When it comes to The Stones and their post-Exile ’70s output, anyone who cares about such things seems to always point to Some Girls as the classic platter that redefined the aging empire’s sound and vision, taking on disco and punk and whatever other tribes were rising up over the airwaves at that point and melding them into a potent brew that finally reached beyond tha’ blooze and firmly planted a Cuban heel right on the new decade’s cultural heartbeat. We at The Niche are nothing if not contrarian, however, and it is therefore my argument that Some Girl‘s less celebrated older brother, 1976’s Black And Blue, is a far more natural and noticeably less desperate exploration of latter ’70s trends, making it a great deal more fun to listen to than its more famous but somewhat clunky followup. Track-for-track, B&B can not only go toe-for-toe the full twelve rounds with Some Girls but it contains at least three more Stones all-time classics. At a time when critics are shining a light on some of the more “obscure” records in their catalog (Emotional Rescue, anyone?), it’s about time Black And Blue received its rightful praise. I didn’t want to do this myself since I love this record with all my heart and it means so much to me that actually writing about it, bringing a private obsession into the cold hard light of day, might murder my own enjoyment, but since everyone else is slow to the draw then here it goes. What follows is a track-by-track guide to the glorious mess that is Black & Blue and hopefully at least a slight bit of insight into why this record towers, at least in my mind, over all Stones offerings after they finally exiled from Main Street.

Hot Stuff: Although this white hot opening track is generally seen by diehards as the experimental template which birthed, just three years later, the “disco actually doesn’t suck” Stones classic “Miss You”, in actuality this earlier four-on-the-floor stomper is much more unhinged, visceral, and just straight up bonkers than its more famous younger cousin. If you’re the type of person who annoys those around you by proclaiming that Bill Wyman is an incredibly underrated bassist, then your proof is right here in this rubbery, ’70s NYC gutter crawling groove that just doesn’t let up for five minutes and 21 seconds of gleeful decadence. We also get Sir Mick at his most untethered, and the rant he embarks on at the 3:20 mark is cocaine psychosis in real time, spewing insults and praises and strange grunts and incantations out over the dancing masses even though they can’t hear a thing he’s trying to get across. Ridiculous, delirious, and ready to run off the rails at any second, this is one of the Stones’ wildest hedonist anthems.

Hand Of Fate: Why isn’t “Hand Of Fate” played dozens of times per day on your local Classic FM station? It’s one of the great mysteries of life, my friend. Think about it. What does “Start Me Up” have that “Hand Of Fate” doesn’t? The Keef riff on “HOF” is arguably harder and more mythos-generating than the one “SMU”. Plus, while “SMU” may have resistance-proof one-liners about girls so hot they cause dead men to ejaculate, “HOF” is just dripping with hooks from front to back. The verses are hooks. The bridge is a hook. The choruses contain multiple hooks. The solos are hooks. Even Jagger asides like the “watched him die, watched him die, watched him die” that comes in just before the first solo is catchier than the “Yea, yea, yea, woo!”s of “Brown Sugar” and the “If ya’ startmeUP!”s of “SMU” combined. Plus, while “SMU” is just another sex romp, “HOF” weaves an actual narrative of murder, paranoia, and gallows humor not unlike the blooze tales these boys started out covering. This one should have been huge, but the fact that it wasn’t makes it an even more deliciously intriguing listen.

Cherry Oh Baby: Only The Rolling Stones could have gotten away with doing a piss-take reggae cover in 1976. And it just has to be a piss-take, doesn’t it? That purposefully clunky skank rhythm? That deliberately bad patois-spewing Jagger vocal? The way Keef shouts “Irie!” just before the “solo”? This is the stuff of comedy, and it’s definitely a more fun listen than Clapton’s studious and downright dire “I Shot The Sheriff” cover. It was still several years away from 10cc’s “Dreadlock Holiday”, which makes The Stones pioneers of the “blatantly making fun of reggae” genre. Like all pilgrims, their efforts weren’t as popular as later settlers, but from this rock an empire sprang forth.

