The Stones in the Studio, Tattoo You and Beyond (Guest Post by Matt Blankman)

Many thanks to Matt Blankman for contributing this expanded, and multimedia-itized version of an essay he wrote for 50 Licks. You can follow him on Twitter. Take it away, Matt!

Tattoo You, the Stones’ 1981 album release, was a largely a hodgepodge of outtakes, leftovers and neglected tracks from previous album sessions. Associate Producer Chris Kimsey dug into can after can of tapes, some of which dated all the way back to the Mick Taylor era and Goats Head Soup sessions of late 1972, and compiled the worthy tracks. Mick Jagger did the bulk of the work bringing them into the present, writing lyrics and melodies, recording vocals and helping Kimsey shape the unruly stew into a unified album that sounded up to date. The result was a huge financial and critical success. Tattoo You is fully in a classic Rolling Stones vein and yet was ready for 1980s radio. The last Stones album to hit #1 on the Billboard album chart, it’s also what is now generally thought of by critics and Stones fans alike as the last great Rolling Stones album.

In the years since Tattoo You, Rolling Stones albums have all met a similar fate: lots of hype and attention at release, followed by reviews that breathlessly suggest that either a) it’s their best work since Some Girls or Exile on Main Street or b) it’s an embarrassing disaster and they need to retire. For most fans, after running out the day of release to purchase any new Stones album, the initial excitement wears off within a few weeks and albums such as Steel Wheels and Bridges To Babylon wind up gathering dust on the shelf while Sticky Fingers and Aftermath never leave the stereo for very long. Although the overall quality of their album output in the three decades since Tattoo You may not live up to the brilliant standard they had created in the 60s and 70s, these later records all have their moments where the genius of the Rolling Stones fully shines through and are worthy of reconsideration.

After Tattoo You and the attendant 1981/82 world tour and live concert album and movie, the Stones would release two more albums without touring, Undercover (1983) and Dirty Work (1986). Both albums sold reasonably well and garnered some strong reviews; however neither has aged particularly well with fans and very few of the tracks ever made their way to the band’s live set lists or classic rock radio. Nearly 30 years later, however, the lead single from Undercover, the politically charged “Undercover of the Night,” stands out as one of their more successful attempts at updating their sound for the 80s, as does Mick’s oddball “Too Much Blood.” There’s no new ground broken on the back-to-basics horny schoolboy rock’n’roll romp, “She Was Hot,” but that doesn’t stop it from working.

Unfortunately, it’s a largely unmemorable album with subpar material. Dirty Work saw the Mick and Keith feud of the 1980s at its zenith – Mick was absent from most of the album sessions. Working with then-hot producer of the moment Steve Lillywhite, the record never finds a groove and suffers greatly from a dearth of good new Jagger-Richards songs. Ronnie Wood coaxed fellow British guitar hero Jimmy Page into playing lead on “One Hit (to the Body),” the only track that sounds remotely like a classic Stones single, but despite some inspired playing by Page, Wood & Richards, the production sounds terribly dated, with its 1980s “big drums” and female background vocalists. “Had It With You” is a lively, nasty rocker seemingly echoing Mick and Keith’s ongoing hostilities that does a bit better with Liillywhite’s production, but the lone track that truly transcends the album is Keith’s haunting, piano driven ballad “Sleep Tonight.” With a guest appearance by Keith’s friend and sometime collaborator Tom Waits on backing vocals, “Sleep Tonight” is the first of Keith’s great late-period slow ballads. It’s also hard to not wonder if he’s singing about his estranged musical partner: “They robbed you of your dignity / they even steal your heart from me.”

Détente was in the air a few years later as Mick and Keith got back together, wrote a few dozen new songs and the Stones re-emerged in the summer of 1989 with Steel Wheels. Steel Wheels saw a little nostalgia back in the mix, as “Blinded By Love” was an acoustic based song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a 1966 Stones platter. As for the singles from the album, “Mixed Emotions” (or as Keith reportedly called it “Mick’s Emotions”) was an effective call to arms, the strident “Rock In A Hard Place” less so, but both seemed like a Rolling Stones simulation rather than the real thing. Far better was the lost love song “Almost Hear You Sigh,” originally written by Richards and Steve Jordan for the former’s solo debut album Talk Is Cheap, retooled slightly by Jagger for the Stones. However, the album’s most memorable track for many Stones-o-philes is the Richards-sung ballad that closes the album, the sublime and delicate “Slipping Away.” The band must seem to agree, as it’s been in the concert repertoire ever since and was re-recorded for the partly live Stripped album in 1995.

