Monday, 9 November 2015
Hot Stuff/Hand Of Fate/Cherry Oh Baby/Memory Motel//Hey Negrita/Melody/Fool To Cry/Crazy MamaeyH
'What's black and blue and red all over?' 'This album, after I've been through it with marker pen, pointing out what's wrong with it'
By 1976 it was becoming easier and easier to imagine what had once seemed unimaginable: what a middle aged Rolling Stones album might sound like. Suddenly, with a large great clunking sound, the band that once stood more than any other 60s band for youth, revolution and rebellion now seem to be irrelevent. Critics of course had argued that the band had been irrelevent for years, that the 'real' spirit of the Stones had died out in 1972 or 1970 or 1968 when Brian Jones died or even as early as 1964. There had certainly been signs of 'rust' on the band's most recent album 'It's Only Rock and Roll', a record that became the first aging Stones album simply because it took the 'safe' option over the rebellious one everytime. It's here, though, on 'Black and Blue' where the Rolling Stones truly go from everybody's favourite rebels to a big joke. It's there at the beginning of the album when the band try a bit of reggae for the first time, despite refusing to change their sound one iota, so that 'Hot Stuff' comes off sounding like a cold and limp parody of a Stones song (and yet still manages to be better than reggae cover 'Cherry Oh Baby' heard two tracks later, when the band go through the whole flipping thing again). It's there at the end when Mick Jagger tried to rev himself up on the eighth straight track that sounds the same. It's there on 'Fool To Cry', the first Stones song about a parent so terribly slow it makes 'Angie' look like a high adrenalin rocker. It's there on the album cover, where the band have aged a million years since the last record's shot, not a mere two (it helps that 'Rock and Roll' was a lush painting and 'Black and Blue' is a warts and all photo shot): Charlie Watts has even had a vicious crew cut to cover up the fact he's at the beginning of another Stones unthinkable, losing his luscious hair. It's there when the band go from being a band who won't play second fiddle to anyone, whether Beatle or any of the young pretenders to their crown, to piling in behind Billy Preston on a song he writes and basically plays himself (and which, more worrying still, proves to be the album highlight). It's there in the slightly desperate sounding album title and publicity campaign full of references to bondagism and BDSM (model Anita Russell is being tied up by Jagger and declares 'I'm black and blue with the Rolling Stones - and I love it!'), the first time The Rolling Stones seem to be playing with the realms of bad taste rather than actively pursuing them. Mostly, though, it's there in every single grain of music across this wretched album for anyone with a memory of what the band once stood for or access to any of the recordings the band had made up until this point. from now the band will always be 'old' in the public's eye, even when the band sound younger than they have in centuries (the next album 'Some Girls'), recycle old tracks recorded when they really were young ('Tattoo You') or when the band turn growing in old into something to be applauded, not crucified (parts of 'Steel Wheels' 'Voodoo Lounge' and 'Bridges To Babylon', which between them make for one last classic album nine years in the making).
I'll tell you what the real problem with this album is though: it's not a record at all, but an audition. It is, after all, hard to hit a groove from the ground running when the people in the room have barely had a chance to say 'hello' to each other and who haven't yet shared years of unspoken bonds and shared experiences. It's like being expected to give a speech as the poet laureate when you only turned up to a job interview: it's hard to connect with a bunch of strangers with fifteen years of knowing exactly what they want, while a tape machine records your every mistake. The reason for the audition is because the band's second rhythm guitarist Mick Taylor had quit the band, partly over being miffed over being excluded from writing credits but more probably because the gentle sweet guitarist who'd been a vegetarian tee-totaller when he joined the band didn't like what six years of being a Rolling Stone had done to him. At a loss, the band decided to panic the way they had when searching for Brian Jones' replacement all those years ago and bided their tie, holding these album sessions as a way of testing out several guitarists they thought might meet the bill. A total of six guitarists took up the invite to become the band's new guitarist, four of them appearing on songs recorded on this album: R and B youngster Wayne Perkins (nearly a decade younger than the rest of the band), a John Mayall Bluesbreaker in Harvey Mandel, slide guitar specialist Ry Cooder and the 'winner' of the audition, former Faces guitarist Ronnie Wood (other guitarists who either turned up to the sessions or were considered included The Yardbirds' Jeff Beck, The Small Faces' Steve Marriott, his Humble Pie sparring partner Peter Frampton and the best and obvious choice Nils Lofgren, sadly dropped for not being 'English' enough). Had this album been recorded twenty or thirty years later the band could have gotten away with making this record a 'limited edition' for 'historical value', stamped a number on the back and called it an 'official bootleg' or released it under a pseudonym that 'accidentally' leaked to the press about a week or so after release. However this was the 1970s, a time when bands - even ones as big as the Stones - had to be seen to be doing 'something' in the public eye or who risked losing their careers altogether. Recording an album meant that the group could do both things at once, with a minimum of fuss, while seeing what the guitarists sounded like in a studio environment. Sadly 'awful' seems to be the verdict on most of these lacklustre tracks, although to be fair there are moments of greatness - most of them from the new guitarists.
