Monday, February 13, 2012

Dirty Work: The Rolling Stones' Masterpiece By Accident!

Introductory Note: I plan to use this blog to sometimes highlight music that I believe is overlooked.  This is the first of those reviews. However, the album in question is one that I have wanted to write about for a long time, and I ended up working on this piece for months, never quite satisfied that I “got it.”  A lot came out because in my mind a lot had to be said!  So please don’t be scared off by its length, and enjoy reading about an often overlooked but essential album by the Rolling Stones!

Dirty Work is an often dismissed, usually maligned Rolling Stones album from 1986.  Yet many of the reasons the album is written off are the very one that make it great.  The overall disarray of the band, the feuding between Mick and Keith at the time, and the fact that Keith had to pretty much put the album together on his own all contribute to making this a truly essential, if imperfect, album. 

The criticisms of Dirty Work are well known.  Fixated on advancing his solo career, Mick brought little of value to the studio.  Keith’s anger at Mick permeates, and sometimes overwhelms, the whole thing.  The songs are an overproduced mess, with only THREE attributed solely to the famous Jagger-Richards songwriting tandem.  At least three additional percussionists are on the record, covering for a smacked out Charlie.  Wyman barely showed up – Ronnie covered on bass, and on one track (Had It With You), there’s no bass at all!  They didn’t even care enough to add it! what a mess!
I used to think that.  When the album came out I recorded a tape of it and walked around with my Panasonic tape recorder (named “Neighbors” by the way) and just played two or three of the tracks over and over.  Didn’t even bother with the rest.

Well, for the last couple years I’ve spent a lot of time listening to and thinking about this album and I now believe that Dirty work is a near-classic album – and the last Stones album to reach that level.  And I am NOT dismissive of the Stones’ later work!  In fact, I believe the Stones’ 2006 album A Bigger Bang is extremely solid, updating the familiar Stones sound for their best album in twenty years.  But Dirty Work is weird and compelling, and here are some of the reasons why:

·         The guitar work is passionate, focused, and full of impact
·         The lyrics are straightforward, and from the gut
·         Keith channeled all his passion into the record, and it comes out in the music
·         The album seems devoid of contrivance or pretense, adding to its raw power

Before even getting to the music, though, let's ponder the cover.  It is garish.  It is the definition of garish! Here's how garish is defined on-line by Merriam-Webster's:

1: clothed in vivid colors
2 a : excessively or disturbingly vivid <garish colors> <garish imagery>
b : offensively or distressingly bright : glaring
3: tastelessly showy : flashy

That’s this cover in a nutshell!  Disturbingly vivid.  The last time the Stones appeared as themselves on an album cover (save for a little sticker of their faces on Undercover) was on Black and Blue, over a decade before Dirty Work was released.  Since then they have appeared in drag, in tattoos, in some weird form of photography based on their heat emissions, or not at all.  Here, they stare out at us looking like horribly disheveled zombies, gathered around this (garish) greenish love seat completely dominated by Keith, who gives new meaning to the phrase “if looks could kill.”  The band, dressed in these weird outfits, is congregated on the left with the exception of Mick, who is off to the right, detached from the others and looking bored and kind of pouty.  Even the color scheme of his clothing is out of step with the rest of the band.  Keith is kneeing him in his crotch and he’s lazily kicking Keith back, but he just wants out of there.

The rest of the band?  Not good. Bill looks haggard and bored, perhaps thinking  about his teenage girlfriend. Ronnie, working through a freebasing addiction, gets to share a bit of the couch with Keith but from a deferential position in the back. Charlie, strung out on smack, is barely in the picture, looking away from the camera altogether.  In another world – or positioned to convey that he is…

And the whole thing is in this 80s-ish, disturbingly vivid, color scheme, as if trying to convey some fake cheeriness that just completely contrasts with the story being told by this picture.  It’s just mind-boggling  - and troubling – to look at.

So the Stones either really hated each other so much that this was the best they could muster, or the whole thing is a big contrivance to express the deteriorated relationships between the band members.  In either case, the cover sets the tone for the music inside – intentionally or not. 

And the music?  Well, a couple songs aren’t about duplicity, addiction, Armageddon, violence, greed, oppression, or threats to one’s very existence, though two of them are covers!  The rest?  Circles of Rolling Stones hell, crashing against each other in a very scary place that I sure don’t want to visit.

