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Looking back at the moment The Rolling Stones went disco with 'Some Girls'

“I wasn’t brought up on rock music so much as blues and soul music, and a lot of that music was dance music. It was specifically made to dance to…” — Mick Jagger

By 1978, with the release of The Rolling Stones’ new album Some Girls, there was the smell of change in the air. The old boys of rock had been largely kicked to the curb in favour of two new potent strains of popular music. On the one hand, you had the vibrant vitriolic power of punk rock, and, on the other, you had the vivacious and volatile sounds of the dancefloor in disco. With the vast majority of punk’s major players calling for the old heads of rock to be rolled down the middle of a local high street in a show of rock revolution, perhaps quite naturally, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts would instead opt for disco to influence their latest album.

The clamour for The Rolling Stones had largely faded by the time they released Some Girls. The creative intensity of the sixties had vastly subsided, and the band’s dangerous side now felt a little conceited. Equally, as the decade rolled on by, the group also left behind the murky mystique of their drug-addled, hedonistic heyday. They were approaching a new horizon with increased speed and not nearly as much protection as they were used to. In many ways, Some Girls could have spelled the end for the Stones.

Within the band, things were delicately balanced. Keith Richards was being relentlessly pursued by the courts for an array of drug charges and, naturally, dealing with the substance abuse that perpetuated them. It left The Glimmer Twins, the affectionate name for the Jagger-Richards songwriting partnership, listlessly fighting against a new wave of rock musicians. It left Jagger having to write most of the music for Some Girls, though he did have a new recruit to lend a hand: Ronnie Wood.

Wood had been working with the band for some time, including contributing to both It’s Only Rock and Roll and Black and Blue, but it was on Some Girls that his unique style came to the fore. His bombastic riffs would provide the perfect proving ground for Jagger’s big experiment. He wouldn’t rely on the rock rhythms of the band’s finest hours, instead, he would lean on dance music, disco, funk and soul more heavily than ever. It would end up being one of the defining moves the band made.

“There were a lot of people that were very narrow-minded about it,” recalled Mick Jagger of the album. “To me, I wasn’t brought up on rock music so much as blues and soul music, and lot of that music was dance music. It was specifically made to dance to…You don’t really play the grooves of yesteryear when you make records, you play the grooves of now. And that sort of beat was the thing that was going around at the time. For some people it was a very big hit, but not everyone liked it.”

Speaking in 1995, Jagger provided the key inspiration for his creative drive around the album: “The inspiration for [Some Girls] was really based in New York and the ways of the town. I think that gave it an extra spur and hardness. And then, of course, there was the punk thing that had started in 1976. Punk and disco were going on at the same time, so it was quite an interesting period. New York and London, too. Paris—there was punk there. Lots of dance music. Paris and New York had all this Latin dance music, which was really quite wonderful. Much more interesting than the stuff that came afterwards.”

It was also notable for a few other reasons. Aside from having harmonica player Sugar Blue guest appear on songs ‘Miss You’ and the titular track, the record saw the Stones rely on their own skills. Previous LPs had been drenched in the session musicians and acclaimed artists who would stroll through the studios Richards usually set up. But with Jagger at the helm, a clear and distinctive vision was set in place. The album also included some bonafide hits like ‘Beast of Burden’, ‘Some Girls’ and ‘Miss You’. But, listening back, perhaps what you might have missed is the controversy embedded within those latter releases.

‘Miss You’ was a song boycotted by prominent station WBLS in New York because of what the station determined as “the offensive racial attitudes of the album and the band.” Things didn’t get any easier with the release of ‘Some Girls’. “Black Girls just want to get fucked all night/I just don’t have that much jam,” sings Jagger on the titular track. In itself, the line is, at very best, crass and unwelcomed but coupled with Jagger’s refusal to be censored, it feels unacceptable. “Atlantic tried to get us to drop it, but I refused,” Jagger told Rolling Stone, “I’ve always been opposed to censorship of any kind, especially by conglomerates. I’ve always said, ‘If you can’t take a joke, it’s too fucking bad'”.

The defence of the song was that the band were trying to parody someone who may hold those opinions. Ahmet Ertegun, head of Atlantic Records, said of the infamous line: “When I first heard the song, I told Mick it was not going to go down well. Mick assured me that it was a parody of the type of people who hold these attitudes. Mick has great respect for blacks. He owes his whole being, his whole musical career, to black people.” It didn’t stop the Reverend Jesse Jackson proclaiming the song to be a “racial insult” that he said, “Degrades blacks and women.”

With unintended tensions rising, the band issued a statement: “It never occurred to us that our parody of certain stereotypical attitudes would be taken seriously by anyone who heard the entire lyric of the song in question. No insult was intended, and if any was taken, we sincerely apologise.”

It didn’t stop the record from becoming a rich part of the band’s iconography, for good or bad. Some Girls may have its regrettable moments, but musically it is an album emboldened by the world around it. Where The Rolling Stones had become a behemoth in their own right, defying commercial expectations and continuing far beyond their perceived expiration date, they were now assimilating themselves with their audience.

The Rolling Stones were no longer defining the eras but operating within them. But they still knew how to have a good time.

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