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Every OTHER Rolling Stones album up to 1997, reviewed by me

August 11, 2014

When I last updated this blog, I had just dropped a staggeringly long-winded, in-depth overview of the Rolling Stones’ career from 1980 to 1986. Since then, I’ve worked my way up through the next ten years of the band’s career, and now I proudly present all of those album reviews here as well.


 

SIDEBAR — World War III, part two: both alike in dignity

In early 1987, it seemed like the Rolling Stones were completely finished. Dirty Work was even more of a commercial disappointment than Undercover, prolonging the already protracted bitterness of the sessions with a lingering stink of abject failure. Everyone went back to their own pursuits, with no plans to get back together beyond the vague promise of more commitments left to fulfill in their CBS Records contract. Mick Jagger was fed up with Keith Richards’ obstinate insistence on steering the band, and decided he’d be better off performing on his own rather than waiting for tensions to cool. Keith realized that no individual member could be nearly as successful solo as with the band, but without Mick willing to play, the Stones were useless. They aired these sentiments in public via the music press in March ’87. Bill Wyman took this to mean the band was truly finished — not that he minded particularly, ruminating only that they should have gone out on a higher note. Keith softened this prognosis in July by saying the Stones just needed a break from each other, but signed a solo deal of his own with Virgin Records to keep working in the meantime.

Mick had some choice words when asked by Q magazine how he’d feel if the band never worked together again:

      “It’s very funny because while you’re around and in no danger of extinction everyone’s ready to kick you and say, ‘Well, why don’t you just break up? Your band is really pointless, just doing the same thing over and over and over so why don’t you just f*ck off and die?’ And then when you ARE in danger of extinction they all go, ‘What’s the matter, man? You should reform, man. I mean, it’s the Rolling Stones, maaan.’ They don’t give a sh*t about what you feel and what you have to go through to preserve this monstrous image intact. It’s ridiculous. No one should care if the Rolling Stones have broken up, should they? I mean, when the Beatles broke up I couldn’t give a sh*t. Thought it was a very good idea. […] But with me people seem to demand that I keep their youthful memories intact in a glass case specifically preserved for them and damn the sacrifices I have to make. ‘Oh, the Stones, it’s part of my youth, man,’ they say, because they saw you in Hyde Park 18 years ago and they have their f*cking conservative little mental picture of you and they don’t want you to change — not that they’ve bought a record of yours in 15 years. Why should I live in the past just for their petty… satisfaction?”

Ouch. So, it’s clear that if the band were to continue, it would have to be on Mick’s terms. His second solo album Primitive Cool was more hook-based than his first, with a slick, contemporary-sounding, synth-augmented rock sound thanks to co-producer and collaborative writing partner Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. Paddy Maloney from the Chieftans also guested, adding ulilleann pipes and penny whistle for some subtle Celtic flair. There were two tracks on it with lyrics that sounded like cutting lyrical addresses to Keith’s public baiting (“Kow Tow” and “Shoot Off Your Mouth”, which, in shades of the early-70s Lennon/McCartney tit-for-tat, would prompt a response song the next year in Keith’s “You Don’t Move Me”). Commercial performance was tepid, but Mick finally assembled a touring band, and after unsuccessfully courting Jeff Beck as a lead guitarist (who had again played on the studio cuts) he landed on Joe Satriani. They made a fairly tight unit, particularly the backing singers led by Bernard Fowler, formerly of Herbie Hancock’s Rockit Band, along with another future Stones fixture Lisa Fischer. With dedicated, professional vocalists keeping the trickier moments of the songs on lockdown, Mick was freer to concentrate on singing and performing one aspect of each number, rather than carrying the entire thing on his shoulders. Roughly two-thirds of the setlists they played in Japan consisted of Rolling Stones numbers, a number that only increased by the time their tour got to Australia.d

Keith was, again, very disparaging in the press, but also totally devastated by the Stones’ winding-down to a halt — and for what? So that this collection of ‘jerk-off’ nobodies could play his songs? Well, that was a bit harsh, but that’s what Keith felt, and perhaps understandably given the years of work he had put in to create their unique catalogue, which Mick was appropriating to suit his whims to decidedly mixed success. In the long view, Keith knew perhap Mick would see reason and realize the old band was worth returning to, eventually. Nevertheless, the experience of being forced to go solo had proven worth it for Keith. He had just taken a couple of gigs as a musical director, helping to produce Aretha Franklin’s cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” for the film of the same name and, in a character-defining act of musical evangelism, the Chuck Berry performance documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n Roll and its accompanying soundtrack album. This project in particular was a joyful experience of resurrecting the rock ‘n roll master’s musical magic, tempered slightly by an up-close and personal dose of Berry’s egomaniacal behaviour, which perhaps gave Keith pause in considering how well he had weathered Jagger’s own comparatively mild outbursts of divadom. Berry’s longtime pianist — the unsung boogie-woogie hero Johnnie Johnson — was drafted into the proceedings, and stuck around when Keith needed a 1950s-style piano player for his solo album. Steve Jordan, formerly the drummer for David Letterman’s Late Night band, was the common thread linking all of these projects, rising from humble beginnings as a session man for Dirty Work to being the second-most important writing partner of Keith’s career.

The results of their combined labour, Talk Is Cheap, sounded intimate, funky, and off-the-cuff. The songs, all of which Richards and Jordan had written especially for it, were simple and soulful — even exhibiting a doo-wop influence in “I Could Have Stood You Up” (with the aforementioned Johnson piano part, and a pleasantly surprising guest turn from Mick Taylor on guitar). The album received rave reviews and robust sales, later to see reissue on an audiophile gold CD release by Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs. Its production value, though comparatively stripped-down for the times, was consistently high through the course of the record. Meanwhile, over in the Jagger touring entourage, Bernard Fowler and guitar tech Pierre de Beauport (both of whom would join the Stones touring unit in short order) were cheekily spinning Keith’s album backstage. The rag-tag group that had assembled to record the bulk of the album, dubbed the X-Pensive Winos, toured the USA in a series of theatre gigs (and one sports arena: the Meadowlands in New Jersey) at the end of ’88, and released an accompanying live album, which leaned heavily on the new material with only a handful of Jagger/Richards numbers appearing. It was an absolute success for Keith, made entirely on his own terms.

Now that CBS had realized the commercial prospects of Jagger’s solo albums were perhaps not quite as strong as what they’d counted on, the offers to deliver a Stones album instead sweetened. Keith was of course ready to go back all-in, but his solo plans for the remainder of ’88 were already locked down when Mick finally made the call. Once they’d got the confidence-building solo tours out of their systems, the thaw in relations that both men were waiting for arrived. While the Winos tour was chugging along, Jagger and Ron Wood held an informal jam to demonstrate some new song ideas. Charlie Watts, now clean and sober, having taken a year off playing in public after his round of solo gigs with a big-band jazz orchestra, received word to get his chops back post-haste. The announcement went out that the Stones would reassemble, record a new album, and hit the road again all before the end of ’89. A massive publicity campaign followed, including the career-spanning 25X5 documentary and a band induction at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in January. The bed was made for a big comeback. All that remained to be seen was how the two helmsmen’s solo turns would influence their approach to collaborative work.


 STEEL WHEELS

With individual tours now under their belts, Mick & Keith’s trial separation ended without irreconcilable differences. Initially, they agreed to regroup for the shortest possible period: just one full year of Rolling Stones activity — six months of preparation and recording followed by six months of touring. It was a fingers-crossed, hope-this-works-out measure, which turned out to be unnecessary as the project exceeded expectations and led the way for a full reboot of the band as a vital contemporary rock act. Record company executives, burned by this intractable group’s interminable Dirty Work debacle, felt that such a productive result was too much to hope for; nevertheless, under a firm deadline again for the first time since Tattoo You, Mick and Keith gathered at the beginning of 1989 in Barbados, and began pre-production for a new Rolling Stones album that was due by summertime, to coincide with their new tour that would wrap up just before Christmas. Charlie arrived in February, by which time they had skeletal demos of all the album’s songs ready to be properly recorded. The rest of the band joined them soon after, and they headed to George Martin’s AIR Studios on the verdant, remote island of Montserrat, reuniting with erstwhile co-producer Chris Kimsey to begin tracking.

