or capitalism. Lyotard has called these concepts ‘meta-narratives’; “grand theories that attempt to define the world using a certain range of absolute values and ideas”(Internet Three). In the modern age, nothing is certain any longer and the individual is now caught in a ‘postmodernist void’ because he now has no guidelines for his existence. Postmodernist texts such as Lanark have dealt with this ‘void’ and the linked concept of the ‘logocentric myth’ or the need to have a purpose despite the knowledge that no one system can provide one. The main example of this in The Monkees’ output are Nesmith’s sleeve-notes again from ‘Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash’ that discuss these twin concepts before down-playing the role art plays in the world, as no one human can hold the answer to life and art is ultimately a further ‘meta-narrative’ unless it recognises this fact:
“[my life]has been built on logic, which is probably one of the subtlest traps going…that whole 2+2 trip…the logical development that leads to fear of anything outside itself […] I never could understand why, just about the time I would get it all together, all of a sudden the whole thing would vanish…just disappear…leaving me exactly where it found me…peering out from a column of numbers. Looking for the six that followed the five that followed the… I kept waiting for the song which would correct our foreign problems with Paraguay, cure cancer, or make everybody dress and talk like me. Instead I got love songs…I love you, loved you, will love you, was to have loved you, maybe won’t love you[…] And if I come to a fork in the road I don’t panic anymore, I just assume that one is the road and the other is a road off to the side”
Perhaps because of this lack of order, we crave for the logic that numerology represents, at the same time we know that logic cannot by rights exist. Numbers solve a lot of problems, but they do not reveal the reasons for our existence and on that level logic cannot provide us with order – we need art to complement logic. Another postmodernist concept is Saussure’s idea that words are ambiguous and have no fixed meaning -rather like colours exist along a spectrum and only gradually alter. In this sense language is forever evolving and in turn we can only identify ourselves by what we are not rather than what we are. Nesmith’s solo composition ‘I Am Not That’ deals with this concept, waving goodbye to ‘the iron world’ and embracing the ambiguities of life by determining what he is not:
I am not a poet, I cannot make a rhyme
I do not know the big words like ‘sprits’ and ‘paradigm’
I am not an artist, I could not paint my house
I cannot chisel marble, I do not twist and shout
I am not a Yankee, I have no nation state,
No cosmic star connection, I cannot get a date
I am not a crook, I am not a thief
To be for me is not to be, not to see to see
Goodbye, goodbye the iron world
Goodbye, goodbye so long
Farewell adieu, adieu farewell
I have not sung this song
This concept of interpretation also means that there is no such thing as ‘truth’, postmodernists preferring the expression ‘truths’ as this better expresses the idea of perspective. All knowledge passes through a medium – be it a writer or film director who - with all the best intentions in the world - must offer their own selection of what they mean. As Neitzsche concluded, truth is now “a sum of human relations which became poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphised, adorned, and after long usage seem to a nation fixed, canonic and binding: truths are illusions of which one has forgotten they are illusions; worn out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses”(Notes). A re-occurring theme in many works – notably those of Vonnegut and Gray – is of social truth and how mankind protects himself from the indignities of life. It may seem strange to link a ‘manufactured’ band to this image, but once The Monkees became committed to destroying their artificial image they destroyed other societal un-truths too, such as in Dolenz’s composition ‘Mommy and Daddy’. The originally un-released version demands children not to take the censorship of the world around them for granted, but look for themselves what the state of the world really is :
Ask your mommy and daddy what happened to the Indians
Ask your mommy and daddy to tell you where you really came from
Your mommy and daddy will probably quickly turn and walk away
Then ask your mommy and daddy “who really killed JFK?”
Ask your mommy if she really gets off on all her pills
Ask your daddy “why doesn’t that soldier care who he kills?”
After they’ve put you to sleep and tucked you safely down in your bed
Whisper mommy and daddy would you rather if the bullet went through my head?
If it was my blood spilling on the kitchen floor
If it was my blood mommy would you care a little more?
Don’t be surprised when they turn and start to cry
And tell your mommy and daddy, tell your mommy and daddy,
Screaming to your mommy and daddy, they’re living in a lie lie lie
It’s all a lie it’s all a lie lie it’s all lies lies lies………..
As Gray concluded, “the truth, you know, isn’t black or white. It’s black and white” (302). One song, ‘Shades of Gray’ (Mann/ Weil) fits this idea that life cannot be sorted into categorisations, that concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are not fixed and like many postmodernist novels yearns for a time when life was simplistic and ordered – the logo-centric myth discussed earlier:
When the world and I were young, just yesterday
Life was such a simple game a child could play
It was easier than to tell right from wrong
Easier than to tell weak from strong
When a man should stand and fight or just go along
But today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light
Today there is no black or white
Only shades of gray
Another resulting feature of multiplicity is that authority simply cannot exist, because it is dependent on people acclaiming one rule to be superior to all others, a fact that postmodernists simply cannot acknowledge. Whilst not anarchistic, there definitely seems to be a theme running through most postmodernist novels that authority figures are not to be trusted – in ‘Cloud Nine’ heroes are cowardly, in ‘Waterland’ teachers make mistakes and in ‘Lanark’ Thaw is miss-handled by all his elders. In postmodernist eyes there are still certain rules one should follow, but positions granted by other humans whether by age or status are ultimately flawed as no human is closer to the answers of life. The Monkees fit this concept, by showing law to be corrupt, policeman to be fallible and parents to be oppressive. In many ways, this was the first ‘teenage’ programme where young adults were seen without a parent figure - rejecting the idea that one person is above the others. They also parody such institutions as the law, capitalism, religion and even parenthood, by easily imitating and pastiching authority figures. From the beginning this ‘freedom’ was integral to The Monkees’ success; the Radio Times entry for transmission of the first episode in Britain read, “What do The Monkees want? To be free, to make every day Saturday night, to climb impossible mountains. To take a trolley car to the moon. To deflate stuffed shirts” - Monkees Documentary R2 8/3/97).
Just as no human holds more answers than any other, postmodernists no longer see boundaries between what constitutes ‘high’ or ‘low’ culture. Two philosophers from different eras, Foucalt and Ward, have studied this concept. Foucalt believes that everything in the modern age is a form of discourse and as most of us have access to them equally, they deserve equal concentration. Ward further believes “postmodern arts have their feet more firmly on the ground and recognise that they share the same world with all other aspects of cultural life” (15), rather than being worshipped as the answers to life. The Monkees often sought to lampoon classic literature largely of the modernist period, yet merged this with attacks on popular culture, such as ‘beach’ movies common to the 1950s or advertisements that would often be parodied side-by-side.
Another defining feature of postmodernism is the idea of individuality in the wake of mass consumerism. Several writers have questioned what characteristics help us to tell people apart from each other, as “identity is purely relational” – and depends on the on-lookers’ perspective – (Culler 101) Works like ‘Lanark’ and ‘Cloud Nine’ have characters change their mannerisms with alarming regularity, whilst ‘Beloved’ shows whites successfully subduing slaves by denying them names. In The Monkees, all four ‘characters’ met their physical doubles that are almost completely different in character to the original and this makes us question how we differentiate between people by character as well as appearance. Another major point is the opening credits to the first season of the television programme, that is intended to copy several other programmes by featuring photographs of the four members with their names – only The Monkees get this wrong and continually list Peter’s name for the other three. A final item concerning identity is ‘The Point’, a play written by longstanding Monkees collaborator Harry Nilsson for two of The Monkees. In a universe where everyone is born with points on their head, Davy is ostracised by society for being born without one. This is a pun on the word ‘pointless’, as if Davy is worthless in a society where people believe they must all be the same. This categorisation is shown by postmodernists to be futile, as everybody has their own unique characteristics and perspective on life. Gray writes that “Compared with his phone number, our closest friend is shifty and treacherous” (Lanark 108) and The Monkees frequently disrupted the stereo-types they otherwise perhaps portrayed by performing actions atypical to their character. For example, ‘It’s A Nice Place To Visit’ (TX: 11/9/67) features Nesmith, Dolenz and Tork as Mexican bandits, trying to impress rebel leader El Diablo. As Nemith and Dolenz in vain try to twirl their guns in an impressive manner, Tork amazes them all by beating them to it:
MD – How’d you do that?
MN – That’s very good. I didn’t know you could do that, you usually play the dummy!
One definition of postmodernism is “a mood or condition of radical indeterminacy, and a tone of self-conscious, parodic scepticism towards previous certainties in personal, intellectual and political life” (Notes). The Monkees demonstrate this by undermining themselves and “burlesquing the very shows that glue Mom and Dad to the set during prime time. Spoofing the movies and the violence and the down-heavy-conflict-emotion themes that fascinate the middle-aged” (Baker 45). This reflexivity is because “The only point of reference for postmodernism, in the absence of anything else, is itself, as self-reference” (Wain - Notes) so that writers cannot be sure of interpreting any source accurately except their own.
The Monkees certainly seem to bear this statement out, with several references to the Monkees’ status as a group. For example, ‘I was a teenage monster’ (TX:16/1/67) has a professor harness the Monkees’ creative talents into an android, parodying the creation of The Monkees which mirrors the ‘artificial’ creation of The Monkees. Also, ‘The Monkees Paw’ (29/1/68) - which was recorded shortly after the initial outburst of the musical press that the Monkees were not a bona fide group - has Micky wishing he could be quieter in the presence of a magical artefact that grants his wish. After finding their lead singer has no voice, the Monkees lip-synch to a pre-recorded tape and get thrown off by the manager for being ‘frauds’. Lodge believes art in this age is on the boundary between fiction and criticism with examples such as Lanark’s plagiarism index showing that each example of postmodernism is not perfect or complete. Foucalt claims, “the frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines and the last full-stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network” (Hutcheon 127). In Eco’s eyes, “every story tells a story that has already been told” (Hutcheon 128) so that postmodernism owes it to it’s audience to acknowledge this and reveal their inspirations.
This can be seen in the multiple references to The Monkees’ inspirations – especially The Beatles – which are not downplayed or hidden, but exaggerated and celebrated by playing their music, copying their routines or praising them within the programme’s contents.
