THE ROLLING STONES: UNDERCOVER (1983)
1) Undercover Of The Night; 2) She Was Hot; 3) Tie You Up (The Pain Of Love); 4) Wanna Hold You; 5) Feel On Baby; 6) Too Much Blood; 7) Pretty Beat Up; 8) Too Tough; 9) All The Way Down; 10) It Must Be Hell.
Gather round, children, and I'll tell you a story about little G. S.'s first taste of Undercover. It was something like late 1988 or early 1989, I do believe, and little G. S. was enjoying the first cultural benefits of perestroika — such as, for instance, being able to trot over to the nearest «Culture club» where some seedy dude would surreptitiously show you his album of... no, not pictures of naked women (although this was not totally out of the question, either), but titles of rock music LPs that you could get him to tape for you for an exorbitant sum that devastated all of your lunch money; but what was lunch in comparison to the ability to finally add Aftermath, or Between The Buttons, or Get Yer Ya Ya's Out!, to your already impressive (by the standards of the times) catalog of your Dad's classic Stones LPs?..
Another cultural benefit was being able to make your way to another «culture club», where equally seedy dudes (who must have made a real fortune with this), equipped with enviable VHS players and color TV screens, were just as happy to take your money for showing you pirated copies of movies you could previously only dream about — everything from Help! and Yellow Submarine to Jesus Christ Superstar and Woodstock... nope, probably not Woodstock, I think they still had a thing about nudity back then, even in a semi-underground setting like that. Anyway, what I'm getting at is that one of those days, little G.S. finally scooped together enough dough to gain entrance to the screening of Video Rewind, a musical program said to be focusing on music videos and performances by The Rolling Stones — nothing else was known beforehand about this, and so little G.S. happily went along, excited beyond measure at the perspective of actually seeing his beloved Get Yer Ya Ya's Out! come to life on screen, or something like that, at least. "Greatest rock'n'roll band in the world", remember?
What little G.S. saw on the screen that evening became one of the biggest shocks of his life, a childhood trauma that still resonates within him even (almost) thirty years later. Instead of seeing a great rock'n'roll band playing with (demon) fire on stage, he saw a bunch of clownish-looking freaks who spent most of their screen time entertaining viewers with dumb, cheap thrills. And at the center of this all were three videos that the freaks in question, as young G.S. properly learned only years later, shot for the Undercover album — a straightforward anthem to sexual arousal with focus on trouser buttons popping rather than the music (ʽShe Was Hotʼ), an equally straightforward anthem to blood-and-guts with focus on red fluids, chainsaws and chopped body parts rather than the music (ʽToo Much Bloodʼ), and, finally, an ode to violence, guns, explosions with focus on Keith Richards shooting Mick Jagger through the head rather than the music (ʽUndercover Of The Nightʼ). It did not help matters much that the entire program was ran through the perspective of an awfully gynoid-like made-up leader of the band, or that one of the culminating moments was a video of ʽBrown Sugarʼ with interspersed bits of footage from the 1976 and 1981 tours, in both of which the leader of the band seemed to behave like a village idiot, justifying the worst Soviet stereotypes of what a «degraded rock musician» was supposed to look and act like. But the Undercover videos were really the cream of the crop, and life was never the same.
One thing that watching the video really did for me was make me pull the plug completely on post-1970 Stones for a long time (I think that my first listen even to Sticky Fingers, let alone everything else, did not come until the mid-Nineties or so), but what was even worse, I guess, was the odd realization that somehow, somewhere, in some dark corner of the subconscious I enjoyed what I saw — in, perhaps, the same manner as some people would feel about being accidentally exposed to a peep show. It was cheap, stupid, superficial, disgusting (and, of course, morally decadent, as befits an all-corrupting capitalist society!), but it was also disturbing, stimulating, and... fun, to some extent. In any case, it turned out to be unforgettable, and for a long time, visions of Anita Morris burning Mick to a hole in the ground or of Keith and Ronnie chasing after Mick with chainsaws through a grizzly stone mausoleum would haunt me in my dreams, no matter how much I tried getting away from them. But it took me many, many years before I'd actually allowed myself to recognize the legitimacy of that feeling.
These days, of course, it's all laughable. Nobody who'd actually lived in the West throughout the late Sixties / Seventies / early Eighties could probably experience such strong emotions about a bunch of titillating music videos in 1983 — even if they were banned for controversial reasons on stations all around the UK and the US, more because of the overall conservative trend in the Reagan-Thatcher era than because they pretended to set some new standard in TV violence and profanity. And yet, Undercover still remains an interesting chapter in Stones history — and an album that tends to polarize fans very much, with some seeing it more in the «little G. S.» perspective (uninspired, stupid songwriting abusing modern technologies and focusing on hooliganry, not music) and others defending it as an unusually creative and experimental set, perhaps even as the last time when the Stones actually tried to do something innovative, instead of just settling, once and for all, into a stale formula.
