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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).