It Must Be Hell

or All The Way Down With The Stones’ ‘Undercover’
by William Crain

Lately he found himself wondering how he had ever cared passionately about anything, thoughts not originating from tough guy bravado but born of a genuine confusion over where those passionate feelings had gone and more importantly how the spark that ignited them in the first place had been extinguished. He felt dead inside, like his soul had already left his body and the rest of him was just hanging around doing time.  

He wanted to ask a priest about the soul leaving the body long before death – was it possible? But he couldn’t think of a way to approach the subject. You go to a priest to try and talk mystical/spiritual questions and they hit you with the mundanity of leading an orderly, obedient life and if you go to them with ordinary day to day cares they come back with the lofty spiritual stuff.  Maybe they didn’t have a line on nothing. Or maybe they were all secret Taoists slapping him with some paradoxical wisdom that was just not taking the desired effect.

In any case the only thing he could really connect with at the moment was the Rolling Stones album ‘Undercover’ from 1983. It was a violent album. Lots of sharp edges, sounds jumping out of the mix, screaming, ugly lyrics about ugly things and production ideas that seemed surprisingly modern for the stones (dub, new wave, post punk, the pop group even exclaimed J. Cope on hearing ‘Undercover of the Night’).  The album sounded violent because violence was its subject matter.  ‘Undercover’ was a ‘Some Girls’ for the 1980’s with the latter’s preoccupation with sex and licentiousness replaced with world weariness, violence and corruption.

But he didn’t feel especially violent. That was not what he related to in the album, although when emotions begin to die often you’re left only with anger, but here it was the Stones confusion that he related to. They sounded angry and confused and were pointing a finger at the world outside as the culprit: dictatorships in Latin and South America, corrupt officials, death cops, underworld dealings, everything moved secretly by unseen hands, by money, sex, and power. But still they seem to have some lingering doubts as if it’s also the inside where the corruption is coming from as much as the fallen world outside. Harkening back to their “I shouted out who killed the Kennedys? When after all it was you and me” territory. Or maybe they’re realising that line between the inside and outside either didn’t exist or had dissolved through the passing aeons.

In many ways ‘Undercover’ is an album whose time has finally come both sonically and lyrically. Witness the lyrics to ‘Undercover of the Night’, the opener and best song on side one – “the race militia has got itchy fingers, all the way from New York back to Africa.” And “hear the screams of centre 42, loud enough to bust your brains out, the oppositions tongue is cut in two, keep off the streets you’re in danger”. Cuddle up baby indeed and keep it all out of sight.

So in the second song ‘She Was Hot’ Jagger and company attempt to banish the more disturbing aspects of the soul sucking darkness by seeking solace in the place they always found it in the past, their female admirers. But in ‘She Was Hot’ the singer sounds somehow both over and underwhelmed at the intensity of emotions on display. The emphasis is on the female: “she was hot, she was quick, she was strong, she was black, she was lost”. The singer appears bemused and uninvolved with the strong emotions on display. And so he leaves unfulfilled and even more puzzled than before. No solace here. He decides to head back to the “human zoo”. 

Back at the human zoo which he calls home Jagger is the recipient of a version of the same violence he’s been seeing in the streets and hearing about on the news. The third track ‘Tie Me Up (Pain of Love)’ bemoans “you’re deaf to it, blind to it, it’s like a thunderclap, feel the prickles running up and down your back, why so divine, the pain of love”.  The stones much like the rest of humanity have a long history of mingling sex and violence but here the total effect is just more alienation and anger rather than a turn on – “you have to work for it, pay for it, bust your ass, lie for it, cheat for it, forget about your past” which leads to the ultimate question “looking back, cut the crap, was it really worth the rap? Its hard to survive the pain of love”. Once again none of the old distractions, the old highs or the old goofs are working to dispel the despair and the darkness.

Next we take a quick break from the action and despair to hear Keith warble ‘Wanna Hold You’.  It’s a slight uptempo song, but not unpleasant and gives you a rest from the grimness that otherwise abounds on the record while also cueing us up for the end of side two and the giant space out that is ‘Feel on Baby’, wherein the stones aurally disassociate from their troubles by turning off some of their senses to amplify others and in the process produce a hypnotic reggae groove that has none of the tentative by numbers quality of their previous efforts at the genre.  The presence of Sly Dunbar no doubt helped. It’s an appropriately numbed out/on the nod way to end a side in which reality has literally left you black and blue. Mick concludes “Wanderlust and love disease, Taken over and strangled me, Cure my body, make me whole, feed my body, feed my soul”. Well we shall see, we still have a whole album side left after all.

Side Two continues our journey all the way down. ‘Too Much Blood’ opens the ‘back side’ as they call it on the label and it’s definitely the high point of the second side. We are now back in the proverbial shit. Sonically it’s another song that displays more modern influences (early 80’s) with delay on the rhythm guitar figure (a very un-stones like part apparently played by their guitar roadie Jim Barber) and a horn chart (also with heavy effects) that brings to mind pigbag or teardrop explodes’ first album.  Lyrically we remain in extremely grim and gruesome territory with Jagger referencing the horrifying story of Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa. The Stranglers beat the Stones to the punch here by detailing this sordid tale on their 1981 song ‘La Folie’.  

Jagger’s vocal is by his own admission largely improvised and revolves around the media’s unhealthy fascination with true crime. “I can feel it everywhere, feel it up above, feel the tension everywhere, there’s too much blood.”. He then humorously mentions watching ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (‘orrible wasn’t it) saying people ask him do they really do that in Texas. One is left wondering why people would ask Jagger about Texas, but then again by this time he was dating Texas model Jerry Hall. Jagger then cops to preferring movies that are “more romantic, like ‘An Officer and A Gentleman’”. Ah what an old softie. I bet Keith preferred ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’. 