But that’s the point – this is what Rolling Stones hell must be like.  Nothing is cleaned up for marketing purposes, or mass appeal.  This is one of the few times since Some Girls – still true to this day - where the music is so stripped down and guttural.  Barely any nods to 80’s dance music; no multiple producers; no horrible “Mick” ballads; just balls to the wall, guitar driven Rolling Stones music, fueled by Keith and his erstwhile pal Ronnie.

Let’s put Dirty Work in context, by looking at the albums that came right before it, and right after.   Undercover (1983) was largely Mick’s album.  Being the first album of completely new material since Some Girls, it reflects the growing dysfunction of the band members and stands as a warning of the splintering within the band, ironic after the mega-success enjoyed in 1981-82, with the release of the highly lauded Tattoo You and the subsequent tour to support that album.  Undercover is ambitious and eclectic – maybe too much so, with drum machines and synthesizers throughout – and it foreshadows the disturbing themes that also figure so prominently on Dirty Work.  But they are presented in a somewhat detached way, supported by dancey music.  There is no particular cohesion in the presentation.  Dirty Work on the other hand takes the exploration into dysfunction begun on Undercover, turns the volume to 11, makes it personal, removes any hint of subtlety and nuance, and propels them with the full force of Keith and Ronnie’s guitars.
Fast forward to 1989. The boys iron out their differences and figure out how to “grow this thing up,” as Keith likes to say.  The first result was the album Steel Wheels.  It’s decent but uninspiring, made to coincide with a “comeback” world tour built upon the Steel Wheels theme.  Rock critic Robert Christgau (who agrees with me about Dirty Work, I should add!) calls it a “simulation” of the Stones and I know what he means.  It was designed to be a Rolling Stones album, instead of just being a Rolling Stones album.  Let’s put it this way: when not singing about elephants, hats, and Cleopatra’s love life, there are a few good tunes here.  But the songs are too polished and risk-free, with little real impact.  Keith had it right when he said that the important thing about the album wasn’t how good it was, but that it was made at all. As for the lyrics, they’re pretty lame-o:
“You’re not the only one with mixed emotions.”

“Hold on to your butt, hold on to your hat, you’re heading out of here, and never coming back.” (There are actually two songs on this album that refer to one’s “butt,” for what that’s worth)

 “Sad, Sad,Sad, but you’re gonna be fine.”

Typical lyrics on Dirty Work? Somewhat more eye-opening:

“Gonna pulp you to a mess of bruises, cause that’s what you’re looking for…there’s a hole where your face used to be, got you in my telescopic sight…”

“You’re a mean mistreater, a dirty dirty rat scum…”

“There’s something filthy living in your mouth…”

No songs about hats.  But as for the songs themselves? Well, a couple don’t hold up and the production by Steve Lilliwhite can be overbearing in places (just why ARE the drums so persistently loud in the mix?).  But let’s look at the whole package.

First off, the guitars are the strongest on this album since Some Girls, and they have not been this consistently strong on any Rolling Stones album since. This is a no-frills, guitar-driven album, plain and simple. If Undercover was Mick’s take on the Stones mid-1980s, this is Keith’s torrid response. 

Take the opening number, One Hit (To The Body).  An acoustic guitar gives way to a blistering electric riff, soon joined by pulsating drums and soon after, a full-throttle Jagger. Jagger wraps himself around the vocals, giving it all he’s got.  Never said the man couldn’t bring it, and here he does.

The lyrics start out innocuous but soon their meaning is completely blurred. Is the song about perversion?  Drug addiction?  A dysfunctional relationship?  Hell, I don’t know.  But its all there, along with ferocious guitar riffs, pounding drums, and Sir Mick’s spectacular vocals.  A classic Stones’ tune.  Here's the  video - and you can see how they played up the Jagger-Richards feud!   

After “One Hit” comes a song about the compulsion to beat one’s associates to a “mass of bruises,” and one featuring a cynical, jaded Jagger dishing out advice to the youngins.  And this is the most optimistic song on the album!   It’s only on side one, in fact, that there’s some respite, with the excellent cover of the soul standard Harlem Shuffle and the finely rendered Reggae tune Too Rude, sung by Keith.  On the record, this is where side one ends.

