1978 was probably the worst year ever in the history of popular music.
Thankfully, it also was the year the Rolling Stones released Some Girls.
Very few songs that appeared in the Top 40 pop charts during the summer of 1978 have aged well. Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” maybe Chris Rea’s “Fool If You Think It’s Over,” and some classic disco tracks like Heatwave’s “Groove Line,” Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” and Foxy’s “Get Off.” Perhaps some others, but for the most I attribute my willingness to still enjoy Nick Gilder's "Hot Child in the City" to nostalgia and won't bother defending any possible merits it may still possess. Hearing the good stuff on AM radio at the time provided 3 or 4 minutes to be treasured, a respite from the schlocky goop put out by bands like Foreigner, the Commodores, Exile, Pablo Cruise, and the Little River Band.
That was the first summer I had a driver's license, so I remember this stuff well. Most of the cars of my friends, or the cars of their parents, only had AM radios, as did my mother's car. A car with an FM radio was a thing of status to be envied by most teenagers, making it the unanimous first choice when deciding whose car to take somewhere as a group. I spent a lot of time that year riding around in a fuchsia Cougar with a white leather interior based on those criteria.
From late-May to mid-September of that year, radio was an unending stream of pop vomit from bland and banal bands, interrupted only by one of the massive hits from the Grease soundtrack, which in itself felt like a sadistic boxing of the ears as it danced into the void left by the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever, the latter of which spent six excruciating months as the number-one album in the universe from January through July (I'm not going to slag the hits from the Fever album, many of which have held up remarkably well -- it was the omnipresence of the album, and to a lesser extent its cultural impact, which made it loathsome, not so much the music).
On the FM side of the dial things were marginally better. The first Van Halen album was released that year, as was Petty and the Heartbreakers’ You’re Gonna Get It, Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight, Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, the debuts by Devo and The Cars, Nick Lowe's Pure Pop for Now People, AC/DC’s Powerage, all of which came out before the summer ended. Many of the year’s best albums would arrive in the fall, like Blondie’s Parallel Lines, and the Clash's Give 'em Enough Rope, but I wouldn't latch on to the music of bands like P-Funk, Big Star, Kate Bush, Prince, and the Residents, all of whom made extraordinary albums that year, until a couple of years later.
That summer Andy Gibb’s dreadful “Shadow Dancing” sat in the No. 1 spot for seven exhausting weeks, with Gerry Rafferty’s superior “Baker Street” stuck firmly beneath it.
In May there was a big hullabaloo when the Rolling Stones released "Miss You," ahead of the release of the Some Girls album. FM radio played it because it was a Stones song, but the track's disco beat had many listeners confused, even outraged, despite its bluesy harmonica and lyrics that far surpassed anything else with a similar beat. After three successive albums increasingly validating the idea the band had run out of gas after Exile on Main Street, and arriving well after punk had staked its ground, many listeners heard "Miss You" as proof the Stones were finished; nothing more than a bloated, rich, decadent enterprise, in the game too long, now aged and saddled with the ridiculous legal problems of Keith's drug busts, a band that once created trends now following them.
Adding further insult to the band's fans (many of whom by now seemed to have forgotten the Stones' deep roots in R&B music) and giving fuel to its detractors, "Miss You" was a huge hit and eventually dislodged Gibb's reign atop the charts, reaching the number one spot during the first week of August. The Stones sat on top for only a week (it would be their last time) before succumbing to Frankie Valli's "Grease."
When Some Girls was released on June 9, the detractors had to suddenly shut up. It may not have been Exile, and certainly it was no Let It Bleed, and while it didn't have the dark allure of Sticky Fingers, Some Girls was obviously a great album on every level. In retrospect, it was also one of the few signals (along with albums by Neil Young and Lou Reed) that the old guard of rockers still might have something worthwhile to say at a time when evidence of the contrary was rampant; The Who, Dylan, individual members of the Beatles, the Kinks, Jefferson Airplane -- now a Starship soon to be without Grace Slick, Black Sabbath, the Beach Boys, Santana, the Grateful Dead, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, and Van Morrison all released albums that year ranging from embarrassments to mediocre rehashes of past glories, none of which were remotely close their best work, though some would eventually achieve late-career artistic rebounds. Even Led Zeppelin was already well past their prime, suggested in 1976 with Presence and confirmed in 1979 with In Through the Out Door. That the Stones could release an album in 1978 that not only felt relevant but that added to their legacy was a feat no one but maybe the band themselves could have, nor should have, expected.
There are two things that set Some Girls apart from the post-Exile albums and every album that came after it until 2005's underappreciated A Bigger Bang (though all them, even Dirty Work, have their merits, and Tattoo You was a solid album with moments approaching the heights of Some Girls). The first is that the album captures the Stones as they are -- there's no youthful alienation, there are no anthems. Instead it's rife with unapologetic snark, irreverence, worm's eye views on sex and drugs, and an embrace of the status and pleasures that come from being a rock star. If the Stones embraced just one aspect of punk ethos, it was to strip off all pretenses and just let it rip.
And rip they do. Nothing on Some Girls is on the same level as "Midnight Rambler," "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," "Rocks Off" or "Sweet Virginia," but there's not a weak track on the album -- even the parodic novelty of "Far Away Eyes" works despite the presence of Jagger's faux hick accent because of the band's sincerity in making it a musical homage to Bakersfield country (and its perfect chorus). "When the Whip Comes Down," "Respectable," "Shattered," "Before They Make Me Run," "Beast of Burden," and the title track are now rightfully included in the band's long list of classics, as is "Miss You."
Thirty-eight years later, it's still the best thing that came out that year, and though they would soon fork over the rights to be called "the world's greatest rock and roll band" to The Clash (at least temporarily), in 1978 the Stones were still precisely that.
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