Graded on a Curve:
The Rolling Stones,
Sucking in the Seventies

The Rolling Stones’ Sucking in the Seventies: not only is it the most nakedly honest album title ever, it also proves that truth in advertising actually exists!

But before we give the Rolling Stones any consumer honesty awards, it should be borne in mind that Sucking in the Seventies is a colossal act of hubris. Not on did the Stones happily release a piece of swill, they actually announced right in the title that it was a piece of swill, that’s how confident they were that the great undiscerning herd would go out and plunk down their hard-earned shekels for it anyway.

And by God, the Stones were right. Sucking in the Seventies reached #15 on the U.S. album charts, which should discourage all those do-gooders who believe that a clear warning will deter people from buying products that are deleterious to their health. Just as I continue to smoke despite all those obviously bogus warnings on the cigarette packs saying that smoking causes cancer, gads of Stones’ fans went out and bought a product that blatantly declared that it sucked.

The Stones didn’t completely suck in the seventies; in fact the decade marked their high-water mark, what with those back-to-back gems Sticky Fingers (1971) and Exile of Main Street (1972), the latter of which may well be the greatest rock album ever made. But after that it all went to shit, with 1973’s disappointing Goat’s Head Soup, 1974’s lackluster It’s Only Rock’n’Roll, 1976’s execrable Black and Blue, and 1978’s respectable but seriously overrated Some Girls—their supposed return to greatness that wasn’t, except to those people so desperate to believe the Rolling Stones were still the World’s Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band they happily swallowed the inedible “Miss You” and didn’t even belch.

Thirty-four years have passed since the release of Sucking in the Seventies, and by now everybody knows the Rolling Stones are zombies—the only real question is when they died and reanimated. I’ve heard people claim they were still alive when they recorded 1983’s Undercover, but that’s absurdly late, and there are videos on YouTube showing Mick Jagger gnawing on the leg of one of The Bellamy Brothers to prove it.

Others claim they were still breathing when they released the trio of 1978’s Some Girls, 1980’s Emotional Rescue, and 1981’s Tattoo You. But all three albums are vastly overrated, although I can clearly recall hearing Some Girls for the first time and thinking “Maybe the ghouls have got some life in them yet,” that is until I heard it for like the 35th time (everybody was playing it at my old alma mater) and realized the only songs I really liked on it were the country shuck “Far Away Eyes,” “Lies,” and Keith Richards’ defiant “Before They Make Me Run.” Me, I contend that their date of death can be definitively established at the moment they finished Exile on Main Street. They killed on it, and in turn it killed them.

As for Sucking in the Seventies, it’s no help at all. Unlike 1975’s Made in the Shade, Sucking in the Seventies is not a greatest hits package per se (tellingly, there are no “best of” compilations specifically documenting the 1975-1979 time period), but rather a bizarre hodgepodge of bona fide hits, one B-side, an unreleased tune from the 1978-79 sessions that produced Emotional Rescue, and two live cuts, one of them from 1977’s Love You Live and the other an unreleased track from a 1978 Detroit show. Oh, and all but two of them have been “edited”—or to put it more accurately, axe-murdered—for reasons that I can’t even begin to guess at. In short, it’s a hopeless mishmash of an LP, put together without rhyme or reason much less a coherent theme, which leads me to suspect the entire project was either a tax dodge or a perverse fuck you from the Stones to their own fans, along the lines of Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait or Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.

Sucking in the Seventies opens with “Shattered,” which I have never liked. The Stones’ response to punk, “Shattered” sounds anorexically thin to my ears, despite Keith Richards’ and Ronnie Wood’s raw guitars. The song simply doesn’t have a bottom, which is shocking given that Charlie Watts’ drumming is generally as thick as a brick. As for Jagger, he’s but a shadow of his Exile on Main Street self. Gone are the great slurred vocals, the stretched and elided words, and the raw black intonation, replaced by a fey talk-singing that is totally lacking in what made him such a great singer in the first place—namely sex. His “Don’t you know the crime rate’s going up, up, up!” might just as soon be the cry of a haggard fishwife, and while he sings about “sex and sex and sex and sex” there’s no libido in his voice, just the desperate sound of a man who’s lost something extremely important and doesn’t know where he left it.

