The Rolling Stones – Undercover

Undercover (1983)

B+

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

 

By 1983, with popular music becoming exponentially shittier by the minute and the demand for good music becoming increasingly miniscule, the momentum the Stones had built up from their Some Girls/“Start Me Up” renaissance had dwindled quickly and they suddenly seemed very, very old. Keith was just beginning to decompose into the Gollum-like state he exists in today, and Mick’s stage act was beginning to look increasingly exaggerated and silly as he tried his darndest to avoid the reality that he was getting older. For most people, the appearance of Undercover only confirmed that the 21-year old Stones were starting to get rather stale. However, despite being one of the most unloved and frequently bashed Stones albums ever, I find it to be one of the most unique, surprising and uncompromising parts of their catalog. Maybe my hyperactive Stones geekdom is showing, but then again, Undercover is an album even most hardcore Stones fans don’t like. And I can easily understand why, because there isn’t one other Stones album that possesses the same kind of blunt, assaulting, bash-your-head-in approach that this one does. Or the same songwriting and instrumental textures, which incorporate prominent early 80s electro-dance and teeth-gnashing hard rock and metal influences. But just cuz it don’t sound like your grandpa’s favorite Stones record don’t mean it’s crap. It just means it’s harder to love – but the rewards are there if you’re willing to give it a try.

Let’s start with the easiest point of entry for you skeptics out there. You like the Stones, right? Therefore, you like hard, rocking music, right? Well, you’re in luck, because other than the two or three more dance-focused numbers, Undercover is dominated by heavy rock songs. No sissy, latter day Mick ballads like “Indian Girl” or “Heaven” to speak of. You know, crunching Keith guitars, screeching, unprincipled Woody solos, and Mick growling away all pissed off and mean and what not, like he just found out a groupie had given him gonorrhea. You know – rock ‘n roll, dude! I mean, what’s there for a Stones fan not to like about the single “She Was Hot,” a classic-style neo-Berryish Jagger/Richards rocker about sex on the road? Yeah, there’s a bit of a cheese factor with the 80s-sounding keyboards and all the overdubbed Micks lustily chanting “she was hot… hot… hot” like a cabal of Brazilian porn stars. But it sounds more like the Stones applying edgy modern influences to a tried and true formula than it does them making whorish calculations about the market. But, you know, that’s just me. And the fact that I can interpret this record like that is probably why I like it and everybody else hates it. Look, I hate 80s production techniques more than anyone – one of the main reasons being that every popular artist, no matter who, sounded exactly the fucking same. Same shitty-sounding Yamaha synths, same hideous, nerve-fraying reverb on the snare, same gross, fake sound on every commercial product, whether it was supposed to be “rock” or “pop” or “metal” or something else (except for U2, I suppose. They had their own distinct, unique way of sucking ass). But Undercover, though it features certain unmistakable elements of 80s production, sounds like no other commercial product of the 80s that I’ve ever heard. And that’s why I think it’s cool.

Look, I’m not going to argue that Mick and Keith were at a particular songwriting peak here. Basic rockers like “Too Tough” or “Pretty Beat Up” are hardly Exile-worthy as stand alone songs. And the straight arena rock of “It Must Be Hell” basically sounds like the riff from Exile’s “Soul Survivor” genetically infused into a rewrite of “Honky Tonk Women.” Which, for the record, sounds like a pretty darn good song to me – and I think it is. But the album, lyrically and musically, is, thematically, actually extremely cohesive in its constant aggression. Mick takes to writing about very angry, vulgar themes – most of his lyrics contain violence that occasionally verges on gore, as well as numerous explicit sexual references. I mean, shit, you can probably guess what a song called “Tie You Up (The Pain Of Love)” is about, and it ain’t roping cattle… musically, it’s another melding of old and new – grinding, mid-tempo rock with excellent Keith lead guitar cedes to a breakdown of just Charlie pounding away on the bass drum and Mick shouting, which is perhaps the only time in the history of music when the 80s logic of “hey, let’s put a bazillion pounds of reverb on the drums!” actually resulted in an interesting effect and had an actual purpose beyond making me want to shoot myself in the ear. Fortunately, there is one respite from Mick’s new, practically heavy metal persona: Keith’s early Beatles tribute “Wanna Hold You,” which is even dumber, catchier and more fun than “Little T&A.”

Really, if you’re looking for a complete and total departure from Stonesy rock ‘n roll, you’ll have to subsist on “Too Much Blood,” one of the most bizarre Stones songs of all time. Would you get enough of a picture if I just typed the phrases “disco beat,” “the horn section from the Sugar Hill Gang” and “Mick rapping about the Texas Chainsaw Massacre for six and a half minutes?” I hope so, because I have no idea what else to say about it… and though certainly those descriptors should in theory cause any sane person with any kind of decent musical taste to recoil in horror, you’ll have to trust me when I say that it’s a total hoot and quite entertaining. It’s got a good, fun chorus, and the music video is a classic, featuring hilariously campy mock horror movie scenes, complete with Keith and Ronnie running around with chainsaws (which should strike paralyzing fear into your very soul… let’s pray no one allows them that privilege ever again. At least not while they’re stoned). All the videos they made for this album are great, actually – the others being “She Was Hot,” which features Mick and Keith lip syncing as they bone hot chicks in hotel rooms (separate ones, of course… maybe they would’ve gotten their fuck on together a decade or two before when they were tight, but not in the mid 80s when they were feuding!), and the one for album’s hit, “Undercover Of The Night,” which was inspired (along with the song itself) by the political repression going on in Argentina and Chile at the time. When I took a class on Argentina’s Dirty War in last term, I tried to get my professor to let me write an essay based on the song, but she wouldn’t have it. Freaking academia. They never let me have any fun. It probably would’ve been a hell of a lot more insightful than any of the dumb, naïve political comments Mick has ever written into a song, in any case. As for the music, it’s one cool ass, darkly funky dance rocker, with strong guitar by Ronnie and a neat, heavily percussive feel thanks to Sly Dunbar helping out the rhythm section.

Look, I’m not gonna go off and start comparing Undercover to Let It Bleed, or even to Black And Blue. But, even though they put out some quality music after this, I think it’s the last time the Stones had something new to say and do, and the last time they showed any legitimate and interesting artistic progression (depressing, since I have like 15 more Stones reviews to do, but I’ll live). You can’t say that about quite a few of the records they put out between Exile and this one. You can’t say it about It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll. You can’t say it about Emotional Rescue. You definitely can’t say it about Tattoo You, since that wasn’t even new material. But Undercover is the Stones daring to do something new and different one more time. For that reason, it’s not the beginning of the end – it’s the end of the beginning.



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