Graded on a Curve:
The Rolling Stones,
Black and Blue

Here’s a quiz question for you: about what Rolling Stones album did the late, great music critic Lester Bangs opine, “The heat’s off, because it’s all over, they really don’t matter anymore or stand for anything”? I would have guessed 1974’s self-dismissively titled It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll but I’m wrong; the LP Bangs called “the first meaningless Rolling Stones album” is 1976’s Black and Blue, and if I disagree on the exact date of their demise, I certainly agree with his low opinion of Black and Blue.

Because Black and Blue was the first Rolling Stones album I ever truly regretted owning, and a stake in the heart of a once great band, the one that gave us 1971’s Sticky Fingers and 1972’s Exile on Main Street. Those albums gave us grimy rock’n’roll full of songs mired in grit, bad vibes, and ecstatic melodies; Black and Blue abandoned the Stones’ raunchy abuse of the blues for what sounded to me, back then, suspiciously like disco. “Hot Stuff” destroyed my faith in the Rolling Stones, and “Fool to Cry” jumped up and down on their corpse; the band that gave us songs like “Bitch” and “Sway” and “Rocks Off” and “Sweet Virginia” was kaput, just another down-in-the-mouth tenant in their own “Memory Motel.”

How much the departure of the great Mick Taylor had on Black and Blue is debatable; on the LP the Stones were basically auditioning replacements, and Ronnie Wood ended up winning. But as much as I love Ron Wood he’s no Mick Taylor, nor are Harvey Mandel and Wayne Perkins, two of the other potential Taylor replacements who appear on Black and Blue. Meanwhile Billy Preston and Nicky Hopkins added their excellent keyboard skills to the LP, and it’s their contributions that provide many of the album’s highlights, such as the lovely “Memory Motel.”

To start on a positive note, Mandel and Perkins provide the guitars for “Memory Motel,” a wonderful duet between Jagger and Richards that also highlights Preston’s string synthesizer. Anybody who’s ever lost somebody will love this song and its more bitter than sweet evocation of a girl who used to mean so much but has become just a memory. On “Hand of Fate,” another pretty darn good tune, Perkins handles lead electric guitar with aplomb, playing two excellent solos. But Jagger sounds enervated—hoarse rather than divinely inspired, as he does on Exile on Main Street. As for the reggae-inflected “Cherry Oh Baby” it’s a cover of a tune by reggae singer-songwriter Eric Donaldson and a throwaway, in a way that such Exile tunes as “Turd on the Run” and “Casino Boogie” never were. It’s too derivative. And while you can say their whole career was derivative, their twists on the blues always offered something new, mainly menace. While “Cherry Oh Baby” is a happy little tune, only partially redeemed by Wood’s guitar and Hopkins’ organ work.

The cool and funky “Hey Negrita” redeems “Cherry Oh Baby,” starting with Wood’s dirty electric guitar. This is the Ron Wood of “Stay with Me” and he’s a welcome presence. And for once Jagger sounds totally into what he’s singing. Billy Preston is another highlight; his piano playing is some wild magic, and between him and Wood the band sounds nastier and more exploratory than they have in years. Best song on the album, by far. “Melody,” on the other hand, may be the most stultifyingly dull Stones tune ever recorded. At least “Hot Stuff” was mesmerizing in its way; “Melody” is thin gruel, and not even Preston’s piano and organ can save it. It crawls along, one dull take on the blues enlivened only by Jagger’s brief moments of inspiration, on which he seems to come out of a coma. I can almost (emphasis on “almost”) handle it due to Preston’s piano, and the horn section that comes out of nowhere at the end, but it’s a dead end for the Glimmer Twins, and in general makes me want to cry. “Crazy Mama” sounds like the future Stones, a precursor of things to come. Richards plays an appropriately sleazy lead guitar, and the riff he plays will stick with you; meanwhile Jagger almost sounds like the Satan-imitating swaggerer of yore, and is joined by a handful of other vocalists. Meanwhile you can hear an echo of The Faces in Wood’s guitar, and that’s always a very good thing.

Which leaves us with “Hot Stuff” and “Fool to Cry,” the two songs that led me to write off the Stones in the same way Bangs wrote them off. “Hot Stuff” was the Stones’ very own “Hot Legs,” the song on which Rod Stewart took his credibility and flushed it down his gold-plated crapper. The Stones do the same. Mandel plays the lead guitar on the former song, while Richards contributes electric wah-wah guitar, and Mandel is impressive. As is Preston on piano. And to the tune’s credit, it’s busy; there’s a lot going on, which should but doesn’t distract from the fact that the song is as much a disco tune as a funk number, and it’s as repetitive as mile markers on an endless Kansas highway. The beginning is particularly galling; do they really have to repeat “Hot stuff” 1,262 times? As for “Fool to Cry” it’s a second-rate “Memory Motel” and beyond artificial resuscitation; Jagger talks his way through it but I can’t listen to him, he’s so annoying. Only Nicky Hopkins’ piano and ARP String Synthesizer and Perkins’ lead guitar lend the song any interest, and help it to build to its anti-climactic climax.

I know people will disagree, but so far as I’m concerned Black and Blue put paid to the Rolling Stones. Everybody points to Some Girls and Emotional Rescue as returns to form, but I’m not having any of it; both LPs sound thin to me, and what’s more both were too little too late, because the band that produced them had already been embalmed and buried. To be completely honest, I’d have interred them after Exile on Main Street. Sure they put out good songs after Exile—right now I’m listening to “If You Can’t Rock Me” and it sounds great—but the decline from Exile to Goats Head Soup (which the critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine identified as the moment their “image began to eclipse their accomplishments”) is precipitous, and they only went downhill from there.

Great rock and roll doesn’t grow on trees, and for the most part the albums after Exile remind me of a line from a Killdozer song: “The King is dead but not forgotten/Don’t eat the cranberries, they’ve gotten rotten.” I know, I know, cranberries don’t grow on trees. But the Stones were definitely emitting the foul smell of putrefaction by 1976, and I pity the fool who has taken them for anything but a ptomaine risk since.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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  • Jay Kenney

    Dusted off my old records recently and have been listening to Black and Blue, Some Girls, Tattoo You, and Under Cover. Seems like I like them much better now than I did back in the late 70s/early 80s. I think they really hold up.

  • Derek Christian

    stones died @ goats head soup.

    • Michael Little

      Agreed!

  • Dee Lux

    I love the Stones LOVE em’, and Some Girls to Undercover is my favorite era, and personally, I’ve always liked Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock n’Roll, recordes with songs like “Starfucker” ” Doo Doo Heartbreaker” “Silver Train” and “It”s Only RnR” just can’t be as bad as some people make them out to be……do you want to know what IS bad? BLACK AND BLUE IS GARBAGE, It really feels like Mick and Keith took a collective dump on a wax platter and sold it to us as a record, There are NO SONGS on this record, it is a bunch of half-assed jamming on styles of music that we do not go to the Stones to supply us with. They can do all the RnB covers they want, what the audience wants from a Stones record has only ever been one thing, they want Balls out Kick ass rock n’ roll: Bitch, Shattered, Rocks Off, Starfucker, Respectable, Where the boys go, Rip this Joint, She said yeah, Jumping Jack Flack, Street Fightn’ man, and even newer tracks like “You got me rockin” “Sparks will Fly” fill the prescription. What the fans NEVER asked for is a goddamn ethnic fusion band, which is what you will get if you dare let this anywhere near your stereo. AVOID AT ALL COSTS ONE OF THE WORST RECORDS EVER MADE

    • Michael Little

      I agree 110 percent. Make that 130 percent.

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