Stones: Undercover of the Night

by Adam Jones
(Shanghai, 1984)

[Previously unpublished.]

Undercover is the second album churned out by the corporate apparatus known as the Rolling Stones. Like its predecessor, 1980's Emotional Rescue, its spirit - or lack of it - suggests the Stones have given up exploring the dark themes of distance and alienation which fuelled their greatest music. The new release doesn't mould those themes, and it doesn't ignore them. Instead it embodies them.

Undercover may be the ultimate New Wave album. When Mick Jagger sings, "Feed my body, feed my soul," his voice on the last word reverberates into the engineered studio void. It's the last we hear of soul. For the rest, this record is about feeding the body, with as little pretence and as much sweat as possible. The Stones have sung about fucking before, and recently they've sung about little else. But they haven't ever gone for the jugular, or the libido, with such depressingly impersonal ferocity.

Maybe I was optimistic to hope for something more along the lines of Tattoo You, the last Stones album. There, they ploughed familiar fields, but with an engaging maturity and warmth which combined with some consummate rock and roll to make a record which still stands as my favorite of recent years. Tattoo You banished Emotional Rescue's unpleasant metallic aftertaste with the first chords of "Start Me Up." It was a wonderful seduction: six crunching rockers on side one, delivering all the energy and fine-tuned fury you could hope for - and then a languorous breather on the flip side, music that shimmered and steamed like the afterglow of lovemaking.

Tattoo You closed with the wistful jewel "Waiting on a Friend," a fitting coda to the record's theme of reconciliation, of love that delivered passion enough to rock your socks off but left plenty of time for reflection. Had Jagger, one wondered, finally decided to etch in vinyl what he must have known for years: that the partner he chooses to while away the night with is more than a willing receptacle to be used once and discarded?

No sir, if Undercover is any indication. The Stones have cut out the shit this time round. Got back to basics. But in so doing, they've forgotten what's important. They've told warmth to take a leap and gone flat-out for primal heat. If you don't think there's a difference, you haven't heard the album yet. This is vicious, violent music, biting and ugly, full of arrogant posturings and the stale, mechanical embrace of Vogue-model sex.

Jagger wants dependable essentials (he apparently perpetrated most of the record's lyrics, though a gleeful paean to blowjobs like "All the Way Down" bears Keith Richards' trademark leer). For him, it's not the spasm of the act that counts (is that no longer dependable?) so much as the unbearable adolescent horniness that precedes it. Love becomes a very cynical word in such a vocabulary, and Jagger knows it. On one song, the lyric sheet (a mistake, that) reads: "She showed me love a hundred ways." Jagger sings it as "showed me sex," just so you know where his priorities lie. And what are we to make of lines like: "You dream of it passionate / you even get a rise from it / feel the hot cum / dripping on your thigh from it"? Why so divine, the pain of love, Jagger moans. AM radio might squirm, but the listener doesn't, unless it's with embarrassment. The "arousal" in the words and the voice is only a sixteen-year-old's tense enervation. Coming from a 40-year-old man, it sounds nostalgic at best. And silly.

There's nothing here that lives, that hints at a little vulnerability, that invites the listener into the jam session or the living room. That was the tightrope these middle-aged rockers walked, brilliantly, on Tattoo You. It looks like the rope gave way with a snap. Now we get titles like "She Was Hot," "Pretty Beat Up," "Too Tough," and sentiments to match. The whole damn album is "too tough." We're told of women who "Screwed me down with kindness / Suffocating love" - how unjust of them! But at least, Jagger assures us, a few of those "sluts" (the term is there) were positive tigresses in the sack. He leaves it at that.

