The Rolling Stones’ website claims that Undercover opens ‘with the epic Undercover Of The Night, every bit as political and experimental in sound and lyrics as Sympathy For The Devil’. This just proves that if the critics aren’t saying it, then make up your own plaudits. I’m on the fence myself. I know that it isn’t in the same league as Sympathy For The Devil – that’s a given – but I’m on the fence as to whether it’s any good or not.
On the one hand you have a band, now in their collective forties, trying their damndest to sound contemporary in the wake of the rise of the MTV generation. On the other hand you have a song that just…isn’t very good. The hook isn’t in a guitar riff, a melody line, or a catchy chorus; it’s in the production of the song. And who’s that down to? Mick? Maybe. Keith? Surely not. This has to be down to producer Chris Kimsey – the band’s former recording engineer, and the first outside producer that they had worked with since they parted ways with Jimmy Miller a decade earlier.
The album is also notable for being the starting point for Mick and Keith’s animosity that would see them bickering throughout the rest of the 1980s. No wonder they fell out. The record doesn’t sound like the Rolling Stones of old – and blues purist Richards evidently took a dislike to their fancy new sound. Maybe the Stones had to do this to stay alive though. Perhaps if Jagger hadn’t pushed the band into reinventing themselves, they might have split around this time.
Some might say that splitting up at this point would have been a good thing – they definitely didn’t record any more timeless rockers after this (the thirty-five year old Start Me Up from 1981’s predecessor Tattoo You was probably their last truly great song), but the jury’s still out. I’m not ignorant of the fact that they’ve very much in the pattern of retreading old ground by this record – album closer It Must Be Hell might be a good song, one of the strongest on the album, but it’s just a mixture of Start Me Up and Honky Tonk Women.
I have to admit I’ve liked some of their more recent material though – Love Is Strong and You Got Me Rocking from 1994’s Voodoo Lounge was a particularly strong return to form, and they’re still providing a lot of joy to people by touring around the world every five or six years.
Is it enough though? Thirty five years is a long time…
Hit: Undercover Of The Night
Hidden Gem: It Must Be Hell