An examination by Johnny Black
By the mid-70s, the Rolling Stones' popularity had declined as the charts in the USA became increasingly dominated not only by disco but also by newer rock bands such as Aerosmith and Kiss. In the UK, meanwhile, punk was a rising force which made most artists connected with the 1960s era seem obsolete.
Happily, their fourteenth album, Some Girls, would see them return to better form, and would give The Stones a further run of hit singles.
"I’d moved to New York at that point," remembered Jagger. "The inspiration for the record was really based in New York and the ways of the town. I think that gave it an extra spur and hardness. And then, of course, there was the punk thing that had started in 1976. Punk and disco were going on at the same time, so it was quite an interesting period. New York and London, too. Paris - there was punk there. Lots of dance music. Paris and New York had all this Latin dance music, which was really quite wonderful. Much more interesting than the stuff that came afterward."
In an interview with Lyndsey Parker of Yahoo! Music, Jagger described the milieu from which the album evolved in greater detail, saying, "I think it was pretty conscious of living in the day. This was a very interesting time in music in New York, where I was living a lot at the time. You had sort of a return to very basic rock music - you know, The Sex Pistols and all that - but you also had the beginning of hip-hop, the beginning of rap, and you had lots and lots of kinds of dance music, very different kinds of dance music. The early dance music was quite innovative in lots of ways. So you had a lot of genres, and these were cross-pollinating everything. I think in some ways this album reflects some of that time, and I think that's what makes it an interesting album."
Keith Richards too acknowledged the influence of punk on Some Girls. "Without a doubt, the punks certainly made us sort of look around and say, 'Oh my God, we've been around for 10 years already!' The energy of the punk thing affected Some Girls in many ways. The only trouble with the punks is none of them could really play! I loved the attitude, y'know, but where's the music? And that was their letdown. But otherwise, it was a matter of attitude more than anything else, it was about energy, and it was a kick up our ass."
And, like Jagger, he was aware of the emergence and importance of new forms of dance music. "The disco thing, I don't know, that was just what was going on in clubs and you sort of picked up a beat," he told Yahoo’s Lyndsey Parker. " And we just decided to do a disco song ['Miss You']. At the time it wasn't necessarily disco music to us, it was just another rhythm and blues beat. No doubt hanging around in bars and clubs a lot had something to do with it."
Recording dates for the album ran from 10 October to 21 December 1977, then from 5 January – 2 March 1978, at the EMI-owned Pathé Marconi Studios in Paris, France, Europe.
Many critics have seen Some Girls as Mick Jagger’s album. "Running the band? It was a role I had for good or bad," he has said. "Keith was a heroin addict and if you're a heroin addict it's hard to do much more than be a heroin addict and play the guitar - that's quite enough of an achievement. You might want to do all this other stuff but if you're a heroin addict you are limited. And his drug bust was very heavy, and if you're talking about jail, that's worrying too, so it's all you can do to turn up for the music never mind anything else... How clear-headed was I at this time? Not a hundred per cent. Fuzzy. But I was functioning."
Jagger also told Rolling Stone magazine that, "Everyone was using drugs, Keith particularly. So I think it suffered a bit from all that. General malaise. I think we got a bit carried away with our own popularity and so on.”
Even their unflappable, level-headed drummer Charlie Watts has revealed, "I was lucky that I never got that hooked on it, but I went through a period of taking heroin. I used to get off it whenever I went home. The thing with my marriage still had to go a bit wobbly and my wife noticed I wasn't the same."
In a 2011 BBC Radio interview, Watts recalled how, "I fell asleep on the floor during [the recording of] Some Girls and Keith woke me up and said, 'You should do this when you're older'. Keith telling me this! But it stuck and I just stopped...along with everything else."
For guitarist Keith Richards, "All those mid-70s LPs remind me of being a junkie. What happened was I'd been through the bust in Canada, which was a real watershed for me. I'd gone to jail (sic), been cleaned up, done my cure, and I'd wanted to come back and prove there was some difference... some... some reason for this kind of suffering. So Some Girls was the first record I'd been able to get back into and view from a totally different state than I'd been in for most of the 70s."
Some Girls was also The Stones’ first album with Ronnie Wood as a full-time member. His predecessor, Mick Taylor, was arguably more musicianly, but Wood’s rhythmic style meshed more cohesively with Keith Richards’, and his slide guitar playing became a hallmark of the re-invigourated band from Some Girls onward.