Ronnie Wood was initially hopeful that he’d be able to contribute some of his songwriting to the sessions, too. But he could sense that Mick & Keith had recaptured their off-the-cuff, magical Glimmer Twins songwriting and production chops. For Wood, it was a matter of standing back and not getting in the way of lighting striking twice. Which is what it was: not only did the songwriting and pre-production come together quickly, the entirety of the Montserrat session went by in five blisteringly fast weeks. With none of the distractions from recording available in a metropolitan city among vibrant night life, the Stones all showed up in the studio promptly at each day’s start and left exhausted from their work at its end. Charlie had regained his outstanding stamina and was definitely BACK in the saddle, often doing five or six complete takes in a row, no matter the tempo. Bill Wyman played some incredible bass parts live off the floor, and Ron also filled the bass seat when the song called for something more modern-sounding in the low-end department. Adding synth player Matt Clifford and returning keyboardist Chuck Leavell to the team, along with the Kick Horns brass section, meant that all of the main instrumental players stayed in-house. This expanded Stones lineup was 100% stadium ready, with an ear tilted towards the big, brassy sound of Springsteen’s E Street Band and the newly-thickened textures of their heavy rock contemporaries touring the boards at the time. It was music loud and brash enough to shake concrete foundations, vast in its scope — hence the album’s titular imagery of relentless, assembly-line industry.

Keith wanted to use an engineer that he’d worked with on Talk Is Cheap, Don Smith (he would eventually get him on Voodoo Lounge) along with Steve Jordan as his co-producer again. Mick balked, correctly estimating that Kimsey already knew their work habits and personal foibles well enough to keep the project afloat without becoming biased in either man’s favour. Keith rolled over on this and potentially other artistic decisions during the recording process, in order to keep Mick happy. This ultimately meant that they used up-to-the-minute production techniques and gadgets deployed in the mix, so the ‘fake’ reverb on Charlie’s kit was unfortunately still in place, forgoing in large part the recording room’s natural echo. Matt Clifford’s synth parts, to put it charitably, also bear a very time-specific stamp of technological development. In one particular case, however, this typically fussy late-80s studio approach yielded dividends. The Rumi-influenced lyrics of “Continental Drift” belie its modernist origin: it was born of Jagger and Clifford arranging an experimental collage of sampled percussion and heavily-treated vocal, and the African drumming and double-reed rhaita instrument loops were culled from a recording session in Tangier with Bachir Attar’s master musicians of Jajouka. This return trip to Morocco opened Keith’s eyes to what the Stones’ sonic palette had missed out on when Brian Jones stepped away from the band to do the exact same thing in 1968.

A musical ‘roots’ approach should be background-agnostic, rather than ‘purist’ in some slavish devotion to one established musical tradition. By combining the rock ‘n roll New World attitude with a worldly European outlook, the Stones defined their stance astride the tension between these continents. Their ‘drift’ was marked and premeditated from out of the rigid and pigeonholed slots on a music industry chart into a unique entity all their own. Jones had wanted to explore more textures outside of the rock mold, and it’s no coincidence that his album of found Moroccan music was also recorded in Jajouka. He was expressing a desire for connection to another tradition, as equally steeped in a collision of popular myth and diasporic culture as the Blues. The African continent was the source of it all, of course, a prime mover underneath the other tectonic plates, from where the Moorish invaders had carried the rhythms of the sultans into the Iberian peninsula, and over centuries the Islamic mysticism of the Sufis settled over top. The kaleidoscopic rhythms that whirled out of this potent stew sent the Dervish orders into ecstatic trances, where they believed they could better communicate with God. It is powerful stuff, and represents an excursion into a path not otherwise taken on a fairly conservative rock album. It’s a hell of a piece of concert entrance music, too — one the band would later try to copy on subsequent tours.

The next-most-important departure from business as usual is “Blinded by Love”, a didactic piece of history-based balladeering. This was a welcome sign that the Stones were capable of keeping a foot in their ’60s baroque pop mode, with an up-to-date spin on folky acoustic textures. Its melody and instrumental colours are exquisite, with a clever lyric edited by Mick’s brother Chris Jagger. He also contributed to “Almost Hear You Sigh”, which was originally an X-Pensive Winos track (somewhat reminiscent of “Beast of Burden”) that Keith had knocked together with Steve Jordan for Talk Is Cheap, including fine three-part backing harmonies. After a lyrical rewrite at the Jaggers’ hands, it turned into a more tender ballad. It’s only somewhat overshadowed by Keith’s own turn at the mic, “Slipping Away”, which concludes the album on a gorgeously bittersweet note. Bolstered in confidence by his Winos experiences, Keith’s singing is of a consistently high quality throughout the album, and he turns in a stunning lead here, with Winos touring singer Sara Dash aiding on soft harmonies. Her voice blends very well with Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer’s, but she would bow out of the lineup before the tour was due to start. Keith’s other lead vocal, the uptempo “Can’t Be Seen”, is a sheer delight. He sounds like a man scorned and on the run, with hot licks falling off his fretboard effortlessly.

That leaves the slick, Mick-led rockers, mostly concentrated in the first half of the album. “Mixed Emotions” is an outstanding mission statement for the Stones Mk. II; it’s the Glimmer Twins: Back in Business reunion track, with an undercurrent of autobiography to the lyric ostensibly about saving a long-term relationship on the rocks. Chris Kimsey’s mixes, both the album cut and the extended 12″ version, showcase the band’s chops and gleeful abandon at playing something with a bit of that classic spirit. “Sad Sad Sad” is a perfunctory opener by comparison, with an obscure lyric marring a great live-off-the-floor feel from Mick & Keith’s pounding dual 5-string attack. “Rock and a Hard Place” is a dance number coaxed into a Stones rock arrangement, with yet more ham-fisted lyrics, which spout vague hand-wringing over warmongering, pollution and poverty. Truth be told, the four-on-the-floor dance mixes by Don Was are more enjoyable than the rocked-up album version, where Charlie doesn’t sound quite in the pocket owing to a strictly mechanized tempo. Ronnie’s fiery solo coming out of the bridge is mind-meltingly awesome, however, and the start-stop ending works well, deserving Mick’s “get a load of THIS!” interjection. “Hold On to Your Hat” also kicks copious butt at a rip-roaring pace.

The midtempo “Hearts for Sale” sports another great groove, with a rolling Keef riff and another gorgeous Ronnie solo, but apart from the title hook the song itself is somewhat tiresome, despite a few lines of priceless lyrics. “Terrifying” is a slinky percussive workout, with Matt Clifford layering on sample after sample over the band’s tight, hypnotic rhythm. Ronnie’s lead tone is a master’s workshop in being clean and aggressive at the same time, and the muted trumpet solo is surprisingly fitting. Lisa Fischer also makes a breathy cameo, the first of her many outstanding performances on Stones albums to come. Finally, “Break the Spell” gives a hint at the direction the Stones would explore on their next studio project, with a swampy rhythm, terrific blues harp licks, and spooky lyrics. It’s one of my favourites of the whole of their 1980s output, with an intimate feel that transcends the dated-sounding mixes plaguing most studio material from this period. Clearly the band had successfully sewn itself back together in a configuration befitting their immense legacy, and having pulled out of a tailspin, the sky was again their limit.

By building a carapace of polish over a fine foundation of good songs and solid live playing, Steel Wheels outshines many contemporary rock albums of ’89, coming at the height of hair metal and over-overdubbed studio stuffiness. It is nonetheless more pristine and “clean” than a typical Stones album, which may not be to everyone’s tastes. Some love it for this reason (the Stones suddenly sounded AUDIOPHILE on your brand new CD player!) and others find it disposable and lightweight. It’s not correct to fault any one particular factor for this polarized reaction; a combination of expectations brought on by the music business’ climate and the walking-on-eggshells approach to intra-band relations after the communications failure of the previous years certainly did the music no favours. But the album served its purpose. The Stones were once more a going concern, with a future ahead of them. Next stop: the world.


 

FLASHPOINT

The Rolling Stones’ 1989-1990 world tour in support of Steel Wheels was an epic marathon of relentless, globe-conquering triumph. It marked the Stones’ guns-blazing entry into a new era of rock ‘n roll touring and performance style, blasting the doors off for all further refinements in the art of spectacle brought about by each future endeavor in their career. Their relentless ’89 schedule left no stone un-turned in the North American continent, climaxing with a pay-per-view broadcast, Terrifying, with special guests Axl Rose, Izzy Stradlin, John Lee Hooker and Eric Clapton (from which the Flashpoint version of “Little Red Rooster” originates). The set leaned on recent songs, as well as newly re-arranged classics, many performed sounding closer to their studio counterparts than ever before. Chris Kimsey was drafted in once more to assemble the inevitable live album, which in shades of Love You Live cherry-picked performances from different legs of the tour, including the so-called “Urban Jungle” European shows that used a slightly-less extravagant stage set to cut down on the massive phalanx of local crews required for its transportation and construction. A number of shows on the 1990 tour nevertheless used the full Steel Wheels stage design, including the Japanese leg and several European dates filmed for the IMAX feature film The Rolling Stones: Live At the MAX.

