Monday, 1 August 2016
The Rolling Stones "Dirty Work" (1986)
One Hit (To The Body)/Fight/Harlem Shuffle/Hold Back/Too Rude//Winning Ugly/Back To Zero/Dirty Work/Had It With You/Sleep Tonight
"It ain't enough for me!"
It's the breakout of World War III, run for your lives! Aaaaaaah! No, Trump hasn't pushed the big red button (not yet, anyway), no it's not because the UK have left the EU (although that might yet cause World War IV) and no The Spice Girls haven't reformed (the only possible excuse for retaining nuclear warheads), but one of the biggest single fall-outs between AAA band members ever. The Rolling Stones seem like a band who should have been forever falling out with each other, but actually no: by and large the band got on well across their first twenty years together without any of the fist fights or punch-ups the likes of The Who and CSNY were having every other week (well, Charlie smashed Jagger across a table once, but he was rung up in the middle of the night and asked 'is my drummer there?') The origins of this are, like the triggers to most world wars, curious and questionable. The bottom line was that Mick and Keith simply didn't get along anymore and for a while now hadn't wanted to spend time together unless they had to - and now they had to, in order to write an album, they resented it. Mick for his part had been propping the Stones up since the early 1970s when Keith's drug habit slowly turned into a drug problem and had been making most of the big band decisions while his partner was incapacitated: not all of them were good ones, but it's better to steer a ship to some form of safety and save the passengers when the captain's fast asleep at the till. For his part Keith resented what Mick had done to the band and the fact that, now he was (relatively) clean and (comparatively) raring to go his ideas were being ignored. It didn't help that by 1986 the two friends that had once been more like twins were now very different people who travelled in very different social circles and despised the others' hangers-on: Mick's posh set and Keith's still fairly drug set.
The solution to Mick seemed obvious: rather than hang around waiting for Keith to wake up, he'd get exorcise his demons by making a solo album where he didn't have to bend everything to the way Keith wanted it to be and he could prove to the world that 'his' idea for a Stones album (contemporary dancey pop) had more legs than the nostalgia Keith was peddling. The solution to Keith seemed equally obvious: stop wasting your time on frivolous contemporary pop albums when you have the timeless legacy of a rock and roll band to consider and a songwriter to bounce ideas off and let's go on tour. That solo album 'She's The Boss' is actually a fairly vanilla and inoffensive set given the chaos it caused in the Stones community (best sample quote from Keith: 'That record's like Mein Kampf - everybody bought it but nobody listened to it!'), but its shadow hangs over this album worse than a whole lot of sympathised devils. Mick didn't get to make the album quite as quickly as he hoped he would, so he was just never around for anything until the second half of the album sessions. This delayed the writing considerably, with Ronnie Wood 'filling in' the Jagger role of lyric and ideas originator to some extent (and on far more tracks than the three he got co-credits for most probably) and there are two covers on the album for the first time since 'Exile On Main Street' (and that one was a double-set). It delayed the vocals too, with more Keith on this album than usual. The end result is an album that often is as much of a Keith Richards solo record than 'Boss' is a Mick Jagger solo record. But is it any better?
Yes, but only when Mick and Keith set their differences aside and The Rolling Stones sound like they always used to. Much as Mick wants to make it alone without his partner in arms and much as Keith sounds at times as if he doesn't care because that gives him more space for lazy reggae covers, 'Dirty Work' is a real showcase for how much better the pair are together than apart. The best moments on this album almost all feature the pair together, where Mick's vocal bouncing off Keith's guitar just sounds so much more vital and important somehow. Ironically too 'Dirty Work' features more of the pair starting writings songs from scratch together - mainly because Mick, unlike usual, had no songs to bring to the sessions and wrote to Keith's lead as he was all written out after his solo album (another fact that rankled with is glimmer twin). The album's lead single 'One Hit (To The Body)', which was a surprise flop in the charts, is precisely what the Stones should have been doing in this era: choppy guitar riffs, snappy vocal work and a sense of mystery and danger that stems from the growing gulf between the two. 'Had It With You', where Mick gets to sing a Keith lyric about himself full of vitriol, isn't far behind either as the darkness that's always been a part of the Stones sound since the beginning is turned inward to shine on the band rather than the outer world for the first real time. The rest of the album, though, is disposable: Stones soundalikes written by Keith while Mick isn't there and tossed off by Jagger in a few unremarkable sessions towards the end of the album. It just doesn't feel that important somehow, as if Mick is yelling about something he doesn't understand and Keith didn't really care much about. There's a reason people consider this record the runt of the Stones catalogue, along with the hideously 1980s cover featuring a now showing-their-age band in multi-coloured legwarmers; 'Body' alone lifts it above the status of the similarly violent 'Black and Blue' album in this website's view, but neither are exactly classic Stones.
