On Second Thought
The Rolling Stones - Goats Head Soup






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

The cover of Goats Head Soup depicts Mick Jagger veiled, marble-eyed, lips blasted in ruby. The sneering sex animal of the pre-72 Stones has been dried up. What remains is a depthless porcelain doll, peering through a crevice that seedily implies a woman’s vagina. Jagger thinks of himself as the woman's desire. He's on all the girlies minds and, more importantly, in their love boxes. Even for an arrogant ego queen like Mick, this is some of the most self-aggrandizing shit he ever pulled. Why had he never done it before? Because now he could.

The Stones’ prior album, Exile on Main St., was the epic, rewarding statement that fans had been waiting for. Exile, as you will recall, pushed the gritty blues/country of the Stones' recent albums to another orbit, caking it in dirt and grime, burying Mick in pools of bad sound. It was also one of the band’s most legendary sessions, notorious for the excessive drug taking and girl swapping by Keith Richards and cohorts. The album sounds like the circumstances of the sessions: junkie wallowing, drunken haze, and carnal sleaze positively oozing out of the speakers.

As Exile proved, the Stones' sound on their string of classics—some of the best albums that rock n' roll has ever produced—had as much to do with Mick Taylor, Keith Richards, and producer Jimmy Miller as it had to do with Mick Jagger. Jagger was in one camp, as the pompous, cavalier prick, and Richards and Miller were in the other, the diseased genius architects of the Stones' sound and vision. Taylor was simply Mick's foil, a bluesman that miraculously made Jagger sound like a bluesman too.

That tension is completely absent on Goats. If Exile found Miller and Richards as fucked up as could be, then Goats was the inevitable fallout. At this point, Richards was a walking corpse, offering up his lone vocal contribution in the form of "Coming Down Again." A slow, aching number built around the repeated chanting of the title, there are few lyrics in the song. The phrases, “Where are all my friends,” “On the ground again,” and “All my time’s been spent,” alternate as counterparts to the title. Taken together, it’s clear that the world was falling in on Richards. As for Miller, it’d be his last time working with the Stones. He adds his usual smoke and vapor—but this time it’s unintentionally perfect, acting as counterpoint to the album’s instrumental excesses (various percussion, heavy usage of wah-wah guitars, multiple keyboard effects (courtesy of legendary sessionmen Nicky Hopkins, Billy Preston, and "sixth Stone" Ian Stewart)). Miller’s production deftly prevents Goats from feeling like big-budget studio excess—even as it secretly revels in it.

Which brings us to dear ol' Mick, the snake-wiggling star of the show. With Richards and Miller sidelined, the newly-glammed queen is officially allowed to take the reins, and the results are understandably ludicrous. Opener "Dancin' With Mr. D." sees him attempting to recreate and amplify the Satan scenario he devised on “Sympathy for the Devil.” Jagger fails in execution; rather than make it a loud, dirty number, it’s a pale and pathetic mid-tempo disaster. Lyrically, it’s even more embarrassing, detailing Mr. D as a dancing, debauching douchebag instead of the worldly, charismatic lothario from Beggars. Meanwhile, "Can You Hear the Music" is AM Radio Mick delivering phony baloney messages with a choir, puzzlingly trying to pander to a more conservative audience. But then there’s "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)," Jagger’s confounding take on the New York Police shooting of a ten-year-old boy that also functions as one of the Stones most rambunctious, forceful numbers. Entering on a warbling keyboard loop and some liquid guitar riffs, it builds to Mick shouting “HEARTBREAKER” over punching horns, energizing the record after a string of slower cuts.

"Angie" is the most famous song off Goats, and is seemingly designed as its centerpiece. Hell, of course it is; it's the first real ballad that the Stones had ever performed ("As Tears Go By" is more of a baroque pop aside). The Stones were never really allowed to do this before, so why not spotlight it? Famously written for Anita Pallenberg, Jagger sings, "But Angie, Angie, ain't it time we said goodbye? / With no loving in our souls and no money in our coats / You can't say we’re satisfied." (Fun fact: Pallenberg was married to Richards at the time.)

Mick Taylor gets his (rumored) moment to break out his writing chops on "100 Years Ago," one of the best songs the Stones have ever penned. Jagger owns the verse: "What tender days, we had no secrets hid away / Seems about a hundred years ago," and the chorus: "You're gonna kiss and say goodbye, yeah, I warn you." Picking up where Exile left off, Mick not only longs for innocent love, but he's also confident in the fact that he'll never see it again. In that regard, many of the songs on Goats possess conflicting views of women. Look no further than "Silver Train," where Mick diffidently tells us that he “sure love(s) the way that she laughed and took my money,” only to ask on the following song, “Why do you hide your love?”

Mick’s doubt culminates in "Star Star," originally titled "Starfucker," arguably the most misogynistic, sleaziest track in the Stones canon. But unlike, say, "Shattered" and "Brown Sugar," "Star Star" doesn't celebrate hedonism and carnality, it spits in its face. Referring to the groupies that come along for the ride on the road, Mick bites into it: "Lead guitars and movie stars / Get their tongues beneath your hood," followed by his allowance: "I bet you keep your pussy clean." Concluding on that note, he leaves the listener as confused as ever. While it’s easy to assume that Jagger is ending an album that questions women with a middle finger, who’s to say that it’s not a self-conscious shield protecting his “manliness”? Taken with the rest of the album, it makes more sense to assume the latter. But that’s the thing about Goats, it’s such a mess of contradictions that there’s really no right or wrong answer.

In the piece "1973 Nervous Breakdown," Lester Bangs says of the Stones's efforts on Goats Head Soup:
When it gets like that, you've got to maintain a standard of surpassing brilliance just to keep up with yourself, even if the balance of your past work wasn't that brilliant. Because by the cumulative eminence of your enormous pile of past accomplishments and the mere fact that you have managed to sustain, you have set an impossible standard which you've gotta struggle constantly to meet if only to keep yourself from being drowned in all the scunge passing through.
He's right. Bangs didn't like Goats, but he nails why nobody else really liked the album either. After Exile everyone started to judge the group by what came before—and not what was in front of them. Compare it to Exile and, yeah, it’s a disappointment. But compare it to almost any other album post-Goats and there’s really no contest.

So let’s not compare. Goats is classic Stones: pretentious, drug-fueled, bluesy, bloozy, boozy, belligerent, and brilliant—a paradoxical record that acts as the legitimate conclusion to the classic Beggars to Exile period. No one said the end had to be pretty. Hell, there’s no way it couldn’t have been ugly. But when it comes to The Rolling Stones, I'll take ugly over beautiful any day of the week.


By: Tal Rosenberg
Published on: 2006-11-15
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