I’ll always love the Rolling Stones of the 1980s – because that’s when I met them; met their music that is. A car-trip down south and the Rolled Gold compilation was my introduction to their early greatness, a documentary celebration their then seemingly impressive 25-year history filled in the 70s blanks but I’d already been raised on the albums from the 1980s – in particular the two most often written off as duds. This and its follow-up, Dirty Work. I like them both. But particularly think that Undercover is a strange gem. A crap album too. Absolutely. But a brilliant one…
Sure, you could point to Tattoo You in particular and Emotional Rescue before it, even “comeback” album Steel Wheels as proof that the 80s weren’t a bust for the Stones – but it was the decade where the in-fighting exploded and where the ideas seemed to totally run out; or the new style of the times was lost on them, or they were lost trying to best decipher it.
Tattoo You was the last outpouring of back-logged songs and with Undercover they started fresh.
But apart from opening near-title track, Undercover of the Night there’s not a lot that the general public and fairweather fans probably remember from this album. And that’s sometimes for the best I guess, Pretty Beat Up is a problematic track, particularly if analysed today. And Too Much Blood is just bizarre.
Speaking of bizarre – in my third-form music class, I’m 13 or whatever, and we all have to take a song we like to play. The teacher chooses me first. And we have to play the whole song to the class and then say why we like it. And I choose Too Much Blood. I did love the song. And the album. But I think I chose it so I could sneak in a good whispery ‘F-word’ (that bit where Mick, ruminating on horror films and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre in particular, spoken-words: “there’s a bloke running around with a fucking chainsaw!” but it sneaks in under that Latin-glide disco-tinged groove stuff that Mick had loved and had been finding ways to fold into the sound of The Rolling Stones throughout the 1970s).
Everyone in the class hates the song. And I felt pretty good standing my ground on why I liked this absurd monster of a track. (Little did I know that was a feeling I’d get used to).
My mum was always letting me listen to whatever I wanted but also by sheer force of the giant speakers at home and her being the boss of the record collection I just absorbed an awful lot of music that was chosen for me, or that was played regardless of my interest. It was easy to get interested.
Undercover might be underrated – but for me it’s also just the music of indoctrination. I heard this down the street when walking home from school (Oh yep, mum’s doing the vacuuming again, I’d think, or say to friends). Undercover’s side one opening song, Undercover of the Night, and side two opening song, Too Much Blood, were songs that woke me up as I attempted school-holiday sleep-ins. And this is primary school years. So by the time of high school when I marched in with the vinyl LP ready to play Too Much Blood it was, to me, like I was about to play the class Strawberry Fields or The Times They Are A Changin’ or even Thriller or Raspberry Beret. Beastie Boys or Guns n’ Roses. This was just music that was part of me. And that I loved through absorption.
I do think Undercover suffers as being written off by people just not bothering, taking the word of a retrospective magazine article that decides it’s not much chop. But I also wonder what it was like to be hearing it brand new in late 1983 having followed the Stones for 20 years already. My mum and dad did obviously, and were into it. But I think they were maybe rediscovering the turntable after locking the records away when I was a baby. And maybe they were just reconnecting and happy to find new music by familiar faces. I don’t know. But to me it was a profound listening experience. Visceral.
I didn’t even really line it up as being The Rolling Stones. When I got to Rolled Gold a few years on that was when it was all tied together for me. This was just the brand new album by, seemingly, a brand new band.
I still hear this as the first hints of where Jagger wanted to go on his own. And though that’s a whole other run of “Crap Albums I Love” it’s all part of this story.
And when I listen to it now – once a year or so – I can see the holes in it. For sure. But I still hear the magic.