The album could, perhaps, have been rescued had the rest of the band been in better shape too, but perhaps an even bigger loss to the album sessions than Mick's absence was that of Charlie Watts. After a quarter century as the band's most dependable and sensible member, the drummer was battling demons of his own, with years of being around drug and booze addicts finally breaking through his own barriers. Charlie was now in a position akin to where Keith had been a few years earlier, but without the guitarist's teflon constitution to get him through. There was a feeling in the Stones camp that Keith was indestructible and could get away with anything (though his function was clearly impaired by the drugs he was taking), but Charlie was another matter. Keith too was open about his habits and - with the right people - about his problems, but Watts rarely talked about anything, never mind subjects that were difficult to broach. So the band didn't: Charlie just sat around watching other, lesser drummers add drum-parts for what has thankfully turned out to be the only time on a Stones record, with Keith's new pal Steve Jordan (and his main collaborator on his future solo records), session man Anton Fig and even Ronnie Wood all taking turns on the drum stool. Even the days when Charlie did feel like adding something, a nasty cut to his hand (caused, inevitably in this period, by a cut from a bottle of booze) meant he couldn't play with his usual dexterity. It's either a tribute to his replacements or a sign of how much Charlie was struggling that you can't actually tell who plays on which track (and the sleeve note credits are their usual unhelpful selves when it comes to The Stones), though it seems likely Ronnie is on closer 'Sleep Tonight'. This means that the Stones sound is further diluted: many tracks feature only Keith and Bill from the original band and, as so often happened, even Bill wasn't there every say (that's session man John Regan on 'Winning Ugly'). This also caused further problems: namely how to play this album live, with the Stones taking an unintended hiatus when the album came out. Jagger has for his part said that the real split between him and Keith came with his refusal to tour the album - a decision he made because he knew how much Charlie was struggling. Keith, though, points to some pre-booked sessions Mick had already made to record second (and superior) album 'Primitive Cool' (a record far better than this one). Usually the victors get to write what happened in a war: without a true winner fans will have to pick and choose one in this instance - maybe both are right for once! Charlie, typically, got over his problems without seeking help from anybody: he broke his ankle one night struggling down the steps to his cellar to get more booze and figured he needed to wake and grow up and never took so much as a cigarette again. This won't happen till a year after 'Dirty Work' hit the shops however.
Even Charlie's absence isn't the saddest thing about this album though as the band nursed the loss of an original member who'd been with them through thick (for them) and thin (for him). In the early days Ian 'Stu' Stewart was as integral to the band as Mick's vocal and Brian's harmonica and arguably a little ahead of Keith's guitar. The 'sixth Stone' he'd driven the band sound from the piano stool (assuming there weren't any minor chords, which as a pure rock and roller and jazz hater Stu always refused to play), driven the Stones literally around in the band van and organised their gigs (best Stu story: the day the others wondered why they kept being booked into the most unlikeliest hotels and then noticed that the only thing they each had in common was a golf course - golf being one of Stu's other great passions) and driven the band on as one of their biggest cheerleaders. Not that he'd have ever admitted it of course: Stu's chosen method of saluting 'his' band was to proclaim 'you're on next my little shower of shits!' before each and every gig no matter how big they became. Stu's unexpected death from a heart attack in December 1985 from a heart attack at the age of just 47 shocked the band to the core and was another factor that robbed the band's interest in this record. After all, the band had been braced to expect this from Keith in the long-term or maybe even Charlie in the short, but Stu had been the cleanest-living of them all. Uncharacteristically, the band were sentimental enough to pay two tributes to their friend on this record: the first a sleevenote that thanks Stu for '25 years of boogie woogie' and the second is a ghostly bit of boogie-woogie that runs unannounced after the last song, continuing into the void. Back at the time when it seemed that WW3 was so strong the Stones would never record again, it seemed as if Stu was going to have the last word at last.