Side two offers no respite whatsoever, with songs about:  Winning ugly and at any cost;  nuclear Armageddon, in a tune which is also an allegory for the Jagger-Richards relationship (“Back to Zero…that’s where we’re heading…”);  and then the double barreled pummeling inflicted by Dirty Work and Had It With You. These two songs are the musical apex of the album.  They take the extremity of the themes to their most direct levels.  They’re among the best, hardest rocking songs on the album.

The Stones performing Harlem Shuffle
in the video directed by Ralph Bakshi

It’s only the album’s last song, Keith’s haunting and weird ballad Sleep Tonight, that offers some way out of this dystopia, but no one can question the song’s undercurrent of cynicism and foreboding.  Keith doesn’t hide his frustration (They robbed you of your dignity, they even stole your heart from me…It ain’t revenge, you understand…I just want to know who dealt this hand…”).  The song is clearly Keith's stab at reconciliation, but there’s no sense of compromise,  or acknowledgement of Jagger’s point of view (let’s see…one’s an ex-Junkie alcoholic, one’s a crackhead, one’s strung out on smack, the 50 year old can’t stay off the jailbait… the songs are all about what a jerk I am…and I’m supposed to spend the next year of my life touring with these losers?).  Interestingly, because the tempo is so different from the rest of the album and because its message is so simple and direct, without the gory and graphic imagery, Sleep Tonight may be the most resonant and enduring tune on the album.  I sure did not appreciate it in 1986.  Now I do.

And then it’s done, save for a tacked-on snippet of barrelhouse piano from the “sixth Stone” Ian Stewart, who died as the album was nearing completion.
The impact of any one of these songs may be negligible.  But collectively, they pack a hell of a wallop.  I know of no other album that so well captures the state of the band making it, and the result is this over the top, take-no-prisoners record that may not resonate from a casual listen, but certainly stands tall as the years go by.   

If your definition of a great Stones album is one full of hits, an AOR-friendly anthem or two, and maybe a couple catchy cover tunes, or if you believe that the Stones peaked around 1969, before Brian Jones died, or that after Mick Taylor left it’s all been pretty much downhill, then this album’s not for you.  But if you’re willing to dig a bit deeper, take a listen. Dirty Work captures the Stones being the Stones in the mid-1980s, with no nod to current trends or marketing as far as I can tell (save the good sense to play up the Jagger-Richards feud in the album’s videos, and of course…that cover…), and not deliberately “crafted” with a “Rolling Stones Tour” in mind. 

To the contrary, Dirty Work comes across as an angry work of desperation from a motley crew of desolate individuals, tearing and fraying at the edges and facing an uncertain future.  And all the doubt, all the anger, is somehow channeled brilliantly into the music itself.

It’s all there folks, on the Rolling Stones’ overlooked 1986 masterpiece by accident, Dirty Work.


  1. I have to disagree that this is an "overlooked masterpiece"...I would agree it didn't suck! For the song "Had it With You" to be praised as comprising an "apex" is really pushing me this song is a mediocre throwaway. The Stones can produce "Had it..." easily, and without any thought (and, they have done so SEVERAL times). I appreciate your enthusiasm, but comparing this "classic" with Mick Taylor or Brian Jones era is SILLY, and even the Ronnie Wood era has probably 3 better albums. Glad you like it, the Peel.

  2. Thanks for reading the post! I know it's not a well shared perspective but I'm glad you agree that it "doesn't suck!" Had it With You is a great song. It's not just a throwaway. I spent a lot of time, interestingly, mulling over the phrase and in the end, decided to go with it. I am playing with some guys now and we're going to cover Had It With You, and I'm really looking forward to it!

  3. Nice post. Dirty Work reveals more about the Rolling Stones as human beings and creative artists than any album since, and while it's a train wreck, it's a fascinating, compelling train wreck that I love to look at again and again. Like a train wreck it is loud and cacophanous and dangerous, but at least you know that something is happening when you're in the presence of a train wreck.

    The old film with the 60's check trying to explain the appeal of the band went: "they're so ugly they're beautiful". That, to me, is Dirty Work. Stones fans tend to hate it because it is a "bad" album - but the only album that the Stones had left in them to make, that they'd never truly made before, was a "bad" album. And being who they were, they made the Worst Greatest Rock and Roll Album.

