October 1982…The Rolling Stones owed Atlantic Records one more album on the deal they inked way back in ‘71. The sooner they knocked it out, the sooner they could cash in on a new deal with another label that had deeper pockets. To facilitate the process, for the first time Mick and Keith demoed a complete, all-new batch of songs ahead of time, instead of slowly building up the compositions during the sessions themselves.
The following month, the Stones picked up the tools of their trade again in what they’ve considered their home base studio since 1977 — EMI’s Pathe-Marconi, Paris. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards would be self-producing under the moniker “the Glimmer Twins” as they had been for several years, aided by engineer Chris Kimsey. Kimsey would now be officially elevated to the status of co-producer. A new face in the studio was Chuck Leavell, a virtuoso keyboard player from Georgia and former member of the Allman Brothers Band. Leavell became a fixture at every Stones session and concert tour from that point until this very day. Unfortunately, Leavell’s timing in joining the Stones family was not the best. The autumn French weather wasn’t the only thing that was frigid. The negative atmosphere of the Emotional Rescue sessions intensified — the band was stressed-out, ill-tempered, and uncommunicative. Bill was rumored to be quitting the band.
Still, the show must go on. Millions of dollars hung in the balance. Mick was at the height of his club-hopping and trend-chasing, latching on to whatever was newest and shiniest in the music scene, to the disgust of traditionalist Keith. Keith’s disinterest in the developing style of the new album led to minimal input on his part, resulting in it being totally dominated by Jagger’s vision.
The basic tracks were wrapped up in Paris by December 16 — a new speed record for the normally lackadaisical group (likely because they couldn’t stand being in the same room together for long). Then habit re-established itself as things slowed down and the Stones studio-hopped for the next several months…overdubs at Compass Point in the Bahamas over the spring of ‘83, then final touches and mixing at the Hit Factory in New York through August. As usual, a clutch of guest musicians was invited to contribute, most notably the Jamaican rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, and a veritable parade of percussionists (including Dunbar, Martin Ditcham, and Moustapha Ciesse & Brahms Coundoul of the Afro-jazz group Xalam).
Undercover was released in November 1983, with a titillating sleeve featuring a vintage nude model, her “bikini area” strategically covered with what appear to be stickers. (On first edition pressings they really were stickers, and you can bet those things are worth a fortune now, peeled or unpeeled.)
The first song face-plants right out of the gate. “Undercover (of the Night)” tells a semi-coherent tale of political violence in South America. The vocals are more of a narration, and have no flow. The aggressive beat is over-populated with a cacophony of percussive noisemakers, including Sly Dunbar on Simmons electric drum pads, which ought to be a capital offense on a Stones song. Charlie gamely does what he can on his traditional drum kit, but he’s swamped. Kimsey opens up the Pandora’s box of synthesized, antiseptic ’80s production, with none of the grit that signifies a good Stones song. It’s a problem that will dog the whole album.
The second track, a Chuck Berry-inspired rocker called “She Was Hot,” is for the most part very enjoyable…but there’s a whiff of over-calculation. The individual elements are solid — the lyrics, the vocals, the guitars, and especially the drums (Charlie’s on fire) all do their jobs at the service of a light-hearted ‘50s-style throwback. But as a whole it feels like it was assembled from instructions. A color-by-numbers “My First Rock & Roll Song” kit. Up next is “Tie You Up (The Pain of Love),” which may be the one Undercover song I can enjoy without reservation. A saucy blast of thumping, sexed-up funk, the kinky BDSM theme may not be everyone’s cup of lube, but it’s the one moment on the album where the band breaks out and sounds loose. Keith’s turn on lead vocals follows with “Wanna Hold You.” Coming after “She Was Hot” and “Tie You Up,” this concludes the album’s brief segment of listenability. Although it’s a treat — who doesn’t love Keef? — it’s merely a spirited retread of Tattoo You’s raunch-rock masterpiece “Little T&A.”
“Feel On Baby” is Undercover’s reggae song. Emotional Rescue’s “Send it to Me” sounds like The Best of Bob Marley compared to this big heap of nothing that drags on for over five soul-killing minutes. The clattering, echoey percussion introduced on “Undercover (of the Night)” and slathered over everything is really starting to wear out its welcome.
Punctuated by a cheesy horn section that would make Lionel Richie retch, “Too Much Blood” is the last gasp of the Stones’ side job of creating at least one dance track per album for the discos, a tradition that began with Black and Blue’s “Hot Stuff.” This one goes a little thematically darker than the usual club anthem, but the genuine menace once exuded by the Stones is reduced to a carnival haunted house, Alice Cooper-style. The interminable spoken word segments from Mick, rambling in his put-on Cockney accent about Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the true-crime cannibalism case of Issei Sagawa, are bad icing on a worse cake. (“Too Much Blood” did indeed get its extended 12-inch dance mix, which doubled the song’s already agonizing six-minute running time. I can only imagine the dance club’s patrons using it as an opportunity to go do blow in the restroom.)
