Not Fade Away: ‘Undercover’ Leads To The Rolling Stones’ ‘World War III’

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In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on a somewhat underrated album in the Rolling Stones‘ canon: 1983’s ‘Undercover,’ as it turns 30.

“It must have been pretty bad for anyone around us who worked on Undercover. A hostile, discordant atmosphere. We were barely talking or communicating and if we were, we were bickering and sniping.” That’s what Keith Richards wrote in his memoirs, Life, about the vibe while the Rolling Stones were working on Undercover. It was the follow up to their massively successful 1981 album Tattoo You. But where that album saw the Stones scraping unused outtakes from their vault, on Undercover they mostly started from scratch. Also – notably – it was an album that they didn’t tour to support. It looked like things weren’t going well for the band, as they passed into their second decade… which, at the time, seemed impossibly long for a rock and roll band to be together.

Of course now we know that they were really only reaching their half-way point. Undercover marked the first time they worked in the studio with former Allman Brothers Band member Chuck Leavell, who has been their keyboardist on album and on the road, ever since. Always warm and friendly in conversation, he tells Radio.com that the sessions were indeed a bit tense, but he was still glad to have the opportunity to work with the Stones: “Well, it may not have been all peaches and cream, but my own perspective was that I wanted to get the best music possible out of the sessions and just focused on that.”

He had some prior experience with the Stones, having played keyboards on the Tattoo You tour: “It was about a three month tour during the summer of ’82. My second daughter was born in July during that tour. The band threw a big party to celebrate her…and at the party Keith gave a toast ‘To Ashley Rose and her first pose!’ Then (after the tour) there was about a year of no activity, until the call came to go to Paris for the sessions. I was obviously very happy to get that call.”

After the huge success of the Tattoo You tour, fans were disappointed that there would be no concerts to promote Undercover; Leavell felt the same way. “Of course I was (disappointed). I thought it was a good record with enough memorable tunes to tour behind…but of course they didn’t ask me!”

“Undercover Of The Night,” was a top ten hit with a music video that got a decent amount of airplay on the then-still-new network MTV, despite the fact that it was a bit more political than Tattoo You‘s hits: “Start Me Up,” “Waiting On A Friend” and “Hang Fire.” “One hundred thousand disparus/Lost in the jails in South America…” isn’t quite as easy to sing along with as the aforementioned hits, and besides that, required a bit of political context to understand. Leavell says he wasn’t surprised by Jagger’s lyrics (“Too Much Blood” was also harsher than recent Stones material): “They were themes of what was going on at the time. I think he got the concepts by just reading the news.”

It turned out that the title track was the album’s most enduring song, and made the set lists on their next tour, for 1989’s Steel Wheels, but has rarely made the set lists since then, and the same is true for the rest of the album, although the band has played “She Was Hot” a few times over the years. These days, Leavell is the band’s musical director and also works with Jagger to write the band’s set lists, and says he’s tried to get some more Undercover songs to the stage, but to little avail.

“I’ve tried to get ‘Too Much Blood’ in the set in the past and worked with the horn section on it…but I just couldn’t get support from the principals, so it never really got a chance. We’ve done ‘Pretty Beat Up’ in rehearsal,” he says, referring to one of the rare songs that Jagger and Richards co-wrote with guitarist Ron Wood, “But it has never made it to the stage. It’s hard for me to believe it has been thirty years since we were all in Paris working on it…and I have some great memories of the time. Hanging out with Stu (longtime Rolling Stones piano player/road manager Ian Stewart), recording with the guys, enjoying Paris. It was a wonderful experience.”

Whether it was a “wonderful experience” for the other members of the group, that’s another story. In Life, Richards wrote, “Mick would come in from midday to 5 pm and I’d appear from midnight to 5 am, it was only the early skirmishing, the early war.” That “war” would get considerably worse a few months later, when Richards found out that Jagger signed a solo deal with their label, Columbia Records, and things would only get colder with the subsequent Stones album, 1986’s Dirty Work, which saw only three Jagger/Richards compositions (they split credits on a few songs with Wood, on one with Leavell and the rest of the songs were covers), and even featured other drummers.

Happily, things thawed around 1989 when the band got together for their induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, leading to their “comeback”album, Steel Wheels, and the band’s return to the road, where they’ve consistently been one of the top grossing acts whenever they decide to fire up the machine again.

- Brian Ives, Radio.com 

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