With the sudden and unexpected departure of Mick Taylor, The Rolling Stones were immediately thrust into an awkward position. Their previous LP, It’s Only Rock and Roll, had proved to be extremely popular amongst both fans and critics. However with Taylor gone, and considering that Keith Richards was in no shape to take on full guitar duties, as he had done on Let It Bleed, the band needed another guitarist, and fast. Auditions were held as the group were recording new material at various studios across Europe. Among the potential recruits were Ronnie Wood, Harvey Mandel, Wayne Perkins, and even Steve Marriot and Peter Frampton. Only the first three guitarist’s contributions were preserved for the finished product, although one would have loved to have been a fly on the wall just to hear Marriot and Frampton’s auditions (apparently Jeff Beck also took part. So let’s hope it was all captured on tape).
In the end it was Wood who got the gig, and as Keith wrote in his autobiography: “Ronnie wasn’t necessarily a shoe-in as our new guitarist, despite our closeness at the time. He was still a member… of the Faces.” Yet the fact that both Keith and Ron were close pals, as well as being English, was the deciding factor.
Released in April 1976, Black and Blue has a loose almost shapeless feel to it. Little wonder then that some critics felt that it was the first album by the Stones which didn’t really matter, as if proving that rock and roll was indeed dead. As Dave Marsh described it in Rolling Stone magazine “They’re a different sort of band, playing a different kind of music.”
Based on “Hot Stuff”, the opening track, I’d say that the Stones had been listening to a lot of James Brown. It’s certainly the funkiest number in their entire oeuvre, and one which is more concerned with groove than it is actual song structure. Mick Jagger declares that he simply “can’t get enough” of female flesh, while Richards and Mandel sleep walk their way through the main riff, though to be fair, Mandel does an exemplary job at adding a little vitality to what is overall your standard mid-seventies funk-rock tune. The group revisit more familiar territory on “Hand of Fate”, the sort of quality rocker Black and Blue could have done more with. Wayne Perkins’ lead guitar is reminiscent in style to that of Mick Taylor, to the extent that one would be forgiven for thinking that it actually was Taylor playing.
The album drags with the heavily reggae-influenced “Cherry Oh Baby”. Keith had been bonging a fair bit in Jamaica, so it should come as no surprise that a song such as this would eventually turn up on a Stones record. What the fuck it’s doing on this LP I have idea. I reckon the band had more fun recording it than the listener has in hearing it. Jagger and Richards get all sentimental on “Memory Hotel”, an understated ballad on which the Glimmer Twins share lead vocals, although interestingly Keith doesn’t play guitar – instead we have Mandel and Perkins performing (on electric and acoustic respectively), and a nice job they do too (I just hope they got paid for it). The song does have a certain warmth and charm, in spite of the sloppy chorus and all those Sha la la’s.
“Hey Negrita” is all groove and no substance, and nothing more than an enjoyable funk-rock jam. If Mick Jagger thought he could be a white James Brown he was obviously deluded. The playing is excellent throughout, even if the song itself is a second rate imitation of what the blacks in America had already been doing for some years, and doing it far better by the way. “Melody” is a late night drunken blues-jazz jam with Billy Preston on piano and Arif Mardin on horns. It’s a classy piece to be sure, and definitely a highlight. And speaking of highlights, “Fool to Cry” has to go down as one of the best ballads the Stones have ever written. The combination of Jagger’s sleazy falsetto and Perkins’ emotive guitar is sheer perfection. Nicky Hopkins’ synthesizer doesn’t hurt either, adding some extra atmosphere where it’s needed.
The LP closes with “Crazy Mama”, a classic tune which reminds the listener that the band hadn’t forgotten their roots. The opening riffs are like someone trying to turn the ignition of some old ’55 Chevy, however once the engine gets going, we’re off on The Rolling Stones freeway, heading in a direction only they can take you, and where the party never ends – a bit like Valhalla for hedonists.
Black and Blue is an album of experience, but never innocence. And like most of their records from the late ‘60s onwards, it took a great deal of professionalism and production to make it sound so effortlessly casual and off the cuff. The song writing may not be as impressive as what they had done before, but who cares, because as far as I’m concerned, Jagger and Richards knew how to write hits, whether it was “Fool to Cry” or “Shit on Toast”, somehow they made it work. Time and nostalgia are both wonderful things indeed, and in themselves can blunt the sharp knife of criticism. What was once considered mediocre, in just a few generations will be considered a masterpiece.