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Cover Story: Making the case for The Rolling Stones' Undercover album

Was the Rolling Stones album Undercover, now 25 years old, the group’s last great record or an exercise in mediocrity?

On the occasion of its 25th birthday, Goldmine revisits and reappraises what might well be the Stones’ last truly great new LP.

A lot of people, probably including a lot of the people reading this, consider Undercover to be one of the Rolling Stones’ more recent albums, one of those makeweight, mark-time platters that they kick out every three or four years or so, and which we file away at the back end of the collection, secure in the knowledge that we’ll probably never listen to them again.

So, it’ll probably come as something of a shock, if not an ice-cold wake-up call, to discover that it is now 25 years old — which either means that the Stones have been on cruise control for even longer than they were actually kicking out the jams… or, it’s maybe time to take a calm step backwards and set about reinvestigating the record itself.

Revolutionary chic

There is certainly a lot of justification to doing so. Undercover was, after all, the last Stones album to actually arouse even a soupçon of the excitement with which previous records were received.

And, while the controversies seem small potatoes when compared to some of the grand malfeasance of which earlier albums were accused, still there was a fission of vicarious excitement to be drawn from the knicker-twisting hand-wringing that accompanied the release of the title track’s accompanying video.

Julian Temple directed “Undercover Of The Night” — he of Sex Pistols “Great Rock And Roll Swindle” fame and already carving himself a sharp-edged niche among the enfant terribles of modern moviedom. That was what attracted the Stones to his side; their own past videos, after all, had done little more than stand the musicians up in an empty room and have them prance through their paces while trying to avert the glare of Mick Jagger’s choice in shirt.

Temple was having none of that. Packing band and film crew off to Mexico at the end of October 1983, just weeks before the single’s release, he actually listened to the song before drawing up his story board, and the result remains one of the most potent, not to mention chilling, political-action performances of the rock ’n’ roll era, a succession of flash-bulb explosions that splash from both the record and the accompanying video to ruthlessly illuminate the other side of revolutionary chic. It ain’t all street fighting men, baby.

Blood sprays, bullets fly, a young couple cower in horror from the violence, and hooded men frog march their victim around the compound. At a time when the West was just beginning to wake up to the killing fields of certain Central and South American regimes, “Undercover” was a shocking indictment of a political nightmare taking place not on the other side of the world, or even in some shadowy African jungle, but on our very doorstep. And, looking out of that door, people did not like what they saw.

The “Undercover” video was not exactly banned in either the U.S. or the U.K. But you had to search long and hard to see it on broadcast television. Apologists pointed to a particularly vivid on-screen execution as justification for their action. Activists pointed to the American government’s support of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the media’s unwillingness to step out of line. And Stones fans celebrated, because, after so many years in the wilderness, the band was back at its authority-baiting best.

Not that you found unanimity, even there. The British magazine Q would later elect “Undercover of The Night” to its chart of the “worst songs recorded by great artists,” condemning it thus: “The Stones get funky. And that’s funky in the sa