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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.

Every Rolling Stones album from 1980 to 1986, reviewed by me

May 9, 2014

Hi everybody. I’ve been doing a bunch of writing on the Steve Hoffman Music Forums recently. We’re tracking the career of the Rolling Stones, album by album, from 1962 up to the present. It’s been an enlightening journey, stretching over hundreds of pages of discussion. I’m getting deeper into this amazing catalogue of music than ever before. Here is the index of write-ups on each Stones release recorded in their first twenty years as a group. My own major contributions begin with entry #45, Emotional Rescue, and I’ve assembled them below.

Note that linking to this thread of messages does not on my part constitute an endorsement of the opinions or content therein, nor do any ‘likes’ I’ve made on individual posts in it. My own posts are solely my own work, except when they contain quotations of other posts for the purpose of discussion and commentary. I am nevertheless academically indebted to Felix Aeppli for his Ultimate Guide to the band; it’s an absolutely indispensable resource in my research.

I have so far covered half of the 1980s, and I plan to do more going forward. Buckle up because this is a long read. Here’s the first set of reviews, up to 1986 (my birth year).

 


 

EMOTIONAL RESCUE

Emotional Rescue

Upon the ouster of founding guitarist Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones for better or worse became Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ baby, with the other band members more or less retained as junior partners. After weathering the unexpected resignation of replacement guitarist Mick Taylor, a subsequent fallow period with no firm sense of direction, and the debilitating effects of heroin usage within the group, the band clawed its way back into relevancy. Recruiting Ron Wood, they emerged from the highly successful Some Girls album triumphantly remade in their own image, guns blazing, Jagger & Richards pulling together their finest batch of songs in years. The tape reels were overflowing with classics; there were even a few left over for a jump-start on the next album, should they have needed one. The renewed engine of purpose in the group, now firing on all cylinders, was definitely here to stay.

Touring behind Some Girls proved once again that the Stones could draw crowds in America and, if conditions were right, deliver the goods on stage. An additional series of 1979 side-project shows with The New Barbarians had been a welcome outlet for Ronnie & Keith to take their Good Time Charlie (minus Charlie Watts, and Bill Wyman, and Mick) double act outside the expected Stones repertoire. The single live date for the Stones on this year was a strange hybrid: a pair of charity shows outside Toronto, with the twin lead Barbarians serving as their own opening act, in a court-ordered gesture of goodwill towards fans who were rightly celebrating Richards’ freedom from a trafficking conviction (Keith had finally dropped his intravenous heroin use; although he by no means had ‘cleaned up’, he was certainly no junkie any longer). But the set-list was short, and they didn’t bother to premiere any new songs.

So, after learning to walk before it could run, where did Mick and Keith’s reborn baby finally go? Where the boys all go, it seemed: into the fray with young bands sprouting all around them. The older, wiser Stones clearly belonged not with their former peers, in the ashes of the first British Invasion, but rather deservedly standing alongside the hip new bands popping up in the wake of punk on BBC-TV’s The Old Grey Whistle Test (now with Anne Nightingale hosting, in lieu of ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris, who found himself on the wrong side of Kids These Days after calling the New York Dolls “mock rock”). Or maybe they’d fit well on a weird, experimental new format: an all-music TV channel. The group’s intersection of unique visual appeal and musical adventurism seemed primed and ready for The Eighties.

The obvious formula for the new album was simple — rinse and repeat! That great fountainhead of classic American music had always proved itself a valuable source of inspiration, but in the Paris studio where Some Girls was crafted, Pathé Marconi, the group hit upon a groove which felt more contemporary. Its musical heart was the swinging back-beat at which they’d always excelled, but with an instrumental focus on the rhythmic and harmonic possibilities offered by a multi-guitar attack. In the end, the songs that rose to the surface were solidly-built on a foundation of vintage rock — but a couple of notable exceptions took on a life of their own, and the focus of the album shifted into some altogether unexpected territory. Perhaps having got their rock n’ roll rocks off with the Barbarians, the guitarists were content to indulge the singer’s taste for the slightly-weird.

Obviously, the success of “Miss You” was enough motivation to try once again building a heavy disco feel over Charlie’s solid 4/4 groove, and on “Dance (Pt. 1)”, Wyman even reiterates the octave bass technique he’d copped from Billy Preston over this number, worked up by Ron Wood (credited as co-composer with the Glimmer Twins, Mick and Keith). Stirring in the various percussion overdubs, a killer vocal and additional backups courtesy of reggae legend Matt Romeo, amazing guitar grooves and the long-overdue return of New Barbarian saxophonist Bobby Keys to his former sideman slot, the Stones created a potent stew indeed, and as an opening track it’s hard to beat.

 

Jagger’s mostly-falsetto soul workout for the title number was less obvious. Leading with this downright-funky number (that’s Ronnie holding down the superb bass line) as the first single, just as the mainstream disco backlash was about to turn into a full-on conflagration, was perhaps not the best choice for the time — despite its respectable #3 showing in Billboard. But time has proven the song’s durability; it became a concert staple in the 2013 live shows after thirty-three years of never being played on stage. Check out the call-and-response outro featuring Bobby Keys trading licks with a guitarist (probably Ron) in the fade-out.

“Summer Romance” is more of a barrelhouse rocker, with Ronnie wailing away mightily on lead against Keith & Mick’s unstoppable rhythm crunch. Jagger’s pastiche lyrics brilliantly play-act the roué, with Stu’s boogie-woogie piano stuck in the back room just outside the action. It’s a FUN track, the laddish backup vocals are snarly but not over the top. Check out Bill’s dive-bombing bass-line, too. Yes, it is pretty similar in vibe to “Where the Boys Go” (which is second in the aforementioned series of thermographic videos) but the character in “Boys” is even MORE of an grade-A assh*le, cockney accent and all. Keith rips a pretty blinding solo, though!

 

My favourite lyrics on the album can be found on “Let Me Go”, a plea for sweet release. Keith’s solo and Ian “Stu” Stewart’s boogie-woogie piano are gorgeous, but the extra bells on Charlie’s hi-hat distract from what actually sounds like a martial rhythm (’cause it’s marching orders, get it?)… anyway, Mick sings it like he means it. I mean, divorce is a rough business! It’s not for the faint of heart: “can’t you get it through your thick head? This affair is dead as a doornail! Hey, baby, won’t you let me go? The bell has rung and I’ve called time. The chairs are on the table — out the door, baby!”

The most alienating and left-field track of the album is of course “Indian Girl”, another character sketch that possibly for the first time indulges Mick’s globetrotting jet-set diaries in the context of the Rolling Stones’ established penchant for exoticism. They hadn’t attempted anything close to the South American flavour of this track before, although there were some precedents. Really, it’s a bit of an over-stretch, with the lyrics falling flat between the clash of odd instrumentation fighting for space in the soundstage. Between the reggae-fied flavour of “Send it to Me” and this, though, they really manage to cover a broad spectrum of sounds and ideas without losing their rocking feel.

With Keith’s barnstorming rockabilly slap-back rhythm, “She’s So Cold” is really an excuse for Mick to get loose and the boys to bob and weave for a bit. The playing is absolutely marvelous. As a song, it’s the very definition of stretching an idea out (even if the bridge is really great), but there’s masterful use of dynamics and tension-building to keep focus throughout. Getting back to the blues for a spell, “Down in the Hole” takes full advantage of Sugar Blue’s incredible technique on harp. I don’t think he pauses to breathe for more than a second’s time throughout the whole track. It’s an astounding cut.

Richards likes to joke that Jagger used his lyric-writing as an excuse to spill his guts on “the psychiatric couch” for all to see… but considering what’s really going on with “All About You”, that’s Keith being like the pot calling a kettle black. His pained, sparse vocal delivery, complete with lighter flicks and “my, my, my” asides, is really jaw-dropping. The instrumental backing, with Keys sympathetically commenting on the proceedings, is quite lovely. But it’s the lyrics that steal the show, economically expressing what it feels like to wake up and realize you’re in a co-dependent relationship with Anita Pallenberg — and, concurrently, a comatose subservience to Mick Jagger. Luckily for us, one of those two issues soon resolved. There was a brewing ego clash in the band’s leadership. The baby’s parents were quietly fomenting an estranged few years in the wilderness again, but they were at least willing to push their baby into some new territory.

That title says it all, really. The band were not in a place of assurance, but really drifting apart as personalities, with the music providing some respite from their tempestuous personal lives. The jagged, harsh thermographic visuals, roughly duplicated in the stroboscopic promo videos, cap off the proceedings in a slightly jarring way — the stills of the band in closeup are just-barely-recognizable enough to provoke a sense of mystery (is that Mick with his beard in the top left of the front cover?). It had been two full years since the nuclear blast of Some Girls and these omnipresent Stones were still “under construction” in terms of their public image. Without a tour to support this record, it stood little chance of sticking in the public’s mind very long. But the years have been kind, and now it ranks with the best of their post-Some Girls oeuvre, for all its ups and downs.

 


 

TATTOO YOU

Tattoo You

From that first clarion call “Start Me Up” riff, there’s something special about Tattoo You. Maybe it’s the exquisite sound, courtesy of dream-team associate producer & mix engineer combo Chris Kimsey & Bob Clearmountain. Maybe it’s the wonderful use of negative space: those reverberations from Keith’s opening guitar lick hang in the air while your brain fills the gap, anticipating the roar of a stadium-sized crowd. Maybe it’s the sharp focus of having one side devoted to rockers, and one side to ballads. But somehow, the LP transcends its long gestation period over almost ten years of sessions into a cohesive whole. The fautless efforts of those two engineers, along with Jagger’s rapid-fire last-minute lyric-writing and overdubbing job, turned what could have been a forgettable salvage mission into a number-one multi-platinum smash, cut together from the chaotic leavings of the band’s aborted attempts and half-formed tracks. They rescued a few anthemic signature songs from the dustbin where they might have languished, too.

You see, there were offers pouring in from promoters (chiefly Bill Graham in the USA) who wanted to book the Stones on a massive-scale tour of outdoor venues and indoor arenas for the autumn of ’81 and summer ’82. The man entrusted with the band’s purse-strings (aristocratic chap, name of Lowenstein) said yes, of course his charges were up to the task, but they would also need a new album to fully maximize this unique promotional hype opportunity, and could it please be ready in time for the start of the touring period? Well, said Mick and Keith, we just happen to have a few left in the tank from our last record. They combed through them, and found the makings of about half a new LP from what had been generated for Emotional Rescue.

Panic, that great artistic motivator, must have started to set in as the deadline loomed with not enough time for a formal jamming and recording period to write the remainder. While the Stones were busy sorting out details of their upcoming tour commitments (and getting more and more pissed off with a lack of agreement on musical direction), Kimsey spent three months trawling the vaults in search of master takes from earlier sessions that Jagger could turn into finished works with minimal involvement from the other band members. He then handed the completed tapes over to Clearmountain, who duly polished them into a recognizable shape, and hey, presto. Here is the crib-notes version of origins for these songs, courtesy of Wikipedia and vetted my friend and fellow aficionado Christian Bonner.

