Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Some Girls Week: If You Can't Say Something Nice....

Okay, it's now considered a classic by most folks, but the other day, as I was researching the original reception to Some Girls, I recalled that that I had given an assignment to write about the album to Lester Bangs (i.e. Greatest Rock Critic of All Time©).

Figuring he would dig it.

Boy, was I wrong.

From the August 1978 issue of (The Magazine Formerly Known as) Stereo Review:
After the collage of fluff that was Black and Blue, I thought that nothing could get me interested in the Stones again, but I just had to review Some Girls. Hearing "Miss You" and "Far Away Eyes" on the radio, I marveled at how these guys could actually manage to fit so much contempt for so many -- Stones fans, disco fans, Latin women, country audiences -- onto one little single. The album cover of this one, with its take-off on Frederick's of Hollywood drag-queen sleaze, shows quite explicitly not only what the Stones think of women, but also what they think of themselves; they consider both to be cheap, tawdry trash, good only for a quick transient kick. It's fitting that they should end this way (and though it's protracted beyond belief, the end is certainly coming) because anyone who heaps as much contempt on as many people as the Stones have these past few years must inevitably come to an even greater contempt for themselves. Some Girls is supremely indicative of what "decadence" is really about; passivity and boredom.

Almost all the songs here are supposedly about women or the Stones' feelings towards them, yet not one depicts a real relationship or any genuine emotion other than greed. What, for instance, is "Miss You" about? Where is the expression of true longing, the lineaments of true love? Mick seems to be singing from some indifferent twilight, occasionally emerging just long enough to embarrass himself with a limp display of heavy vocal calisthenics: "People think I'm craaaaazzzzzy...."

The title track is perhaps the most disgusting song of all in its attitude towards women -- or perhaps toward other humans in general. If empathy is too much to expect, one might at least ask for some insight, and "Some girls take the shirt off my back/And leave me with a lethal dose" just doesn't quite fill the bill. What it really comes down to is a matter of what portion of humanity can be bought and sold.

Money is a crucial factor in "Beast of Burden," which may be why what might have been a worthwhile song about the difficulties of love degenerates so quickly into cliché: "You can put me out on the street/Put me out with no shoes upon my feet." And are those imitation Bee Gees falsetto chirpings that we hear in the bridge? The Stones have always followed the trends of the day, but once they took them up as a challenge. Now they just tag along after them meekly, melding them with those Same Old Stones Riffs and occasional bits looted from other (usually black) sources. "Respectable," for instance, is "All Down the Line"/"Silver Train" stapled to an old Isley Brothers cop. It's almost fun, except that you've heard it all before. Meanwhile, Keith Richards and Ron Wood play guitar solos. They play a lot of guitar solos on this album, on all kinds of guitars. I'm told that between the two of them, they own hundreds, and I think that's very nice for them. But why do they play with such faraway hands?

"Just My Imagination" is just inferior, though comparing it with the Temptations original does remind you of what, besides true gut-bucket kick, has been missing from the Stones music for a long time; heart. Even those who would say that the Stones never had much heart in the first place (which I don't believe) would have to give the band that used to stand inside these shells credit for honesty. And there are two songs here that sound like they might be about halfway honest. Keith's "Before They Make Me Run" suggests that he might have a future in drugged out country-rock. This is the only song on the album that's about an instantly recognizable real-life situation -- Keith's recent Canadian drug bust. There's a similar sort of tentative tiptoe towards self-recognition, on Mick's part this time, in "Shattered," but any real soul-searching is averted through pretentious quasi-sociological jottings: "Rats on the West Side, bedbugs uptown...." Like "When the Whip Comes Down," "Shattered" could be in part about a male hustler, but seen without compassion (something even male hustlers, perhaps especially male hustlers, deserve) or even understanding.

Supposedly the Stones selected the ten tracks here from about eighty recorded in Paris at the same time. A guitarist friend remarked cynically the other day that now they can just sit back and keep releasing the rest for the next five years. If these are really the best of the bunch, I would invite you to join me in responding to such a gesture of contempt in kind; by sitting back and not buying any more of this drivel, for who has really bought it this time is the Stones themselves.-- Lester Bangs
I should add that I totally disagreed with Lester's take on the album at the time -- and still do -- but that I was tickled pink to run such a scabrous review in the pages of SR, for all sorts of reasons.

I should also add that it almost didn't run at all, because my bosses thought it was just too negative. Also actionable -- one of the lines I was forced to cut (over my strenuous objection) was Lester's description of Jagger as "a jaded old catamite."


In any case, I much preferred the review by living secular saint Greil Marcus in the Village Voice. Particularly these paragraphs.
When one returns to 12 X 5, or December's Children or The Rolling Stones Now, the flaws are obvious; guitars are out of tune, Mick is flat, the lyrics are often corny, tempos are blown. By any sensible standard, "The Singer Not the Song" is a ludicrous performance; a cliched and clumsy guitar line, hopelessly strained singing on the choruses. And yet, it can still move a listener deeply -- maybe even more deeply -- than it ever did. That, after all, is why you can't turn rock-and-roll into sheet music. It may be that some years from now, when the novelty has worn off, the Stones' "Just My Imagination" will seem as shoddy as some people already think it is; it may be that it will still be breaking hearts.

As for the concept of Some Girls -- what it all means, how it makes culture out of music or history out of those who hear it -- the concept of Some Girls is the idea of the Rolling Stones, fifteen years after they came to our attention with hot new versions of songs by Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, making an album as surprising as any they have put their name on.

Seriously -- the Stones version of "Imagination" has been breaking my tiny heart for more than three decades now. And I think Lester would have come around to it eventually.


