Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 815
It's Only Rock 'n Roll is a decadent album because it invites us to dance in the face of its own despair. It's a desperate album that warns at the end of one side that "… dreams of the nighttime will vanish by dawn," and on the other that a Kafkaesque "someone is listening, good night, sleep tight." It's a rock 'n' roll album because it's so goddamn violent.
At its simplest level the album deals with the psychosis of being in a rock 'n' roll band and having made it as a star—and it does that better than the Who's opus devoted exclusively to that subject, Quadrophenia. At another level it uses the relationship between a band and its audience as a metaphor for the parasitic relations between a man and a woman. At still another, in the best tradition of rock 'n' roll, it convincingly flaunts its own raunchiness….
The verses to "It's Only Rock 'n Roll" sound like an assault on the audience. "If I could stick a pen in my heart / I'd spill it all over the stage …" It's only when they get to the bridge that their real target comes into focus: "Do you think that you're the only girl around / I'll bet you think that you're the only woman in town." They've fused their many resentments into a single vitriolic statement.
But the song is more than an attack. Jagger sounds like he hates, but he also sounds convincing, not ironic, when he belts out, "I know it's only rock 'n roll but I like it." How can he? Because, in addition to desperation, the song reflects both the strength and vulnerability of someone who has earned the right to ask Bob Dylan's question, "What else can you show me?" (p. 79)
The main focus of [the band's] aggressive instincts are, as has most often been the case, women. On the basis of "Stupid Girl," the Rolling Stones have been called sexists. On the basis of this album, they are plainly misogynists. Their antipathy to women comes across most bluntly in their blast at the woman waiting for Jagger to "… suicide right on the stage." But it's also there in an incidental line ("Time can tear down a building or destroy a woman's face") or an entire song ("Short and Curlies").
Jagger's tendency to see women and work as extensions of the same burden shows up in the weirdest places and in the funniest ways. On "Luxury" he plays the part of a Jamaican factory worker with two monkeys on his back: "I'm working so hard, I'm working for the company / I'm working so hard to keep you in the luxury."
His embittered view of the possibilities for men and women show up most powerfully on the extraordinary "If You Really Want to Be My Friend." In the first verse he takes the part of the man in a lover's quarrel, in the second verse, the part of the woman. And while he's doing it, he continues to use art as a metaphor…. (pp. 79-80)
"If You Really Want to Be My Friend" is a tough ballad; "Till the Next Goodbye" is almost poignant. Jagger conveys his desperation by simply saying, "I can't go on like this," while the band smolders beneath him.
Jagger used his most violent images to deal with men and women. At one point he laughingly cries "… she's got you by the balls." During another, he talks about "… a vulture, a sore and a cancer culture," and asks someone to "get your nails outta my back, stop bleeding me."
When he's singing about more abstract subjects, he's more distant. "Fingerprint File" is a bit contrived, in the manner of "Dancing with Mr D." on Goats Head Soup. He never quite convinces us that some nameless agent of a nameless power is really running him down.
But he sings "Time Waits for No One" with a controlled desperation that borders on acceptance but never quite becomes resignation. Given the rock star's inherent fear of aging, the song becomes an affirmation of Jagger's willingness to keep on trying in the face of inevitable doom….
It's Only Rock 'n Roll's consistency comes as a real surprise, especially after the occasional lameness of Goats Head Soup….
The album has its playful moments but its most characteristic instant is Charlie Watts's first drumbeat on "It's Only Rock 'n Roll." It resonates like the sound of a shotgun. That violence—transmitted through the singing, words and music—makes It's Only Rock 'n Roll one of the most intriguing and mysterious, as well as the darkest, of all Rolling Stones records. Time has become just one more reality to face and to deal with. (p. 80)
Jon Landau, "But I Love It, Love It, Love It!" in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1974; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 176, December 19, 1974, pp. 79-80.
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