A broad critical consensus has emerged that 1978’s Some Girls was the last great Rolling Stones album. A case can be made. Sure, the Stones have done spotty work for the last, oh, thirty-five years. But Tattoo You – that was pretty good. Personally, I thought Undercover was underrated. And their last record A Bigger Bang from 2005 was about 2/3 great. But back to Some Girls. Yeah, it’s really good. The relative mediocrity of the three studio releases between the venerated Exile on Main Street and Some Girls (Goat’s Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Black and Blue) left a still sizeable and devout Stones fan base ready for love. Some of those fans could have given a rat’s ass about punk rock. Others, however, moved by the racket that had blown out of New York and London during the (Sucking in the) Seventies, had a sense that the back to basics blood and guts of punk had thrown down to the Rolling Stones.
The Stones knew it. Mick Jagger in particular has always been, for better or worse, extremely sensitive to trends. Central to the energy behind the hard, fast and rockin’ tracks on Some Girls was Jagger’s own rhythm guitar playing. More square, less syncopated than Keith Richard’s playing, Jagger’s assertive guitar gave the album much of its foursquare thrust.
But wait, I don’t really want to review Some Girls. Been done. In summary, I think it’s terrific, but maybe rated too highly, and primarily by a lot of the same folks who have an unnecessarily dim view of the Stones’ subsequent output. What I really want to talk about is disc two of the deluxe edition of Some Girls.
Following the same formula as the deluxe reissue of Exile on Main Street, it includes an extra disc comprised of tracks from the same vintage that were left, for whatever reason, in the vaults until now. And like the Exile cuts these unreleased recordings are a hodge-podge of original tracking and late-model embellishments, especially Jagger’s lead vocals.
The results on Exile’s leftovers were mixed indeed. That album had such a distinct murk that matching the production values without the dank, sweaty, dope-sick basement conditions that birthed it was a rough task. Many of the more polished performances, like “Following the River” and “Plundered My Soul,” stood in stark contrast to some of the sketchier tracks like the rough draft of “Soul Survivor.” While not without entertainment and historical value, nothing on disc two of Exile contributed to the original recording’s myth.
Disc two of Some Girls is a different story. These tracks expand our sense of Some Girls, reinforcing the original album’s qualities and adding new insight to our picture of what the band was up to in that Paris studio in 1977. What’s more they hang together; they sound organically connected. In other words, disc two of Some Girls suggests that many of these recordings could have made the final cut, but it does more than that, a lot more – it represents a whole and compelling album all its own, and a very different album to the released Some Girls, despite their shared origins.
Disc two, unlike most of Some Girls, which features Jagger’s assertive electric rhythm guitar, finds Jagger sticking to acoustic guitar, harp and vocals. Without his punk fueled approach to rhythm guitar, Richards and Ron Wood lean on the influences and idioms that informed the Stones in the first instance. “So Young,” “When You’re Gone,” and “Keep Up Blues” all shows a Chicago blues influence that was absent from Some Girls. A country flavor, essentially limited to the delightful farce “Faraway Eyes” on Some Girls, is prevalent here on “Do You Think I Really Care,” “No Spare Parts,” as well as two covers – “We Had it All” (a current country hit they learned from Waylon Jennings’s version) and the Hank Williams chestnut “You Win Again.”
“So Young” and “When You’re Gone” are Chess vintage informed rockers. The former is a dirty old man’s diary, the latter a tale of scorn born of pain. Both tracks feature biting, bluesy leads from Ron Wood. He asserts himself on these sessions. Compared to the stodgy Black and Blue, Wood sounds comfortable and fully part of the band. He spars with Keith, solos sharply, and lends his pedal steel chops to several songs.
“Keep Up Blues” is a bon vivant’s lament. Richards and Wood trade lines like Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers while Jagger spins a portrayal of an insecure fusspot somewhere between his own “Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man” and the Kinks’ “Dedicated Follower of Fashion.”
“Do You Think I Really Care” is a country-rocker in the “Dead Flowers” vein, a doth-protest-too-much rebuke disguised as a New York travelogue. “No Spare Parts” is full of geographical detail as well (greasy spoons, western boots, tire changes) that has the flow and specificity of a Dylan lyric (the reggae inflected "Don't Be a Stranger" also hints that Jagger was not stranger to Blood on the Tracks and Desire), set to a progression that echoes “Winter” and “Memory Motel.”
Keith’s vocal turn on “We Had It All” sounds personal. It sounds like a goodbye to Anita Pallenberg, in fact. The song is a little corny, but Richards has always has a penchant for this kind of country balladry. Jagger’s Hank Williams homage on “You Win Again” is almost affect free and the band is terrific in support. My one complaint is that it would be even better if Richards had contributed harmonies; their blend would spice things up compared to Jagger’s overdubbed harmony parts.
“I Love You Too Much” uses a riff that popped up later on Undercover’s “It Must Be Hell.” The sentiments are as banal as the title, and this is the Stones at their most mature and generic. Of course it’s a ton of fun despite all that.
The easy, bluesy flow of these cuts has much to do with the presence of Ian Stewart on piano on several songs. His rapport with Richards, as well as Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts (who are both fabulous throughout) seems to put the band at ease, and here he was free of competition from Nicky Hopkins and Billy Preston (and he got along better with (then) new sometime keyboard man Ian McLagan). The instrumental tracks seem to derive primarily from the original sessions, despite a few key guitar overdubs, further lending to the relaxed groove. Jagger is reputed to have recut the majority of the lead vocals, either out of necessity or design. Fortunately, he sounds less mannered and shrill than he did on the Exile outtakes. His re-dos here are better, and much more sympathetic to the original sessions.
The salacious “Claudine” opens things as Jagger lampoons the celebrity murder scandal involving singer-ingénue (and Andy Williams wife) Claudine Longet and skier/instructor Spider Sabich. It’s grisly, mocking and it rocks with a rare, for the Stones, Memphis slap-back sound. In Rolling Stone magazine the very funny, but not especially astute Rob Sheffield, refers to it as a “Chuck Berry-style rocker.” Laaaaaazy! With the Stones nod to the Sun Studios sound being such a rarity in their canon you’d think he’d lay off the Chuck Berry shit.
Sheffield also puts his foot in his pie hole by calling “Tallahassee Lassie” a “rockabilly chestnut.” That’s a stretch. Hailing from Massachusetts, the song’s originator Freddy Cannon made some big beat rock ‘n’ roll sides, but his style leaned more on Little Richard’s whomp than anything remotely hillbilly. The Stones version of “Lassie” is a treat. It makes the Flamin’ Groovies winning take on the song sound tame, as Jagger shreds at the top of his lungs and the boys in the band fire away like punk really was a hellhound on their trail. More than anything, it’s the sound of the Rolling Stones cutting loose, ravaging a tune a tad outside their usual idiom, and flat out having fun.
After a relative creative drought in the mid-Seventies, culminating in Keith Richard’s legal limbo in Toronto, Some Girls was the sound of the Rolling Stones having fun, becoming a band again. The original album also sounded like a band with something to prove. The performances on disc two of the expanded, deluxe version of Some Girls are a horse of a different color – just as engaging, they sound at once focused and relaxed. And like a band with fuck all to prove to anyone.
Reverberating: Somewhere around 9.something (It's the Rolling Stones, and it doesn't suck. Doesn't that make it at least a 9.something?)