The single greatest moment on this album comes when Mick stops growling the stodgy 'Hand Of Fate' and special guest Wayne Perkins suddenly plugs in unannounced and turns in a blistering-but-beautiful guitar solo it's as if Mick Taylor had never left the band (doing a similar job on acoustic for 'Memory Motel', just to prove his credentials - and better than either is his groovy playing on 'Worried About You', an outtake from the album sessions that ended up on 1981's 'Tattoo You'). There's a similar moment of revelation when Harvey Mendel clicks with the half-hearted groove on the opener 'Hot Stuff' and channels a magnificent hybrid of Bob Marley and Chuck Berry's love child, a part right in the middle of the two extremes. There's even a moment on 'Melody' when the 'sixth Stone' in this period, keyboardist Billy Preston, suddenly hits a delicious gospel-pop groove that beautifully hits voice in tandem with Jagger's and you begin to question whether the band won't in fact give up on the guitar idea and go out on the road as a gospel-rock band, with Preston taking half the solos. But do the band hire any of these people?
No - instead they go for the candidate they were always going to choose, the one whose been trying to wangle his way into the band ever since the group recorded 'It's Only Rock 'n' Roll' at his house and ever since Rod Stewart's career began to eclipse that of The Faces. In the context of the music that's a surprise: though Ronnie will go on to find his own style within the Stones, the only hint of that here is on the final track 'Crazy Mama' (presented here at the end as a 'tah-dah!' to those in the know wondering what the band might sound like) where most of the hard work is done by twin Keefs. Ronnie's parts on 'Hey Negrita' and 'Cherry Oh Baby', meanwhile, are awful - the sloppiest playing of his career (at least Keith is a fan of reggae, even if he's unable to play it - Ronnie seems to have never heard of it before this session). Perhaps it's just a case of playing too hard: the last two Faces albums in particular reveal that Ronnie was indeed the obvious candidate, with a heavy crunchy sound that was just adaptable enough to provide something out the ordinary when it was needed and distinctive enough to keep Richards on his toes without taking over the band sound or making him look like an amateur (the way that Taylor or Brian Jones for that matter sometimes had, both of them more natural musicians even if they lacked the presence of one Keith's fairly rare solos or his knack for knocking out classics guitar riffs). Though I'd long wondered if the band had held the album sessions after trying Ronnie out and having second thoughts when they heard the playback, the band seem to have been genuinely surprised and pleased at how good Ronnie sounded with them once he turned up at the end of the sessions. Though they were no doubt right in the long term (Ronnie was, character-wise what the band needed - a go-between for Mick and Keef when they needed one most, listening to the former when needed and partying hard with the latter almost all the time - just reliable enough for Jagger in these early days with a similar amount of miles on the clock to the Stones, while being just shambolic to keep the sound 'authentic'), if I'd have been at these sessions I'd have told the Stones to have another go (and got Nils Lofgren, at a loose end after the collapse of his school band Grin and who had recently recorded the Stones tribute 'Keith Don't Go' - which beats any rocker the band did for real post 1971 - on the phone right away).