    The only way they could really reveal themselves through the layers of fame, calculation, marketing, boredom, distance and ego, was to take their eye off the ball and make a "bad" record. Not intentional, but the results are glorious, horrifying, and produce an actual feeling inside the listener, not something you can say, really, about any of the post-89 records, which are listenable but anyone who doesn't think they're for fans only guilty pleasures are just kidding themselves.

    You should find a way to incorporate the original LP shrink wrap, which is red and only adds to the layers of anger in the packaging, and that horribly ugly cartoon inner sleeve with the bitch of an aerobics instructor in your analysis as they are only further aspects of the layers of ugliness in which this monstrosity sleeps.

    1. These are fantastic, fantastic comments. I remember that shrink wrap. And I re-read the cartoon when I was writing this very slowly. The whole thing is a train wreck, but it's such a compelling one, just as you note.

      I really love your points. I know exactly what you mean about that feeling inside you when you listen to it.

      thank you again!

  4. You - and anyone that bizarrely thinks this album is "good" - must consistently be on a bad high - DIRTY WORK is the absolute worst Rolling Stones album.



    It is an embarrassment.

    Where's the creativity? No where. Oh Keith got Mick to sing Harlem Shuffle, the only good thing about this album other than Keith's two songs and Had It With You. Oddly enough the title track kind of works.

    This pathetic pile of dog shit should've been released as an EP.

    Jagger's toilet grunting is hilarious - as in bad. The guitar work is pedestrian. The drums are flat. The production, well, let's just leave it at bad.

    On the STEEL WHEELS tour they played the pathetic One Hit (To The Body) for quite a few shows for the first leg of the tour. They got smart and finally dropped it for good. Smartly they've not bothered since.

  5. Yeah, I can't believe i read this article...i was waiting for an honest word from a true stones fan....i think he almost got there..but had another bong... I'd love to remix Dirty Work and remove all that shit 80s echo, reverb and delay and chorus, dry as fuck..oh and maybe then we could say a few kind words about it.

  6. I finally bought a copy of DIRTY WORK today, on CD.
    I myself had; as have so many, dismissed and spurned this record.
    It is indeed, a MASTERPIECE!!!!!!!!!


  7. I have to disagree with the premise that showing off a dramatic time for a band is in itself enough to make an album great, or even good, let alone a masterpiece. I understand that an album like Dirty Work is engaging on some level to think about, but when the actual music is so basic and the performances are so gross, so what? If I want a trainwreck, I can listen to Tormato, which is just as dysfunctional but a million times more interesting (and funny!) to actually hear. I can shudder with horror at the flailing near-corpse of Layne Staley on Alice in Chains. I can even put on The Madcap Laughs and watch a man's own mind have a knock-down drag-out fight with itself that puts to shame the petty catfights of a couple coked-out zillionaires a decade and a half later. Heck, if I really want to spoil myself hearing a band fall apart, I can listen to Let It Be and Abbey Road back-to-back, a pair that not only is more rewarding to analyze than Dirty Work (by a mile) but is downright brilliant music. What Dirty Work reminds me of more than anything else is St. Anger. The St. Anger sessions produced a fascinating and hilarious movie, but the actual album is just a wasteland. Maybe if the farce of Dirty Work's gestation had been similarly documented, I could appreciate the album itself as a companion piece, but on its own as a set of songs, all that I actually hear is half an hour of a man hollering grouchily in a box of gray, processed guitar chords (which are certainly mixed loud but hardly merit the word "strong" for it). Actual drama is only there if I actively project it onto the music myself, and in that case, I might as well just listen to a metronome while imagining that it's Exile on Main St. Maybe it's different for you, and you genuinely do feel something in Dirty Work's spite and spit, but I don't think that you can count on too many others to share that feeling.

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  10. I have no problem with Dirty Work; I've always had a soft spot for it. I'm not going to justify this with intellectual analysis: it's a Stones album; full of guts and fury and after that it boils down to whether you like that or not. For me, it beats the pants off their later stuff - with the possible exception of Voodoo Lounge (another generally panned album) - but then I'm also very fond of Black & Blue (also sneered at) so maybe the problem is me. This article was refreshing to read in that it, for once, gave us another take on this album. Tired of hearing the words "Lillywhite" & "overproduced" in the same review.