"These Paris sessions have made me realise how much of a Rolling Stone I always have been," stated Wood at the time. "It’s really weird. I feel like I've been with them right from the start. I'm a lot less musically frustrated than I was with The Faces although at the time I didn't realise I was frustrated. With this album I've definitely taken a stand with my playing. During the first Stones tour I couldn't get used to having the freedom to be able to do whatever I wanted because The Faces were limiting, where The Stones let me rip."
Wood also pointed out in 1978 that, "I was sticking to certain safe formulas (during the first Stones tour). This album is more me because the numbers are being done for the first time. Now I'm an integral part of what's going on which has given me a lot more confidence of expression. That should come over in the live gigs. The Stones bring out the best in me. I think I'm most powerful when I'm with them."
In contrast to some earlier Stones efforts, Some Girls did not feature many additional contributors. There was keyboardist Ian McLagan, Wood's bandmate from The Faces, plus harmonica player Sugar Blue, saxophonist Mel Collins and percussionist Simon Kirke.
By the time the Paris sessions ended, The Stones had recorded about fifty new songs, several of which would turn up in altered forms on the albums Emotional Rescue (1980) and Tattoo You (1981).
The album was released in the USA on June 11, 1978.
TRACK BY TRACK
Bill Wyman (bassist, Rolling Stones) : The idea for those bass lines came from Billy Preston. We'd cut a rough demo a year or so earlier after a recording session. I'd already gone home, and Billy picked up my old bass when they started running through that song. He started doing that bit because it seemed to be the style of his left hand. So when we finally came to do the tune, the boys said, 'Why don't you work around Billy's idea?' So I listened to it once and heard that basic run and took it from there. It took some changing and polishing, but the basic idea was Billy’s."
In other interviews, however, Wyman has seemed resentful that his contributions to the Stones were never acknowledged with writing credits. “None of us got them, Brian (Jones), Mick Taylor. If you came up with a riff that turned an ordinary song into something special it was never acknowledged … The riff on Miss You was mine. And the one for Jumping Jack Flash. There was one interview where Keith acknowledged that ‘that was Bill’s song’. Then about ten years later he denied he’d said it.”
In Mick Jagger’s version of events, "Billy (Preston) had shown me the four-on-the-floor bass-drum part, and I would just play the guitar. I remember playing that in the El Mocambo club when Keith was on trial in Toronto for whatever he was doing. We were supposed to be there making this live record."
Charlie Watts too has offered his recollections of how Miss You came to be. "A lot of those songs like Miss You on Some Girls... were heavily influenced by going to the discos," Watts has said. "You can hear it in a lot of those four-to-the-floor and the Philadelphia-style drumming. Mick and I used to go to discos a lot... It was a great period. I remember being in Munich and coming back from a club with Mick singing one of the Village People songs - Y.M.C.A I think it was - and Keith went mad, but it sounded great on the dance floor."
At times, however, Jagger has seemed keen to distance himself from the disco influence. "I wanted to make more of a rock album," he has insisted. "I just had one song that had a dance groove: Miss You. But I didn't want to make a disco album. I wrote all these songs - like Respectable, Lies, When The Whip Comes Down."
WHEN THE WHIP COMES DOWN
Describing this song in one interview, Mick Jagger stated, "There is one song that’s a straight gay song - When The Whip Comes Down - but I have no idea why I wrote it. It’s strange - The Rolling Stones have always attracted a lot of men. That sounds funny, but they’re not all gay. And, of course, I have a lot of gay friends, but I suppose everyone does in New York City, and what’s that have to do with the price of eggs? Maybe I came out of the closet. It’s about an imaginary person who comes from L.A.to New York and becomes a garbage collector…"
The original version of the album’s title track was 24 minutes long and had to be severely edited, mainly to cut out some of Mick Jagger’s salacious vocal improvisations. Sugar Blue (real name: James Whiting) played harmonica on this track. An American blues player, he had been discovered playing in the Paris metro by someone from The Stones record company. He was brought along to the sessions and he fitted in well with the band. He would also be heard on Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You.
The track’s lyrics caused outrage because they were considered not only degrading to women but also openly racist. In particular, the line "Black girls just want to get f**ked all night" provoked American civil rights leader Jessie Jackson to call for a boycott of the album. Mick Jagger apologised for the line, but refused to re-record it.