Memory Motel: This brings us to nothing less than the most gorgeous song The Stones ever made. A sprawling, piano-led masterpiece, on paper “Memory” reads like the flashback sequences in Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro, sweeping passages of odd details and weighty regrets spoken with the lucid clarity that only comes after the good times finally fade. “Hannah honey was a peachy kind of girl,” Mick begins. “Her eyes were hazel and her nose was slightly curved.” And from there we’re off into tangled nostalgia and perfectly executed heartbreak daggers. “She drove a pick-up truck, painted green and blue”. “I got to fly today on down to Baton Rouge. My nerves are shot already. The road ain’t all that smooth. Across in Texas is the rose of San Antone. I got a feeling that’s gnawing in my bones”. “It took a starry night to steal my breath away. Down on the water front. Her hair all drenched in spray”. This is Sir Mick at his most reflective and hurt, and he’s carried forward on a piano-drenched melody worthy of Madman Across The Water-era Elton and adoring, swoon-perfect backing vox from his former choirboy partner-in-crime. And speaking of Keef, dude steps up to the lead on the “She got a mind of her own” bridge, nailing his best vocal performance on wax, a far cry from the cigarettes-and-lines-and-whisky-ravaged raspings most often associated with his vocal contributions. If you’re into grandiose Stones ballads of the “Moonlight Mile” or ‘Winter” variety, then don’t sleep for one second on “MM”.

You’re just a memory of a love 
That used to be 
You’re just a memory of a love 
That used to mean so much to me 

Hey Negrita: Now we’re back in ranting dance-funk territory, only with an intriguingly punk breakdown thrown in for good measure and a Mick shriek unleashed at the 1:40 mark that ranks as his most shamanistic utterance since the one on “Memo For Turner”. Rumor is this track was anointed its title from a nickname Mick had for his new GF, the future Bianca Jagger, and he sounds fittingly lusty and ready to burst right on out of his skin on every inch of this burner. This is the hardest, most churning groove on a record full of them, with Charlie Watts locked in something fierce and a strangely metallic guitar stutter acting as the only thing anchoring this madness to any semblance of a traditional song structure.

Melody: A jazzy, smoky torch song? Sure, why the fuck not? In keeping with the wacky, everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink vibe of this record, in a way “Melody” makes perfect sense. This is the type of thing you would never hear on any other Stones album, but here it sounds just right nestled in between a lusty funk-punk workout and a stately ballad. And Mick just has to be drunk here, right? Those whoops and shouts where he just gives up singing halfway through? Whatever the intoxicant to blame, he ends up rescuing the track like only the best frontment can. Before that breakdown this was just a second rate late night jazz club piano man standard. And after? A pleasingly odd and colorful sore thumb jutting out from The Stones’ “sucking in the ’70s” catalog.

Fool To Cry: Featuring the most leisurely of organ loops, exploratory piano runs, a guitar so flanged it sounds like it’s beaming in from Neptune, and cooing stardust backing vocals from Keef and Bill, this grand ballad is one of the all time best Stones songs even before Mick steps in with a career-top-ten performance that sweeps from plaintiff confession and crushing regret to spoken-word cynicism (“I make uh’ like a’ don’ undastaaaand”) to outright menace over the space of five lush minutes that propelled this version of The Stones back onto the radio airwaves. If you’re comparing ’70s Stones ballad chart hits, then “Fool To Cry” stands head and angelic shoulders over “Angie” and its pathetically benevolent posturing. “I’m a certified fool, baby.” Now that’s more like it.

Crazy Mamma: So how do you bring the whole crazy, unwieldy empire of Black And Blue on home? Why, with an all time great Stones rock charger, that’s how. Remember how I said that “Hand Of Fate” should have been bigger than “Start Me Up”? Well, “Crazy Mamma” should have been bigger than them both. This is hands down my fave Stones song, featuring a weighty Keef riff that takes so long to come around that it throws the whole song off kilter. You can tell Mick is having trouble gliding over this lurching mess. Charlie is further behind the beat than usual. Keef is off in some other dimension. But he has lots of fun with it, his voice going noticeably raw throughout, not really singing about anything more significant than all the crazy mammas and potential “ball and chain”s backstage but obviously having a fine old time as Black And Blue comes crashing down in a shower of sparks perfectly fitting for this enjoyably eclectic oddball of a record.

 

Daniel Falatko