Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on what you should be listening for when critically evaluating your copy (or ours) of the album.
Billy Preston is all over this album on piano and organ and his contribution is crucial to the musical vibe on practically every song. Listen for Billy’s full, solid, clear piano sound. When the piano is thin, the mix is thin and that’s not the sound you want on a Stones album.
If the piano gets lost, your copy either has a smear problem or a transparency problem. Those are certainly easier to live with — all the ’70s systems I owned were smeary and opaque compared to my system today and I enjoyed the hell out of all of them — but far from ideal.
Excerpts from the Rolling Stone Review
By Dave Marsh – April 23, 1976 Although the Rolling Stones now sing about their children and families as often as their stupid girlfriends, we still try to retain our old image of them, under our thumbs and out of our heads. Musically, the Stones aren’t the same band anymore, either, although the continued use of the same rudiments — the drumming, the ceaseless riffing, the vocal posturing — might make it seem otherwise at a hasty glance. But the band that made Black and Blue isn’t the same one that made 12 x 5 or even Aftermath. But that doesn’t mean today’s Stones are not a great band playing great music. They’re a different sort of band, playing a different kind of music.
There is plenty of good stuff left, although all of it is marred by the need for fuller, firmer instrumentation. “Hand of Fate,” which isn’t as melodic as the Stones riff usually is, is brought to life by a blistering Wayne Perkins guitar solo and Jagger’s incredibly live vocal.
“Crazy Mama,” the wild little rocker that closes the set, is hot stuff. It sounds as out of control as the Faces, although Wood doesn’t play on it. (He’s “in the band,” but he only plays on two songs.) The lyrics are marvelous: “‘Cause if you really think you can push it/I’m gonna bust your knees with a bullet.” Those two are the only hard rockers on the album, and the only time Jagger pulls the standard macho-demonic act, too. The former is perplexing news, but the latter may be regarded by one and all as a good omen.
Jagger’s new role is as a professional singer, and he’s great at it. “Melody” ought to be a tentative experiment with Billy Preston’s jazzy keyboard sound. Instead, it’s a triumph, Jagger’s voice swooping and snaking around Preston’s piano and harmonies. If Black and Blue leaves us nothing else, it is the knowledge that Jagger has become a total pro in a way that, of rock’s great white vocalists, only Rod Stewart and Van Morrison can match. This, with the album’s two ballads, “Fool to Cry” and “Memory Motel,” is material he can sing with pride until he’s 50.
“Fool to Cry” harks all the way back to the confessional style of one of Mick’s original influences, Solomon Burke. He talks and cries through the number, riding against the waves of Nicky Hopkins’s string synthesizer. Stalked by the same lonely terror that haunts so many recent Stones numbers, Jagger is consoled and sometimes berated by his daughter, his woman, his best friends. He opens with a neat, oblique comment on his own parenthood, another sign of his maturity. But what is finally striking about the song is that Mick Jagger is now living up to his inspirations. He tried to match Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye for power in his younger days, and failed brilliantly. Older and wiser, he proves their equal as a singer of ballads.
For “Memory Motel,” a sort of return to “Moonlight Mile,” the stops are all pulled out. Once more, Watts propels the tune with his drumming. The story begins when Mick meets a girl before last summer’s tour. (The real memory motel is near the house in Montauk, Long Island, where the band rehearsed.) But it soon becomes entangled with his recollections of the tour.
The singing is nothing less than spectacular. Jagger is powerful in his yearning, almost a supplicant. But the real revelation (as always) is Keith Richard, who sneaks in some really touching lines:
Mighty fine, she’s one of a kind
She got a mind of her own
She’s one of a kind
And she use it well
This is a perfect description of Keith Richard on last summer’s tour, racing forward to sing “Happy” and running the show with more poise than he’s ever been given credit for.
But “Memory Motel” is more than just a vignette or two. In the end, it becomes the perfect agony-of-the-road song, for it dwells not just on the difficulties of touring, but also on the ultimate joys: As Watts moves in like a locomotive, pushing the song upward, Jagger explains in one brief flash what it’s worth to him, what keeps him coming back for more: “What’s all this laughter on the 22nd floor?/It’s just some friends of mine/And they’re bustin’ down the door!” There’s no way to capture the exhilaration he expresses as his pals roust him from his reverie, lifting him away from his cares. For that one moment, at least, Jagger feels his music as deeply as he ever has.
I remember often these days how long it has been since rock was essentially a fad. Yet we still treat it cavalierly, dismissing careers on the basis of a single disliked album. We are often cruelest, too, to those who have given us most, seeing only the short term, and forgetting that we deal with careers now, not just one-shot hits. Black and Blue may not be the invincible Rolling Stones of our dreams, but that is also a virtue in its way.
Black and Blue leaves me remembering the first important lesson I learned from the Stones: “Empty heart is like an empty life.” This may not be the same band which told us that, but those sullen teenagers would recognize this one, and be proud.
Hand of Fate
Cherry Oh Baby
Fool to Cry
The Rolling Stones recorded Black and Blue while auditioning Mick Taylor’s replacement, so it’s unfair to criticize it, really, for being longer on grooves and jams than songs, especially since that’s what’s good about it. Yes, the two songs that are undeniable highlights are “Memory Motel” and “Fool to Cry,” the album’s two ballads and, therefore, the two that had to be written and arranged, not knocked out in the studio; they’re also the ones that don’t quite make as much sense, though they still work in the context of the record. No, this is all about groove and sound, as the Stones work Ron Wood into their fabric. And the remarkable thing is, apart from “Hand of Fate” and “Crazy Mama,” there’s little straight-ahead rock & roll here. They play with reggae extensively, funk and disco less so, making both sound like integral parts of the Stones’ lifeblood.