'Keef Don't Go' brings up another important point: Keith very nearly had bowed out for good. Though it's the next album 'Some Girls' that's always brought up in terms of Richard's Canadian drug bust (one which nearly saw him behind bars again, until sweet-talking from a blind fan Keith had befriended on the road and - so it's alleged - the prime minister's wife helped dispel the sentence). However, while 'Some Girls' is the 'effect' of the drug bust (with the band determined to rally for one last group album which may have been their last, their status as rebels now firmly intact), 'Black and Blue' is the effect. The reason the band suddenly sound middle-aged isn't just that Mick is singing in a curiously deep growl or that Charlie Watts is playing even more simplistic slow-burning grooves than normal, but that Keith sounds fast asleep. You could argue that this is the more generous side of Keith's nature on show, allowing those around him to shine in the spotlight while he simply keeps the grooves a-moving, but when it happens for eight songs out of eight you begin to wonder just how close to the drugs precipice the guitarist was dangling from. Though Keith had sometimes played poorly because of drugs before or made poor song selections, his 'wasted' character was only an act that covered up moments of intense passion and insight, a riff here and a lick there and an idea there which the other Stones would know how to knock into shape like a musical game of table tennis. This album, though, is a game of golf: the band keep waiting for something to happen, for the grooves to click into place, for the moment of magic to arrive. But all they get is the padding: the moments between the magic when a song is being set up for Richards to go to town on. Though Richards famously fell asleep on stage while performing Mick's solo song on this record 'Fool To Cry' (a fact the others only noticed when they turned round to hear the solo and noticed Keef propped up against an amplifier, gently snoring), Mick sounds as if he's doing the next best thing several times across this album, treading water on songs like 'Cherry Oh Baby' and 'Hey Negrita', waiting for a song to suddenly cruise into first gear which never comes. Though Richards almost always gets the sympathy in this period, you have to feel for Jagger: this is the point where he begins to take on a much bigger say in the band's songs and arrangements, probably in desperation not to be left 'waiting' again for something to happen the way he is on this album. For all the Stones biographies and documentaries that paint Mick as being somewhat aloof from the Stones (His going awol during the band's 1980s album sessions didn't help) it's actually Keith whose more of the 'loner' in the band, going off to do his own thing; Mick badly needs the band to nail the groove behind him and he's at his best shaping what Keith brings to him rather than creating ideas from scratch. At this point he wasn't quite worked that out yet or realised how badly he needs an on-form Keith to be on-form himself.
Not that Mick is himself without blame across this album. Though it's the staid rigid music that's the most off-putting thing about this record, there's not a single lyric to write home about either. The single most interesting line on 'Hot Stuff' is 'music is what I want to keep my body always moving' and when music has gone from being a means of expressing who you can't get no satisfaction with modern society to a song about dancing you know something's gone wrong. 'Hand Of Fate' is a cowboy film, the narrator getting shot by the sheriff (while seen by his deputy - the narrator's ex-wife) but it sounds like a re-run from some other song or other. The album's lone cover, Eric Donaldson's 'Cherry Oh Baby', may have sported a fine groove on the original (though the Stones muck it up badly on their cover) but it was hardly poetry ('Now that we are together it make my joy run over! Whoa Eeyo Eeyo Eeyo yo!') 'Memory Motel' has the most promise of the songs here, a reflective tale of a meeting with a groupie which is actually a far kinder tribute than almost all Stones songs about women ('She's one of a kind and she uses it well' is Keith's one vocal part on this record). 'Hey Negrita', though, is awful: sexist and racist (if you're going to rip off an old song then 'Brown Sugar' really isn't the one to choose - I'm surprised both tracks didn't raise more eyebrows back in the day). 'Melody' is a clever song that again sees the Stones as a victim, as a girl of the same name takes the narrator for a 'song', although despite the usual Jagger-Richards song it's clearly a Billy Preston original, a fact the band were quite open about in the press. 'Fool To Cry' is a sweet lyric about Mick being comforted by a daughter (his oldest, Marsha, was just turning six and his second, Jade, was now five; Mick became a great-grandfather in 2014 just to make you and no doubt him feel really old!) - it's just the tune that's blooming awful. Perhaps the worst offender though is 'Crazy Mama', the one Stones-like riff that Keith has taken to the Stone(s) table - and what does Mick do with it? Well not a lot as you'll see from the first and - gulp - best opening verse: 'Well you're crazy Mama, with your ball and chain, and your sawn off shotgun, blown out brains, oh yeah!'
