FOR THOSE white middle-class types whose adolescence coincided roughly with the sixties, rock and roll was the single most valid cultural form. Rock provided not only the fullest expression of our unspoken feelings, but also a powerful vanguard signpost which influenced the ethics and aspirations of our lives. Admittedly the directions in which it took us--deeper into machismo, for instance--were not always so progressive; but the basic animal energy of the music represented a liberation from the boredom and dry repressiveness of our upbringing.
While the Beatles and Dylan were unquestionably the prime movers in this process, it was the Rolling Stones who most directly and simply reawakened in us a sense of our own bodies, of the pure joy of dancing to the point of collapse. The Beatles were somehow too sweet, and Dylan never was much good for doing the boogaloo to, but the Stones celebrated the physical side of our natures, which in most cases had been long buried. (It is a sign of the abysmal racism of both the counterculture and the parent culture from which it sprang that the Stones--like Elvis, a decade earlier--became vastly popular by doing unpolished, and frequently inferior, imitations of black songs that the same audiences had steadfastly ignored for years.)
The seeming disappearance of hip youth culture, the milieu in which rock thrived, makes it difficult to present a fair evaluation of the new Rolling Stones release. To the extent that this album recreates the spirit of the sixties, it seems out of date; to the extent that it captures the spirit of 1974, it seems funereal. To synthesize the two seems impossible. Rock and roll at its best is a two-way phenomenon, requiring--even in the studio recording process--some kind of psychic interaction between an audience and a performer. If the listeners are largely deadheads, it's unreasonable to count on the music being very good. How can any group be expected to produce exciting music that really reflects the inner struggles of people obsessed with their pre-med courses? How can you rock and roll to the beat of a Quaalude downer? Where is the boogie-woogie soul of working for change within the Democratic Party? To produce anything other than zombie music for today's youth market would only be interpreted as an act of quaint nostalgia.
So it would be wrong to fault only the Stones themselves for this album's disappointments. One of Mick Jagger's greatest talents has always been his unflinching sense of his audience's needs and rhythms. Nowadays I suspect that what he senses is making him increasingly cynical.
This cynicism is best reflected in the album's title track, "It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It)." Released initially as a single, this cut has been floundering around the middle of the top thirty for a month or so, creating only perfunctory enthusiasm. While I wouldn't want to suggest that top thirty is synonomous with the pulse of the nation, or even consonant with any particular musical virtues, songs like "Satisfaction" and "Jumping Jack Flash" were such perfect anthems for their times that nothing could have kept them from the number one spot. Had this current single been released in 1968, it might have generated that same kind of excitement. Coming as it does in 1974, it seems contrived and consciously old-fashioned, an imitation of earlier Stones successes that were in turn imitations of Chuck Berry. It's as though Jagger and Richard, at a loss for really new ideas, have trotted out their favorite twenty-year-old dance beat formula. Amazingly, to some extent, the formula still works; it is hard to avoid dancing to the damned thing, which only proves that a little bit of Chuck Berry goes a long fucking way. Nonetheless, a slightly stale air hangs about it, as about most of the album.
THE REST OF the cuts fall into familiar Stones patterns. "If You Really Want To Be My Friend" and "Till the Next Goodbye" are ballads in the tradition of, but nowhere as good as, "I Got the Blues" and "Wild Horses." Each goes on far longer than either the material or Jagger's limited talents as a balladeer would justify. Otis Redding used to stretch out songs like these for five or six minutes and make you still want more; Jagger just can't pull it off.
"Time Waits For No One" and "Fingerprint File" derive from "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," respectively. Both would be passable if not for interminable fade-outs that stretch each song past the six-minute mark. "Short and Curlies" is an inexcusably lame song, whose main reason for inclusion would appear to be the phrase "She's got you by the balls." The Stones have felt obliged to stick a couple of dirty words on each of their last three records. By now, the irreverence of this habit is boring; the irrelevance of it is overwhelming. At least "Sweet Virginia" and "Star Star," the previous examples of this peepee-doodoo indulgence, were decent songs.
What remains on the album are five hard rockers, all of which are eminently danceable. The Stones have thoughtfully concentrated these at the beginning of either side, so that, come party time, you won't have to do too much skipping around. Besides the title cut, the best of these are "Dance Little Sister" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," a surprising and crude remake of one of the Temptations' greatest hits. The success of this cut suggests that maybe the Stones, like the Band, might benefit from taking a song-writing hiatus and cutting an album composed primarily of other people's material, as they did at the beginning of their career.
If you are an old rock and roller like me, you will probably get off on the dancing half of the record and forget about the rest. In fact you'd be better off skipping the whole thing and spending your money instead on the new J. Geils Band album or Rejuvenation by the Meters, both of which rock mercilessly and put It's Only Rock 'n Roll to shame. If, on the other hand, you relate to the current version of the youth culture, if your idea of a rocking good time is digging on Seymour Martin Lipset's greatest hits, if you think that Marty Peretz is the last word in warm and soulful funk, if you would rather listen to "War" by Stanley Hoffman than "War" by Edwin Starr, if they have squeezed that much of the life and spirit out of you, then a half-decent, half-lousy Stones album is better than you deserve.