|"I feel like I need to briefly explain what a great “bad” record is: It’s a record where the creators are clearly not fully engaged with the project, which is reflected in the degraded quality of the songwriting and musicianship and an overall feeling of boredom, detachment, or extremely undisciplined self-indulgence that’s palpable in the music. That makes it “bad.” But instead of making the record less enjoyable, this “badness” actually makes the album more fascinating—so long as the artist in question is a genius—because it provides insight into what makes the artist’s “great” records great, and demonstrates how functional he or she is even when operating on a lower level of artistry/sobriety. That makes it great. Dylan’s infamous 1970 debacle Self-Portrait is the Sgt. Pepper of great “bad” albums; the closest to a modern master of the form is Ryan Adams." - STEVEN HYDEN, "The Five-Albums Test," -AV Club 7/19/2011
I've long been a fan of great "bad" albums (from here on out I'll use GB to abbreviate great "bad"). As a teen obsessive music fan hungry to hear, purchase, and read about every record I could, I developed an interest in going much farther in my listening than just the acceptable - mostly universal - canon of "classic" albums. I love the agreed upon's like The Beatles Revolver, The Clash's London Calling, and Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? Of course there's nothing to disagree with or really debate with these titles. They are top to bottom amazing, important LP statements that all music fans need to know intimately. Where does a fan go to when the acceptable list of classics is exhausted? Take a look, for example, at Rolling Stones' list of the 500 Greatest Albums Ever Made HERE. It doesn't take a serious fan very long to work their way through a couple hundred. The albums listed are GREAT and wonderful and important for a million different reasons, but what would happen if there was an alternate universe where these albums just couldn't be listened to? The artists still exist and are heralded as super cool geniuses and all that, yet we have to find, not so much hidden gems, but albums containing high art quality in half assed experiments or "lesser than efforts." What would we discover if Elvis' complete discography consisted of the soundtrack albums? Clambake is a beast ya'll!
Rock crit Steven Hyden's above quote conveniently defines my new column (except for that Ryan Adams bit - I've always considered Adams a second rate songwriter with only "bad" albums to his name) and something I've found pleasure in since becoming an obsessive fan all those years ago (the 90s!). I want to explore and debate great artist's "failures." Collections of songs that, on first listen, piss you off beyond grumbles. They slap you in the face and make you embarrassed to be a supporter of whoever the artist in question should be. Then, over time, you start to hear qualities emerge from these "total shit LPs" and start grooving on some deep cuts. This is snobbery of the worst kind mind you, but also hours of great fun. Yeah, you turn into an asshole who feels the need to argue the merits of Van Halen III (Way better than Van Halen II. Jesus Christ, dig the guitars on "Year to the Day" and "Dirty Water Dog"). I'm all in favor of this investigative contrarian listening and I'm hoping you are too, friendly reader.
So, where do we begin? Bob Dylan's Self-Portrait is one of the first GBs and an excellent example of this baffling musical artifact, but I want to save Dylan for another time. I want to go back to when I was about fourteen years old and the occurrence of two important musical moments. One was a guitar for Christmas and the other was the discovery of the music of The Rolling Stones. This was the age when I began defining my musical tastes. It was the beginning of a life of scavenging through used record stores, public libraries, documentary films, books, and magazines. I would become the "music" guy from then on. When I saw 25x5 - The Continuing Adventures of The Rolling Stones broadcast on PBS I knew I had no choice but to dive deep into the history of popular music. I needed to listen to everything and I wanted to play like Keith Richards.
The Rolling Stones are my favorite example of GB because they have somehow managed to take this concept (they didn't know it of course) and record over three decades worth of trash albums while maintaining the status of one of the greatest rock bands of all time. That title is deserved to some degree of course. Exile on Main St. (1972) alone is one of the most glorious amalgamations of rock, blues, and country ever to be put to wax and the Stones' three records prior to Exile (Beggar's Banquet, Let it Bleed, and Sticky Fingers) are almost as good. The creative sun set after '72 and the band entered a prolonged (unending?) period of parody and excess - even managing the odd classic with Some Girls (1978) in the middle of their rockin' quagmire!
As I started outlining this crazy column idea of mine I knew The Rolling Stones were the template for what GB means to me. The band presents a problem however as they have several albums that deserve to be reevaluated. I could easily write about Goats Head Soup (1973) or Undercover (1983) or Voodoo Lounge (1994) and be in ecstasy. One album stands out to me though for it is the best of the best of the worst and that is 1986's Dirty Work.
