THE ROLLING STONES: SOME GIRLS (1978)
1) Miss You; 2) When The Whip Comes Down; 3) Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me); 4) Some Girls; 5) Lies; 6) Far Away Eyes; 7) Respectable; 8) Before They Make Me Run; 9) Beast Of Burden; 10) Shattered.
Let's smooth it out a little bit: Some Girls isn't really as terrifically great as the music-press-lore would have you believe, nor are the three studio albums that preceded it as horrendously bad as the same lore would have you believe even stronger. The «canonical» view is that after Exile On Main Street, the Stones sank into addiction, decadence, and self-parody, only to re-emerge as a rejuvenated, modernized, sharp-toothed and sharp-tongued, punk-and-disco-inspired tight outfit in 1978, proving, once and for all, that there was no inevitable rock'n'roller curse associated with the age of 30, and triumphantly restoring their artistic quality and reputation against all odds. The reality, as usual, is a bit different from the myth, though.
Clearly, the Stones were facing a challenge from a new generation of rockers; clearly, they were in danger of being considered irrelevant and antiquated, even if each of their subsequent LPs still loyally skyrocketed to the top of the charts — I mean, maybe people were not really listening to Black And Blue, but they still went out and bought it, because, hey man, it's the Stones, they probably suck like hell now but it's still the Stones. Clearly, Mick felt all that change in the air, and his mind was sharp enough to understand that the days of the Big Inflatable Dick were over, and that people were looking for something different now — faster, tougher, tighter, angrier. But at the same time, the Stones did happen to morph into careless, spoiled millionnaires, and it would have been totally laughable if they were to take their clues from The Clash now, or even from The Sex Pistols, who, despite all the marketing tricks that put them together, were still a bunch of young, brash, angry slum kids.
Consequently, it would not be fully accurate to call Some Girls the Stones' «punk album». If you think of 1978 as the era when Mick and Keith jumped upon that bandwagon and tried to compete with all the young Turks, the impression will end up wrong: the Stones could not truly be railing against the establishment since they were a vital part of that establishment (yes, even Keith was, despite his dragging his own rules into the establishment rather than politely following others'). «Rich playboys trying to pass for young angry punks» — a reaction that I have seen quite often, and one that tends to really spoil one's impression of the album; certainly not the right way to go about it.
In reality, I think the coolness of Some Girls lies in that it is one of the most satirical Stones albums ever made. From 1973 to 1976 (not to mention earlier), they had placed plenty of laughs, jabs, and pricks in their songs, but the songs themselves usually sounded too sloppy, chaotic, generic, or over-the-top to be appreciated as truly «sharp». Some Girls not only picks itself up in terms of tightness (which was only natural, since it was the first of the band's albums with Wood as a legit member, and he was still willing to oblige), but also in terms of being mean-lean-and-mighty-unclean. In some irreverent Saturday Night Live kind of fashion, the band here sends up everyone and everything, leaving nobody unoffended: politicians, bourgeois, radio preachers, gays, white girls, black girls, even Puerto Ricans, all get their share, making Some Girls into the band's (arguably) least politically correct album ever. Yet they are not poking fun for the mere sake of poking fun — for the most part, this is intelligent humor, even when they are dissecting stereotypes, and at times, it's also humor mixed in with some real pain, despite the relative lack of straightforward soulfulness and sentimentality on the record.
The SNL reference is not really that arbitrary, not just because the Stones themselves promoted the album on the show, but also because, as is well known, Some Girls is their «New York City record»: ʽShatteredʼ gives a brief impressionistic overview of the Big Apple, ʽWhen The Whip Comes Downʼ specifically relates to its seedy underbelly, and ʽMiss Youʼ... well, ʽMiss Youʼ was sort of specifically targeted at its clublife, a result of hanging out one too many nights around Studio 54. Great or, at least, pungent art is often triggered by unhealthy times, and considering that the late Seventies were fairly unhealthy for NYC, to say the least, the Stones' attraction to that place was both natural and artistically healthy; except they did not stand around the city's problems and weep bitter tears, they just sank their teeth in them, which might not be polite, but is often more efficient than being polite. In other words, Some Girls has focus, and that, indeed, is the big reason why it is often called a major comeback for the band after Exile On Main Street (which also had focus, but an introverted one — here, they go all-out extravert).