The Monkees also embody the post-modern stance on history, using the concept of bricolage (borrowing from man’s heritage, but recognizing it’s flaws and re-visiting it largely with irony). Hutcheon believes “we only have representations of the past from which to construct our narratives or explanations. In a very real sense, postmodernism reveals a desire to understand present culture as the product of previous explanations” (Brooker 239). She further argues “to re-write or to re-present the past in fiction and in history is…to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological” (net 1 old style). The Monkees continually do this by up-dating traditional story-lines or merging time periods to accentuate the changes that have taken place in modern society. The following is from ‘the Devil and Peter Tork’ and features Mr. Zero as the devil who has made Tork sign a contract forcing him to hand his soul over to the devil:
Zero: Well, Peter, I think we’d better go. You know, according to the terms of the contract your soul must be turned over by midnight
MN: Oh, well, wait a minute, its only 8 o’clock
Zero: Just trying to beat the cross-town traffic
This self-awareness can also be seen in the use of metafiction or in this case frame-breaking throughout the programme. Whilst there are several different interpretations of what this means, it is generally seen as a revelation to the audience that they are watching a ‘programme’ not a realistic world. many of ther above points have hopefully proven that no one definite ‘reality’ can exist and this metafictional aspect is a logical conclusion to this: “illusion is no longer possible because the real is no longer possible” (Brooker 156). Many films now “attempt to make the receiver into a Brechtian, aware participant, self-conscious part of the meaning-making process” (Hutcheon 86), but The Monkees were probably the first television show to do this, frequently referring to their technical crew or occasionally including out-takes in the finished product. This also fulfils Saussaure’s theory that production takes precedence over the final product in the modern age of mass-production. Firstly, an example from ‘Dance Monkees Dance’ (TX: 12/12/66) deflates the concept that the Monkees work on their own initiative by having Dolenz walking off the set to ask the advice of their script-writers. The portrayal of them as elderly Chinese forced to write by galley-slaves also undermine the idea that the writers of the series know any more of life than we do. This is further emphasised by Dolenz screwing up the new script he has been given and exclaiming ‘man those writers are really overpaid, this is terrible’. This idea of integrating the writers as ‘characters’ without using the real ones echoes McHale’s idea that “to reveal the author’s position within the ontological structure is only to introduce the author into the fiction; far from abolishing the frame, this gesture merely widens it to include the author as a fictional character” (Notes).
Other examples playfully explore the constraints of television and deflate the idea that what we are seeing on-screen is occurring in real life, such as this from ‘the Devil and Peter Tork’ where the word ‘hell’ was censored from television networks in the 1960s :
MN: Ooh, so that’s what whistle is all about
DJ: Yeah, whistle It’s pretty scary
MD: You know what’s even more scary?
MD: You can’t say whistle on television
Overall we have seen how both the initial creation of The Monkees project and its eventual forays into television and music have demonstrated several postmodernist theories that were being used by postmodernist writers in roughly the same time period. Several philosophers like Brauillard, Eco, Derrida and Foucalt have presented concepts that have been directly or indirectly present in the Monkees’ productions. However, this section has dealt with postmodernism in a very general sense and whilst it has used a wide range of examples from both the television and records, some episodes admittedly do not fit the postmodernist concept so well. This brings up the idea that only some of the artists involved were aware of the postmodernist principles surrounding the project. However, in the following section, three examples are studied in length and can perhaps prove better that at least some of the participants were influenced by postmodernist theories. The Monkees “return aesthetic production to it’s humble, unprivileged place within social practices as a whole” (Lodge 385) and by a combining tension between realism and fantasy, multiplicity and revisiting universally recognised caricatures with irony the Monkees fill postmodernist concepts well in both the series of programmes and albums. This disruption of traditional television and musical practices appears to be witnessing a whole new postmodernist era of self-awareness and playfulness that will be taken to their logical extreme in the examples present in section two.
In response to criticisms over their musical integrity, the Monkees began to posess greater control over both the musical output and the television programmes, choosing to dissect and criticise their beginnings. This can be likened to previous postmodernist concerns on consumerism and puncturing the myths of the television world through two productions in particular - ‘Head’ a feature film and ‘Thirty Three And A Third Revolutions Per Monkee’ a television special. Both present “a deconstruction of the Monkees and the whole hollywood myth” (Dolenz - MOJO 103) and to my knowledge represent the largest scale-dissection of the ideas and shortcomings of any television programme or musical group. The former is a steam-of-conscious attempt to show the restrictions and reality of the Monkees concept, whilst the latter offers a more coherent plot of The Monkees being ‘created’ by businesses in order to ‘brainwash’ the world. In both cases The Monkees temporarily escape these restrictions and become a fully-realised ‘group’, either by an act of (commercial) suicide or by being granted this freedom only to discover they ultimately have no control. This suits postmodernist ideas of characters being ‘controlled’ by their authors, yet still retaining a degree of freedom such as ‘Breakfast of Champions’ when Vonnegut decides to set Trout free. Yet these examples also deal with a much wider concern about manipulation in music and television circles – deconstructing Hollywood, Rock Music and The Monkees at the same time.
The idea that mankind conceals or protects himself from aspects of life is a key concern of ‘Head’, as are most postmodernist volumes concerned with society. Both the music and scenarios in these two examples are far darker than those in section one, as if the ‘safe’ world of television has been replaced by interjections of reality, such as suicide attempts and stock footage of news-reels featuring nuclear bombs or real prisoners being executed in Vietnam. The title has several meanings, such as being evidence that this is a ‘head’ (i.e. intellectual) movie and the way our senses are not recorded directly but are interpretated by our minds, returning to postmodernist ideas of multiplicity. McGilligan further believes the titles mean “all the rules and straight-laced conventions inside one’s head that inhibit one’s enjoyment of life” (188), as if man has created these himself to give him purpose. Notably postmodernist ‘anti-heroes’ reject these societal constraints in the same way, such as Thaw/ Lanark and Trout. As individuals, the Monkees are trapped in having to conform to this stereotype even more than other postmodernist ‘characters’ because their livelihood depends upon their behaviour. The original cover for the soundtrack album that acted as a mirror also merged reality and fiction, reflecting the art back onto the audience by having their ‘head’ appearing next to the title and equating the film to real life.
In common with other postmodernist methods of representing life in a fictional form, there appears to be no plot at all except for a general outline of The Monkees being attacked by record companies or television networks. This disjointed feel in the film reflects the notion of ‘multiple realities’ prominent in postmodernism and brings up the idea of interpretation and multiplicity. This may be to remind the audience that life is more complicated than they believe and that most of us smooth over contradictions in order to simplify our lives. Multiplicity is also referred to briefly by Micky: “our universe is all trapped away among our heads and we can go in any number of different directions in any direction until infinity…” This theme is central to ‘The Man In The High Castle’ where the ‘plot’ was developed by use of the I Ching and could theoretically have developed in hundreds of different ways in order to represent the modern ‘randomness’ of a world without structure from meta-narratives’.
This theme is apparent from the opening frame of a red cloak moving away from the camera until it comes into focus and we see what it is. The Cloak belongs to a mayor who over the space of three minutes tries repeatedly to read his speech on the opening of a bridge. This sequence is intended to seem laborious and slow in contrast to the later fast-paced imaginative sequences and equates to Sarup’s theory that by contrasting the imaginary to the real postmodernists have invented the ‘hyperreal’. (“When the borderline between the real and imaginary is eroded, reality is no longer checked, called to justify itself. It is ‘more real than real’ as it has become the only existence” 166). The film then presents a parody of the traditional ‘romp’ sequences used in the television series as here The Monkees are fleeing an unseen menace in genuine horror, each in turn committing suicide by leaping off a bridge a mayor wearing the above cloak is attempting to open. One particular website *(InsideYourHead)* has put forward the idea that - as the first Monkee to jump off the bridge – the whole film represents Micky’s perspective on the Monkees as his life passes before his eyes. In this light, we are not seeing the real people or in fact the television characters but an impression of them that has distorted their characteristics – a theme that is common to Gray and Phillip K Dick. This drowning in many ways equates to the psychic re-birth undergone by Lanark, and just as in Gray’s novel the sense of drowning is used to transport characters from the real world to an imaginary one. Drowning is also a metaphor for what The Monkees were doing with this film – commercial ‘suicide’ – as it seems the only means by which the Monkees can truly become themselves.
Within the film itself are The Monkees acting in several different styles akin to the way the television series would offer a different scenario every week. Watching the masses of different films is a bit like the grand mural Thaw wants to paint in ‘Lanark’; a grand narrative that is attempting to see life from every viewpoint in time as it forever alters and thus write the true representative of life that postmodernists so desire but find so impossible to achieve. There is also the sense that ‘Head’ is trying to deflate the importance we give to television by showing things like behind-the-scenes-footage, arguments between cast and director and shots of the empty sets and studio toilets that ridicule the idea of film as providing any answers to life.
Throughout the film establishment figures pursue The Monkees, attempting to lock them inside a 'black box' - a metaphor for both network’s attempts to restrict The Monkees’ creativity into a marketing image. There are lots of references to the ‘black box’ in Monkee mythology. During concerts The Monkees would leap out of cardboard speakers – as if they had been transported along with the instruments – and during the second season a large room was converted into a ‘cage’ where The Monkees would wait until called by a flashing light on the wall as they had a habit of wandering off! The Monkees try many times to escape but always find themselves led back into the box again until even after their suicide bid they end up in a tank of water that is returned to the studio along with the props for the film. The Monkees attempt to escape it in different ways – Davy by fighting his way out, Peter by thinking his way out, Mike by doing nothing and Micky by taking the leap that signals the end of The Monkees’ career. Many sources have pointed out how these solutions are the antithesis of what the television characters would do further blurring the distinction between actor and character; as in general Davy was romantic, Peter stupid, Mike bossy and Micky carefree.
The Monkees are seen to be a fabrication, forced by the teenage market to forsake their true credentials as musicians and as people. This puncturing of The Monkees is in many ways parallel to Lanark’s plagiarism index or Vonnegut’s revelation of plot and may resemble an attempt to undermine the project and show its faults as this cannot be the answer to life’s questions either. Baker concludes, “scrupulously and callously the myth of rock is laid bare; the seemingly natural exuberance and idealism exposed as a calculated business using craft and cunning to produce a basically worthless image for mass consumption” (95). Twice in the film The Monkees are shown round a factory – possibly an allegory for The Monkees’ project - when a number of accidents occur (such as a man hanging from a cable or a worker drinking from machinery showing people exploiting the system for their own means). Another section has Micky lost in the desert when he spots a modern-day oasis: a Coca-Cola machine that proves to be empty and shows problems exist not only in The Monkees’ family but in other American icons of commercialism. Another scene has Davy deciding to give up the violin and ‘playing two-bit clubs all my life’ after his arm is knocked, revealing that he is miming to a record (a metaphor over the ‘artificial’ music of The Monkees past), in favour of boxing (a metaphor over The Monkees’ future in commercially dead projects such as this one).
