Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Rolling Stones 31: Dirty Work

The Stones signed a multi-million dollar deal with CBS, so their old label responded the only way they could: with a hits album. Rewind went all the way back to “Brown Sugar” up to “Undercover Of The Night”, and was great if you didn’t have all the albums already. (More to the point, it included a lyric sheet and repeated only half of Made In The Shade.)
When Mick put out his first solo album in 1985, we hoped that he got all his desire to dance, dance, dance out of his skinny system, and that the reports of the new Stones album being more of a “Keith project” were accurate. Those hopes were dashed by Dirty Work.
The first bad sign was the cover: even under the red shrinkwrap it was horribly garish, with pastel outfits on the boys (why the hell is Mick sitting that way?) and scribbled lyrics on a neon background on the inside. Another clue that all was not well could be found in the credits. Jimmy Page was an odd choice for guest guitarist, but when no less than three drummers appear on an album that one would assume includes Charlie Watts, it’s not going to be a good ride.
And while we should be used to the Stones including an R&B cover on their albums, “Harlem Shuffle” was a lousy choice for the first preview single. “One Hit (To The Body)” would have introduced it to the world better, and starts off side one well. But then we get more of the same clich├ęs: Mick wants you to “Fight” but “Hold Back”. A pleasant surprise comes with “Too Rude”, wherein Keith gets nice and buried within a dub setting.
Side two is mostly trapped by the times, with synthesized horns and a much-too-funky bassline all over “Winning Ugly”, and the social commentary of “Back To Zero” just doesn’t work. The title track at least brings back the guitars, which also drive “Had It With You”, a toe-tapper that also sports a nicely slowed-down “Midnight Rambler” nod. Keith nearly gets the last word on “Sleep Tonight”, a slow burner that suggest he should write more of Mick’s lyrics. But the album at least ends on a touch of class, with a snippet of recently departed confidant, pianist and tour manager Ian Stewart playing “Key To The Highway”.
Despite the hype, or perhaps because of it, Dirty Work sank like… well, like a stone. With no tour, mixed reviews and Mick and Keith avoiding each other when necessary, it was looking like the last Stones album. Which would have been a disgusting way to go out, and an insult to their legacy.

The Rolling Stones Rewind (1971-1984) (1984)—4
Current CD equivalent: none
Rolling Stones Dirty Work (1986)—2

4 comments:

  1. Dirty Work is a real real period-piece, it reeks of everything that was bad about pop music circa 1986, and whatever other merits it might have they are pretty well buried by the horrible production.

    "Dirty Work" (the song) is supposed to be a critique of Reagan-era consumerism, but the slick "me-too" sound of the album (in terms of production this could be Wang Chung, or any other trendy 80s band) totally undercuts that message.

    Nevertheless, Dirty Work really was a Keith album, just not a good one. He sings lead on two tracks, which had never happened before. Beyond that, Keith organized all the recording sessions and Mick just dropped in to add vocals while taking time away from being a global celebrity. By default I would tend to blame Mick whenever a Stones album sounds too slick and trendy, but it appears Keith really was the one calling the shots. Whatever the albums flaws (and there are many) they can't be pinned on Jagger, except by neglect and disinterest.

    Sadly, Charlie was too strung out at the time to play much on the album (or tour to support it), but Steve Jordan and Anton Fig simply cannot fill his shoes. They are competent studio musicians, but they can't play with Charlie's soul.

    Overall this is just a bad album from a very bad time period for the band.

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  2. Good insights, Pete (as usual). Some of my assumptions about the album seemed to be confirmed at the Wikipedia link, like the one about Charlie. Though I still don't know how Keith would have approved the mix of "Winning Ugly".

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  3. Most long running, successful acts go through a period like this. A band like the Stones (and this applies to Keith as much as to Mick) define their success in large part through sales.

    The Stones had a long run during which their music was both robust selling and artistically relevant. They had to make a few changes to their sound at the margins (incorporating reggae and disco influences in the 70s, etc.) based on changes in pop music, but for the most part those influences were a natural fit for the band.

    But then came the 80s and that "big drum," techno sound. The band wanted to stay relevant, but the sound of the day just did not work with the their natural strengths. Couple that with the fact that Mick and Keith were barely speaking and Charlie was a junkie and you have the nadir of their career. It's just an unfortunate excuse for an album from a great, great band.

    There are a few worthwhile songs on Dirty Work, but I find it very hard to listen past the production.

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  4. Not only is it Keith's album, but also Ronnie's, with 4 songwriting credits. And we can assume he was forced to share credit with Jagger-Richards. Sadly some great songs were left off, such as Strictly Memphis.

    Kinda dug it -- at the time. Rushed to buy both the album and the cassette on the first day because I was worried it might sell out. Even tried to mimic some of the clothing choices (maybe we can blame Annie Leibowitz the photographer?). What can I say? I had just turned 18 and was in my first year at college. It's a sentimental favorite. I once mentioned to Mick that they should do more Dirty Work stuff live and he just about threw me out of the room.

    Anyway, all the veteran acts were making shitty records then. And the production community was going through a bad time, high on synths.

    Yep, Charlie was high as a kite (see their lifetime Grammy acceptance). And Ian Stewart's absence was sorely felt. In some ways this album is actually a triumph - that they managed to get it out at all.

    One Hit was/is great, and nice video too. Sleep Tonight is sublime. Had It With You is one of the best b-sides ever.

    PS You should track down the Musician magazine cover story from this time. Bill Flanagan wrote a hilarious piece that detailed the Jagger-Richard divorce, and included great color from Live Aid and a nice diss on U2. There's also a good piece on Crowded House's difficulty cracking the US with their first album.

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