  • Start Me Up — started as a reggae number circa Black and Blue, spontaneously re-recorded with a rock backbeat (apparently within one 24-hour period of “Miss You”) in Paris ’77
  • Hang Fire — kicked around during the Some Girls sessions, and worked up for Emotional Rescue at the famous Compass Point studio in Nassau, failing to make the final cut on either LP
  • Slave — jam session from Black and Blue, initially running a lot longer with a guitar lead that bootleggers erroneously credited to Jeff Beck (it sounds nothing like him)… but his fellow virtuoso Pete Townshend does contribute to the backup vocals!
  • Little T&A — another Emotional Rescue off-cut from the Bahamian session
  • Black Limousine — Ron Wood’s bluesy riff, bred from Some Girls jam sessions in early ’78; master take recorded for Emotional Rescue in Paris ’79
  • Neighbours — the only new group effort on the LP, dating from a Paris session in late ’80
  • Worried About You — another Black and Blue outtake, with Wayne Perkins on lead guitar, played onstage as early as the ’77 El Mocambo club shows in Toronto
  • Tops — the original backing track is from the Goats Head Soup session in Jamaica; also attempted for It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll sessions in Germany (both w/Mick Taylor), finally dug out and polished up in ’79
  • Heaven — also dates from the late ’80 Paris session, but without Ron or Keith
  • No Use in Crying — another Ronnie co-write recorded during the Emotional Rescue Paris sessions in ’79
  • Waiting on a Friend — probably the oldest song in the collection, apparently dating from 1970; backing track recorded in Kingston ’72 then finally finished in Paris, late ’80


When it came time to do the final work on these older tracks, it’s debatable how close to being done they really were. The work-in-progress version of “Tops” that had started in Kingston during the Goats Head Soup sessions, for example, was reasonably close to the final form, minus vocals. “Worried About You” had already seen some stage time. But the tracks received a lot of polish during the post-Emotional Rescue sessions in 1980, including Sonny Rollins’ terrific saxophone parts (which Mick “conducted” in the studio through his usual stage dance moves) and in ’81 after Mick rented a freezing-cold warehouse in Paris to complete his vocal overdubs on the Rolling Stones Mobile truck alone with Kimsey. Final mixing and tidying-up took place in New York with Bob Clearmountain at various studios, with Mick and Keith in attendance.

Involving Clearmountain, who entered the picture with his superb remix of “Miss You” in 1978, was the start of a longstanding effort on the part of Jagger to reach newer Stones fans with the latest and greatest in production values and styles. I’ll argue that this process continues on each subsequent album. There’s a genuine effort made on Steel Wheels and the 90s records to stay on top of modern trends, which tends to initially piss off some of the older fans who complain that the group went “too modern”, but ends up being retroactively praised as a good idea after all. A Bigger Bang, for example, sounds a whole lot like a Black Keys record in places, and that’s going to be something people will take notice of in another ten years when they have enough critical distance to put it in context with the times.

So it is with Tattoo You. The trademark Clearmountain reverb on Watts’ snare (brilliantly entering “Start Me Up” on the first downbeat, rather than the second beat) actually tightens up the energy of the backing tracks, and makes the disparate locations all over the world where recording took place feel a little more homogenized. Mick’s overdubbed vocals, recorded through a vintage Neumann U47 tube mic, sound alive and clear against the dense rhythm because of his commitment to performing as well as singing vocal tracks, and of course his very good microphone technique honed by years in the studio.

The tracks were perfect for performing live, too, as we’ll see in subsequent entries, many showcasing Ron & Keith’s stinging guitar weave and vocals as well as Mick’s iconic delivery. And they sounded great on television, too, with Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s obligatory series of promotional clips now getting dangerously close to MTV-ready territory, particularly the Rear Window-aping “Neighbours”. There were also startling moments of intimacy, like “Heaven”, co-existing with the balls-out rock of the first six tracks, and it all felt like it belonged to one group’s catalogue. Oh, and anyone skeptical of Ron Wood’s usefulness to the Stones need only spin “Black Limousine” for a complete re-education.

 

Ian Stewart and Bill Wyman, usually the most self-critical members of the band’s inner circle, both agreed that (unusually, they thought) there wasn’t a single duff track in the whole lot. Music critics were generally kind, too. It turned out to be the band’s last triumph on all fronts: public enthusiasm, artistic development, and confidence in the band’s execution. There is lots more to love in what would come later, but very rarely does it hang together in its totality as well as this does, for the duration of a whole LP that you can put on at parties without sidelong glances. For that very reason Tattoo You tends to be a little over-exposed, and one album that I tire of hearing every now and then. But that is a minor quibble, because within a few months I’ll be itching to dig it out all over again and start it up, start it up, and never stop!

 


 

SUCKING IN THE SEVENTIES

Sucking in the Seventies

Compilation albums are a thorny point for fans of this band. There are just too many options: a multitude of competing discs aiming at the same thing, namely collecting the most pertinent tracks that represent a certain area of the band’s history as typified by a radio-friendly approach. The more successful anthologies of the Stones eschew this altogether, and simply go for a fun listen by putting less obvious alternatives next to more recognizable hits. Sucking in the Seventies is in the latter category, and more or less picks the songs that critics missed when they were eager to write off everything after Goat’s Head Soup as self-indulgent twaddle.

Opening with a one-two punch of “Shattered” and its B-side, “Everything Is Turning to Gold”, the players pretty much put lie to the album title in five minutes flat. This is anything but S-U-C-K, more like capital G-O-L-D you can roll to. Ron Wood co-wrote the latter song, and it’s one of his crowning moments of riff-rock glory. Rarely have the Stones ever grooved like this! With the Some Girls reed players Mel Collins & Sugar Blue wailing over an unstoppable low-down rhythm, this cut alone makes the album essential for non-single buyers. I don’t know who that is chugging along with Charlie on additional percussion, possibly the “1 Moroccan, 1 Jew, 1 WASP” credited on the Some Girls album notes, but at any rate, this is unmissable stuff. If you don’t have it in your collection, it certainly belongs there in some form!



A vastly shortened edit of “Hot Stuff” follows, with almost two minutes removed from its original length, and it really moves along nicely without overstaying its welcome; in fact, this is probably my preferred version of the track. The album’s producers (nominally the Glimmer Twins, Mick and Keith, although what the latter might have contributed to this exercise is questionable) tried the same hack-and-slash gambit with “Time Waits for No One” but, unfortunately, it sticks out in this sequence for its comparatively cloudy mix, and fading out before the end of Mick Taylor’s gorgeous solo robs the song of its climax. Having the promo edit of “Fool to Cry” close Side One is a good choice, and you can lift the needle easily if you’re sick of hearing it and skip ahead to the next side. This edit and the one that closes the album, “Beast of Burden”, later became the standard versions for numerous other official compilations (Jump BackForty Licks and GRRR! all anthologized them, too).

Side Two opens with the highlight of Love You Live, a filthy-hot slice of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” excerpted from the El Mocambo club shows in Toronto circa March 1977. Again, this edit loses almost two minutes and quite possibly for the better. Billy Preston does a fine job on piano and backup vocals, and Mick’s overdubbed harp playing and additional vocalizations sit back in the mix, perfectly complementing his commanding lead vocal and brief snatch of “live” harp. For maximum impact, they just needed to cut the cruft, and this edit accomplishes that. Next is a rip-roaring take on “When the Whip Comes Down” from the Masonic Temple in Detroit, recorded July 6th 1978 on a theatre stop from the Some Girls shows. No overdubs, no trickery, just straight-up ROCK on a good night of a great tour. Listen to the sheer glorious mid-range crunch of the three guitars and piano, on top of a rhythm section beyond rebuke and Mick’s smoking hot vocal. Hard to believe this has never been released elsewhere, as it’s another essential track.


“If I Was a Dancer (Dance Pt. 2)” is another cut unique to this album. It is “Mick’s take” on the Emotional Rescue song recorded in ’79, with a raft of extra lyrics and a different mix that fades out just as the trippy infinite-delay vocals (which can be heard more prominently on the rare instrumental version issued on the back of an “If I Was a Dancer” promo single in December 1981) start to take effect. This track actually hit #26 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart, which is kind of astonishing considering it lacks an actual chorus and was already familiar from the Emotional Rescue release in 1980. Seventies closes out with two more shortened versions of Stones classics, “Crazy Mama”, which blasts through its rampage in four minutes flat, and the aforementioned “Beast of Burden”. I miss having Ron’s beautiful guitar solo in the latter, and the full-flight riffage of the former, but I suppose that’s what the original LPs are for. Given these slots in the lineup, they work just fine.

In the original packaging, a large and beautifully reproduced tongue-and-lips logo adorned with the tracklist sat on a cut-out sticker atop the stylized black-and-white “7o” front sleeve design, with a layer of shrink-wrap in between. On the reverse side, the daring album title repeated itself in art deco block lettering. This challenging, artsy vibe betrays the intended historical re-contextualization that would become de rigueur for Stones compilations in the future, challenging the listener to put this slightly off-putting, funky album in context with what they THOUGHT they knew about the band’s “wilderness” years. This is almost an alternate history of that time, skimming the cream of the mid-to-late 70s where the Stones were seen to have gone off the rails.

By the time Virgin Records got around to reissuing the album in spring of 2005, it felt more like a crass promotion for the upcoming A Bigger Bang campaign, and also had the misfortune to arrive during the brief period when Virgin’s then-parent company EMI (now deceased and absorbed by Universal) were experimenting with copy protection on their audio discs and customers were their guinea pigs. Hence, in several territories, the release (featuring just-okay remastering by Bob Ludwig) was not a proper Redbook CD at all, caused many players to skip or malfunction — yet the intended purpose, to stop it from being ripped to hard drives, was easily defeated using standard CD-ROM drive with the appropriate software. A sucky idea, indeed.

What’s very striking and ultimately pretty perverse about the compilation is this: inarguably the most outstanding and memorable song of this period, “Miss You”, is absent. Perhaps it was already so ubiquitous that no one thought it necessary to include. Perhaps the goal of this compilation was to present anything that might have slipped under the radar to casual fans. In the end, though, it proved unnecessary to include on a broadly entertaining whistle-stop tour of a much-maligned transitional phase in the Rolling Stones’ history.

 


 

STILL LIFE (AMERICAN CONCERT 1981)

Still Life

Once the trigger was pulled on Tattoo You‘s final completion and release schedule, the necessary arrangements fell into place for the massive tour that had spawned it. Having got their act reasonably together, Mick & Keith’s mutual disaffection had cooled to a polite ceasefire. They arrived at an understanding: as long as Ronnie could steer clear of debilitating freebase cocaine intake, the Stones could resume right where they left off after their final gig in Canada two years earlier. All gathered and rehearsed for six weeks in summer of ’81 at Long View Farm in North Brookfield, Massachusetts, and ran through a myriad of songs, piecing together a reasonably well-balanced set (building upon their established repertoire from the ’78 shows), which would remain fairly stable for the entire tour.

When the dust cleared, a few more “oldies” (but goldies) had returned, some tunes being played live for the first time or sporting new arrangements. Everything from It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll & Black and Blue was still firmly off the table. Stalwart ol’ Stu was returning on grand piano, as was “Mac” on electric keyboards, but other players dropped by to jam as well, including David Sancious (of the E Street Band) and a former sideman for the Allman Brothers, one Chuck Leavell. A couple of weeks into the tour, they were joined by accomplished session saxophonist Ernie Watts (“no relation”) on most tracks and also occasionally by Bobby Keys who, despite his sterling contributions to Emotional Rescue, was still working his way back into Jagger’s favour after the unseemly fallout from drug excesses that led to his termination from the ’73 tour. None of Keys’ performances made it to Still Life and no one yet realized he was truly to stay on for good — he would not formally return to the officially announced lineup of players until ’82.

