Things got bad for a while there, and there were moments in the span from 1986-1988 where it looked like The Rolling Stones were finally kaput. Luckily cooler heads prevailed, and Steel Wheels was churned out over a relatively short span of time for release in 1989. It was a solid return to form, one that set the tone for all Stones releases since with its reliance on slick, zippy rockers, introspective, self-aware ballads, and the occasional experimental reach. The album certainly didn’t tread any new ground or touch the zeitgeist at large like the band once was able to do so effortlessly, but it provided a practical (and profitable) way forward for them as aging guys unwilling to go quietly into the oldies-only circuit and still able to spit out a classic song or two per disc.
12. “Hold On To Your Hat”- Loud and abrasive, it seems like an attempt to do a “Rip This Joint” speed-rocker but instead comes off like a Dirty Work retread in terms of sound and temparement.
11. “Continental Drift”- While it was a sentimental touch to include The Master Musicians of Jajouka so long after they worked with Brian Jones, the Stones didn’t bother to write much of a song to properly highlight them and really seem like guests on their own track.
10. “Hearts For Sale”- Not a bad little mood piece, featuring a circular guitar riff which doesn’t get old. The lyrics meander and Mick Jagger oversells them a bit, but the slow-burn intensity hangs on the whole track long.
9. “Break The Spell”- The bluesy tension never quite releases here, which isn’t really a bad thing. Mick sings this one a bit like Keith Richards’ old buddy Tom Waits might, and he also gets in some honking harmonica work which adds gritty atmosphere to the proceedings.
8. “Terrifying”- Some odd instrumentation, including chirping trumpet and marimba-like keyboards, help this one stand out from your usual mid-tempo track. Jagger adds some fun lyrics (“I’m rutting like a goat, I’m horny as a hog”) and it turns out to be a nifty little studio concoction.
7. “Rock And A Hard Place”- Keith reuses the riff from “It Must Be Hell” to get this one kick-started, but it eventually settles in as a throwback to the attitude-laced rock funk that the band once nailed in the late 70’s, albeit now with more sterility in the production. Jagger tosses off some pretty good lines about the haves stomping all over the have-nots, and Bill Wyman gets more chance to shine on bass than he’d had in years. I think in some places you can hear the effort they put in to make this one a “Gimme Shelter”-style classic. It’s nowhere near that, but it packs a punch.
6. “Can’t Be Seen”- Richards was coming off a successful solo album with Talk Is Cheap, and you can tell the confidence was still brimming with his excellent pair of lead vocals here. The funny thing is, for a guy who’s traditionalist to the core, he seems more at home singing within the late 80’s production styles than Jagger. Breezy, fun, and soulful all at once, with typically solid harmonies adding some melancholy to the middle eight, this one is worth digging out if you’ve forgotten it.
5. “Sad Sad Sad”- The open-tuned guitar at the start is Jagger, surprisingly, as he tears into a peppy, ironically upbeat (considering the title) bopper. One of many songs on the album that could be read as a Jagger/Richards therapy session, it features Mick telling a put-upon comrade to cheer up; “You gonna be fine,” he barks over and over. Richards must have believed it, because his guitar solo is buoyant. A little brass really seals the energetic deal. Great opening salvo for the album and a good way to reintroduce the band after their hiatus.
4. “Almost Hear You Sigh”- Richards had the music left over from his solo album (hence the co-writing credit for good buddy Steve Jordan) and let Jagger run with the words. He turned it into a lament for a particularly painful break-up, one that he sells with a combination of genuine hurt and gnawing fear that things are only going to get worse in his attempt to recover. Nice classical guitar from Keith in the middle too that dovetails well with the anguished sentiment of the lyrics.
3. “Blinded By Love”- While the band’s return to roots-based music in 1968 was the right move, one of the things that was sacrificed was the pop prettiness that Jagger and Richards conjured so often in the period just prior to that. This surprising little number sounds like it could have fit in snugly on Aftermath. Jagger certainly seems to enjoy the return to this side of the band; how else could he slip words like “burnished” and “parvenu” past Keith than in this setting? And while Brian Jones probably would have come up with something extra-special for a song like this, the musicians employed on harmonium, fiddle, and mandolin do a nice job creating a kind of Victorian C&W vibe. Lovely stuff.
2. “Mixed Emotions”- Well, Mick and Keith had to hash this thing out. Why not do it in the midst of a classic Stones rocker instead of sniping in the press? Meanwhile Charlie Watts drumming urges the Glimmer Twins onward in no-nonsense fashion, telling them to get on with already. The chorus is as sure as any they’d managed in quite some time leading up to that, surging deftly with minor-key urgency from Jagger’s playful verses. I suppose you could relate the song to your own life, but I prefer to enjoy it as a particularly potent chapter in the band’s autobiography.
