THE ROLLING STONES: BLACK AND BLUE (1976)
1) Hot Stuff; 2) Hand Of Fate; 3) Cherry Oh Baby; 4) Memory Motel; 5) Hey Negrita; 6) Melody; 7) Fool To Cry; 8) Crazy Mama.
At least in one respect Mick Taylor's abrupt decision to leave the band turned out to be beneficial: it shook up the Stones, plunging them into a brief moment of panic and chaos — not that panic and chaos were the necessary prerequisites for the production of a masterpiece, but at least they were preferable to the state of decadent stupor in which the band found itself in 1973-74. Not that «ridiculous rock'n'roll excess» vanished overnight with this or anything — on the contrary, their American and European tours of 1975-76, with Ronnie Wood stepping into Taylor's shoes, were as crass and visually ludicrous as ever, and there probably was not a single other period in Mick Jagger's life where he'd look more like a hilarious parody of himself than those particular tours (more on that in the upcoming review of Love You Live). But that was stage life, specially brewn and glossed up for public consumption; when it came to private creativity in the studio, things were significantly different.
The biggest difference was that the Stones went into the studio with nothing to prove — all they wanted to do was find a suitable replacement for Taylor. Unlike Let It Bleed, where Keith was responsible for most of the guitar work, Black And Blue is a patchwork with no less than three different lead guitarists working with the band: Harvey Mandel, Wayne Perkins, and, finally, Ronnie himself (who was not announced as an official member of the band until the recording was largely over). This is primarily because in 1976, Keith was in no state to take creative control over anything, although he could still blunder into the studio and chug out a mean riff every once in a while. However, as you listen to Black And Blue, you slowly realize that nobody at the time had creative control over anything — Mick was in quite a similarly disorganized phase, throwing himself at any genre and any vibe that came his way. The result is a total mess: no organizing goal, no work plan, no carefully pre-written songs, no single prevailing musical style, just a lot of fooling around and total musical spontaneity. And that was precisely what they needed at the time, not to mention the fact that it makes Black And Blue a fairly unique entry in the catalog.
Two of the album's best inclusions, ʽHot Stuffʼ and ʽHey Negritaʼ, aren't really songs at all — they are vamps, funky jams that spend five minutes meandering without a purpose and, in the process, become the perfect equivalents of a drunk, but passionate stalker making his moves to an equal amount of disgust and admiration. Musically, ʽHot Stuffʼ picks up from exactly the same spot where we had just been left with ʽFingerprint Fileʼ — groovy, sweaty funk — but converts the effect from creepy, suspenseful paranoia to saliva-dripping lust. This might seem predictably boring in theory, but in practice, the opening funky riff of the song, with its cool «ring-then-scrape» sonic pattern, is arguably one of the greatest «white funk» riffs ever written, and the interplay between Keith's rhythm work and Harvey Mandel's grumbling electric lead is... I guess toxic is the best word to describe it, considering how both players seem to have selected their most «chemical» guitar tones for the recording, and once Mandel hits the wah-wah pedal on the solos, the overall sound becomes so deliciously juicy and dirty that even Mick's incessant ad-libbing cannot spoil the fun. His babbling messages to "all my friends in London", "all the people in New York City", and "everybody in Jamaica" sound like last-minute additions to make the track more attractive to nightclub dancers all around the world, but really, the song's much too dirty to simply take it as an invitation to strut your stuff (as a single, it didn't chart too highly, and Mick had learned that lesson well when it came to recording ʽMiss Youʼ as that one track that would finally bring nightclub goers to their knees).
ʽHey Negritaʼ never got the same honor, and vanished off the radar very fast after several live performances in 1976, but it is important as the first track that introduced the famous Richards / Wood weaving technique — after several bars of the main riff hammered in our heads, we have Keith and Ronnie shooting bits of rhythm and lead off each other, with Billy Preston playing a third distinctive part on the piano. Nothing much happens during the song, and still, its five minutes pass by very quickly and excitingly, because I find it impossible not to get caught in the syncopated groove when each of Keith's chords sounds like a brutal knife stab and each of Ronnie's notes is like a sharp needle prick in response. (Again, I could do with a little less Jagger presence, particularly since he hasn't got much of anything to say except extol the virtues of the various parts of body of somebody who may or may not be Bianca Jagger — but then I do have to admit that Keith and Ronnie are engaged in wordless singing about the same kind of thing, want it or not, and it all fits together). If anything, ʽHey Negritaʼ is a historical landmark — it shows how the Stones are almost literally capable of simply pulling a groove out of their ass and making it work for us, a trick they'd be repeatedly carrying out well into the 21st century, albeit with widely varying degrees of success.
Of all the directionless vamps on the album, ʽMelodyʼ always gets the worst rap, but I have a soft spot for that one — it is the last time the Stones were crazy enough to go for a jazz-blues New Orleanian vibe, a piece of sleazy barroom entertainment in the style of Allen Toussaint or Dr. John, with Billy Preston playing a major role in establishing the atmosphere, and it's got a certain seductive charm to it without trying too hard to make a point. Stylistically its predecessor was probably ʽShort And Curliesʼ on the previous album, but that one tried too hard — it was a vocal melody-driven song with an obnoxiously obscene hook, whereas ʽMelodyʼ is just a friendly jam that uses the cheating girlfriend motif as a mere pretext for having fun and going crazy. Do we really need that from the Stones, a band that used to write great songs and is now reduced to playing generic jams? Well, let me put it this way: I'd rather listen to a great band playing a generic jam while waiting for inspiration than to a mediocre band failing to ignite my excitement with poor pre-planned songwriting.