There were no jumbo-sized CCTV screens yet in most of these American stadia where the tour was booked, and so, in order to be visible from across an enormous outdoor football pitch, the band made some concessions to the traditional garb of these sports-based venues. Jagger chose garish colours over outlandish NFL-styled leggings as a means to an end: so that anyone looking could spot his location and movements from the cheap seats. Hal Ashby’s film Let’s Spend the Night Together depicts the dusky sunlit afternoon of one such open-air stadium show in all its jaw-dropping vastness, where the band seem nearly swallowed up by the scale of the event. They had learned to expect this from the outdoor ’78 shows, however, and Jagger worked up the idea of a raked-stage set design that could maximize visibility in these settings to combat this dwarfing of the players. Charlie Watts, being a former graphic design student, also took an interest in the layout, keen to give the band additional visual appeal. As Charlie later put it in discussing the vagaries of stadium rock, “you need a bit of theatre”, and the Stones certainly excelled at that.

The illustrated scrim on either side of the stage took on a primary-colour Americana theme, designed by Kazuhide Yamazari and depicting a stylized electric guitar, a flashy sports car, the star-spangled banner, and a turntable. This was re-worked for the Still Life album artwork to wrap around the entire front and back cover: when folded out, the impressionistic figures dominate the illustrated stadium bowl, coming to ‘life’ and rising into the radiant sunshine (only a single brown stick-figure person — a jumping jack, of sorts — is depicted on the stage). At key moments, the band released balloons, let off fireworks, and bathed the stage with brilliantly coloured light to thrill the crowd. Jagger even climbed into a cherry-picker crane, for the surprise conclusion of the main set.

For 1981, this was ground-breaking stuff, considering most bands showed up with a few PAR cans and follow-spots for lighting and no staging other than bare risers on scaffold. The indoor shows mounted later in the tour (in cities where weather was becoming too inclement for an outdoor setting) were arguably even more technically ambitious, with the drum riser rotating outwards to play “in the round” and a wraparound runway for the now-entirely-wireless players surrounding it. This was a logical continuation from the flowering “lotus stage” of 1975, but fully incorporating the technical improvements of 1980s gear.

After a mood-setting Duke Ellington intro, “Under My Thumb” starts things off in highly energetic fashion, with Brian Jones’ marimba line transposed into a hard-rocking Keef riff, doubled on organ and interwoven with Ronnie’s answering licks. There’s definitely an overdubbed third guitar adding reinforcement to Keith’s part, though it’s barely audible and mixed quietly to centre. The arrangement is long on repetition, but it feels briskly efficient compared to the slinky original Aftermath cut (and it skips the “Her eyes are just kept to herself / While I can still look at someone else” verse entirely). Opening the show with this familiar yet re-worked classic was a brilliant move, allowing Mick to stretch out and gallavant while the guitarists strode forth down the ramp towards adorning punters. The crowd even claps in time for the whole song.



Another mid-sixties chestnut “Let’s Spend the Night Together” follows after Mick’s introduction, welcoming those watching the tour-capping Hampton Coliseum pay-per-view special (which we’ll cover in depth later) at home “drinkin’ a few beers, smokin’ a few joints”. His voice is a little hoarse, and the wireless mic a bit crackly, but the two pianos and guitarists (again with a little double-Keith embellishment in post-production) absolutely shine here, particularly Ronnie. Next is the more recent calling card “Shattered”, which they take at a furious clip. Again, Ronnie is on fire here, taking a beautiful solo and contributing to those charming call-and-response backup vocals at the conclusion with Keith and Mac. That glorious phased guitar riff is just insatiable!

Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” is next, quite a fun choice for a cover (notably, one P. McCartney remembered the words well enough to be let into the Quarrymen), which the Stones never recorded in the studio. Once again, the other players do a great job of matching Keith’s knuckle-whitening pace. On most dates of the tour, it was played in a medley with “Going to a Go-Go” but they specifically chose a show where the two were played separately to get clean tops and tails recorded for the album. I love both songs very much, as they were important salvos in the 50s rock ‘n roll revolution. The overdubbed “Go-Go” vocals really shine here, rivalling the Miracles’ original performance, and Mick’s lusty lead is entirely his own. Oh, yeah — how about that sax!

For the first time, the Stones promoted their new live album with a single, and shrewdly, this was the track selected. In keeping with their long tradition of chart success covering the Motown catalogue, it fared pretty well and had a promotional video released for the fledgling MTV market. Its B-side was a non-album recording of “Beast of Burden” taken from the third and last show in Illinois (where the Still Life “Start Me Up” was also recorded), which makes an interesting listen thanks to its bouncy tempo and Watts’ slick sax licks. Unfortunately, the chorus vocals are a little flat and Ronnie’s solo, although nice, doesn’t quite take off the way it should. Nevertheless it was in contention for the album’s final running order, as it appears to have received a cowbell overdub and fancy vocal delay treatment (“put me out, put me out!”) in the mix down stage. It would also later appear on the Flashpoint Collectables and Rarities 1971–2003 anthologies. Mick rants “I don’t want you to wash my clothes, I don’t want you to change my baby’s Pampers, I don’t want you to come in my kitchen, I don’t want you to f*ck around with it” and it sounds like everyone’s having a reasonably fun time.

The Still Life recording of “Time Is on My Side” also came out at the end of summer ’81 in a rather fetching picture sleeve, with back-and-white photos taken by Ken Regan of a contemporary club gig. It had its own video promo, too, with archival shots of the band intercut with the Hampton footage by then-rising star Austrian video directors Rudi Dolezal and Hannes Rossacher. The 12″ single version put the album versions of “Twenty Flight Rock” and “Under My Thumb” together as one seamless B-side. It’s a great arrangement of “Time”, too, with Keith doing a manful job on backup vocals and holding down the rhythm.



Side Two of the LP starts with “Let Me Go”, a real workout for Jagger, who would usually sing the extended final chorus on a whirlwind sprint out into the crowd, on an extended platform leading from the stage, or just mingling out on the ground surrounded by bodyguards. Once again, the pace is furious, and the guitars bitingly nasty. The highlight of the second side, however, is an intense, extended arrangement of “Just My Imagination” that would stretch out for over nine minutes on most nights. It’s judiciously edited down here, hitting only the highlights. Really very tasty, and once again Watts’ sax contribution is essential.

This album was primarily conceived to provide another tour souvenir; its title an indication that this was the American concert experience, finished in time to be sold along with T-shirts and badges to European audiences on the ’82 leg. It cross-cuts between shows freely, name-checking different cities along the way. The feel is taut, with Jagger’s voice (usually overdubbed but certainly live on the Hampton tracks) doing a reasonable job of meshing well against the players’ weave. There are a few unobtrusive patch-ups in the guitar department, Keith’s additions poking their way in here and there to reinforce the main riff, but the solos are all thrillingly fresh and in-the-moment.

Most of these basic arrangements became canonical for subsequent tours, including the revitalized “Satisfaction”, which they definitively knocked into tour-ready shape after a five-year absence from the setlist since opening the show at Knebworth ’76. It had never been captured in a form considered worthy of live album release before. Here, it sounds like it had never left, and the crowd receives it as rapturously as ever. In its afterglow, the fireworks display blasts over Hendrix’s Woodstock performance of the national anthem. Bombast, defined!

Compared to Love You Live, this is a lot better in almost every respect — it’s even great compared to the ragged sloppiness of Some Girls Live in Texas ’78. For all the slagging-off that Still Life gets, it’s certainly more professional than the out-of-tune, vocally incompetent, floundering mess that the ’70s Stones shows often were. Despite a slightly muddy mix (Bob Clearmountain had yet to figure out how to really make these live recordings pop), and a few percussion overdubs that don’t quite sit correctly, the only real problem with Still Life is its subsequent duplication and recapitulation. Not only does the home video Let’s Spend the Night Together re-create the trick of cross-cutting from show to show, it has this same version of “Satisfaction” and outro (only longer). TheHampton Coliseum (Live 1981) release contains the same versions of “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, “Shattered” and “Time Is on My Side”, as well as similar renditions of the other tracks. All of these were rehashed AGAIN by the Live at Leeds Roundhay Park 1982 archive show. There are subtle differences, which we’ll discuss soon, but the fact is that the ’81-’82 leg is extensively documented by other official releases, for anyone who cares to dive in.

So this album, for all its fine points, is now an artifact among artifacts. The harsh criticism it routinely receives is undeserved, but if you want some insight into how well the band could play in this period, your best bet is to start elsewhere. If you grew up with it, though, the nostalgia factor may persuade you to revisit and rediscover its hidden charms.

 


 

LIVE AT THE CHECKERBOARD LOUNGE, CHICAGO 1981 (WITH MUDDY WATERS)

Live at the Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago 1981

I gather that this release was not originally on the forum’s list of albums to cover, but I thought it important to discuss for a number of reasons. For one, it stands in stark contrast to the surrounding material: the carefully polished, overdubbed, pristine Still Life is a far cry from the wild, woolly music emanating from the cramped Checkerboard Lounge stage. There is a charming lack of formality — an unpolished, free-form looseness — to most of the performances contained here. This is more of a jam session than a musical statement, with little attempt to cleanly present a precisely defined formal structure. It is essentially a late-period Muddy Waters juke joint show, with special guests sitting in to mix things up. That those special guests numbered, in part, three brash white guys from England (and a laconic Scotsman) who had day jobs with the biggest rock band in the world is why it merits our attention.

Mind you, it’s pretty inauspicious makings for a great Stones live album. Without Charlie Watts present on the main program, there’s arguably little basis to its claim as a canonical “Rolling Stones” release, either. And yet, in chronological terms, Checkerboard Lounge stands right in the middle of the recording dates for Still Life: on a night off before three consecutive arena shows in suburban Rosemont, Illinois, most of the Stones’ touring entourage went en masse for an evening out at the feet of the guru in his spiritual home on gritty Southside Chicago. Thanks to the foresight that this would be an important summit, and worthy of posterity, a video crew and multi-track recording setup were commandeered into the tiny club. The footage cleaned up nicely when digitally restored, and Bob Clearmountain & his assistant Brandon Duncan remixed the audio to a surprisingly pristine standard for a DVD+CD release in 2012. An even more expanded soundtrack found its way to a triple-LP, double-CD box set concurrently in Japan (where there are, it should be no surprise, entire floors of record stores devoted to Stones live recordings).

It’s vitally important to trace the Rolling Stones’ lineage as musicians back to the Chicago blues tradition. Yes, the Delta blues stylings of Robert Johnson et al. played a large influence on their classic-albums period, but it can’t be denied that the Chess Records canon in particular was the primary reason for this band’s existence: it was the spark that lit their eternal flame. Their earliest visit and subsequent recording session there in ’64 was a landmark development in the progression from “white man’s R’n’B” to the quintessential Rock ‘n Roll Band, to say nothing of bolstering their blues bona fides. Instead of standing in awe of their heroes, they were forever more standing among them: immersed in and not just proselytizing on behalf of that tradition. The ‘ancient art of weaving’ was actually nothing more than a technique born out of stage routines that these Chicago blues bands developed from necessity: if your star wanted to play rhythm and lead alternately, any sideman worth his salt quickly learned how to pick up the other side of that stick without even thinking twice about it.

