Some Girls. The Rolling Stones.
1978, Rolling Stones Records. Producer: The Glimmer Twins
Purchased ca. 1988.
IN A NUTSHELL – The Stones prove they can play most any style of 70s rock you want: disco, country, new wave, blues, punk … it’s all in there, and they do it all amazingly well. An awesome guitar record that bears repeated listening from a band at the peak of its abilities and confidence. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I had an emotional connection to more of the songs.
In 1991 I was playing bass in a band called The April Skies, and we got booked to play a few shows at the CMJ Music Marathon in Manhattan. The CMJ Music Marathon is sponsored by what used to be called the “College Music Journal,” an organization for college radio stations to introduce new music and bands, and help aspiring music industry collegians learn about the business. The Marathon was 3 or 4 days of music industry seminars and discussions, and 3 or 4 nights of concerts throughout Manhattan – some of which I was sober enough to completely recall 25 years later. We saw great concerts by just-beginning-to-break, early 90s alternative big-wigs like Blur, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Matthew Sweet. We saw even better concerts by unknown bands, like the fabulous Berserk, out of Baltimore, whose song “Giant Robots” remains one of my all time favorites.
I also got to meet, and speak briefly with, guitarist Vernon Reid, of Living Colour, who asked our band if we’d “heard the new Nirvana album [Nevermind] yet?” We said we liked it, and he said, “It’s like …” and he paused for a bit, slowly extending his fist to nearly-arm’s-length, and then extending it fully with a jerk, “… BOOM!!” (There have been worse ways to describe it, I guess.)
Also, Deee-Lite’s Lady Miss Kier – who looked like she must have been 45 years old, I swear – signed an autograph for me. To give to my sister. I swear!
It was a lot of fun, and – even though the Dean of American Rock Critic Assholes, Robert Christgau, didn’t think so – a great experience. But strangely, of all the memories that stick with me from the experience, one of the most-enduring was a poster I saw plastered onto walls and fences all over lower Manhattan advertising the new album by a rapper named MC Lyte. The album was called Act Like You Know.
I was not much of a rap fan then, and aside from a single album by De La Soul, I didn’t own any hip hop. What attracted me to the poster was the name of the album. It stopped me in my tracks: Act Like You Know. It struck me, like a slap in the face, that here was some advice that I had been searching for for 24 years. The title was a revelation; in the words of Evan Dando, “the puzzle piece behind the couch that makes the sky complete…” MC Lyte was at the Marathon, too, and drummer Mark and I stood in line to get her autograph. I didn’t know anything about her music, I just wanted to see her up close. She was short.
The phrase “Act Like You Know” was a revelation to me. Like all humans, I had been in a number of uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and unfortunate situations throughout my life. My response to all of these, regardless of the circumstances, had been to stand as still as possible, making as little sound as possible, staring as straight ahead as possible, trying to blend in to any background possible. I was like “The Chief,” from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I didn’t know any other way to act. But here was a suggestion that sounded like it just might work …
See, my parents themselves didn’t know how to “Act Like They Knew.” If presented with an uncomfortable social situation – which for them could encompass anything from getting the wrong order from the pizza shop, to being asked if they liked their kids’ elementary school – they never considered acting like they knew what to do, or how to respond. They had no trouble simply standing there, looking confused, smiling a little, and making the situation logarithmically more awkward by the second for everyone involved. My parents basically taught me to freeze at any inkling of trouble. They may as well have been cottontail rabbits. I guess it could have been worse – they could have been opossums, and I could have spent my adolescence falling to the floor to play dead whenever a girl talked to me. (To be fair, they taught me all kinds of other useful stuff, like how to be polite and how to take a fish off the hook without being stabbed by the outstretched, spiky dorsal fin.)
“Act Like You Know” is a simple idea, and actually not difficult to master. Whenever you find yourself in a situation in which you feel like you have NO FRIGGING IDEA what you should do, or how you should act, Act Like You Know what you should do, and do it. It’s a childhood game – we all loved to play “Let’s Pretend” when we were little, and most of us didn’t need help from others to learn it, and “Act Like You Know” is just an extension of that.