Sal Nunziato said...

Is it ppossible to not disagree with Lester and somehow still love "Some Girls?" I think so.

Can you not see his point here:

"Hearing "Miss You" and "Far Away Eyes" on the radio, I marveled at how these guys could actually manage to fit so much contempt for so many -- Stones fans, disco fans, Latin women, country audiences -- onto one little single."

I can, and still I LOVE both those songs.

steve simels said...

I dunno -- I don't hear contempt at all, but instead a famous tongue being planted rather firmly in cheek.

Gummo said...

I loved Bangs but he could be as passionately wrong as he could be passionately right.

And boy, did he get Some Girls wrong.

I remember the summer of '78 in New York -- Miss You was everywhere; in fact, it may have been the last pop song to cross all genres, racial and ethnic lines to become THE song of the summer -- I heard it blasting from cars, in bodegas, clubs, boom boxes (remember those?), parties, in parks, on sidewalks -- it was the theme song of New York in the summer of '78.

You can't tell me that Lester, out of all those people grooving to that song, was the only one to hear the "contempt."

The only song on that record that might fit Lester's description is the title song, and I always heard it more as a self-parody of the jaded rock star, and I don't think I was being kind.

Rather than a last dying gasp, Some Girls was to me a glorious rebirth for the Stones, and sorry, Lester, I think time has proved me right....

steve simels said...

True story:

I happened to see the Stones at the old Academy of Music on 14th Street that summer, and as I left the theater and was walking to the subway, I saw a homeless guy singing, loudly, "...some Puerto Rican girls who are just DYIN' to meetcha."

As Cindy Adams would say, only in New York.

Blue Ash Fan said...

Lester was great, but man, did he need to lighten up or what? I thought the entire album was infused with tongue-in-cheek humor, starting with the brilliant cover. I know I was only 17 at the time, but the sleeve cracked me up and seemed to me to be the band poking fun at themselves, albeit gently.

I'm sorry, but the album's a classic and time has proven the naysayers to be totally, embarrassingly wrong.

Mike said...

Funny, I disagree with Lester's review and agree with Greil's. Yet Lester's was a blast to read, and I could barely make it through the two paragraphs from Greil's without falling asleep.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with Bangs mainly b/c his take on the Stones was reinforced by an embarrasingly shoddy performance of Beast of Burden on SNL.

(also, i wrote a similar review for Queen's News of the World for a weekly that inspired the PR rep to threaten cutting us off from promos and interviews - "How can you print that, it's #1 on the charts!")

Gummo said...

The context of the times are important too (though I usually poo-poo the idea of needing context to appreciate art):

It was only 2 years after President Ford turned his back on New York in the throes of its financial crisis (leading to one of the greatest newspaper headlines of all time from the Daily News: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD). New York was suddenly the underdog again, a scrappy, sloppy, down & out but artistically magical place to be. Keith Richards lived here part time, as did Jagger. New York was the home of punk, early rap, disco, Saturday Night Live, avant garde theater and Theater of the Ridiculous; smeary mimeographed anarchist art was being daily glued to walls and street lights and replaced just as fast as the authorities could rip it down; it was the era of CBGBs, the Mudd Club and yes, even Studio 54.

Some Girls was an unabashed love letter to New York City.

Brooklyn Girl said...

I have the same reaction I had to Keith's autobiography: I loved him and hated him at the same time. Funny, cruel, insightful, obnoxious, manipulative, charming, creepy, fascinating, crazy, brilliant, sarcastic, infuriating. Even after all these years, this is what makes them The Greatest Rock & Roll Band In The World.

pete said...

Some Girls left me cold. It seemed cynically half-assed and incoherent, and I don't buy the "portrait of New York City in all its shoddy glory, CBGB, etc." If you saw Television at CBGB you came away thinking those guys were really good at what they do, not a feeling I get from Some Girls - except for Cholly, of course. Not for the first time did I think the band would be lost without the drummer.

I hated Miss You and still hate it, HATED Faraway Eyes and refuse to even consider it. And the Stones could do country, too. You Better Move On, Oh Doctor, Dead Flowers. They could be funny, parodic, but here for the first time they were patronizing, which is the kiss of death.

I still like Beast of Burden. It's a good jukebox record, on a par with Little Girl by the Syndicate of Sound or Liar Liar by the Castaways. They did two more like it, Start Me Up and She's so Cold, each better than the last, and then settled into well-paid irrelevance.

buzzbabyjesus said...

Starting with Lester's review, and continuing through all the comments, I've really enjoyed this thread. Good points all around and I agree with everyone that doesn't think "Some Girls" is a classic.
Lester called it like he saw it.
"Before They Make Me Run", and "Shattered" are they only really good songs on the album.
In particular I like his last paragraph concerning the quantity of tracks recorded vs quality.
I "acquired" this deluxe edition, and about 20 seconds of each "bone-us" track was enough.
With the exception of "Claudine", all the "new" songs are terrible, and I mostly blame Mick for his lyrics and schtick figure vocals.
"Keep Up Blues" is a less successful retread of "Stop Breaking Down".
The rest are hardly worth discussing.

BTW Jerry Lee Lewis version of "You Win Again" recorded at Sun, is worth checking out.

I acknowledge Greil's reputation, but agree with Mike that his review here is a snooze-fest.

steve simels said...

No love from anybody for "When the Whip Comes Down"?

Jeez, that's one of the most exciting guitar rock songs I can think of.

buzzbabyjesus said...

No love for "Whip" here, but I was just feeling bad about "Respectable".
"we're talking heroin with the President, 'Yes it's a problem sir, but it can be met".
I'm surprised Lester didn't give it any.