Besides, it is not true that Black And Blue consists of nothing but disorganized jams. ʽHand Of Fateʼ and ʽCrazy Mamaʼ, for instance, are two fully realized and convincing hard rock tunes, particularly the former, distinguished by the lyrical lead work of Wayne Perkins — also, in a relatively rare case, Jagger sings alongside Keith's riff here rather than across it, but it only helps to bring home the song's message with even more assertion — "the hand of fate is on me now, pick you up and kick you right down!" I wish he didn't resort to so much barking, but then again, if he delivered the lyrics moderately and quietly, the song would have drawn one too many comparisons to Johnny Cash (it's essentially one of those "I shot a man in Reno" type of songs). ʽCrazy Mamaʼ is less respected by fans, but it is also one of those sleeper tunes that I've always had a strange affection for — slow, anthemic, and punkish, and if you stare at the lyrics long enough, you will see that it is not really about murderous intentions towards a psychotic girlfriend, but rather an allegory for intolerance towards the religious redneck: "your sawn off shotgun, blown out brains", "your old time religion is just a superstition", "your blood and thunder sure can't faze me none", etc. And, for that matter, it has two great riffs going for it — the snakey slide one that explodes in your face nine seconds into the song, and the one in the bridge section that operates based on the repetitive ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ principle, only sounds more cocky and cheerful than the brutal slap-in-the-face of ʽFlashʼ.
Then there are the ballads, too. ʽMemory Motelʼ is an exercise in phantom nostalgia, one more of those «lost-and-unrecoverable innocence days» songs that you may or may not find sincere, but at least I find the idea of Mick and Keith both sitting at pianos and exchanging vocal parts with each other refreshingly surprising — actually, Keith's little "she got a mind of her own and she use it well..." interludes, while not making much of a melodic impact, still bring him closer to the heart of the song and make it somewhat of a «Glimmer Twins program statement» on their early days. There's no repentance or compassion in the song, though — just a sentimental nod to the past that acknowledges its existence without expressing any desire to bring it back — and its being both tender and cruel at the same time certainly speaks in favor of sincerity.
Not so much with ʽFool To Cryʼ, a single-oriented ballad in contemporary soft-rock style whose keyboards, strings, and falsettos were more syrupy than anything the Stones had done to that point. I've always taken the song to be a tongue-in-cheek, ironic number (Mick Jagger "got a woman" who "lives in the poor part of town"? You don't say!), but the ridiculousness of the situation is that by the time the song gets to its coda, Mick and everybody else in the band seem to have forgotten about its corny beginnings and are really getting into it. The culprit is probably Nicky Hopkins, whose keyboard work on the song is magnificent, particularly the string-imitating synthesizer that he really whips into overdrive on the coda; but he also stimulates Keith into adding some really pleading intonations in his wah-wah lead licks, and even Mick lashes out at himself with such passion ("I'm a fool, I'm a fool, I'm a certified fool!") that it is hard to restrain ourselves from exclaiming, "yeah, right, Mick, so may we hope for a little less eyeliner and a little more actual singing on your next tour now?". Of course, it's really hopeless, but still, it isn't every day that you get to hear a major rock star shouting "I'm a fool" at himself.
As you can see, that's seven songs out of eight about which I have something good to say — the scapegoat being their cover of Eric Donaldson's ʽCherry Oh Babyʼ, notable for being the first true reggae number ever recorded by the Stones, but ultimately a stupid joke in their rendition; as far as I can tell, the band never really took reggae seriously (much like country), even though Keith does like to hang out with cool reggae musicians, and in their hands, the number turns into a stiff piece of comic vaudeville, with a disturbing «blackface» whiff to it. But even that blunder somehow fits in the general plan (or, rather, anti-plan) of the album, as they bumble from one turf to another, trying out this and that; it is enough of a miracle that so many of their rock, blues, ballad, and funk groove endeavors turn out to work, so it's easy to forget them one dumb reggae mistake.
Unlike Some Girls or even Tattoo You, Black And Blue will never get the status of a mid-period silver-age classic for these guys — precisely because critics and listeners alike will always be held back by its «mushy», formless nature. Indeed, if you eliminate it from the catalog altogether, it's not like you will be eliminating some tremendously important stage of the Stones' musical evolution: you can't even successfully describe it as a «transition album» between It's Only Rock'n'Roll and Some Girls, because it's not. Rather, it is their «Nothing In Particular» album, fortunately recorded and released at a time when God's spark was still with the band and heroin could still work in Keith's favor to a certain extent. And I am not always in favor of random outbursts of spontaneity, particularly when they do not originate from Bob Dylan in the mid-Sixties, but Black And Blue is one hell of a happy, healthy, fun exception — probably just what the doctor ordered after the pompous ass declarations of the previous album; hence, thumbs up, and don't cry too much for Mick Taylor, whose role in the Stones was pretty much complete by 1975, as he got them through the «art rock era» and would have been completely out of place in the upcoming punk / New Wave era anyway.