One other feature not previously discussed is postmodernism’s general concern with individuals rather than corporations, and whilst not applicable to the television series in ‘Head’ there can be seen friction between the Monkees as individuals and as a group. After the drowning sequence, The Monkees re-appear in their house where June Fairchild kisses each of them in turn, distinguishing between the members who are now competing with each other. She, too, attempts suicide so that it may be this schizophrenia between being yourself and how others see you collectively is a motive for The Monkees’ actions too. This parallels the action of Thaw in ‘Lanark’ who also commits suicide through the paradox between his real and seen self.
Hopefully up to this point the sheer wealth of information has gone some way to demonstrating that my association of The Monkees and postmodernism is not entirely the result of mental delusions caused by over excess in Ted Hughes poetry. If nothing else the following composition written by the two directors of ‘Head’ demonstrates a self-awareness and irony crucial to postmodernism. The lyrics refer to the film, in having no plot but scenes/ perspectives and reiterate the time disruptions that take place. The line ‘we might tell you one thing but would only take it back’ also returns to the theme of multiplicity and how anything can be read in a manner of different ways. The final couplet continue the idea of The Monkees as a ‘product’ rather than as a creative outlet of individuals and the track is cut short as if by realizing their manufactured beginnings The Monkees cannot in fact ‘be here to give you more’. The Monkees’ narration is also speeded up and slowed down causing further time disruptions and accentuate how The Monkees are manufactured and controlled by others:
Hey hey we are the Monkees, you know we love to please
A manufactured image with no philosophies
We hope you like our story, although there isn’t one
That is to say there’s many, that way there is more fun
You’ve told us you like action and games of many kinds
You like to dance we like to sing so let’s all loose our minds
We know it doesn’t matter ‘cause what you came to see
Is what we’d love to give you and give it one two three
But it may come three two one two, or jump from nine to five
And when you see the end in sight the beginning may arrive
For those who look for meanings in form as they do fact
We might tell you one thing but we’d only take it back
Not back like in a [boxstack] not back like in a race
Not back so we can keep it but back in time and space
You say we’re manufactured, to that we all agree
So make your choice and we’ll rejoice in never being free
Hey hey we are the monkees, we’ve said it all before
The money’s in we’re made of tin, we’re here to give you more
The money’s in we’re made of tin we’re here to give you m---
Whereas ‘Ditty Diego’ deals with The Monkees in a superficial sense, other group compositions like Tork’s ‘Can You Dig It?’ deal with The Monkees phenomenon on a much deeper level. This piece deals with growth and how people never stay completely the same but change from day to day. In common with postmodernists, Tork decides life is more fulfilling when one accepts these changes as ‘those who know it use it’ to enhance their life and ‘those who scorn it’ and become stereotyped as The Monkees feared ‘die’ as individua;ls as they cannot be true to themselves. Yet like many (e.g. Herzog) he ultimately fears this change –longing for an ideal of stability he cannot have in the final line:
Some thing doesn’t change, there is only one
Always changing inside, what does it become?
Can you dig it? Do you know? Would you care to let it show?
Those who know it use it, those who scorn it die
To sing that you can dig it is to make your soul to fly
Can you dig it? Do you know? Would you care to let it show?
There is only feeling in this world of life and death,
I sing the praise of never change with every single breath
Can you dig it? Do you know? Would you care to let it show?
Following this sequence, Micky and Mike appear in a Western that is interrupted by Micky criticisng the idea and walks through a painted backdrop, revealing the production of the film through the frame-breaking discussed earlier. Micky speaks to both cast and director as he leaves: “Hey come on lady, quit acting, get up, you’re not dead, come on, I don’t want to do this anymore man, hey come on, it’s all over, it’s all an act, all this junk with the fake trees and the fake arrows. I’ve had enough of all of this, Bob, I’m through!” Elsewhere in the film microphones, lights and cameras are directly visible further breaking the illusion that the characters are real and unaware of the audience. There was in fact a conscious attempt to “grab a little reality and walk through scenes and talk about ourselves and put a little objectivity behind the whole thing, show the people what it’s all been like” (PT - Baker 92). The audience is even given what appears to be documentary footage of the film being shot. At one point Davy is ushered off the set onto another set in order to choose a boxer he wants to use for the boxing scene. However, Davy must presumably have to ‘choose’ the right boxer as Sonny Liston had already been cast for the part Another example of this occurs when in the context of the film Tork is holding a conversation with cross-dresser TC Jones, only to break out of character and hit him/ her. There is then a pause, as the following conversation takes place:
BR: Alright, that’s enough, cut it, print it please
PT: Hey Bob, that’s not right man. I mean about hitting a girl and all, was that alright?
TCJ: I thought it looked great
PT: Well I don’t know, I mean hitting a woman. It’s about the image and everything, it’s not right.
Man: I hate to interrupt and everything [holds out autograph book]
PT: No, it’s for your niece isn’t it? That’s quite alright [signs and gives back book. Turns to waiting make-up man] Was that alright? John, that wasn’t right, It’s a kids…Bob, it’s a movie for kids. They’re not going to dig it man.
This conversation appears to be real and fits the discussion of Tork’s extreme character discussed earlier. However, after walking off the set we see stage-hands backing away from Tork as if they are afraid of him after seeing what his ‘character’ has done – further demonstrating the blend between actor and character.
The film continually tries to undermine the Monkees’ relevance in the music and television industries by means of a barrage of self-criticism in nearly every scene. On entering a café, cries erupt of ‘they’re coming!’ akin to the arrival of a celebrity – only the cry appears to be one of disgust and the patrons quickly exit the café as The Monkees arrive exclaiming “how awful”; “stinking kids all over the place”; “there you are – peace and love”; “what are they?” etc. Whilst inside relations are no better: T C Jones offers the comment “Well look who it is, God’s gift to the eight-year olds. Changing your image darling? And while you’re at it, get a man to give you some talent…[to Micky] are you still paying tribute to Ringo Starr?”
Further criticism appears in the Tork song ‘Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again?” which expresses anger both at having to readjust material to fit a manufactured image and the fact that the writer cannot deal with bigger questions and the key line here is ‘I know life’s more than just some kind of deal’. Other lines deal with this in a wider sense, the narrator asking ‘can I see my way to know what’s pretty real?’ whilst he is confined in his audience and his material. The answer is ultimately that yes he can and the whole film seems to be the Monkees answer to this debate: they can see their way ‘to know what’s pretty real’ but only by rejecting their status as teen-idols and committing commercial suicide:
Do I have to do this all over again?
Didn’t I get it right the first time?
Do I have to do his all over again?
How many times do I have to make this rhyme?
Can I see my way to know what’s pretty real?
They have time to fix things by themselves
I know life’s more than just some kind of deal
Yeah but won’t you tell me that’s all when my single comes off the shelf?
Oh Didn’t I? Didn’t I?
This point is reiterated throughout the film, most particularly in the speech given by an Eastern philosopher that directly concerns postmodernist ideas. Beliefs are shown to be the result of our perspective or ‘conditioning’ and that history is also open to multiple viewpoints, a debate that is also central to Hutcheon’s arguments of historiographic metafiction: the concept that any use of history must demonstrate it’s shortcomings. The philosopher then claims that there is ultimately no difference between reality and fantasy as our perception of the two is dependent on our head’s interpretation of the messages it receives from our senses. Finally, he makes the point that all he says is only his own opinion and that he is in the dark as much as the rest of us – which fulfils postmodernist ideas that there is no one answer but several conflicting ones to the question of why we are here. When telling his solution to the others, Tork makes some subtle differences to this that relate more directly to The Monkees’ history as a multimedia band, with discussion of the way our mind interprets music and how we place our own perspective on them. Tork also speaks of man’s pre-conceptions that prevent him from embracing the present, like the main character in ‘Herzog’ for example and overall these speeches mirror the plot of ‘The Man In The High Castle’ by saying that “to allow the unknown to occur and to occur requires clarity. Where there is clarity there is no choice Where there is choice there is misery”. This returns to the question of logo-centrism, as the film seems to be saying that without philosophy determining how we act, man is forever unsure what steps to take in his life and suffers through this lack of direction.
When The Monkees return to the same scene as in the opening we see another postmodernist technique as “in postmodernist fiction closure is not only desirable, but also not possible” (Derrida). Towards the end of the film The Monkees temporally do escape the ‘black-box’ and return to the various settings, as if searching their way for an escape, before re-entering the opening scene of the film, again throwing themselves off the bridge. This may be because a representation of life would have no end, except perhaps for Vonnegut’s ultimate closure of death, and in this light the suicide too may be through the inability to find closure.
As a closing point to ‘Head’, even the closing credits are postmodernist in the way they play around with social convention and orthography – printing the cast backwards so that for instance ‘girlfriend’ reads ‘dneirflrig’, a technique consistently used by Gray. This playfulness coupled with a more serious address of what we expect in life features heavily all the way through the film which is postmodernist in several smaller ways but most importantly by dissecting The Monkees and revealing how the whole process has taken place. As for why this experiment in consumerism should occur we turn next to the television special ‘Thirty Three And A Third Revolutions Per Monkee’.
This time there is a ‘plot’, but again not a very cohesive one and consists of having The Monkees developed in test-tubes, stripped of identity, in order to brainwash the world. Yet any attempt at illusion is undermined by the re-occurring phrase spoken by the drummer with guest band Brian Auger and the Trinity ‘I don’t believe it!’ This character has no other lines and his speech here implies that the director was attempting to debase any statements in the script by denying their integrity. Vonnegut too debases what both he and his characters pronounce and overall this is a postmodernist concept because it again shows the belief of authors that they cannot write the answers to ‘life’ from a single viewpoint and must undermine any claims of belief. The mention of the guest band is another point worth noting – as if to say that the Monkees are not a real ‘band’ and need a substitute – as is the fact that The Monkees have comparatively little screen time in the wake of multiple guest stars, challenging what we expect from a ‘Monkees’ show. The first scene brings up the question of identity, with an off-screen voice asking ‘who are you?’ and guest star Julie Discroll warbling ‘I am woman’ in response. Identity is a key consideration of the script, with the two guest actors later draining The Monkees of their names and attempts to create artificial ‘robots’ that are all the same. The script then refers directly to the exloitation not only of The Monkees but of music in general, guest Brian Auger outlining his desire to ‘create’ a group intent on mass destruction:“ We take the means of mass-communication, use them for commercial exploitation. Create a new four-part harmony. Four simple lads with little talent or not and, through this latest fad of rock, conduct experiments in mind control on an un-suspecting public. I’ll brainwash them and they’ll brainwash – the world!”
