In defiance of ever changing trends, The Stones remain true to themselves
1973, the year when Goats Head Soup appeared, is often seen as the beginning of The Rolling Stones’ decline as the ‘world’s greatest rock ‘n roll’ band. And when It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll was released the following year, it did little to reverse the ever increasing consensus amongst critics that yes, the band’s best days were by now well and truly behind them.
Yet in hindsight (almost forty-five years to be exact), such poisonous criticism seems somewhat misguided, because what exactly were the critics expecting the band to do, keep churning out variations of Exile On Main Street for the rest of their days – destined to dwell forever in the murky, mouldy basement of Keith Richards’ French chateaux?
Goats Head, in contrast to Exile, was recorded in Jamaica, so the album has a slightly sunnier complexion, production-wise, although the conditions under which it was made were no less lo-fi than its predecessor. It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll is somewhere in between. The sound is cleaner, less muddied than on earlier releases, due to the group having decided to make the album in Munich, at Musicland Studios. Also, the record was produced solely by Jagger and Richards (aka The Glimmer Twins), the first time they had done so since Their Satanic Majesties Request.
“If You Can’t Rock Me,” the LP’s first cut, makes for a vibrant almost aggressive introduction, with Richards and Taylor’s guitars complementing eachother beautifully, just as they did on Sticky Fingers and Exile. The band’s cover of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” takes them back to their R&B days, albeit in slightly more sophisticated fashion. Whether it truly works is a question only the listener can decide on, but regardless it makes for a fine distraction ahead of the title track, and one which is the album’s centrepiece.
Originally recorded as a demo at Ronnie Wood’s studio in 1973, with Jagger and David Bowie, Richards described the first time he heard it: “Mick had gotten this idea and they started to rock on it. It was damn good. Shit… what are you doing it with Bowie for? Come on, we’ve got to steal that motherfucker back. And we did.” “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It),” despite its glam-rock pretensions, is another worthy addition to The Stones already impressive catalogue of classic singles.
The rest of the first side is filled out with the tender country-rock of “Till The Next Goodbye” (while Taylor lights a small bonfire underneath), and “Time Waits For No-one,” another superb ballad, throughout which Jagger, showing a rare vulnerableness, ruminates on the passing of time: “Time can tear down a building or destroy a woman’s face/Hours are like diamonds, don’t let them waste.”
“Luxury” reveals their growing interest in reggae (or Keith’s growing interest anyway), limp their way onto the dancefloor with “Dance Little Sister” (a poor man’s “Bitch”), before pissing off the feminists on “Short And Curlies,” including some funny although what could be interpreted as misogynistic lyrics such as “She’s got you by the balls/She’s nailed you to the wall.”
But “If You Really Want To Be My Friend” allows Jagger to make amends by offering a sincere hand of friendship to his lover, whether wife or mistress, while also coming at the argument from the woman’s point of view: “If you really want to be my man/Get your nails out of my back/Stop using me.” Album closer “Fingerprint File” may lack the sense of danger and paranoia aired on “Midnight Rambler,” but has some virtues of its own nonetheless, namely in the way that Taylor and Richards’ guitars combine to give the song a powerful drive, something which The Stones have rarely, if ever, been able to repeat.
Although Mick Taylor was quite excited by the finished results, when he saw that his contributions had once again been credited to ‘Jagger/Richard,’ the finest solo guitarist The Rolling Stones ever had, chose to leave. Such a decision should have come as no surprise, even if Richards still maintains that he could never quite work out why. Such a statement comes across as disingenuous to say the least, considering Jagger and Richards seeming obsession with controlling copyright (even Ronnie Wood, who would ultimately replace Taylor, admitted that he had to fight tooth and nail to get a co-writing credit on a song which he himself predominately wrote!).
Perhaps the best word to employ when describing It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll is consistent. Not quite a classic, not quite mediocre – merely an above average record by an above average band doing what they do best, which is play rock music the only way they know how.