The Stones are not stupid, but even when they try to break out of the limitations of this approach, they falter. One three songs here sex takes a back seat - it doesn't get out of the car, mind you - and Jagger tackles ... politics? No, it's just the same weird, calculated violence, on a global scale rather than a personal one. Jagger hardly has the moral credibility of a Bob Dylan or even a Roger Waters to make his onlooker's gasp-shock-horror ring true, if indeed he wants it to. The title track, which takes a stab at everything from the desaparecidos of South America to "sex police" in the street, is an unfocused, musically cluttered mess. The rap "Too Much Blood" is downright facetious, though mildly entertaining. The closing blast, "It Must Be Hell," is Undercover's most convincing song only because Jagger drops the mask and sneers: "Must be hell / living in the world, sufferin' in the world like you." Okay, Mick, point taken. Any tips? Sure: "Always take your passion where you find it." Thanks.

Still, in the past, the Stones' music has transcended some pretty dubious posturing ("Stray Cat Blues," say, or "Brown Sugar"). Undercover is by no means a real disaster. There's only one song that's truly unlistenable ("Wanna Hold You," with Keith Richards almost on lead vocals). The grace that saves is the beat. The five Stones, with some able support from sidemen like saxophonist David Sanborn and Black Uhuru percussionist Sly Dunbar, can still cook up an irresistible rock and roll stew despite themselves. "Pretty Beat Up" is a hypnotic demonstration of what a band like the Stones can do with a repetitive riff and a couple of jangling guitars. "Tie Me Up (The Pain of Love)" and "Too Tough" both have that appealing 24-track-garage-band sound, raucous and refined at the same time.

As always, it's Keith's guitar that moves things along, fiery and way up in the precise mix. He tears off pungent solos and lays down chords like brick walls for Ron Wood's mad lead runs to bounce off. If Keith hasn't got many fresh ideas, he's still a rocker's rocker, and the Chuck Berry vein he's been mining for 20 years still tosses out a nugget every now and then. His signal riff on "It Must Be Hell" may be a straight lift from the refrain of "Soul Survivor," an obscure Stones classic more than a decade old, but what the hey - see if you can resist moving to it. And Jagger's voice remains a formidable rock instrument: even the growly Muddy Waters-style vocal trappings are becoming a little more persuasive as Mick follows the great masters into the golden years of the blues.

The problem, I think, is that (as Robert Christgau once noted) the Stones' great music always delivered what the lyrics denied. The original version of "Under My Thumb," for example, might be as cold and callous as anything on Undercover, but the shuffling rhythm and brooding, stately guitar lines lend it the elegance that the lyrics trample on. And a generation of '60s youth found immense satisfaction in shouting out, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." This extraordinarily fertile, yin-yang tension has appeared only sporadically in the Stones' output since 1972's magnificent Exile on Main St. On Undercover it's entirely absent. What tension there is here comes from the kind of eerie, manipulative studio tinkering best left to Talking Heads: drum synths, reverb, whooshing chords faded in and out. The group doesn't even have the good sense to throw in a slow number to provide breathing space between assaults - a "Beast of Burden," a "Wild Horses," a "No Expectations." Undercover is suffocating without one, a hurricane without an eye.

What's really frustrating is that on Tattoo You, the Stones found an effective escape from the dilemma of middle age and changing times: mellow out the posturing, play it hard and honest and with real conviction. If the end-product gave us no new "Gimmie Shelter" or "Moonlight Mile," it was still rich, vital rock and roll. Why have the Stones abandoned that? They may have just landed the biggest contract in music history - $25 million for five albums - but with four records left to go, they seem to have painted themselves into a creative corner.

I'd like to spend this winter in Canada, just to see if Undercover's "molten glow" makes better sense in the frigid beauty of the season, as Tattoo You's mood of regeneration brightened the spring of 1981. But I have my doubts. Toss side two of Tattoo You onto the deck instead. Curl up by the fireplace with a dash of scotch, neat, and a warm friend; let "Tops" and "Heaven" carry you away. For all its blood, sweat and semen, Undercover leaves you cold. It rocks just hard enough to make it into the dance clubs, where it will maybe get the adrenaline pumping fast enough to forge a few one-night stands as disjointed and ultimately soulless as the music. Hello, 1984.

Recordings by the Rolling Stones from

Created by Adam Jones, 1998. No copyright claimed if source is acknowledged and notified.
Last updated: 12 October 2000.