Not perhaps the album’s most memorable track, this is simply a fast-paced rocker, with a lyric about a man who is unhappy about his girlfriend who, he feels, lies and cheats on him all the time.
FAR AWAY EYES
This is a country music pastiche, written by Jagger and Richards.
Keith Richards : I know (Mick) listens to - and used to - a lot of Merle Haggard (from Bakersfield, California)...When you think about it, he even sings Bakersfield in (Far Away Eyes)... I wonder why Bakersfield? I've got to ask him that. Maybe he don't even know himself. It must go back to him listening to a lot of Merle Haggard.
Mick Jagger : You know, when you drive through Bakersfield on a Sunday morning or Sunday evening, all the country music radio stations start broadcasting black Gospel services live from L.A. And that's what the song refers to. But the song's really about driving alone, listening to the radio.
Jagger, who had been learning to play guitar over the previous decade, contributed a third guitar part to several songs on Some Girls, including this one.
Mick Jagger : This is the kind of edgy punk ethos. Yeah, the groove of it - and on all of those songs, the whole thing was to play it all fast, fast, fast. I had a lot of problems with Keith about it, but that was the deal at the time.
Mick Jagger : I was banging out three chords incredibly loud on the electric guitar, which isn't always a wonderful idea but was fun here. This is a punk meets Chuck Berry number…
Mick Jagger : Respectable really started off as a song in my head about how respectable we as a band were supposed to have become, 'We're so respectable'. As I went along with the singing, I just made things up and fit things in. 'Now we're respected in society…' I really meant [the band]. My wife's a very honest person, and the songs's not about her... It's very rock and roll. It's not like (Bob Dylan's) Sara. Respectable is very light-hearted when you hear it. That's why I don't like divorcing the lyrics from the music. 'Cause when you actually hear it sung, it's not what it is, it's the way we do it...
BEFORE THEY MAKE ME RUN
In an interview with the Associated Press, Keith Richards revealed, "It’s pretty autobiographical. I was feeling a little hounded, so I think it came out of feeling that. I was on the run, basically. Very few countries would accept me at the time."
Chris Kimsey (sound engineer) : Keith had a bee in his bonnet about that song. He just wanted to go in and get completely absorbed and lost in it - which he did.
Keith Richards : That song, which I sang on that record, was a cry from the heart. But it burned up the personnel like no other. I was in the studio, without leaving, for five days... I had an engineer called Dave Jordan and I had another engineer, and one of them would flop under the desk and have a few hours' kip and I'd put the other one in and keep going. We all had black eyes by the time it was finished... That's probably the longest I've done. There have been others that were close - 'Can't Be Seen' was one - but 'Before They Make Me Run' was the marathon.
(Source : Life, book by Keith Richards, 2010)
BEAST OF BURDEN
As with several songs on the album, this one was initiated by Keith, then elaborated on and brought to completion by Jagger.
Keith Richards : Another one where Mick just filled in the verses. With The Stones, you take a long song, play it and see if there are any takers. Sometimes they ignore it, sometimes they grab it and record it. After all the faster numbers of Some Girls, everybody settled down and enjoyed the slow one.
(Source : liner notes to the 1993 compilation album Jump Back)
Keith Richards : When I returned to the fold after closing down the laboratory [i.e. his drug problems throughout the 1970s], I came back into the studio with Mick... to say, 'Thanks, man, for shouldering the burden' - that's why I wrote Beast of Burden for him, I realise in retrospect.
(Source : interview in 2003)
Mick Jagger : How it works on a tune like Beast Of Burden is Keith would set up a chord sequence and maybe one or two lines, and then you’ve got to extemporise on that, and come up with these melody lines and lyrics. We just ran the chord sequence through a lot of times - we were open-ended in the studio, so we just tried lots of different ways of doing the beats and arrangements. The actual chord sequences are the same, but the stuff in there that makes the sections different is the different vocal lines."
(Source : interview with Sylvie Simmons, Mojo magazine)
Mick Jagger : Lyrically, this wasn't particularly heartfelt in a personal way. It's a soul begging song, an attitude song. It was one of those where you get one melodic lick, break it down and work it up; there are two parts here which are basically the same.
