Still Life, the Rolling Stones’ fourth live album, opens with an absolutely savage version of “Under My Thumb.” Keith Richards starts it off, hammering out that killer riff as if it were 1965 again, while Charlie Watts slams away with equal fervor. And Mick Jagger tears into the unbridled misogyny of the lyrics (“Now she’s the sweetest … pet in the world”) like a man rabid for revenge. As the song progresses, propelled by Watts’ deft cymbal touches and some splendid chordal soloing by Keith and Ron Wood, your hopes rise. Have these guys done it at last? Have they made a great live rock & roll record?
Unfortunately, no. Of course, it’s no big surprise that Still Life doesn’t live up to its ballsy beginning. The Stones’ 1981 tour de-emphasized the go-get-’em guitar jams of earlier outings (remember “Midnight Rambler” from Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out?), as well as Jagger’s more Dionysian antics. It offered, instead, a good-spirited, unexploitative (long sets, fast encores) rock & roll show. Not flawlessly rendered music — a great show.
And it’s the show that Still Life tries to reproduce. You get ten songs, light on the classics and heavy on covers, in the order they were performed. You get Jagger’s cross-country stage patter (“Welcome, Virginia…. All right, Chicago!”). You even get the evening’s effluvia: Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” intro, the bang of the fireworks that closed the concert. Yes, it’s all there but the ticket stubs, though at times, it’s a bit hard to understand why. Tom Wolfe predicted the day when every novel would be referred to as a cordless miniseries; there are moments when Still Life comes off like the first screenless videodisc.
It’s hard not to feel that you’re missing something during the flaccid flailings that pass for “Satisfaction” here — and, in fact, you are, since hundreds of balloons were dropped into the crowd during this number. And not even Ian Stewart’s best barrelhouse piano can save the cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty-Flight Rock.” “When I get to the top/I’m too tired to rock,” indeed. Similarly lackluster is “Start Me Up,” which misses the crisp guitar attack and hand percussion of the studio version.
But there are moments of mastery here. “Shattered” loses some of its murkiness and features a fiery Jagger racing through its words with the same intensity he brought to “Neighbours.” On “Going to a Go-Go,” Jagger and Ron Wood holler lustily together in front of Watts’ upon-this-rock-will-I-build-my-band bashing.
“Time Is on My Side” has made the predictable transition from love song (“You come running back”) to anthem (“Y’all come running back”). But it’s Richards who makes the song work on both levels; that plaintive riff rings even more bittersweet in the echoes of an arena. “Just My Imagination” also showcases some slashing guitar work and an ending on loan from “When the Whip Comes Down.” Even “Let Me Go,” which needed a Jagger foray into the audience to elicit any kind of crowd response, boasts a respectable Wood-Richards duel.
Yet for all its strengths, Still Life finally comes across as the aural equivalent of a Stones T-shirt, the final item of tour merchandise. But so what? People who get to see the Stones a lot — rock critics, for example — tend to forget that a lot of people don’t get to see them at all. That kid who told one reporter in Los Angeles, “Some Girls … man, that brings back some memories,” spoke, I think, for a lot of people. They are going to love this record. The rest of you might prefer to go back and check out 12 X 5.