After Exile on Main Street (1972) everyone started to compare the group with what they had previously done, and not what was in front of them. Stones’ albums released in the mid-1970s: Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock and Roll and Black and Blue, were considered major disappointments compared to what had come before, with the exception of the classic Some Girls released in 1978. Then there’s the early-80s: far from a great moment in time for the Stones, and it’s pointless to compare any materiel to the classic Stones period of the late-60s/early 70s, particularly the a string of half-cooked albums which certainly have their moments: the disco crossover and left-over projects Emotional Rescue (1980), Tattoo You (1981) and Undercover (1983). By the mid-80s Mick and Keith were at each other’s throats mainly due to ego-crazy Mick pursuing a pop star solo career and Keith claiming Mick was saving the best tracks for his over-inflated yet moderately successful solo outing She’s the Boss (in the case of Hard Woman and Just Another Night he may have been right). Jagger’s priorities where most definitely elsewhere. Furthermore the Stones were publicly divided in July 1985 on Philadelphia’s Live Aid stage: solo Mick sizzling alongside Tina in an It’s Only Rock and Roll/State of Shock mash-up, while Keith and Ronnie nowhere to be seen, finally appearing in a disastrous acoustic turn as Dylan’s bumbling sidemen. The much-loathed Dirty Work, the album released in the middle of this shemozzle, has been wrongly written off as an 80s disaster and the Stones’ worst album bar none. The main criticism levelled at the album over the decades has been Jagger’s apathetic indifference towards the album and Richards’ apparent offhand approach. Upon closer inspection however it is co-producer Steve Lillywhite, responsible for the overall cavernous sound of the thing, and drummer Charlie Watts absent for much of the recording due to ongoing drug problems, who have let the team down here: many tracks having a computerised, monotonous “work-out” beat (most unlike the Stones) and a buff-80s slick sheen throughout.
It is however Jagger’s committed vocal performances (the braying Fight & underrated Hold Back) and Keith’s increasing contributions (the reggae cover Too Rude and his best-ever ballad the ghostly Sleep Tonight) that contradict the preconceptions surrounding the album and the band’s general disinterest at the time. This is perfectly displayed on vigorous album opener One Hit (To the Body), a minor yet venomous Stones classic with its snarling riff and combative accompanying video, magnifying and enhancing the Jagger/Richards feud nicely. Jimmy Page even puts in an appearance towards the end of the track. Elsewhere Ronnie Wood’s slight Had it With You, and the spry Winning Ugly obviously demonstrate riffs worked up in the studio before Mick arrived. A nice touch at the outro, long-time Stones pianist, the late Ian Stewart, has an uncredited piece dedicated to him and “25 years of boogie-woogie”.
While far from a rewarding classic, Dirty Work is a ragged, jittery victory lap and one of the more absorbing Stones albums lyrically, conceptually and musically since the seminal Some Girls.1. One Hit (To the Body) ∗∗∗∗∗
2. Fight ∗∗∗ 3. Harlem Shuffle ∗∗ 4. Hold Back ∗∗∗∗
5. Too Rude ∗∗∗∗
6. Winning Ugly ∗∗∗
7. Back to Zero ∗∗
8. Dirty Work ∗∗∗
9. Had It with You ∗∗∗
10. Sleep Tonight ∗∗∗∗∗