THE ROLLING STONES: DIRTY WORK (1986)
1) One Hit (To The Body); 2) Fight; 3) Harlem Shuffle; 4) Hold Back; 5) Too Rude; 6) Winning Ugly; 7) Back To Zero; 8) Dirty Work; 9) Had It With You; 10) Sleep Tonight.
It is not disputable that the overall state of the band in the mid-Eighties was quite pitiful: not only were the personal relations between Mick and Keith reaching an absolute nadir, with Mick's egotism and Keith's conservatism getting the better of them, but then there was also the problem with Charlie Watts, a notorious slowpoke whose alcohol and drug problems finally caught up with him a whole decade after Keith's crisis. Even Wyman seemed to find more comfort producing movie soundtracks in that era than working with the Stones.
Now the Stones are known as a band that often seemed to work better in a time of crisis, capable of channelling their agitation, confusion, and tension into music — think back to 1967 or to 1972 for some classic examples. Unfortunately, their worst crisis (worst, because its main reasons were internal rather than external) took place not in 1967 and not in 1972, but in 1985-86, some of the least auspicious years, to put it mildly, for Sixties' and Seventies' veteran rockers in general; and although you'd have to be deaf and dumb not to notice all that tension reflected in the sounds of Dirty Work, this time around it does not help the music, it only makes matters more obnoxious. There is no tricking the hand of fate — it was 1986, and it was the Stones' destiny to come up with their crappiest artistic statement of all time.
What is wrong with this record? Well — almost everything. To produce it, they brought in one of the biggest stars of Eighties' production, Steve Lillywhite, whose impressive resume already included Peter Gabriel's classic third album and the first three albums by U2; incidentally, he also happens to be the guy often credited with pioneering the gated reverb drum effect (which, predictably, is used a-plenty on this album). The problem is, what worked fine and dandy for the new styles of music developed by Gabriel and U2 could hardly be expected to work for old school rockers like the Stones — and it doesn't: the combination of glossy, plastic production with traditional rock'n'roll values pretty much wastes the gloss and discredits the rock'n'roll. This was already a big problem with Undercover, but here modern production values are applied far more systematically, and the constant use of reverb and echo gets obnoxious very quickly.
Stiff production would still be a minor nuisance, though, had the songwriting and playing been kept on the level — which they are not. Ronnie Wood is credited as co-writer on a whopping four tracks here, which is already suspicious, seeing how reluctant Mick and Keith had always been to share the songwriting credits with anybody else; this is essentially a sign of their not giving a damn whatsoever (for the record, ever since the 1989 comeback, poor Ronnie never got a single other songwriting credit). Even more ridiculously, ʽBack To Zeroʼ is co-credited to their guest piano player, Chuck Leavell — did the late Ian Stewart or the great Nicky Hopkins ever get even one credit on some of those tracks that would never work so well without their participation?.. Throw in two covers, and you can see how much of a mess the record really was.
But hey, perhaps, against all odds, some of these songs could turn out to be masterpieces? Well, miracles did not happen in 1986. A few of them rank among the worst piles of sonic shit ever committed to tape in the name of the Rolling Stones — including both conventional rockers and songs outside of the band's typical range. For instance, ʽHold Backʼ almost manages to sound like a contemporary hair metal anthem — big fat sound with a shapeless, meaningless riff and the entire song dominated by headache-inducing drum bombast and an endless stream of tuneless barking from Mick «Turpentine Butt» Jagger (which, by the way, is also a common problem with the record: the only style for Mick to sing in here is gurgle and bark, bark and gurgle, as if he wanted to compete in monotony with some bona fide hardcore punk outfit). ʽFightʼ, true to its title, is not nearly as shapeless as to what concerns the verses and choruses, but otherwise shares all the problems of ʽHold Backʼ — no good riff, no good vocal melody, and no true Stonesy dynamics to the playing.
With the non-rockers, the situation does not get any better: there are no well-made funky surprises like ʽToo Much Bloodʼ here. Instead, you have ʽBack To Zeroʼ, a messy dance-pop number that finds the band genuinely struggling to find a coordinated groove — one big reason behind this, perhaps, is that, according to most accounts, the band almost never really played as a band in the studio at the time, with individual members laying on their contributions one by one, a process that could work with Paul McCartney but never really with the Stones. (At least, never since the creative peak of the late Sixties, when Keith alone could work magic with his guitar overdub layers). Meanwhile, Keith gets re-engaged with his passion for reggae, producing a piss-poor version of Half Pint's 1983 hit ʽWinsomeʼ, retitled ʽToo Rudeʼ and overlaid with so much echo on everything that you get the feeling of standing on one side of a cave entrance while the band is getting it on on the other side. Sh-sh-sh-sh-shak-e-e-e! And pointless: who really needs to hear the Stones doing reggae?