A pretty girl asks you if you’re going to the dance this Friday night? Pretend you’re a suave, worldly James Bond-type gentleman, smile a little bit and say, “I think I am. Are you?” It beats saying, “Uh … I get really sweaty at dances,” which may or may not have been a response I uttered in high school when I found myself in such a situation. (Whether I did or not is beside the point.)
Your boss asks you if you can write up a report on flange-modulation in the thermal duct industry? Pretend you wrote your Master’s Thesis on flange-modulation, and tell him he’ll have the report in a week. (Then get to the library REAL QUICK and figure out something to say!)
A flight attendant tells you the pilot and co-pilot are incapacitated due to food poisoning and asks you if you can land the plane? Pretend you don’t speak English and babble some gibberish until she asks someone else. (Let’s not go overboard – Acting Like You Know doesn’t give you superpowers.)
I’ve come to believe that one of the key attributes of successful people – and you can define success however you want – is their ability to Act Like They Know. The instances where “Act Like You Know” could have helped me in my early life are multitudinous. Here are a few examples:
When L., an attractive 11th grade feature majorette, who had asked a friend to ask me – a freshman trombone player – to ask her out, ended our miniature golf date in her car by saying, “You can kiss me goodnight,” and I grinned and said, “Uh, goodnight!” and ran out of the car. Without kissing her. Somehow – and I remember this plainly – I wasn’t sure she really wanted me to kiss her goodnight, and instead of Acting Like I Knew what the words “You can kiss me goodnight” meant, I ran away like a bunny.
When Dr. Dave’s warm, friendly South Philly family would greet me with a hug or – heavens above! – his mom or grandma leaned in for a kiss on the cheek, I – being from a place where folks barely say hello to people they know, let alone move their faces within a foot of near-strangers – stood there like Hymie, from Get Smart!, generating endless comments from Dr. Dave’s mom such as, “Boy, he’s a shy one, isn’t he!” and “Look at him just stand there like that!” Instead of Acting Like I Knew where to land a greeting kiss, or how long and tight to hug, or what to do with my hands … I just stood there.
Of course, the danger in Act Like You Know is that you can overdo it, or use it in situations where it’s not warranted, and find yourself becoming a dreaded Bullshit Artist. But as often as not, you’ll find the people in any given situation with you are Acting Like They Know at the same time you’re Acting Like You Know, and you are all simply figuring out the situation as you go along. The bottom line is this: in a society, there are only basic guidelines to follow on how to interact with others, and very, very few hard-and-fast rules; and even these – don’t breathe on other people, don’t squeeze other people, keep your clothes on – are so basic that if you are either mentally healthy or properly medicated, you don’t have to worry about breaking them. So relax, pretend, engage.
Although it’s true, as I’ve written before, that almost all rock music is based on what came before it, it is also true that popular musical styles are always changing. Since the 50s, teens have been the main consumers of popular music, and if there’s one thing teens want more than anything, it’s to be different than the old fuddy-duddies who came before them.
So while popular music since the 50s may have kept the typical structure of 4/4 time, strong backbeat, repetitious melody and standard instrumentation (drums, bass, guitars, keyboards), it also changed dramatically to include rock and roll, folk rock, guitar pop, psychedelic rock, R&B, blues rock, funk, heavy metal, disco, prog rock, punk rock, new wave, noise rock, hip-hop, electronic music, and a million other sub-genres that meld any or all of the above.
Within this changing landscape, it can be difficult for a band to sustain a career. One day your sound is cutting edge, the next day you sound and look like somebody’s prank. It may be even more difficult for an established band to navigate the changing musical landscape. Some bands hop on every trend and try to meld themselves with the latest sound – a situation perfectly satirized in the brilliant film This Is Spinal Tap.
Some bands, like Aerosmith, do a weird thing where they try to act like they’re doing the same thing they always did, but actually completely change everything about themselves from, say, 1973 to 1998. Styles change, tastes change, and it’s not easy for a band to Act Like They Know what to do in any given environment.