Incidentally, the sidemen in Muddy’s band circa 1981 were absolutely top-tier. On this occasion his pianist Lovie Lee sings two tunes to start things off, “Sweet Little Angel” & “Flip Flop and Fly”. As a bonus feature, the DVD includes a third introductory number, “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”, sung by guitarist John Primer. Then George ‘Mojo’ Bruford steps to the front, his bandolier of harmonicas arrayed for every possible key. He introduces “father of blues, Muddy Mississippi Waters”, who calmly strides onstage strapping on his Telecaster, thanking the crowd and namechecking the Peppermint Lounge, his old regular gig just up the road. After a commanding workout on “You Don’t Have to Go”, Muddy silences the crowd with his unmistakable slide lick to cue “Country Boy”. This is a brilliant performance; shame that the edited CD version scraps it due to time constraints. Over a lugubrious, hypnotic groove, Muddy plays a thrilling, climactic slide solo that builds to a show-stopping round of applause for his antics. He then gives each of his lead players a turn to tell the tale, in their contrasting styles, before winding the tune down on Rick Kreher’s crystalline fireworks display into the final verse.

There were three more tracks performed in sequence here, available on the expanded Japan-only edition: “I’m a King Bee”, “Trouble No More” and “County Jail”. The DVD skips over them, eager to get to the arrival of the guest artists. Once he realizes their arrival is imminent, Muddy looks offstage to his right — it’s time to take the show up a notch. He kicks the band into “Baby Please Don’t Go”. A camera is stationed outside at this moment to capture the sight of the entire Stones touring band (except for Bill & Charlie) sitting down to have drinks at the table right in front of the stage. They doff their coats and shake hands with a white-suited Buddy Guy, club proprietor and host for the evening. They are dressed for a night off; Woody is clad smartly in a tie and Keith in his usual idiosyncratic style. Mick’s red sweatsuit looks slightly bizarre now, but given the Olivia Newton-John-inspired fitness/fashion craze of the day, it was probably not a bad look.

Once they’re settled, Muddy invites, then COMMANDS, Mick up to the microphone. They share a verse and immediately the feeling between them is loose and fun. Muddy invites Keith up next, who straps on a nearby Tele and blows an exceptional solo like he’s just breathing. Stu is still sitting front and centre, visibly impressed. Ronnie then gets in on the act, strapping on a Strat just as the tune is peaking with Muddy’s solo — whereafter he exuberantly joins hands with them all. An absolutely stunning “Hoochie Coochie Man” duet between Mick & Muddy follows. Then he calls out the key of the next tune, “Long Distance Call”, and hands Woody his own slide to take the lead. It’s another jaw-on-the-floor showstopper. But the best is yet to come: the greatest and best-known composition of Muddy’s career, and perhaps of all Chicago blues, “Mannish Boy”. The Stones kicked ass whenever they did this on their own, and when they play it with the man who forged its legend, sitting right there — it’s perfection. There’s a particular mischief in Muddy’s eye as he sings the line “I’m a Rolling Stone” in between three of them. Then Muddy gets to his feet. The whole room seems to shake at his hand’s every chop and gesture. This. Is. Magic.



Muddy summons his one-time protégé Buddy Guy to the stage, who hugs Mick in his immaculate white suit and grabs the mic before strapping on his guitar. Muddy brings up his bluesman compatriots Junior Wells and Lefty Dizz, who each grab Mick’s mic in turn. Their performances and appearances are pretty dishevelled, but to be fair this is probably long after the announced start time for the show, and the drinks are visibly flowing free. Muddy winds things down to take a break, excusing Mick, then Stu jumps on piano while Junior sings and plays harp on “Got My Mojo Workin'”. He sounds a little bit below his usual par; having toured with the Stones earlier in the 70s he plays it almost too cool to even acknowledge them. There are many great videos from their European tour where he and Buddy Guy traded off on lead, with unflappable Bill Wyman on bass. Keith and Ron are clearly enjoying the opportunity to jam with Buddy, who counts in the next tune “Next Time You See Me” to sing and play lead with his trademark insanely-overdriven Strat tone. Keith busts out yet another fabulous solo before joining axes with Buddy for a transcendent duel.

All through this, John Primer has been holding down a steady rhythm, along with a wide-grinning Ray Allison on drums. Just as Junior Wells busts in on the action again, we hear Stu’s exquisite boogie-woogie piano stylings exposed and sounding absolutely perfect for the occasion. Lefty Dizz straps on his beat-up, backwards (and horrendously out-of-tune) Strat while Buddy leaves the stage to resume mingling. It’s chaotic, but beautifully so; Ron Wood’s eyes visibly water during Lefty’s balls-out blinder of a lead. Again, while Lefty may appear unprofessional to a predominantly white rock-and-roll crowd, his antics are totally juke joint ready. These guys are musical veterans in their own right, not on par with Muddy but certainly showmen deserving of stature in the Chicago blues circuit.

It’s time for “One Eyed Woman”, a comedy number, and Lefty Dizz intros Nick Charles taking over on bass while bantering with Mick in the crowd. Stu is absolutely in his element, here — Ronnie too, and his solo is worth the price of admission alone. Lefty wanders out into the crowd, shouting the words off-mic until Junior steps up and interjects something from another tune entirely. Muddy watches from the front, nonplussed and sensing this is just a little too loose, but smiling kindly, while Lefty drunkenly continues back into “Baby Please Don’t Go” and asks if his Daddy will join them (?). It starts to fall totally off the rails here, and the regular CD version edits this portion out entirely.

Muddy resumes his place to put things back in order, ordering Primer to start “Clouds in My Heart”. Unfortunately, he can’t will Lefty to tune his guitar. But he does coax Keith into stepping up for yet another spectacular lead, then cueing Ronnie to do the same on slide. Primer takes a third chorus and then Lefty redeems himself with a sputtering turn but is shooed away from taking the mic. Muddy owns a stage when he steps on it, and his prowess saves the show. The incendiary finale is Muddy’s own composition “Champagne and Reefer”. He brings Bruford back up on harp, and finally encourages Mick back up to once more take a turn. He coaxes him through it, despite Mick hardly knowing the first verse. Muddy points out his favourite verse: “Every time I get high I lay my head down on my baby’s breast…” Then they close on the admonishment not to mess around with cocaine, as the band jams out over the end credits. The unedited CD closes with a second and final jam. As if to prove that this was all in a day’s work, the DVD includes bluesy riffstravaganza “Black Limousine” from the ’81 pay-per-view show at Hampton Coliseum as a final bonus.

Sadly, this was the last band Muddy toured with before his death in 1983. He was not at the height of his powers on this night, but his sheer awe-inspiring physicality is still apparent. This release captures what it was about his overwhelming stage presence and effortless cool that inspired and transfixed the band we all know and love. On this special night, a few of their fans (and now all of us) watched them all get a little of that mojo workin’ for one last time.

 


 

HAMPTON COLISEUM (LIVE 1981) / LIVE AT LEEDS ROUNDHAY PARK 1982

Hampton Coliseum (Live 1981) Live At Leeds Roundhay Park, 1982

It’s always a curious circumstance when rock concerts are broadcast on live TV. It can bring out the best and most unexpected moments of true kismet: those unplanned magical accidents you can never predict, which multiply when the stakes are higher in front of a much larger viewing audience. It can also inhibit the performers, knowing millions of people are potentially watching their every move, with the camera magnifying it all. Perhaps most infuriatingly, it’s a haven for added technical challenges that constantly threaten to put a wrench in the usual workings. The Stones’ pay-per-view TV special at the end of their 1981 American tour (the first of its kind anywhere) broadcast from Hampton Coliseum in Virginia was host to all of these myriad wrinkles.

Jagger, especially, was cognizant of the added pressure to sing on pitch rather than expend quite as much breath on his play-to-the-cheap-seats dance moves. As a result, he sings conservatively and pretty well despite an audibly sore throat. Keith was a lot more nervous; this was a hell of a way to spend a 38th birthday, and it didn’t help that his performance was marred by monitor feedback almost every bloody time he stepped up to sing. The setlist was long, and Mick’s rapid-fire banter with the TV crowd in a laundry-list of cities they’d just visited was well-rehearsed, but the band, even after fifty shows, didn’t sound all that tight. Their ragged, shoddy execution lagged behind their usual standard for most tracks. Many fans are very familiar with this show thanks to widely-distributed unofficial dub videos of the broadcast. Pound for pound, however, it’s pretty lacklustre, except for the few bright spots handily lifted for Still Life and, of course, that brilliant and legendary guitar-slinging moment of thwarted stage invasion during the “Satisfaction” finale.



With that said, we’re lucky Bob Clearmountain, who engineered the original multi-track recording and live-to-air TV mix, polished up the show in 2012 with a new remix for the Stones Archive series of live downloads. What the Archive series has done is offer fans an apples-to-apples basis for comparison between all the shows that it presents, so that anyone with access to the downloads can examine the progression of song arrangements and performance styles from tour to tour (in most cases, with better results than the corresponding official live albums). Clearmountain’s remixes pick up each vocal cue, each drum fill, each bass riff, each note of each guitar in pristine clarity, warts and all. Previous unofficial versions of these Stones shows, even excellent ones, were (at best) soundboard mixes without the benefits of automation technology deployed to help cut out the extraneous noise. Clearmountain circa 2012 coaxes out more isolation from the mics, so the performances aren’t hidden under unmusical muck. The downloads are also priced very reasonably indeed.*

  • *They are just five bucks each on the Google Play store. C’mon! Incidentally, I’ve got a single favourite moment, out of the entire Stones Archive series. Have you? Mine happens four minutes into “Time Is on My Side” from the Hampton show; right after Mick says “I ain’t forgetting Los Angeles, either”. Some yob in the crowd, panned far left in the mix, responds on cue with “F*CK LOS ANGELES!” Too perfect.


On these two releases, from the end of the ’81 and ’82 tours respectively, Clearmountain is faithful to the sound of the original tapes (right down to the studio-tweaked vocal on the Hampton “Time Is on My Side” and added guitar on “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, both added during production for Still Life). They’re from two different legs of the same tour, and so the setlist is much the same but the side players are different. We wave goodbye here to Ian McLagan and Ernie Watts; replacing their positions are Chuck Leavell & Gene Barge. Veteran recording stalwart Glyn Johns returned to engineer the Leeds show taping, and whether it’s his doing or simply down to the revamped European tour lineup, the resulting audio presentation simply blows away the American one in every conceivable aspect.

Leeds ’82 demonstrates a tighter band, and a better listen overall. Right from the first notes of “Under My Thumb”, Keith is totally on point, and Ronnie sounds very focused. Plus, Chuck Leavell’s lead keyboard sound is more faithful to the original marimba lick than McLagan’s woofy Wurlitzer organ. There is not any feedback marring Keith’s vocals, and Chuck’s even-toned backups blend very well as the low-key baritone glue between Mick and Keith’s harmonies. As much as I miss Mac’s funky organ rhythm and rock-solid barrelhouse electric piano, Chuck betters him just a little bit for tastefulness, and with Stu still holding down the boogie-woogie grand, the Stones’ keyboard/backup department is well and truly sorted for the very first time. I have a hunch he had something to do with keeping the arrangements tight as well, which I’ll bring up again later.**

 

  • **McLagan is, to this day, a fine player and singer in his own right. He was a key member of both Small Faces and its later Ron Wood iteration, Faces. He was less of an easy fit with the Stones; the bouncy, laddish quality of his approach certainly befit the New Barbarians and the swaggering Some Girls and Emotional Rescue tracks he played on, but more often than not, it just fell flat in open-air stadium gigs with the Stones. For whatever reason, Ronnie made the transition handily into a new group with larger expectations, whereas Mac’s tenure with the Stones is rarely remembered.

