We dive deep into the highs and lows of the album which became a legacy act and celebrates forty years
The highs and lows of ‘Some Girls’ by The Rolling Stones
There exists an amusingly prescient clip of The Rolling Stones being interviewed for television in the late 1970s. Asked why the band elected to call their 14th studio album Some Girls, guitarist Keith Richards – topless, cross-legged and cradling a cigarette – leans back on the communal couch and tartly retorts, “because we forgot all their ... names”.
It’s one of several less-than-witty, or civil, responses The Human Riff dealt his Antipodean interlocutor, but as cringe-inducing as the exchange is today, it underlines a certain truth: In 1978 The Rolling Stones were still antagonistic, mouthy mutineers with the ability to shock viewers.
A year earlier Richards had been very publicly busted for drug possession in Canada and, facing seven years' jail time, at the time of the embarrassing interview the band’s future hung in the balance. The Stones’ US summer outing was billed a "Farewell Tour" and it seemed certain Some Girls – which celebrates a 40th anniversary on Saturday – would be the iconic outfit’s final recording.
It was not until October the same year that Richards was dealt a surprise suspended sentence, condemning The Stones to another four decades on the road. They would never be the same band again, though. By the early 1980s, The Stones had transformed from rock rebels to savvy businessmen, all-but inventing the safe conformity of the modern stadium experience.
Raw, ragged and irreverent, Some Girls was their last outlaw stand – greeted at the time as a return to form, it became the band’s best seller stateside, shipping six million copies in the US alone, and is wildly hailed today as The Stones’ last essential release.
It was a classic born in a storm. By the late 1970s, the band was worn into a creative and critical cul de sac. Some Girls was conceived and captured at the height of Richards’ troubles – his memoir Life recalls nodding out for hours at a time in the studio bathrooms – while newbie Ronnie Wood was signed up as a full-time member for the first time.
As a result, Jagger was largely free to follow his fickle fancy, heralding an embrace of both mainstream and counterculture trends which many might have advised the already long-in-the-tooth rockers to avoid: namely, the genetically exclusive poles of disco and punk.
The album opens with the infectious strut of Miss You, driven by Charlie Watt’s four-to-the-floor beat and Bill Wyman’s shifty, shuffling – and uncredited – bassline, both calculated to co-opt the then-chic disco phenomenon. It worked, creating the band’s final US number one and establishing an enduring dancefloor staple, despite – or perhaps because of – Jagger’s over-performance, which precariously borders into farce, hamming it to the max with the camp chorus ooh-ing and a ridiculous monologue about, ahem, partying with “Puerto Rican girls that are just dyin' to meet you”.
But Miss You’s blatant commercial overtures mark an aberration from the album’s otherwise streamlined sonics. A response to the bloated reggae and funk experiments of 1976’s under-appreciated Black and Blue, Some Girls was born as a back-to-basics affair – stripping away the session players, losing the keys and horns, the core guitar-centric quintet doubling downplaying less groovy, but faster and harder than ever before. This incarnation sounds nothing like the jangly pop of The Stones’ classic mid-1960s singles, nor the rootsy twang of 1972 career-high Exile on Main St – with a rambunctious, jammed-in-the-studio feel, the thumping When the Whip Comes Down ranks among The Stones’ heaviest moments on record.
Hanging over these Paris sessions of late 1977 and early 1978 was undoubtedly the sudden emergence of punk rock, an audio uprising led by the likes of the Sex Pistols in response to the hubris and indulgence of mainstream music – of bands such as The Rolling Stones. Punk stood as the very antithesis of disco’s image of glamour and commercialism – sensing the dichotomy of rubbing shoulders at Studio 54 while channelling the angst of CBGB, Jagger gleefully sends up The Stones’ establishment status, and his then-wife Bianca, on the trashy punk-meets-Chuck Berry ramble Respectable, declaring gleefully “We're talking heroin with the president / Well it's a problem, sir, but it can't be bent”.
It’s impossible to imagine The Stones playing so loud, loose and dirty a few years earlier, and the crucial catalyst was clearly the full-time addition of Wood on guitar. Replacing the studied bluesy muso leanings of Mick Taylor – a great virtuoso perhaps too technically astute for The Stones – Wood’s relatively unrefined technique was to have a profound effect on the band’s trademark sound, ushering in a distinctly egalitarian approach to guitar duties. Rather than the traditionally meritocratic lead and rhythm roles, Wood and Richard intuitively trade lines in a manner the latter likes to call “the ancient art of weaving”. Early evidence of that art can be found littered all over Some Girls, from the jangle-punk ditty Lies to the sweaty, unironic rock stomp through The Temptations’ ballad Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me).
Most enduring of the album’s four punkier moments is Jagger’s disdainful portrait of alienation and deprivation in “tattered” Manhattan – Shattered, an unadorned, claustrophobic musical slog stained by the immortal couplet “Pride and joy and greed and sex / That's what makes our town the best.” But amid all this spite and bite, Some Girls hid one memorably tender moment, the sweet soul-ballad Beast of Burden, the record’s second US top ten hit which Richards later “realised” he wrote to thank Jagger for shouldering the band’s burdens during the peak of his addiction.
The guitarist emerged from the slumber long enough to cook up the swinging standout Before They Make Me Run, a piercingly self-referential recount of his present predicament (“I wasn't looking too good but I was feeling real well”) driven by a killer, Keef-by-numbers guitar riff and a lackadaisical delivery which rivals concert staple Happy as the definitive Richards vocal.
The playing time is rounded out by Faraway Eyes, a twee country music parody, complete with faux-Midwestern drawl, mocking radio evangelists – already an easy target – with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Yet this would prove to be far from Some Girls’ ugliest moment; instantly controversial was the sluggish swagger of the title track, a brazenly chauvinistic list of female and racial stereotypes which should have stayed on the cutting room floor. The band quickly chalked it up as a parody – but it’s hard not to think of that archive interview footage when sitting through the sexist and xenophobic deluge.
The Stones would never be so careless – nor ever risk alienating such a large portion of their fanbase – again. When the band finally returned to the road three years later, it was as a very different beast – and certainly one that had been tamed. The polished American Tour 1981 set the conceptual template for dollar-hungry stadium jaunts that still stands today, increasing the cast of backing musicians from two to five and featuring an elaborate stage concept of then-unprecedented scale. Jōvan Musk fragrance paid a million dollars to appear on the ticket stubs, pioneering a now-prevalent model for gig sponsorship, while a show at Hampton Coliseum was the first televised “pay-for-view” concert in history. Grossing some $52 million (Dh191 million), The Stones would set and hold the record as the highest grossing tour ever for three years and, after moving on to Europe the following summer, would not tour again until 1989.
By playing to some three million Americans in three months and bolstering the setlist with 1960s favourites in a way they were unwilling to before, The Stones lost any remaining spark of rawness or relevance, and willingly reinvented themselves as the nostalgia act they are known as today. On Saturday the juggernaut No Filter tour rumbles into Edinburgh after six dates in England and Ireland; an earlier continental leg played to 750,000 fans in just six weeks.
Few of the assembled audience will much mind the fact The Stones have authored just one album of new material in the past 21 years, and most will probably be secretly pleased that just two songs played per evening are less than four decades old.
The one “newer” song sure to be played is Start Me Up, released in 1981 but based on an original track laid down during the Some Girls sessions. The Rolling Stones haven’t been the same band since.