There was no band in the world capable of holding the interest of an audience of 50,000+ without some form of spectacular visual show, and in an effort to give their millions of fans worldwide the maximum possible enjoyment at shows in the vast open-air spaces where they gathered, the band bolstered their complement of accompanying effects and unparalleled showmanship to match the increased number of players in their group. There was a wealth of good performances recorded, and the 1990 jaunt in Europe included a barrier-breaking debut for stadium rock in Communist-ruled countries, with several truly epochal performances behind the Iron Curtain. These events, unthinkable even five years previous, would themselves later inspire literary works — Tom Stoppard’s play Rock and Roll concludes with the 1990 Stones show in Prague, symbolizing the power of the titular artform to unite and inspire oppressed populations with the dream of freedom. John Cameron Mitchell & Stephen Trask’s grand rock musical masterpiece Hedwig & The Angry Inch (both in its original form and the Tony-winning revival on Broadway) makes sly reference to the Stones and their impact on music fans living on the East side of the Great Divide, and Live At the MAX was partly filmed in East Berlin. Roger Waters may deride the band nowadays for playing on Israeli-occupied turf, but without the brave canniness of this foray behind the Iron Curtain, he would not have had necessary impetus to stage his outdoor all-star version of The Wall on the former no-man’s-land grounds of Potzdamer Platz.

For the first time, the Stones’ complement of backing musicians on these shows actually outnumbered the core band. Chuck Leavell returned on keyboards, and key Steel Wheels contributor Matt Clifford re-created his synth parts from the album, as well as French horn, and digital sampler programming (furnishing various production touches from the album cuts, to which the band were now closely adhering). Though this was a nice idea, it turned out to be ultimately superfluous, as Leavell later proved capable of handling all the necessary parts himself, only occasionally drafting in another player to cover a secondary part rather than relying on dual keyboards for the entire show. Bobby Keys and the four-man Uptown Horns section added their brassy supplement of flavour (replaced by the Kick Horns, who played on Steel Wheels, for “Rock and a Hard Place”) on certain tracks, and Bernard Fowler, Lisa Fischer and Cindy Mazelle sang backups.

“Start Me Up” kicks off nicely, with a pyrotechnical explosion at the beginning and very high-energy performances from all concerned (including a very subtle Ron Wood guitar overdub that helps drive the rhythm track). It’s not the definitive live version, but very, very nice and certainly tighter than the early-80s renditions. “Sad Sad Sad” is pretty great, with a glorious Bobby Keys sax break, but the full-on synth horn cheese courtesy of Matt Clifford can be a buzzkill. I mean, they have real horns right there — why not use them? He does do a pretty neat job of imitating a harmonica with his sampler on “Miss You”, but Mick’s vocal is overdubbed and tweaked to within an inch of its life. Starting with the second-verse breakdown, including the annoying “scream” section, there’s a stereo delay effect on the vocals and Ron’s guitar, which runs through some Roland Sound Space binaural processing for a 3D effect. It’s an audio novelty, totally en vogue for 1991 — as was the vocodered “craaazy”, one could argue — and fun at first (if you can get the rear-surround effect to work on your system), but especially on headphones it loses appeal. Bobby Keys’ brief sax solo, closely copying the record only with a little extra grit, saves the day, and Ron’s guitar solo is quite funky. Again, tighter than the earlier live versions, but they’d vastly improve on this arrangement in later years.

There’s a bit of hype from Mick in Spanish before “Rock and a Hard Place”, and a bit of Japanese afterwards. It’s nice to hear, partly because we acknowledge that this was definitely a WORLD-wide tour being captured for posterity, catering to their fan base in all of the different cultural territories where they played. Of course, Mick had made some efforts to speak to Rolling Stones crowds in their own languages for years prior to this, but Flashpoint makes it clear that Mick worked hard to learn this multi-lingual banter. The song itself is pretty tightly played, but the vocal is studio-replaced (except for a section of the breakdown), with artificial reverb covering it up. The horns are also mixed very distantly, so that they blend well but without much individual presence. They hit harder when they return later on in the finale of the show, and for a track meant to showcase the full size of the band they really should be more up-front. This is a minor quibble, though. After this point, the album really takes off, with nary a nit left to be picked, barring a few minor vocal flubs (obviously NOT overdubbed) and some slightly questionable synth patches hereafter.

“Ruby Tuesday” is quite lovely, with Keith’s fine acoustic guitar and vocal harmonization with Mick and Bernard; the flute sound emanating from Clifford’s keyboard is unfortunately just a little too florid, and sticks out now for sounding artificial, but apparently few cared in 1991 because it did very well as the second single from the album. Bizarrely, at the conclusion of this track, a sample of the crowd noise from Get Your Ya-Yas Out! is pasted over the Japanese crowd, complete with a drunk American woman yelling “Paint It Black, you devil!” The crowd is absolutely brilliant at singing on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, and Matt Clifford redeems himself with a fabulous horn solo at the top as well as a nice “choral” keyboard part. The rest of the band sounds great, too, with fabulous soul harmonies, Ron’s bluesy guitar solo, Charlie & Bill grooving over Keith’s fantastic rhythm track, and Leavell doubling on piano & Hammond organ simultaneously. The highlight of the album for Stones fans, however, is undoubtedly “a sort-of Country song”, of which neither Bill nor Mick can immediately identify the provenance: it’s the exquisite “Factory Girl”, resurrected from Beggars Banquet. It rolls along very nicely with fine guitar, keyboard and drum interplay.

Keith admonishes us to “cut out the crap” (screaming for his entrance on vocals, which in actuality he reveled in absorbing nightly) before his fine take on “Can’t Be Seen”, and he banters with the crowd afterwards, before we abruptly transition to Eric Clapton guest starring on “Little Red Rooster”. This is very tasty indeed, with Leavell’s expressive piano and Ronnie’s slide meshing well, and Charlie’s fabulous swing drives Clapton to soar on lead (though it could also have had something to do with the interpersonal frisson of backstage woman-swapping between him and Jagger). Unfortunately, most of Mick’s quite nice (and LIVE) harmonica duet with him is edited out of the conclusion, which can be seen in its entirety on the December ’89 Terrifying telecast. “Paint It Black” is next, and after Keith’s excellent intro, Ronnie does a manful job of handling the lead sitar part on electric guitar. During the rave-up, we get Bill’s excellent dive-bombing bass line, and more of those 3D-delayed shouts from Mick before ending on a spooky sustained synth chord. It’s probably my favourite live version of this track, actually. They had never tackled it before on stage, and later versions are more restrained, but this one is definitely balls-out.

“Sympathy for the Devil” is almost the same version that would later appear on Live At The Tokyo Dome, which we’ll discuss in the next entry, and it’s a winner — even if Keith’s very fine lead guitar playing is just a little bit too low in the mix and edited down from the glorious full-length workout it normally encapsulated every night. “Brown Sugar” is a little by-the-numbers, but it still cooks, and “Jumping Jack Flash” is excellent (a white-hot vocal performance, if partly overdubbed), second only to the smoking “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” with its tribute to Toots & The Maytals’ “54-46 Was My Number” in the outro. It concludes with a jet fly-by effect, which segues thematically into studio cut “Highwire” (first single from the album) and its name-check of the 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers.

“Highwire” is actually a commentary on the hypocrisy and greed underlying Western foreign policy, not merely a black-and-white anti-war protest song. It applies just as equally today as it did in 1991, and still sounds as fresh. How many protest songs can make that claim? “Sex Drive” has dated itself a bit, being a slight return on James Brown’s “Sex Machine”, but the very-’91 production flourishes sit atop an extra-tight groove underneath. Jagger’s assured vocal performance totally sells the tawdry lyric. It’s a fabulous excuse for another pair of fun videos from Julien Temple, who also directed Live At the MAX. These cuts feel a little dashed-off in terms of recording production and arrangement, but I can’t fault the songs themselves. They may well have been written quickly, worked up for this album so the Stones could claim it against their contract with CBS (now subsumed by Sony Records for most of the world) and escape to Virgin Records for a more lucrative deal, but both are quite entertaining nonetheless.