The 1970s was a decade of wild diversity and change in the popular music industry. Singer/songwriter folk, funk, glam rock, Philly soul, punk rock, disco, blues rock, progressive rock … they all simmered together in the 70s musical stew. Right now, in 2014, it’s difficult to remember, but there was a time when not only a) people listened to music on the radio, but also, b) that radio station might play a song by Gloria Gaynor, followed by John Denver, followed by Bad Company!
In that era of the musical buffet, The Rolling Stones – an aging dinosaur of 60s blues rock – hit the studio in 1977 and emerged with a record that demonstrated perfectly how a band can Act Like You Know. Some Girls is ten tracks of The Stones playing disco, new wave and punk – along with their usual country and blues – and they manage it all with a nonchalance and ease that says, “Don’t worry, folks. We know what we’re doing.”
Throughout the Stones’ history, they’ve Pretended several times, and the results didn’t always fool anybody. (See the psychedelia of Their Satanic Majesties Request) But they get it right on Some Girls.
I’ve written before about my history with The Rolling Stones and how I had heard so much of their music on the radio over the years that I rarely felt compelled to buy their albums. I also didn’t have many friends who were Stones aficionados. I knew many Beatles maniacs, some U2 crazies, and a few Doors Fans but none of my friends were really Stones people.
In 1987, I transferred from one college to another, and one of the first friends I made at the new school was a smart, funny guy named Dean Z. Dean and I were both education majors, and we’d spend our time laughing, arguing politics (at the time I was a Conservative prick; hard to believe, considering that now I’m such a Liberal prick) and talking about music. Dean was the first big Stones fan friend I had. He did an AWESOME Mick Jagger impression, and I have vague memories of being at parties with him, and the two of us performing – typically at the very end of the night, when only the most drunken, depressed, socially-inept audience remained – a Mick/Keith pantomime to “Start Me Up,” or “Gimme Shelter,” or “Sympathy for the Devil.” He was a great Mick; I did a mediocre Keith impression, but come to think of it, so does Keith these days. Dean’s friendship inspired me to finally buy an album, and so the next summer – having a love for the song “Shattered,” and a memory of being frightened by the album cover as a 10 year old – I went out and purchased Some Girls.
When I listen to Some Girls, the first thing I notice is all the guitars!! Mick is credited with playing the guitar on five of the ten songs, and the third guitar (in addition to stalwarts Keith Richards and Ron Wood) provides a solid frame onto which Keith and Ron can hang their cool, dueling licks and solos.
The guitar layers are particularly well-displayed in their cover of The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination.” The Temptations’ version of the song is remembered (obviously, I guess, as they were a vocal group) for the vocal harmonies, and beautiful falsetto of lead singer Eddie Kendricks. The Stones, however, Act Like They Know how to play a harmony-laden soul song, turn it into a guitar song, and make it work as such. I feel like with every repeated listen I hear another guitar riff that I hadn’t noticed before. The song itself is a masterpiece of lyrics and longing, and Mick does a great job interpreting it in his unmistakable “Mick” manner. The vocal harmonies from Keith are excellent, as always, and – in what is a constant throughout Some Girls – drummer Charlie Watts smashes 8th notes on his kick drum repeatedly. By the end of the record, I start to think of it as “Charlie’s kick drum record,” as he works those 8ths frequently, throughout. Here, the Stones play it live – and Mick does a lot of guitar-holding:
The most famous song on Some Girls is no doubt “Miss You,” which turned out to be the last of the Stones’ 8 number 1 hits on the US Billboard Hot 100 pop chart. On this song, the Stones Act Like They Know how to play disco music, and once again they pull it off amazingly well. The song reached number one in the summer of 1978, sandwiched between #1 hits “Shadow Dancing,” by Andy Gibb, and The Commodores’ “Three Times a Lady,” and surrounded by such 70s fare as Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana,” and Frankie Valli’s “Grease.”