Needless to say there isn't a major underlying theme on the album this time around, although it is interesting to note how many strong female characters there are on this record, from groupie Melody to the pretty dancers Hot Stuff and Negrita to mass murderer 'Crazy Mama', not to mention the daughter on 'Fool To Cry'. The biggest - perhaps the only development - for the Stones across this album is how they've gone from treating women like dirt to being their superiors in the blink of an eye: it wasn't that long ago we were getting songs about whipped slaves, good-time honky tonk women and the Midnight Rambler rapist. Probably not coincidentally, this change in mood seems to have started around 'Exile On Main Street' when both 'glimmer twins' became parents (actually Keith became a dad first, to son Marlon in 1969, though daughter Dandelion aka Angie was also born in 1972). This will all change as soon as 'Some Girls' when the band try to recapture their 'bad boy' credentials again (starting with the title track, a pornographic 'California Girls'), with less and less success with each passing album. For now though the Stones have 'grown up' - perhaps it's that which makes the album suddenly sound so middle aged? (The Stones, after all, have a distinctive sound that's fully based on sounding young, something only The Who really share: the likes of Paul Simon and Cat Stevens, for instance, sound 'right' as old men philosophising about big questions, but the Stones were never intended to ask that many questions, except in a society's petty morals' kind of a way).
That's really the main trouble of this album, despite being it's biggest strength. The Rolling Stones are trying so hard to change their band sound and to use Mick Taylor's defection as a chance to completely re-write who they are and what they stand for. Occasionally, as with the couple of classy guitar solos by Wayne Perkins and Harvey Mendel, Billy Preston's sweet turn as the band's new lead singer, the cosy lyric of 'Fool To Cry' and the half-clever one of 'Memory Motel', not to mention the idea of treating women with respect rather than insults, the idea works. What lets the album down is the less than enthusiastic plod through the sort of things the band have always done and which they should be doing in their sleep but which has never sounded worse: every moment that sounds like it should be a 'classic' Stones moment (Mick crooning 'Hot Stuff' while barking at a dancefloor, the long-delayed attempt at doing reggae or the Chuck Berry groove of 'Crazy Mama' falls badly short; it's the new stuff that works best by far - and there's not enough of it here. This should, you see, be a great Stones album, on paper if not in the grooves. Freed temporarily of the need to sound like Chuck Berry on every song, the band embrace funk, reggae, jazz and gospel - all sounds that were largely new to the band. This should be the start of a whole brave new world, one in which the band start writing wistful songs about parenting and 'real' love, not the misogynistic stuff the band could get away with in their twenties while adding a bit of jazz and gospel grooves to enhance their trusty rock and roll riffs. But against all the odds it's not that part of the album that 'wins' the battle to determine the band's sound: it's with a sense of crushing disappointment that you get to the album's finale - the one with the most Ronnie Wood - and realise that this is the sound the band are going to adopt: one that's just like the old band sound, but far far worse. Though 'Fool To Cry' 'Melody' and 'Memory Motel' are far from the best Stones songs of the 1970s, never mind from their career as a whole, at least they showed a touch of class, a few ideas and some brownie points for trying to pull off something the band had never done before. Using 'Crazy Mama' as your template when you have so much else on offer is like forming The Beatles and deciding to make Ringo the lead singer. The Rolling Stones are in free-fall and it's the fans who are left feeling black and blue.
