Revisiting the Rolling Stones’ ’70s Slide on ‘Black and Blue’
The mid-'70s weren't so great for the Rolling Stones. Commercially speaking, they were on top of the world and never bigger. They were untouchable during this period, with every album shooting straight up the charts and tours selling out in no time.
But behind the scenes, they were starting to unravel. And on record, they were far from their best. Keith Richards was barely conscious during the sessions for 1974's It's Only Rock 'N Roll, and the concerts were more workmanlike than life-changing starting around 1972. Things were getting so big and out of hand that the music, too, was starting to feel less eventful with each passing album.
From 1968's Beggars Banquet through 1972's Exile on Main St., the Stones released four of rock's all-time greatest albums. Not just four of the Stones' greatest albums, but four of the greatest rock 'n' roll albums ever made. Then they began to slide, first with the tossed-together Goats Head Soup in 1973 and then with the incomplete (but not terrible at all) It's Only Rock 'N Roll the next year.
Listen to the Rolling Stones Perform 'Fool to Cry'
At first, the plan was to rebound quickly and put out a new album. The Stones returned at the end of 1974 to the same Munich studio where It's Only Rock 'N Roll was recorded to lay down some tracks. At the start of 1975, they were in the Netherlands recording more. But they were still reeling from Mick Taylor's abrupt departure in December 1974 and hadn't decided on a replacement guitarist yet (Jeff Beck, Peter Frampton and Steve Marriott were all considered; the job eventually went to Ronnie Wood).
By mid-year, the band was back on the road, and sessions for the record were put on hold. A year after the initial recordings were shelved, the Stones returned to Munich and then headed to Montreux, Switzerland, to polish the tracks. On April 23, 1976, nearly a year and a half after work first started on the record, Black and Blue was released.
It wasn't quite what fans were used to. Gone, for the most part, were the guitar-guided rock 'n' roll workouts that dominated the first half of the decade, replaced by funk, soul, jazz, reggae and a stew of simmering sounds not usually found on Rolling Stones records – at least like this. But put in context with the band's personal problems and its past history with black music, the record wasn't so much confusing as it was sorta pointless. As critic Lester Bangs summed up in his review in Creem, "This is the first meaningless Rolling Stones album."
Listen to the Rolling Stones Perform 'Hot Stuff'
The record's two best songs – the soulful ballad "Fool to Cry" and the funked-up "Hot Stuff" – were released on the same single, with both cuts charting separately. (The former made it to No. 10, while the latter stalled outside the Top 40.) Elsewhere, the band – aided by Billy Preston, Nicky Hopkins and guitarists Wayne Perkins and Harvey Mandel, as well as Wood, who got his face on the LP's back cover and credit as the band's newest full-time member, even though he played guitar on only three of the album's tracks – meanders from groove to groove with little purpose. (Two of its leftover songs would later show up on 1981's Tattoo You.)
But that couldn't stop the Stones' commercial roll. Black and Blue climbed to No. 1 and stayed there for four weeks, eventually going platinum. It would be another two years before the group finally got around to sorta cleaning up and getting back on track with Some Girls, a career-reviving hit that confirmed, even to the swarm of cynics that Black and Blue spawned, that the Stones were pretty damn close to indestructible. The mid-'70s stumbles were just another part of their legend.