In terms of songwriting, not all the songs are equally excellent. Some are still little more than grooves: ʽWhen The Whip Comes Downʼ, for instance, does not have a distinctive riff and even less of a distinctive melody (Jagger simply recites the verses, and gang choruses of the title hardly constitute a great hook), but it is still a good showcase for the newly emerging Richards-Wood sound — the two guys did not yet have a chance to play together at that particular fast tempo, and it also seems to me as if Keith was just rediscovering the power chord here, and having fun with it: the song sounds grumblier, heavier, more serious-about-its-business than almost anything since at least ʽBitchʼ. Adding to the impression is the fact that you never really understand if the lyrics are making fun of the poor gay guy who is "filling a need, plugging a hole" or sarcastically advertising the coming of the new liberal age — "when the whip comes down, I'll be running this town" — and thus, even though the song is decidedly not «punk» in spirit («mock-punk» at best), it cuts harder and harsher than many famous punk songs of the time.
But sometimes you get that same attitude with a great instrumental hook to boot — ʽShatteredʼ features Mick in the same ragged-word paradigm, alternating between singing, rapping, reciting, and going crazy, but he can do whatever he wants to as long as he stays anchored to Keith's weirdly phased riff, never faltering, always pushing forward in a highway-driving style; the whole thing is really a touching love-and-hate anthem to New York where the riff symbolizes the strong, steady general life pulse of the city and the scattered, tattered, shattered lyrics are the chaotic mesh of its particular aspects and events. I sometimes try to imagine what Talking Heads would have done to a song like this — somehow, the idea of David Byrne taking over Mick's role on this one does not look at all unnatural. But then Byrne would probably do it like a paranoid, ostrich-in-the-sand-kind-of insider, whereas Jagger, on the other hand, offers a decidedly outsider's look on the situation — bewildered, yes, but also amused and cool-headedly sarcastic, a real Englishman in New York if there ever was one.
Next to these two, ʽLiesʼ and ʽRespectableʼ work like less deep-cutting, simple-fun pieces of pop-punk (with ʽRespectableʼ, though some people thought it was a swipe at Jagger's wife, actually being a self-swipe: "we're respected in society, we don't worry about the things that we used to be"). They aren't really angry — they're fun. It's simply joyful to hear Keith and Ronnie go so fast, so fluent, and to hear Bill and Charlie hold them together with such a tight grip. I do believe that Keith's solo on the first break of ʽRespectableʼ is one of his last great arch-Berry-style passages, as his lead guitar playing would almost inexplicably begin to significantly deteriorate very soon afterwards (as if to prove us that it was all really fueled by heroin), and Ronnie's high-pitched solo on the second break is also one of the last times he'd play with such precision at such an insane tempo. It ain't much of a punk rock sound — it's punk-inspired classic rock'n'roll — but the mixture has always sounded far more intoxicating on a sheer gut level to me.
The having-fun attitude also permeates the slower pieces on the album: ʽFar Away Eyesʼ, as everyone knows, is a flat-out parody on redneck country-western, albeit still with a bit of sentimental empathy for the jokingly mysterious "girl with far away eyes", and ʽBeast Of Burdenʼ, though technically a ballad, is really one of those I'm-free-to-do-what-I-want-any-old-time declarations like ʽTumbling Diceʼ, etc., with the entire band in relaxed, nonchalant mode. (As a sidenote, ʽBeast Of Burdenʼ was one of the highlights of the generally lackluster 1981-82 tour, where it wisely slowed down the usually breathless tempo and played out as an ardent anthem to personal freedom — there's a great moment in the Hal Ashby movie when Keith, in the middle of the instrumental break, walks towards the edge of the arena and falls on his knees while playing, crowd going wild and all, that, for some reason, makes me tear up every time). The Temptations cover, here reimagined as a rowdy, excited number, is a major improvement on the buffoonery of ʽAin't Too Proud To Begʼ — and the title track is nothing special musically, but... Mick Jagger pulling the feminist movement by the whiskers? Count me in for a laugh. (For that matter, I do believe the man was pretty sincere when writing about how "black girls just want to get fucked all night" — hey, who are we to mistrust one of the world's leading practitioners of the art of bedding?). In any case, the best musical aspect of that track is Sugar Blue's insanely melodic harmonica playing: don't miss it next time you're in town.