Once upon a time Rolling Stones records started with fizz and fire, with excitement and passion, with 'Everybody Needs Somebody To Love' or 'Sympathy For The Devil' or 'Rocks Off. The first song on the album traditionally sets the tone of the album for the Stones and 'Black and Blue' is no exception. Unfortunately this album opens with 'Hot Stuff', one of the emptiest and most pointless songs in their history. 'I can't get enough slurs' Jagger as he tries to chat up a girl whose 'hot stuff', but there isn't enough in this track for fans to get. The Stones have always known how to strut, of how to go for the groove even if the song's not all there (and there'll be an increasing number of songs like that from now on), but on this track even the groove sounds ridiculously one-note. You keep waiting in vain for the song to do something new, to go somewhere exciting and Harvey Mandel's brief wah-wah solo is something to briefly get excited about, but it's a passing moment on a song where nothing happens, one long verse that never breaks into the chorus. The lyrics are more interesting to read than they sound the way Mick sings them (oddly roughly), about how not just the girl but music makes the world go round, equating it to drugs and 'Sister Morphine' when the narrator 'just can't get enough'. However even these lyrics have gone off the boil by the end, with the track turning into a lazy song comparing the dismal rainy London with the 'hot stuff' of Jamaica, even though this song only really sounds Jamaican and reggae-ish in the band's heads; it's not funky or slinky or interesting enough to nail the groove. Though the Stones probably didn't intended to end up there, they end up sounding more 'disco' than 'reggae' on this song, although the beat is arguably too slow to dance to anyway. Not that I would know - it would take something a lot more powerful than this to make me want to get up and dance...
'Hand Of Fate' offers belated hope, though, that the album may yet have a few aces to play. Though on most prior Stones albums the song would be ordinary, here it's about the most finished sounding song there is with a nice big fat guitar line and Keith sounds pretty darn good dueling with Wayne Perkins, the guitarist who'd have got my vote as the new Stone based on these sessions. In a sign of just how far apart the two were becoming from each other, however, what Keith intended as a simple rocker based around a typical Chuck Berry-style riff became an epic song about cowboys and betrayal in Mick's hands. It's hard to say who was 'right' - you don't really take much notice of the lyrics to be honest and Jagger growls so deeply and gutturally you're afraid he's about to give birth at one point, but in terms of lyrics they're amongst the best on the album and a lot more interesting than just another 'oh cherry baby I love you' kind of a lyric. The narrator is a fugitive who 'killed a man', but he's far from your usual kind of murderer - he's run off with the judge's wife and been pursued for it, killing in retribution before finding out that he's been played by her like a puppet. The hint at the end is that he's committed suicide, 'surrendering' to the 'hand of fate' that's stalked him like karma throughout the song. Mick knew a thing or two about running from the law and his sympathies are clearly with the no-good lothario, who he declares was only doing good by protecting someone that he loved - it's hard not to see this as an early confessional for his own affairs, although in Stones history it sounds more like the days when Keef swept Anita Pallenberg off her feet 'saving' her from Brian Jones. Keith certainly sounds more interested here than on most songs on the album and even puts up a mean fight to Perkins, who still manages to win the 'shoot-out' in the solo with a virtuoso display of fretwork. Though there are better cowboy songs, better Stones tracks about betrayal and the music and lyrics are telling two very different stories, if the rest of the album was up to this standard I'd only be a little bruised rather than black and blue.
The biggest punch to fans who spent good money on this album, though, is the wearying cover of reggae classic 'Oh Cherry Baby'. Not content with proving that they misunderstood the genre on their own songs, the band ruin a perfectly good song by completely ignoring all the things that made it great in the first place. Mick's attempts to add a Jamaican patois are embarrassing, even more so than his sudden development of a mid-Transatlantic accent, but not as embarrassing as Keith's random fumbles at the guitar in the mistaken belief that less is more. The band just keep on playing and playing and playing even though they're clearly not getting anywhere, missing one of the 'ideas' of Carribean music which is that it's meant to get better through repetition, accumulating style and emotion as the events keep unfolding. Far from sounding as if they're caught up in the whirlwind of romance and a passion that burns so intently they can't think of anything else, the band sound as if they're messing around for five minutes before a lunch break. Keith in particular will show a greater understanding of reggae music on Stones albums to come and that's it's not just all about laidback grooves, but the first Stones attempt at the style is an unmitigated disaster and sounds as if it lasts at least an hour longer than the 3:56 running time. A waste of some perfectly good players, with Ronnie Wood's second part on a Rolling Stones recording (following his guest turn on 'It's Only Rock 'n' Roll') almost as embarrassing as his first and even the AAA's favourite session musician Nicky Hopkins sticking rigidly to a simple groove that just isn't working. Rehearse and audition on your own times, Strolling Bones - how did we end up here just five years after 'Sticky Fingers' and four after 'Exile On Main Street'?