1. “Slipping Away”- The idea that Richards would ever have the standout track on a Stones album would have seemed extremely far-fetched when he first started croaking out lead vocals with regularity in the early 70’s. Yet here he is, taking a sledgehammer to the notion, supported by his rakish public image, that he’s impervious to age and heartache. There is an elegance here that’s really arresting, as every element of the music is doled out with expert restraint and timing. Some people prefer the version the band did on Stripped, but I’ll take this one if only for the extra poignancy of Jagger coming in to join Richards on the bridge (even taking the high harmonies as if to cede the spotlight to the songwriter.) We’ve heard all the jokes about Keith outliving the cockroaches and such; this song, in heartbreaking fashion, makes you question whether that kind of longevity is worth it.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a more in-depth look at the songs of the Stones, check out my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, available now via the link below or at all major online booksellers.)
The worst album in Rolling Stones’ history? Well, before we bury 1986’s Dirty Work, let’s consider that it received pretty solid reviews at a time when artists like the Stones weren’t awarded knee-jerk raves just because they still exist. And their cover of “Harlem Shuffle” gave them their biggest hit in five years (and their last Top 5 Billboard hit to date.) But nothing can hide the fact that Dirty Work suffers from the sterile, inorganic production work of the era. And even the finest production couldn’t have prettied up some of the more uninspired songs and abrasive performances. With Mick Jagger’s head still in his solo career, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood carrying the load, and the entire group, including the usually rock-solid Charlie Watts, suffering from 80’s excess, this album is inconsistency exemplified, sporadic highs and cratering lows, and it nearly ended the Stones as we know them. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Back To Zero”- Jagger’s concerns about nuclear war are admirable, but not for a moment does this synth-heavy, faux-exotic mid-tempo jam sound like the Rolling Stones.
9. “Hold Back”- I kind of wish they held back a little bit on this one actually. No nuance or subtlety, not from the overbaked drum sound, nor from the grinding guitars, and certainly not from Jagger’s haranguing vocal.
8. “Fight”- Some early reviews found the aggressiveness of Jagger’s lyrics refreshing. To me, they’re more often off-putting, even if, as in this case, they seem to be allegorical plaints about societal antagonism. Plus the unimaginative music isn’t exactly a good way to show them off.
7. “Winning Ugly”- It’s foundationed by a decent enough Motown bassline, and there’s enough open space here for Jagger’s lyrics to make their point about how 80’s-style competitiveness often took a dark turn. But again, his singing is all force and no restraint. And the Stones never quite figured out how to introduce synthesizers into their sound without it sounding jarring.
6. “Dirty Work”- If Dirty Work can be defended, you can make the case that there’s a pretty consistent theme about societal nastiness run rampant going all the way through it, and, as such, the title track sums it up quite well. It’s still too busy by half, but at least Jagger’s lyrics, probably his best on the album concerning power-wielders who never show their faces, find their proper home in the intense guitar squall of Wood and Richards.
5. “Had It With You”- In the grand tradition of “All About You,” here is a Richards song which lays bare both his love for and his frustration with Jagger. Those elements are hidden a bit more here though. For one, Mick is singing it in his best Slim Harpo drawl (and also adding some spicy harmonica.) For another, it’s a raver instead of a ballad, which keeps the focus on the music. In any case, it’s one of the better uptempo tracks here, mainly because it sounds like the five band members recorded in a room with no frills doing the kind of bluesy rock and roll they do best.
4. “Too Rude”- Although it’s dispiriting that two of the top four tracks on the album were covers, you can’t deny that this reggae diversion gets the job done. It’s the best of Steve Lillywhite’s productions on the albums, as he adds all kinds of effects to the one-man rhythm section of Ronnie Wood on bass and drums to fill the song full of fun surprises. And Richards is in his element on lead vocal, getting backing help from Jimmy Cliff, no less.
3. “Sleep Tonight”- One of those idiosyncratic Richards’ ballads with unexpected melodic twists and turns that close out albums so well. The production is a shade too glossy for what should sound like the last song at the end of a long night, but the backing vocals and Chuck Leavell’s tender piano win the day. And Keith’s lyrics are so evocative in their odd way: “These thoughts of you, it shivers me/The moon grows cold in memory.” Bonus points for the inclusion of the piano solo by Ian Stewart, who had recently passed away, at the end. Nice.
2. “Harlem Shuffle”- It’s not like they did anything revolutionary with this minor 60’s hit by Bob & Earl. But at least there’s a groove here, something, based on the rest of the album, you would think they had forgotten how to manage. Richards makes some sly commentary on guitar and Bobby Womack does some nice call-and-response with Mick, who slides into this one like a comfy pair of slippers. And the animated video was fun, which meant a lot at the time.