The reason they didn't and that Mick and Keith continued to work together, albeit after a three-year gap for the sequel 'Steel Wheels' (a lifetime in rock and roll terms at the time) is partly down to the influence of Ronnie Wood. The guitarist hadn't joined the Stones formally in 1978 just to watch them collapse and in many ways 'Dirty Work' is his greatest moment with the band. Songwriting credits on Stones albums are notoriously unreliable, with a pact between Mick and Keith that they would always get joint credit no matter what (a couple of Bill Wyman tracks and a Billy Preston co-credit aside). Chances are Ronnie worked on a lot more songs than the four that bear his name here and you can safely bet that any 'extra' Stone with his name in the credits actually came up with the main ideas or at least something pretty substantial to throw into the pot. The four songs with Ronnie's name are pretty much all the best on the album and certainly the ones that sound most Stones-like. Caught in the middle between Keith's rock and roll grit and Mick's topical lyrics, Ronnie seems to have played both the Mick and Keith part to the other partner. Better yet, his rhythm guitar is now a properly thought out part of the arrangement rather than just an afterthought: it's the tension between Ronnie and Keith's guitars (especially on the opening) that elevates 'One Hit' to being more than just another violent Stones song. 'Fight' is so weak it sounds like it would fall with one punch, but if it has anything going for it it's the breezy 'ancient art of guitar weaving' between Keith and Ronnie, dancing round Mick's vocal and floating like a butterfly while stinging like a bee. The title track passes ideas back and forth as if the two guitarists are having a great game of pass the parcel (even if Mick is left singing one of the single worst lyrics in Stones history). And 'Had It With You' wouldn't be half as much fun without the slinky double-aggression in the guitarwork. We might have been a tad rude about Ronnie elsewhere on this site for lacking the drive and naturalness of Brian Jones or the virtuoso not-perfect skills of Mick Taylor, but neither man would have handled WW3 in quite the same, mature way: Brian would surely have made things worse and thrown extra flames on the fire, while Mick T would have been hiding in a cupboard (note this no bad thing: that would have been my re-action too).
Not that either Mick or Keith are hiding anything in this no-holds barred album. Violence is a regular theme in Stones albums from more or less the beginning ('Under My Thumb' isn't your normal 1966 near-hippie love-fest) and especially on the rauncy 'Black and Blue' in 1976, but it's in the 1980s where it really comes into focus with this theme underlying most of the songs on 'Undercover'. Where that under-rated album succeeds though is by giving a dimension to the violence: songs treat it with humour ('Too Much Blood'), empathy ('It Must Be Hell') or relationship metaphors ('Tie You Up', well kinda). Almost all of 'Dirty Work' is about the violence felt in the recording studio while the band made this album with almost all lyrics at least open to interpretation as being about the bad relationship between the band. 'One Hit' opens the album with a positive view of violence, if that's not an oxymoron: there's a sizzling tension between two lovers/friends/bandmates/songwriters that everything they throw at each other is so intense it hurts! Is this love? Well, it doesn't feel like it, but you can't fault the passion in the room. 'Fight' doesn't even try to be kind: 'I'm going to pulp you to a mass of bruises!' is the opening line and things go down from there. Even this album's cover song 'Harlem Shuffle' sounds more like a boxing match than a dance at times ('Move to the left, move to the right!') Lindon Roberts reggae cover 'Too Rude' is the one song on this album that's positively addressed to a female and a nasty one at that as the narrator seeks revenge for being given the run-around for far too long. 'Winning Ugly' is a power-play where the narrator is determined to go to any lengths to win. The title track contains the chorus 'It's beginning to make me angry...' as the narrator fumes and comes close to exploding over what he sees as an unfair split between the couple's responsibilities. Finally 'Had It With You' is the ultimate song in competing Mick and Keith against each other, Mick effectively bad-mouthing himself with Keith's words in such vindictive terms it's amazing the pair ever worked together again (it's a sad companion song to the recent 'Waiting On A Friend' in many ways, only here the old friend is waiting down a dark alley with a cricket bat aimed at his former friend's head). It's sad that two people who'd built such a life together based on mutual respect and admiration should come to such blows - and yet in other ways it's not a surprise. The Glimmer Twins had been heading in such different directions for so long and had successfully navigated the 'seven-year-itch' that hurt such formerly close bands as The Beatles and The Moody Blues. Few fans of the band the first time round ever thought Mick and Keith would still be talking to each other after 24 years, never mind making music together - but even so, after seventeen previous albums together, surely there must be some sense of peace, love and understanding between two such old friends?
