They still have their flair for outrage. It’s possible other rock and roll bands might crow about dropping (popping?) heroin with the president, but only a group as respectable as the Rolling Stones have something to lose by doing so: an invitation to play for Amy’s Sweet Sixteen party, maybe. And they still have their sense of humor. On the Frederick’s of Hollywood jacket of Some Girls, “some girls” are movie has-beens and carrion, and also the Stones themselves—as pre-war Photoplay beauties (“Bill lacks only one attribute to be the perfect wife…”) united by their utter disinterest in the opposite sex (“…she just doesn’t like men”). Amazing: the Rolling Stones have gone beyond the 12-year-old drag of “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby” and turned into lesbians! Or is this just a convoluted way of announcing that yes, they do like women? Or an even more convoluted way of suggesting that the sex to which Charlie, Keith, Ron, Bill, and Mick are truly opposite is one they could just as well do without? Only a fan would care to puzzle it out, but then only a fan would care that the quotation marks around the third song on the second side begin on the front cover of Some Girls and end on the back.
Billy Preston does not appear on this record.
In the songs of Some Girls, “some girls” are French girls (want perfume), Italian girls (want cars), American girls (want everything in the world you could possibly im-a-gine), English girls (prissy), white girls (pretty funny–what?), black girls (just want to get fucked all night, and Mick sounds irritated because he can’t keep up), Chinese girls (inscrutable)… imaginary girls, girl-boys, the easiest lay on the White House lawn, girls from Bakersfield with far away eyes, and a girl, or a woman, who doesn’t have to be a beast of burden. When Jagger runs down most of the list in the title song—a sweaty performance driven home by the harp of a young black Brooklynite, Sugar Blue; a sensual, sleazy tour-de-force unlike anything the Stones have ever done—it’s the clichés that make the number so funny, even if the bite of the music begs for lyrics that would mix up the clichés just as the cover of Some Girls mixes up the Stones.
There is no dead time on the album. “Lies” would have leapt off Goat’s Head Soup (name three songs from it, quickly), It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll, or Black and Blue; here it sounds second-rate next to “Shattered,” “Miss You,” “Beast of Burden” (a lovely tribute to Joe Tex), or “Before They Make Me Run (Walk Don’t Run ’78),” which features a guest vocal by the famed Appalachian ballad singer, Clarence Ashley (1895-1967), who is uncanny in his ability to sound so much like Keith Richard without for a moment compromising his own style.
The most obvious triumph of Some Girls is “When the Whip Comes Down,” a slashing piece of hard rock with a plot that has been all but interred. Presumably, now that the words of “Tumbling Dice” have surfaced in Linda Ronstadt’s Jagger-taught version, Mick felt the need to surpass its murk: There are lines in “When the Whip Comes Down” that no one will ever figure out. “What’s it about?” a friend asked me, and since I didn’t know, I looked for a joke: “‘Whip,’ right? It’s about s&m.” Well, it is, or close to it. The guitars send a man down the streets of New York like dust in the Wall Street canyons, and though that’s where he wanted to be, he can’t handle it. “Yeah, my mama and papa told me I was/Crazy to stay/See, a gay in New York is just a fag in L.A…” But he’s sweeping Manhattan streets and men call him Barbie; deep in the slime of the mix we’re told the shit has hit the fan, which for all I know could refer to fist-fucking. None of this is of the least importance: You can hear the song as nothing more than the toughest four minutes the Stones have come up with since “Stop Breaking Down.”
Some Girls hits its moment of truth, and gives up its secrets, with a cover of the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination,” a number-one hit in 1971. As sung by the Temptations, the song was beautiful but also terribly ornamented and urbane: You could see the Tempts grinning madly at the audience as they painted their picture of heartbreak. The Stones’ performance hurts. It’s a jagged, messy, desperate arrangement; the band has never put out such emotional guitar-playing, and I don’t think Mick Jagger has ever sung with more confidence. There is a rave-up after the first couple of verses that perfectly captures, and deepens, the sense of impossible longing and desire in Barrett Strong’s and Norman Whitfield’s lyrics—and then the band fades away with a delicacy that allows Mick to pull off lines I would have thought beyond him, or beyond any late ’70s rock and roll singer this side of Al Green: “Every night, I hope and pray/Dear Lord, hear my plea.” This is as classic as rock and roll can be—this is the Chantels, the Orioles—and Mick, begging for the girl of his dreams, doesn’t simply get away with the moment. His voice rough and tired, he disappears into it.
We’ve gone all the way back to “The Singer Not the Song,” a tune from December’s Children, the true precursor of Some Girls—if it isn’t 12 X 5, which wouldn’t be surprising, since a good bit of the former album was made up of leftovers from the latter. This is thirteen, fourteen years ago: Some Girls has a modern gloss, the wit is moneyed, but the spirit is pure Nanker Phelge. You don’t hear the fifteenth or the sixty-first take on Some Girls, as you did on Black and Blue; the music sounds off-the-wall, unforced, unworried. The startling instrumental break in “Shattered” calls up “She Said Yeah” and the muscle of “It’s All Over Now”; “When the Whip Comes Down” kicks like the first moments of “Empty Heart.” The drumming is a good, part of the link. Charlie Watts misses often on Some Girls: drops changes, fumbles the beat. And yet he’s never meant so much on an album. His drums are always up front, clear when the rest of the band is purposefully distorted or blurred. Despite the clatter, there is space in the sound, and the drums define it—they allow the band to step out, allow the Rolling Stones to sound as if they’re no longer dubious about what they do, or what they can do.
If you listen closely to the Stones’ last four albums, you can hear some of what is happening on Some Girls taking shape: Amid all the nervousness and mannerism, tunes like “Hide Your Love,” the live “Around and Around,” “Hand of Fate,” and “Crazy Mama” break the mold. They’re virtual throwaways, natural B sides, but they have a certain spunk that standout cuts like “Time Waits for No One” and “Memory Motel” deny: they’re loose, ragged, human, and at least on “Crazy Mama,” Mick Jagger’s eyes-on-heaven guitar playing has a lot to do with that. His guitar is all over Some Girls—on every cut on the first side—and the Rolling Stones can’t play like studio musicians, like careful professionals, when they have to make room for him. “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” another Stones/Temptations cover—from It’s Only Rock ‘a Roll—was technically impeccable, but dead. I credited the band with framing Jagger on “Just My Imagination,” but it may be that he helped break the number open with more than his voice.
When one returns to 12 X 5 or December’s Children or The Rolling Stones Now, the flaws are obvious. Guitars are out of tune, Mick is flat, lyrics are often corny, tempos are blown. By any sensible standard, “The Singer Not the Song” is a ludicrous performance: a clichéd and clumsy guitar line, hopelessly strained singing on the choruses. And yet it can still move a listener as deeply—maybe more deeply—than it ever did. That, after all, is why you can’t turn rock and roll into sheet music. It may be that some years from now, when the novelty has worn off, the Stones’ “Just My Imagination” will seem as shoddy as some people already think it is; it may be that it will still be breaking hearts.
As for the concept of Some Girls—what it all means, how it makes culture out of music or history out of those who hear it—the concept of Some Girls is the idea of the Rolling Stones, fifteen years after they first came to our attention with hot new versions of songs by Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, making an album as surprising as any they have put their name on.
Village Voice, June 26, 1978