Close listening reveals that all songs recorded on the ’89 tour suffer from a problem on Mick’s vocal mic line, which distorts with clipping at points when he sings above a certain loudness. This is, unfortunately, probably baked into the live tracks permanently, perhaps as a result of the sensitivity/gain being set too high on the wireless receiver. It does not seem to be apparent on the tracks sourced from the 1990 concerts, or where the vocal was replaced in the studio (obviously), but once you notice this defect, it’s hard to ignore. This is an album that definitely stacks up less favorably on headphone listening. The two-disc Collectables version is definitely valuable, however, and worth seeking out if you want a whole bonus CD of rarities/alternate mixes from the Stones’ previous fifteen years. Many overlap with inclusions on later collections Rarities 1971–2003 and The Singles 1971–2006, so it may not be worth the effort if you’ve already tracked those down. The “Ruby Tuesday” single also contains some live cuts that didn’t make this record, which are anthologized on the massive Singles box set. Highly recommended for fans of this uniquely “baroque” era for Stones live music!


 

LIVE AT THE TOKYO DOME

The Rolling Stones’ 1990 appearances in Japan were long overdue, and fans greeted them with a level of hysteria that still resounds today. After all, it was their first time performing in the country as a band (partly owing to the group’s legal liability for drug convictions, which prevented Keith in particular from entering the country for a gig as least as far back as 1973). As such, there was no certified ‘first wave’ of Rolling Stones fandom in Japan, not at the Beatlemania-level of screaming mobs, anyway, until the band were more than twenty-five years into their career as an international touring act. Jagger’s solo Japanese shows in ’88 (including one at the Tokyo Dome within a week of its first opening) had been “slightly hairy”, in his words, but they had sold out nonetheless — and here there was a chance to truly make a splash: ten consecutive Steel Wheels shows at the massive indoor venue in downtown Tokyo with a nightly audience of some 50,000. This ‘tour’ drew crowds who travelled from all across the nation, and even further afield, to see the band play in residency. It was such a roaring success that every subsequent Stones tour  has returned to the Dome — and by 2006, they had played to more than one million people under that singular air-supported roof. The Stones Archive recording and video captures the penultimate gig of that first 1990 series, on the 26th of February. This same concert was also broadcast on Japanese TV later that year. Both the original telecast and the Archive video release (re-edited and digitally restored for DVD and standard-definition Blu-ray Disc) showcase the band a bit better than the clumsily edited IMAX feature The Rolling Stones: Live At the MAX (probably not due to the fault of director Julien Temple, but of the nascent large film format’s inability to cover one entire show with cumbersome IMAX cameras), which is eye-popping in its hyper-real filmic quality, but loses its continuity from cross-cutting between shows on the European tour.

Live At the MAX was partly conceived to show off the massive size of the Steel Wheels set design that the Stones had toured with throughout ’89 (and at some 1990 shows, including the Japanese gigs). It towered over the crowd in a tangled mesh of exposed scaffolding and lighting gear, wrapped in material with the album cover design and the band’s name across the top in massive “distressed” text. A sweeping set of runways extended outwards from centre stage to the edges of the stadium-sized venues, with video display screens mounted on either side, and staircases leading all the way up to the superstructure’s dizzying apex for Jagger to climb and sing “Sympathy for the Devil” whilst surrounded by flame-spouting pyrotechnical rigs. Charlie’s drum kit and the backline gear sat weather-protected under a cantilevered canopy, decorated with circular mastheads. To cap off the futuristic-construction-site vibe, lighting crew members sat in perches hovering above the stage to focus their spotlights on the band, swiveling on the far edge of aluminum chutes extending upwards like robotic wings. From the front-of-house control tower, the entire width of the stage was used as a projection surface for reflected patterns of dappled light at key moments. During “Honky Tonk Women”, two massive inflatable figures (one looking suspiciously like Anita Pallenberg and the other Bianca Jagger) appeared suddenly from nowhere to dance and sway in time with the beat. It was awe-inspiring to behold. The design was the brainchild of British architect Mark Fisher, who returned to create ever-more-impressive stage designs for each subsequent Stones tour until his untimely death in 2013. Numerous beautiful photographs, design sketches and drafts, and far more in-depth text on this and all his other designs reside on Fisher’s excellent portfolio website.

Not all of this comes across on the Tokyo footage, or at least not as well as on the towering large-format IMAX film. But for several reasons, Live At The Tokyo Dome is a far better document than any other from the entire world tour. Imperatively, the complete show is reproduced in pristine audio quality thanks to yet another outstanding Bob Clearmountain remix for the Stones Archive series (which was initially available, amongst its fellow entries, to all countries with the Google Play music store, and as a FLAC download for the rest of the world on the Stones Archive Official Store website). Late in 2015, the audio appeared packaged in physical form with either a DVD or Blu-ray Disc. Prior to this, at least a few select clips from the show with restored audio and video trickled out via the Stones’ official YouTube channel — albeit re-cut from a reduced number of camera angles, which made for marginally less exciting viewing than the finished product.

Even that original Japanese PPV telecast, however, is amazing to watch. The band are obviously feeding off of the audience’s energy, and absolutely locked into the music. Any critique that this tour was soulless, distanced, workmanlike, assembly-line, corporate rock is self-evidently wrong. The mix is quite raw, with no overdubs whatsoever, and yet sounds pretty smooth (not quite up to the Clearmountain standard, but close). It’s great to see so many shots of Charlie and the guitarists; although Jagger is as usual the primary focus of the cameras, the tasteful editing does follow each song in a musical way, showing those little moments of playing that diehard fans always appreciate. Other TV specials from this era, like the New Jersey ’89 and Barcelona ’90 specials, have less energy in their visual execution. This night in Tokyo was also just a superlative performance from the entire band. “Harlem Shuffle” in particular never sounded better — this is my preferred version of the song in any form — and even the well-worn regular hits sound quite vital and sparkle with energy.

One song, which was only added later in the European leg of the tour, does not appear on Flashpoint or this recording: “Street Fighting Man”. It was nevertheless an important point in the set, as the moment in the show where monstrous inflatable dogs rose out of nowhere for Jagger to taunt and strike with a mallet. Live At the MAX captures this bizarre bit of theatre at the tour finale on August 25, 1990 at Wembley Stadium in London. It was actually a joke at the expense of Thatcher’s Tories in the UK Conservative Party, who had hastily introduced legislation banning “dangerous dogs” of four particular breeds from Great Britain’s shores in the wake of sensationalist media reports of these being particularly vicious towards children. Well, if the arch-Neoliberals hadn’t indulged in a bit of their own nanny-statism! This was another ever-so-sly political jab — and several literal ones, too (by Jagger’s hands at the poor inflatable stage mutts’ testicles) — that would also flower in the lyric of “Highwire”. Jagger was living in England again by this point, bringing up his children with Jerry Hall in the country’s schools, so he had no small interest in domestic policy matters. Mind you, this was a pretty easy target, and a cheap gag to boot, with little relevance to anyone outside of the UK. Nevertheless, it was a staple on the Urban Jungle European tour shows and immortalized not only on film but on a CD single for the Flashpoint version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” at the end of 1991. Perhaps fittingly, given his claim on the riff that kicks the song off, this little-remembered release turned out to be the last-ever new Rolling Stones release with musical participation from Bill Wyman, who put down his bass after the Wembley gigs and would not play with the band again for a very, very long time.

