Rolling Stones, ‘Black and Blue’ (05/17/76)

On stage the Rolling Stones may still be “the greatest rock and roll band in the world”—they certainly seemed like it when I saw them last fall—but on record the claim is becoming ludicrous, because they haven’t even tried to live up to it since Exile on Main Street, when they did.

Since then the Stones have re­leased an album every year or so, and Mick has given his obligatory interview about how he really wanted to get away from the usual stuff and do something startling and experimental (actually, he started talking this way around 1967, and then shut up for a while after Satanic Majesties was panned), but it just didn’t work out this time, though they did try some new things (“Listen to what Billy does on…”), and he got to play a little guitar, too. As for Black and Blue, Mick has said, “It’s just another album.”

Well, I agree. Black and Blue may be sort of black (“Hot Stuff,” “Melody,” “Cherry Oh Baby,” “Hey, Negrita”) and sort of blue (“Memory Motel,” “Fool to Cry”), but it’s really neither here nor there. Most of the cuts are easily defensible, and it is tempt­ing for a fan to contrive arguments as to why they’re affecting or fun or a good sign of things to come. But after listening to the record for a couple of weeks there isn’t a track here that doesn’t leave me thinking of something else to play before it’s halfway over with.

Take “Hand of Fate,” one of the better numbers. This is a song about a murderer on the run (“The hand of fate is on me now”—pretty good line, especially since Mick sings it not as if he’s scared, but as if he’s intrigued)—but unlike many similar role-assuming Stones’ songs (“Brown Sugar,” say, or “Luxury”), there is no thematic momentum. The tale doesn’t build; it doesn’t accumulate detail or give a listener anything to hang onto. The same is true musically. Again like “Brown Sugar” or Luxury,” “Hand of Fate” is basically a rhythm track, and an enticing, idiosyncratic rhythm track at that. But it isn’t sustained; it drops off behind and is subverted by a gutless, meandering guitar solo by Wayne Perkins—a solo that has been played countless times on countless albums. The tune starts out with promise and goes no­where. So do most of the others, though not all of them start out with promise.

One that does is “Memory Motel,” the classiest song on the album. It opens very slowly, dream-like, with piano from Mick, electric piano from Keith, and guitar from Harvey Mandel (very pretty, but I didn’t buy this album to hear Harvey Mandel), and then Mick chimes in, singing about a girl he met on tour, in the vaguely Hank Williamsish whine he’s favored over the last few years. This can be a striking vocal style, effective not only on lyrical numbers but on hard rock (Mick used it for “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll”), and its appearance these days seems to be Mick’s way of saying, “This isn’t just more black-faced bullshit, I really mean, it”—as if black-styled singing, which Mick presumably once found irresistible for the emotion it could convey, and which he hasn’t handled with much finesse lately, is no longer a means by which he can express his emotion.

Which is fine. The problem is that on “Memory Motel,” as on the rest of Black and Blue, Mick’s singing is so mannered his emotionalism is cut off in spite of itself; in most of the song he’s aiming for his notes the way a pitcher in trouble aims for the plate. When Keith sings the chorus—“Mighty fine, she’s one of a kind”—it’s disturbing; disturbing because it’s such a relief. But the chorus is too cloying (Keith’s soft, “thoughtful” “yeah” is really intolerable) to stand up to the repetition it’s given; by the time Keith comes around for the third version of his one-of-a-kind routine, it’s Mick who sounds like a relief. “Memory Motel” reminds me of such Stones’ classics as “No Expectations” and “You Got the Silver,” but only in that it makes me realize how much better they are.

As for the other cuts—it’s nice Mick is singing about his daughter, Charlie’s drum sound is superb, “Crazy Mama” is appealingly chaotic, “Cherry Oh Baby” is a good job on a reggae song Eric Donaldson did somewhat more effectively, etc., etc., and I don’t really care if I ever hear any of them again. I don’t think “Hot Stuff” or “Melody” are anything but curios. I just keep thinking of how the last thing I expected after Sticky Fingers was anything on the order of Exile on Main Street. Which is why, I suppose, precisely because there is no evi­dence for it that I can hear, I kind of expect the Stones to come up with its equivalent the next time around.


Village Voice, May 15, 1976


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