This stereotypical depiction of a mad genius covers the same ground as much of the television series – presenting universally known symbols with irony – only here it is The Monkes’ own history that is being looked at in this way. The idea of them as ‘robots’ is also a device common to postmodernism, traditionally a paranoid fear suffered by those who feel they are not in control and that they are surrounded by so much artificiality their uniqueness means they feel the only ‘real’ beings alive. This fits several postmodernist ideas of consumerism, reality and control with Vonnegut in particular calling humans ‘meat machines’ that in the modern age is designed to serve a ‘purpose’ not their own desires and needs. In order to distinguish himself from machines, Vonnegut chose to ‘bring chaos to order’ (**) and in a sense this is what the Monkees do, being illogical and silly possibly to escape the logicality of the machinations that surround them.
The next scene has Julie Discroll encouraging The Monkees to use their minds – and their individuality – to escape this control, echoing Wallace’s interpretation of Lanark as “an exploration of, and an imaginative escape from, the systems which serve to entrap and enclose the individual” (Wallace 115). The Monkees disrupt traditional images of them as a group by performing solo and re-inventing the audience’s traditional expectations of them, as well as encouraging us to drop our stereo-types of media creations. Nesmith’s piece ‘Naked Permisson’ in particular highlights many postmodernist elements, in particular the schizophrenia between The Monkees’ commercial and inventive images by having two Nesmith’s alternate performing the song in a rock or country genre. Being pulled in two different directions highlights again the theme of the absent centre and is an important postmodernist theme from Gray to Herzog. During the piece the two Nesmiths sit in front of a wanted poster of Nesmith for fraud – another allusion to the Monkees’ attacks in the musical press - before someone off camera shoots him/them, possibly a further reference to the commercial suicide undergone in ‘Head’. This would equate with the first two verses, which refer both to the Monkees’ declining sales and the greater fulfilment this brings:
Now it’s quite a while ago that I had a strange intuition
Something was wrong with my gold record situation
‘Why?’ they say with so much admiration
Well I can’t say that it makes it right
So for a while I’ll just play my guitar
And I’ll play you a couple of these tunes
And I know that it may not get me too far
But it’s the only thing I believe that’s true
The action then turns to the most explicit reference of manipulation; ‘Wind-Up Man’, where The Monkees are seen as painted clockwork-dolls. The lyrics make references to how they are ‘programmed to be entertaining’ and ‘invented by the teeny-bopper’ before speaking of the much bigger concept of the ‘wind-up world of television’ and the postmodernist principle of media manipulation. A caption, ‘this space for rent’ both underlines the corruption of art by business practices and parodies the use of captions within the television series. The piece then concludes ‘can’t you hear me laughing at you?’ as if the creators of The Monkees are knowingly making profits from misleading their audience:
I’m a Wind-Up man, programmed to be entertaining
Turn the key, I’m a fully automatic
Wind-Up Man invented by the teeny-bopper
Turn me on and I will sing a song about the Wind Up Man
I’m a wind-Up man, programmed to be entertaining
Turn me on and I will sing a song about the
Wind-up world of people watching television
Wind-up man can’t you hear me laughing at you? Wind-Up Man
The next section deals with the concept of evolution which is not a direct postmodernist idea, but is a part of the debates of Swift and Churchill who challenge the nineteenth-century view of humans as always progressing to some higher ideal. Man, they claim, is going round in circles without meta-narratives to guide his way; making progress in one area only to lose this in another. Evolution can also perhaps be seen as the first real challenge to the largest meta-narrative: religion
Over some non-Monkees footage a narrator intones, “awake…creation...awake…and dream…”, which again confuses the idea of fantasy and reality in that the audience is left in confusion as to whether this whole episode is a ‘dream’ or whether this is a more philosophical question to ‘God’ intending mankind to confuse the boundaries between different levels of consciousness. Darwin then introduces The Monkees into the equation, as ‘masterpieces’ of evolution and further parodies commercial exploitation through this introduction: “Here they are with the song of the book of the film of the tram from the telephone directory of the same name”. This challenges what we expect him to say and breaks traditional story-telling conventions as well as highlighting consumerism in the same way that Vonnegut prints the foreword to ‘Breakfast Of Champions’ on a T-shirt. A character named ‘Charles Darwin’ interrupts the last scene to ‘take us back to the beginning’ and we see the Monkees literally as monkeys and it is implied in this scene that mankind has learnt nothing and manipulation and business instincts existed long before he evolved into what exists today. Darwin then says “evolution can do no more, this is where science takes over” – as if to imply that whilst evolution is ‘natural’, science is something man has invented as yet another ‘belief’ system to replace that of religion. Derrida and Foucalt both reject science in their theories, claiming that it is a decoy away from man’s spiritual purpose.
After being created inside test-tubes, The Monkees are now ready to perform – only they seem here to be an allegory for music in general as they are introduced on ‘December 7th 1956’, a full decade before The Monkees and approximately the start of rock and roll. The compere’s introduction also reiterates the manipulation aspect of The Monkees:“And here they come. Idolized, plasticised, psycho-analyzed, sterilized, the Monkees!’ Their story then comes full circle, with Auger interrupting the show and breaking the illusory structure of the programme by referring to both the director (this time Jack Good) and the real names of the guest cast. McHale claims, “the author occupies an ontological level superior to his world; by breaking the frame around his world, the author foregrounds his own superior reality” (**Notes I think**) and in a sense this is what occurs here, with the actors attempting to debase all we have just seen in order to show how The Monkees are now ‘hyper-real’. The brainwashers then relinquish their control of the project and give the Monkees their freedom – only to undermine this happy ending by Discroll’s derogatory comment that without being controlled The Monkees cannot survive:
BA: “Wait a minute Jack, hold on a minute, stop the show and all that. This brainwashing business has got completely out of control. My name’s Brian, this is Julie Discroll, you are Stuart Gilbey a famous Carlisle centre-forward, Judith’s a carrot and we don’t want any more of this brainwashing business. What we want is complete and total freedom. Do you know what this means?!
JD: Yeah, utter bloody shambles”
This is very important to the next work, Nesmith’s ‘the Garden’ which continues the Monkees television-music experiment by combining text and music designed to be used simultaneously. Nesmith’s sleeve-notes read “as the two media converge one tends to charge the other with meaning… So that taking the two together is a dual assault on the senses rather than either the eyes or the ears and bringing us a step closer to the imaginative becoming real”, relating multimedia practice to other postmodernist concerns over reality and fantasy. The ‘plot’ is probably the most conventional so far, but through use of symbols for wider concepts than telling a straightforward story. Ex-prisoner Jason is visited by a succession of characters that sense his boredom on release and has him enter their world to turn on a waterfall and replenish his ‘garden’. In common with other postmodernist works by Gray and Bradbury, ‘the garden’ also uses a subtle form of self-reference in the use of imagery, with windows existing as metaphors for enlightenment and vision and doors as pathways to another world: “Jason paused at each window to enjoy the ever-widening view” (40).
Yet in common with those works, this view of the outside world surrounds a very inward story that is primarily concerned with identity. Taking the earlier discussion a step further, several characters radically alter their appearance such as these two descriptions of a character called Muriel: “today she had chosen to express beauty with long honey-coloured hair and grey eyes. While this was not her favourite appearance, she too had felt Jason’s presence and knew the time was at hand for her to meet him.” (13). Whilst Muriel is very much a fantastical creation that one supposes could be adverse to man’s logic, even amongst ‘reality’ Jason has trouble distinguishing his friends because they all wear the same uniform of ‘the prison’ and lose their differentiating characteristics. One interpretation of ‘the prison’ is that it is man’s social prison where he has been restricted and in many ways controlled as to what to be (“They dressed alike, walked alike, talked alike, even laughed the same way” 2).
Another topic broadly covered is that of control, and this piece perhaps most perfectly matches postmodernist criteria in that the controllers have only a limited say in what happens. Throughout the text it is made clear that Jason is intended to make most of the moves he does, but we are frequently told that he does things earlier or later than expected (eg “Johnson is with him. He’s earlier than I thought he would be” 13). This equates to Gray or Vonnegut’s characters who have their characters ‘brought’ to a certain place only to find that they are not completely in control eg a bar-room brawl that injures the author in the former example and the is/ is/ is/ if/ is/ is element to life debated in the latter (**).
Perhaps the most important area of ‘The Garden’ is its dealings with the concepts of truth and perception. When Jason first notices the ‘other’ world and asks why he could not see it before he is told “It’s kind of a prison thing. You know, you don’t see it then you do see it. Like that” (5). The idea is pushed further into ideas of right and wrong, as all good postmodernists agree that there are several different perspectives on life and an individual’s concept of right and wrong is far from universal. In one section, Jason is gripped by fear and –without knowing what it is – reacts to what his senses tell him and tries to pull himself and the nonchalant Muriel away from it. His companions then tell him he is wrong “because you are trying to use your thinking to distinguish right from wrong. That’s not what your thinking is for. It’s to distinguish the real from the unreal,” (28?**). A character named Salizar later concludes, “We must all know right from wrong. But how do we know? How do we avoid the sea of gossip, opinions and fashion? Only by learning more of what is true do we know more of what is right, and gain a standard to live by. This is the genius of life” (52). This fits in perfectly with postmodernists who are trying to discover not whether something is right – as that is open to opinion – but whether we are simply having problems communicating what we want to say. Yet in common with ‘thirty three’ we see the desire for these notions even while we have to disregard them: “Without a sense of right and wrong [Jason] would be a moral wreck, ethically adrift, and he could think of many things that were both quite real and as awful as they were real, but he decided to keep quiet about them for now” (27).
Without black-and-white definitions of the world around us, it is ultimately hard to communicate our true thoughts and emotions. Muriels’ speech consists of several attempts to pinpoint meaning and often contain ‘…’, a postmodernist tool used especially by Vonnegut to show that what we mean can have no definite meaning. Another passage confirms “Her eyes emphasising unspoken words, trying to communicate until, finally frustrated, she started walking again” (27). Another reason communication is difficult is because none of us are static and are continually evolving so that ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ at one time might not hold for every situation. ‘The Garden’ deals with this by referring not to people but to the allegory of the ‘garden’:“each of these lovely plants had grown from a seed utterly unlike what was on display now. A seed, if held in the hand, that shows nothing of its promise, yet contains all that it needs for it’s full and final expression” (53).
When Jason completes his task of having a hermit switch on the waterfall, he is amazed by the enthusiastic reception her receives on his return. He asks them why this should be so when he has done nothing extraordinary and on replies, “Only the world likes miracles and heroes. Forget the world. it is a web of deceit and lies” (52). This mirrors postmodernist worship of not a ‘hero’ but arguably an ‘anti-hero’ such as Kilgore Trout or Lanark that are a mixture of good and bad – better representing life.