Bill, who had been with his ailing father in England during early rehearsals for the 1990 shows (and so missed the big kickoff press conference to announce their Japanese arrival), learned on the day of the February 26th TV special taping that his parent was dead. The next night, he played his last ever concert in Japan, and then flew home for the funeral arrangements. There was always a peripheral fear of flying in Bill, which by now had turned into certifiable paranoia. He drove between the remaining gigs on the European tour rather than flying with the rest of the band, which must have been exhausting. Although he performed well on the shows, it’s pretty easy to see from photos and the glaring IMAX footage that his heart was not in it anymore. He collected the prestigious Ivor Novello songwriting award in 1991 with Ron Wood on behalf of the group, but did not sign on to the $40 million contract signed with Virgin Records that year, which essentially dissolved their Rolling Stones Records imprint in favour of new publishing venture Promotone. Bill skipped the video shoot for “Highwire” in New York City, but was coaxed into Shepperton Studios near London to film his scenes in the playful “Sex Drive” clip, thereby completing his final duty as a full-fledged Stone. It was still unclear from outside speculation what his intentions were, exactly, even if he had by now made his mind up to leave permanently. Mick and Charlie made a last-ditch effort to sway him to return before the next round of band meetings in 1992, but they could not. He made this clear on a televised interview in January 1993, announcing that after thirty years of performing with the group it was time to pack it in. Twenty-four years to the day after they recorded Live At the Tokyo Dome, the Stones played their twenty-sixth performance at the stadium, then their twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth. Should they return for another multiple-night engagement, they’ll have played twice as many shows at the venue without Wyman as they’ve played with him.

This was not an easy challenge to surmount, however. The band, with a well-earned reputation for ageless powerhouse grooves, were faced with the problem of how to reinvent their rhythm section — one of the only elements that had remained unchanged in their three decades of history. Auditions for a new Stones bass player would begin the following summer.


 

VOODOO LOUNGE

With the band on a break, and Bill Wyman AWOL, the remaining Stones took 1992 off to work on their solo projects. Grunge music was dominating American airwaves: the sound of straightforward, live-off-the-floor rock bands with bombastic lead vocalists and heavily overdriven guitar riffs. Hmmm, I wonder where they got those ideas? While some of these bands tried their hardest to sound like the Stones, frozen at a specific moment, the Stones wanted to try other things. Keith’s second record was in much the same vein as his first, as he recorded it and toured yet again with his X-Pensive Winos backing band, but Mick stretched out a bit further afield for his third LP Wandering Spirit. It incorporated influences from contemporary R&B as well as gospel, country and even Celtic folk music while staying relatively tasteful. When it was time to get back together, this time as a four-piece, the Stones had to respond to the changes going on in and around them. They were growing into being more mature artists and forging a new identity as accomplished elders to yet another upcoming generation. I recall personally being very impressed with the Stones’ media presence in this period; they even had a website, as far back as the mid-90s, which was a totally new frontier for musicians connecting with their audiences. The Stones’ challenge, as it had been for some time, was to remain relevant to the changing musical landscape. Voodoo Lounge was an opportunity to reestablish that.

Mick and Keith agreed that the album itself should be “focused and direct”, with very few frills. In service of this, the Stones front-loaded their recording process with a long period of woodshed songwriting and in-studio refining (as was previously their normal method in the 1970s), so that the “proper” attempts at final takes for each number benefited from the great effort and care placed in them beforehand. Extensive pre-production rehearsals in Barbados had yielded a few grooves and ideas that would fluorish on the album (including “Thru and Thru”), but also a lot of jamming and digressions. Enter Don Was: straight talker, bass player, and diplomat. As their newly minted co-producer, Don Was saw it as his role to help refine the band’s arrangements and song selection down to the minimal amount of parts necessary to create a satisfying work. His track record as a producer was unblemished, working with established artists to help them create work that captured what they did best. Jagger later complained that Was steered them away from finishing quantities of material for Voodoo, some of it based on Afro-Cuban grooves, that may have been interesting and unconventional for a major rock band like them. A great deal of these pre-album sessions has leaked out on unauthorized recordings, and Jagger’s claim is only backed up in a few cases — aside from the massive quantity of potential song ideas they tried out with Keith on vocals, Jagger had a few sketchy sambas in his back pocket, which actually don’t come across as all that interesting. In any case, Was had an ear for strong songs, and it’s hard to argue with what he picked out of the giant pile for full development. By the time the work moved to Ron Wood’s newly constructed home studio at Sandymount in County Kildare, Ireland, for July through September, a few contenders were already rising to the top. “Honest Man”, a midtempo rocker somewhat redolent of “Hand of Fate” with some killer blues harp licks, was particularly strong but somehow ended up being elbowed out of the final running.

The question of who would play bass on the album and inevitable tour was still an open question at this point. Doug Wimbish, recently of Living Colour and from Jagger’s solo band (also fresh from playing on Ron Wood’s solo record Slide On This), jammed with them at the sessions in Sandymount and was Mick’s preferred choice, although others passed through, including Pino Palladino. They had already auditioned many others: Joey Spampinato, Tracy Wormworth, Garry Tallent, Larry Taylor and more. The way Wimbish tells it, he got the gig offer from Jagger, but turned it down in order to fulfill his commitment to a Living Colour tour in Australia (which, ironically, turned out to be their last for a while). The honour eventually fell to Darryl Jones, veteran of the Miles Davis band and preferred favourite of Charlie Watts. Keith’s said that leaving the final call on picking a bassist to Charlie was the best decision he could have made, and Darryl has kept the seat for twenty years (although Doug came back to sit in during the Bridges to Babylon session, and of course the other Stones still take over on bass in the studio from time to time). I’m firmly in the camp that says he was the perfect fit, and a wonderful musician, complementing exactly what the Stones have set out to do since Bill left the band. Once Darryl was locked in, the sessions moved to Windmill Lane, which at the time was the premier rock studio in Dublin.

Darryl’s bottom-heavy, driving groove sits underneath and well apart from the guitars and voices, leaving more room for Ron & Keith (and Mick) to stretch out and expand their guitar parts into showpieces without being over-the-top flashy. “Love Is Strong” benefits from this approach, and sequenced as it is at the top of the album, right out of the gate it’s clear they mean business. Charlie follows the metronomic pulse of Darryl’s steady eighth notes on “Love Is Strong” and “You Got Me Rocking”, over top of which he can swing his backbeat and fills. The latter song is a perfect example of their new method: listen to the way those tom-toms groove against the thunderous bass tone, and how Darryl answers Charlie’s snare fills in the turnarounds. Once they added in the additional percussion touches, multiple guitars and Chuck Leavell’s boogie piano, the Stones had birthed an incredible dance-rock beat, unlike any that they had attempted before. It’s easy to see why this track has become a perennial favourite to play live: the exact same band that found this new pocket is still present and accounted for in all of their live shows. Leavell’s role expanded a bit, vamping with chord voicings broad enough to fill in the midrange whenever the guitars lay out, so that Keith and Ron’s electric leads could become more like commentary, a musical score for the lyrics, adding garnish and spice on top of the meaty grooves from the rhythm section. Keith loved to layer multiple guitars over this mixture in the studio, and Ronnie could wail on slide leads with the freedom to soar and then dive right back into the groove. It came together like second nature, too, as a consequence of everyone’s instinctively comfortable playing style. For me, the best example of their newfound mode is in “Sparks Will Fly”, with syncopated bass and guitar parts poking in and out over Charlie’s unshakable four-on-the-floor at breakneck speed. It sounds like white-hot sex to me, even without Jagger’s jaw-dropping performance. Even more astounding is that the tricky yet so-right bass part was laid down AFTER the rhythm guitar and drum part were already perfected. Too bad it hasn’t been aired in the live show for ages, because it’s a scorcher.

After this three-shot opening salvo of smoking rockers, all collaborative efforts from Mick and Keith, the midsection of the record slows it down. “The Worst” is a straight-ahead country ballad, totally in Keith’s wheelhouse, with a brilliant Ron Wood pedal steel part. “New Faces” is more pop-flavoured, with a Leavell harpsichord track that recalls the kind of textural variation that Brian Jones would once have brought to the table. Both tracks feature distinctive contributions from seasoned Irish player Frankie Gavin: a fiddle solo on “The Worst” (which Leavell brilliantly reinterpreted live on keyboard) and a subtle penny-whistle during the soaring bridge of “New Faces”. Gavin reportedly held the Guinness world record for fastest fiddle playing, and a little of these pyrotechnics pops out in “The Worst” outro. On “Moon Is Up”, things get sonically experimental. Keith sends his acoustic through a Leslie rotating speaker, Ronnie’s steel guitar gets a weird wah-wah pedal treatment, Darryl moves over to acoustic bass and Charlie even beats on a trash can with drum brushes, recorded in the Windmill Lane studio’s stairwell for yet another fun variation in texture. According to Keith, Charlie had so much fun adding this overdub that afterwards “it was hard to keep him OUT of the stairwell”, a four-storey natural echo chamber, where he also laid down the distinctively reverberant percussion overdubs on “Thru and Thru” and “You Got Me Rocking”.