Thankfully there is and it's a point many of the few poor tired souls who ever had to review this album miss. There is, you see, a sort of quiet conscience working away somewhere around the middle of this album, though given that these songs are treated to the same level of violence and mischievous 'banter' as the rest of the album they're sentiments are easy to miss. 'Hold Back' promises to do just that with a rare 'voice of experience' where Mick admits that sometimes it's better to keep your strongest feelings back from your partner. Of course the fact that he's barking this lyric out with fire and anger makes it sound like all the other songs on the album, but this is a wiser, maturer take on strong feelings than the rest of the album. 'Back To Zero' too threatens with the danger of the rest of the album, but it asks the other if they're wary of the consequences - that once the nuclear trigger has been pressed then the damage is irreparable and things can never go back to being the way they were. The final lazy Keith-sung track 'Sleep Tonight' doesn't get much further through a lyric than repeating the title, but even this might be significant: the narrator wishes a lover/old friend pleasant dreams and hopes that things will seem better in the morning. Given the low spirits of the rest of the record, it's a sweet sentiment on an album that doesn't generally have much time for sentiment and ends the record on at least a slightly more hopeful note than the rest of the album.
Even so, there's a world of difference between the antagonism of this record and the genuine brotherly understanding of 'Steel Wheels', a 'comeback' album that isn't so much back to the way things were in a musical sense as back to the early days of experiments, variety, exploration and unity. By contrast 'Dirty Work' feels like a dead-end, too stuck in 'shouty contemporary mid-80s mode' for all but the deeply under-rated opening song to stick in your mind one iota. It's a dirty album in more ways than just the title, with Jagger's vocals never more abrasive, the guitars never tougher and the percussion never sloppier (mainly because Charlie barely appears). In theory, on paper and at such an important stage of the Stones discography, 'Dirty Work' ought to sound fabulous. The Stones getting down and dirty is what much of their fanbase had been wishing for and given the choice most fans would have preferred the band to sing about themselves and tensions within the band than politics and world events. In another mood, with the band truly working together as a unit and perhaps with the limp cover songs and a couple of the lesser songs removed things could have worked. 'One Hit' alone is proof that the Stones could make the bad atmosphere in the room work for rather than against them, with an exciting and dangerous update of their old sound on show. However, with so much of this album made by a band in disarray and working apart (we haven't even had space to mention Bill's problems yet because, well, every other Stones book spends salacious paragraphs on it in detail you really don't need - for those who don't know this is the period when he at 47 marries Mandy Smith aged 19 and his son Stephen temporarily dates her 46-year-old mother! Only the Stones...) there just isn't the same drive as usual in the room to channel this aggravation and passion into music. In fact considering the hate in the room and heat of World War Three bombs dropping every few minutes, 'Dirty Work' is a surprisingly passionless record, for all its talk of violence and fights. It's not quite the Stones' weakest perhaps, but it's close - the title 'Dirty Work' sums the album up rather better than anyone in the band probably intended. The good news, though, is that the band belatedly learn from their mistakes and will never get quite so lazy again. Producer Steve Lillywhite (hired by Mick - and thus instantly an enemy of Keith's) chuckled when asked about making the worst reviewed Stones album claimed 'it's only the worst one till the next one comes out!' Actually he's dead wrong: 'Steel Wheels' three years laterwill sound like a whole new band, hungry adventurous and united. Who could possibly have guessed that after hearing this album?