 

Leavell had oodles of experience gigging in stadia already with the Allman Brothers, and had previously sat in with the Stones during their ’81 show in his native Georgia. Having received the approval of hard-to-please founding keyboardist Stu, he was brought aboard for the entire ’82 tour and, well, never left. To this day, he remains the most important sideman with the Stones. He proves his mettle in the Leeds show right in the first three tracks, and with that out of the way simply does his job without undue flash.

 

Mick sounds a little out of breath on the Leeds “Shattered” and Charlie uncharacteristically speeds it up a bit towards the end, but after that slightly rough edge, things are on a consistently even & high-octane keel. Mick welcomes all from far and wide to the massive outdoor gig, and Chess Records session man Gene Barge acquits himself very well on the sax break in “Neighbours” after Ronnie peels off a side of fantastic whammy-heavy lead. Wood keeps the pace for his pyrotechnic showpiece “Black Limousine”, on which Gene keeps a little closer to the straight-ahead album arrangement than Ernie Watts did with his free-flowing jazzy interjections. Keith steps on Mick’s corny intro to “Just My Imagination” a bit, but it’s a very fine performance, again with just a little less saxophone throughout and a slightly better vocal backing than in Hampton. “Twenty Flight Rock” and “Going to a Go-Go” are also cleaner, almost telepathic in their rhythmic tightness, and they swing with an easiness not always found in the ’81 shows. Plus Bobby Keys’ lusty solo in “Go-Go” is simply the best.

“Let Me Go” is a tie, but Leeds’ “Time Is on My Side” wins over Hampton hands-down because KEITH F*CKING RICHARDS, that’s why. He soars high on “Beast of Burden”, too. The highlight of the entire set, however, is “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. It’s absolutely exquisite, including a Southern Rock-flavoured slide solo from Ronnie (perhaps taking a slight Georgian influence from Leavell), and the Leeds crowd sings along very well despite hardly acknowledging Mick’s admonishment to “get your lungs out” at the start.

Mick introduces the entire band (oui oui, Bill Wyman le rock star), mistakenly identifying Gene Barge as being from Detroit — did he think he was still singing “Go-Go”? — then correcting his error. Keith kicks into “Little T&A” and actually gets most of the words right for a change. We miss out “Waiting on a Friend” and “Let It Bleed”, neither being staples on the ’82 leg of the tour, but instead get a very cool take on “Angie”. There is also some white-hot playing on “She’s So Cold” and “Hang Fire”, easily bettering their Hampton takes. There’s one other track they played on the ’82 tour set and it’s another ’50s rocker: the Big Bopper classic “Chantilly Lace”. We are spared that unique pleasure, here.

In the second verse of “Tumbling Dice”, something exceptional happens: Bobby and Gene, rather than trading off with each other, start to play as a section, with complementary harmonized sax parts matching up with the studio version chart. They do it on “Honky Tonk Women”, too. It’s a commonplace occurrence at Stones shows now, but actually it had been almost nine years since the band played with horns in this way. These exquisite parts are indelibly woven into those songs as we know them: they enhance the groove tremendously, adding swagger and verve to the arrangement, not to mention exactly the right lift in dynamics. And yet, for the previous tours from 1975 to 1981, the Stones’ sidemen had ignored them entirely. For the finale of “Satisfaction”, the two saxes even start to play the opening riff Otis Redding-style, just the way Keith had originally intended to arrange that lick. Was it Leavell who reintroduced this crucial element to the show? I suspect it was. He recognized, along with fellow Southerner Bobby Keys, the unique appeal in a horn-flavoured rhythmic and harmonic texture. Ernie Watts was no slouch, certainly, but he is more of a single-line top melody guy, and with two lead guitarists and a singer in the band already, he tended to crowd the stage a bit.***

  • ***Which brings me the most egregious example of tasteless overplaying in the Stones’ early-80s period: Mick Taylor sitting in for roughly half of the show in Kansas City, four days before the Hampton broadcast. He appeared to have no idea that these songs had arrangements, taking solos at maximum volume at every opportunity and not knowing when to leave the stage. No wonder the current-day Stones specify just a handful of spots per show in which he makes guest appearances.


There was much cause for celebration at these welcome developments on the ’82 tour. Bobby Keys was definitely, officially back in the fold, forever more reclaiming his spots in “Brown Sugar” and remaking the “Miss You” sax break in his own unique territory. The band as a whole, especially compared to ’81, were in very sturdy shape at the tour’s conclusion. Things looked bright for the future, and with very little delay they headed back to Pathé Marconi to start work on the next studio album — bringing Chuck Leavell along with them.

 


 

UNDERCOVER

Undercover

After the ’82 tour wrapped up, the band took a four-month break, during which Mick finished work with Hal Ashby on editing Let’s Spend the Night Together. The band reconvened again in Paris, initially just with Mick and Keith bashing their way through pre-production work eyeball-to-eyeball in a small demo studio, and then at their old setup (now five years on from Some Girls) at Pathé Marconi with Chris Kimsey once more co-producing and engineering. With most of the songs plotted out in advance, there was no need to go vault-trawling for leftovers, and the recording process went relatively quickly, albeit in fits and starts. Most bed tracks were cut with live keyboards, with Chuck Leavell present for each basic take. At the end of ’82, the band were already discussing a wrap-up in time for another possible tour, which never materialized. Sessions resumed in the new year, before Mick and Keith moved to Compass Point in Nassau circa April ’83 to add overdubs. Final mixing and overdubbing took place at the Hit Factory in New York City.

Dub reggae was a primary influence on the Bahamian session, with Sly Dunbar recruited to play Simmons electronic drums for many tracks. These were absolutely in vogue for then-fashionable New Romantic bands, being a relatively cheap and reliable way to add a compressed, exciting “thud” to live percussion on demand. Dunbar had actually just acquired a set of these curious hexagon-shaped pads, with the drum ‘brains’ (a primitive form of early digital sampler) sending individual signals to tape along with Charlie’s kit and the additional African percussion played by Brit Martin Ditcham and Senegalese players Brahms Coundoul and Muostapha Cisse. When added to the mechanical-sounding harmonized delay effects on Jagger’s vocal and guitar, it sounds rather like a programmed drum machine sequence rather than a live player; but there are variations in timing that betray the all-important human element. Highlighting these machine-gunning effects in the mix reinforces the lyric beautifully. It’s a common misconception that this gambit was solely Jagger’s attempt to keep up with modern trends. In actual fact, Keith was a huge fan of the Jamaican dub records that inspired the collaboration, and had many admiring remarks for the contributions that Sly and the other percussion players made. If Keith played guitar on the recording of “Undercover of the Night”, however, I don’t think it’s present in the final mix — I hear only Mick’s chopped-up slashing rhythm and Ronnie’s lowdown, creeping answering licks on the final cut. There is an outtake mix circulating with a reasonably complete scratch vocal and an insistent acoustic part, which was later scuttled in favour of “Mick’s version”.

The violent imagery in Jagger’s lyric rings very true. It feels like reportage, rather than invention. The 100,000 disparus (“the disappeared”) were real political prisoners in South America, many becoming victims of horrific torture at the time for opposing their governments. Mick, whose family struggled through the ravages of WWII, surely felt an empathy for those living under General Videla’s brutal Argintinan military junta. By ’82, this chaos was spreading right under the West’s nose, in the sprawling new megastates being born in an unimaginable, untamed paradise now subsumed in bloodthirsty terrors. The exotic romance of Peruvian and Brazilian locales became overshadowed by the turmoil of everyday life under the gangster regimes ruling the surrounding territories. You’d be forgiven for not noticing this, if all you ever watched was MTV.

Then, off the coast of Argentina, President Galtieri rung down the Union Jack flag of old-guard imperialism and rung up one of a socialist military coup in the Falklands. In response Britain sent a naval cruiser, and the nightmare spectre of international war loomed yet again. These were uncertain times, and the title song is a brilliant commentary on the repressive societal response to an uncomfortable reality. “Out of sight, out of mind” applied equally to moral panic over the West’s involvement in challenging or propping up foreign dictatorships as it did the callous response of the junta denying its involvement in the mass imprisonments. Combined with the imagery borrowed from William Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night, the impression left in “Undercover of the Night” is incredibly nightmarish. This was the first time since “Street Fighting Man” that Jagger had come close to capturing the political mood of the times in his songwriting.



It’s just a pity that the whole thing was wrapped in such crass, ill-advised, unnecessary, misogynistic and downright UGLY cover art, depicting a disrobing woman shrouded in peel-able stickers. I’m sure the Stones fans in South American nations, many of whom to this day treat objectification of women like a national sport, were pleased. Anyone else over the age of fourteen, on the other hand, should find it a horrendously stupid art concept. It didn’t help matters that when they issued the title track as this album’s lead single, on the flip side was “All the Way Down” with a most cringe-inducing lyric: “still you’re a SLUT, eh girl?” Yeah… stay classy, Mick Jagger. Surely there was no parallel to be found in your personal life. Ahem.

Thankfully, “She Was Hot” rivals any Stones track for its superlative combination of grooves, catchy lyrics, clever arrangement ideas, and incendiary playing. Here, Keith’s musical purism and Jagger’s baroque pop arrangement instincts come together in a perfect encapsulation of everything the band does best. I could write a whole essay on this track alone. It’s really that good: brimming with great ideas and replay value. Listen to Keith’s killer introduction, the way the backing vocals build up and up in textural richness over the final extended chorus, the duelling keyboards of Leavell (two tracks of him) and Boogie Woogie Stewie… this is a masterclass on how to build a contemporary-sounding record that harkens back to the roots of rock and roll.

“Tie You Up (The Pain of Love)” is built out of another midtempo rock jam with a simple harmony, which lasts all the way through Ron’s tightly-played solo and the unsettling third verse until the head-turning breakdown with the percussionists grooving over a series of chord-less shouts. This is one of the first instances of Jagger extensively using his guttural, throaty, strained shouts in a studio track. He would develop this style more later, until wearing its novelty out with Dirty Work where it becomes just plain annoying. Deployed here, it suits the twisted, unsettling imagery of sadomasochistic sleaze, and the sidemen do a fine job keeping the groove going. Sequenced among far stronger tracks, however, it drags the pace down and loses appeal fast.

At the same time as they were looking forward, the band were getting nostalgic. They’d just celebrated their 20th anniversary together, after all, and before the album was complete Jagger had celebrated his big 4-0. In a 1983 interview Keith admitted “I could have done with being one of Elvis’ original band, being one of the Crickets, being one of the Blue Caps. I could’ve used being in Little Richard’s band in the ’50s, a million others. I would’ve loved to have been in Muddy’s band in the early ’50s. Would’ve loved to be in Louis Armstrong’s band in the ’20s.”

