Hidden Gems: The Rolling Stones’ “Undercover”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

In one of the most starkly honest moments of Life, his remarkable autobiography, Keith Richards describes his awakening of sorts, beginning in the late ‘70s. 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. During the previous few years, the frontman was forced to keep the house in order, so to speak, while his Glimmer Twin was semi-indisposed (though still managing to write incredible rock songs). As he attempted to take back some of the reins after his recovery, Jagger was reluctant to oblige and, in Keef’s words, “started to become unbearable.” All was not well in Stonesland, with the future seemingly in jeopardy—“When you think about it, we’d been together 25 years or so before the shit really hit the fan. So the view was, this was bound to happen. This happens to all bands eventually, and now’s the test. Does it hold together?”

Of course, since we’ve seen this movie, we all know that they did hold together, currently holding the title of greatest sexagenarian rock band in the world. It’s staggering to think about, but there has been an entity called the Rolling Stones for more than 50 years; most of us haven’t lived a day where there wasn’t such a thing—they’ve always just been there. So if any of us are around to see the day when the comfort of the Stones is no more, it will be a worrisome change. (Though don’t count on it; as the old joke goes, the only thing to survive an atomic bomb will be Keith Richards and the cockroaches.) But like everything else, the Rolling Stones will eventually come to an end, and in the ‘80s, just like nuclear warfare, it almost happened.

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With Some Girls, the Stones proved their relevance in the aftermath of punk; Emotional Rescue waded deeper into the funk and disco they had previously flirted with; Tattoo You and the resulting American/European tours not only cemented their Rock God status, but heightened it. So now what? They had given enough blood to the world that they certainly didn’t owe anyone anything. If they ended it right then and there, their legacy was already intact—though the same could have been said five, 10 or 20 years prior. We can’t answer why they kept going, and most likely, neither can they. But so far, the Rolling Stones were smart enough to keep a step ahead of the seasons of staleness; as they prepared to record their next album in late ’82, Jagger knew this most of all.

As the band had done for the past few years, they chose to record the bulk of the next album at Paris’ Pathé-Marconi Studios, with the production help of Chris Kimsey. First working with the group years earlier as engineer on Sticky Fingers, Kimsey had since become their regular co-producer, from Some Girls on. Before the rest of the band arrived in France, Mick and Keith spent a few weeks that November recording demos in a small studio, instead of writing while recording, which they usually did. Soon after, the full group assembled at Pathé-Marconi, working for the better part of a month, before breaking for the holidays. Tensions were beginning to run high, but perhaps the time off would cool things down.

It didn’t. When sessions resumed in February, the creative tug-of-war between Jagger and Richards had gotten even worse. Richards wanted to keep the band’s blues-rock roots for the most part; Jagger, on the other hand, wanted the group to experiment and keep up with the dance pop of the time. As Richards describes in Life, “Coming back after a few months apart, I realized that Mick’s taste in music had often changed quite drastically. He wanted to lay on me the latest hit he heard at a disco. But it’s already been done, pal. At the time we were doing Undercover in 1983, he was just trying to out-disco everybody. It all sounded to me like some rehash of something he heard in a club one night … Mick was chasing musical fashion. I had a lot of problems with him trying to second-guess the audience. This is what they’re into this year. Yeah, what about next year, pal? You just become one of the crowd. And anyway, that’s never the way we’ve worked.”

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It’s easy to see both sides of the argument. By sticking with the familiar, you run the risk of retreading yourself; however, you don’t want to lose integrity by becoming a replica of something else. Mixing these two opinions through compromise would seem ideal, but there was more between these two than musical differences—“This situation was a culmination of things that had been going on for several years. The immediate problem was that Mick had developed an overriding desire to control everything. As far as he was concerned, it was Mick Jagger and them … Now there was Mick’s world, which was a socialite world, and our world … The band, including myself, were now basically hirelings. That had always been his attitude to everyone else, but never to the band. When it dripped over onto us, that was it.” Of course, that’s only one side of the story and we can only theorize what Jagger thinks. Perhaps, there was some resentment towards Richards for wanting to take back control after Jagger steered the ship during his heavy drug periods. With only an outside view, one can’t even fathom what Mick and Keith went through all those years—from children to rock stars, and everything in between. The only certainty is that their relationship was never the same.

After other overdubs in the Bahamas and New York, and in spite of all the conflicts (plus the worsening drug addictions of Charlie Watts and Ron Wood), Undercover was finished in August ’83. Released in November of that year, “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 Shakespeare. The duo were a major force in reggae music, producing and playing with some of its biggest names (including Black Uhuru, through which, they met the Stones). Shakespeare 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.

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Before being banned on MTV because of viewer complaints, the original unedited video for “Undercover Of The Night” featured a mini-movie based around the themes of the song. Jagger plays a detective investigating the kidnapping of a teenage girl in South America, though he’s trailed by the party responsible, a mob leader played by Richards. The climax of the video culminates with Keith graphically killing Mick’s character with a machine gun. Like most of the album, the subtext is too obvious to ignore. The tension during the recording had seeped into the music, whether consciously or subconsciously. Angry, violent lyrics abound on Undercover, particularly on songs like “It Must Be Hell,” “Tie You Up (The Pain Of Love)” and “Pretty Beat Up.”

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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, reverbed 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’ catalog, a warped look at a pop-culture landscape that’s only gotten more perverse as time drags on.

Amid all the gore, there’s very few happy moments on Undercover, but the pure glee of “Wanna Hold You” almost balances it out. Written and sung by Keith, the song takes the standard pop conceit of a poor man who can only promise his woman love, and creates a dazzling positivity, one reminiscent of another Richards classic, “Happy.” 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.

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Though its sales were successful, Undercover has come to represent a dark period for the Rolling Stones. It’s now considered one of the band’s weaker releases, which is unfair; there are more than a few stunning moments throughout, and it’s, dare I say, the last quality studio album in the band’s history. Unsurprisingly, the Stones have distanced themselves from Undercover in recent years, which to them, features little more than bad memories. For the Glimmer Twins, it’s the start of a downhill relationship; for Wood and Watts, it’s a sobering reminder of their struggles with drug and alcohol addiction; Wyman isn’t even in the band anymore. Though they went on hiatus a few years after, the Rolling Stones have continued to soldier through the muck, unwilling (or unable) to let it keep them from their rock ‘n’ roll. Take comfort in them now, ‘cause they aren’t gonna be there forever.

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One Comment

  1. Posted June 30, 2012 at 1:11 am | Permalink

    Found an import vinyl copy in Baltimore. Been reading Richards, and he makes you want to revisit, even though he’s more focused on drugs and mayhem than music, despite references to the ancient weaving, which became the trademark sound of the band in the Ronnie Wood era. Undercover has been the black hole in the catalog for me, and I have almost everything. That I prefer late-model Stones – love Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock n Roll – leads to further mystery as to how I missed this, but so many others did, too, and it’s been buried for some time under lousy reviews. Twenty-nine years later, what the fuck, re-evaluate! We’re all still alive!