CK Retro Review: Steel Wheels by The Rolling StonesPosted: December 15, 2015
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.)