[23 November 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If Some Girls isn’t the best Rolling Stones album—and sure, it’s not—it’s surely the most fascinating in terms of the band’s history and development. It came out in 1978 and was the band’s response to the punk-rock movement that had risen up and railed against the bloat of rock institutions, which by the late ‘70s the Stones had been included in. So Jagger and company took dead aim at the youngsters, even incorporating that loathsome antithesis to punk rock—disco music—into their sound and making it their own.
This going up against the new guard was, for the Stones, both understandable and not. They were, without a doubt, an inspiration to many punk rock bands just like the Beatles were, even if it wasn’t punk to admit it in 1978. So in some ways, the Rolling Stones deciding to “respond” on their new record was little more than posturing. In another way, though, the Stones weren’t exactly responding as a representation of the rock tradition—they weren’t just leaders of the old guard lashing out. Their need to respond was probably a bit more pointed than that, seeing as they were dealing with their own, personal backlash in the mid-‘70s.
Which isn’t to say their albums weren’t well received, or that they didn’t sell a lot of records, but critics—Lester Bangs chief among them—and fans were starting to view the band as safe, comfortable, happy to slouch on the rock throne and give us middle of the road chuggers. After 1972’s Exile on Main Street, the band returned with the more consolidated funk and blues of Goat’s Head Soup. The record has aged well, and showed the band capable of a more nuanced energy, but it also paved the way for 1974’s It’s Only Rock and Roll and 1976’s Black and Blue, albums that are both serviceable—and occasionally excellent—but wholly unsurprising. The bite seemed to have gone out of the band, and their bark sounded tame without it.
So maybe the Stones—and Jagger in particular, who’s generally considered the major creative force behind Some Girls—saw something true in the punk-rock movement. Maybe it wasn’t about proving the youngsters wrong, but about proving themselves still young—it is funny, by the way, to note Bangs’s references to the band’s “old age” more than 30 years ago. The result is Some Girls, the band’s most impassioned and fiery record of the ‘70s, excluding (of course) Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street, which are on their own, higher plane of existence. What’s so amazing about this album is that, though it dabbles in newer trends—dance beats and punk energy (if not its sound)—it still feels very much like a Rolling Stones record, a fresh angle on their long-time loves of blues and rock and roll traditions. If the punks were throwing out the rule book, the Stones proved there was plenty of rebellion to be found in coloring in those lines.
“Miss You”, the album’s trademark moment shows this perfectly. It’s got plenty of disco strut, and those high oohs that get instantly stuck in your head. But Jagger still sneers his way through it with his brilliant mix of dismissive arrogance and sex drive. The brilliance of the song, though, comes in the deep low-end of the riffs. There’s that funk up-stroke, but over it a darker riff cuts through, so the song never sounds light or fey. If this is the band’s take on disco, it shows disco exactly what it’s missing. It also sets up an album happy to genre-hop—from the trad-rock of “When the Whip Comes Down” to southern blues of the title track to the country-twang of “Far Away Eyes”—and the band wears each hat with deep confidence. In recapturing their zeal, they didn’t lose their ear for tight compositions and though the album is from the late-‘70s—and thus runs a 90-percent chance of sounding sugary and overproduced—the songs here sound clean but not too clean. The effects may sand down the guitars in places (see “Just My Imagination” or even the still-excellent “Beast of Burden”) there’s a hint of that ragged edge floating around all of this.
And when that edge cuts into the forefront, it’s amazing. “Lies” is a blazing tour de force in the middle of the record. The near-rockabilly riffs that run up and down the track give it a manic speed that never slows down, so when you fall from here into the road-weary trudge of “Far Away Eyes”, the shift is jarring and wonderful—especially since you’re then dropped back into the rock fury with the snarling “Respectable”. These songs are far from content, far from comfortable. “Get out of my life,” Jagger shouts on “Respectable”, and elsewhere you can find him just as cutting. The stereotypes he runs through on “Some Girls”—with the infamous line “black girls just want to get fucked all night”—are alarming at face, but show Jagger once again shaking things up, digging into hard questions instead of breezing through rock tropes the way they did on their two previous albums.
Keith Richards gets in the act too, with the surprisingly affecting “Before They Make Me Run”, a song that not only scowls at his arrest for heroin charges, but also mourns deep loss on lines like “It’s another goodbye to another good friend.” That moment, where Richards drug troubles get complicated with consequences, paints an album full of confusion, where the band confronts its weary state with energy, where songs ooze sexuality but still seem to be left wanting. If it’s an album of sneering defiance, there are deep-set worries not far under that defensive surface.
Of course, you can’t discuss Some Girls without mentioning Ronnie Wood. Wood, who played on It’s Only Rock and Roll and then, with others, replaced Mick Taylor on Black and Blue—though he was mostly relegated to backing vocals—finally got to make his mark on the band on Some Girls and does just that. His mix of slide guitar intricacy and loose, ragged jamming is a huge reason why the tight, trudging feel of those mid-‘70s albums is replaced here by a dusty charm. You can feel the band coming alive around this new piece to their puzzle, so even when Jagger messes with us—affecting that overdone southern drawl on “Far Away Eyes”—we can grin and move along because Wood’s playing is carrying the day. With Jagger adding some rhythm guitar, and Richards typical brilliance, Wood is the missing piece that ends up making this machine run. If Jagger was the creative force behind this album, Wood is the guy that most helped him realize his vision. If not for Wood, we may still be talking about the late-‘70s decline of a great band, and not at all about their last classic.
This new deluxe edition proves that this time period to be a wildly fruitful one for the band. The second disc includes 12 outtakes from the Some Girls sessions, and they are fully formed and mostly excellent. The rollicking piano of “Claudine”, the grimy stomp of “So Young”, the bluesy vamp of “When You’re Gone”, the smoldering guitar work of “Keep Up Blues”—each moment is as vital as the last. On top of these solid tracks, there’s absolute knock-out “No Spare Parts”, a boozy ballad that is as strong (or better) than anything on the album proper. Of these 12 tracks, none feel like snippets or cast-offs. These are complete statements and, together with the album, reveal a high-water mark in the band’s creativity they would never quite capture again. If Some Girls answered the band’s growing set of critics, and silenced the punks, it didn’t reinvent the band long term.
But that, in the end, doesn’t matter. What matters is that, with Some Girls, the Rolling Stones gave us one more classic album, and this new edition pays tribute to this burst of creativity by showing it to us all at once. Many of these extras have floated around on bootlegs for a while, but here they are presented to us remastered and in pristine form, the way they were meant to be heard. In that way, this set feels like two complete albums—Some Girls One and Some Girls Two—and the sequel nearly manages to match the original’s vital power. So whether or not it shut the punks up, this album has kept us talking for 30-plus years, and with this new edition, that conversation is bound to continue. Because there’s still plenty to talk about, to dig into, and—most importantly—to get knocked out by.