CK Retro Review: Undercover by The Rolling StonesPosted: December 7, 2015
Because Tattoo You, which came out in ’81 but consisted of material of much older vintage, interrupted the narrative somewhat, 1983’s Undercover seems a bit out of left field in the Rolling Stones throughline, when in actuality it’s a natural progression to the modern, dancey sounds of the era that began with Some Girls and continued with Emotional Rescue. The effort is always there (although you can hear it a bit too often,) but, save for an excellent one-two punch at the beginning and a decent closing duo, the focus wavers. In the middle portion, we’re left adrift somewhere between Mick Jagger’s sound-of-the-moment pretensions and Keith Richards’ inclination toward traditionalism, and it’s a bumpy ride. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Too Tough”- Jagger’s heart doesn’t seem to be into this throwback to the riff-rocking of the 70’s. Extremely forgettable, except perhaps for the rampant nastiness of the lyrics.
9. “Feel On Baby”- If they could have gotten out of the way of the basic riddim, things would have been a lot better. But the production eccentricities that help out “Undercover Of The Night” are cumbersome here, and the five minutes running time drags.
8. “Tie You Up (The Pain Of Love)”- The sadomasochistic overtones are a bit heavy-handed, which would have been OK if the music had been a bit more playful instead of so unsmiling. Not a bad middle eight, but apart from that, it’s a bit much and not enough all at once.
7. “Too Much Blood”- Jagger’s cockney rapping is a kick, even if the subject matter skews toward the gory. Still, the music hasn’t aged well, with horns that sound like they were on loan from Phil Collins and synthetic drums that kind of take Charlie Watts out of the equation, which is never a good thing.
6. “Wanna Hold You”- It might be Keith on autopilot, with a flickering guitar groove that he’s done often before and since and lyrics that sound as if they were scrawled down in the last minute at the session. But it’s comfortable in its skin, which makes it stand out from a lot of the fussier stuff around it on the album.
5. “Pretty Beat Up”- Ronnie Wood gets a co-writer credit for coming up with the music on this quasi-instrumental. The horns are employed a lot more effectively here and there’s bite to the groove. David Sanborn adds some intense saxophone to top it all off.
4. “All The Way Down”- The double entendres fly fast and furious on this rocker that Watts provides with an energetic pulse. The somewhat nostalgic, somewhat caustic look back at a torrid affair with a more experienced woman sure seems autobiographical; Jagger certainly plays it to the hilt. Bonus points for this verse: “How the years rush on by: birthdays, kids and suicides/But still I play the fool and strut, still you’re a slut.” Manages to be self-aware, nasty, and pretty damn funny all at once.
3. “It Must Be Hell”- I’d be more praiseworthy of Keith’s great riff if it weren’t so similar to the one adorning Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back.” And I’m still not sure if Jagger is sympathizing with or sneering at those bemoaning the world’s problems at the time. But the music is tough and focused and the chorus is rock solid. Pretty good send-off track.
2. “Undercover Of The Night”- It manages to sound very much of the times and very much a Rolling Stones track, which, in the early 80’s, was often a case of never the twain shall meet. Watts bomping beat keeps pushing you headlong into Jagger’s tale of repression and violence in South America, which builds to a frenzied peak with the lines “The smell of sex, the smell of suicide/All these dreams, things I can’t keep inside “. Here the production effects, like the echoing guitar and sledgehammer drums, are right on point with the tenor of the song. Every moment is charged with wiry energy. You can dance to it or despair to it, whatever your bag might be.
1.”She Was Hot”- The verses are the Stones doing yet another take on a Chuck Berry potboiler, as Jagger moans from his collection of cold, lonely hotel rooms. The refrains pull back to let the atmosphere sink in as the narrator luxuriates in the memory of a particularly steamy tryst. Richards separates the two parts with a stomping solo. Jagger’s descriptions don’t skimp on vivid imagery, with phrases like “molten glow,” “the lost bayou” and “the human zoo” showing Duran Duran, at the time the bell cows of sultry wordplay, a thing or two. Dare I say that the “hot, hot, hot” refrain at the end of the song, or climax might be the better word, sounds like lovers thrusting? Write what you know, they say, and Jagger seems to know this scenario right down the last bead of sweat.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on the Stones, check out my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, now available at the link below and all major online booksellers.)