There then follow two back-to-back Mick-penned tracks of opposite temperaments, “Out of Tears” and “I Go Wild”, released as the last two singles from the album, respectively. They were already well into the world tour when the irrepressible “I Go Wild” single came out in ’95, with a slick music video anthologizing clips of the explosive shows from ’94. A gorgeous string section part on “Out of Tears”, arranged by David Campbell, was added in the last round of production for the album at A&M Studios in Los Angeles. This was also the place where the Stones applied finishing touches to “Sweethearts Together”, which had started life as a folky acoustic number with Mick and Keith harmonizing at the same microphone just as they had done decades earlier. On the album, Conjunto accordionist Flaco Jiménez and his bassist Max Baca add their Tex-Mex flavour to the charming stew. “Brand New Car” was a left-over from Mick’s album, a slinky riff written on 5-string guitar and expanded to feature Keith on bass and wah-wah guitar solo (after a drag-out argument, instigated by Keith, over who should be playing what). “Suck on the Jugular” is a funky, adventurous rave-up, with a terrific Ron Wood contribution on the plinky lead guitar. “Blinded By Rainbows” was another Jagger solo tune remade in the Stones milieu. It is a startling contrast to the rest of the album: socially conscious in outlook and yet world-weary and elliptical. “Baby Break It Down” feels more like a Keith number, with Ron back on pedal steel, but Jagger does a fine job with the material nonetheless. The record’s crowning achievement, for me, is “Thru and Thru” — a haunting Keith solo piece that was slated to close the album (as his torch songs with the Stones mostly do). Almost as an afterthought, “Mean Disposition” snarls out as the finale instead (except on the original vinyl pressing, where it is omitted off the fourth side). It’s the new lineup stripped to its core: Mick, Keith, Ron, Charlie, Darryl, Chuck. Long may they rock.

Bernard Fowler contributes heavily to the backing vocals on the album, and Ivan Neville of Keith’s X-Pensive Winos group adds his voice too, and some Hammond organ on a couple of tracks (“Suck on the Jugular” and “Baby Break It Down”). Bobby Womack’s unmistakable background vocals reappeared once again, on “Moon Is Up”. Benmont Tench, who had just played extensively on Jagger’s Wandering Spirit, also appears on a handful of Voodoo Lounge tracks (playing keys on “Out of Tears” & “Blinded By Rainbows” as well as the ghostly ‘accordion air whoosh’ in “Moon Is Up”). Aside from some percussion and horn players, and Keith’s tech Pierre de Beauport on acoustic for “Thru and Thru”, that’s about it for outside musicians. There is a big influence here from Keith’s style of playing and record production, although Mick’s singing, songwriting and harmonica playing is on a very high level. The late Don Smith engineered the record, Keith’s preferred man from his solo work, and he did a fabulous job. Don Was’ mixes are fat and tight, with only one track “I Go Wild” being mixed instead by Bob Clearmountain (who also did more smooth-sounding single remixes for “Love Is Strong” and “Out of Tears”, the latter of which fails to gel quite as nicely as the album version, but it works well as the soundtrack for its moody music video with cameos from Darryl & Chuck). The album successfully blends different styles and approaches, without wandering too far away from straight-up rock.

Finding an album title was difficult at first, but the relaxed working environment in Barbados provided fortuitous inspiration. Keith hand-made some signage outside the terrace of the house where he was living with Pierre de Beauport that said “Voodoo’s Lounge”, the moniker coming from a stray kitten Keith had adopted and named Voodoo for its lucky reappearance following a torrential rainstorm. Mick noticed the sign and suggested it as a title months later, which gave the album and following world tour a thematic thrust. The campaign was a success, and yet another game-changer for visuals in the live presentation: for the first time, the Stones used a massive central video screen, and also a fire-belching tower resembling a steel serpent, coiled and ready to strike. Mick was slightly dissatisfied with the album itself, however, which he felt was too conservative. The next time around in the studio, he was determined to get his way more, and work with modernizing influences to advance the band’s reach into territory further off from their well-beaten path.


 

STRIPPED

It was the early 1990s, and cable television was truly the opiate of the masses, syndicating entertainment through a corporatized kaleidoscope of splintered channels. Essential among these services for American music fans was, of course, the ubiquitous MTV network. The Stones’ new videos had always received fair rotation in the station’s prime time periods, but for the swelling cohorts of 35-and-older viewers, most of whom were not interested in wading through a slew of bewildering new R’n’B acts along with pop stars of the minute, finding rock music videos of their preferred vintage was like hunting a needle in a haystack. The bizarre differentiation of rock and “alternative rock”, whatever the hell that was supposed to mean, further confused matters on the charts and the airwaves. Where the hell did all “our music” go, cried the aging Baby Boomers? It used to be everywhere, didn’t it? Why couldn’t they play the old stuff anymore?

That was just the trouble. Rock heroes Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Nirvana, KISS, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, and countless others were all lining up for a shot at TV-friendly artistic rehabilitation, in the wake of media-saturated overexposure. They found it, one by one, in a series of live music specials specifically targeted at the Boomer generation. That’s right: it was the age of Unplugged, MTV’s increasingly pandering and self-consciously serious music showcase, in which a popular rock artist “unplugs” from their usual trappings of stage spectacle and sits down with an intimate audience to play casually on acoustic instruments — or, at least, that’s mostly how it appeared. The TV specials themselves were hardly informal affairs, with multiple retakes and elaborate sets (sometimes designed to mask the non-acoustic guitar gear from the home viewer). The soundtrack albums issued from these sessions were, by design, stuffed with specifically re-arranged takes of songs spanning the artists’ venerable troves of classic hits and other amusing chestnuts. Several of these reworkings and covers became radio hits in their own right on Adult Contemporary format stations, thereby keeping the progenitors’ names and careers alive in the safer, less raucous pastures where their audiences had increasingly retreated. It was a good career move, and it tended to be more appealing than by-the-numbers outings of old material on standard live rock albums, bathed as they were in the usual stadium ambiance of distant screaming.

The Stones were not immune to this fad, and certainly were not above chasing an audience that may have forgotten they were still putting out records, but they were not rolling over for MTV’s Unplugged, nor its producers making demands and advertisers imposing limits beyond the band’s control. Instead, they wisely kept a tight grip on their own image and choice of venue for a live album and TV special, which, in a slightly more risqué turn on the concept, would be called Stripped. The gritty, eyes-shaded cover image by Anton Corbijn (director of the ascendant U2 & Depeche Mode’s videos, and other arty rock portraiture) spoke volumes. Incredibly, this the same band that had started its touring career playing for shrieking teenyboppers, now fully grown up; after several missteps, they were now decidedly mature and persistently surviving (and had been doing so now for well over thirty years). The fancifully debauched 70s touring party life had long since waned into separate entourages; Mick & Keith were now united onstage but worlds apart offstage. Nevertheless, they managed to salvage a working relationship and put aside their differences for the sake of what they had created and built together. The clear-headed, focused Voodoo Lounge proved it wasn’t merely a fluke, either — and there was room to grow and build upon their successful reunification. The Stripped project ultimately acknowledged that the band was now miles ahead of the fumbling, occasionally brilliant but also sloppy output of their 60s and 70s albums, and without the über-slickness of the 80s studio trickery getting in their way, or superfluous gaga stage gags, they were free to play and interpret their vast catalogue however they pleased — and they did so, extremely well in fact.

This was an audacious project, with potential to fail embarrassingly. They were not going to attempt to do everything all-acoustic, but put focus on slightly pulling back from the stadium-ready bombast of their stage show to highlight the core values of groove and songcraft, prompted by a move away from the two-of-everything approach that marked the Steel Wheels shows. The Stripped album and video assembled live material that they had recorded at smaller venues and off-the-cuff rehearsals during the ’95 leg of the Voodoo Lounge tour, with striking intimacy worlds away from what they were playing at the vast open-air gigs, and Don Was again deserves credit for steering the band towards selecting songs that would hit hardest in this alternate format. Off the bat, “Street Fighting Man” proves that the song’s acoustic-based arrangement (hewing closely to the original, which has no amplified instruments except bass guitar) still packs a heavy punch. It hits the same lofty peaks of the oh-so-60s studio recording, without sounding like a throwback: rocking hard enough for a post-grunge era, un-anchored from its original place and time (the sitar and tamboura parts replicated with a smattering of digitally-sampled buzzing, and everything else gloriously live). Everyone plays their heart out, including Bernard Fowler, whose backing vocal seamlessly blends with Mick’s deft, articulate lead — a long way indeed from the under-rehearsed, breathless barks on his 70s renditions of the same track; his voice is breathtakingly confident and absolutely assured. With that out of the way, having stolen one of their own curiosity numbers back from their younger selves, the Stones had scaled a mountainous peak of the 60s counterculture — and the next logical target was its Everest.

