We all know the drill with the Rolling Stones. There’s a critical consensus that states everyone must accept that they did all their best work in the late 60’s, early 70’s peaking with Exile on Main Street and then got crap, gradually at first, then quickly. There’s a reason for this and like all clichés it’s based on truth, but equally like all clichés it isn’t the whole truth and I’m here to make a case for an almost universally derided LP of theirs, Dirty Work.
After watching a BBC documentary on them I ventured the princely sum of £5.49 on a copy of The Rolling Stones’ new LP Dirty Work in October 1986. I was 14 and it was LP number 6 in my collection; the first five and the next four were/would be by Queen, that’s the finely-balanced critical perspective I had at the time. I knew about the Rolling Stones then, to my mind they were the Beatles who hadn’t given up and every so often my parents would play their crackly singles. Once again I can remember the long bus ride / walk home holding the album wondering what it would be like – a particularly rural experience I imagine, you urban hipsters not having to defer getting your sophisticated kicks in a similar manner.
When I did get it home I played it a lot, the way in which someone with only 5 other LPs is prone to doing. I mostly liked it too. I would like to place on record for future generations that I have always thought ‘Harlem Shuffle’ was joyless and dire and I have strong objections to the trousers Mr Jagger is wielding on the front cover; although Keith looks more menacing and cool than any man has a right to whilst wearing a bright pink jacket and tigerskin slippers. On a negative tip there is a wedge of vapid cod-reggae-ish numbers here at the end of the first / beginning of the second side and if you magically folded the sides together after ‘Fight’ on the first side and before ‘Dirty Work’ on the second you would have a damn good 5-song mini-LP on your hands.
Because there are some fine tracks here. I fell for ‘One Hit (to the Body)’ hard; playing and replaying it over and over again and it still sounds damn fine to me. The guitar sound just did something to me. It was only later that I found out that Jimmy Page was responsible for some of it and a year or two later again when I worked out who he actually was. I loved the way Jagger sang the opening lines, ‘You fell out of the clear blue sky / to the darkness below / the smell of your flesh excites me / my blood starts to flow’ – what could he mean? of course I never picked up on the drug metaphor until much later on. ‘Fight’ was, fittingly, an ugly little number with an ugly lyric from men who were old enough to know better, I thought it was great.
My favourite track listening to this LP again recently was the title track. Unlike ‘Fight’, this song sounded genuinely nasty, ‘Let somebody do the dirty work / Find some fucker, find some jerk / Do it all for free’, Jagger sang with a venom that he hasn’t since. This bumps up against ‘Had it With You’, a perfunctory blues-based debasement which sounds great to my ears and then the LP ends with ‘Sleep Tonight’, a weary-sounding warning to some unspecified paramour with some good poetic lyrics. A hidden snippet of Ian Stewart’s piano playing graces the very end of the LP and it is exit stage left.
This LP gets 1537 bonus points for prominent swearing and a purposely hideous inner sleeve, but immediately loses them for listing the tracks out of order ono the back sleeve – there’s no justification for that, not even calligraphically!
I know, I know, if you stack this up against anything from their glory years it’s a straight no-contest. However what I would say was that when I first heard Dirty Work I listened to it pretty much out of context with everything else they had done and when you do that you tend to listen to it on its’ merits. You don’t compare any of it to ‘Gimme Shelter’, or ‘Happy’ and it is much more fun as a result. Okay most of the personnel were the same but effectively you’re talking about different bands. As such and taken on its own merits Dirty Work has got 5 very good tracks to commend it. Whilst I’d never refer to them as ‘Dirty, dirty rat scum’, ‘Had it With you’ almost nails it, ‘Loved you in the lean years / loved you in the fat ones’, almost guys.
P.S – Can anyone tell me where Tom Waits features on this LP? I had no idea who he was in 1986 and I love him unreservedly now, he is credited as appearing but I can’t work out where. Am I just being cloth-eared?