BIAB: Undercover of the Night

For this installment of the ‘Because it’s a blog,’ topic, I’m not only introducing a song that I like, I’m attempting to figure out why I like it in the first place. If it accomplishes nothing else, it may illustrate why I pay almost no attention to reviews of music and films and such, because of the huge amount of subjectivity within; my perspective is not very likely to be shared at all.

The song is ‘Undercover of the Night,’ a release by The Rolling Stones from the album of the same name; one of those songs that gained a decent level of popularity at the time, but then vanished from play soon afterward. Older readers might remark, “Oh, hell, I haven’t heard that song in years,” while younger ones will likely have never heard it at all. It was released in 1983; news about brutal regimes and civil unrest in various Central and South American countries was fairly common, but the US’ focus was more on the Middle East and Soviet Union, with a lot of meaningless posturing by Reagan – the shitstorm about the Iran-Contra deals, where we were covertly selling weapons to Iran (we had supposedly cut ties after the hostage crisis) and using that money to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, was still a few years from breaking, but the players were all well-known. There has been no point in recent history where world politics has been particularly stable, but in 1983 it was routinely in the news at least.

Personally, I had quit school the year before and was struggling to find decent work in an economically-stagnant region of central New York, in the efforts to get the hell out. My folks were separated, I had no friends in the area save for my brother-in-law, and I was still a bit aimless and bitter following the unexpected death of my brother in 1981. Plenty of the music that I was following was upbeat – as earlier entries might have hinted at, I was delighted that disco had been abandoned in favor of new wave – but there was an underlying cynical aspect of my personality, this suspicion that shit was about to get worse, at least partially inspired by a saber-rattling president that seemed enamored of getting into another war.

‘Undercover of the Night’ played right into that mood in a very curious way. The song breaks with a staccato drum riff, a rattle reminiscent of automatic weapons, and some harsh power chords from a guitar, interspersed with a very expressive bassline that, uncommonly, stood well out from the other instrument tracks. Musically, the sounds are energetic and play well off of one another, the guitars and the drums debating back and forth, dramatic overall but with an ominous undertone that departs from The Stones’ typical fare. As the lyrics roll in, they confirm and elaborate on this mood; the picture painted is one of a desperate environment, but the bigger impact isn’t the conditions as much as the search for escapism. While containing overt sexual aspects, there is no appeal here, not even in a lascivious way – it’s little more than a frantic distraction.

Seemingly out of place is Jagger’s signature “Do do do” bridges, vocally mimicking a guitar riff that seems a little too upbeat in nature, but in context it invokes the attempt to ignore what’s going on outside – again, illustrated well in the video. The entire song, in fact, has a sound to it of a loud nightclub with just a little too much manic energy, an almost-forced air before Jagger intrudes again with the ominous narrative. The audio quality – a little tinny, a little echo-ey – enhances this to no small extent.

Undercover of the Night – The Rolling Stones

I have embedded the video below, that the director (Julien Temple) did an excellent job of illustrating, with its own story and some damn good imagery, even when it’s unclear how many levels there really are. Unfortunately, at the time it was sometimes considered appropriate to add sound effects to the video versions, which detracts significantly as far as I’m concerned – one of the few times you’ll hear me argue against helicopter sounds.

But I still find Richards looking out from the passing government transport one of the more expressive visuals from the era, or indeed any music video. The atmosphere was maintained throughout, with a truly masterful use of lighting – even the one daylight scene was done in a pall of fog or smoke. The girlfriend in the video, by the way (Elpidia Carrillo,) also appeared in Predator four years later on. And if you missed the trembling sheets matching the drum rattle, go back and look for it.

So now, I have an exercise for you, a trivial thing that occurred to me as I was writing this post. Using the audio player and not the video, go back and listen to it again, but imagine it played by a marching band, the horns carrying the treble while the drums get that added boost in bass registers. Granted, some of that guitar work won’t translate well to, like, clarinets, but you can’t have everything.

Believe it or not, the next featured music, whenever it comes, will be a lot more contemporary – not everything that I listen to is better than three decades old. Just most of it…

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