So far I have not talked about the music as until this last chapter it is instrumental and hard to analyse. However, ‘Life becoming love’ seems to offer a solution to postmodernist complications, by saying that mankind should see life through one overall viewpoint after all: that of ‘love’ - a concept he already holds the keys to and do not need and ‘Gods’ or social systems to discover:
Right remaining right remaining right becoming wrong
Truth remaining truth remaining truth becoming song
Song becoming soul and soul coming from soul
Knowing from the garden all there is to know
Love [that’s born of will and all] the things that will become known
Life becoming life becoming wise becoming love
This spiritual awareness may be our ‘garden’; something we all have but must nurture in order to fully realise ourselves. Finally, we return to the concept of abandoning our ideas of ‘right’ for what is ‘true’ and by doing this we can finally put an end to our divided, postmodernist selves. As the book concludes: “Whatever had created him, created them, and cared for all like a gardener for flowers. In the garden, from bud to blossom the flowers grew, not by gathering but by becoming” (55?*):
Monday, 2 September 2013
“The opposition’s tongue is cut in two, keep off the streets ‘cause you’re in danger” “All the young men they’ve been rounded up, sent back to camps in the jungle, and people whisper double-talk, once proud fathers act so humble” “The smell of sex, the smell of suicide, all these things I can’t keep inside, undercover, keep it out of sight, undercover of the night” “New York is cold and damp, TV is just a blank, looks like another dead end Sunday” “Who wants to brave the pouring rain for a glass of French champagne?” “She was hot (and I had the blues), she was hot (and honey, where were you?), if you were in my shoes, you would be excused!” “You’re deaf to it, blind to it, it’s like a thunderclap, feel the prickles running up and down your back, why so divine – the pain of love?” “I hope you find it funny, that I got no money, but if you stick with me, you’re gonna get some love for free!” “When I travel coast to coast, you’re the hook up I miss the most, in the motel you’re the ghost, other women don’t come close” “Everything you see on the movie screen is tame” “...And when he ate her and took her to the Bois De Bologne, by chance a taxi driver caught him burying the bones. You don’t believe me? Truth is stranger than fiction – we drive through there every day” “I can feel it everywhere, feel it up above, feel the tension in the air, there’s just too much blood!” “Did you ever see ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre? ‘Orrible wasn’t it?!....oh no! Don’t saw off me arm, don’t saw off me leg!...When I get to the movies, you know I’d like to see something more romantic, you know like ‘Officer and a Gentlemen’ or something, something you can take the wife to – you know what I mean?!” “I married yesterday to a teenage bride, you said it’s only physical – but I love her deep inside!” “I was 21 naive, not cynical I try to please, her wit her speech her repartee, impressed me almost instantly” “How the years rush on by, birthdays kids and suicides” “Some kids can’t write, some kids can’t read, some go hungry, some overeat” “It must be hell living in the world, suffering in the world, like you....but I say we are heaven bound!”
The Rolling Stones “Undercover” (1983)
Undercover Of The Night/She Was Hot/Tie You Up (The Pain Of Love)/Wanna Hold You/Feel On Baby//Too Much Blood/Pretty Beat Up/Too Tough/All The Way Down/It Must Be Hell
For years critics have claimed that the Stones’ 1980s work – and especially this album –isn’t worth the wax that was melted down to make it. Evidence that the band should have stopped long ago when their contemporaries did and that all they have to offer are recycled ideas played with slightly less energy than last time. Even Mick Jagger admits to being underwhelmed by this period in Stones history and agrees in retrospect that ‘Undercover’ ‘is not a very special album’. They’re all wrong. Now I’m not claiming that ‘Undercover’ is any kind of long lost classic – it’s a kind of middling Stones record, better than – say – ‘Emotional Rescue’ or ‘Black and Blue’ rather a masterpiece at the level of a ‘Sticky Fingers’ or a ‘Between The Buttons’. But even that’s pretty good going for a band in their 23 rd year – the only real band still around after 23 years along with their contemporaries The Hollies and they’d stopped making full albums years before (The Kinks still have a decade to go, of course, but they’re a year younger in release terms). In short, the Stones are at least trying to offer something new and exciting on this record, dabbling with the surely unique mixture of dance, funk and politics, and even if they get lazy and formulaic on occasion at least they didn’t set out to be lazy and formulaic from the outset (as on so many of their lesser, later albums). To be frank, if all their albums had as much fire and passion as this one The Stones would still be regarded as one of rock’s premier, inventive bands rather than one that stopped being relevant circa 1973.
Naturally, not everything here works – in fact, there aren’t any Stones albums that are truly great from beginning to end. There seems even less excuse for a poor reggae song here than last time, considering that the craze for all things reggae in the West had peaked over five years earlier and ‘Feel On Baby’ is pretty brain-drainingly poor (even if the band do the sensible thing and call in some players who actually know what they’re doing this time around). ‘Wanna Hold You’ is Keef’s one vocal on the album and while many fans hold it up as the album highlight, it’s one of his less interesting offerings, a simple Merseybeatish melody with more repeats across it than ITV 3. Both songs are easily weaker than anything on ‘Tattoo You’ (which was, remember, an album made from outtakes from other albums) or ‘Some Girls’ (the band’s other albums with Ronnie Wood as second guitarist), although frankly even these songs sound like genius compared to the lesser moments of ‘Emotional Rescue’. Some of the other eight songs could do with a few re-writes too, the words for ‘She Was Hot’ and the melody to ‘Tie You Up’ both sounding pretty pedestrian. And yet, everything else on the album is at worst listenable and at best pioneering.
For a start, not many other Stones albums try so hard to engage with what’s happening in the outside world. Admittedly, their idea of the outside world is rather different to how I remember the mid-1980s (was a lack of education and over-eating really the key problems of 1983, rather than corrupt politicians making dodgy arms deals and the fiasco that was the Falklands War, fought halfway across the world to capture some sheep?) The Stones clearly don’t include themselves a part of this world either, patronisingly commenting ‘it must be hell out there’ rather than offering support or solutions. But still, I for one always like the Stones at their most socially conscious: songs like ‘Street Fighting Man’ and ‘Gimme Shelter’ which are about the band’s audience rather than their families, wives, girlfriends or celebrity stars they’ve met at some golf tournament are the backbone of their back catalogue for me. As a result, the two songs that bookend this album – ‘Undercover of the Night’ and ‘It Must Be Hell’ – are the most engaging Stones songs in quite a while and the former is in fact the first Stones to tackle politics since 1968! (Sadly it’s also the last at the time of writing – a Stones take on the Coalition, that could be fun! ‘I Can’t Get No Coalition Satisfaction’ perhaps?!)
You have to hope that most of the other songs on this album are based on events outside the Stones’ circle too, because even for this band they’re a pretty grim and vicious catalogue of crimes, far less cosy than the ‘stories’ on the last few albums ‘Tattoo You’ and ‘Emotional Rescue’. Several songs talk about masochism – a tied-up Jagger bemoaning ‘The Pain Of Love’ as his bonds and physical pain at the hands of his mistress become a metaphor for his struggles in the relationship in general, while later another Jagger narrator – unthinkably for those fans who still remember the lyrics to ‘Under My Thumb’ from 1966 – is beaten up by his missus. ‘All The Way Down’, too, features Jagger as a ’21 naive’ victim of an older woman, which given the previous 20 years of casual sexism across Stones records is a much bigger test for Jagger’s acting than any of the films he was in. Given that the band caused a storm of protest with their advertisements for their ‘Black and Blue’ album in 1976 (in which a tied-up woman is depicted with the words ‘I’m black and blue with the Rolling Stones!’), I’m amazed this record didn’t create a bigger fuss – especially given that 1983 is the era of the first ‘R’ rated records and Video Nasties. Talking of which, ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ is the talking point of the day and clearly the inspiration for Jagger’s shaggy dog story on ‘Too Much Blood’. This song is closer to the usual Stones template where the girl is the victim – but in this case apparently the story is true and uncomfortably close to home, even for a band that always thrived on danger and the darker side of life (a Japanese student, known to the band, went mad one night after being spurned by his lover and cut her up, eating her skin in a cannibalistic ritual – he was caught after burying her bones just round the corner from the Pathe Marconi Studios in Paris which the Stones used to record this album), inspiring a drunken Jagger to half-jokingly, half-seriously denounce all violence (rather undermined by the music video in which Keef, as a masked killer, clearly relishes the chance to cut his partner’s arms off!)
Intriguingly, though, the one thing that brought the band into disrepute from this album was the ending of the video to ‘Undercover of the Night’ in which a hidden gunman shoots Jagger’s head off; less than three years after John Lennon’s murder, this was perhaps a little too soon for such shenanigans (note the fact that, out of three videos to promote this album, Mick dies in two of them – did Keef have a hand in writing them or something?!), but of which ex-manager Andrew Loog Oldham would surely have been proud. For perhaps the last time, then, the Stones are mad, bad and dangerous to know – and even if their work on this album doesn’t have quite the impact they had in the late 60s and early 70s (when the Stones were genuinely anti-establishment and had the following to pull it down any time they wished, rather than old rockers out for a bit of fun) I’d still rather hear the Stones pushing against what was respectable in 1983 rather than simply doing what everyone else was doing. Dare I say it, ‘Undercover’ is the bloodthirstiest album in my collection – which probably doesn’t say much for my collection, admittedly, but does at least show the Stones aren’t coasting like they had been.
Hmm, this an album dominated throughout by two themes of sex and politics then – and that’s a mix that’ll never come together surely? Well, actually it kind of does (in a blunt Stones kind of a way), thanks to one of the Stones’ better choice of titles. The title ‘Undercover’ appears to come from the album’s first song and lead-off single which features Mick Jagger as an undercover reporter in some Latin American country, discovering what is really going on (crooked leaders being played as puppets by American power if you didn’t know). However the cover image is of a naked lady (looking like one of the hair models from ‘Some Girls’, incidentally) with certain parts of the record information strategically draped over her (‘under covers’ indeed). Even musically this kind of fits, the band returning to a sort of back-to-basics sound (well, in comparison to the two ‘new’ albums either side of it anyway), the title comparable to the fab four acoustic remix CD ‘Let It Be...Naked’ or even the Stones’ own later ‘unplugged’ album ‘Stripped’. Well, it makes more sense than ‘Tattoo You!’ anyway (what does that title mean?...)
Talking of going back to basics, one thing that helps this album greatly is the fact that the Stones – those perennial followers of musical fashion – were about the only band still recording the ‘old fashioned way’ by 1983. Yes there are lots of overdubs here, some of them questionable, but the band at least played the backing tracks together, the instruments still set up to face each other so the band could see the whites of each other’s eyes. Bill Wyman, especially, seems to flower in this ‘new’ arrangement and he contributes his last really committed (and always under-rated) bass runs, relishing the idea of going somewhere closer to funk than the usual straightforward Stones sound. The band might have been laughed at at the time for using such a retro, guitar-driven production too – but compare this very rocky record back to the silicon chip artificiality most other bands (including most AAA ones) were still releasing in 1983 and then see which records sound more timeless 30 years on.