The best moment of the entire record is the opening ten seconds of 'One Hit (To The Body). Ronnie's acoustic guitar and some disco-drums is a such an unusual yet Stonesy sound that it really pulls the listener in, only for the light opening to be blasted away by a killer Keith Richards electric guitar riff, some terrifically loud drums (whoever is playing them!) and finally Mick in full crusade mode. The Stones aren't masters of the 'build' or 'crescendo' - they tend to pounce from the first note to the last so this new variation on their usual sound really stands out if you've been listening to these songs in order. Sadly after that the song slowly falls into place and gets a bit stuck in a groove, but even then there's a sweet middle eight that sits in counterpart to the rest of the song, slightly less aggressive, slightly nicer, suggesting the narrator's conscience at work. That's just as well because the main part of the song is about as violent and unrelenting as the Stones get: though the song is about wounding words rather than the domestic violence implied by the title, it's certainly aggressive and powerful. It helps that everyone in the room performs this song like they mean it, in contrast to much of the rest of the album with this song attacking powerfully where so many of this album's other songs just coast. This despite the fact that Mick's lyric shows too many signs of being written in a hurry and is about as disposable as any other 1980s Stones lyric: 'The smell of your flesh excites me!' is about as revealing and insightful as the song gets. Well, that and a clever metaphor of the lover's formerly kind touch turning to cruelty with the drugs coursing through the narrator's veins which once made him feel alive but not make him feel half-dead (it is perhaps the most autobiographical lyric fragment here). There's another added element too although you don't really get to hear it fully until halfway through the song. Rather than have Ronnie overdub a second electric guitar part the band invited old friend Jimmy Page in to play on the track and he gets the brief but gloriously bluesy Mick Taylor-ish solo about two-thirds of the way through the song. It remains the only time members of the Stones and Led Zeppelin overlapped and frankly it's a better sound than anything either band had played in an awfully long time. The song's other, lesser mentioned special guest, is singer Kirsty MacColl as one of the many backing singers - she was married to producer Lillywhite at the time! Neither appear in the song's promo video, which is one of the band's best (and weirdest!), with Mick and Keith re-enacting the aggression of the song's lyrics for 'real'. Had the band not bounced back unexpectedly with 'Steel Wheels' this video for the second album single would, in all likelihood, been the last time the two old friends would ever shared a room together....Fierce, gutsy and as exciting as anything else in the Stones catalogue, 'One Hit' turned out the way you wish the rest of this album had, with a far better and tougher use of the same ingredients to the rest of the album.
'Fight' is a second straight battle, but it sounds like one fought with matching handbags compared to the intensity of the last track. A simple boogie-woogie rock and roller built on a familiar recycled sounding Richards riff, it simply doesn't go anywhere or do anything interesting across its three minutes. Mick's lyric is better - not great by any means, but better - at least past the first distinctly nasty verse about how much the narrator wants to beat his girl up which is embarrassing. The second though is a lot more interesting and unusual for The Stones in that it features a bit of cod psychology more akin to a prog rock band as Mick realises that what he's 'really' fighting for is 'power' and dreams of a more 'innocent life' when he wasn't so power mad, calling our attention to his self-destructive tendencies with the line 'Wanna do it in the daylight, I'm the truck, I'm the suicide!' The end result, long dismissed as Mick writing about the tension in the room, is a lot more interesting than fans give it credit for (perhaps because the guttural way Mick sings it means they can't hear half of it!) Far from being a song about fighting someone for the hell of it, it's a song about the narrator questioning what impulses make him want to fight those he loves over and over again and what makes him return to his self-destructive ways. There's even, almost uniquely, a trace of guilt for the behaviour of this character ('There's a hole where your face used to be!') A more interesting backing track and a chance to actually hear the last two verses would have helped this song considerably, however.
'Harlem Shuffle' is the recording from this album everybody knows - and a reason why most fans wisely steered clear of this album! Cover songs aren't new to the Stones' catalogue, but it's a sad day when a cover track is deemed the most interesting thing from a record to be released as the debut single. Bob and Earl wrote and recorded this song for release as a single in 1963, back when the Stones were a 'new' band. Keith, especially, was a big fan and almost certainly suggested this track for recording. Their version is slinky, relaxed and reverential: by contrast it's hard to describe the Stones' versions because everything feels so unattached: Mick's vocal, the drums, the guitar, the OTT backing vocalists and a slight synth part are all mixed terribly wide apart and sound as if they're all part of a completely different song. The Stones in their prime could have made a great version of this slinky, sexy song ('Shake your tailfeather, baby!' is a lyric born for Jagger to swagger). The Stones in 1986 sound like a bad karaoke band, unable to roll with the loose limbs they need to actually dance this track and far too rigid in their ways. Though are far worse casualties on 'Dirty Work', in many ways this song is the most disappointing because it sounds like it could have been so much better - whereas a lot of songs on this album were, frankly, past saving. Bobby Womack, the writer of Stones breakthrough hit 'It's All Over Now', appears on backing vocals - and probably wonders why the band weren't covering one of his songs which as a general rule convey simmering sexuality far more entertainingly than this song. Two remixes of this song were released on a 12" single - the Stones' first since 'Miss You' - but neither the 'New York' (dancier) or 'London' (slower) mixes added anything to the song. Actually most fans think the original three and a half minute version on the album went on too long...
