Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Transition albums are always difficult…shedding the old, embracing the new, trying to find a fresh direction while not completely losing touch with where you came from, it happens to most any band who sticks around for more than half a dozen years. From their very first album in 1964, the Rolling Stones were able to put out a slew of consecutively great to spectacular (and one bizarrely interesting) albums that hit a superbly sweet spot between 1968 and 1972 with the quadruple threat of Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street – and they did so while losing guitarist/auxiliary musician Brian Jones and incorporating guitar wunderkind Mick Taylor, a seemingly effortless transition in which they never missed a beat or a lick (ha, ha, get it?). But when Mick Taylor left, things started to get a little shaky. Sure, he was onboard when their slight decline began in 1973 with Goats Head Soup, but was long gone when the band started trying out guitarists while simultaneously recording 1976’s Black and Blue. And while Ronnie Wood eventually got the slot and has been there ever since, he only appears on a handful of tracks on that album, as the rest are filled in by other possible hopefuls. Recorded sporadically over a period of several months, I think it’s safe to say that the resulting album from any band under these circumstances would be patchy at best. There definitely seemed to be a lack of focus from the group, and that’s also understandable considering a) this was their thirteenth album in as many years and b) the plethora of amazing material they were able to churn out in that amount of time (while also indulging in a now legendary rock n roll lifestyle). In my opinion, Black and Blue is an overlooked gem. I won’t quite call it a lost classic because it in no way compares to the “fantastic four” or even some of the stronger efforts from their early period, but for what it is, which is a band looking to stay together and possibly rediscover themselves, it’s quite strong. With styles covering reggae, jazz, funk and, of course, rock n roll, Black and Blue is very smooth listen. And honestly, this might be part of the problem, for where many of the great-great-great Stones albums challenge the listener with song after song that not only cover a variety of styles but create attitudes and personalities all their own, Black and Blue catches a groove in a slick and seamless fashion that is in every way unobtrusive, so just as you’re starting to shake yer biznezz with Hot Stuff, the next thing you know it’s 40 odd minutes later and Crazy Mama is shutting it all down for you. Essentially, once the needle hits the wax, it’s very easy for this album to just slip into the background and it really takes repeat and concentrated listens to catch hold of true standouts (some of which are in the lower tiers of the best of the Stones) like Hand of Fate, Memory Motel and Melody (which features a fantastic organ and counter vocal from Billy Preston). Though a commercial success (it went to #1 in the US), Black and Blue effectively transitioned the Rolling Stones into their final and current stage (unless you wanna consider the departure of Bill Wyman as another phase), replacing a lot of the rough grime and grit, both musically and lyrically, that had made them infamous with a glossy sheen that became more tongue in cheek chic, a formulaic parody of themselves, than the threat from the dark underbelly of rock music. Also, this is where their true artistic decline begins (though they followed up this album with Some Girls, which many fans consider to be on par with their dead level best), as they started to morph into the cash machine that would eventually end up on the cover of Forbes. But all of that aside, we really can’t fault or overlook the music, which has merit, even if it’s a touch pedestrian, jaded and ultimately uninspired. Black and Blue presents its case of Stones longevity well, showcasing a set of musicians still capable of putting out a listenable tune and a formidable, if not earth shattering, record -- and they were able to keep up that lesser momentum at least into the early 80s (right Bill?).

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