A couple more of the rockers barely make it to the «mediocre» level due to slightly higher levels of tightness and catchiness (ʽWinning Uglyʼ; the ridiculously belated anti-capitalist rant of the title track), but on the whole, there are only three songs here that I would recommend salvaging for compilations — not surprisingly, two of these were chosen for single releases and were also the only ones temporarily resurrected for the 1989-90 touring program. ʽOne Hit (To The Body)ʼ, even with the stupid production and the barking vocals (here, they work though), is a good piece of ravaging rock'n'soul, again, with no decent riff to speak of, but at least a catchy chorus that does a good job of conveying the mixed love-and-pain emotion of love addiction. The most poignant bit about it, of course, is that the song's lyrics seemed to be more of an allegory for the love-and-hate relationship between the band's two members — as further confirmed by the half-hilarious, half-frightening pseudo-karate match between Mick and Keith in the accompanying video (no chainsaws this time, but Mr. Richards can get even spookier with a guitar). As a questionable bonus, you can throw in a guest guitar solo from Mr. Jimmy Page himself — strange they didn't bring in Eddie Van Halen, who'd probably be even more suitable.
The same trick is also reprised on the far less known ʽHad It With Youʼ, which I have always held a soft spot for because of all the songs in here, it is the one that is least encumbered with bombastic production and, consequently, the most close one to reflect those good old collective Stones values. Apparently, Keith wrote the lyrics and Mick got to sing them, tacitly acknowledging the truth of lines like "You always seem to haunt me / Serving out injunctions / Shouting out instructions" and "You're a mean mistreater / You're a dirty dirty rat scum" — and putting his bark to good use on the pissed-off "I HAD it, HAD it, HAD it wich'ooo!" chorus. It is not a great song — it is simply a charming autobiographical moment, done in style, including, finally, a normal drum track from Charlie and a proper harmonica solo from Mick. Too bad they'd never dare perform this live in public, meaning that the song will forever dangle in obscurity, even though, in my mind, it deserves to be included in any comprehensive musical biography of The Rolling Stones.
Then, finally, there is their cover of ʽHarlem Shuffleʼ, a resuscitation of the old Bob & Earl hit from 1963 — probably just to see how well this «Lillywhite Stones» sound of 1986 could accomodate the old soul values from the young and innocent days. They made a good choice, because the bass-heavy original already had a shade of surprising darkness to it, which is here emphasized even further: the Stones' take lays it on even thicker in the bass department, and even the organ has a certain doom-laden atmosphere to it, so that most of the time it's not so much a ʽHarlem Shuffleʼ as it is a ʽHighway To Hellʼ (much less «happy fun» in spirit than the AC/DC song, for that matter). The good news is that the song was catchy from the beginning, and also that it is taken at a respectable mid-tempo rather than whipped up to crazy frenzy like most of the stuff here — and even Jagger's barking makes sense as he is playing a possessed figure with all those "whoah, whoah, whoah, I can't stand it no more!" Ironically, this is the tune that reveals the most psychological depth on the entire album — there's dancing as an allegory for the sex drive, and there's all those primal and hellish connotations for both, bringing back memories of how this band once used to set the tone in the art of on-the-brink temptation.
But are three songs enough to properly pull Dirty Work out of the Stones' asscrack where it has remained firmly wedged for thirty years now? I don't think so. Together with Emotional Rescue, these are the only two records in the band's catalog that, on the whole, have an offensive aura to me — even if they sound quite different from each other and offend in completely different ways. (Funny enough, both of them also end with an amorphous lullaby from Keith: ʽSleep Tonightʼ has a slightly more memorable chorus than ʽAll About Youʼ, mainly due to repetition, but overall is undistinguishable from the large pool of slow soul ballads written by the guy, not to mention just as poorly produced here as anything.) Simply put, with a few moments' exception, the band's heart was not clearly in this when they went ahead and did it — this is a record that never should have happened in the first place. Had Mick and Keith truly broken up for good after this, Dirty Work would have been a fairly pitiful way to end an illustrious career; as it happened, it ended up just being a time-marking embarrassment, a certified thumbs down record, only out there to prove the universal applicability of the term «mid-life crisis», even to superhumans, and to serve as yet another piece of strong evidence for the «mid-Eighties curse» from which not even Keith Richards was exempt. Perhaps if he'd still been on heroin though...