'Hold Back' is one of the album's more interesting songs, if you're patient enough to look past yet another lightweight Stones riff and over-noisy drums going on underneath the single best lyric on the album. Though Mick might bark the lyric like he's holding nothing back during a fight, actually this is a lyric about playing it cool man, real cool. 'If you follow the crowd, if you act like a coward, you'll end up shouting out loud!' is Mick's lyric from experience as he tries to warn his listeners to follow their heart and be themselves instead of going with the flow. A second verse has him urging people (or perhaps his band?) to 'seize the hour', to trust their gut re-actions and to make the most of what comes our way because 'if you don't take chances you won't make advances'. The only Stones lyric that sounds like it could have been printed in a self-help manual or delivered at an mbs conference (well, alongside 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' perhaps), it's actually pretty mature and seems at times pointedly directed at the band. 'Why all this fighting?' Mick seems to be asking (the feud with Keith seemed to confuse him because he didn't see anything wrong in making a record of his own - for his part Mick encouraged Keith to do the same and didn't understand the vitriol his suggestion sparked from his songwriting partner). 'Life is passing us by' he addresses to a band who had been making a sort of repeated formula album for three records ('Emotional rescue') by now, 'We gotta keep moving!' You might notice that this advice rather contradicts that given in the title; actually 'Hold Back' is more a song about working out when it's best to do something: don't fight if you can at all help it and keep your mouth shut, but equally know when a good thing is gone and you have to move on.
Lindon Roberts' gentle reggae song 'Too Rude' is given a Stones rock and roll makeover and sounds more impressive than 'Harlem Shuffle' without ever getting beyond the vaguely pointless feel most 1980s Stones covers share. 'Too Rude' was originally intended as the album title and would have fitted the album even better than 'Dirty Work', had the band not got cold feet about what sarcastic reviewers might have come up with. A drunken sounding Keith and Ronnie try (the word is used deliberately) to sing the original's pretty harmonies before an echo-drenched Keith struggles to replicate the light touch of the original using just his croaky lived-in voice. The heavy handed drumming, which sounds like a bullet being shot every single bar, doesn't help matters much either. Lyrically this should be a cute song about a complaining narrator who thinks his girlfriend has been taking advantage of him for too long: She's 'bad', she's 'rude', she's a 'Goddamn disgrace' and she's been with just about every man in town while his back was turned. However, on the original some affection still shone through: the song's pretty vibe sounds like a siren of a girl whose so clever with the way she flashes her eyes at the narrator he can't be angry even when he's saying just horrible things. Roberts sings the original vocal almost with a chuckle in his voice, which lessens the blow. There's none of that on the Stones' cover, which swaps layers and emotion for a damning tirade of abuse which is just too much and doesn't fit the sleepy (yet noisy) backing at all. Chances are Mick doesn't appear - and nor, probably, would he want to, given that he didn't share Keith's love of all things Jamaican. Taking his place is reggae star Jimmy Cliff, whose vocals are sadly drowned out by Keith's rather less convincing lead. Not one of the Stones' better ideas.
'Winning Ugly' sounds like a more interesting song, with its slowly dribbling bass part and some furious guitar mud-slinging between Keith and Ronnie. It even sounds bright and cheerful, a rarity for this album. This time though it's Mick's lyric that lets the song down: 'I wanna be on top!' Mick slurs, letting the sexual innuendo hover in the air before he finally gets on with things and relates his need to win at all costs. Again, he probably had Keith in mind when he wrote this lyric (was it in 'reply' for 'Had It With You'?!), but once it's made the point this song has nowhere to go. 'I never turn a hair, just like the politicians I wrap my conscience up!' is a good line that points back to the urgency of world politics in 'Undercover Of The Night', but the rest of the song doesn't give us any reasons why Mick's narrator feels the need to winning ugly (a la 'Hold Back'), it's just a list of ways he's 'won'. Of course anyone who wins 'ugly' isn't really a winner at all (or have I just been paying too much attention to the morals on Sesame Street?) but there's no sign of that here: this time there's no remorse or guilt trips or the feel that something's going to wrong because the narrator deserves it. In fact, worse than that, winning ugly pays big with Mick announcing that he's 'looking at a beauty' who joins in with his underhand tactics too. Don't you just hate it when that happens? It's awful when nice guys come last and nasty guys come first - and this latest character of Mick's, even in parody (of Keith?) isn't a nice guy at all!