“Pretty Beat Up” lacks substance, melody, or a point. This bit of filler that barely qualifies as a song once had the very appropriate working title of “Dog Shit.” A guest spot by saxman David Sanborn can’t polish this turd. By the time the second half staggers into “Too Tough,” I have usually given up trying to listen to Undercover. “Too Tough” (To Listen To?) is another number that’s just too generic for words. Unmemorable, off-the-shelf guitar riffs make this sound like a knockoff bar band imitation of the Stones rather than the real deal. “All the Way Down” tries to conjure a little of the old “Shattered” spirit with its rapid-fire vocals and tale of decadence, but it can’t rise above its phoned-in music.
The best thing about “It Must Be Hell” is the knowledge that it is the last song, and puts a welcome bullet in the head of the whole project. Another unsuccessful attempt at social commentary like the title song, “It Must Be Hell” lays down yet another plastic prefab backing track as Mick decries the suffering and plight of…someone, somewhere. It’s never really clear. Maybe it’s about Soviet communism? I dunno.
Undercover has no there there. It seems to be occupying a theoretical space where a Stones album should be, but it disappears when you poke past its shiny surface. A used-up Chris Kimsey told the difficult band he was opting out of whatever their next project was.
From the outset, Keith did not care for the material put together for Undercover. Especially nowadays, people tend to elevate the super-cool outlaw rebel Keith Richards at the expense of campy, prancing frontman Mick Jagger. But when the Undercover situation was reversed, and the opportunity came to dominate the creative process of making a Rolling Stones album…Keith proved quite capable of producing total crap as well.
How did this happen? It all started a couple of months before the release of Undercover. On August 25, 1983, the Rolling Stones announced they had signed a $28 million deal with CBS Records. All well and good. But piggybacked onto deal was an entirely separate fat payday for Mick — for his new solo career. This was kept secret from the rest of the band for as long as possible.
In fact, it was widely believed that CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff wanted Mick Jagger as a solo artist more than he wanted the Rolling Stones. Mick’s status as a celebrity and media personality seemed unaffected by the artistic ups and downs of the band in the last few years. By the early ’80s, in some people’s eyes the Rolling Stones were merely Mick Jagger’s backing band. (A shot of the Sun Devils Stadium marquee reading “Tonight: Mick Jagger & The Rolling Stones” on their ‘81 tour was discreetly edited out of the concert film.) It certainly appeared that Yetnikoff believed people would buy Jagger’s stuff in the same numbers as they bought the Stones. (He would be proven wrong, of course. Jagger’s whole persona, down to his voice itself, can be jarring when removed from the familiar context of the Stones.) And kingmaker Yetnikoff would get the credit for shepherding Mick away from sharing the spotlight with four other guys and into a lucrative new era. There was every expectation that Mick could be the next Michael Jackson, the Stones being the Jackson Five in this analogy.
When Yetnikoff actually pushed for Mick to do his own album before the next Rolling Stones album (and pushed hard — Walter was a pushy guy), the cat came screeching out of the bag. Mick announced in April 1984 there would be no work with the Stones that year as he concentrated on his first solo album. Keith was predictably livid, but could do nothing but wait. After a series of fractious band meetings, it was agreed to start recording the new Stones album in January 1985.
When the momentous occasion finally arrived, Mick — just as Keith predicted — arrived at Pathe-Marconi with an empty tank. No songs, no ideas for songs, no lyrics, no scraps. He had used it all up on his own album, She’s the Boss, due out in a few weeks. He would soon be jetting off for press, promotion, videos, and all the distractions selling an album requires. (She’s the Boss did not exactly fly off the shelves, but made it to #13 on the U.S. charts. Not a failure, but Yetnikoff’s predictions of having the next Michael Jackson in his stable were not panning out.)
Recording began in earnest in April, and it frequently proceeded without Mick. And even more frequently without a fed-up Bill, who was rumored to be quitting the band. And often without the band’s anchor/compass, Charlie, who was depressed, drinking heavily and, unknown to everyone until after this period was over, using heroin. So Keith stepped up to the plate and began cranking out songs, assisted by Woody, who was just out of rehab (not for the last time.) Keith desperately wanted to tour with this album, so the songs he created were designed to be concert-friendly — big riffs, high energy. He felt all the band’s problems could be worked out if they just hit the damn road. It was not to be. Maybe it was for the best — the songs formulated to be concert warhorses were uniformly second-rate. Continue reading