THE ROLLING STONES: GOATS HEAD SOUP (1973)
1) Dancing With Mr. D; 2) 100 Years Ago; 3) Coming Down Again; 4) Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker); 5) Angie; 6) Silver Train; 7) Hide Your Love; 8) Winter; 9) Can You Hear The Music; 10) Star Star.
I do not think that the Rolling Stones «broke down» as a larger-than-life creative force the minute they set foot in that Kingston studio in November 1972; I do believe that even a brief glimpse at a few highlights from the Ladies And Gentlemen movie, shot during their mid-1972 tour of the States (and let us not even mention the far more infamous schizomentary Cocksucker Blues, shot behind the scenes of that tour), is enough to demonstrate that the breakdown occurred earlier — that somehow, as they emerged from the dazzled seclusion of Keith's French villa back into the limelight once again, bright lights big city finally went to my baby Mick's head, and plunged the Rolling Stones into a world of glitz, kitsch, comedy, and self-parody. Deep down inside, they remained serious musicians, and their channels to divine (or devilish) inspiration remained technically open, but their social priorities had shifted, and not in a divine way at all.
Although the musical aspect of the tour remained great, as Taylor was constantly progressing as a musician and Keith, even despite all the heroin problems, had to match expectations, Jagger had embarked on a downward slide — taking his cues from the glam/shock-rock explosion of 1971-72, he was now placing his full trust into (a) garish costumes, (b) androgynous make-up, (c) the idea that, somehow, singing no longer provided such efficient entertainment for the people as did barking, slurring, and (figurative) spitting, and that energy, flash, and extravagance mattered far more than precision and subtlety. Subsequently, a Stones live show could still be great — but it could no longer be transcendental, skipping over the conventions of show-business and digging into something much deeper (and scarier). Even ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ went from musical drama to musical vaudeville — and since it seemed that that was just what the world wanted, that the world got tired of too much musical drama and opted for vaudeville instead, Mephisto Mick had no problem switching to Muppet Mick.
Unfortunately, once the switch took place on stage, it became hard to leave it switched off in the studio as well. Working conditions in Jamaica were clearly not as beneficial as they were in their French seclusion: even without Keith's obvious deterioration as a creative musical force (Goats Head Soup is the first record since the Stones' arrival as songwriters to not feature even a single «classic» Keith riff), they'd somehow lost — or, perhaps, intentionally dropped — most of that preciously introspective vibe, the ability to offer us a sweet insight into that world of decadence, decay, misery, trouble, and redemption so vividly depicted on Sticky Fingers and Exile. The songs could still be fun, but they could no longer be so easily relatable, and where there used to be an enchanting underbelly of self-irony, muted pain, and calls for compassion behind the surface coating of decadence and hooliganry, too many songs on Goats Head Soup simply contain nothing beyond that superficial coating.
This is not to say that Goats Head Soup is a bad album — in fact, it has an odd scent of mystery about it, and is far more difficult to crack than, for instance, It's Only Rock'n'Roll. Like Exile, it is a mess, only this time, anything but a coherent mess — more like a transitional effort that never manages to decide if it still wants to be soulful and serious, or if it just wants to give you a good sleazy time. It is a record where silly embarrassments easily go hand in hand with underrated masterpieces, where I can wish to strangle Mick Jagger one moment and go cry on his shoulder the very next one. It is totally unpredictable in its choice of styles, directions, even in its bizarre sequencing of the tunes (who was the idiot, I wonder, that did not choose ʽWinterʼ as the final track of the album?). Above all, it is certainly not a musical disaster, as one could easily conclude from reading too many critical reviews — it is more of a marking time album, one where The Rolling Stones cease to be musical gods and demote themselves to the status of ordinary, well-meaning, still-talented musical citizens.
Perhaps the record would not go down in such heavy flames in musical history, though, were it to begin with something other than ʽDancing With Mr. Dʼ — arguably the single worst Stones song since the beginning of their peak period. Again, it's not a bad song, but its vibe agrees far better with the vaudevillian shock-rock of, say, Alice Cooper than classic Stones. Perhaps Mick was thinking of it as a sort of «localized» Haiti-voodoo-version of ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ, but the idea did not merely backfire, it was dumb from the very beginning. It is almost symbolic that the song's riff, which probably wouldn't even make it into the top 100 Richards riffs, was inverse to the riff of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ — it really sounds as if somebody's going against the grain here, and that massive energy charge that usually accompanies any great Stones rocker is nowhere to be found. The only purpose of the tune is to shock and titillate — ooh, dark, spooky, is that Jagger man trying to really creep us out? "Then I saw the flesh just fall off her bones / The eyes in her skull were burning like coals", man, that's some groovy B-movie shit out there. I don't deny the entertaining value — I can even sing along to the tune if I'm feeling clownish. But for a band that used to open their records with ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ and ʽGimme Shelterʼ, or even ʽBrown Sugarʼ (which at least managed to elevate vulgarity to an arrogant anthemic level), this kind of opening is a total disgrace.