Very little introduction is needed to “Like a Rolling Stone”, except to say that, incredibly, it was the one icon of 60s pop music on which the Stones had yet to leave any kind of stamp, in all of the thirty years since its debut. The Stones had messed around with the tune during sound-checks and backstage warmup jams for years, but never had attempted it in front of a crowd. On paper, the act of covering a Bob Dylan tune with the band’s name in it (“he wrote this for us”, Mick would quip when introducing the song onstage) was a trite act of Boomer-baiting. In the final analysis, however, you’ve got to admire the ballsiness of staking a claim on such a huge song so late in the game. It’s not exactly a Jeff Buckley-stealing-“Hallelujah” triumph, but it’s certainly not U2-ruining-“Helter Skelter” bad, either. Chuck gets the crucial organ lick exactly right, the rhythm section nails it (particularly Darryl), Keith’s backing vocal is terrific and Mick shaves the lyric down to the best three verses — alternately chortling and sneering, while throwing in a vitriolic harp solo. It works remarkably well onstage, and came across just as fresh on record, launching the Stripped campaign with another live single (and spawning a fascinating Michel Gondry music video). They have performed it by request as recently as 2014, and have even managed to bring His Bobness himself out to guest star on it a couple of times live. This would all have seemed just about unthinkable until they actually dared to try it. The Rolling Stones were NOT playing it safe, here.

After these two live tracks, the album segues into a rehearsal recording of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”, in an updated arrangement the band had been playing as the opener to every live show in ’95. As the hip-shaking, heavily percussive curtain-riser to the Voodoo Lounge outdoor shows, it set the stage for a hard-hitting, relentless assault, with the Bo Diddley beat ramped up to a foot-stomping invocation fitting the tour’s titular spirit of rhythmic religiosity. Re-contextualized here, with a little less show-boating and from a more off-the-cuff angle, it feels more like a rediscovery than a triumphant arrival, and Mick made sure to re-record the vocal to match the gentler approach of the album’s introspective feel. I think it’s a huge improvement on their frenetic 60s take on the same tune, quite honestly. The Stripped recordings of “I’m Free” and “Sweet Virginia” are also taken from this same rehearsal session, with the relaxed yet disciplined approach yielding tasteful layers of arrangement over top of a peerless groove. The note-perfect version of “Dead Flowers” comes from a Brixton Academy club show, which also produced the master take of “Like a Rolling Stone” (both engineered by Chris Kimsey, in his final session to date with the Stones). The backing harmonies from Leavell, Fowler and Fischer are particularly beautiful, blending seamlessly on all of these tracks, and yet sound thrillingly live. It’s astounding how fresh and beautiful these versions are, annihilating all previous live takes.

Emboldened, the performers break into the Exile on Main St. classic “Shine a Light”, performed on stage by the Stones for the first time ever during this run of club shows, with the help of Don Was on Hammond organ. He comports himself well, although a few of the smaller details from the studio recording are missing (including a lyric or two passed over by Jagger) — it would almost be folly to attempt to get everything note-for-note — instead adding a new acoustic part from Keith that didn’t exist previously. It is a very spirited performance, and receives a rapturous audience reception from the Parisian crowd, suggesting perhaps it should have seen stage time earlier. “Let It Bleed” and “Angie” also come from this club show at L’Olympia, charming the crowd in equal measure. The studio takes of these songs have their own beauty, of course, but for stage renditions these have never been bettered, despite stiff competition from the ’81-’82 shows and a handful of later-era renditions from Licks & Bigger Bang tours.

Of course, there are some songs too obscure to have even seen any stage action. The Stones rehearsed many of these at a Japanese studio owned by Toshiba-EMI and thereby got many master takes for the album — “The Spider and the Fly”, “Wild Horses”, “Slipping Away”, “Love in Vain” and a previously unheard Stones take on Willie Dixon’s tune “Little Baby” (recorded originally by Howlin’ Wolf in 1962), which rank among the album’s highlights — as well as a bunch that were dropped from the official album, but remain strong enough to make up a complete second collection. Aside from the B-sides and booted tracks on the unofficial Stripped Companion, other obscure songs performed at the Toshiba-EMI studio setup apparently included “Parachute Woman”, “The Worst”, “The Last Time”, and Richards’ solo tune “Make No Mistake” along with a handful of other old blues covers. One of these, “Honest I Do”, which had made an appearance thirty-one years earlier on the Stones’ earliest studio album, was shunted into the Hope Floats film soundtrack — an ignominious fate for quite an exceptional performance. This Japanese session is simply heaven for Stones fanatics, replete with a sense of vitality and spontaneity.

MTV premiered the Stripped television special in December of ’95, and re-ran it often, along with the Gondry “Like a Rolling Stone” clip, but the European channels got a more complete edition of the full-length video with a few extra songs. The “Like a Rolling Stone” single also boasted exclusive smoking-hot live takes of “Black Limousine” & “All Down the Line” as B-sides, while the Stripped take of “Wild Horses” saw limited release on a European EP in 1996 with three exclusive bonus tracks, including a short backstage vocal rehearsal of “Tumbling Dice” segueing into a live version — exposing the beautiful gospel-tinged harmony vocal arrangements of which this band was capable — along with a thunderous version of “Live with Me” from the Brixton show, which appeared in the extended TV special, and a superlative take on “Gimme Shelter” from the Paradiso Amsterdam show where “Street Fighting Man” was recorded (Lisa Fischer, in my opinion, has never topped her solo vocal here). The TV special also featured a can’t-miss-it, barnstorming thrash through “Rip This Joint”, with Bobby Keys stealing the show for a centre-stage sax workout.

All in all, Stripped is a triumph — celebratory yet not nostalgic, faithful to its source material and transcendent in the successful reinterpretation of these classic songs. You can enjoy it along with a quiet evening at home, or going out on the town, with or without intoxicants. It is an essential purchase, and without a doubt one of the most inspired recording projects of their later career. If you don’t have it, or have forgotten about it recently… what are you waiting for? Take it for a spin, relax, and marvel at how good rock n’ roll sounds when it’s all grown up.


 

BRIDGES TO BABYLON

It’s unusual for a band thirty-five years into its career to try new things. By that point in the life of a musical group with so much history, the working pattern is mostly set and unlikely to change. The Rolling Stones were too restless for that, however. While the Voodoo Lounge and Steel Wheels sessions had used a reasonably steady core group of musical players and production team members throughout recording, this time around they would draft a small army into the studio to experiment with new sounds, textures and approaches on a song-by-song basis. Mick was very keen to do this, having grown fed up with the ‘retro’ approach applied to Voodoo Lounge and Stripped, willing to use any new tool at his disposal to get the sound he desired for each track. Keith was following this next logical progression in the band’s development, circa 1996, but when it came to the finer details of how it all should sound on the finished record, he couldn’t be bothered; trusting instead in his usual collaborators to translate what was played live in the room to a releasable product. Eventually, after the usual round of pre-production where Mick and Keith had developed their ideas for songs into demos, they again drafted in Don Was as their co-Executive Producer to oversee the sessions beginning in early ’97. But to satisfy the Glimmer Twins’ individual whims, they opted to work with separate production teams for just about every song, to follow their own paths, and finally, bridge them together to make the LP into a seamless whole.

Charlie Watts was also game to shake things up. Though he was never just a drummer for the Stones, he had by now accumulated years under his belt with myriad jazz combos as a bandleader and recording artist in his own right. He was ready for a bolder, more experimental approach and reportedly enjoyed these sessions with an expanded roster of players very much. His drumkit has never sounded better on ANY Stones album than it does here, which was totally at his insistence on being involved with engineering and equipment decisions. Ron Wood was also in his element, being a chameleonic player capable of different styles and textures, and loved the social atmosphere amongst so many fellow musicians with the backdrop of beautiful Ocean Way studios in Hollywood. It could be said that he got a little carried away with the glitzy lifestyle of it all. In fact, this is the very Babylon to which the title refers: a decadent period of coastal American culture, particularly in Los Angeles, when the music business was fat on CD sales and stars of the Stones’ ilk could be treated like royalty just for showing up. The indulgences of dead cultures adorned the beautiful album artwork and the sweeping baroque stage design, complete with a real retractable bridge that extended outward for the band to cross so they could play on a smaller “B” stage, further out in the crowd. The preparations for this tour were massive, and the band were once again on a tight deadline to deliver the record before summertime.