The retro tones would seem to suggest that this is a ‘Keef’ album (Stones fans have long played a fun game of working out which albums are ‘Mick’ albums and which are ‘Keef’ albums), but no – by his own admission Keith was more than a little distracted in this period, having just married second wife Patti Hansen on his 40th birthday shortly before recording started and not yet quite up to speed after his heavy drug use in the second half of the 1970s. That’s why Keith only gets one ‘solo’ song- and a very soppy love song by his standards too, come to that – plus a reggae song that’s probably his because it’s much more his taste than Mick’s. Notably both songs are the weakest on the album, if only because they smack a bit too heavily of a band resting on their laurels. Notably, too, much of the guitar work seems to feature just one guitar rather than the traditional Stones weaving and by the sound of it that guitar seems more like Ronnie Wood rather than Richards (note the fact that Ronnie gets only his third writing credit with the band, on ‘Pretty Beat Up’). Fans often think that Keith is the ‘cutting edge’ one and Mick the traditionalist, but actually it’s very much the other way round. All the dance and funk and political elements on this album (much like the disco and punk on ‘Some Girls’) actually come from Jagger, frustrated at being cornered into sticking to the same Stones sounds over and over (just compare this album to the next Stones-related release, Mick’s debut solo album ‘She’s The Boss’, which continues this album’s themes of raunch and complicated male-female relationships in the 1980s, alongside a similar musical feel of dance and funk. In fact, looking back you almost sense that Jagger ‘dared’ to go against the band’s edict and issue a solo record because he was sick and tired of reading reviews of this album that praised the guitarist rather than the singer).
We aren’t quite at the ‘World War Three’ stage yet here (the nickname Richards gave to the ‘cold war’ between him and Jagger that saw the gap between Stones albums get longer and longer and the insults in the press about each other get wilder and wilder), but there’s clearly a storm brewing. We’ve mentioned before on this site how Mick and Keef – who’d been so close right up to the mid-70s – were growing apart from one another (Keef hanging out with the ‘dropouts’ and junkies from his ‘bad old days’ and Mick and Jerry Hall’s social climbing putting him in touch with royalty and superstar celebrities). The gap between Mick’s and Keith’s songs on this album aren’t the sparky little differences that gave the band their 60s tension anymore – they’re a widening chasm. Interestingly, there was never a better time for the Stones to call it quits: Their six year contract with EMI had come to an end and the revenue from their 1981 ‘Tattoo You’ tour - which broke the then-box office records for attendance and revenue - had finally made them all rich, after nearly 20 years of bungled management deals and bad luck. Instead a new album deal from CBS breathed new life back into the band, temporarily at least, with another record of six million pounds per record for their next four studio albums starting with ‘Undercover’ (a contract that only ended with ‘Voodoo Lounge’ a whopping eleven years later). Clearly someone thought the Stones still had something to give – and Jagger, at least, seems to have thought so too, possibly for the last time (just compare the relative harmony of this album’s sessions with the backstabbing and solo sessions for next album ‘Dirty Work’ in 1986 and the fact that Bill Wyman, after being tempted back for one last hurrah at the end of the decade, chooses now to quit because of all the bad blood, not ten years earlier when Keith’s drug habit looked like the Stones were finished). Could all of these problems have been tempted by Keith’s lack of input into this album? Is ‘Dirty Work’ Mick’s revenge for having to work so hard on this album – and watch Keith get all the respect for it? (Mick turned up late to those sessions and did his best to avoid contact with the others – sadly it shows, ‘Dirty Work’ featuring several great songs but none of the sparks of energy and band interplay that makes this album so special).
Overall, then, ‘Undercover’ isn’t exactly a masterpiece from beginning to end but it’s an album that’s way better than anyone realised at the time. ‘Undercover Of The Night’ is the last great Stones single, brightening up the end of the many compilation CDs on which it appears (or at least it does on the few sensible ones that do the decent thing and place the Stones’ recordings in the correct order!) ‘Too Much Blood’ is excitingly different from anything the band have ever done before (or since) and features the album’s greatest moment, when Mick gives up trying to keep up his strutting image and instead laughs at both himself and the album (the single funniest moment on a Stones record till the opening of ‘Rough Justice’ on 2005’s ‘Bigger Bang’). ‘It Must Be Hell’ gets some of the lyrics of social protest laughably wrong, but it’s heart is in the right place (which is more than can be said for many latter-day Stones songs). Plus, clichéd as they are, ‘All The Way Down’ ‘Pretty Beat Up’ ‘Tie You Up’ and ‘She Was Hot’ are superior to the run-of-the-mill filler the Stones normally use, seeing as they’re played by a ‘real’ band live in the studio, each adopting to the other’s strengths and weaknesses, and after such a lot of touring in 1981 and 1982 the Stones are still a great band, as tight as they’d ever been. There’s also none of the distracting production mess that ruins so many of their later albums (both 1994’s ‘Voodoo Lounge’ and 1998’s ‘Bridges To Babylon’ are candidates for the best Stones albums since ‘Some Girls’ in terms of actual songs, but strain too hard to be contemporary) and only two songs you want to skip past after the first couple of plays. ‘Tattoo You’ is a special case, a mash-up of songs from earlier eras, but in terms of straightforward new albums then ‘Undercover’ is the best of the Stones in the 1980s. Yes, it’s not as strong as the best of the Stones in the 70s and can’t hold a candle to the best of the Stones in the 60s – but it’s as good an album as anything by any other band celebrating their 20th birthdays and amazingly still finds new avenues to explore. And as the old saying goes, when they keep moving The Rolling Stones gather no moss – it’s only when they stand still or spend too much time looking at the past that they really are the craggy-faced irrelevants most music papers make them out to be the whole time. In short, ‘Undercover’ has been kept under covers for far too long, being a very under-rated album – especially because of but not exclusively tied into the fact it comes from such a poorly regarded moment in Stones history.
‘Undercover Of The Night’ streaks away from the starting blocks at lightning speed, a scattergun of percussion, production effects, criss-crossing guitars and a double-tracked Jagger at his most ebullient, somehow managing the thin line of sounding both commercial and deeply unsettling (part of a tradition going back to ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ ‘We Love You’ and ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby?’) It speaks volumes that this album (and most of the ones to come) starts not with a traditional guitar riff (as per ‘Start Me Up’ on ‘Tattoo You’) or a characteristic Jagger swagger (as heard on ‘Miss You’ from ‘Some Girls’) but a revved up Charlie Watts having fun improvising around his drumkit on a series of traditional and electric devices that meld together to make one humungous roar. It’s the most energetic we’ve heard the band since ‘Some Girls’ and like the best of that album it manages to be both flashy and substantial, the band’s high octane performance catching the ear but a (for the Stones) pretty intelligent lyric too. Lost in some Latin American country where danger lurks on every corner (they must have had a Coalition in charge, too, wherever it is that we are meant to be), people blindly follow laws so pointless no one can work out why they were put into force in the first place. The theme of being undercover and locked away surfaces throughout – the point being that if the seediest side of life is so firmly on show in such a law-controlled land that it must be people’s humanity and better selves that are kept ‘undercover’. Jagger loses it a bit on verse four when the scene suddenly switches to a nightclub (in which, weirdly enough, ‘the girls are painted blue!’), but till then the lyrics are amongst his best, descriptive enough to excite the imagination but not specific enough for the band to be sued. It certainly inspired one of his best vocals from the second half of Mick’s career, stretching his vocal by using his barking, growling and falsetto voices. This is a song on which everyone shines, however – whichever of the two guitarists plays the solo (my guess is that it’s Keith playing what might be his only solo on the album) is having a great time and somehow manages to capture the Stones’ Chuck Berry-infused rock spirit whilst trapped in a landscape that’s truly alien to them. Musically, though, this is still Watts and Wyman’s shows, the rhythm section excelling themselves on a song that finally gives the pair of them enough space to properly show what they can do. An excellent song that deserved to do even better as the song’s lead-off single, every bit in keeping with the danger and violence of the Stones songs of old without treading as much water or being so firmly rooted in the past. Easily the highlight of the album, with the commitment from the band making one of the better Stones songs of the era sound truly great.
‘She Was Hot’ is a much lesser song and not surprisingly was a bit of a flop when released as the album’s second single, but even this song is a cut above the Stones’ mid-80s average. Observant Stones might have noticed that this song is basically just ‘She’s So Cold’ from the ‘Emotional Rescue’ told from another perspective and slowed down slightly. Instead of an ice queen, however, this time Jagger’s romeo narrator is chatting up a girl whose enjoying all the attention and he gets increasingly hysterical with every passing line. What makes this song slightly better than many Stones mid-tempo rockers like this is the time that’s spent painting the picture of the narrator’s rather sad and lonely existence before his life is changed by love, starting with one of the best couplets Jagger ever wrote (‘New York is cold and damp, the TV is just a blank’) that’s far less patronising than most of the Stones’ ‘ordinary men’ songs. Ditto two unusual moments in the song: the reflective moment when Jagger sings about such dalliances as if they only happen to younger men than he (‘Honey, when you were young and fresh, and you need the touch of flesh, take the treasure where you’ll find it’) and the feeling of guilt that runs throughout the song (and the rather pained defensive line ‘if you were in my shoes, you would be excused!’) Mick is having fun here, another of his double-tracked backing vocals seemingly in competition with each other to be more outrageously OTT with each mock-American drawl of ‘she was hot’. Keith adds another retro Chuck Berry lick to the opening of the song, but it’s interesting how soon Ronnie Wood’s more fleshy guitar part takes over the main part of the tune and I’d be willing to bet on an enforced evening of watching ‘Spiceworld: The Movie’ on the fact that it’s Ronnie playing the brief solo too. Listen out too for what might well be the last contribution made by the ‘sixth Stone’, pianist and road manager Ian ‘Stu’ Stewart – kicked out of the band by first manager Andrew Loog Oldham on the verge of stardom on the basis that ‘six people are one too many for a record cover’ (loyal to the band in the studio, though only infrequently by the 1980s, Stu died of a heart attack in December 1985). Not the best material perhaps, but the band do sound interested here and – thank goodness – sound as if they are all playing this song together, comparatively live, even with the odd overdub added later. ‘She Was Hot’ might not be as catchy or as memorable as its close cousin ‘She’s So Cold’ but the Stones do a good job at capturing the helpless excitement and anticipation in the lyrics very well indeed. Just don’t watch the extremely corny music video for the song (in which the band follows up the comparatively deep and serious ‘Undercover Of The Night’ which asks several questions with a scene in which all the band’s trouser flies explode at the sight of a pretty lady. The Stones, remember, are aged 40 by this time – not 14!)
