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THE WHIP COMES DOWN
The Rolling Stones Came Back Swinging With "Some Girls"
BILL WOOD | NOVEMBER 22, 2022
“No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones!”
That was the battle cry of The Clash’s anthemic “1977,” a sonic signal flare that the complacent landscape of popular music was due for a shakeup. Turns out The Clash didn’t have much to worry about; Elvis had recently passed away, The Beatles had broken up nearly a decade prior, and The Rolling Stones—along with other bands of the era such as The Who and The Kinks—were frankly in a rut. They were still global superstars, but as Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith once put it, their audience was becoming more selective.
Resigned to cranking out mellow AOR standards such as “Angie” and "Fool To Cry," the Stones were dismissed by critics and fans alike as increasingly irrelevant and out of touch. Their albums had become bloated with guest writers and studio musicians, pushing the band members' contributions into the background. Their most recent effort, Black And Blue, sold well enough but has always been regarded as one of their weaker efforts. The Stones were quickly losing steam on the rock scene as the English punk rock movement saw them going from “every mother’s nightmare” to “your mum’s favorite band” seemingly overnight.
Adding to the band's woes was Keith Richards' legal issues due to a heroin bust in Toronto, which carried the prospect of a very real and very lengthy sentence. Indeed, rumor has it that Mick and Keith were planning for their next album as if it were their last. Never mind the bollocks, in 1978 it wasn't even certain that there would be a Rolling Stones moving forward. So how did the band respond to being backed into a corner? By locking themselves into a studio in Paris and producing the strongest record of their 60-year career.
To be fair, most fans rate 1972's Exile On Main Street as the greatest Stones LP, a point which is difficult to argue. Exile is a near-perfect double-album of country-rock brilliance, but I’ll take 1978’s Some Girls any day of the week. Stripped down to the core and bursting with newfound energy (the influence of punk is undeniable), the album takes a refreshing back-to-basics approach, with Richards and Wood meshing in a way that few guitar duos have before or since and Jagger at his all-time shade throwing peak. It's an all-killer-no-filler statement in nearly every way, here we'll take a track-by-track look at all ten songs.
But first, the album cover. I have to say that as a graphic designer, this is one of my very favorite sleeve designs. Far removed from the high concept, intricately airbrushed art that defined the '70s rock LP, Some Girls features a rough duplication of a hair salon ad, pulp newspaper aesthetic augmented by the bright, primary colors of pop art and punk rock. The innovative die-cut sleeve features the band members along with various (and quite unauthorized) female celebrities, which resulted in a flurry of lawsuits. Even the faux advertisement concept itself resulted in a lawsuit from the salon ad's original artist. If you're going to make a defining statement with an album cover, this is certainly one way to do it.
Some Girls kicks off with the Number One smash hit “Miss You,” it’s one of the band's signature tracks and has been a staple of their live set since it was released. The ‘70s dance beat may have classified the song as disco (Black And Blue’s opener “Hot Stuff” is way more disco for my money), but the genre never sounded quite this sinister. Shunning the hedonistic glamour of Studio 54, the song sees Mick as a forlorn lover, alone and relegated to walking the dark streets of New York City at night, not a safe to place to be in the '70s. NYC is a massive influence on the subject matter throughout the album, four of its ten songs reference the city directly.
"When The Whip Comes Down" is the first of Some Girls' punk-influenced numbers, with Mick, Keith and Ron trading guitar licks. Mick imagines himself as a male prostitute hustling on 53rd Street (was he hanging out with Dee Dee?), snarling out the line "I was gay in New York / Just a fag in LA." This may come off as politically incorrect these days but it was even more divisive in 1978, when many fans viewed their rock idols as overtly macho avatars. Then again, Jagger never aspired to be another Plant or Daltrey. Another Some Girls trademark is featured on this track, the meshing of various musical styles. The double-lead guitar solo takes the band down a decided left turn into country, yet the Stones pull it off seamlessly, thanks in large part to the brilliant underpinning of Watts and Wyman.
