Nov 292010

I remember it was freezing cold when The Stones released Undercover. The winter of 1983 was really brutal around here, so what else was there to do but sit inside and really get to know The Stones’ new album? The album is all new music, as far as I can tell, with “Too Tough” being at least the only song that had been worked on previously that was leaked out and bootlegged. I think what made Tattoo You a little uneven for me was the fact that the songs came from so many different sessions. Undercover is a singular project, and it’s different from almost every other Stones album.

This may be the last album by a band that would be a surefire big seller in the ’80s that didn’t have that horrid drum sound (like Steve Lilywhite almost wrecked Dirty Work with). The drums are big, and integral to the sound, but they aren’t splashing constantly like they have a puddle of water sitting on them. They aren’t Jimmy Miller’s drums, but they aren’t bad, and the more popular sound of the decade is actually used to good effect on “Undercover of the Night.” While the drums are prominent, this is definitely a guitar album, first and foremost.

“Undercover of the Night” is one of those Stones semi-disco songs that their rocker fans can get behind in a way they couldn’t with “Emotional Recue.” I think it’s partly the slashing, machine-gun guitars, and partly really dark subject matter concerning sex and violence. I know, the video is kinda dumb, but is there a video of a song anywhere that makes the song better? I don’t think so, so why would anyone expect this to be any different? At least Tawny Kitaen isn’t washing a car with her tits in it. The other single that made a name for itself was “She Was Hot,” and it’s just a road song of the type that makes up the entirety of what most bands that get a record deal end up calling their second album. Again, the guitars are great, Keith and Ronnie sound like one guy with four arms. The other highlight of side one is Keith’s “Wanna Hold You,” which is about his last fast song with The Stones. His ballads are okay, but this is Keith Richards, International Rocker, and it bums me out that he has chosen to play his guitar with no hands so much lately.

Side two kicks off with the pure dance club record, “Too Much Blood.” I know a lot of people thought it was really disturbing, but I think it’s pretty cool. The 12” version is longer and has more of Mick’s weird carrying on about all that’s going down on the seedy side of things. I really like the second side the best. After the dancefest of “Too Much Blood” it’s pure guitar riffs. Ronnie’s “Pretty Beat Up” is pure groovetastic goodness and lyrically carries on the theme of the album, which I swear is, “Don’t trust anyone, and be afraid of the dark.”  “Too Tough” is The Stones finally coming to grips with a middle for a song with a working title of “Cellophane Trousers.” I can listen to it all day.  It’s the kind of mid-tempo rocker that The Stones seem to make with ease, but if it were really that easy, there’d be a lot more good songs to listen to.

The guitars just keep cutting and slashing through the last two songs. Mick Jagger sounds like he’s pushing and the band is pulling but it all seems to meet in some dark, slightly disturbing middle. I think that middle is “Don’t go out in the dark, and be afraid.” I love it. It’s one of my favorite Stones albums, and if they had put “Feel on Baby” as the B-side to “She Was Hot” instead of “I Think I’m Going Mad,” which would have worked better on the album if you ask me. “Feel on Baby” is an odd, slow, mostly boring bit of reggae.

I remember reading Steve Simels’ review of this in Stereo Review when it came out.  He said something like, “This is a classic Stones album, and most of their fans won’t like it. It’s too dark, and it’s too depressing. But the fans that get to know this will be well rewarded.” I totally agree, and I think one day when some future generation listens to this, they’ll think it ranks as one of the best Stones albums. Like me.


  37 Responses to “Undercover Is Awesome!”

  1. Interesting post, 2000 Man. As you may know VH1 Classic has been playing a lot of Stones this holiday weekend. I caught the video for “She Was Hot,” which I never saw before. Ugh, what a trainwreck of Benny Hill-style shenanigans. Maybe at the time, it looked like the lighter side of the Stones, but it’s aged horribly. Wasn’t too keen on the song, either. But I can’t comment on the rest of the album, which I never heard.

  2. BigSteve

    The review I remember was Christgau calling Undercover a “murky, overblown, incoherent piece of shit.” But then he gave this a C+ and Dirty Work an A, so wtf.

    When the reissues of this era came out I was surprised how much I liked them. The funk stuff Mick was pursuing sounds more interesting than Keith’s same old/same old. Crappy album cover though.

  3. I’ll take “Emotional Rescue” over “Undercover of the Night” any day. “Undercover of the Night” does have a(n unintentionally?) hilarious video, though. It’s like the band wished they’d have gotten a track on The Clash’s Combat Rock. That song and, especially, “Too Much Blood” makes me think the Charlie Watts Hoax extended to almost all members of the Undercover-era band. Was anyone but Jagger even in the same town as the recording studio while those songs were being recorded?

