When you’ve released 30 studio albums in your career, not to mention countless live albums, compilations, singles and EP’s, it is easy for one particular recording to fall through the cracks a bit. And if you asked Rolling Stones fans which albums are high on their go-to list, 1976’s Black and Blue might not make the cut for too many. Considering that it was released during a time when the band was dealing with severe money problems, drug issues, and too few and too many guitarists all at once, Black and Blue should have been an absolute mess. Yet it is an eight-song album that coheres smoothly while still managing to show off the band’s facility with different musical genres. And even as the number of guest players on each song was cumbersome, the album is quintessential Stones.
First, a quick refresher: Mick Taylor, whose virtuosic guitar playing adorned Stones’ classics like Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street, decided to leave the band at the very beginning of the sessions for the album. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards then came up with the novel idea of auditioning guitar players while making the new record. As a result, you’ll hear Harvey Mandel, Wayne Perkins and Ronnie Wood (the latter of whom would get the job and appear on the album sleeve even though he only played guitar on three of the songs) throughout Black and Blue. But it doesn’t stop at the guitarists.
There are also several prominent contributions from keyboardist Billy Preston, so much so that you could argue that he deserved honorary membership in both the Beatles and the Stones. Longtime Stone collaborator Nicky Hopkins plays a big role on “Fool to Cry,” the hit single from the album, and percussionist Ollie Brown adds spice to several of the beat-heavy tracks.
Looking back on it, it might seem easy to dismiss Black and Blue as not even being a proper Stones album due to the personnel. Listening to it now, however, it is obvious how the core four still hold sway. The rhythm section of Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts are up to whatever twist the songwriters throw at them. Meanwhile, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards worked in tandem on the album in ways that they wouldn’t for quite some time after, not only in terms of the songwriting but also as producers.
That last role can’t be understated, because Black and Blue excels in terms of the sound, playful and sultry on the reggae-tinged songs, punishing and potent on the rockers, and lush and bittersweet on the ballads. Jagger is never less than completely engaged on the material, while Richards lets the newcomers take the lead but keeps the groove ever gritty in a rhythmic role.
As for the extra guitar players, they all acquit themselves well, if not quite with the brilliance that Taylor could occasionally attain. But then again, brilliance was not required on these songs, just a bluesy fill here and there to maintain the mood. Early evidence of Wood’s guitar-weaving with Richards can be found on “Hey Negrita” and “Crazy Mama,” but you could argue that Mandel’s leads on “Hot Stuff,” hot and grimy, and “Memory Motel,” soulful and sensitive, are even more effective.
There’s not a bad track among the eight. Even “Melody,” a light-hearted duet by Jagger and Preston, carries laid-back charm. The reggae moves are expertly handled, while “Hand of Fate” is one of Jagger’s most harrowing story songs.
The highlights? Well, “Hot Stuff” straddles the line between funk and disco and grooves unrelentingly; it would pave the way for the urban sounds of the much more popular Some Girls two years later. “Fool to Cry” rides high on Hopkins intuitive touch on keys and Jagger’s engaging falsetto; it’s no surprise that it glided into the Top 10.
But I would make the case that Black and Blue deserves mention if for no other reason than the fact that it contains “Memory Motel.” From the moment that Jagger starts plunking away on piano and Richards joins on electric piano, this song displays the Glimmer Twins at their collaborative best. Jagger ostensibly tells the tale of a memorable tour muse — Carly Simon seems the best guess for the inspiration — but the song is really about the impossibility of forging a lasting relationship when the road pulls you elsewhere. Richards’ “She’s got a mind of her own” bridge sums up what it takes Jagger three heart-wrenching verses to say, and there are few things more touching in a Rolling Stones song than the “sha-la-la” chorus.
Even considering those standout tracks, Black and Blue is best enjoyed in a full sitting (something that you really can’t say about the CD-era Stones LP’s that usually go about four or five tracks too long.) It may not have been the band as we knew them before or as we would come to know them after, but the spirit of what has rendered The Rolling Stones so captivating for so long is intact, intense, and intoxicating on this underappreciated effort.
Photo Credit: Black and Blue Tour, The Rolling Stones, Vorst Nationaal/Forest National, Brussels, Belgium, 06/05/1976. (Photo by Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)