Ron Wood’s ‘Pretty Beat Up’ uneventfully follows. Reportedly neither Keith nor Mick were too happy about it’s inclusion on the record. Call it throwing Mr. Wood a bone or giving the Woodie some. It’s pretty much the definition of filler just a mid tempo r&b song that goes nowhere fast with Jagger repeating the title ad infinitum while David Sanborn noodles on sax in the background. No Sonny Rollins moments of brilliance here like on ‘Tattoo You’. It’s the weakest track on the record, but not unpleasant, sort of like one of the lesser tossed off numbers on ‘Some Girls’. It gives you time for your mind to wander or to empty your bladder, possibly both.

‘Too Tough’ is a vintage 70’s sounding Stones number built around a catchy if slightly generic guitar riff. Here we find Jagger regrouping and trying to ground himself back in his old impenetrable heart of stone character of youth.  “When it comes to fighting, trying to play it rough, I will take you twenty rounds, I’m just too tough”. But the past as Elis Regina sang is like an old shirt that doesn’t fit so well anymore. And you feel like he’s trying to convince himself as much as anyone else about his own toughness and prowess. And it’s not working. 

‘All The Way Down’ is the penultimate track. Here Mick reminisces about a girl that taught him things in bed “she showed me love a hundred ways, she went all the way, all the way down”. It has that strange paradoxical Stones thing where they appear to be both celebrating and denigrating their female protagonist. “How the years rush by, birthdays, kids and suicides. Still I play the fool and strut. Still you’re a slut”. Not very charming but they’ve been mining this vein successfully for years. And like the character in ‘Too Tough’ it continues the theme of a retreat to old stances, things that worked in the past but not so much in the present. Still not ready to believe it we find Mick asking “Was every minute just a waste? Was ever hour a foolish chase? I don’t believe it”.

‘Undercover’ ends with the song ‘It Must Be Hell’, which cheekily nicks the guitar hook from John Cougar’s ‘Hurts So Good’ which was of course a Stones pastiche to begin with. Lyrically here they seem to be distancing themselves from the hellish world the rest of us have to live in, or at least hedging their bets. “Our TV leader boldly speaks, the words of Christ he tries to preach, we need more power to hold the line, the strength of darkness still abides”. But then the kiss off chorus “It must be hell living in the world, suffering in the world like you”.  

A bit condescending and insolent but then again equal parts insolence and arrogance has always been a large part of the Stones appeal. Strangely at the end of the song they seem take a different tack fading out with the repeated refrain “I say we, we are heaven bound”. Do we create our own suffering? Is our perception of the world only projection? And if so aren’t The Stones as guilty as the rest of us? 

You might think he or I or whoever the hell is writing this is reading too much into the meaning of largely forgotten Rolling Stones record. But while listening to the album my attention was drawn to the painting on the inner sleeve, which I had carelessly tossed to one side, the painting by Shozo Otawa is of two ripe apples on a branch. Surely the Stones placed it there as a metaphor for temptation, the Biblical fall of man and the subsequent state of the world? 

But then again it looks like the painting of apples also contains a buttocks similar to the one featured on the lower right hand of the back cover. That’s the thing about the Stones, part of what made em great really, sometimes apples aren’t a reference to a fallen world at all. Sometimes apples are just, well, butt-cheeks.

For me this is the last really interesting Rolling Stones record and also the last in which they engaged with larger musical trends of the day in an interesting and rewarding way.  As it remains largely unappreciated both by fans and by the Stones themselves, I hope this might open up the album or at least encourage some to revisit it with fresh ears. 

Addendum: There were three singles released from the  Undercover LP and all three have additional material and are essential for fans of the album. These versions together with the album and Julien Temple’s three distinctive videos would make an appealing deluxe edition but as the Stones and particularly Keith have never been fond of this album don’t hold your breath.

1. ‘Undercover of the Night’ – There are two different versions of this 12 inch, one that runs at 45 RPM and has a close up of the back cover buttocks and is labeled the extended cheeky mix in case you don’t get it. The other 12 inch runs at 33 1/3 and has cover art that is a variation on the LP cover.  Both are otherwise the same as far as tracks – An extended version of ‘Undercover of the Night’ that works well in building on the dance/dub flavor of the track and an almost psychedelic stripped down dub version of ‘Feel On Baby’ that emphasizes the bass, organ and harmonica.

2. ‘She Was Hot’ – The b-side of the ‘She Was Hot’ single is the otherwise unavailable ‘Think I’m Going Mad’, a song from the ‘Emotional Rescue’ sessions which though not exactly for the ages, might have been a good substitute for either Ron or Keith’s songs on the record. 

3. ‘Too Much Blood’ – The 12 inch has a twelve minute dance version by Arthur Baker which is very much of its time, but fascinatingly so. It gets really unusual in the last 4 minutes or so after Mick says “meanwhile back in the jungle”. Here more than anywhere you can hear Jagger’s love of early 80’s Clash extended mixes. There’s a quote (I can’t locate the source at the moment) where Jagger is talking about “all those great Clash 12 inches”. Additionally on the 12 inch is a dub version, also by Arthur Baker and just as weird as the dance version with what sounds like outtakes from Jagger’s vocal – Michael Jackson and Vincent Price get a mention, no doubt ‘Thriller’ was in rotation. There’s also a version on the 12 inch labeled album version which appears to have a longer running time than the album version.

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