Diane had the long blonde(ish) hair and feminine features of the ultimate 70s Girl; a Cybill Shepherd-type with her short skirt, tan legs and halter-top. She was the neighborhood college student who would come home for the summer break. And Diane wasn’t afraid to let her freak flag fly; having pot-smoke fueled parties whenever her parents were away. She also kept the younger boys of the neighborhood captivated during those endless summer months. I can still picture her washing the car or dancing on the front porch; music blasting-out for the whole world to hear. All the boys on the block gathered on the curb across the street. All hoping to get just a moment of her attention. I’m not sure whatever became of our Diane, later in life. And honestly, I don’t care to know. She is forever there in my memory, dancing her way through another perfect summer day. Golden and beautiful. And always listening to her favorite song; a red-hot live version of Hot Stuff by the Rolling Stones. The music (and the girl) dripping like sweet-honey from the heat of the day. Hot Stuff, indeed.
1976 was the year the Rolling Stones released one of their least impressive albums; Black and Blue was the product of a band at the crossroads; with Mick Taylor exiting the band and Ron Wood not yet a full time recruit, the Rolling Stones were a band that needed more than just a replacement guitar-player. They were a band searching for a renewed purpose. The overall effect of the album was another step-down from the lackluster It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll in 1974. Of course, there are charms to be found on Black and Blue; both Memory Motel and Fool to Cry have their worthwhile pleasures. But more important than those minor gems, Black and Blue contains one song that symbolized a pivotal break from the band’s past and their evolution into the future; ”Hot Stuff” was initially released as a promo-single in the summer of 1976. And reached only the lower end of the Top 50 in the United States. An unsuccessful single at the time but an important sign that the balance-of-power had shifted within the band.
On the surface Hot Stuff shows a band ready and willing to experiment with the fundamental style of their music. But the track also reveals internal developments happening beneath the public veneer; the external sign of Mick Jagger‘s accession to the band’s creative leadership. Most fans had long considered Keith Richards the musical director for the band. His steadfast commitment to guitar orientated riff-rock kept the band on a steady course of R&B and Blues influenced rock music. However, by 1973 / 1974 the Rolling Stones were at a creative stand-still. They even recorded the useless Motown cover Ain’t to Proud Too Beg for inclusion on It’s Only Rock n’ Roll. An embarrassing artistic low-point. A new approach was desperately needed and only Mick Jagger had the ability to navigate the changing cultural landscape. After all, Jagger was already the Stones front-man and general spokesman. He alone had the vision and ability to grab the reins and incorporate the new sounds and styles emerging from clubs and streets. In many ways this was a natural progression; the Rolling Stones had long considered New York City to be their second home. Both Jagger and Richards lived in the city part of the year. And Mick Jagger was inspired by the vibrancy and artsy-decadence that the city had to offered.
Mick Jagger took full charge of Hot Stuff’s development in the studio. Skillfully managing the politics within the group by recruiting respected musicians from outside the band’s inner-circle to work with the band. Augmenting both the sound of their musical output and reshuffling dynamics between the band menbers. Hot Stuff came together slowly over the course of three recording sessions. This extended version of the Stones’ building the track piece-by-piece from a heavy four-on-the-floor drum pattern developed by drummer Charlie Watts and percussionist Ollie Brown. The tight disco-groove was exciting new territory for the Rolling Stones. Musical territoy that Watts and Brown would solidify during the band’s 75 -76 tours of America and Europe. Ollie Brown becoming an important member of the band’s expanded entourage during this period. Hot Stuff also showed why bass-player Bill Wyman was such an under-appreciated component in the band’s chemistry; rather then playing it safe, Wyman crafted a bubbling, funky bass-line that makes the entire song stand-up to the flashy drum pattern. The bass-line giving the song the nasty punch-in-the-ass bounce needed for Jagger‘s loose vocal-rap. Finally, guitarist Harvey Mandel of Canned Heat employs a wah-wah pedal technic that becomes the song’s signature; a shifting-electronic, downtown disco-vibe. It’s worth noting that Mandel was actually a leading contender to replace Mick Taylor before Ron Wood made his intentions clear. Finally, the backdrop of Hot Stuff is peppered with the tasty piano fills of Billy Preston. Preston’s talent was another important addition to the Stones; often providing the strong musical back-up needed for the swirling, adventurous atmosphere that had become their live shows. Only during the final mix was Keith Richards and Ron Wood brought into the track to provided background vocals. Their limited contributions bringing the entire song full circle.
Play it rough
I can’t get enough / Cause music is what I want
To keep my body always moving
Yeah, shake it up, hot stuff
Those were the lyrics that our neighborhood 70s Girl had found so inspiring. Mick Jagger channeling the late-night atmosphere of the New York underground. His performance tapping into the pulse of a city torn between the desperation of economic decline (NY was on the verge of bankruptcy in October ‘75) and the artistic renaissance happening deep within the boroughs. His voice riding the sophisticated disco-funky wave the musicians had created. Driving the song forward as he struts through the complexity of the mix. Creating drama and dynamics with each grunt and shout. The success of the entire track relying on the primial integrity that Mick Jagger brings to the music. The singer embodying the new sounds of the city; the exploding underground of disco, punk and a new electric-funk that would soon take the form of early rap music. All the while making music that was uniquely and undoubtedly the sound of the Rolling Stones. Eventually, this important musical progress would prove to be a danger for the band’s future; exposing an artistic schism between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards that would threaten the bands existance in the years ahead. But that’s another story.
For the time being, Mick Jagger’s leadership had brought new life into the middle-age band. Of course, Hot Stuff wasn’t the first time that the Rolling Stones had flirted with disco-funk; the closing track from It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll provides us a glimpse of their future ambitions; Fingerprint File takes a more traditional Sly and the Family Stone approach. The song includes a unique phase-pedal effect added to an electronic synthesizer played (again) by Bill Wyman. Fingerprint File was another experiment that inched the band closer to the artistic glories of Hot Stuff and later, their massive disco hit Miss You. The release of Miss You in 1978 finally found an audience ready to accept this new disco-influenced Rolling Stones. A situation Mick Jagger summarized nicely after the song’s commercial success;
“There were a lot of people that were very narrow-minded about it. 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“.