It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll is a decadent album because it invites us to dance in the face of its own despair. It’s a desperate album that warns at the end of one side that “… dreams of the nighttime will vanish by dawn,” and on the other that a Kafkaesque “someone is listening, good night, sleep tight.” It’s a rock ‘n’ roll album because it’s so goddamn violent.
At its simplest level the album deals with the psychosis of being in a rock ‘n’ roll band and having made it as a star — and it does that better than the Who’s opus devoted exclusively to that subject, Quadrophenia. At another level it uses the relationship between a band and its audience as a metaphor for the parasitic relations between a man and a woman. At still another, in the best tradition of rock ‘n’ roll, it convincingly flaunts its own raunchiness.
The first cut sets the tone of the album by reminding us of pop’s ancient double-entendre: that the word rock refers both to music and to sex. “If You Can’t Rock Me” sounds like it ought to be about sex. But it starts with, “The band’s onstage and it’s one of those nights.” Only the chorus turns it back into the anticipated and angry fuck song.
Their “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” is still a lover’s plea but there’s an undercurrent of resentment directed at the listener. By now, you can’t tell whether the Stones are singing about people who watch them or people they live with. That confusion is enhanced by the tightness with which the album’s producers, the Glimmer Twins, have welded it to the title track.
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The verses to “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” sound like an assault on the audience. “If I could stick a pen in my heart/I’d spill it all over the stage …” It’s only when they get to the bridge that their real target comes into focus: “Do you think that you’re the only girl around/I’ll bet you think that you’re the only woman in town.” They’ve fused their many resentments into a single vitriolic statement.
But the song is more than an attack. Jagger sounds like he hates, but he also sounds convincing, not ironic, when he belts out, “I know it’s only rock ‘n roll but I like it.” How can he? Because, in addition to desperation, the song reflects both the strength and vulnerability of someone who has earned the right to ask Bob Dylan’s question, “What else can you show me?”
On the album’s first three songs the band renews its claim to greatness. Instead of coming off like cynics they sound like they’re still vulnerable, afraid, capable of being hurt and able to respond with aggressive energy. They’ve returned with a vengeance to the wildness of their early records and the fact that they are more self-conscious than ever about it doesn’t detract from the album’s impact.
The main focus of their aggressive instincts are, as has most often been the case, women. On the basis of “Stupid Girl,” the Rolling Stones have been called sexists. On the basis of this album, they are plainly misogynists. Their antipathy to women comes across most bluntly in their blast at the woman waiting for Jagger to “. . . suicide right on the stage.” But it’s also there in an incidental line (“Time can tear down a building or destroy a woman’s face”) or an entire song (“Short and Curlies”).
Jagger’s tendency to see women and work as extensions of the same burden shows up in the weirdest places and in the funniest ways. On “Luxury” he plays the part of a Jamaican factory worker with two monkeys on his back: “I’m working so hard, I’m working for the company/I’m working so hard to keep you in the luxury.”
His embittered view of the possibilities for men and women show up most powerfully on the extraordinary “If You Really Want to Be My Friend.” In the first verse he takes the part of the man in a lover’s quarrel, in the second verse, the part of the woman. And while he’s doing it, he continues to use art as a metaphor:
I know you think life is a thriller
You play the vamp, I’ll play the killer
Now, baby, what’s the use of fighting
By the last reel we’ll be crying
He leaves the lovers in a horrible, hopeless quagmire of their own making.
“If You Really Want to Be My Friend” is a tough ballad; “Till the Next Goodbye” is almost poignant. Jagger conveys his desperation by simply saying, “I can’t go on like this,” while the band smolders beneath him.
Jagger used his most violent images to deal with men and women. At one point he laughingly cries “… she’s got you by the balls.” During another, he talks about “… a vulture, a sore and a cancer culture,” and asks someone to “get your nails outta my back, stop bleeding me.”
When he’s singing about more abstract subjects, he’s more distant. “Fingerprint File” is a bit contrived, in the manner of “Dancing with Mr. D.” on Goats Head Soup. He never quite convinces us that some nameless agent of a nameless power is really running him down.
But he sings “Time Waits for No One” with a controlled desperation that borders on acceptance but never quite becomes resignation. Given the rock star’s inherent fear of aging, the song becomes an affirmation of Jagger’s willingness to keep on trying in the face of inevitable doom.
For me, It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll is Mick Jagger’s show. It seems like any time anyone writes about him it is either to analyze his appeal as a showman or to gossip about his private life. His role as the man who has done the most to define rock-band singing often (and amazingly) goes undiscussed.