1. “One Hit (To The Body”)- Well, at least they got this single right. The interplay between the acoustic and electric guitars makes for an invigorating beginning. There are hooks aplenty. And Jimmy Page makes a special guest appearance with a wild guitar solo that fits the roughness of the music quite well. The lyrics are a typical Jagger construction about a woman who has a way about her that’s irresistible and who causes damage that’s irreparable, but he sells them with brio. Hey, nine more songs like this and we might have had something. So help me god.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on the Stones, check out my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, available at the link below and at all major online booksellers.)
Because Tattoo You, which came out in ’81 but consisted of material of much older vintage, interrupted the narrative somewhat, 1983’s Undercover seems a bit out of left field in the Rolling Stones throughline, when in actuality it’s a natural progression to the modern, dancey sounds of the era that began with Some Girls and continued with Emotional Rescue. The effort is always there (although you can hear it a bit too often,) but, save for an excellent one-two punch at the beginning and a decent closing duo, the focus wavers. In the middle portion, we’re left adrift somewhere between Mick Jagger’s sound-of-the-moment pretensions and Keith Richards’ inclination toward traditionalism, and it’s a bumpy ride. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Too Tough”- Jagger’s heart doesn’t seem to be into this throwback to the riff-rocking of the 70’s. Extremely forgettable, except perhaps for the rampant nastiness of the lyrics.
9. “Feel On Baby”- If they could have gotten out of the way of the basic riddim, things would have been a lot better. But the production eccentricities that help out “Undercover Of The Night” are cumbersome here, and the five minutes running time drags.
8. “Tie You Up (The Pain Of Love)”- The sadomasochistic overtones are a bit heavy-handed, which would have been OK if the music had been a bit more playful instead of so unsmiling. Not a bad middle eight, but apart from that, it’s a bit much and not enough all at once.
7. “Too Much Blood”- Jagger’s cockney rapping is a kick, even if the subject matter skews toward the gory. Still, the music hasn’t aged well, with horns that sound like they were on loan from Phil Collins and synthetic drums that kind of take Charlie Watts out of the equation, which is never a good thing.
6. “Wanna Hold You”- It might be Keith on autopilot, with a flickering guitar groove that he’s done often before and since and lyrics that sound as if they were scrawled down in the last minute at the session. But it’s comfortable in its skin, which makes it stand out from a lot of the fussier stuff around it on the album.
5. “Pretty Beat Up”- Ronnie Wood gets a co-writer credit for coming up with the music on this quasi-instrumental. The horns are employed a lot more effectively here and there’s bite to the groove. David Sanborn adds some intense saxophone to top it all off.
4. “All The Way Down”- The double entendres fly fast and furious on this rocker that Watts provides with an energetic pulse. The somewhat nostalgic, somewhat caustic look back at a torrid affair with a more experienced woman sure seems autobiographical; Jagger certainly plays it to the hilt. Bonus points for this verse: “How the years rush on by: birthdays, kids and suicides/But still I play the fool and strut, still you’re a slut.” Manages to be self-aware, nasty, and pretty damn funny all at once.
3. “It Must Be Hell”- I’d be more praiseworthy of Keith’s great riff if it weren’t so similar to the one adorning Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back.” And I’m still not sure if Jagger is sympathizing with or sneering at those bemoaning the world’s problems at the time. But the music is tough and focused and the chorus is rock solid. Pretty good send-off track.
2. “Undercover Of The Night”- It manages to sound very much of the times and very much a Rolling Stones track, which, in the early 80’s, was often a case of never the twain shall meet. Watts bomping beat keeps pushing you headlong into Jagger’s tale of repression and violence in South America, which builds to a frenzied peak with the lines “The smell of sex, the smell of suicide/All these dreams, things I can’t keep inside “. Here the production effects, like the echoing guitar and sledgehammer drums, are right on point with the tenor of the song. Every moment is charged with wiry energy. You can dance to it or despair to it, whatever your bag might be.
1.”She Was Hot”- The verses are the Stones doing yet another take on a Chuck Berry potboiler, as Jagger moans from his collection of cold, lonely hotel rooms. The refrains pull back to let the atmosphere sink in as the narrator luxuriates in the memory of a particularly steamy tryst. Richards separates the two parts with a stomping solo. Jagger’s descriptions don’t skimp on vivid imagery, with phrases like “molten glow,” “the lost bayou” and “the human zoo” showing Duran Duran, at the time the bell cows of sultry wordplay, a thing or two. Dare I say that the “hot, hot, hot” refrain at the end of the song, or climax might be the better word, sounds like lovers thrusting? Write what you know, they say, and Jagger seems to know this scenario right down the last bead of sweat.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on the Stones, check out my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, now available at the link below and all major online booksellers.)