The other two «stereotypical» blues-rockers captured here are marginally better. ʽSilver Trainʼ is basically a run-train-run sequel to ʽAll Down The Lineʼ; musically, it is distinguished by some great slide work from Taylor, features one of the best train-whistle harmonica imitations ever produced, and manages to gradually bild up excitement with more and more musical overdubs and more and more hystrionics from Mick — his getting into character on this track does not offend me in the least, though it is still a step down from the lyrical and musical quality of ʽAll Down The Lineʼ, more of a generic ramblin' man tale now than a personal prayer for a shot of salvation once in a while. ʽStar Starʼ (today, I believe, they prefer the song to always go by its original title of ʽStarfuckerʼ, which they sing all right in the chorus but did not dare put on the album sleeve) is a cheap, vulgar shot at groupies and socialites, but it also works at your basic Chuck Berry level — without focusing on the lyrics, I merely admire the tightness of the band, including Mick, who makes a pretty pair with Keith indeed, ripping through the words with proto-punkish swagger and audacity... well, if it was good enough for the New York Dolls, why shouldn't it be enough for Mick Jagger? It's just a lil' old comic rock'n'roll number. Oh, and kudos to good old Stu for his barrelhouse piano on both tracks — lil' old comic rock'n'roll numbers just aren't the same without his thick, nimble, well-meaning fingers on the keys.
The problem with ʽDoo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)ʼ, apart from its title (which sort of suggests that "doo doo doo doo doo" is more important than "heartbreaker"), is that the Stones never used to be that straightforward about social issues. It's as if Mick had listened to one too many Curtis Mayfield / Marvin Gaye / Bobby Blue Bland records and said to himself, "Hey! Where's that funky anthem about police brutality and teenage drug addicts that should have been in the Rolling Stones catalog years ago?" So, presto-changeo, we come up with some glaringly evil situations ("a ten-year old girl on a street corner / sticking needles in her arm"), dress them up with dark clavinet, funky horns, falsetto harmonies, and there you have it — readymade for the very next blaxploitation movie to come along. It's like a poor man's ʽGimme Shelterʼ, but, funny enough, Mick did not have to scream his head off on ʽGimmie Shelterʼ to contribute to an atmosphere of surrounding dread, whereas here, this atmosphere feels very much contrived. Again, if you just think of the song as a piece of gritty funk-pop, it's okay — but it never really fulfills its basic goal, and neither Mick nor any of the musicians sound as if they really meant it. "Heartbreaker, heartbreaker, I wanna tear your world apart", he roars, but we don't even know whose world he is singing about in the end (it seems that the song eventually switches gears from lamenting about social injustice to lamenting about a cheater), and whoever it is, the exhortation rings empty. Good groove, bad vibe.
And yet, at the same time, every once in a while, Goats Head Soup suddenly turns around and delivers — with strong echoes of the old classic soulful Stones. Arguably the most underrated song here is the quasi-nostalgic ʽ100 Years Agoʼ: "quasi-" because, while its lyrics seem to deal with memories of good old times, the song itself reeks most strongly with a feeling of being lost and confused in the present. Coming right off the heels of the ʽDancing With Mr Dʼ spectacle, it is a thousand times more serious — an ominous pop-rocker, driven by Billy Preston's clenched-teeth clavinet lines and, for once in his life, featuring Mick Taylor really breaking out a sweat on a fluent, funky, hyper-aggressive wah-wah solo, the only problem being that the song begins to fade out just as he is really hitting his stride, and that Mick was probably so envious of the man taking away the spotlight, he had to have the lead guitar mixed under his endless stream of ad-libbed barking rather than over it. Still, flawed as it is in terms of execution, if there is one song on the album where «Mr. D» really makes a personal appearance, it is ʽ100 Years Agoʼ — perhaps the one Stones song to subtly display deep fears of aging and loss of relevance, and, in that regard, comparable in terms of impact even with Pink Floyd's ʽTimeʼ from the same year (though I am certainly not suggesting that ʽ100 Years Agoʼ would ever stand a chance of winning).