    All this said, 2K, your enthusiasm is contagious. No joke. I will be sure to give this record a more careful listen next time I cross paths with it. Thanks for coming forward with your views!

  4. I’ve never been a huge Stones fan but I have awesome respect for them. The thing I appreciate is they just keep going. When they tour it’s to promote a new album. It’s never to rehash greatest hits ad nauseum like a lot of other bands. How many farewell tours have The Who done? I’ve seen them twice (“Some Girls” and “Tattoo You” tours) and would go again. The “Some Girls” tour was particularly good with Billy Preston on keys.

    I came across an old band video a week or two ago and we were playing “She Was Hot”. Even after seeing it, I don’t remember learning and playing it. I don’t think we did it for a very long time. I thought it was bland and vanilla. I had to listen a coupla’ time to remember the song at all. It’s funny that this thread appears within the same time frame as I contemplated the old video 20 years after the fact.

    However, my personal verdict on the entire album is “forgettable”.

  5. I bought this album in high school and it has a soft spot in my heart. For me, the last great Rolling Stones album.
    Always wondered, though, how much of the bass is Bill’s and not Robbie Shakespeare’s. The bass playing on Undercover is awesome.

  6. I figure with all the rock historians around here I should correct myself before someone called me on it. As usual with this site, I get to thinking about the old times and clicking away time in search of verification.

    It was not the “Some Girls” tour that featured Billy Preston it was the “Made in the Shade” tour of 1975. The opening acts were The J.Geils Band,Atlanta Rhythm Section and Rufus. It was at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, FL. “Made in the Shade” was a compilation album so I was wrong about my assertion regarding that as well.

    The second time must have been the “Some Girls” tour. It was 1978 at Folsom Field in Boulder, CO. My buddy and I bought a one-way plane ticket from Gainesville and hitch hiked home. Kansas was the opening act and there is a picture on their live album (“Two for the Show”) from the Stones Concert in Boulder.

    Sorry to go off topic.

  7. You are a bigger man, gregg, for pulling the Pince Nez on yourself:) Sounds like cool shows. I wish I had seen them one either of those tours.

  8. misterioso

    Mod, I’m with you. I can’t make a case for Emotional Rescue as a great record, but I do think it is pretty good and certainly better than its reputation. I don’t feel the same about Undercover but appreciate 2000 Man’s spelling out what he hears & likes in it.

  9. Undercover is one of those records I never had the opportunity to hear (I haven’t heard tall the newer ones, Only Rock n Roll or the ones before Satanic Majesty’s Request.) From this write up it sounds like a pretty schitzy album. I knew Undercover and only remembered Too Much Blood now that I’ve see it (“buried her bones in the Port of Boy-loyn-ya” Ha!) plus a slow reggae. Thanks for the remembrance, glad to see even these kinds or records can find their fans.

  10. 2000 Man

    Gregg, there exists a primo audience recording of that Jacksonville show, but the taper won’t let it out. I’ve heard a couple of songs and I wish he’d let it out, but that’s not the way he is.

    I agree that Undercover is the last great Stones album. Side two is especially great, and the album sounds great, if you ask me. It’s just gritty enough to make me happy sound wise, and it’s just clean enough to show off the stereo really well.

  11. Man I’d love to hear that tape! I was only 15. I remember all the acts were great. Chaka Khan was soulful and funky, J. Geils rocked. Billy Preston had a White Grand Piano, a White Hammond Organ and was wearing a solid white tuxedo. All of that really emphasized his black afro which was big as a house.

  12. Sorry to bum gregg and anyone else out, but I was disappointed to learn in Keith Richards’ memoir that Preston’s Afro was a wig. This information has had me rethinking a lot of things about those days.

  13. misterioso

    You gonna believe your own eyes or Keith?

  14. 2000 Man

    Keith ain’t lying. There’s a picture of Mick Taylor on stage while Billy was the warm up act, and Mick played with him. Mick is wearing one of those massive afros. I’ll have to see if I can find it. I know it’s a bootleg cover somewhere.

  15. Careful, 2K, that this doesn’t lead to claims of buzzards and buffalo hidden under Preston’s afro wig!

  16. I figured it was a wig but didn’t care. It was cool!

  17. hrrundivbakshi

    Are we all going to just look up at the ceiling, whistle nervously, and pretend we didn’t hear that KANSAS opened up for the Stones on their “Some Girls” tour?

  18. hrrundivbakshi

    For those of you still seeking photographic evidence that Mick Jagger spent an entire tour in football regalia:

  19. I love the little penalty flags attached to his shoulders. He may have spent the whole tour in football regalia, but at least he boldly accessorised to introduce an element of unpredictability.

