The Big Lookback: The Rolling Stones
In the 43 years since "Some Girls," "Dirty Work" is the best album the Stones came up with. No, fuck you.
This month’s Big Lookback features a 1986 Village Voice essay from back before I turned in my Underwood for a computer, and thus was data-entried rather than imported from my hard drive. Dirty Work, the Rolling Stones album that inspired it, was released March 24, 1986, and though my review appeared in the Voice dated April 15, that issue would have come out April 9 with my copy due April 2 or so. So I was writing before I could have known that crits were gonna slag an elpee that gave me a jolt of pleasure I still remember and pretty much continue to feel. The following January I ranked it sixth on the Dean’s List, just ahead of Paul Simon’s Graceland and Sonny Sharrock’s Guitar. I’d now put it in between.
Having never bought Dirty Work on CD, I only reaccessed it when an Xgau Sez interlocutor inspired me to revive what to me reads like a damn good piece whether you share my enthusiasm for the album or not. It’s funny and brash, inspired by an underrated album’s who-gives-a-fuck demeanor. It doesn’t make enough of the three songs that grab hold of a scrap of vernacular and beat us about the head and shoulders with it: the opening “Hit to the Body” and on side two “Winning Ugly” and “Had It With You.” But what still renders the review disreputable is its praise for the big boom of producer Steve Lillywhite’s “gated drums,” a term I only learned decades later, with the echo power of the technique in long-established total disrepute. Lillywhite also produced Marshall Crenshaw’s superb 1983 Field Day, which I’d reduce now from A plus to A and which due in part to its stab at a big “commercial” sound can fairly be said to have begun a gifted rock and roller’s long journey to indie purdah. But though in neither case, especially Crenshaw’s, were the gated drums necessary, they’re nowhere near as ruinous as is tediously claimed.
I love Charlie Watts so much that on the whole I prefer him clean and sharp, simultaneously subtle and propulsive. But the gated drums do suit the broad strokes this album favors. And having barely gotten through 1983’s supposedly complex, actually muddled Undercover, you bet I think Dirty Work tops not just that one but 1981’s Tattoo You, which rightly inspired Greil Marcus’s “We’re going to do the same thing we’ve always done. And then we’re going to do it again. Forever.” Also 1980’s Emotional Rescue, which peters out quicker than the side-openers make you hope. Even with 1978’s legitimately classic Some Girls the contest is closer than you might expect—the cheap “Far Away Eyes” still makes me chuckle, but the title song has aged even worse than seemed likely at the time. So say that in what is now the 43 years since Some Girls, I think Dirty Work is the best album the Stones came up with. Fuck you if you can’t take a joke.
I never thought I’d get off on a new Stones album this much again.
After almost two decades on top, they seemed too convoluted to come out with such direct, hard-driving music, but it’s folly to underestimate their survivorship, so I’m not surprised that they did. The sure thing was that they couldn’t make me care about it—that no adjustment in the music or persona could jolt what they said or how they said it past my sensorium and into my soul. And I was wrong. Dirty Work is a bracing and even challenging record. It innovates without kowtowing to multiplatinum fashion or half-assed pretension. It’s honest and makes you like it. It’s only Rolling Stones, yet it breaks down their stifling insularity, as individuals and as an entity. Since the last time the Stones released a surprising record—Some Girls, eight years ago now, a third of their famous career out the window—the Stones have turned into exceptionally disgusting rock professionals. That doesn’t mean it’s been possible to dismiss them or their music—what’s made them so disgusting is that you couldn’t. Who gives a fuck if that smarmy has-been Mike Love seeds the PMRC or Ritchie Blackmore feeds his runs into an emulator? Who gives a fuck if Ozzy Osbourne gets fat on raw chicken or David Crosby gets fat on raw coke or Pete Townshend invents the rock novel? All these guys are pathetic clowns no matter how much money they make, pathetic clowns even if you have to respect them in a way, as I do Townshend and Osbourne. There’s nothing pathetic about the Stones. That’s what’s made them worth hating in the ‘80s.
I mean, People and Rolling Stone don’t go to Ron for comic relief or Keith for cautionary parables or Mick for thoughtful regrets—they go to them because they’re almost as classy as Ahmet Ertegun. And though the music has been mostly dreck if not literal outtakes, there’ve been top-10 singles with every new studio release, deft and heretical and even nasty videos, and just to be contrary, one Good Stones Album. Some Girls it wasn’t, but Tattoo You was better if not braver than Black and Blue and more attentively crafted than anything they’d recorded since their tenure as a vital force ended unexpectedly with Exile on Main Street in 1972. You were free not to like it much anyway, but you had to do backflips to explain why, eventually landing on one old saw or another, “commitment” or “inspiration” or something equally crucial and unempirical. You knew damn well that whatever you called it had gone thataway. And yet there were Ron and Keith and especially Mick (leave Bill and Charlie out of this), pulling that world’s-greatest routine like there was no tomorrow.