Steel Wheels was followed by the success and spectacle of their monstrously huge Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle tours in 1989 and 1990 and then the upsetting news in 1993 that Bill Wyman was calling it quits. Later that year they were back in the studio with producer Don Was working on their first studio record in five years, Voodoo Lounge. The brief whiffs of nostalgia on Steel Wheels grew stronger on Voodoo Lounge, thanks in part to Was’ admittedly classicist approach. The producer was able to tamp down Jagger’s ongoing desire to sound current and hip in favor of a more conventional, classic Rolling Stones sound. Critic Robert Christgau joked that they sounded like “the world’s greatest roots rock band.” Jagger groused about it afterwards, but Was’ instincts were in synch with Stones fans. The lead single, “Love Is Strong” seemingly owed a lot to Richards work with his X-Pensive Winos, but Jagger delivered a slinky, sexy vocal and strong harmonica work. Despite several slashing guitar work outs, once again, they were at their best with the quieter songs. “New Faces” was a surprising delight – a harpsichord-driven, acoustic song about jealousy of a young rival suitor that could have come from Aftermath or Between The Buttons. Ronnie Wood broke out his pedal steel guitar for “The Worst,” featuring Keith’s gravelly, lived in lead vocal and a gentle Celtic-country-rock lilt. “Out of Tears” is an archetypal Jagger breakup tune, musically reminiscent of “Fool To Cry” nearly twenty years later and “Blinded By Rainbows” a moving tale of a lost soul amid political and religious violence and strife featuring one of Jagger’s best vocal performances in years. Keith scored again with his second lead vocal of the album, the spooky, gritty “Thru and Thru,” seen by some as a message to the missing Wyman rather than to an errant lover. (Years later, the track was used on the seminal TV series The Sopranos, and the song quickly found its way back into the set list.) Voodoo Lounge meanders a bit, but it’s a genuinely satisfying listen, lacking only a truly great rocker to join the pantheon of classic Stones albums.

Jagger would get his wish to let the Stones experiment with more contemporary sounds a few years later with Bridges To Babylon. Don Was returned, but Jagger wanted to bring in The Dust Brothers, (riding high after working with Beck on his breakthrough album Odelay) to work on some tracks and give them a more current sheen. Richards wasn’t happy, but the peace was kept and the resultant album is a bit overlong and scattershot, despite some strong material. Keith’s gut feelings were largely correct here, as Jagger’s attempts to incorporate hip hop and electronic elements to the blues workouts and ballads he and Keith had written seem gimmicky and have not aged as well as the more straight forward tracks. Case in point – the lead single “Anybody Seen My Baby” sounds embarrassing fifteen years later, with the sample of rapper Biz Markie standing out like a sore thumb. That said, the Stones still knew how to construct and execute a great track, as the terrific “Already Over Me” illustrates, featuring an expressive, sensitive vocal by Mick and beautiful guitar textures from Keith. “Flip the Switch” rocked at an absurdly fast clip and “Too Tight” was an unjustly neglected, driving barnburner buried near the end of the album. Other strong material, like “Saint of Me,” and “Might As Well Get Juiced” sounds gummed up from the Dust Brothers overactive production. Keith protested that the more traditional takes of the bluesy “Juiced” blew the doors off the album version, and perhaps to reward his acceptance of Mick’s experiments, he was given three lead vocals on the album: the delightful reggae romp “You Don’t Have To Mean It,” and the album closing two-fer of the atmospheric, mysterious “Thief In The Night” and the gorgeous jazz ballad “How Can I Stop,” featuring jazz legend Wayne Shorter on soprano saxophone.

The band got back together in 2002 to record some new tracks for a greatest hits collection (Forty Licks) and tour. The tour was excellent, the new songs adequate but forgettable (Quick – when was the last time you heard “Don’t Stop?”). It took until 2005 to get a new full-length studio album out of the Stones, and it was worth the wait. A Bigger Bang was the most natural, least forced album the band had made in decades. Critics were again quick to suggest it was the best Stones record since Tattoo You but this time they were probably right. It neither sounded like the Stones pretending to replay their glory years or aping current pop trends, it simply sounded like the Rolling Stones. The chemistry between Mick and Keith sounded unforced and Charlie Watts’ groove was confident, relaxed and rocking. “Rough Justice” and “Oh No, Not You Again” were strong, driving rock’n’roll tunes that showcased classic Stones swagger and “Back of My Hand” the best bit of pure blues they’d recorded in eons.

“Rain Fall Down” was an effective funk/disco workout and “Biggest Mistake” is a hugely enjoyable and darkly funny sad-sack tale of lost love. “Let Me Down Slow” showed they could still write an exemplary pop song and “Streets of Love” was a lovely, shimmering ballad. Perhaps they were inspired by their friend Bob Dylan’s late career comeback, but A Bigger Bang found the Rolling Stones at peace with being the Rolling Stones, simply making strong music together, without pretense or affectation.

2 thoughts on “The Stones in the Studio, Tattoo You and Beyond (Guest Post by Matt Blankman)

  1. Excellent work, Matt. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and I learned a lot from it, as well. Now why can’t we get music reviews and analyses of this quality in our local daily papers? (Look out, Jim Farber ;-)!) You’ve sparked many fond memories here. I actually remember Pete (Sr., that is), telling me that Tattoo You was the best Rolling Stones album EVER! I wish I could recall the timing of this conversation, but I’m thinking it had to be in the midst of all the Steel Wheels excitement. I was dubious at the time, but – naturally – respectful of the source of this opinion. I’ve always been more of a Beggar’s Banquet guy, personally. But, as you so persuasively suggest, there are gems to be mined from pretty much any of the Stones’ albums. We can have a whole discussion on how the forms of musical media influence the depth of fans’ knowledge of a bands’ catalog, but let’s save it for another day – hopefully one filled with beer, food and, of course, good music.

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