Still later on, we stumble across ʽWinterʼ — a song that could be legitimately regarded as a faint copy of ʽMoonlight Mileʼ (and certainly string arranger Nicky Harrison is striving to ape the work of Paul Buckmaster as closely as possible), and also as one that has its own autonomous function here, rather than being the grand climactic finale for a journey of hedonism and suffering; but I can't help thinking of it as a sincere confessional moment anyway, and Jagger's "sometimes I wanna wrap my coat around you" is the very last time we will see him in his deeply humanistic emploi, a ricochet effect from ʽShine A Lightʼ if there ever was one. Again, Taylor joins in the fray with verve, contributing a suitably soaring solo, and I find myself caught up in the song's grand textures, almost enough to forgive Mr. Jagger for having just wasted four minutes of my time on the limp piano blues improv ʽHide Your Loveʼ (now there's a piece of shameful filler we haven't seen since... actually, have we ever seen such a shameful piece of filler?).
The other two ballads on the first side are somewhat more notorious: ʽComing Down Againʼ is historically important as the first in a never-ending series of soulful-shapeless Keith Richards ballads that are loved by all the fans of Keith Richards' immortal soul (I, personally, prefer a bit more shape to songs written and/or sung by Keith Richards), and ʽAngieʼ is, well, ʽAngieʼ. Overwrought, insincere, theatrical, narcissistic, but still infused with a deeply melancholic spirit, no thanks to Mick — the best part about the song is Nicky Hopkins' majestic piano, anyway.
So, yes, confusion is the word of day. A drug-addled Keith, a glam-ridden Mick, a trip to Jamaica that was probably confused with a trip to Haiti, and still, behind it all, broken shards of soul and some deep, dark emotions that could not be wiped out or concealed by a thousand dance parties with Mr. D or "tricks with fruit" (God I don't even want to know what was really meant by that line). There is no denying that the Stones really lost it here, but Goats Head Soup still retains its fascination after all these years, just because you can actually witness the process of losing it — see the flesh just falling off the bones, with eyes in the skulls still burning like coals. That said, don't blame it all on Mick's big ego and Keith's big needle, either — pretty much every Sixties hero was beginning to lose it around that time, as musical and general artistic values began shifting so drastically that even the most talented people no longer had the stamina to keep up. Look at Mick Jagger in TV appearances circa 1973 — it is so obvious that he wants to be David Bowie, yet he is only aping Bowie's fashion and Bowie's outrageousness, without ever having a go at Bowie's, um, «conceptual framework». On Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main St., the Stones were still the Stones; on Goats Head Soup, Mick Jagger got the idea that time, waiting for no one, does not want the Stones to be the Stones any more — and so he began transforming the Stones into a mix of David Bowie, Alice Cooper, and Curtis Mayfield, with predictably tragic results. Something tells me he never did that much poking around into other people's dressing rooms circa 1968-69.
Predictably tragic results, yes, yet also unpredictably intriguing ones, which is why the record still gets a thumbs up, despite all the harsh criticism. With Goats Head Soup, The Rolling Stones downgrade themselves to the level of «entertainers» rather than «visionaries»; however, unless you have something against «entertainers» in general, Goats Head Soup is still top class entertainment — the only two songs on it that have never worked for me are ʽComing Down Againʼ (sorry, Keith — I still love you, baby, everywhere I look, I see your eyes and wake up in a cold sweat) and ʽHide Your Loveʼ (with Ian Stewart, Nicky Hopkins, and Billy Preston all present, what sort of moron could let Mick Jagger behind the piano?), and the rest are all good, even ʽDancing With Mr. Dʼ if you put on plenty of blackface, and even ʽHeartbreakerʼ if you admit that its lyrics got there by mistake, so they do not distract you from dancing the night away. I certainly do not subscribe to the idea that these post-Exile albums have no lasting value, or that latter day Stones should only be accessed by way of compilations — on the contrary, most of the accidental gems on these albums were not in the form of singles; is there even one Stones compilation out there with ʽ100 Years Agoʼ on it? The way I see it, Goats Head Soup is not so much of a «soup» as it is a tasty cheesecake with a couple cherries on top — and a really strange aftertaste that still makes you wonder about any hidden ingredients that you might have missed.