'Back To Zero' is the Stones band song that most sounds like a Bill Wyman solo track, all quirky synthesiser beeps, shouty lengthy choruses and oddball lyrics. Bill, of course, had little or nothing to do with the track (his songwriting talent had long been silenced within the band) but it doesn't 'feel' like a Mick or Keith song either. Chances are it was mainly written by band friend Chuck Leavell who gets a co-credit on the track (suggesting he probably had quite a lot to do with it). Only on the chorus when the song stops hopping and starts getting focussed does this song really fall into place and sound like a Stones song - and sadly those3 moments are few and far between. Lyrically it fits the album's negative mood, though it's born more out of helplessness than the aggression of the rest of the record and though certain lyrics could again be pointed at the band ('I'm looking to the future, but I keep on glancing back') this is the only truly outward looking lyric on the album. It makes sense that the band should have recorded their only 'cold war' song for their WW3 album. 'So you wanna blow us all to pieces?' Mick snarls to both sides, complaining that the human race is 'heading straight to meltdown' without any good reason. There's a great couplet where Mick imagines world leaders from both the Russian and American sides kneeling unhappily in front of God's desk, who seems like a headmaster, asked to explain why they've put the development of the human race back several centuries. Elsewhere Mick talks of the threat of annihilation 'sitting like a monkey on my back' and splits his time between thinking of possible pasts and futures: both seem to involve living in a jungle, mankind's civilisation reduced to the basics, while Mick also 'worries' about his grandchildren 'living ten miles beneath the ground'. Which is unusually nice of him! Whatever Leavell's contribution, though, it might be significant that words and music are doing two completely different things. Of all the songs on the album it's this one that needs to be dark and brooding, performed with grit and aggression. Instead it sounds as if it was written as the happy-go-lucky album single, complete with a singalong chorus and a bright and breezy synthesiser riff. Both halves are better when measured separately rather than taken together.
Title track 'Dirty Work' is probably the most Stones-like song here, built on the same frantic dash and rock and roll chords as most of 'Some Girls' and much of 'Tattoo You' and 'Emotional Rescue'. However after a strong opening verse that really drives along nicely The Rolling Stones just run out of steam and stop gathering that moss. The chorus isn't really a chorus, just a shouted couple of lines tacked on to the end of the chorus and every time we got through the same chords again more and more boredom steps in. The first verse is also the best lyrically, Mick saving his anger for the 'establishment' like it's 1967, complaining about a land where people 'sit on their ass' and complain all day about labourers beneath them being too slow. It's certainly a far more accurate picture of how the world works than 'Hang Fire' ever was and Mick has fun in character, searching for a 'stupid jerk' to do his 'dirty work' for paltry amounts of money. You'd like to think this song was inspired by the Coalition's hideous idea of workfare (getting people who lost their jobs due to cuts do the stuff no one else wants to do for free!), but it's still a good if less specific fit for Thatcherist Britain. The middle eight (though really it's just the chorus with news words) 'It's beginning to make me angry' suggests that Mick had been analysing his conscience since 'Hang Fire' and coming to terms with the fact that, his business studies course aside, The Rolling Stones were exactly the sort of people being urged to do 'all the dirty work for free'.