“Everything Is Turning to Gold,” the B-side from “Shattered,” is a funky, shambolic number and sounds like a first take or extended vamp, from its ragged, peg-legged pacing to Mel Collins’ sorry-ass sax blurt, which really stinks up the joint. The melody is nothing to write home about, the lyrics never go very far beyond the title, and even Charlie Watts sounds like he’s just warming up. Meanwhile Jagger sings in a lower register, and while I prefer this to his shrill and neutered delivery on “Shattered,” he’s still 2000 light years from his vocals on Exile. In short, “Everything Is Turning to Gold” is, funk riffs and backing vocals and all, an undercooked slice of wankage that merits, at best, inclusion on a rarities album of the sort beloved only by completists who would buy an album of Keith Richards farting if they could only find one.

I have always despised “Hot Stuff” from 1976’s Black and Blue, the album which led Lester Bangs to write in Creem that “the heat’s off, because it’s all over, they really don’t matter anymore or stand for anything.” From its dumb title to its disco-reggae-funk beat—which just goes to show that Mick Jagger was every bit as shameless a trend-follower as Rod “Hot Legs” Stewart—“Hot Stuff” is so much cold mutton. Sure, pre-Ron Wood fill-in Harvey Mandel’s guitar work is funky, as are his pair of solos, and the song is blessedly muddy, like it was recorded in a cranberry bog. But when all is said and done “Hot Stuff” is the perfect example of a band that once set the trends reduced to following them instead. Rock crit Robert Christgau said of “Hot Stuff” that it’s “pure Ohio-Players-go-to-Kingston and very fine shit.” Obviously not as fine as the shit he was smoking when he wrote that. Let’s just say we agree on the “shit” part, and let it go at that.

“Time Waits For No One” from It’s Only Rock’n’Roll is a great song, or was until somebody—who deserves a good kicking, if not defenestration—decided to lop a full two minutes off the tune before putting it on Sucking in the Seventies, fatally marring Mick Taylor’s amazing guitar work in the process. Indeed, the song is largely a vehicle for Taylor—a truly great guitarist, whose departure from the Rolling Stones would have incalculable consequences—which makes the edit doubly inexplicable, not to mention downright obscene. In addition to ruining Taylor’s exquisite guitar work, the mad hatchet man also manages to destroy the song’s slow and lovely build-up, which is what makes the song so great in the first place. If the wanton truncation of “Time Waits For No One” isn’t a blatant case of man’s inhumanity to man, like the final episode of Laverne and Shirley where Lenny beats Squiggy to death with Marcel Proust’s monumental novel À la recherche du temps perdu, I don’t know what is.

As for the slow and sentimental “Fool to Cry,” I’ve always found it unpalatably mawkish, and I only wish that the person who cut a minute off the song for Sucking in the Seventies had pressed ahead and cut the remaining four minutes along with it. Mick talks and talks and talks, says he’s a “certified fool,” and for once he isn’t spouting complete bullshit. Nicky Hopkins plays some nice piano and ARP String Ensemble, and lead guitarist Wayne Perkins tosses in some understated but nice licks, but things don’t really get interesting until the very end, when Perkins, Richards (on wah-wah guitar), and Hopkins throw in together and make pretty.

The moron who cut two minutes off “Time Waits For No One” did the same with the Stones’ cover of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” off 1977’s Love You Live. The difference is I don’t give a flying fuck, as “Mannish Boy” is so-so at best, clomping along as it does like a one-legged man on a cobblestone street. Besides, I’ve never been a big fan of the blues; only reason I’d ever be caught dead listening to them is for the guitar solos which all sound the same anyway, and seeing as how there are no guitar solos on this one it’s about as useless to me as a porkpie hat on an emu. Jagger sings the blues like a man with 60 million dollars in the bank, laughs because he knows it, and that’s him on harmonica but in the studio, where it was overdubbed later. Meanwhile somebody who sounds a whole like Muddy Waters keeps echoing Jagger but I don’t see him on the credits, so who knows who he is.

