33 1/3 author Cyrus R. K. Patell reflects on what’s changed for the Stones – and what hasn’t – in the years since Some Girls was released.
Four decades later and they’re still at it: tomorrow is the fortieth anniversary of the release of what many believe was the Rolling Stones’ last great album, Some Girls, and the band is marking it by playing a gig at Edinburgh’s BT Murryfield Stadium, the seventh date of the second leg of their “No Filter” tour or Europe. Actually, “marking it” isn’t quite right: the band doesn’t seem to be making a big deal out of the anniversary, and (as of today, June 8) you won’t find a reminder on rollingstones.com. What will you find on the welcome screen is a list of tour dates: the Stones are still working, and they want you to know it. In fact, they’ve been touring more or less continuously since getting back together in 2012 to commemorate the band’s 50th anniversary.
Things have changed of course: ever since bassist Bill Wyman retired in 1993, the moniker “Rolling Stones” signifies the foursome of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Charlie Watts. Wyman’s successor, Darryl Jones, has been playing with the band on tour and in the studio for nearly a quarter-century now, but he didn’t “replace” Wyman in the way that Wood replaced guitarist Mick Taylor, who left the Stones in 1974. (Although Wood appeared on the cover of Black and Blue in 1976, Some Girls was the first album in which he was a full-fledged member of the band.) Onstage these days, the tempos tend to be a little more … deliberate, understandable when you consider that each of the foursome is in his seventies and that Jagger became a great-grandfather four years ago, but the audiences still fill stadiums.
Watch the concert film Havana Moon (2016), recorded at a free outdoor concert at the Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana sports complex in Cuba, which was attended by an estimated half a million people, and you’ll get the sense that the Stones these days are about grandeur. Advertising a new limited vinyl edition of the Stones studio albums from 1971 to 2016, the American version of the Stones’ online store tells us:
“Whenever The Rolling Stones do anything, they do it with quality and gravitas. Having defined rock’n’roll in the 60s, The Rolling Stones entered their imperial phase in 1971 with Sticky Fingers. What followed is a run of albums that couldn’t have happened at any other time, by any other band: the decadent excess of Exile On Main St, the Jamaican voodoo swamp of Goats Head Soup, the disco and punk-infused prowl of Some Girls. With each new decade, the Stones evolved while staying true to their roots, coming full circle in 2016 with Blue & Lonesome, a love letter to their first inspiration: the blues.”
Gravitas? Imperial? Have the Stones become the people they parodied in “Respectable” from side two of Some Girls? “Well now we’re respected in society /
We don’t worry about the things that we used to be …”
No—at least, not entirely. I’d like to think that, while the marketers behind the website may take all that rhetoric seriously (they’re hawking a $450 product after all), Jagger and his mates adopt a more ironic stance toward their success. There’s no need to apologize for being successful, no need to apologize for surviving when so many other icons of the 1960s and 1970s didn’t. Along with the grandeur these days, there’s something else: a sense of self-deprecation, perhaps captured best in a one-liner that Keith adapted from the British comedian Max Miller and that’s preserved for posterity in Martin Scorsese’s 2008 concert film Shine a Light: “It’s good to see you all, you know. [Takes a puff from his cigarette]. It’s good to see anybody …”
The Stones’ current tour is called “No Filter,” which depending on your context means either someone who says whatever he or she is thinking no matter how offensive it is, or an Instagram photo that’s ostensibly had no digital manipulation. In either case, the phrase connotes authenticity and immediacy. Compared to the bombastic stage sets of tours past—remember those inflatable honky tonk women in 1989?—the current tour gives us the band and four gigantic screens so we can see the musicians up close and almost personal. But to understand the difference that forty years makes, watch Havana Moon and then put on another concert film, Some Girls: Live in Texas ’78, filmed not in a stadium but at the comparatively intimate Will Rogers Auditorium in Fort Worth.
The 1978 tour is a different kind of “no filter” altogether: up-tempo, kinetic, and driven by a relentlessness in the guitar work that Richards and Wood don’t aspire to these days. Jagger’s stage-patter seems more … unfiltered. “Are you feeling good?” Jagger exhorts after the band rips through “Shattered.” “I always feel good in Texas. I’m afraid if the band’s lacking slightly in energy it’s because they spent all last night fucking. But we’ll do our best.” It’s the 1970s Jagger at his louche and lascivious best. But he’s also being ironic—not, perhaps, about the fucking, but about the lack of energy, because the band proceeds to churn out out to be a rip-roaring rendition of “Respectable” that would have made Joe Strummer proud.
It’s that sense of irony that separated the Stones from the deadly earnestness of much of the punk rock of the late 1970s. There’s a nasty edge to Some Girls, but with the possible exception of “Before They Make Me Run,” which seems to reflect Richards’s legal difficulties in the wake of his drug bust in Canada, all of the songs reflect the perspectives of particular characters, who are most definitely not Jagger: the gay hustler of “When the Whip Comes Down,” the Bakersfield hick of “Far Away Eyes,” and even the lothario of the title track, who sings “Black girls just want to get fucked all night / I don’t have that much jam.” That line in particular got the band in trouble, but the entire song is potentially offensive because it depicts a character who seems to believe wholeheartedly in derogatory stereotypes. Ultimately, the band issued an apology: “It never occurred to us that our parody of certain stereotypical attitudes would be taken seriously by anyone who heard the entire lyric of the song in question. No insult was intended, and if any was taken, we sincerely apologize.”
If irony is one thing that separates the Stones from most of the punk bands of the 1970s, musicianship is another. Remembering what it was like to begin working on Some Girls, Richards told WXPN’s Michaela Majoun in 2011: “I think the punks kicked us up the ass. We were realized there was an attitude and an energy going on, that a new generation was growing up. And I think our attitude basically was, “I love their attitude, I love their energy but they can’t play. … I mean, that wasn’t their thing anyway. If we could add that sort of punk energy to a band that can actually play, then we might come up with something. And we did.”
That’s one thing that links the Stones of 1978 with the Stones of 2018. They could play then, and they can still play now, even if the tempos aren’t quite what they used to be. And here’s another: I used to joke that the Stones of recent years had moved into the “sensible shoe” years to make all that bouncing around on stage a little easier, but here’s something I noticed when watching Some Girls: Live in Texas ’78 again: Keith Richards is wearing Adidas sneakers.
Cyrus R. K. Patell is the author of The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls for the 33 1/3 series and is currently teaching at NYU Abu Dhabi and writing a book about Star Wars.