  20. Do you doubt me? Look it up. While you’re at it check out the picture of Steve Walsh on the “Two for the Show” album singing in front of 60,000 (hardly a Kansas crowd) on a giant tongue protruding from the giant mouth stage.

    There was no bison however.

  21. Here’s ya’ a link:

    Scroll down to July 16, 1978

    I’m whistling.

  22. You, of all RTH vets, should have learned this by now, HVB: Don’t tangle with the Townsperson who’s already pulled a Pince Nez on his or her self!

  23. I guess he wanted to play flag football and no one thought to correct him on the placement of the flags.

    Great find, hrrundi! I can tell you worked hard to find that after gregg hit you with that Reverse Pince Nez.

  24. Very cool! The care that Richards put into the individual guitar parts is world’s beyond the devil-may-care, “no-hands” guitar parts he and Ron Wood have relied on. I also prefer this attention to arrangement detail over the half-assed, egalitarian stuff Richards did with Mick Taylor. Somehow I’m also reminded of the fact that the one Replacements album I like best is the one on which Westerberg played all the guitar parts, Pleased to Meet Me, or whatever that album’s called. How’s that for “having at it,” Oats? Thanks for the link.

  25. That’s really cool. It seems fairly easy when you hear them do it.

  26. At the risk of appearing to be in favor of his little football outfit, I one again feel the need to say something sort of positive about his choice. That tour opened in Philly if I’m not mistaken, so it makes sense to wear that Eagles jersey on the opening night. But to his credit, he didn’t pander to each hometown crowd on the tour. He appears to have kept right on wearing the Eagles jersey without regard to who was in the audience. Surely he must get some credit for that…

    By the way, Is there any significance with the number 21? Who was number 21 for the Eagles in 1981?

  27. Defensive back/special teamer and Coach Vermeil’s old UCLA player John Sciarra. He was one of those “coach on the field” types, if memory serves.

  28. Undercover came out when i was 13, had just three stones Lps (hot rocks 2, tattoo you and Decembers children) and liked the girl on the cover. Took the stickers off to see the “goods” and there were just other non-removable stickers there!

    This record was disappointing at the time and I remember our rock radio station felt the same way. Also this was in the $3.99 rack with Dirty Deeds and some 70’s Hall and Oates (War Babbies?? for years at Turtles Records & Tapes. And not that long after the release date either

    I picked up the remastered version so i could add wanna hold you to my best of Keith cd comp. Don’t think I ever played it through. I’ll give it a rainy afternoon spin today

  29. That is pretty cool recording studio stuff. As a recording musician, is it more interesting to work out all the parts in advance and overdub them or to work in close sync with another guitarist for a more live feel?

    I recall RTH-punching-bag Lou Reed talking about getting into “Two guitar lock” like a mystical state with Robert Quine around the time of The Blue Mask. I would think that would be the highest aspiration for a guy like Richards, but what do I know?

  30. Yeah, as a guitarist of limited means I nevertheless feel comfortable stating that I think nothing beats the mystical state of the “two guitar lock,” as you put it. However, if that chemistry’s not there, creating it by yourself is the next best thing.

    I know I harp on this to an annoying degree, but I don’t feel there was much chemistry between Richards and Mick Taylor. Richards and Wood had potential before they lost their drive. Whatever Brian Jones actually did on guitar (and whether he was proficient or not in doing whatever he did) he had the perfect chemistry with Richards.

    Reed-Quine, Reed-Morrison, Verlaine-Lloyd, Quine-Julian…had great chemistry.

  31. Very cool indeed. Usually solitary tracks, especially vocals, sound like crap. Not so here, the sum of the parts are greater than the whole but the parts are pretty damn good.

  32. I wrote that wrong but you get my drift.

  33. jeangray

    “She Was Hot” is almos’ 30 years after the fact! Jesus, I am old.

  34. jeangray

    What? No love for Reed- Rathke?

  35. jeangray

    “Wanna Hold You” is one of my favorites off this album.

  36. Ok, gave Undercover a spin today. I prefer Tattoo You and Dirty Work to this CD. It reminds me of Black and Blue where Mick choses groove over songwriting. She Was Hot, Undercover Of The Night, Wanna Hold You…maybe Tie You Up are decent, so that’s one side of a short LP..the rest is b-side jams and tierd Stones-by-numbers shuffles.

    Dirty Work has One Hit To The Body, Too Rude, Had It With You, Sleep Tonight…..

    So It’s a tie

    But I like Harlem Shuffle and Fight so that’s goes to Dirty Work

    But I hate Winning Ugly more than I like the song Dirty Work…and Back To Zero is lame too

    So now we are back at a tie

    Dirty Works 4 best beat Undercover’s 4 best but Undercovers 4 worst are not as bad as Dirty Works 4 worst

    Tie goes to Dirty Work ’cause Keith has 2 songs

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