Jagger started out with a mediocre voice, no training, an enthusiasm for black music and a passion to communicate. From the start he must have known instinctively what he only made explicit on December’s Children: “I’m free to sing my song though it gets out of time.”
He had a right to feel that way because he was singing in the only band that made a virtue of its drummer’s tendency to lose the beat and its background voices’ inability to sing on key. While the Beatles always had George Martin around to clean up their act, the Rolling Stones had Andrew Loog Oldham to coarsen theirs. (And it’s the early Rolling Stones records that still get played while so much of the early Beatles music is now only of passing interest.) Jagger possessed style, control and originality from the beginning. His interpretations of Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” and Bo Diddley’s “Mona” were remarkably precocious and startlingly well focused.
By the time he cut “Satisfaction” Jagger had so well captured the spirit of black music that when singers of twice his ability covered the song, they never called into question his original. But beyond black music, Jagger gave an English voice to the adolescent rage that Bob Dylan was articulating in the United States.
And yet, while the Rolling Stones have always qualified as angry young men, they were never merely angry young men. Jagger swaggered through Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” (“My song’s … gonna save the whole world”*), hammed his way through “Empty Heart,” and sang a perfect version of Sam Cooke’s difficult “Good Times,” making it sound surprisingly easy.
Jagger somehow managed to continually deliver more than was promised. He found a broader emotional range on “Dandelion,” “We Love You,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” and, most surprisingly on the Got Live if You Want It! version of “Satisfaction.”
At the end of the decade he began to produce a string of virtually undisputed rock gems including “Street Fighting Man,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Gimmie Shelter,” “Moonlight Mile” and “Tumbling Dice,” the last two my own favorite Jagger performances.
From the beginning, the Rolling Stones have also made an extraordinary number of memorable albums including The Rolling Stones, Now!, Out of Our Heads, December’s Children, Aftermath, Let It Bleed, and possibly their finest work to date, Exile on Main Street. But even their greatest fans have come to expect unevenness, with their low points (“As Tears Go By”) sinking beneath the barely acceptable.
So It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll‘s consistency comes as a real surprise, especially after the occasional lameness of Goats Head Soup. Jagger justifies the loud mixing of his voice by singing almost everything to perfection and reaches a pinnacle on the title track and “If You Really Want to Be My Friend.”
On the first, he uses and exaggerates all of his mannerisms until he finds a line he can blast us back with. And he finds one after another.
As for the second, I criticized Jagger’s singing of Sticky Fingers‘s soul ballad, “I Got the Blues,” because I believed there is a time when the only thing that will do is the right note, correctly sung, and that he couldn’t deliver it. On “If You Really Want to Be My Friend,” he doesn’t bother with notes, whether rightly or wrongly sung. He sings it the way he sang the early soul ballads (“That’s How Strong My Love Is,” “Cry to Me”) — in a mannered, contorted, violent and outrageous voice. In so doing, he immerses us in the emotional turmoil of the kind of quarrel that only takes place when there is nothing left to a relationship but endless arguing.
As for the rest of the Rolling Stones, they continue to prove their worth and their uniqueness. I loved them the first time I saw them tour in 1965 for their rambunctious arrogance and the simplicity of their music. I loved them the last time I saw them, at Madison Square Garden in 1972, for putting on the most accomplished and overwhelming rock performance I had yet seen.
During all that time I find Charlie Watts has barely changed. He plays what he always has, only better. By any reasonable definition, he is an ordinary musician. But when he plays with the Rolling Stones, his style takes on meaning and he becomes a fifth of an indivisible whole.
The guitars are flashier than they used to be. Keith Richard has never quite established the rapport with Mick Taylor, the band’s best technician, that he had with its wildest anarchist, Brian Jones. But they do amazing things together on “Luxury,” “Time Waits for No One” and “If You Can’t Rock Me.”
I once criticized the band for compromising the power of “Brown Sugar” by cluttering it up with acoustic rhythm guitars. They add the acoustics on “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” but this time it works, lending a stylized and distinctive aura to the sound of the track.
The album has its playful moments but its most characteristic instant is Charlie Watts’s first drumbeat on “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll.” It resonates like the sound of a shotgun. That violence — transmitted through the singing, words and music — makes It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll one of the most intriguing and mysterious, as well as the darkest, of all Rolling Stones records. Time has become just one more reality to face and to deal with.
Guy Peellaert did the cover art. He also did the portraits of rock stars which make up the beautiful book Rock Dreams. There are five impressions of the Rolling Stones, but the one that best captures the feeling of It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll isn’t of the Rolling Stones at all, but of Frank Sinatra. On the last page, Sinatra is standing in the dark shadows of stage lighting with a mike in one hand and a drink in the other. The caption says: “… Hope I die before I get old.”