'Had It With You' is clever on more levels than most of this album. In one sense it's a nice bit of boogie-woogie, possibly written as a song Stu could play on or as tribute to him after he died that nicely reflects the band's past. On another it's a song that sums up the band's present rather well: Keith's lyric, written in frustration at Mick going missing again, boils over with frustration and anger and the guitarist must have known his colleague was going to end up singing it himself. Impressively Mick delivers the song like he means it, without any irony or sarcasm. On another it points towards the future and a time when these disagreements are over and the pair can look back at this time and laugh: 'I love you dirty fucker' is delivered with affection here, while a later lyric adds 'I love you with a passion, both in and out of fashion', perhaps a reference to how fashion-conscious Mick still was at this point in time (and Keith very much wasn't). Still, those sweet sentiments are thrown in the mix as something for fans to 'find' - most of this song is an exercise in exorcising, of getting the band's tensions with each other out into the open and turning them into song. There are no less than 58 'had it with yous' across the song, as Mick's narrator insists again and again that he's reached the point of no return before letting his Brian Jonesy harmonica fly. Best of all is the middle eight, which kicks in just when the simple groove seems to have left the rails. 'I've had it up to here, babe' Mick sighs, 'I've got to say goodbye'. But just as he sings those words the rest of the band find a whole new groove to play with and Mick falls headfirst into a cooking harmonica solo. The band don't want to say goodbye to us that badly, they've just hit a brick wall - if only they can find their way through it to the other side - as they do in 1989 - then they can carry on as well as ever. A nice bit of roleplay-as-truth performed with more affection than aggression, 'Had It With You' is arguably this album's second best song. Ronnie played the squeaking sax part, for the only time on a Stones record.
'Sleep Tonight' sees Keith insisting on the last word, a pattern he'll keep for almost all the Stones albums to come. The album's only ballad, it's a slow and treacly song deeply at odds with anything else here and perhaps a sign of how differently Keith was thinking to Mick in this period. Again Jagger doesn't appear, even on the pretty backing vocals featuring the final album guest Tom Waits, but there's not a lot here in any case with Keith singing to a piano 'n' drums duet for the most part, with the odd twirl of his guitar. Lyrically this song is even emptier: 'You better get some sleep tonight!' is repeated thirteen times across the song - not as many as 'Had It With You's but thanks to the slower tempo it seems like a lot more. We never find out why Keith's insisting his beloved get her beauty nap in either: something seems to be happening the next morning but Keith is vague whether it's good or bad. It could be a wedding or a divorce or anything in between, but the line 'I wish you, baby, all the best' suggests a parting of some sort. There's one solitary verse of anger too as Keith complains about some 'cronies' hanging around that 'They robbed you of your dignity and stole your heart from me' before adding more gently 'It's not revenge, you understand'. If true rather than purely fiction (and most Richards lyrics are true to some extent), then it's surely directed at Mick rather than his wife Patti (the couple were three years into their marriage and were expecting their second child together). 'Sleep Tonight', so nearly the final ever Stones song, would have made for a sweet coda regarding the Jagger/Richards partnership, then, but in truth it would have been a sad end to the Stones one. Completely forgettable, repetitive and lacking in passion, it's everything the band weren't.
Overall, though, perhaps this passivity is an easier listen than the nine slabs of aggression that come before the final track. 'Dirty Work' is an album that has plenty of promise in either the music or lyric of individual tracks but all too often ends up being Mick shouting while Keith plays a guitar riff you've heard too many times and a gorilla has been let loose on Charlie's drumkit. 'Dirty Work' was a difficult album to make and an even more difficult one to sit through, which makes you wonder just why the Stones made it at all. They had very little material before starting work on it and seemed to think that they had to make one because it was their 'duty' as a functioning band. The trouble is though, this isn't a functioning band: that's exactly what's wrong with 'Dirty Work'. Though long dismissed as an album made up of lazy songwriting, actually the songs aren't bad and some are bordering on great; certainly they're on a par with past albums like 'Emotional Rescue' and 'Undercover', if not a little better. It's the execution of them on this album that leaves so little to be desired, with the 80s bombast in the mix at odds with the nitty gritty messages in the songs and removing the chance for the subtlety inherent in many of the songs to shine through. 'Dirty Work' does at least contain a fine single and quite a few nearly-moments across the album, though, so as uneven and lumpy as this much maligned can be, it's far from hopeless. To be honest the bad reviews were more from the fact that people had had it with the Rolling Stones by 1986, especially a Rolling Stones who'd been stuck in place since at least 1981, maybe earlier. Thankfully all this is about to change and this is the last time the Stones try to sound young and contemporary instead of old and revered. Though some fans may disagree with me, the change suits them: by 'pretending' to be statesmanlike The Stones can get away with sounding young and fresh again much more easily while pretending it's nostalgia' and the next time album will feel like the band have been through a musical washing machine, freed of the 'dirty' ideas that had kept them in place through to 1986 no longer. The 1989 model Stones had no need for leg-warmers either...