Leftovers can often be moldy and unappealing, but every once in a while, the juices sink in just so and they taste even sweeter than the freshest main course. Case in point: Tattoo You, the 1981 release from The Rolling Stones whereby they raided their estimable vaults for material because they couldn’t be bothered to come up with new stuff. With one side of brash rockers and one of soulful ballads, this album, which wasn’t really an album proper after all, is now held up by many as the standard for the post-Exile era Stones. And it’s hard to blame the folks who feel that way, so satisfying are the results of the band’s archaeological dig. Here is a song-by-song review:
11. “Slave”- The longest track on the album is probably the most disposable, but, as instrumental jams go, this one has some bite. There is a long list of guest stars participating here including Pete Townsend on backing vocals, but the star is Charlie Watts and his beat that’s potent and in the pocket all at once.
10. “No Use In Crying”- There’s seemingly not much to this slow roller, a kind of rewrite of “Time Is On Your Side,” but Mick Jagger, via both some existentially sorrowful lyrics and his impassioned delivery of them, pushes it further than it has any right to go.
9. “Heaven”- A hypnotic little mood piece, with Jagger’s vocals altered to add to the hazy vibe. You can understand why it wouldn’t have made the cut for other albums, as it’s sort of an unfinished idea. And yet it works in its fragmentary way, with Watts again playing a big part in that with his nimble patter.
8. “Little T&A”- “Nice and dumb” is how Keith Richards once described this track, and that seems as solid an observation as any. Back in the day classic rock radio played it so much that I was surprised upon my research to find it wasn’t a single. It’s Keith in mischievous mode, and while I actually prefer him when he’s going for the more soulful stuff on lead vocal, you can’t deny the guitar attack is quite catchy.
7. “Neighbours”- A fine rip-snorter this one, it was apparently inspired by Richards’ tendency to get booted from his place of residence. Jagger decides to play the oppressed neighbour in the son and he has a ball with it, braying his frustrations with hilarious brio. Same goes for Sonny Rollins, who sprints through his saxophone parts as if he’s being chased out of the building.
6. “Tops”- We’re going way back with this one into the Goats Head Soup era, which is made clear by Mick Taylor’s lyrical solo. Nicky Hopkins is also in typically fine form on piano. Jagger is once again in character mode, this time playing the Hollywood producer who can’t help but seduce a young innocent. So smarmy and obvious are his come-ons that the song ends up acting as a cautionary tale.
5. “Hang Fire”- You can get into the sarcastic social commentary here, with Jagger portraying a jobless, prospectless bloke too lazy to game the system to get by. At the time England’s jobless rate was high and the safety nets were fast disappearing, so the context is key here. Yet you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy the brazen, unkempt nature of the music, especially Richards’ snotty solo and the wordless “doo-doo-doo” refrains.
4. “Black Limousine”- These gents used to play the blues a little, right? They sink right back into it effortlessly here, the groove a thing of lubricated beauty while Wood’s solos and Jagger’s harp take the lead roles. The titular vehicle is an indication of the high life that the protagonist and the girl he’s addressing used to live. Alas, the unspoken message is that, considering the hard times which have befallen them, a far more somber black limousine might just be waiting on the next block.
3. “Worried About You”- Such is the goofy nature of Tattoo You that this track features Wayne Perkins, the long-forgotten by that time guitarist from Black And Blue. He knocks it out of the part on this wonderful ballad, while the rhythm section of Bill Wyman and Watts are minimalists here, nimbly nudging the song from the stark verses to the filled-out choruses. Jagger wields the falsetto in the early sections but gives full-throated evidence of his anguish in the refrains, Richards joining along for the high lonesome harmonies. It probably escaped Black And Blue due to its similarity in temperament and style to “Memory Motel,” but it makes a soft, soulful landing here.
2. “Start Me Up”- They tried to make it into a reggae song when it was originally essayed for Some Girls; some evidence of that can be found in Wyman’s skittering lines and the hitch in Watts’ giddyup. Once those guitars kick in, their full-throttle blast plays off that off-kilter bottom end in wondrous ways. Jagger takes every critical snipe about the band’s boorishness or sophomoric behavior and doubles down on them in the lyrics, until the line about making a dead man come seems almost tame compared to the innuendo that preceded it. Thank goodness for producer Chris Kimsey, who unearthed this song and convinced the band that an album of outtakes was just crazy enough to work.
1. “Waiting On A Friend”- They had no lyrics for it originally, which is how this intoxicating warm breeze of a track slipped out of the Goats Head Soup sessions. Richards proves that not all great riffs need to be attached to fast tempos, while Hopkins goes off on dreamy runs on the outskirts. Once Jagger figured out what the song would be about, he came up with one of the all-time great songs about friendship, one that lets all Stones fans indulge in the notion that he and Keith are indeed as thick as thieves, magazine articles and autobiographies be damned. Rollins takes the song and the album home with jazzy improvisations on saxophone that classed Top 40 radio up something fierce. What a beauty.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on the Stones, check out my new book, Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, available at the link below and all major online booksellers.)