I find it impressive that a rock and roll band from the 60s could hit number one in this environment, not by offering a nostalgic piece of recycled British Invasion, but by embracing the style of the day and making it their own. Many acts have tried this tactic over the years and failed miserably (Fairly recent example: Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell). The song itself has been heard so often in the past 36 years that you might think you never have to hear it again. But as with “Just My Imagination,” it has lots of cool guitar flourishes and riffs from Wood and Richards that are easy to miss without paying close attention. When you listen again, pay attention to their dueling guitars – you’ll hear the song differently. Out in the front of the song is Bill Wyman’s disco bass line. Just as Charlie Watts’s kick drum is featured throughout the album, so is Wyman’s bass. He plays interesting lines, and adds flourishes to all his parts. In “Miss You,” the bass is one of the signature parts in the song, hopping around Mick’s vocals like a playful puppy.
Since I’m focusing so much on the guitars, I should mention two songs that for some reason in my head always get lumped together: “Respectable” and “Lies.” On these two, The Stones take on punk rock. Both songs have a breakneck pace, driving guitars, and Mick shouting and garbling his vocals. And again, the third guitar of Mick’s provides a foundation for Ron and Mick’s leads and fills. What I really find interesting about both songs, and what makes the song – to me- really feel like a Stones Take on punk rock is Charlie Watts’s drumming.
In many punk and new wave songs the drummer plays “ahead of the beat,” smacking the snare just a millisecond before the beat, giving the song a propulsive feel. A good example is Pete Thomas’s drumming in Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” However, in the Stones’ version of punk and new wave, Watts hits the snare just a bit behind the beat, in a bluesy fashion. The songs remain aggressive and driving, but continue to have that Stones-Thing happening. And Watts’s kick drum is on display again – pounding out eighth notes like a hammer, especially furiously on “Lies.” Just for fun, here are the Stones on Saturday Night Live in 1978 playing “Respectable.” (Added bonus: the Russian commercial that plays before it.)
Other highlights of these punk songs are Keith’s harmony vocals on “Respectable,” and Mick’s strong vocal performance on “Lies.” Wyman’s bass parts roll along nicely as well.
Speaking of Keith’s singing, I have to mention my favorite song on the album, “Before They Make Me Run” sung by Keith.
I love Keith’s barely passable (and at times barely audible) vocals, and the loose feel of the song. And most anyone can relate to the sentiment of the lyrics – in jobs, relationships, or any scenario: “I’m gonna walk before they make me run.” Mick isn’t credited with guitar on this one, but Keith and Ronnie again do their dueling thing beautifully.
Other songs on Some Girls include the slow, raunchy blues of the title track, in which Mick describes the pros and cons of various types of women in lyrics that raised quite a controversy at the time, and for which he later apologized. It’s got great electric guitar and harmonica throughout, and nice acoustic guitar layered deep in the mix.
“Beast of Burden” is another slow blues, and probably the second most recognizable song on the album. It’s got one of my favorite Bill Wyman bass lines, and an outstanding harmony vocal performance by Keith.
“When the Whip Comes Down” is a rocker with my all my favorite parts of the album thrown in: lots of guitars, cool bass line and Charlie’s hammer kick drum. (Also worth mentioning is the song’s lyric couplet “When the shit hit the fan/I was sittin’ on the can.”)
“Far Away Eyes” is a great Stones country song, with kind of a jokey vocal performance by Mick.
The song that got me into this album in the first place is “Shattered,” which closes the album. On this driving song, with it’s loopy bass line (played by Ronnie Wood) and Mick’s shouted, hiccupping vocals, the Stones demonstrate their mastery over the angular New Wave style of music that bands like XTC and The Cars were pumping out in the late 70s. Charlie’s drums again lag just a bit behind the beat, giving the song a definite “Stones Sound.” It’s a song about the stress of living in New York City (“To live in this town/You must be tough tough tough tough tough!!!) complete with Yiddish lyrics and descriptions of late 70s urban decay. This video fits the song perfectly:
The entire album – from “Miss You” to “Shattered” – has a grubby, dirty 70s New York City feeling.
Many of the songs make reference to NYC, and as the Cultural Capital of the World it is the city where the disco and punk explosions were the biggest and loudest. The Stones were Acting Like They Knew in the place where it was most difficult to pull it off, and the result is an album that doesn’t sound like they were Acting at all. They Knew all along
When The Whip Comes Down
Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)
Far Away Eyes
Before They Make Me Run
Beast of Burden