Thankfully, Mick and Keith’s songwriting is at a high-water mark on Bridges to Babylon. There is nary a lousy lyric to be found on the album, and the music never dwells on past formulae to furnish a lack of ideas. Keith had been immersed in his Jamaican retreats, absorbing the vibe of endless jam sessions with local players. Mick had been writing extensively in his travels around the world, with an eye towards another solo album before agreeing to get the Stones back together in 1996, and his output was amazingly rich. Regardless of whatever sounds and players they chose to put on top of the musical foundation, there was no doubt about it: their latest batch of writing was some of their best work ever. It was going to be a corker of an album; just rehearse the band up, get it in the can, add overdubs, a little fairy dust, and there you have it. But looking at the impending tour rehearsal schedule, and realizing they would need to leave plenty of time for post-production, it was Keith that said “we need to split up the work”. Ocean Way’s studio complex had two decent-sized tracking rooms under a single roof, and to facilitate a speedier recording process the Stones used them both, either Mick or Keith working in each with a different group while Don Was and the other musicians went back and forth. Naturally, Keith favoured a live-off-the-floor approach, while Mick was leaning towards using loops and computerized synthesizers to bring a fresh groove to the proceedings.

In fact, the album’s sounds (courtesy of The Dust Brothers on several tracks, who were working with cutting-edge digital sampling and arrangement techniques) are extremely refreshing, and hold up even today. You can’t say the same for many other comparable efforts of the time. Don Was had plenty of familiarity with modern pop production, and knew the demands of the cut-up arrangement style, so he recorded Charlie Watts playing along to classic hip-hop like Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, giving the best portions to The Dust Brothers to chop into loops that would provide added texture. Keith was horrified by these developments, choosing to sit out “Saint of Me” where he felt the live feel had been compromised. Instead, he concentrated on his own side of the divide, reaching to get the desired sound as much as possible in the room (leaving in even the leaked off-mic guffaws and comments from the players). By bringing multi-instrumentalist Blondie Chaplin (who would also join the live band and stay until the end of the Bigger Bang tour) and guitarist Waddy Wachtel (from the X-Pensive Winos) in the studio to thicken up these basic tracks, Keith got the smoking hot sound he desired. He also used an upright bass player, Jeff Sarli, to bring a little more swing to the backbeat (not that Darryl Jones was incapable of this, he’d even played one on Stripped, but when you’re in music-land L.A., why not get a specialist?) and veteran session drummers Jim Keltner & Kenny Aronoff to add various percussion touches. Keith also leaned on engineer Rob Fabroni, who had helped him engineer at his home studio in Jamaica, and Don Bosworth from Voodoo Lounge and the Winos recording sessions. Pierre de Beauport became Keith’s stalwart right-hand man, handling guitar gear, sitting in with the group, and getting a co-producing and co-writing credit to his name for the effort.

Mick’s tally of outside helpers is not any longer, and if we really must categorize tracks where he had the largest influence as being “Mick solo” within a Stones record, then so be it. He did have a point when he said in interviews that building tracks piece-by-piece from a bare-bones rhythm track was nothing any more drastic than what they had done extensively in the 60s. The Dust Brothers, despite their multi-track ProTools innovation, were proponents of using vintage analogue gear to get their danceable funk grooves. But as for session players, Mick picked very interesting ones, with the multi-talented Danny Saber’s acid-jazz pedigree brought to bear on the swaggering “Gunface” (which he also co-produced) as well as “Out of Control”, and Doug Wimbish adding some seriously disturbing low-end energy to “Might As Well Get Juiced”. Jamie Muhoberac plays keyboards and the infectious bass hook on “Anybody Seen My Baby?”, which anchors a tremendous set of performances on top including the soulful guitar solo by Wood that closes the song. I also like the sample of Biz Markie, a capella beatboxing his shout-out to the five boroughs of NYC in the bridge (shortened to just two boroughs plus Long Island in the edit used for that stunning promo video with Angelina Jolie)… it’s a fun moment that lightens the heavy mood. To be blunt, the chorus melody comes pretty darn close to the title hook from “Constant Craving” by k.d. lang (minus a slight change in cadence), and Mick was right to acknowledge it by giving a writing credit pre-emptively to her and that song’s co-writer/producer Ben Mink. Neo-soul bassist Me’Shell Ndegéocello’s touch graces “Saint of Me” with its popping backbeat, not to mention a fluorish of Hammond B-3 from Billy Preston (handled elsewhere on the record by returning old friend Benmont Tench instead of Chuck Leavell).

Of course, by-now permanent bassist Darryl Jones is back in the mix also, keeping sharp focus on the reggae-meets-the-Crickets groove of Keith’s “You Don’t Have to Mean It” and the sublimely soulful “Thief in the Night”. There’s nothing else played by the seven other bassists on the record which he couldn’t play live, aside from transposing the white-knuckle upright acoustic on “Flip the Switch” to hold it down steadier on electric. He also joins in with the backing choir on “Always Suffering”, which consists of just about everybody else in the studio including the ever-present Bernard Fowler on the haunting, beautiful chorus. Blondie Chaplin might just be the MVP of the whole record, however, playing everything from bass guitar to piano to tambourine and singing his ass off all over the place. His growly, dive-bombing bass performance on “Low Down” is some seriously fine ensemble playing, set against the chugging rhythm of the guitars and drums and Mick’s thrilling vocal as well as tasteful layers of backups and percussion. Keith’s lead and rhythm tones are exquisite, and his voice is strong too, standing out clearly from the crowd on tracks like “Too Tight” (which sounds like something he could have written in the 80s, only with an even more smirking, world-weary lyric delivered by Mick). “Already Over Me” might just be the best possible fusion of the two men’s disparate working styles, with Mick’s acoustic guitar and vocals perfectly backed by Keith’s subtle vocal and guitar textures, Ron’s slide dobro and baritone electric, and a virtuoso drum clinic from grandmaster C. Watts.

It’s staggering how this album could have gone platinum in the USA and yet still go largely un-noticed as a major addition to their catalogue, but somehow it did. Nobody seemed to pay much attention to the music, focusing on the frisson of the usual intra-group tensions and of course the all-encompassing touring spectacle. “Out of Control” is a song for the ages, and always gets an amazing response on stage. “Might As Well Get Juiced” was used as entrance music for part of the 1999 tour, although Keith loudly criticized the synth-heavy arrangement from first hearing Mick’s demo (a facet that somehow dominates the final product, even with three guitars wailing over top). It’s worth sticking around to hear Mick’s harmonica solo, though, and the arresting lyrics about “straight double time” drum machines, and a “game of sevens, eights and nines” (possibly a “Tumbling Dice” throwback). Despite the production’s tough veneer, the lyrics of this and following song “Always Suffering” are some of the most personal and affecting Mick has yet penned. Keith likewise has a triumphant moment to close out the album with “How Can I Stop?”, taking the band into jazzy territory thanks to some weird chords in the backing, Wayne Shorter (from Weather Report and Miles Davis’ second great Quintet) blowing a sublime improvised sax solo, and a mysterious “easter egg” at the finale that sounds like Indonesian orchestral gamelan percussion. Don Was argued vehemently to include the song, thereby successfully winning three lead vocals for Keith on a Stones record long after Keith himself had given up and left the sessions. At the very last minute, Mick agreed to Was’ suggestion to “hide” two of these back-to-back in a near-medley, and as the final three songs are Keiths’ compositions, it’s like he got an entire side of the vinyl format double-album to himself.

That’s just emblematic of how the Stones operated in this brief flurry of recording; the formerly estranged Glimmer Twins were back to serving separate muses, yet somehow still in service of one band. The promotional blitz and touring cycles proved it: they had re-staked their turf as Greatest Rock Band on Earth and were not leaving anytime soon. But in retrospect, I think one realizes that they were even more staggeringly brilliant in how, despite the internal recrimination and scattershot studio approach, they created new work with a maturity and dedication to craft that is unparalleled. It’s hard to say what my favourite Stones LP is, and it changes from day to day, but I will always count Bridges to Babylon among the very top.

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