It's worth taking a moment to give praise to what is likely the best rhythm section in the history of rock music. The trio of Jagger, Richards and Wood deliver the majority of Some Girls' upfront sonic arsenal, but Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman are the glue that holds everything together. As the musical styles shift from genre to genre, Watts and Wyman's driving rhythm provides a steady groove, giving Some Girls its feeling of continuity and balance. It's difficult to think of any other rhythm section that could have pulled this off. Queen's Roger Taylor and John Deacon come to mind, but even then Queen sounds like a completely different band when venturing into diverse musical territory. Watts and Wyman manage to keep the whole affair Stonesy, for lack of a better term.
Speaking of varied musical influences: "Just My Imagination" sees the band reinvent the Temptation's soulful classic into laid-back country rock, complete with Waylon Jennings-style flange guitar. The title track is booze-soaked distortion blues as only the Stones can deliver, with guest musician Sugar Blue delivering a wicked harmonica track as Mick fires off a nonstop salvo of kiss-offs to just about every female on the planet, including soon-to-be ex-wife Bianca ("gimme aaallll your money!"). And then there's that verse, the one that likely would have seen him culturally canceled had this track been released today. Controversial lyrics aside, one brilliant touch is how the song subtly switches from major to minor during the middle chorus, a reminder of just how understated the songwriting duo of Jagger and Richards can be.
"Lies" sees the band switching into high gear with one of their fastest tempo songs to date. "Lies you dirty Jezebel! / Why, why, why, why don't you go to hell!" More shots fired at the ex? Sure sounds like it. Side Two (in old-school terms) kicks off with "Far Away Eyes," which comes off as pure country camp thanks to Mick's tongue-in-cheek Buck Owens impersonation. His bumpkin shtick hasn't aged particularly well, especially when you compare it to some of the country-themed Some Girls outtakes that didn't make the cut. Despite this, the track comes off thanks to some exceptional playing, particularly Ron Wood's absolutely sublime lap steel guitar. That solo hits me in the gut every time I listen to it. (Side note: The live version from Texas '78 is very much worth tracking down.)
Given their '70s track record, you might expect the second side of Some Girls to be mired in filler material, but think again. Jagger straps on the guitar again for "Respectable," giving the Stones a triple-guitar attack (take that Blue Oyster Cult!). His lyrics are clearly poking fun at the band's presumed role as elder rock star statesmen, the exact type of elitism that the punk movement was railing against at the time. "Before They Make Me Run" is a stripped-down ode to Keith Richards' impending legal problems, and it's the catchiest Keef song ever in my book. "Beast Of Burden" is of course another all-time Stones classic, and a massive fan favorite.
Forget the sugary pop standards, "Shattered" is one of the more intensely honest songs ever written about the borough of Manhattan, with Mick spewing out lines such as "Go ahead, bite the Big Apple / Don't mind the maggots!" The band churns a bouncing rhythm as the background chorus cranks out a sinister she-oobie, sounding every bit like a doo-wop group emerging from the bowels of hell. There are numerous punk songs that evoke stark imagery of the shadowy streets of 1970s Noo Yawk (the entire New York Dolls catalog for instance), but "Shattered"—written by rich English rock stars mind you—is among the most colorful and vivid.
These days I listen to an extremely diverse variety of musical artists and genres, and I'd like to think my early exposure to the Some Girls LP has something to do with that. It's rock, it's punk, it's disco, it's country, it's blues... yet all the while it is unmistakably The Rolling Stones. The album felt raw and vital in its time and still does to this day, but perhaps the biggest surprise is that Some Girls is also the band's top seller, backed by the strength of singles "Miss You" and "Beast of Burden." The recording sessions were so productive that the band was left with plenty of outtakes as well as material for their next two studio albums, Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You. In an era when older bands were ignoring musical trends (or worse, chasing them) and growing comfortable with their roles as brand ambassadors to the newfound concept of classic rock, the Stones showed the world that they could still come out with middle fingers thrust firmly outward. They proved the doubters wrong by defying expectations and are still doing so in 2022. Who would have thought? - BW