The thing is, there's a bit of truth in each of these approaches. Undercover is a brave experiment, and it is also the beginning of a rotten formula. Undercover genuinely hits a nerve or two, and it is also cheesy and embarrassing. It shows that the Stones, when they really needed to, could move forward with the times — and it also shows that they could really suck at this. How many people actually bought the album just because it featured a seductive naked woman on the front sleeve? How many people did not buy the album because it featured a seductive naked woman on the front sleeve? (Or, come to think of it, how many people did not buy the album because it featured a seductive naked woman on the front sleeve with all the most important areas «under cover», har har har?) Mind you, this could have been a factor, particularly given that Undercover became the band's first album in a long, long time to not hit the #1 spot either in the UK or in the US. Guess the young G.S. was not the only fan to be disappointed.
Anyway, on to the music. This is where the Eighties finally hit us, with sampling, phasing, and other technotronic marvels of production actively employed during the sessions, probably courtesy of co-producer Chris Kimsey and recording engineer Bob Clearmountain — the worst service of all being paid to Charlie Watts, whose drumming is largely eclipsed here by the huge wall of electronic effects on the drums, not always abysmal, but usually effacing one of the most distinctive elements of what makes a Stones album a true Stones album. Add to this Jagger's ongoing fascination with new musical genres, and there are plenty of tracks here that hardly ever sound like Stones tracks — in fact, there's even one track, ʽToo Much Bloodʼ, where Keith is not present at all, with guitarist Jim Barber laying on the New Wave-style riffage instead.
Then again, this is, perhaps, not the worst feature of the album. Any true admirer of the Stones' musical ambitions should actually be happy when the Stones try not to sound like «the Stones» (were that always so, we would not have us any Satanic Majesties, or any baroque pop, or any ʽFingerprint Filesʼ or ʽHeavensʼ), and, in fact, some of the weakest songs here are precisely the ones where they try to sound too hard as «the Stones». Case in point: ʽToo Toughʼ, one of the first totally generic Stones rockers, of which they'd have at least a couple on each subsequent record, with unimpressive second-hand riffage from Keith and generic cockiness from Mick. And does anybody even begin to remember ʽAll The Way Downʼ? Imagine a ʽShatteredʼ without its characteristic riff, without its funny vocal bits, without its humor, and with a chorus whose only line forever stays in need of a good resolution — that never comes because they probably allowed themselves ten minutes to cobble the song together, at best.
More than half of the album suffers not so much from excessive overproduction or embarrassing cheap thrills as it does from sheer laziness of approach. Why does ʽPretty Beat Upʼ sound like a scuzzy vocal improvisation that Jagger performs over a stiff, monotonous groove whose basic riff seems to have been lifted by Keith from Pete Townshend's ʽEminence Frontʼ? (And this time not even the sax player can help them — where Sonny Rollins played massive, smoothly running, coherent solos to send ʽSlaveʼ into the stratosphere, David Sanborn here plays isolated, choppy, powerless licks, or, at least, that's the way they sound in the mix). Why does ʽIt Must Be Hellʼ recycle the riff of Exile's ʽSoul Survivorʼ, and keeps doing that in a manner that shows Keith completely chained to the basic chord sequence, doomed to simply replay the same phrase over and over and over for five minutes? Whatever happened to the glory days of ʽCan't You Hear Me Knockingʼ, when the band showed no signs whatsoever of this stiff paralysis?
Not all of the experimentation is successful, either. For one thing, Undercover includes what is probably the Stones' worst ever attempt at a reggae song — well, remembering ʽCherry Oh Babyʼ, they never really felt at home with the genre (despite being good pals with people like Peter Tosh and all), but ʽFeel On Babyʼ, featuring the then-ubiquitous dynamic duo of Sly and Robbie (who were also behind the stiff production of Dylan's Infidels), is basically five minutes of nothing, an unbearably slickified, groove-less groove with minimal melodic ideas and a «wet jungle» atmosphere that feels too humorless to be entertaining and too overloaded with production gimmicks to be taken seriously.
On the other hand, ʽUndercover Of The Nightʼ itself remains arguably the highest point in the overall tragic story of Mick Jagger's uneasy relations with modern technology. On this track, the groove is actually well established five seconds into the song, with Wyman's funky bass, while Keith lays down gunshot-like power chords that are a perfect fit with the song's overall message of violence, chaos, and anarchy in Latin America. Even the electronic percussion is a good choice here, made to sound like incessant barrages of machine-gun fire, and by the time the song gets around to the instrumental break, with Keith and Ronnie wielding their axes like a couple of homicidal maniacs, it is hardly possible not to get pulled in. Small wonder that this is only one of three songs here that still crop up from time to time in the Stones' live repertoire.