‘Tie You Up (The Pain Of Love)’ is a much under-rated song that seemingly has put most fans off down the years through it’s rather sado-masochistic title. In actual fact, this song is pretty intelligent (well, to a point), basically saying that the narrator is a sucker for punishment in that he likes the problems encountered in his marriage because it makes him feel that the other person really cares about him. Jagger sounds rather bemused by all the work he’s put into the relationship by the sound of the verses (a sample from the second one: ‘You have to work at it, stay with it, pay for it, bust your ass, lie for it, cheat for it, forget about your past, why so divine, the pain of love?’) and the unflattering last verse that adds little to the song – where an ‘old maid is roughing up, applying final touches’ - seems to be there mainly to give wife Jerry a taste of the ‘pain of love’ in return. Like many a 1980s Stones song, the lyrics are hard to hear, mainly because Mick insists on barking them rather than singing them in one of his gruffest vocals on record yet, but at least that’s in keeping with the chaotic, busy feel of the track rather than some godawful 1990s sample effect over the top. Ronnie Wood plays another solo, one that’s a tad too frenetic and flashy for the Stones, but the star once again is Charlie Watts, who somehow manages to fill the song totally with beautiful noise without once getting in the way. Another song that’s more interesting than most and there are just enough touches added to the recording (including a rather sweet middle eight sung by Mick in harmony with Keith that’s quite effective) to keep things interesting.
Alas ‘Wanna Hold You’ feels like a huge step backwards, a badly recorded and flimsily arranged piece of nonsense, sung by Keith at his most grating and unlikeable. On the one hand, it’s nice to hear Keith so happy after a run of pretty tortured songs on the past few Stones albums (the kiss-off tale ‘All About You’ that makes ‘You’re So Vain’ seem like a kind and caring love song and the law-dodging renegade classic ‘Before They Make Me Run’). He was genuinely in love (with Patti Hansen) and anyone whose read his autobiography ‘Life’ will recognise the moment that the ‘modern’, soppier, less edgy Keith was born (the pair marrying shortly after this album’s release on Keith’s 40th birthday), so I guess he had a right to tell the world all about it. The trouble is, this sounds like a private song – a love note rather than a piece of pop music – and is only really only of interest to the two people experiencing it. The recording also sounds badly out of place here, returning to the simplistic 1950s rock and roll of days gone by; normally that’s not a bad thing at all, but here – amidst the most adventurous Stones album in some time – it’s a bit of a shame to see the band setting their sights so low. There’s actually a lot less going on than it sounds too – it’s just that, for this song only, the band have gone back to the ‘murky’ production values of ‘Exile on Main Street’ and all the separate instruments and vocals have been bled into each other in one mass of muddy brown; those blurred edges work on ‘Exile, an album renowned for its world-weary put-upon feel, but this love song should be delicate and light, not the musical equivalent of wading through treacle. At least some of the lyrics are worth a quick laugh, Keith enticing his loved one to marry him not with some romantic ideal or loving promises but with the offer that ‘if you stick with me – you’re going to get some loving free!’ Always had an eye for a good special offer did Keith. Not truly bad, then, like many of the misguided songs on ‘Emotional; Rescue’ or ‘Dirty Work’, but ‘Wanna Hold You’ is still quite a poorly thought out and shoddily realised song (albeit with good bits in it) and on this album that’s enough to make it the record’s weakest track.
‘Feel On Baby’ isn’t an awful lot better, a sloppy reggae song that doesn’t really get going or coalesce into a tune despite lasting past the five minute mark. On the plus side, it’s nice to hear the Stones adding another genre into their mix of styles and they make a much better hash of reggae the fourth time around, following their truly abominable earlier attempts on ‘Black and Blue’ (the bland ‘Luxury’ and the diabolical ‘Cherry Oh Baby’, perhaps the worst Stones original of them all) and ‘Emotional Rescue’ (the clichéd ‘Indian Girl’). That’s partly down to the special guest appearances of two genuine reggae players Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar, who add some much more authentic vibes and a more suitable groove than the Stones could ever have come up with themselves and Mick Jagger on scintillating form, completely ignoring the reggae sounds going on around him and treating this song like an old blues number. By 1983 it had been nearly a decade since the last time Mick had played harmonica on a record (barring some of the archive stuff on ‘Tattoo You’) and it’s always a joy to hear, Mick’s soulful playing quite different to the ‘parts’ he often ‘plays’ vocally for the Stones. The lyrics are quite good too, if ridiculously short, with three short simple verses still enough to conjure up quite a convincing image of a heartbroken man post-relationship (‘In the motel you’re the ghost, other women don’t come close’). Could it be that Mick was feeling the pain of his split from Bianca a few years earlier? Or is Jagger simply play acting with a character again? Unfortunately, on the downside, all that hard work passes by largely un-noticed because what most people take away from this song is the irritating chorus which simply repeats ‘Feel On Baby’ over and over a total of 21 times throughout the song, with nothing more to keep the listener’s interest than a sloppy reggae backing. Once again, ‘Feel On Baby’ has some bright ideas but they don’t really work together and even though this fourth go is better than the others the Stones still aren’t built for reggae – their swampy bluesy take on the rock tradition is quite a different ‘laid back’ to the exotic charms of reggae and simply won’t fit, no matter how hard they try to force the issue. ‘Feel On Baby’ isn’t bad so much as bland and takes up space on the album where another Jagger-Richards gem (or even an extra five minutes of ‘Too Much Blood’) could have fitted. Shockingly the band also released an ‘instrumental mix’ of this song (as a bonus track on the 12” mix of ‘Undercover Of The Night’), clearly missing the point that it’s the music that needs work, not the words.
Talking of ‘Too Much Blood’, the second side opener is my favourite of the lesser-known songs on the album. Most of the ‘new’ songs the band came up with in the late 70s and 1980s were the result of aimless epic jams that were recorded and dissected before the best bits were re-recorded as a pithy, cut-down three or four minute song. ‘Too Much Blood’ is the original jam session edited down to a still pretty spaced-out six minutes (the original is said to last for 18!), featuring a great bass-drum groove and a sudden horn fanfare from the Stones’ occasional ‘Sugarhill Brass Section’. The sound is fantastic and deeply un-Stones like, more like the dance and trance styles from ten years later than anything around in 1983 (although the guitarists find it harder to fit in – that’s Richards’ guitar technician and roadie Jim Barber depping for Keith, by the way, although the student has clearly been listening well to his master as the difference isn’t all that obvious here). This is Mick’s show once again, however, and he comes up with a corker of an improvised lyric, inspired by a genuine concern for how much violence seemed to be in popular culture in the 1980s and a comical joke at the band’s ‘dark side’. Perhaps remembering how their presence had brought out the ‘dark side’ of rock festivals with Altamont in 1970 and his claims in ‘Gimme Shelter’ that murder was always ‘just a shot away’, Mick recounts the true story of a grisly murder that took place less than a mile away from the recording studio in 1981 when Issei Sagawa, a Japanese student known to the band, took his girlfriend’s rejection a bit too much to heart and stabbed her to death. Jagger sings his shaggy dog story in a casual, blasé manner but the horrific story is true (even the details about her head being kept in his freezer) and her bones were discovered by police in a park literally around the corner from where this album (and part of ‘Tattoo You’ completed that year) was recorded. His mocking tongue-in-cheek claims at the end of this section (‘You don’t believe me? We drive through there every night!’), then – which have been taken both ways by fans down the years – are actually true, despite the giggle in his voice! The murder was, naturally, a key talking point for the band and friends in-between songs while making this album – appearing on all the local and most of the national papers, not that the band could read many of them having never quite grasped more than a basic knowledge of French - and on an album that even by Stones’ standards is quite violent and brutal it’s natural that Mick’s extended improvisation should cover the subject. He returns to the theme in a more joking sense for his second monologue, acting like the parental prudish figure the punks assumed him to be, claiming that he’s seen ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ and doesn’t like it (‘Orrible wasn’t it?’) claiming that his idea of entertainment is ‘Officer and a Gentleman or something – something you can take the wife to, know what I mean?’ He ends up laughing at his mock-outrage, however, pleading with an unseen assassin ‘no, please don’t saw off my arm, don’t saw off my leg!...’ Even the actual musical passages of the song are fun, Jagger hilariously returning to the Stones’ hippie days by proclaiming ‘I want to dance, I want to sing, I want to bust up everything’, pleading ‘pretty ladies don’t be scared!’ and adding that all the violence of the 1980s is getting him down, the fashions concerned with ‘too much blood!’ Given that the Stones were considered closer to Satan than anybody else by ‘respectable’ people in the 1960s, this is a huge admission: at the age of 40, Jagger feels that the youth of the day have gone too far for him! What’s clever about this song is that the whole subject matter is treated as one long joke, so that we never know if the joke is on Jagger and co for growing old, on the youth for not having learnt the value of life yet or on us for believing that their satanic majesties could ever sound so stuck-up and middle-aged. Perhaps the key line here is ‘Everything on the movie screen is tame’, the band claiming that entertainment is a reflection of an increasingly violent age, not the cause. A fascinating song which is all the more exciting and interesting for having been made largely spontaneously and showing how quickly this most set-in-their-ways band could still be when put on the spot, with Mick on particularly top form. Perhaps one day the full 18 minute version will come out on CD, although the few people who’ve heard it claim that the rest is unusable, most of it being made up of Mick telling dirty jokes...
‘Pretty Beat Up’ is another of those occasional AAA songs from the early 1980s dealing with domestic violence, a key issue of the day (see The Kinks’ ‘A Little Bit Of Abuse’ from ‘Give The People What They Want’). Musically, this is another song lacking the traditional verse-chorus-middle eight distinctions and is more of a groove than a song, a disco-come-funk song that, err, turns the narrator’s grief at all the violence shown to him into a song made for dancing to. Given all the songs they’ve written like ‘Under My Thumb’ down the years you’d expect the Stones’ narrator to be the one doing the beating – but no, really unusually Jagger is cast here as the helpless victim who can’t fend off the blows of his partner. Most of them turn out to be psychological blows from a partner with a big mouth (Mick’s clearly having a tough time with at least one of his exes in this period), but there are hints that she’s hit him too (‘My face is a mess...but you ought to see inside my heart’). Sadly, though, a strong beginning never really gets going, the lyrics too clearly improvised rather than worked-on and structured before the band come into record. Less developed, less spontaneous and ultimately less varied than ‘Too Much Blood’, it’s still exciting to hear the Stones go so head-first into a completely new genre. Some fans liken this song to ‘Miss You’ (the Stones’ other most famous song built on a disco groove), but that song is all sweetness and light and love, even if its absent love: this song is dark and edgy, tackling the darker side of love and intensity in relationships. Actually the closest thing to this in the Stones’ catalogue is ‘Slave’, with a similar relentless riff repeated throughout that becomes painfully intense by the end, although that song is much close to rock and roll – this one barely features any guitar at all. It’s interesting, then, that Ronnie Wood should get a co-credit on this of all songs – was the riff the song is based on started by him on guitar perhaps and leapt on by the others? Mick and Keith didn’t exactly give their songwriting credits away down the years after all – Ronnie’s allegedly had as much input as Keith into their past eight or so albums and got about half a dozen credits in return! Like many of the songs on this album, you’re kind of glad that the Stones didn’t do hundreds of songs like this down the years – but at least it’s adventurous and far preferable to yet another tired re-tread of ‘Satisfaction’!