Keith also apparently would have loved to have been in another band with long hair that played American music to screaming teenagers during the 60s, or at least loved playing songs like the ones they wrote. “Wanna Hold You” sounds like something Lennon/McCartney would have cobbled together on a day off from one of their British theatre package tours with Helen Shapiro and Roy Orbison twenty years prior. There’s a stubborn refusal to use their “bloody Beatles bridge” technique of a contrasting middle-eight, however. The CD versions (all, that is, but the ’83 original) contain an extended version of this track that leaves in a few more repeats of the guitar intro and an additional verse. Ronnie’s spidery pedal steel tone in the sustained notes of the chorus and outro is really something to behold! He also plays bass on this, and the preceding track.



The aforementioned reggae influence is most prevalent in “Feel on Baby”, with the electronic percussion doubled, and the dub delay effects laid on to add a subtle air of mystery to the hypersexual groove. Keith’s backing vocals and Mick’s harmonica are also welcome, soulful additions. For both this and the title track, the Stones recruited experienced session bassist Robbie Shakespeare (Sly’s partner in crime on uncountable thousands of Jamaican records) to overdub a precise, taut, staccato, almost slap-back figure — not really in keeping with Bill Wyman’s usual fluid style. While he had been edged out of his usual seat on many previous records, it’s easy to see how the “we’ve gone DUB and done it WITHOUT YOU” approach could have been a slight to ol’ Bill, and his lack of bass playing on the finished product might have discouraged him from wanting to contribute as much in future. Mick and Keith had enough problems matching each other’s competitive egotism without needing to inflict it on others.

Outside of the band’s usual troubles with sorting out their public image and musical direction, Charlie’s marriage was by now in a downward spiral, manifesting as an increasing reliance on alcohol and amphetamines; soon enough, he would progress to heroin abuse. This was a troubling development indeed, and one that would keep the band off the road for another six years. For his part, in December of ’83 Ron Wood was admitted to an English drug rehabilitation facility in Devon (to little effect), which sounds like the worst way to spend Christmastime imaginable. He did have enough facilities about him to contribute several really tasty tracks to Undercover, including another groove for the ages, “Pretty Beat Up”. Initially demo’d under the charming title of “Dog Sh*t”, it is an irresistible dance number with some surprisingly funky piano work from Stu and Bill with Keith on bass. It also out-and-out confesses to the tribulations of Wood’s wrecked physical state. Sonny Rollins’ sax solo is terrific, though one might well speculate as to why Bobby Keys was not asked to play it.

The lyrics of “Too Tough” are obsessed with tawdry cultural decadence, from re-run soap operas to teenage brides (insert your own Bill Wyman joke here). As with the other tracks, the lyrical through-line connects sexual temptation and indulgence with tempestuous violence. It falls a bit flat on its face here, but the sex-as-violence metaphor continues into the popcorn/tabloid culture-parodying “Too Much Blood”. It is far too busy being campy to be taken as a serious comment; it’s parody, plain and simple. Echoing “she could be the Alien” from “Send It to Me”, it name-drops An Officer and a Gentleman and carries on with a silly monologue far extended into the ridiculous rant on the 12″ remixes by Arthur Baker.

One prevailing force at this time in pop music was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, with the inescapable John Landis promo film replaying constantly on MTV. It was a corny track (sorry, Jackson fans) with a cheesy “rap” by Vincent Price that appropriated the innocent nickelodeon horror flick tropes of teen culture, and it was ubiquitous. Jagger must have decided he could out-do the Gloved One at this game by upping the body count, making the connection between seduction and predation more explicit, and hiring a real horn section (CHOPS, who also appear briefly at the end of “Pretty Beat Up”) instead of a synth player. The album cut is a little over-long, and the extended freak-out mixes on the 12″ single are doubly so — but at least they make call-outs to Jackson and Price by name (“very f*cking funny, Michael!”). The “Too Much Blood” music video is even more priceless, with Mick being ravaged by chainsaw-wielding Ronnie & Keith.*

  • *Zealous bootleggers took the image to heart when giving names to tracks they pirated: there’s even a rip-roaring jam session from the ’82 Marconi sessions called “Chainsaw Rocker” (actually entitled “Cookin’ Up”, which raises eyebrows in the guitarists’ direction). The music video and the two others accompanying it for this album will be a topic for our next sidebar.


The album closes on “It Must Be Hell”. A poor choice, really, though the riff is pretty cool and sounds like a slowed-down take on the finale to “Soul Survivor” (which is itself merely a slowed-down James Brown lick). The lyrics are a slightly trite examination of Reaganomics’ ascendency, in the vein of “Hang Fire” — but turned on the great stagnant American dream. Actually, Mick’s lyrics are on a pretty high standard, they’re just slightly jarring set against the same-y music tracks. While its weaker songs drag down the overall impression, the ambitious highs of Undercover are quite impressive. The arrangements and production hold up very well today, with fine use of backing vocals, percussion and keyboards for textural variation.

It’s just a shame that the lowest-common-denominator aesthetic intruded (the LP label states “Front Side” for the first half and “Back Side” for the other… because butts! Get it? It’s a joke about butts and there’s one on the REAR cover too, nyuk nyuk). One exception is on the inner sleeve, adorned with a lovely painting of two apples by a Japanese artist. Juxtaposed here amidst the collision of bawdy lyrical themes and that horrendous cover, unfortunately, it’s hard to see it as anything but representing another swollen pair of sex organs. The album’s artsy dabbling in social commentary and alternative sexual mores clashed with the slickly commercial pop ambition of the music, and the crass cover did it no favours. Compared with Tattoo You‘s very strong sustained success, it was a sales flop; this boded ominously for their next project.

 


 

 

SIDEBAR — World War III Declared: a crossfire hurricane brewing

CBS Records forked over a very tidy sum in 1983 to get distribution rights on the next four Rolling Stones Records albums, as well as reissues of anything bearing that imprint in the meantime. They didn’t just buy “four new albums by The Rolling Stones”, mind you, but four new Rolling Stones Records albums (a crucial and yet often over-looked distinction). CBS bought the lot — everything the band had done in the previous thirteen years, and whatever came out in the next five — hook, line and sinker. With a much buzzed-about new album in the can (Undercover, the last new Stones album that the titanic Atlantic Records would launch), and lucrative new CD and home video markets opening up, signing with the global giant CBS meant that the Rolling Stones could gracefully transition into a new era, flush with record company support and a bright-looking future. Keith Richards married Patti Hansen on an extended wintertime working holiday in Mexico, with Mick Jagger serving as best man. Very soon, alas, the year of ’84 that had started out promisingly sunny for the Good Ship Stones darkened ominously. What had seemed like a slam-dunk deal would soon prompt a fatal dispute threatening the band’s future altogether.

The Undercover LP began to slip down the charts, and without an accompanying tour, the percolating appeal of its singles to underground dance clubs and MTV (seemingly) could not save its commercial prospects. All patiently waited throughout ’83 and ’84 for Charlie Watts to return to work with the band, so that another recording and touring cycle could fall into place. Thanks to a punishing bout of insecurity on the Watts family front, however, the drummer was in midlife crisis mode and he was therefore unwilling to devote significant time to any group activity. With the other band members also otherwise occupied, there was little momentum to continue onward once the promotion of Undercover finally ended in ’84.* Coasting on goodwill from the success of Tattoo You only got them so far, especially as Undercover had under-performed in comparison.

  • *Charlie did play casual one-off gigs with Stu’s boogie-woogie band Rocket 88 several times in this period, as well as benefit gigs organized by Ronnie Lane of the Faces for Action into Research for Multiple Sclerosis (ARMS) also involving Ron Wood & Bill Wyman. Keith did not perform much in public; establishing his married life with Patti instead entailed putting many of their familial affairs into order. Ron Wood began to paint his artwork in earnest, starting in April of ’84 and, before the year’s end, he would hold his first exhibition in Dallas. Dear ol’ Bill Wyman was putting the moves on a 13-year-old girl, whom he would soon marry in a storm of horrendous publicity and bizarre personal fallout.


Unbeknownst to the others, and probably out of legitimate concern that this was actually a waning period for the band, Mick signed a sly separate deal for a solo career on the back of their new CBS contract. The deal meant that, should four prospective Rolling Stones albums fail to arrive, the company would throw their support entirely behind Jagger’s solo discs instead. If they had fully disintegrated, if Charlie and the others could not commit to finishing another new project, this ensured Jagger could nonetheless keep his job as a popular musician without having to overtly break up the band. After four albums, either by Mick solo, or by the Stones (defined as Mick plus one other band member), the CBS contract would nonetheless be satisfied. Although this was a shrewd move on paper, it turned out to be a bet against the winning horse, and keeping it a secret was an astonishingly poor way to treat the other band members who at least deserved the respect of being invited into the room for a deal that brokered their potential legacy.

When Keith figured out the full implications of this epochal decision (perhaps not until months later in ’84), he was absolutely livid. In cozying up to slimy record company moguls and losing faith in his bandmates, so figured Keith, the bastard had traded in their combined sweat equity for the purchase of his own ego inflation. Worse still, Jagger held all the chips in major decisions about what the band could release until the CBS contract expired, and therefore stood a chance of stealing all media focus away to his solo act. While Keith had politely told Mick in ’83 he’d theoretically support the singer’s attempt at a solo side project, this unconsidered little contractual wrinkle was actually indulging an entirely different scenario: one where the band could have faded permanently out of the picture, gambled away in the crapshoot of pop stardom. Richards reacted by walking away from Jagger’s camp entirely, refusing to play ball while biliously taunting Mick in public for his superstar pretensions.

As a stop-gap measure, the suits began assembling a greatest hits package called Rewind that would anthologize the entire Atlantic-helmed period. Unlike all previous compilations of the post-ABKCO era, this was a comprehensive hits collection (with varying tracklists tailored for different markets). It kept the band in a holding pattern, continuing to trade off their past successes while the provenance of new material remained doubtful. Julien Temple, who had directed the Undercover clips, shot twenty minutes of newly scripted material featuring Mick and Bill to help sequence together a long-form home video release packaged to accompany the Rewind album. He intercut these segments with existing interviews (sometimes quite clumsily, when the rights to use interviewers’ voices could not be obtained), live footage, and vintage promo clips to create a flimsy-premised through-line about Bill Wyman the nightwatchman breaking into a museum store-room containing rock relics, hanging out with a frozen ’72-vintage-jumpsuited Jagger encased in glass, and reminiscing about the band’s faded glory days. They scroll around on the museum computer (Bill was a hobbyist in the early craze for home PCs) to play back the footage, and pointedly lament that Charlie isn’t around to play anymore.

Thrown into the sequence also were Temple’s three epic promotional films for Undercover. It was a good second-life airing for these clips, and showcased their high production value outside of MTV airplay, where they had enjoyed less heavy rotation than would perhaps justify their exorbitant budgets. That said, they didn’t really fit with the “trawl through the archives” framing device, and consequently feel a bit out of place. That’s not to say they are bad, by any means. Julien Temple was an astute craftsman, and the videos are highly accomplished works of art in their own right, providing intelligent visual commentary on the lyrical and musical imagery they convey. But they could and should be restored from their 35mm film elements soon — the video prints used the Rewind video are faded and run at the wrong speed, yet troublingly, they appear to be the sources for the Stones’ official YouTube channel versions.

Although it was crippled from potential daytime airplay by the violence of the plot, the full “Undercover of the Night” clip is exquisitely constructed, with Mick portraying a mustachioed white-knight figure who saves a Mexican girl from a marauding gang (including one death’s-head-wearing Keith) only to be mowed down in their church hideout in a climactic gunfight. It’s a battle between the ego and the id, and the meta-story of the teenagers watching at home adds another layer of commentary: you can acknowledge and pay attention to the violent reality of your world, as the girl wants to, or lose yourself in sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll, as the boy wants to do by switching the channel back to the Stones playing. In the end, authority figures (here personified by the girl’s parents, representing the superego) thwart the indulgence of either. It’s a perfectly-tuned psychodrama.

