The ROLLING STONES – ” Undercover ” Released 34 Years Ago On 7th November 1983

Posted: November 9, 2017 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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How to stay relevant. It’s a question we all face at some point in life. Mick Jagger was thinking about staying relevant. It was 1983. Punk had come and gone. New Wave was still a thing. Electronica and the New Romantics were still fashionable. Where did a rock ‘n’ roll band like the Stones fit into the mix? Jagger was going through what Keith Richards called “Lead Vocalist Syndrome.” The point where a band’s singer thinks he/she is bigger, better, and more important than the rest of the group.

Richards had quit heroin. He was clean. After years of fucking around, Richards was back and wanted to take up his fair share of the burden  After being busted in Toronto for heroin possession, the Stones guitarist luckily avoided jail time and cleaned himself up (for the most part). With his cookies relatively un-fazed, Richards soon realized the amount of control that Mick Jagger now had over the band. But Jagger had control of the Rolling Stones and wasn’t going to give Keith an inch. A great deal of the tension during the recording of the album stemmed from the fact that Richards had emerged (to an extent) from his destructive lifestyle of the previous decade, and thus sought a more active role in the creative direction of the band.

To keep relevant, Jagger was checking out the competition. He wanted to know what Bowie was doing, what Rod Stewart was doing, what was the latest tune played on the dancefloor at Studio 54, and which bands were snapping at their heels.  Jagger and Richards had written their first song on a kitchen table. They didn’t care what other people thought or who they sounded like, it was their song—that was all that mattered. Now, the relationship between Jagger and Richards was fractious. It was falling apart. Jagger had control and he was taking the Stones where he wanted.

Yet, checking out the opposition, chasing the trends meant sometimes Jagger got it right. He was and still is a shrewd businessman—let’s not forget, he had been a student at the London School of Economics. He had also been very successful in taking the Stones in unlikely directions, like that time he pulled them into disco music with “Miss You.” But sometimes his ideas were not as popular, Jagger was always open to suggestions, always looking for something new, always wanting to be at the front of the crowd.

Undercover is the 17th British and 19th American studio album by The Rolling Stones, released in 1983. After their preceding studio album, Tattoo You (1981), which was mostly patched together from a selection of outtakes, Undercover was their first release of all new recordings in the 1980s. The making of Undercover was an arduous process, largely because Jagger and Richards’ famous mid-1980s row began during these sessions.

The lyrics on Undercover are among Jagger’s with much grisly imagery to be found in the lead single and top 10 hit “Undercover of the Night”, a rare political track about Central America, as well as “Tie You Up (The Pain of Love)” Though it’s meant as a critique of ‘80s culture, “Too Much Blood” contains the most convulsive imagery on the entire record; it’s also its highlight. Featuring another mutant disco beat from Watts and Dunbar, alongside a bed of rhythm guitars, Mick delivers a half-rap that references The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and details the horrifying true story of Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who murdered his date, then devoured her body piece by piece. Over the oddly alluring horns and slick, reverb-ed overproduction, he yelps, “I can feel it in the air, feel it up above/Feel the tension everywhere, there’s too much blood!” (The single also featured a disturbing video, as Richards and Wood chase after Jagger with chainsaws.) It’s undoubtedly one of the strangest songs in the Stones’ catalouge, a warped look at a pop-culture landscape that’s only gotten more perverse as time drags on.

With Jagger’s attempt to incorporate contemporary trends in dance music. Musically, Undercover appears to duel between hard rock, reggae and new wave, reflecting the leadership tug of war between Jagger and Richards at the time. “Pretty Beat Up” is largely a Ronnie Wood composition, and Jagger and Richards were both reportedly reluctant to include it on the album.

Undercover continues to divide . Although it was largely praised on release, many fans came to regard it as among the Rolling Stones‘ weaker releases, a view echoed by Jagger himself in later interviews. While some critics tend to blame the then-contemporary production and eclecticism, a large part of the album was done in a hard-rock style (“She Was Hot”, “Too Tough”, “All The Way Down”, and “It Must Be Hell”), leading many to fault the generally inconsistent material.

Written and sung by Keith, “Wanna Hold You” the song takes the standard pop conceit of a poor man who can only promise his woman love, and creates a dazzling positivity, It’s a simple pop song, but it inverts the dour, blood-and-guts feeling that pervades the record, giving it a much-needed break.

Jagger had read William Burroughs’ book Cities of the Red Night. It was the book everyone was supposed to be reading. It had received, at that point, the best reviews of Burroughs’ career. Which shows weird only lasts as long as it’s something new.