Dirty Work is an album that captures the sound of two people who love to hate each other - hating each other. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger are the sun and the moon to the Earth that is the Stones. The Glimmer Twins push and pull each other, and that creative tug of war is the bedrock of the band. When they are in alignment the group is the "Greatest Rock Band in the World." When Jagger takes the reins and Richards is nodding out in the backseat, the band goes disco..."Emotional Rescue" anyone? Dirty Work as a collection is unique because it represents a time when Jagger was away from the Stones attempting to be a solo pop star and Richards was healthy enough to take charge. He was clearly pissed off about this and you can hear it in the anger present in the rhythms of every song. This album is a knock down fists flying fight between two brothers set to classic rock. Music critic Robert Christgau called Dirty Work "a bracing and even challenging record [which] innovates without kowtowing to multi-platinum fashion or half-assed pretension. It's honest and makes you like it."
Mick and Keith weren't the only members of the band drowning in drama. Heartbeat of the group, drummer Charlie Watts, had quietly developed a heroin and alcohol addiction taking him out of commission for most of the making of the album. This might account for the heavier thud of session drummers Steve Jordan and Anton Fig (guitarist Ronnie Wood even plays drums on the Richards lead vocal tune "Sleep Tonight"). The production is very 80s, but the angry guitars and surprisingly agitated vocals make this a rewarding record despite the lack of notable "hits." Since the album is the result of Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood taking the lead in terms of songwriting, it isn't a surprise that the songs are dominated by riffs and grooves instead of vocal hooks. The first single, "Harlem Shuffle," isn't one the Stones' best singles and, tellingly, it was the first lead single not to be written by Jagger/Richards since the early 60s. The song is a fun listen and combines some of the dance elements they'd been toying with since "Miss You."
The meat of the album, and what makes it such a quality listen, are the songs of conflict like, "One Hit (To the Body)," "Fight," "Dirty Work," and "Had it with You." The second single from the album, "One Hit (To the Body)," is one of the true hidden gems amongst the many, many Stones deep cuts. Ronnie Wood's opening acoustic guitar reminds the listener of classics like "Street Fighting Man," while the guitar solo is provided by Led Zep's six string god, Jimmy Page who happen to be visiting the band while they were in the studio. The real treat with this song however is the music video. Jagger and Richards don't look like they are acting out a tough guy scene, they look like they're about to punch each other's lights out as they mime the tune. I also like the word play on "hit" meaning physical violence as well as drug slang for "to take a smoke of..." The Stones are always going to be known as much for their substance abuse as their music.
The lyrics on Dirty Work are surprisingly well suited for the aggression in the music too. Jagger is a great frontman/rock star and all that, but he's no poet (though to be fair, he's not a terrible lyricist either). On the title song Jagger sings, "It's beginning to make me angry/I'm beginning to hate it/You're a user, you're a user/I'm gonna shake you" and "You let somebody do the dirty work/Find some loser, find some jerk/Find some dumb ass do it all for free." Clearly he's pissed about his bandmates not appreciating the fact that they could be strung out while Mick did his best to keep the band going through the 70s. This is an honest record and lyrics like these make it a brutal listen. He's singing to the Stones themselves with some straight talk. The lyrics overall are about tension, mostly personal, some political, but always fraught with desperation and irritation to the point of arguments or fisticuffs.
On "Fight" Jagger sings the album's most violent words, "Gonna pulp you to a mass of bruises,/'cause that's what you're lookin' for./There's a hole where your nose used to be./Gonna kick ya out of my door." If he's yelling at Richards...damn! If he's thinking of a woman, somebody better call the cops!!! The Stones often portrayed (and lived) the dark side of life, so these threats are in line with the band's catalog, but the sneer in the recorded vocal ups the ante significantly. In "Had it with You" I can only hear it as a direct message from Mick to Keith, though it could be to a romantic partner just the same. He sings, "Always try to taunt me./Always seem to haunt me./Serving out injunctions, shouting out instructions./And I had it, I had it, I had it, I had it with you." Whatever the case, these are bitter words. There are some lighter moments here too. The two Richards' lead vocal pieces are mellow with the reggae soaked "Too Rude" and the ballad "Sleep Tonight" providing a break from vitriol, but mainly this is just bitchy rock music.
Finally, the cover art is an ugly 80s band photo...and I mean ugly. The members are sprawled out on and around a garish green love seat wearing pink suits (except for Watts' blue shirt sans jacket, Richards' black pants, and Jagger's yellow pants). The band look terrifically bored and dejected. Watts is about a second away from nodding out or running to the alley to shoot up and Richards is strategically kneeing Jagger in the crotch as Mick is on the floor with one leg on the chair. The 80s near neon color palette is grotesque no matter how you look at it. It is easily one of the worst cover photos I've ever seen. All of which adds up to hallmark GB my friends.
By the mid-80s the Stones seemed at loose ends, maybe even on their last legs. After the release of Dirty Work the band would be silent, except for the media sniping between Jagger and Richards, for three years until they buried the past and came together for the Steel Wheels record. The Rolling Stones continue today with few signs of ever really quitting, despite not releasing any new music since A Bigger Bang (2005). Hell, its only rock 'n' roll, but...
*Next Month: Metallica