(Source : liner notes to the 1993 compilation album Jump Back)
Ron Wood (guitarist, Rolling Stones) : That's another one that just came very naturally in the studio. And I slipped into my part and Keith had his going. It may have appeared as though it was planned. We can pick it up today and it will just naturally slip into the groove again with the guitars weaving in a special way. It's quite amazing really. Ever since Keith and I first started to trade licks, it was a very natural thing that, for some unknown reason, if he's playing up high, I'm down low and the other way around. We cross over very naturally. We call it an ancient form of weaving-- which we still are impressed by it to this day. Unexplainable, wonderful things happen with the guitar weaving. There's no plan.
This is another fully-fledged Jagger-Richards composition, whose half-spoken half-sung lyric Jagger claimed to have written in the back of a New York City cab. With bassist Bill Wyman not available on the day of the recording, the bass part is played by Ronnie Wood. Released as a single in the USA, it peaked at No31 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979.
When the album was played, before release, to Ahmet Ertegun, President of Atlantic Records, he was furious. He felt that, ironic or not, the lyric sounded racist and was almost certain to cause offence. He refused to release the album unless the lyric was changed. Jagger said no.
As luck would have it, Ertegun’s wife Mica was a close friend of Jagger’s. It was her intervention that convinced her husband, against his better judgement, to allow the album to go out with the lyric unchanged.
The album was released on Rolling Stones Records on June 9, 1978, and would peak at No1 on the Billboard 200 album chart in the USA, going on to become the band's top-selling album in the United States, certified by the R.I.A.A as having sold 6m copies by the start of the new millennium. In the UK, however, it peaked at No2.
Its release was, however, dogged by controversy.
After a concert on June 28 at the Mid-south Coliseum in Memphis, Keith Richards was asked why the album was called Some Girls. He quipped “Because we couldn’t remember their fucking names.” It was a mildly amusing retort, but only added fuel to the growing feeling that the title track was offensively sexist and racist.
On July 5, 1978 the EMI pressing plant in Britain stopped printing the album cover after complaints were received from some celebrities, including Raquel Welch and Lucille Ball, who had been depicted without their permission in the cover's mock-wig advertisement. "On the original album there were old-fashioned film stars," explained Jagger, "but because we were stupid and never got permission from them, we got stopped a lot from using them. The original idea was that it was period people; the wig pictures were period."
Shortly after, the sleeves were withdrawn and the offending images blacked out.
On July 10, black radio stations in New York began removing the album from playlists, because of the racist lyrics in the title track. Still Jagger wouldn’t budge, claiming that the song was a parody of stereotypical attitudes to women.
Things came to a head in early October, when civil and moral rights campaigner The Rev. Jesse Jackson declared Some Girls to be, “an insult to our race and degrading to our women. Music is the medium through which most of our messages are delivered. We must begin showing some social responsibility about the messages we’re delivering to our children.”
On October 5, Jagger was obliged to apologise to Jackson for the racially offensive lyrics of Some Girls. Nevertheless, Jagger still refused to remove the line 'Black girls just love to get f**ked all night long, but I just don’t have that much jam.'
On October 28, 1978, Ahmet Ertegun recommended that Some Girls should be re-edited, stating, “Even though I know he didn’t mean it, it is not our wish to demean, insult, or make less of a people without whom there would be no Atlantic Records. Mick is certainly not a racist. He is consciously anti-racist. He owes his whole being to black people and black music.”
On the same day, The Stones issued a statement to the press, apologising again for the offensive and discriminatory lyrics. “It never occurred to us that our parody of certain stereotypical attitudes would be taken seriously by anyone who has heard the entire lyrics of the song in question. No insult was intended and, if any was taken, we sincerely apologise.” Many observers perceived the apology as a cynical attempt to crawl out of responsibility for lyrics that were blatantly mysogynistic and racist.
There was, however, no question in anyone’s minds about the rock and roll merit of the album. It was hailed as a complete return to form.
On December 28, 1978, Rolling Stone magazine in the USA chose Some Girls as its Album Of The Year.
"It’s one of my favourite Stones albums," Jagger told Lyndsey Parker of Yahoo! Music in 2011. "I think, because it's so listenable as an album and it gets to the heart of the matter straight away and there's no mucking about and it's succinct. It doesn't sprawl, it's to the point, it's got a lot of style, and it's got this energy. I think it's all around a really good album. I think it's underrated. I don't know where it comes in the ratings, to be honest. In my ratings, it comes very high - just don't ask me what number!"