Five years later, with only Undercover to show for it, the same saws are sure to bombard Dirty Work, in many ways a disgusting development indeed. First, it’s the group’s debut for CBS, which bought their myth even bigger than it did Paul McCartney’s, squandering corporate resources that younger bands deserved. Then recall their special-achievement Grammy, accepted with hardly a smirk by a bunch of cynics who’d been blackballed back when they really were the world’s greatest, followed by the rubber-lipped stereotyping of Ralph Bakshi’s “Harlem Shuffle” video. There’s the public disaffection of the band’s fearless leader, who wouldn’t start work on the album because he was promoting his last solo effort and won’t tour behind it because he’s starting work on the next one. Finally, there’s coproducer Steve Lillywhite, who whilst proclaiming back-to-basics turned Dirty Work into the cleanest-sounding Stones album ever.
In the end it’s the production that will make or break this album critically, where it’s sure to put off purists, skeptics, and snipers, and commercially, where it’s almost sure to pull in trendies, children, and curiosity-seekers. Not that it isn’t plenty basic, don’t get me wrong. Based on riffs worked up by Ron and Keith before Jagger sullied his consciousness with them, the arrangements are the simplest on any Stones album since Some Girls if not Aftermath. There are no horns, the backup singers know their place, and Jagger doesn’t bother with the melismatic affectations that have turned so much of his ‘80s product in on itself. What’s more, Lillywhite claims that all the songs, including many keeper vocals, were recorded live in the studio. But I wouldn’t expect the pear-shaped guitar breaks that finish off both lead cuts of Mick Taylor, much less Ron or Keith (Jimmy Page gets a credit). The up-front drums—some supplied, I hear, by computerized Charlie, with the inevitable loss of subliminal unpredictability—are pure Lillywhite. And so is the overall sound of the thing. As a matter of technical principle, Lillywhite goes for a mix that’s as spacious as the arena-rock simulations of the ‘70s yet doesn’t murk up details, and he gets it every time. Anybody who thought “Miss You” was a sellout is going to puke all over this one.
Me, I’m a Marshall Crenshaw fan who thinks Field Day is the man’s strongest album, and I like the way Lillywhite and the Stones collide. Just as his drum mix underscored Field Day’s depth, his clinical spaciousness recasts Jagger’s fascination with distance, which of late has made Mick sound more lost than anything else (and without even knowing it, poor old guy). But where Lillywhite unbalanced Crenshaw's commercial appeal, the Stones have the mythic clout to take him on. This record is going to fuck the heads of the young chime addicts who think U2 and Big Country are guitar bands. It’s clean and even modish, but until the side-closers it’s utterly unpretty, and its momentum is pitiless. Jagger bullies up into a steady bellow that has all the power of Plant or Hagar and none of the histrionics. Catch me in a perverse mood and I’ll even defend the video—better they should offend by meaning to than by breathing.
Anyway, “Harlem Shuffle” is hardly the first good song betrayed by its promo, and now please turn the album over—the second side is the prize. I give you “Winning Ugly,” “Back to Zero,” and “Dirty Work,” their meanest political statements in 15 years, and not for want of trying. These songs aren’t about geopolitical contradictions. They’re about oppressing and being oppressed. Jagger always plays dirty, always robs the other guy, and it’s beginning to get to him; he misuses the jerks, greaseballs, fuckers and dumbasses who clean up after him and that doesn’t make him feel so good either; and for all his class he’s another nuclear subject who’s got no say over whether he rots or pops even though he’d much prefer the former. For once his lyrics aren’t intricately ironic. They’re impulsive and confused, almost jottings, two-faced by habit rather than design, the straightest reports he can offer from the top he’s so lonely at. They’re powerful because they’re about power, a topic unpretty enough to fit right in. And together with the hard advice of “Hold Back”—“Don’t matter if you ain’t so good-looking/If you ain’t sharp as a blade/Don’t be afraid/Don’t hold back/Life is passing you by”—they’re winning hints of a moral center somewhere in the vicinity of the singer’s perpetual disillusionment. They contextualize the ironic persona-play of “Fight” and the unreconstructed send-off of “Had It with You” and the found sexism of “Too Rude” and the slum-hopping groove of “Harlem Shuffle.” They set up the dog-tired compassion of “Sleep Tonight,” which Keith turns into the Stones’ most poignant ballad since “Angie.” They assure that Dirty Work is a Very Good Stones Album.
All that’s missing, in fact, is one identiriff classic, a “Jumping Jack Flash” or “Tumbling Dice” or “Start Me Up” that could define a summer and shove the tough stuff—“Winning Ugly” and “Dirty Work” are two of the most unpleasant songs anybody’s going to write about the ‘80s—down America’s throat. Identiriffs are Keith’s department, and thus I’m not inclined to trumpet this artistic comeback as his vindication. Sure it’s his recidivist guitar that makes Dirty Work hot, but if you’ll pardon my saw, it’s Jagger’s offhand input that makes it matter. We should be thankful the old reprobate didn’t lavish much personal attention on it, that he just plugged into his Stones mode and spewed what he had to spew. Let him express himself elsewhere. The individual Rolling Stones can have their own disgusting lives and careers—I don’t care. What I want is the Rolling Stones as an entity, an idea—that’s mine and yours as much as theirs. And it’s the Rolling Stones as an idea that Dirty Work vindicates.