Let’s face it, the ‘80s just wasn’t the sort of decade The Rolling Stones were expecting much less belonged to. Incredibly, Undercover was the band’s seventeenth studio album, and saw them descend ever further into musical mediocrity like never before. Gone is the sweat, blood, and general sense of abandon surrounding the band’s earlier releases, usurped instead by songs that sound as though they’d been dipped in antibacterial disinfectant before being pressed onto vinyl – a shame really, because there are some rather decent ditties on display here.
By 1983, when this LP came out, it was clear that the group was attempting to reinvent itself, and in an age of MTV I guess who could blame them. Opener “Undercover” is a case in point, all polished production and those electric drums which sounded awful then and still do now. Better is “She Was Hot”, a song that almost harkens back to their heyday in the early ‘70s, only except of Jagger singing about how “The sunlight bores the daylights out of me”, Mick prefers to indulge himself and the listener with fantasies of a black woman with blue eyes begging him to make love her, and who won’t leave until he does. The sexual daydreaming continues with “Tie You Up (The Pain of Love)”, where Mick’s idea of feminism is like something out of a Marque de Sade novel. Still, the song has an addictive beat (no pun intended) and serves to distract the listener from the sexist lyrics.
In contrast Keith Richards shows himself to be nothing less than an old fashioned romantic on “I Wanna Hold You”, an upbeat rocker similar to “Hang Fire” from Tattoo You. “Feel on Baby” could be Duran Duran doing reggae, while “Too Much Blood” seems to take the Stones’ excursion into disco on albums such as Some Girls and Emotional Rescue to its most logical conclusion. Mind you, how many disco tunes have you ever heard contain references to cannibalism? Featuring David Sanborn on saxophone, it represents the band’s ability to adapt their past to the current trends of the day.
Ronnie Wood gets a rare songwriting credit on the down to earth “Pretty Beat Up”, one of the grittier recordings found here, proving that the band hadn’t quite forgotten their blues-rock roots. The Stones sleepwalk their way through “Too Tough”, even if Richards’ riffs remind the listener of better days. “All the Way Down” might as well be an outtake from Some Girls, while closer “It Must Be Hell” is equally forgettable, which can only mean one thing – that it must be time for us middle aged farts to go to bed.
Undercover would mark a low point in the group’s career, even if it did prove to be commercially successful. Although by this stage they could have released an LP of Doris Day covers and it still would have sold. So entrenched had they become in the collective psyche of many baby boomers. A sort of rock and roll band with a Peter Pan complex, and unlike most of us, the Stones never had to really grow up, or at least Mick Jagger anyway. A quality he continues to elicit even to this day.
If one could strip away all the extraneous production, what you’d be left with is a collection of compositions that are consistent with many of their previous works from the mid ‘70s onwards. Undercover remains a flamboyant, glitzy affair where primal concerns compete with modern fashion. I’m sure if Richards had his way, the clock would have stopped around ten years before.