At seven minutes 'Memory Motel' is much more than a brief drop-off point and thankfully it's the one song on this album that deserves it's extended running time. By now the Rolling Stones have been running just long enough for them to get away with a song of nostalgia for the 'good ol' days' and this memory of a romantic encounter is far sweeter and more romantic than their usual style, even if Mick still sings with an irritating biting sarcasm. Back in 1976 there really was a 'Memory Motel' in Montauk, New York, where the band had sometimes stayed between gigs and there's a feeling of 'reality' about this song that suggests it really did happen - for Keith if not for Mick. The guitarist's only lead vocal on this album come in a rejoinder to Mick's more descriptive story-telling verses as he sighs how this girl is unlike all the others: that 'she got a mind of her own and she uses it well'. Though the two come in danger of sounding like old duffers discussing past loves as the song keeps going, their crossover vocals work rather well at first, with Keith's still-just-about innocence coming up hard against Mick's playboy manner and they sound remarkably good together. The middle eight, all silly 'sha la la las', should be the most embarrassing Stones moment ever and yet in context it comes off as the perfect moment for the song, sweet but tender rather than sickly. The difference with this song's character 'Hannah' (the name may well have been changed to protect the, err, well 'innocent' seems unlikely in this context actually) and other women in Stones songs is respect: unlike poor Chrissie Shrimpton on 'Under My Thumb' or 'Yesterday's Papers', unlike the master-slave powerplay of 'Brown Sugar' or even the surreal brilliance of 'Ruby Tuesday', this is a girl who bravely says 'no' and the Stones seem to find this incredibly sexy. Oddly sexy isn't a word that often crops up with Stones songs, which tend to go for macho or treacly with nothing in between, but this song is a pretty fair match between their two favourite styles, with Billy Preston, Mick and Keith between them playing some delightful MOR piano and Fender Rhodes which has just enough of a sense of grace and beauty and reality to stop this sounding as over-emotive or sickly as 'Angie' and the album's forthcoming 'Fool To Cry'. She's not a 'perfect' girl: her teeth are crooked and she invades the narrator's personal space, but he seems hooked all the same, admiring her imperfections in an imperfect world as much as her beauty. It's as close as we get to a 'real' love song until as late as 2005 with Mick's confessional 'Laugh, I Nearly Died'. Oddly enough, this is the one Stones recording not to feature any guitarwork by Keith or any of the band's guitarists - though there are two subtle guitar parts on here, that's Wayne Perkins playing the acoustic and Harvey Mendel on electric, both going head to head for a job that sadly neither of them would win. There has long been debate over who Hannah might be and whether she really was from the past or the future (was she Marianne Faithful, Anita Pallenburg, Bianca Jagger? Or one of Bill Wyman's many many girlfriends? Or, as rumour has long suggested, is this a riposte to Carl Simon's 'You're So Vain' from shortly after Mick stopped going out with her, a girl who clearly 'had a mind of her own') but my guess is that she really was a one-night stand either Mick or Keith (probably Keith) had once between girls, whose remembered with such passion precisely because it was just a one-night thing that left one or other of the writing Stones wanting more. Easily the album highlight and the only song hear you'll ever be in a hurry to hear again.
Alas, over on side two, the band are going all juvenile again on the growled funk of 'Hey Negrita'. More of a riff than a song, it's the kind of thing rarities albums were designed to collect, an unfocussed band jam that the band try hard to turn into something more but which never quite loses its tired core and clod-hopping playing. Set 'way down South' but partly sung in Spanish just to confuse us, Negrita is a poor girl working as a call-girl/prostitute when she comes over to give the narrator a good time. Sadly he's even poorer than she is but she'd offended when he tries to send her away because he has no money and gives him a show for free. It's the sort of thing that would have made parents have kittens a decade before but in the mid-70s sounds ever so slightly desperate. There ought to be a good song here even so: Ronnie plays some so-so guitar strutting, which is unusual for him (usually Keith sets the tone of the songs) while Keith keeps up the sturdy choppy rhythm. But there's no life about it: the pair are just going through the motions, as is Bill on the simplest bass part he can get away with, the bare bones boom...chikka drum part from Charlie and Mick's generic growl (has he actually 'sung' any of these songs yet?) Why weren't the superior songs from these sessions released on 'Tattoo You' released ahead of this track, which is a B-side at best? Five minutes of this stuff is again at least three and a half too long, with this being another track where there is no variation whatsoever - no chorus, no middle eight, no frenetic solos, no nothing.