Burroughs was the starting point for Jagger writing the song “Undercover of the Night” in Paris around late 1982. As he later explained in the liner notes for The Stones’ compilation Jump Back, “Undercover of the Night” was “heavily influenced by William Burroughs’ Cities Of The Red Night, a free-wheeling novel about political and sexual repression. It combines a number of different references to what was going down in Argentina and Chile.”

“Undercover of the Night” is a classic Stones’ track. A brilliant vocal, a great guitar riff, and a memorable hook. It was Jagger’s song, as Richards later recalled: “Mick had this one all mapped out, I just played on it. There were a lot more overlays on the track because there was a lot more separation in the way we were recording at the time.”

“Undercover Of The Night” was the album’s opener and first single. Listening to the fiery funk beat, it’s clear that this is mostly Jagger’s composition. Though the lyrics deal with the political corruption of South America, an important element from Jamaica drives the song: the rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie ShakespeareShakespeare replaces Bill Wyman here on bass, but his sporadic playing suits the paranoid feel. Among other percussionists, Watts’ driving backbeat is mixed with the dub-echo of Dunbar’s electronic drums, giving the track an interesting, though very period, soundscape.
When it came to making the promo for the song, the Stones approached Julien Temple who was the hip, young director with a fine resume of work with the Sex Pistols, the UK Subs (Punk Can Take It) and the promo for “Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. He had also famously directed the Pistols big screen adventure The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. Temple soon discovered how difficult the relationship between Jagger and Richards had become:
“I wrote an extreme treatment about being in the middle of an urban revolution and dramatized the notion of Keith and Mick really not liking each other by having Keith kill Mick in the video. I never thought they would do it. Of course, they loved it. I went to Paris to meet with the band. Keith was looking particularly unhappy. He was glowering with menace and eventually said, ‘Come downstairs with me.’ My producer and I went down to the men’s room. Keith had a walking stick and suddenly he pulled it apart. The next thing I know he’s holding a swordstick to my throat. He said, ‘I want to be in the video more than I am.’ So we wrote up his part a bit more. That was Keith’s idea of collaboration!”

The promo opens on a hotel complex. American tourists are having a good time grooving to the Stones’ music while militiamen patrol the rooftops and streets. Jagger as the journalist (white knight in a Panama hat and very bad stick-on mustache) watches as Keith and his gang of masked vigilantes or maybe revolutionaries or maybe death squad or maybe just a rock ‘n’ roll group on the spur of some internal wranglings (take your pick) sneak into the hotel and kidnap one of the hotel guests or rather kidnap Mick Jagger watching Mick Jagger on TV. Journo Mick watches kidnapped Mick being spirited away by Keith and co. who all drive off in what looks like a military vehicle straight past a bunch of soldiers kicking the shit out of people down on their luck.

Journo Mick makes his way to kidnapped Mick’s hotel room where he finds a woman hiding under the bed covers (ya see what they did there?). Anyway, one thing leads to another, and journo Mick and his girl under the covers watch an execution and then go off (via the police department) to rescue kidnapped Mick. A shoot-out ensues in a candle-lit church—nothing worse than what any five-year-old could see on The A-Team—and kidnapped Mick is saved. Poor old journo Mick dies from a bullet wound.

What it’s saying, what it’s actually about, is none too clear. It’s a dilettante’s take on Burroughs and the criminal activities of government’s and hoodlums in South America. At worst, it might make a viewer go, “Wow, South America looks a fun place to have a party.” At best, it would get the kids talking about politics and shit.

Jagger has sometimes been accused of being a dilettante. Maybe. To be fair, he’s more, as Richards said in his autobiography, “a sponge” who soaks up whatever’s going on and filters it through his music. Just what every good artist does.

The subject matter of the song and its accompanying promo was a rare outing into politics for the Stones. It was over fifteen years since “Street Fighting Man” but “Undercover of the Night” chimed neatly with the edgy political songs released by bands like The Jam or specifically the Clash and their album Sandinista! from 1980, which similarly dealt with the political turmoil in Chile and Nicaragua. The promo was banned by the BBC or rather the Corporation said they weren’t going to screen it, while the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) were nervous over its perceived violence. MTV was also angsty. It’s difficult to see why the sequences of so-called “violence” caused such concern, as both the BBC and the Independent Television Channels in the UK screened far worse with war films and westerns and TV detective series at peak times. It was more likely the political content—the suggestion that America was in some way sponsoring murderous dictatorships in South America—rather than any bang-bang, shoot-shoot, made “Undercover of the Night” unpalatable. But getting “banned” kept the Stones relevant in a wholly different way.

In 1983 Mick Jagger and director Julien Temple appeared via TV link-up on The Tube to promote the single and defend the video’s politics and violence. They were interviewed by a young presenter called Muriel Gray.

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