‘Too Tough’ is one of the album’s more traditional songs, but even this one is refreshingly different, again touching on the theme of a narrator having a hard time (and again featuring Mick as the victim rather than the dominant force). Mick is clearly writing his turbulent relationship with Bianca here and indeed comes as close as he’s ever come to pouring his heart out about his problems in a lyric, even if it is exaggerated for violent comic effect once again (‘I still see you in my dreams...with a kitchen knife poised above my head’). Some of the lyrics are really horrific, actually, the narrator pleading with her to feed him poison and put him out of his misery, although others are again treating violence as comedy, Jagger clearly thinking of his partner when he sings ‘I tried to kill myself with drugs once, you know...’ and a typically risqué Stones joke when the narrator turns out to have run off with a ‘teenage bride’ (‘I love her deep inside’). I’m amazed the ‘Carry On’ film company didn’t hire the Stones to write the music for them (Keith’s clearly a fan, given that he nicked Kenneth Williams’ ‘Infamy... they’ve all got it in for me’ gag on ‘A Bigger Bang’). For all that, though, there’s a heart to this song that other tracks from this album don’t possess and Mick’s sighing ‘too tough’ chorus and his ear-catching fed-up opening couplet (‘If you want to wreck my life, go ahead my love’) clearly aren’t just here to pad out the lyrics but have real emotional resonance for him. Note the fact that the narrator never even comes close to the perennial cry of ‘I’m leaving!’ – he stays to take the punches and still considers himself ‘too tough’ to admit defeat. Given what we know of Mick’s complicated personal life shortly before this period (he began living with Jerry Hall in 1977, marrying her in 1990, but was still technically married to Bianca till 1980), the truth certainly seems to reflect the lyrics (indeed, the first draft of the song dates back to 1975, during the first cracks between Mick and Bianca, on a song known to fans by the memorable title ‘Cellophane Trousers’ although most of the lyrics were added for this record). Throughout this album Mick’s been his swaggering best, singing cackling falsetto, singing tongue-in-cheek or breaking new ground on disco, raunch and funk. But this sounds like the real deal and Mick’s vocal is one of his very best, dripping with resignation, frustration and – despite everything – hope. For once on this album Keith is here to support his old partner too, turning in a riff that neatly recalls old classics without simply rehashing them and a short but memorable guitar solo that’s his best work on the album. The rest of the band sound a little out of kilter, however, as if they’ve all started off a bit too fast and never quite recovered by song’s end. Still, ‘Too Tough’ is a memorable and revealing song that deserves to be far better known than it is, one of the best on the album in fact.
‘All The Way Down’ is much the same (odd that the album’s two most traditional tracks should be stuck together), but slightly less sincere. Typically Stones, the double entendre title and smutty chorus disguise what’s actually quite a sweet song about growing old, featuring some typically ambiguous Stones takes on getting older (when ‘the years they rush on by – birthdays, kids and suicides’). Mick’s narrator is actually rather likeable, describing himself as ’21 naive’ and in the clutches of an older Mrs Robinson figure, although a much more ‘R’ rated one than in the film. A rather uncomfortable middle eight sung in double-tracked falsetto aside, this is good stuff from Jagger, the narrator sounding genuinely regretful at growing older and only having these memorable encounters as memories rather than in the present. Alas the music is rather less memorable, although unlike most songs on ‘Undercover’ it’s refreshing to hear a track that’s clearly got some structure to it rather than one built from a jam session. Mick’s on top form vocally too although the band don’t sound quite as together here, playing against each other rather than with each other. That’s most likely Ronnie speaking at the beginning (‘Don’t play it from the beginning...just drop us in’) – a lot of AAA bands like to leave random bits of chatter in, but this is unusual for the Stones. Perhaps it escaped the editor’s chop because accidentally the comment fits rather well, this song effectively playing us the narrator’s life on fast forward, skipping the details to get to the juicy bits (it might not be a coincidence that Jagger abandoned writing his autobiography in this period, a bored editor telling him he was too kind to people and there wasn’t enough sex in the book – you wonder what the same editor would have made of Keith’s book 30 years later, which was a real pipe-and-slippers affair once you skip past the drugs). The Stones on auto-pilot compared to the rest of the album, but unlike some Stones auto-pilots at least this one gets you safely to the ground without crashing into flames.
The album then ends with ‘It Must Be Hell’, a track that few people seem to know despite being the obvious epic for the album. The Stones recycle one of their most iconic riffs for a kick-off (‘Soul Survivor’, the final song from ‘Exile on Main Street’ in 1972) and the socially right-on lyrics are the first time the band have tried to address the nation since the equally portentous ‘Salt Of The Earth’ from ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ in 1968. Those two songs were very much of their era – the angry, turbulent ‘Soul Survivor’ (‘and it’s gonna be the death of me’) the perfect finale to a troubled year that saw Watergate, escalation in Vietnam and the last dying embers of a higher average of the Stones’ 1960s contemporaries than normal. Equally ‘Salt Of The Earth’ is very late 60s, celebrating the working classes by dressing them up in musical glamour and sparkle, halfway between earnestness and comedy. ‘It Must Be Hell’ is in the same line, being one of the most 1980s recordings the Stones ever made, but as any good music student with a pair of ears will tell you, 1983 was a far less interesting period than 1968 or 1972. The Stones try to sound contemporary for the first real time on the album (with criss-crossing Bruce Springsteen style guitars, booming drums, an echo chamber that sounds so big this track might have been recorded in the Grand Canyon and a sense that although we feel pity for the poor and woebegotten they’re clearly ‘other’ people, not anyone someone listening to this record could relate to at all. This is Thatcher’s Britain in all it’s stark primary coloured lycra glory, even if the Stones recorded it in France and by this period lived either there or in America. That said, I have a soft spot for this song because it at least tries to do the right thing: sales had slipped so low for ‘rock dinosaurs’ that even mainstream bands were having to toe the line in the mid-80s and dared not speak out against politics (Pink Floyd and CSNY being the two main exceptions). The Stones had never been all that successful at releasing political material (in fact ‘Undercover of the Night’ was by their most commercially successful in this line) and really didn’t need to release any now: the people who mattered had long ago given up expecting the Stones to make a massive social statement by 1983. I’m really pleased that they did, though, and at least tried to reach out and experience what life was like out there for at least some of their fanbase and help in some way – even if the effect is a bit like the looks of disgust Margo used to give her neighbours at the end of ‘The Good Life’ every week. ‘Some kids are hungry – and some overeat’ is probably the single worst line about haves and have notes ever committed to tape, simplifying two completely different situations with Daily Mail like zealousy and the chorus of ‘It must be hell out there, suffering in the world like you’ isn’t the kind of we’re-all-in-this-together statement the likes of CSNY would make. But then, the Stones weren’t that kind of a band and the chance to hear them offer something other than yet another chat up line set to swampy rock music makes this song a cut above the average for this era. What’s interesting is the way the song ends – after three minute of pot-shots at religion Jagger ends the song with the saintly coda ‘I say we are heaven bound’. What with easily the best single Stones song of the 1980s (‘Heaven’ from ‘Tattoo You’), was the band altering their atheistic/satanic stance? A sometimes irritating but always interesting finale to the album.
Like that last song, you have to say that ‘Undercover Of The Nights’ heart is in the right. The band are genuinely trying to offer up something different to their loyal fanbase on their 20th anniversary and their attempts at new genres, styles, themes and working methods work more often than they don’t, even with a few mistakes thrown into the mix. I’m surprised that ‘Undercover’ didn’t create more of a fuss at the time – long treated as just another one of those 80s Stones albums that aren’t as good as their earlier ones, it’s actually their last truly adventurous groundbreaking work. A good test of an album that will last is that, the first time you hear it, you end up going to places you never expected to go – if you feel you already know where the album is going by track three it tends not to be an album you play very often. ‘Undercover’ is full of surprises waiting to be unwrapped. Some of these are nice surprises, some of them are nasty, some of them are unexpected gifts, some of them unwanted cheap tat you’ll never want to hear again, but good on the Stones for at least trying something different and brave rather than resting on their laurels. In short, this is the album that should have come out after the second-wind and punkish excitement of ‘Some Girls’, not the bad recycling of ‘Emotional Rescue’ and the better recycling of ‘Tattoo You’. ‘Undercover’ is the sound of a band that still has things to say and a good idea how to go about saying them, even if they’re not always things worth hearing. ‘Undercover Of The Night’ ‘Too Much Blood’ and ‘Too Tough’ are all first class songs, however, second-half-of-career highlights that might not match up to the past glories of ten years earlier but do at least add to the band’s reputation as the greatest rock and roll band in the world (a status The Who shared and sometimes surpassed but, heck, they were gone by 1983 so for this album at least it’s a title the Stones can wear with pride). Overall rating – 7/10
Other Rolling Stones reviews from this site you might be interested in reading:
'Rolling Stones' (1964) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/news-views-and-music-issue-100-rolling.html
‘Aftermath’ (1966) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/the-rolling-stones-aftermath-1966.html
'Between The Buttons' (1967) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-9-rolling-stones-between-buttons.html
'Their Satanic Majesties Request' (1967) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-16-rolling-stones-their-satanic.html
'Beggar's Banquet' (1968) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-26-rolling-stones-beggars.html
'Sticky Fingers' (1971) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/rolling-stones-sticky-fingers-1971.html
'Exile On Main Street'(1972) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/05/news-views-and-music-issue-61-rolling.html
'Goat's Head Soup' (1973) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-58-rolling-stones-goats-head.html
'Some Girls' (1978) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/05/news-views-and-music-issue-30-rolling.html
‘Tattoo You’ http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/the-rolling-stones-tattoo-you-1981.html
'Steel Wheels' (1989)http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/news-views-and-music-issue-113-rolling.html