Thankfully 'Melody' at least has a melody, one that's actually memorable with a chorus so catchy it's easier to catch than most STDs. However it's not a Stones song at all but a Billy Preston one, firmly within the under-rated keyboard player's usual range of jolly gospel with a touch of funk. It's a lot of fun and Billy is one hell of a singer, putting even Mick to shame although his honest goodness against Mick's acting does make for a highly memorable performance. However it has almost nothing to do with the Stones: keith only gets the briefest of parts and apart from Billy the only person who sounds at home here is Charlie, clearly enjoying the single closest moment to jazz in the Stones songbook (and complete with horn section, clumsily added over the fade). It's another tale of a strong girl, with a 'surname' of Melody as we keep being told over and over, a new neighbour the narrator meets after being locked out of his flat and trying to break the door down. He tries to take her out to say 'thankyou' but she bleeds his money dry and then disappears, being later located in the gents 'in the arms of my best friend'. Oddly the narrator doesn't sound surprised or cross, adopting a 'Tsk! You!' attitude and a musical shoulder shrug that makes her antics sound like the perfect date. Even the conclusion, after she sneaks back to his flat and robs him, taking 'everything that moved' and the narrator vows 'I'm going to roast that child alive' is delivered more in jest than anger - a far cry from 'Down Home Girl' or 'Backstreet Girl' and the like. Recorded four months before the rest of the album, at the Stones' own 'mobile' recording unit (possibly at Mick's own Stargroves mansion - the one seen in Dr Who story 'Planet Of Mars' from the year before) it seems likely that this track was an 'experiment' in the wake of Mick Taylor's departure and a test to see what the Stones sounded like with barely any guitar sound at all (Keith wasn't exactly in great shape either). Fun is the answer, with the band for once playing back up to Billy instead of the other way around and working mainly through the greatness of his delivery, although you're also kinda grateful that this is just a one-off not the start of a whole new sound.
Some fans like the next song 'Fool To Cry' too, but I can't say I'm one of them. I like the fact that Mick can pour out his heart to us, reveal that he can do vulnerable and sound like his heart is breaking and this tale of being comforted by his toddler daughter may well be the bravest thing he ever did in terms of puncturing his playboy bachelor image. But the song is still not very good: the chorus ('Daddy you're a fool to cry and it makes me wonder why...') is sung with a gormless sarcastic grin that renders the whole song meaningless and the song is at least half the speed it ought to be (no wonder Keith, who hated this song, once fell asleep playing it on tour - it's a wonder the rest of the band don't during the take). It's a shame because as a song the track is fine: the opening verse about realising just how much his family care and how he's always been missing it till now is a major breakthrough for Mick's writing and the second, which fleshes out the story with some made-up business about being separated and making the few snatched moments with his daughter on weekend visits all the more heartbreaking (Mick's great at heartbreak, more than he's usually given credit for). But the song's weakest aspect, it's chorus, comes round more regularly than 'Satisfaction' in Stones setlists and if you're going to repeat a chorus five times in quick succession when the tempo is so slow it's basically buffering the chorus has to be absolutely perfect to hold your attention: this one is twee and unforgivable. The way Micks sings this piece, too, makes him sound as if he's torn between revealing part of his real self or mocking it the way he usually does: sadly, unlike 'Angie' where this division worked (making him sound as if he both did and didn't mean what he was singing) here it just sounds as if he's not braver enough to go all the way and admit how much family life has changed him. You can forgive a singer for not being brave enough to admit he's 100% in love with his partner after decades of writing songs for every girl, groupie and Goldielocks going; it's another matter not sounding sure enough of your love for your five year old daughter. Mick again excels himself on the piano performance, which comes with large dollops of Fender Rhodes (a very period sound, but not a bad one in of itself - it just happened to be used by a lot of very bad writers such as Barry Mannilow and Leo Sayer) while Nicky Hopkins adds some slightly over-syruped synth-strings and the rest of the band seem to have gone awol (Keith always hated this song with a passion, although he is there - just very low in the mix). It's Mick who mucks up, with this okay-ish song turned into a travesty via the performance which he seems to treat like a rehearsal rather than the real thing.