The other relative success — although this time, the song is so un-Stones like that they never even began to think about bringing it on stage, as Keith would probably veto the decision — is ʽToo Much Bloodʼ. Corny and cheaply provoking as it is, with Mick's retelling of the Issei Sagawa story and all, it still has the catchiest refrain on the album and, more importantly, a top notch brass groove — probably the only song in Stones history which is totally made by the horns rather than guitars (the guitars, as has already been mentioned, were played by Stones roadie Jim Barber who was told by Mick to «do an Andy Summers» — I think he did more of a David Byrne, myself, but that's hardly relevant anyway). Unlike ʽFeel On Babyʼ, ʽToo Much Bloodʼ is actually quite entertaining — although, brushing off the cobwebs of childhood phobias and traumas, I'd say that it works even better in conjunction with the video, which, for my money, is downright creepier and more disturbing than Michael Jackson's ʽThrillerʼ (under whose heavy influence it was almost certainly shot by Julien Temple); at the very least, Keith never looked more believable than when wedging a chainsaw in the back of a chair where Mick was sitting just a couple seconds ago!
The third video was made for the only other Mick-sung Undercover song that would later be performed live (you can see it, for instance, in the Shine A Light movie) — ʽShe Was Hotʼ — and this is the closest they come here to creating a «retro-sounding», circa ʽStar Starʼ time, bawdy Stones riff-rocker with Chuck Berry-isms a-plenty. Aside from the hilarious realization that it had been only three years since the release of ʽShe's So Coldʼ (and all the possible ensuing jokes about a three-year period of global warming, etc.), and the trouser-busting antics of Anita Morris in the accompanying video, there's not much to say about this other than that, if you really really really loved ʽStar Starʼ, you will probably also love ʽShe Was Hotʼ, but a little less. At least it's better than those completely lifeless rockers on Side B, not least because it features old buddy Ian Stewart in his most naturally comfortable role of the boogie-woogie accompanyist — alas, for the last time in his sweet short life.
To complete the picture, a couple of words are probably in order on ʽTie You Up (The Pain Of Love)ʼ, a song every bit as horrible as its title implies it to be, but one towards which I have always felt a strange and deeply dirty attraction. It's not the first time and not the last time when Jagger played the role of Mr. Sex Drive Incarnate, but something about this particular recording, electronic percussion and libido-choked roar and warts and all, echoes that old Stooges vibe — the rugged, braindead caveman yearning for release, release, release! Stupid, I know, but let us count this as a secret guilty pleasure. So good they never thought about making a video for this, though, or the little G.S. might have been driven to complete despair back in 1989, enough to throw all his hard-earned Stones tapes in the nearest Soviet dust bin or something.
So, as you can see, as a whole Undercover can be anything but boring, even if, in parts, it contains some of the least interesting and inspiring Stones songs written up to that point. Ironically, though, while it was the first album to clearly demarcate the differentiating zones of interest for Mick and Keith, and while it is usually Keith who is thought of as the integral musical engine of the Stones rather than Mick, it is the new Mick-style material that still holds up a bit rather than Keith-style material. At that point, Mick was already considering a solo career and beginning to seriously pander to mainstream pop tastes and all the crap that they brought with them — but as for the freshly cleaned-up and internally (though not externally) rejuvenated Keith, he seems to have been far more preoccupied with his new passion, Patti Hansen, than with writing good music: his only vocal number here, ʽWanna Hold Youʼ, is a pop-rocker with no signs of a decent riff and a chorus that is more of a perfunctory love mantra than a melodic highlight. (But if it played its part in getting Patti to marry him, who's to argue that a song like that cannot have a certain objective value?). Beginning with Undercover, it became more and more of a chore to get a truly great riff out of Keith — blame it on a happy family life, or on the absence of heroin, or both (can one have a happy family life and heroin? only if your wife is Courtney Love, I'd guess), but the fact is, the well had really run dry, and therefore, blaming Mick for making the Stones to sound less like the Stones and more like the Mick Jagger Experience, which Keith did a lot in those days, was a bit hypocritical.
Still, if you want to have at least a mildly positive impression of the album, it is best to think of it in the context of its times (where it sounds quite kick-ass next to much, if not most of the stuff, that the Stones' peers were doing at the time) than in the context of the band's overall career. At least it is not as grossly self-parodic and lightweight as Emotional Rescue, for which we probably have to «thank» the production team, and even if ʽToo Much Bloodʼ is like Psycho II to the original Psycho of ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ, the level of titillation on this record is somewhat higher than the locker-room-level humour of the band around 1980. This understanding is not enough to earn it a thumbs up — honestly, if you have not heard Undercover, you are not missing much — but it is enough to soothe those childhood traumas, thirty years after the fact.