Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Some Girls - The Stones' Last Masterpiece

The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, released in the summer of 1978, probably benefits more from perspective than any other great album of the rock era. The album was a hit when it was released, and received good reviews. But even the good reviews were tinged with a bit of melancholy, a recognition that, even though Some Girls was a damn good album, it just wasn’t quite up to past glories.

In his monthly consumer guide, Robert Christgau gave it an “A,” but took some shots at the band, even while giving them a great review:

…Jagger takes a relatively direct approach, and if he retains any credibility for you after six years of dicking around, there should be no agonizing over whether you like this record, no waiting for tunes to kick in…”

Writing in Rolling Stone, Paul Nelson also praised the album, but was careful to draw a line between it and the Stones’ great works of the past, particularly Exile on Main Street:

Thus far, the critical line claims that Some Girls is the band's finest LP since its certified masterpiece, Exile on Main Street, and I'll buy that gladly. What I won't buy is that the two albums deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. (Listen to "Tumbling Dice" or, better yet, "Let It Loose" from the earlier record, and then to the exemplary "Beast of Burden" or "When the Whip Comes Down" from this year's model, and tell me that the passion, power and near-awesome completeness of the 1972 performances are in any way matched by the new ones.) Instead, Some Girls is like a marriage of convenience: when it works–which is often–it can be meaningful, memorable and quite moving, but it rarely sends the arrow straight through the heart. "It took me a long time to discover that the key to acting is honesty," an actor told the anthropologist Edmund Carpenter. "Once you know how to fake that, you've got it made."

There's no doubt that Nelson’s estimation of the album is absolutely brilliant, not to mention prescient. What Nelson heard on Some Girls were the first hints (maybe not the first, but certainly the most effective) that the Stones were in transition. The worst of Keith’s drug days were behind him, and the boys were getting too old to keep on playing rebels. In short, the Stones were on their way to becoming a bona fide corporate entity, one fully capable of playing expert, entertaining rock and roll on demand (most of the time). But even though there have been some good-to-great Stones albums since 1978, and many great (and certainly more consistent) shows, what is gone now is the sense that the Stones matter. Like Elvis in Vegas, they’re just there, and that’s about all she wrote. That Nelson could sense this happening, even on an album as good as Some Girls, is just another testament to his greatness as a critic.

But I come here to praise the Stones, not to bury them. Because while there is little doubt that both Christgau and Nelson were right, with the benefit of thirty years, one has to wonder whether they were being entirely fair. It’s only natural to compare an artist’s work with that which preceded the current product, but consider for a moment what that meant when the subject at hand was The Rolling Stones. As Dave Marsh wrote in the 1979 edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, “…the Rolling Stones in their initial incarnation were the greatest white blues and R&B band that ever was. This is not legend; it is fact.” Yet, after that auspicious beginning, the best was yet to come. From 1968 through 1972, the Stones released three albums that are rightly considered among the greatest of the rock era: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, and Exile on Main Street (which, to this day, remains my all-time favorite album). They also released one that wasn’t far behind that incredible trio, Sticky Fingers.

In 1978, the fact that Some Girls didn’t quite match up to those classics (although I would argue that it does) seemed like a big deal. In 2008, when we now know that the Stones have outlasted all contenders, that they would never again release an album with the kick of Some Girls, the distinction doesn’t seem to matter as much.

Put simply, Some Girls deserves to be called a masterpiece. In interviews of that era, Jagger liked to make fun of Johnny Rotten and the punks, but it is clear that he took their derision as a challenge. One can almost imagine what must have been going through his and Keith's minds as the band came together in the fall of 1977 to record the new album. “F*ck this sh*t,” one can imagine Jagger saying to the band. The punks aren’t covering any ground that we didn’t do better back in 1965, and we can play better than they can.” Whether that really happened or not is anyone’s guess, but it only took one listen to figure out that Some Girls was a much different album than its immediate predecessors, It’s Only Rock and Roll and Black and Blue. The band playing on Some Girls was a hard-edged, guitar driven rock band - angry, loud, and funny all at the same time.

In 1978, songs like “Respectable,” “When the Whip Comes Down,” and “Lies” may have seemed like pale shadows of the great songs that preceded them, but over the years they have grown in stature, and now sound just great on a mix tape along with “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Brown Sugar,” and “Honky Tonk Women.” “Miss You,” the album opener, was less the Stones’ nod to disco than it was proof positive that they could still sound modern – not unlike “Radio Nowhere” on Bruce Springsteen’s Magic. “Just My Imagination” is the greatest Motown cover version of all-time, and “Shattered” is just a great, great song – both tribute to and criticism of New York City, at the same time. Keith Richards’ “Before They Make Me Run” is his best Stones song, and “Beast of Burden” is the Stones at their soul man best. The only song that sounds out of place is the Buck Owens tribute, “Far Away Eyes.” It’s not a bad song, but neither did it belong on this album.

And then, of course there is the infamous “Some Girls,” which managed to offend feminists, Jesse Jackson, and roughly half of the western world. And as Mick Jagger so aptly put it at the time, “f*ck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.” Because as Nelson wrote at the time, “…this song may be a sexist and racist horror, but it’s also terrifically funny and strangely desperate in a manner that gets under your skin and makes you care. On "Some Girls," Mick Jagger sounds like he's not only singing like Bob Dylan, but about Bob Dylan: "I'll give ya a house back in Zuma Beach/And give you half of what I owe."

And there you have it. A great album, and one that defined its era just as well as This Year’s Model or Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.

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