And then, of course, there's ʽMiss Youʼ. Again, leave it to the Stones to bend the disco groove to their purposes: here, they use it not so much to send the audience into the dance trance as to introduce an air of desperation and determination to the song. It is quite a desperate tune, really: the old theme of yearning for that one true love in the midst of cheap surroundings and empty temptations — and it's all the more weird how such an obvious statement of deep loneliness and suffering could work so well as a club-oriented dance tune. In concert, at least all the way up to the 1989-90 tour, ʽMiss Youʼ was performed in a significantly harsher and louder arrangement than the studio version, which worked to its advantage: by the time Mick got around to the "I guess I'm lying to myself..." part, he would almost literally be foaming at the mouth and gnashing his teeth, delivering the "I miss you girl" bit as if somebody was tearing out parts of his flesh with red hot irons. Here, it's softer and subtler, more realistic, perhaps, and quite possibly rooted in the man's real love life at the time (dating Jerry Hall while not yet fully divorced from Bianca). In any case, the disco arrangement is mostly just a tip of the hat to 1978's musical fashion — the main melodic line of the song is far more reminiscent of, say, ʽMother's Little Helperʼ, than any of the disco hits of the era. That's why it is so cool — once the Stones decided to move really deep into the realms of disco on their next album, that is where they began to truly suck at it.
Rounding it all out with Keef's first completely solo tune since 1973, Some Girls complete the picture with a nice set of personal touches — Mick's love life in focus on ʽMiss Youʼ and Keith's drug and law problems on ʽBefore They Make Me Runʼ, the man's second cocky, arrogant statement of character after ʽHappyʼ, but this time with a touch of humility and acceptance of fate: saying goodbye to "another old friend" (Uncle Heroin) and "gonna walk before they make me run". Funny, isn't it? A Keef rocker that sounds rebellious if you don't listen to the words, but is actually quite submissive if you do. For some reason, it still sounds less banal and more honest than something like Aerosmith's ʽMonkey On My Backʼ — Keith has this really uncanny ability of conforming and compromising while still looking like a total badass guy. Man, that open G tuning really works wonders, doesn't it?..
That said, Some Girls is not immaculate. Like I said, its relatively light, satirical attitude almost always succeeds, but it also makes the album almost always sound superficial — a bit of disco psychologism in ʽMiss Youʼ, then rock, rock, rock your boat all the way until the end. Nothing here really creeps under your skin like ʽFingerprint Fileʼ, or triggers that «old sinner» vibe like ʽMemory Motelʼ, or evokes certain subliminal fears like ʽ100 Years Agoʼ — the point being that they adopted this tongue-in-cheek attitude at the expense of even trying to dive somewhere really deep in your soul; not that they succeeded at that too well from 1973 to 1976, but occasionally, they did. Some Girls, much like its front sleeve, is essentially a smart joke of an album: a great smart joke, but a joke nevertheless, and that would continue to be the base attitude for the Stones until at least Dirty Work (where they tried to get more serious, but trying to get serious in 1986 after having not been serious for ten years was a sure recipe for disaster). This is why I would never put the record on par with the 1966-72 period — but then, if we have to be saddled with the Rolling Stones as a bunch of clowns for a while, I'd rather have them as smart, sarcastic, sexy clowns rather than unfunny buffoons, and Some Girls gives me precisely what I need. (For an example of how the clowning attitude did not help out a bunch of aging dinosaurs in a similar context, check out the Kinks' Low Budget — sort of an answer to Some Girls, but far less efficient for its own reasons).
Naturally, this gets a big thumbs up, much as I am disappointed, though, with the 2011 deluxe edition of the album: like Exile, it is one of those strange experiences where they took a bunch of old outtakes (including the infamous ʽClaudineʼ, a mean boogie about Claudine Longet that was left off the original album for legal reasons), left some parts, and completely re-recorded others, including all of Mick's lead vocals. There's some good stuff out there (including a bunch of blues and country numbers that do not at all sound like the average material on the main album — more of a throwback to the 1971-72 era), but do seek out the original bootlegs if you are really interested.