The album ends with the most traditionally Stonesy moment on the album, although the so-so spectacle of 'Crazy Mama' hints why the band tried so hard to change their sound on the album: they just couldn't do it properly anymore. The next few years will be about finding ways around this - through embracing punk, funk and heading to the vaults in the case of 'Tattoo You' so few fans at the time ever noticed this swamp strut had gone. Heard back to back with most past albums (certainly up 'Goat's Head Soup') this is awful: not blurry enough to match 'Exile' or crystal clear enough to match 'Fingers', but somewhere in the middle as generic rock - and if there's one thing the Stones never were up to least 1974 it was generic. In context of the rest of this album, though, it does sound as if the band are at least more comfortable with their signature sound than messing about with jazz and reggae. Mick's barking vocal works far better than the other seven tracks on the album, Ronnie's solo-ing really catches the ear and works well knocking back against Keith's more brittle and straightforward style (although you sense that Wayne Perkins would have eclipsed it had he been invited back for this last or near-last recording session), while Bill and Charlie are back to their inventive best, adding in bass 'gulps' and cheeky swipes at the hi-hat to inject something extra into this song. As a result it's the best 'sounding' song with the best 'group' performance after 'Memory Motel' and possibly 'Hand Of Fate', though things are far worse if you study the actual song. The narrator is afraid of his girl: she's gone mental, with a ball and chain and a hacksaw that terrified him physically, while her blackmail and teasing hurts him emotionally. It's odd hearing yet another girl get the better of Jagger although in typical Stones style he dreams not of escape but revenge, something greeted by a blistering Jagger scream. It shouldn't matter what the words are - it's not as if you can hear them anyway the way Mick sings here - but somehow it's so characteristic of this album that a moment of promise gets snuffed out by resorting to cliche and repetition. After all, this is the writing team who once wrote 'Sympathy For The Devil' 'Gimme Shelter' and 'You Can't Always Get What You Want', reduced to the level of writing 'If you don't think that I'm gonna do it just you wait for the thud of the bullet!' Even a pretty Woods-Richard guitar duet over the fade can't compensate, sounding far too neat and far out of place on such a crazy, unhinged song.
Actually the whole of the 'Black and Blue' album is rather crazy and unhinged, even (perhaps especially) the few bits that work. Without Mick Taylor the band really do sound adrift and it's notable that most of the musical highlights come from the band guests who'd never really worked with the band before, rather than the trusty Jagger vocals and lyrics or the Richards guitar and melodies. The Stones were never the 'tightest' of bands in a way that bands like The Who that played together stayed together whatever their personal differences and they seem to have been heading in different directions across the making of this album, recorded in a hurry without the band ever getting to grips with the material long enough to set their usual grooves. They usually knew each other well enough to do better than this, though, which makes you wonder afresh at just how much Taylor brought to the band across his six years, all but replacing Keith as the creative wall for Mick Jagger to bounce ideas off. Both Harvey and Wayne sound as if they might be that replacement and so to some extent does Ronnie on two out of his three guest performances at least. However the band chemistry is in too much disarray for any of these new kids on the block to really prove their stuff and the Stones would surely have done much better to keep these session under wraps until the new guitarist was re-cast, before going back to work and doing this album properly. There is, after all, promise in around half of this album and in 'Memory Motel' something actually worth getting excited about. But these moments are fleeting and sporadic, a far cry from the days when the band could get away with nearly delivering a whole double album (albeit a rather short-running one) that was consistent and powerful. Thankfully there will be a way forward out of this mess and - temporarily - this lifeless bland generic playing will be a thing of the past as the Stones get challenged by all the newbie bands to prove their match. Though some fans like this album, many rating it above 'It's Only Rock and Roll' if solely for the experimentation, for me it's the most aimless, worthless and disappointing Stones record of them all, with even less ideas that the much ridiculed records from the 1980s to come. Hot Stuff? This mess needed sticking back into the fire for another batch of sessions, with a good five of the worst Stones songs the band ever recorded all together in one handy place to ignore, at least once you've stopped over at 'Memory Motel' for a quick visit.