CK Retro Review: Dirty Work by The Rolling Stones

The worst album in Rolling Stones’ history? Well, before we bury 1986’s Dirty Work, let’s consider that it received pretty solid reviews at a time when artists like the Stones weren’t awarded knee-jerk raves just because they still exist. And their cover of “Harlem Shuffle” gave them their biggest hit in five years (and their last Top 5 Billboard hit to date.) But nothing can hide the fact that Dirty Work suffers from the sterile, inorganic production work of the era. And even the finest production couldn’t have prettied up some of the more uninspired songs and abrasive performances. With Mick Jagger’s head still in his solo career, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood carrying the load, and the entire group, including the usually rock-solid Charlie Watts, suffering from 80’s excess, this album is inconsistency exemplified, sporadic highs and cratering lows, and it nearly ended the Stones as we know them. Here is a song-by-song review:


10. “Back To Zero”- Jagger’s concerns about nuclear war are admirable, but not for a moment does this synth-heavy, faux-exotic mid-tempo jam sound like the Rolling Stones.


9. “Hold Back”- I kind of wish they held back a little bit on this one actually. No nuance or subtlety, not from the overbaked drum sound, nor from the grinding guitars, and certainly not from Jagger’s haranguing vocal.

8. “Fight”- Some early reviews found the aggressiveness of Jagger’s lyrics refreshing. To me, they’re more often off-putting, even if, as in this case, they seem to be allegorical plaints about societal antagonism. Plus the unimaginative music isn’t exactly a good way to show them off.

7. “Winning Ugly”- It’s foundationed by a decent enough Motown bassline, and there’s enough open space here for Jagger’s lyrics to make their point about how 80’s-style competitiveness often took a dark turn. But again, his singing is all force and no restraint. And the Stones never quite figured out how to introduce synthesizers into their sound without it sounding jarring.


6. “Dirty Work”- If Dirty Work can be defended, you can make the case that there’s a pretty consistent theme about societal nastiness run rampant going all the way through it, and, as such, the title track sums it up quite well. It’s still too busy by half, but at least Jagger’s lyrics, probably his best on the album concerning power-wielders who never show their faces, find their proper home in the intense guitar squall of Wood and Richards.

5. “Had It With You”- In the grand tradition of “All About You,” here is a Richards song which lays bare both his love for and his frustration with Jagger. Those elements are hidden a bit more here though. For one, Mick is singing it in his best Slim Harpo drawl (and also adding some spicy harmonica.) For another, it’s a raver instead of a ballad, which keeps the focus on the music. In any case, it’s one of the better uptempo tracks here, mainly because it sounds like the five band members recorded in a room with no frills doing the kind of bluesy rock and roll they do best.

4. “Too Rude”- Although it’s dispiriting that two of the top four tracks on the album were covers, you can’t deny that this reggae diversion gets the job done. It’s the best of Steve Lillywhite’s productions on the albums, as he adds all kinds of effects to the one-man rhythm section of Ronnie Wood on bass and drums to fill the song full of fun surprises. And Richards is in his element on lead vocal, getting backing help from Jimmy Cliff, no less.

3. “Sleep Tonight”- One of those idiosyncratic Richards’ ballads with unexpected melodic twists and turns that close out albums so well. The production is a shade too glossy for what should sound like the last song at the end of a long night, but the backing vocals and Chuck Leavell’s tender piano win the day. And Keith’s lyrics are so evocative in their odd way: “These thoughts of you, it shivers me/The moon grows cold in memory.” Bonus points for the inclusion of the piano solo by Ian Stewart, who had recently passed away, at the end. Nice.

2. “Harlem Shuffle”- It’s not like they did anything revolutionary with this minor 60’s hit by Bob & Earl. But at least there’s a groove here, something, based on the rest of the album, you would think they had forgotten how to manage. Richards makes some sly commentary on guitar and Bobby Womack does some nice call-and-response with Mick, who slides into this one like a comfy pair of slippers. And the animated video was fun, which meant a lot at the time.


1. “One Hit (To The Body”)- Well, at least they got this single right. The interplay between the acoustic and electric guitars makes for an invigorating beginning. There are hooks aplenty. And Jimmy Page makes a special guest appearance with a wild guitar solo that fits the roughness of the music quite well. The lyrics are a typical Jagger construction about a woman who has a way about her that’s irresistible and who causes damage that’s irreparable, but he sells them with brio. Hey, nine more songs like this and we might have had something. So help me god.

(E-mail me at 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, available at the link below and at all major online booksellers.)




6 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Dirty Work by The Rolling Stones”

  1. M says:

    One of my favourites. Agree with Winning Ugly and Back To Zero, but disagree on the whole about the production. Sleep Tonight and One Hit are classic late Stones and Had It With You is one of the most successful blues revival originals in their career.

    • countdownkid says:

      It’s funny, but when I researched for the book, which concentrates on the individual songs, I had decided that it was terrible. When I researched it again to write the blog post, and considered it as a whole, it seemed a little better. I still think the production mars even the best songs (with the possible exception of “One Hit” and “Too Rude”), but I kind of appreciate it a little better now as a sustained statement.

      • Martin says:

        Talk Is Cheap is a great album, even though a song like Struggle is just like a sketch. I listen to that more than most post-Goat’s Head Soup Stones albums. There is a lot of subjectivity involved though, isn’t there? It seems generally accepted that Another Side Of Bob Dylan is flawed because of it’s sloppiness and a couple of embarrassing songs, but it’s one of my favourite albums.

      • countdownkid says:

        I agree about Talk Is Cheap (and Crosseyed Heart is pretty sharp too) and I think Jagger’s solo albums after the first one are fine. I do think they regrouped a bit with Steel Wheels; even if it wasn’t at their peak level, it’s still rock solid. As for Another Side Of Bob Dylan, if you look through my Dylan Retro Reviews on this blog (just click on Bob Dylan in the archives), you’ll see that I’m a big fan of that album as well.

        I guess subjectivity is a big part of this process, but I do try to take a look at each song in terms of how well the artist accomplishes what he or she or they set out to achieve. Obviously each song impacts each listener differently, but I really feel that one man’s, whoever it is, knowledgeable opinion on music is more enlightening than any consensus, which produces greatest hits lists and omits the under the radar stuff that’s often brilliant.

      • Martin says:

        Agreed. Perhaps you could rate the Cutting Edge collector’s edition? It may take some time!

  2. countdownkid says:

    Here is the link to my American Songwriter review of Cutting Edge; maybe someday I’ll do a take-by-take review:

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