When Black and Blue came out in 1976, many dismissed the album because it wasn't Exile on Main Street or even Goats Head Soup – which, in retrospect, is precisely what makes it so cool. By necessity, the sessions doubled as auditions to find a replacement for just-departed guitarist Mick Taylor, with Harvey Mandel, Wayne Perkins and eventual winner Ron Wood all bringing the heat; as it turned out, the presence of these highly motivated outside musicians – along with an emphasis on stretchable material – resulted in some of the most energized performances in the Stones canon.
The no-nonsense vibe is apparent from the album's first moments, as Keith Richards' James Brown-inspired rhythm-guitar chinks and Charlie Watts' body-punching snare hits cement the deep funk of "Hot Stuff." It isn't one of the Stones' greatest songs, but it is one of their greatest grooves. The swaggering, nonchalant "Hand of Fate," perhaps the least exposed of the band's classic rock numbers, finds Richards and Perkins locked in an extended rally while Mick Jagger employs his voice as a rhythm instrument. After a steamy, spot-on cover of the Jamaican hit "Cherry Oh Baby" comes "Memory Motel," a vivid seven-minute road movie, co-starring Jagger and Richards on vocals, that is among the Stones' most stirring epic ballads, along with "Moonlight Mile" and "Angie." And that's just Side One. The second half is its virtual twin, as another pair of sultry hip-shakers ("Hey Negrita," "Melody") boogaloo into another sublime ballad ("Fool to Cry") and a chunky rocker ("Crazy Mama").
Forty-one minutes of supertight, bone-dry, hi-fi rock and soul, Black and Blue is the only Stones long-player to treat feel as its primary subject matter, and that's the key to the record's charm. When Richards sings, "She's got a mind of her own. . . . She's one of a kind," in "Memory Motel," he could be describing this down-to-earth beauty.
This story is from the June 24, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.