Dirty Work: ‘a tattered, embarrassed triumph’

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As the online bone structure of Stylus Magazine begins to fray like an undusted dinosaur skeleton in a museum, I’ve taken to scanning, printing, and caching my archives. I’ll post them from time to time.

One of my first pieces was this reconsideration of the most reviled Stones album. High on zealotry, I made a couple of ridiculous statements. “For one, Dirty Work lacks any concession calculated to win a segment of the marketplace” — er, no. “One Hit (To the Body)” and “Fight” sound like Steve Lillywhite fell in love with someone’s description of Ratt and added anabolic steroids so that the tracks boomed like War-era U2 and the P-Furs before the mousse. Dirty Work‘s creators were Keith Richards and Ron Wood, assemblers of a project Krazy Glued into fruition from errant guitar parts; hired guns doing their damndest not to sound like Toto; and Mick Jagger at his most unhinged.

Peek behind the mismatched aural stitches of “Hold Back” and the synth slime and unmoored backup vocals on “Winning Ugly” and a lead singer mocked for a Jacksons collaboration and unnerved by the polite reaction to the solo album that he’d certainly earned the right to record — he hired Bill Laswell and Nile Rodgers and all he got was a prime Live Aid spot? I stand by this:

What gives Dirty Work its fitful power is the aggression the Stones’ handlers have hyped since they were supposedly the anti-Beatles. Except now they’re not “channeling” (read “exploiting”) anger, as they did on the marvelous secondhand belligerence of Some Girls: they’ve surrendered to it; they’ve agreed to loathe each other.

At any rate I still love the fucked-upness of the record, and had Dirty Work been the last Stones album it would have made a gauche, apt epitaph. And this track the benediction.

——

November 19, 2004:

Let’s start with the cover: the five Rolling Stones, in harlequin haberdashery, scattered like spent shells across a couch. To a man they look dreadful. Mick Jagger, bare feet protruding from Winnie the Pooh-colored pants, holds the camera with insolent, tight-lipped scorn. Bill Wyman and Ron Wood pose like middle-aged leches. Even the redoubtable Charlie Watts can barely contain his disinterest.

Only Keith Richards manages to keep his equipoise—no small feat when you’re wearing a sports jacket Sonny Crockett would gladly have sold at a rummage sale. It’s to Keith (and, to a lesser degree, Ronnie) that we must turn as we try to defend Dirty Work, an album which, then and now, inspires nothing but loathing. Everyone knows the back story: Jagger, ego swollen by the moderate success of his first solo album (the pneumatic She’s The Boss) and Live Aid performance opposite Tina Turner (“sizzling” in a New York Rockettes kind of way), could barely hold his contempt for the four men whose combined assets paid for all the blow Jagger snorted in Studio 54. Richards and Wood cobbled together 10 tracks (two covers!) which in most cases relied on outsiders like Jimmy Page and Anton Fig to play the parts Wyman and Watts were too bored or strung out to play. Journeyman producer Steve Lillywhite’s hamfisted mix and cavernous drum sound accentuate what’s missing.

None of this sounds appetizing; but Dirty Work is a tattered, embarrassed triumph, by far the most interesting Stones album since Some Girls at every level: lyrical, conceptual, instrumental. For one, Dirty Work lacks any concession calculated to win a segment of the marketplace: no disco crossovers like “Emotional Rescue”, no AOR anthems like “Start Me Up”. What gives Dirty Work its fitful power is the aggression the Stones’ handlers have hyped since they were supposedly the anti-Beatles. Except now they’re not “channeling” (read “exploiting”) anger, as they did on the marvelous secondhand belligerence of Some Girls: they’ve surrendered to it; they’ve agreed to loathe each other. Hence the most venomous guitar sound of the Stones’ career, and Jagger’s most committed vocals. Despite copping to tired ‘80s subjects like nuclear apocalypse (“Back to Zero,” the album’s lone turd), all this aggression is reflexive. As Robert Christgau—still the album’s most lucid defender—noted, these are songs of conscience only well-known sons of bitches can get away with.

The obscure second single “One Hit (To The Body)” is an ideal introduction, remembered for the infamous video (in which Jagger and Richards duck and feint like Ali and Foreman). What a striking opening! An acoustic strum, followed by an electric crackle that’s like an elbow to the ribs, and then Jagger, making the explicit case for love-as-violence that 1983’s Undercover argued in more puerile a fashion. “Fight” and “Dirty Work” are more of the same, although the latter’s pointed condemnations are remarkable coming from a man for whom emotional stonewalling is as natural as fucking models: “Let somebody do the dirty work…find some jerk, do it all for free”.

But it’s on “Hold Back” where Jagger, the “voice of experience”, really lets it rip. That Keith and Ronnie add particularly sympathetic fills to a song defending self-interest underscores its malevolent irony. Jagger, “caught in this tree of promises for over 40 years”, gives us lesser mortals the sort of advice that only a plutocrat who’s never worked a day in his life can offer. See, since Stalin and Roosevelt “each took their chances”, you gotta trust your gut reaction, so don’t hold back. Mick’s performance is irony-free; he’s pissed about something, shouting and braying like he wants to gnaw at the microphone. Lillywhite earns his paycheck: the guitars surround, taunt, and goad; the drumming by Watts or Wood or whoever shoves Jagger down a flight of stairs. The rhythm guitar coda is superfluous, an afterthought; how could it be anything else? In “Hold Back” the Stones, finally, embrace their image: they’re dangerous, they don’t wanna hold your hand, they want your money. It’s a masterpiece.

Richards is rarely given credit as a singer; he doesn’t sound a thing like Jagger, and that’s a plus. Whether it’s Exile on Main Street’s “Happy”, Emotional Rescue’s “All About You” or his tear-inducing segment on “Memory Motel,” he wipes the irony his partner smears indiscriminately like cum on a rag. When “Sleep Tonight” creeps in, ushered by ghostly piano, it’s like tomato juice for a hangover. Possibly Keith’s best ballad, it offers the reconciliation that “Had It With You” (in which Jagger refers to you-know-who as a “dirty, dirty rat scum” and “mean mistreater”) denies. But with Jagger so defenseless on most of Dirty Work, Richards’ junkie-Dean-Martin vocals echo instead of foil, conferring grace on an album which embraces the deadly sins with diabolical abandon.

It’s “Sleep Tonight”’s most poignant irony that two songwriters who’ve spent 40 minutes bitching like Golden Girls affirm their partnership’s continuing vitality. “Those thoughts of you / They’re chilling me / The moon grows cold in memory”, Richards croaks, and you know why the dirty, dirty rat scum is smiling: Steel Wheels awaits three years later, and then Voodoo Lounge, followed by—somebody stop me. Plutocrats never know when to quit.

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