Undercover was the first Rolling Stones album not to reach number one in the United States in almost a decade. This was probably appropriate as it is one of the weakest albums in the Stones catalogue.
The Rolling Stones had spent a year touring and were back in the studio. Keith Richards was sober (for the most part) and was challenging Mick Jagger’s control of the recording process.
Their constant bickering produced an album of songs with such topics as politics, serial killers, drug use, and S&M (sadomasochism). These topics may have appeared in the Rolling Stones repertoire before, but here they were connected to poorly conceived and executed songs.
Undercover is the first Stones album that sounds more like a business decision rather than a rock ‘n’ roll album. Recording techniques had improved, but this did not help the Stones sound. The songs were slick and for the most part over-produced.
The Rolling Stones were also financially secure. They had just signed a new muti-album deal with CBS for $28,000,000 dollars. Part of the deal gave the record company the rights to re-release any of their older material back to 1971. Mick Jagger figured at the time that you could only recycle their material on so many albums. What he did not predict was the advent of CD’s which meant that every album in the Stones inventory would be reissued enabling the company to earn millions of dollars at the groups expense.
The title song, “Undercover (Of The Night),” would be a hit single reaching number nine on the American National charts. I will give the Stones credit for trying something new even if it was not a complete success. Jagger and Richards combined political themed lyrics with a slick rhythm track. Today this song sounds dated, but it was very danceable in the clubs of the era.
The second single, “She Was Hot,” is a rocker that suffered from the aforementioned overproduction. I would have liked to have heard this song stripped down to its basics. The song did not crack the American top 40.
The Ron Wood song, “Pretty Beat Up,” features a nice sax solo by David Sanborn and Ron Wood’s competent guitar. Naturally Mick and Keith took a co-writing credit. Ron Wood still performs this song in his live solo act.
There was a lot of not so good material on the album. “All The Way Down” was just grinding it out rock ‘n’ roll. “Wanna Hold You” is an average Keith Richards song at best. Such songs as “Too Much Blood,” “Feel On Baby,” and “All The Way Down” equal more filler than any Stones album past or present. “It Must Be Hell” closes the album and is an inept song about inept political leaders.
I wish I could say the main problem with Undercover is that it does not hold up well but the problems with this album go much deeper. The song structures and particularly the melodies are not up to Rolling Stones standards. There is also no real classic song to build around, nor are their any memorable ballads. The final test, for me at least, is that I do not play this album as I do with many of the other Rolling Stones releases, and that is the most telling criticism.