The live “When the Whip Comes Down” is one of the LP’s stronger songs, although that’s not saying much. The rhythm section keeps the song moving at well above the speed limit, while Richards’ and Wood’s guitars snarl and snap like Dobermans straining at the ends of their leashes. Wood in particular is spectacular, playing a long slide guitar solo that almost—almost, I say—makes me forget all about Mick Taylor. It’s a roughshod thing, Wood’s solo, and totally lacking in table manners as it chews the sinew off bone like a rabid dog. In short, the band plays like it has a real pulse and live nerve endings, and sounds like it’s actually out to prove something rather than just going through the motions. Jagger does less singing than talking, and the voice that once channeled pure sex is gone forever, but when he barks out “When the whip comes down!” he sounds like he means it.

“If I Was a Dancer (Dance Pt. 2),” an unreleased track from the Emotional Rescue sessions, has a two-ton disco-funk beat and isn’t a half bad dance song. At the first chorus a horn section comes in and adds some much needed flavoring, as do Wood’s funky guitar and Watt’s brushwork. It’s both muddier and heavier than “Dance (Pt. 1),” Emotional Rescue’s lead track, and Jagger’s vocals are both murkier and less affected, but that’s a good thing. I especially like the way he sings, “It’s time to get up, get out/Get out into something new/Time to get up, get out/Out into something new.” I don’t hear Max Romeo, who provides back-up vocals on the LP version, but it’s possible he was there but sank into the murky mix like a dinosaur into a tar pit. And in the end I find this a much more palatable dance tune than “Hot Stuff” because it sounds like a dance tune off Exile on Main Street, and not Emotional Rescue.

The “edited” version of Black and Blue’s “Crazy Mama” sounds less like a Stones’ tune than a Faces’ song, which just goes to show you that Jagger-Richards were every bit as good at stealing from Ron Wood as they were from Mick Taylor. The odd thing about this most excellent stomper is that although it reeks of The Faces, Richards plays lead guitar, while Woody is relegated to a supporting role. It opens just like a Faces’ song, with some “you’re so rude” guitar riffs, then Jagger comes in sounding as good as he does anywhere on Sucking in the Seventies, jumping registers and throwing in lots of cool “woos” and “yeahs” while Richards and Woods keep things churning with their slightly country-flavored riffs (and great backing vocals to boot) and Billy Preston adds some great piano. The song could move a trifle bit faster, if you ask me, but that’s a minor caveat: when all is said and done “Crazy Mama” is the only song off this motley crew of an LP I ever intend to listen to again.

I’ve never cared for LP closer “Beast of Burden,” so it’s no skin off my ass that Sucking in the Seventies’ mad hacker lopped a minute off the tune for no good reason, presumably, other than that he could. I don’t like the melody, I despise that falsetto “Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, girl/You’re a pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty girl,” and speaking of falsetto, Mick’s decision to use it to sing, “Ain’t I rough enough? Ooh baby/Ain’t I tough enough?” is both risible and goes a long way towards explaining his lady friend’s reluctance to make love with him. Oh, you’re a butch one, alright, Mick, bet you could have even beat up Andy Warhol. Honestly, the only thing I ever liked about the song was the part where I thought Jagger sang, “Give me a witness/I can suck a duck.” Imagine my disappointment to discover that what he’s actually singing is “All your sickness/I can suck it up,” which isn’t 1/50th as good and makes him sound like a fetishist who enjoys gobbling vomit.

In the end, one is left asking, How did this unwieldy, axe-murdered, and incoherent abomination of an album come to be? Alas, your guess is as good as mine. The Stones have released their fair share of pukeworthy product over the years, but Sucking in the Seventies is by far the worst. That said, if nothing else it helps prove that the Stones were indeed lacking a pulse by the mid- to late Seventies, although they weren’t so dead to turning a shameless profit that they couldn’t figure out a way to turn vomit into vinyl.

I was dead set on giving Sucking in the Seventies an F, but decided to raise it half a grade because whatever else can be said about it, at least Sucking doesn’t include the disco-odious “Miss You,” the Stones’ biggest hit of the period. Then I remembered the album’s mad hacker, and docked them a half-grade back to F status. But I finally decided to give them a D- because I really do love “Crazy Mama.” And because Sucking in the Seventies really is the most honest album title in history, and one can only wish the Rolling Stones had made it a regular thing, in which case we’d all be proud owners of Get Your Credit Cards Out and Contempt for You Dead. Let the buyer beware.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D-

Originaly published on 12/2/13.

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