“Too Much Blood” is in much the same vein, with its horror movie pastiche (though it was, again, slightly too suggestive for white-bread MTV). The TV-watching protagonist is beset by the nightmarish spectre of a blood-soaked raft of entertainment options, from glossy Life magazine, to alcohol, to the Stones themselves. “She Was Hot”, by absolute contrast, excelled in the campy British Carry On tradition, while paying tribute to the colour-saturated 50s rock filmThe Girl Can’t Help It with Anita Morris standing in for Jayne Mansfield and Charlie Watts in a show-stopping star turn as her manager. This clip was, perversely, also banned from some TV broadcast playlists, not because of any violent or suggestive content, but because one of the shots shows a record executive (presumably a pastiche of those A&R suits they’d just left behind at Atlantic) holding a foaming can of Tab soft drink, which had not cleared its trademark for use in the video. Even if these corny visual gags don’t do it for you, the video is definitely worth viewing for the added lyrics in the extended first verse. I think the song still makes sense without them, but having those extra lines explains things a bit better.


In fact, minus the Undercover segments, the Rewind video is quite sharply self-aware: the dialogue spoken by Mick and Bill (as well as the placement of the band’s historical detritus), when viewed with acknowledgement of the band’s crippled and on-standby status, is very telling. It ends with Jagger being confined to his case again, only to literally break out on his own while the other band members languish in obscurity; then Bill wakes up, to realize he dreamed it all and they’ll remain rock stars as long as they can stay together and maybe even someday get some of those MBE medals they gave the Beatles. It must have been done in response to the real-life stalemate facing the band. I tend to read the intertextual fantasy of “Bill Wyman’s dream” that occupies much of theRewind video as an alternate scenario: a message from Mick to the others, of sorts, as if to say “let’s let bygones be bygones, so that we can keep our band identity together and attempt to maintain a relevant collective entity, or else it will fade into museum-piece status.” This must have lit some kind of fire under Keith, because he accepted the challenge of doggedly trying to get the band to record together again. After a fraught band meeting in Amsterdam, however, Jagger overstepped his boundaries and pissed Charlie off by calling him up long after he’d retired to bed, insultingly calling him “my drummer”; the way Keith tells it, Charlie reacted by getting out of bed, dressing to the nines, and physically assaulting Jagger to retort that he was “MY singer”.

With Mick now totally cast adrift from the band, things were only going to get bleaker in 1985.

 


 

DIRTY WORK

Dirty Work

 

Around the time that the Stones’ Rewind came out on home video in November ’84, Mick had finished his first solo album She’s the Boss, and perhaps in a bout of competitive one-upmanship, he shot some yet more elaborate Julien Temple music videos to accompany it. But even with a dream-team of players (including future Stones sideman Bernard Fowler) assembled by funk producer Bill Laswell and dance-pop mastermind Nile Rodgers, the album itself was shockingly bereft of good ideas. There are a couple of great licks from Jeff Beck, and one song co-written with Keith, but it sounds totally out of date and too careful by half. Despite fairly healthy contemporary chart performance and sales, it is primarily a patience-testing artistic misfire, jarringly out of step with the dance world and not quite rock, either. Mick got away with it, but he didn’t break as big as hoped. The best that could be said for the project is that he at last went just outside of his comfort zone.

Mick went back to the Stones in early ’85 to begin work on a new record, but his attention was now sharply divided between two careers. In fact, pre-production on Dirty Work coincided with promotional work for She’s the Boss, so Jagger was not around much at first. The other Stones were bitter at the absenteeism, and it’s hard not to see Jagger’s contributions being perfunctory as a result, but even though this Stones album is pretty reviled, it’s nowhere near as bad as Jagger’s LP. Ron and Keith had been keeping their chops by hanging out together, bouncing riffs and ideas off each other while waiting for the rest of the band to assemble. When they finally did gather, in Paris once again, the two guitarists were raring to go and in ship-shape playing condition. It’s just that Jagger didn’t really want to be around them, and they were pretty sick of him too.

According to Dirty Work co-producer Steve Lillywhite, Keith would call She’s the Boss “that f*cking disco album” to anyone listening and was obviously very emotionally stung by Mick’s betrayal. He continues: “Keith was very annoyed at Mick for making that record. To him, loyalty is everything, and he saw Mick going outside the band as no different from seeing your wife cheating on you. Mick and Keith were hardly in the same room together — the tension was pretty thick. So I kind of saw my role as being the Henry Kissinger for the guys, keeping the peace.” Lillywhite didn’t begin working with them until May of ’85, however, by which time the sessions had been in progress on and off for four months. Keith was effusive in his praise at the time for the producer’s ability to encourage the band to give their best performances and help shape song arrangements. Nevertheless, blame for the album’s dated sound lands at Lillywhite’s feet.

Charlie Watts was AWOL for much of the sessions, his personal problems now having advanced to full-blown heroin and alcohol addiction (which saps more than a little of the energy required to do a drum take). He also injured his hand during the tracking stage and so doesn’t play on some songs, with session drummers and even Ronnie Wood filling in on a couple of numbers. From the very first snare hit on Dirty Work, it’s clear that Watts is not going to be able to carry his usual weight. The fill with which he enters “One Hit (To the Body)” is torpid, unsteady and worst of all, drenched in a foggy stew of gated reverb that would have made Bob Clearmountain, even in his Born in the USA glory days, yank down the gain knob with a look of disgust. Lillywhite, then a rising star in his own right after working behind the desk for many contemporary artists like U2, Simple Minds, and Psychedelic Furs, in many cases added sheen and anthemic sweep to songs that needed it, but at the expense of that distinctive Stones rhythmic attack of straight-rock over swing, which relied on Charlie’s backbeat being audible as more than just a sound effect in the wash. Engineer Dave Jerden, who had just worked with Mick on “She’s the Boss”, was used to the rigorous standards of jazz production and would tune the drum heads every day to match the home key of whatever number was being recorded. This attention to detail is a great thing, but useless when the natural sound of the instrument is sucked away into a box.



On the other hand, “One Hit” is a really great song, co-written with Wood and packed with amazing guitar riffs including a fine guest solo by Jimmy Page. It was the second single taken from the album, with a memorable music video directed by Russell Mulcahy where Keith and Mick really look like they’re about to kill each other. The song was a minor hit in the USA but fell flat elsewhere, being the Stones’ first UK single to miss the top 75, which is too bad because Ronnie really did save the day and deserves more credit for this. He also co-wrote three other songs on the album, and this low ebb of Jagger/Richards compositions would have bespoke certain disaster for the band’s future had Ronnie not been standing by to pick up some of the slack and ease tension long enough to actually finish the album. He was able to channel the turmoil into creativity, and held down his end of the bargain to see the Stones through this rough period by continuing to write songs for them (tellingly, all four of his tunes have lyrics about tumultuous relationships, partly inspired by the feud).

“Fight” is one such track, and it would have been far better without the added production layers. The guitar and keyboard tones are excellent, but it’s all buried under Jagger’s flamboyant growls, unnecessary backing vocal harmonies, and Charlie’s indiscernible performance enmired in reverb muck while Ronnie attempts to steer him from the bass guitar chair. “Harlem Shuffle” works really well, with Don Covay, Bobby Womack and Tom Waits (of all people) turning in fantastic backing vocals, and Mick ably rising to Keith’s challenge to sing some vintage R&B. The only thing missing is the iconic horn section from Bob & Earl’s original. The Stones scored a worldwide hit, with the extended 12″ dance mixes receiving extensive play in clubs and the 7″ edit cracking Billboard’s top five. The animated video directed by Ralph Bakshi is a hoot, too, raunchy and fun.


“Hold Back” is a lightweight song, sounding like a leftover from She’s the Boss with its soupy reverb and Jagger’s growly bluster spoiling some otherwise fine guitar work and a swinging groove (thanks to Ivan Neville lighting a fire on bass, and Bobby Womack on rhythm guitar). “Too Rude” is a complete tour-de-force, with Keith turning in a brilliant vocal performance of this Half Pint classic, and Ron Wood taking over from both Charlie and Bill as a one-man rhythm section on dub-delayed drums and swooping bass (as well as backing vocals, with Keith and reggae legend Jimmy Cliff). Keith’s solo band the X-Pensive Winos later played some great live performances of this, and it’s easy to imagine it being a highlight of a Stones tour, had they ever worked it up. Steve Jordan, a key member of the Winos and songwriting partner of Keith’s, was invited to Pathe Marconi during the ’85 sessions and there met Keith for the first time; apparently, on hearing him sing some tracks in Mick’s absence, he immediately knew they should collaborate again later.

“Winning Ugly” works okay, with another lyrical commentary by Jagger on American foreign policy. The extended London Mix from a 12″ promotional single is a more enjoyable take, with better placement of instrumental textures and spotlighting the strut of its bassline. The unwavering rhythm pattern doesn’t sound anything like Charlie and Bill though; it’s uncredited session player Anton Fig and funk bassist John Regan (who had the dubious honour of also playing on Mick’s horrendous cover of “Dancing in the Street” with David Bowie). The keyboard sounds on this and following track “Back to Zero” (co-composed by Chuck Leavell, again featuring Womack’s guitar) are very dated, but they do swing with the rhythm track and Mick’s vocal approach actually suits the lyrical theme of nuclear annihilation. There’s a clumsy edit going into the bridge, Dan Collette’s trumpet solo is pretty aimless, and the uncredited percussion overdubs don’t help matters either. But there is a good song buried in there, somewhere.

The title track (unsurprisingly, another Ronnie Wood co-write) is pretty smokin’, with Chuck Leavell on tasty Hammond organ licks and Bill Wyman FINALLY turning up the heat on bass. Too bad he totally forgot about “Had it with You” altogether, another fun Ron Wood number featuring himself on sax and no one on bass. “Sleep Tonight” is a piano-based Keith torch song, with a stuttery Ron Wood drum track and a nice high-strung acoustic that can barely be heard above the reverb. By now, if you’re not pissed off completely with the album’s enervating unevenness, you can stick around to hear Stu tickling the ivories on a bit of “Key to the Highway”. Although he can’t be heard playing elsewhere on the final mix, he was still acting as personnel and equipment manager during the sessions (a position that Pierre de Beauport would assume forever afterwards), keeping the Stones on their toes and their axes standing by.

Not only do we have to say goodbye here to Stu, who stoically and steadfastly shepherded the band through its daily ups and downs only to suddenly die of a heart attack on December 12th 1985, but also to the critically important Pathe Marconi studio in Paris. This was the last time the Stones would record here, after routining all their foundational recording sessions there since Some Girls. Once the Stones moved to New York to finish the album in the fall of ’85, they polished and dubbed over the magical sound of that room almost entirely beyond recognition. Only the dry, tight thud of “Had It with You” comes close to the feel that they had got there before with Chris Kimsey. In search of that old magic, they would eventually seek out a reunion with him for their next project. But the band’s continuation was by no means a sure thing.

It was a painful nine-month process to record Dirty Work, and only three years of bitter silence healed the scars it left. For various reasons, Bill and Charlie were even less present than they were on Undercover, and they approved the final product via cassette courier rather than listening in the control room. Mick vetoed a tour for the record, which Keith had been counting on as late as February ’86 to get the band back into shape. Instead, the only performance they gave that year would be a small tribute show to Stu, in whose memory the album was dedicated. Bob Geldof approached the Stones collectively to play at the historic Live Aid concerts, but they were in no fit state to do so until Charlie cleaned up afterwards. Jagger played a solo set at the Philadelphia show with Tina Turner and Hall & Oates; afterwards, Bob Dylan played with Ron & Keith backing him. Both performances were, in their own ways, disasters, and back-to-back they painted a pretty sorry picture of the Rolling Stones even before the album arrived in stores and Keith announced Mick’s decision not to tour. It was a tacky-looking record with some tacky sounds, but the soul and feeling of what was once Stu’s band was still in there. However, they simply couldn’t continue as they were.

Something had to change.

Pixies fans, take heed!

March 28, 2014

I hope somebody else listens to the new Pixies, because I feel like I’m the only one doing so right now.

A co-worker of mine, who had seen Pixies in their elder Gods prime circa 1989, had just been talking to me about a concert I’d attended at Massey Hall the previous night, where they’d kicked off the first official night of their brand new tour with just-minted-as-bandmate Paz Lenchantin. Paz couldn’t have done a better or more graceful job of stepping into the shoes of her bass player/singer predecessors: founding member Kim Deal, and her recently-apparently-fired replacement Kim Shattuck.

On top of handling all that embarrassing non-important personal messiness with aplomb and discretion, Paz sang harmonies well and played bass pedal melodies with her feet on top of her 4-stringed axe (in a recent acoustic Pixies appearance for NPR’s All Songs Considered show, she even picked up her primary instrument of violin to add to the mix). Their inaugural show together went off without a hitch, and was generally well-liked by the folks in attendance I saw around me who were also watching intently; that is to say, all but for a certain totally wasted guy in the front row, who was yelling off-colour remarks and making disapproving gestures with his hands in Lanchantin’s direction almost the entire night except for a good 25-minute chunk in the middle where he left to get even more intoxicated and then came back to hurl further abuse at her.

“Man,” my co-worker wistfully ruminated to me. “Those old days were amazing. Kim was such a huge part of it all. That new song they put out (the catchy ‘Blue Eyed Hexe’) sounds just like bad AC/DC”. I hadn’t even countenanced such a thought, because it sounded like it was some pretty cool rock’n’roll to me. Yeah, sure, lead singer Black Francis’ voice is a lot different now, and so is his songwriting. Isn’t that what you’d expect after his many years on the road as a professional performer?

I don’t much keep up with the Pixies fan community these days, nor did I ever; actually, I’m kind of a recent convert. I only got into Surfer Rosa a few years ago, so, please don’t gang up on me for not knowing all the intimate details of their glorious rise, hiatus, and ugly fall. I just don’t subscribe to that narrative (which Rolling Stone all but tried to canonize with their shockingly snarky, mock-apologetic reprinting of Pixies’ new album announcement all over their pages — er, I guess, webpages? A print version of this publication still circulates, but I doubt anybody reads it except to skim its glossy photos over an extended lunch break at the magazine rack).

You see, ‘Bagboy’ was the new Pixies single that got my attention again. It’s an amazing dis track. These guys were READING THEIR PRESS, alright. This answer song reads almost exactly as Axl Rose’s did, back when he went after his critics on Guns N’ Roses’ rant-fuelled ‘Get in the Ring’: “if you can’t deliver with your end of the bargain, dude, why don’t you just take it easy with the snide remarks? You press monkeys are the ones left holding the bag when this musically collaborative artist job gets messy and personnel issues become bitter. Just do something that’s good enough for yourself, why don’t you? Leave me alone. I have this all work that I have to do as an artist; work that you, my worm-tongued patron, seem to suddenly have had a rather abrupt, and vocal, change of heart about — in a public forum, no less.”

It sounds spiteful, and it sounds like it hates the very vivid portrait it paints of some very specific and probably real people. In other words, it makes for compelling listening. It names no names (unlike the eternally on-the-nose lyrics by Axl, which do) but boy, oh boy, it gets juicy. The album version of this song just debuted on an iTunes pre-order download for the deluxe edition I’ve bought. It totally rules, and compared to it, the hazy-sounding version that was accompanying a music video for the song circulating online last year did little to make Black’s incredibly biting lyrics hit home. Maybe it’s the increased quality of the iTunes format, maybe it’s just that the backing vocals have been mixed out of the first stanza and pared down to one line repeated over and over, but here he sounds up-front and clear as a bell, staking his claim as a fearsome bandleader, and victorious in the war to preserve his artistic identity in the face of a perceived challenge to it.

I only wonder if there will be other ears to hear this new incarnation of Pixies, as provocative and weird as ever, now sounding mad as hell. It’s one part Frank Zappa, one part aforementioned GN’R and one part vintage hell-stompin’ Pixies in rampage mode.

Here are the lyrics to the album version, transcribed because I’ve not seen them written down yet:

 

I had a bad reaction to your public hobby-writings. I get no satisfaction from your Very Recent Sightings — like when I hear the sound of feet slappin’ on the runway; like a small bird, pretty, while it’s crappin’ on the new day…

So disappointed I was that I had made small talk with you (cover your breath, cover your teeth). I’m not ‘feelin’ your buzz’, I only smell your crock of stew (cover your breath, cover your teeth).

Bagboy!

She had some beauty and manners, but she looked like a bug (cover your breath, cover your teeth). Migration’s other type were such good planners, and not smug (cover your breath, cover your teeth)!

Bagboy!

You are proselytizing alone, listening to the Voice ‘with your ears’ (cover your breath, cover your teeth). You have regurgitated a tone, now sad, in your tracts for many years (cover your breath, cover your teeth)… picked up from dead things that you licked.

It’s a feedback loop you can’t evict (cover your breath, cover your teeth). Bagboy!

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Cool projects I’ve been working on

March 15, 2014

Next week, on March 19th, we’re opening the doors to a brand-new live arts incubator and performance space called The Theatre Centre. It’s in the Toronto neighbourhood idiosyncratically called “West Queen West”, and a great crew of people have helped it along from its old home at the Great Hall, where I have worked on and off since 2009, into a beautifully renovated former Carnegie library. It has been an inspiring process, a hard slog but definitely worth the effort. That night, we’re going to be opening a new show in the main space, directed by the TC’s head honcho Franco Boni with the amazing Ravi Jain. It’s called Sea Sick and stars Alanna Mitchell, who adapted it from her book of the same name (and, I just found out last night, has a Latin degree from my alma mater, Trinity College). I’m very proud of the show, which I’ve designed, and you can see a teaser video for it here:

Later today, I’m meeting with a young director and a musician to talk about sound design for an upcoming production of August Strindberg’s play Easter. This is coming on the heels of a really successful adaptation of Strindberg I did last year called After Miss Julie by Patrick Marber, presented at the Storefront Theatre by Red One Collective, an archival video of which you can view here:

On another note, my friend Sean is trying to make a short comedy film. His buddy Jeff will star in it, and they’re both funny dudes. Sean asked me if I’d help them make a pitch video by recording the sound and composing a little bumpin’ techno music for it. I said yes, and with it they’ve set up an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign to get the whole thing done. If you can, please donate to help make it happen, and watch the video:

Tonight Excel Drove Me Crazy

September 5, 2013

My awesome sister is awesome.

One Flew East, One Flew West

One Flew East

One Flew West

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

 In the fall of my senior year in high school I decided to check myself into an in-patient ward at a mental hospital. The previous Christmas I left boarding school suffering from a severe depressive episode. I tried more than twenty medications in those first six months. I had a pill to wake me up and one to put me to sleep. I had one to stop the crying and I had one to stop the headaches. And I had a dousey for when I couldn’t breath, when the panic and the paranoia really took hold. Unfortunately none of them worked. Because I am actually Bipolar. And nothing makes you crazier than crazy pills for something you don’t have. By the fall I had hit rock bottom, and I checked myself into a hospital to detox, get a…

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Open letter re: subway extension in Scarborough

July 13, 2013

Feel free to copy this open letter to your own city councillor if you agree. E-mail, tweet, post, whatever. I posted this originally in July, but not much has changed since then, except that the Federal government’s promised contribution to the subway project falls very short of the necessary funds, requiring the city to raise property taxes should they adopt the subway extension.

Dear Councillor,

As a resident of your ward, I use the TTC so I can get to work in other places around Toronto. Like many others, I can’t afford a car (and so transit is really the only remaining option, save biking) but, as I’m sure we can agree, the health of our mass transit system is important to everyone in the city, not just those in lower income brackets.

I am deeply concerned by the debate, which reaches the council floor on Tuesday, regarding our city’s commitment to Metrolinx’s Master Agreement plan for building new LRT lines vs. rerouting some of that funding towards a Bloor/Danforth subway line extension to Sheppard Avenue in Scarborough. The RT line currently serving that part of the city is nearing the end of its service life, requiring reductions in speed and capacity to maintain safety — but this is a reality that Toronto council has known about for years (at least since the 2006 TTC report [PDF] on this issue, which incidentally recommended NOT replacing the existing line with a subway). Unfortunately, the sad reality is that we have failed to meaningfully address the crisis until this past year, and even now the tired divisiveness in provincial and city politics has seemingly usurped the debate, taking attention away from the real options that present themselves.

Please take my responses to TTC Chair Karen Stintz’s points in favour of canceling the planned Scarborough LRT line (outlined at Councillor Stintz’s website) into consideration when you vote on this issue. If you compare her assertions to those in the 2006 report, you’ll see there are many unexplained contradictions and assumptions. If we are so sure the new Scarborough subway extension is going to promote more new developments, we have to very carefully consider the impact of a costly thirty-year loan. We are essentially saying that the extra money it will cost to scrap the above-grade LRT and extend the subway is worth this investment; that it will PAY ITSELF BACK in thirty years because people love subways so much. That is a huge gamble.

There’s no doubt that our existing subway lines are the most reliable form of mass transit we currently have, but as recent experiences with signal breakdowns due to power outages proved, the system is not impervious. The heart of our subway system is also dangerously close to overload at peak hours, with no room to spare for adding more riders. Other cities’ examples show that surface transit (particularly grade-separated LRT) is in many cases just as functional, and far cheaper. Building it makes good sense, where it serves the needs of riders — and that is exactly what the Metrolinx LRT lines are intended to do. This debate over which form of transit should be built is a serious matter, not least because of the message that canceling a fully funded LRT line, without a very good reason, sends: namely, that Toronto is alarmingly frivolous with its use of Provincial and Federal money for new transit projects.

What necessitates Scarborough’s so-called “need” for a seamless subway ride (as opposed to a much-improved subway-level transfer to LRT), given that it will cost so much more for all Toronto citizens, including many who will probably never use it? How is such an outlandish expenditure to meet this need “justifiable”, other than it sounding better to Scarborough commuters who will vote for politicians that make election promises about it?

We have a plan for LRT replacement. Let’s commit to that plan, and stick with it to completion. Let’s not venture on an unfunded subway gamble to satisfy some questionable political whims, especially when it will cost us all (at the very least) hundreds of millions, and possibly billions more dollars if adequate Federal or Provincial funding is not forthcoming.

The conversion to LRT may prove to be drawn-out and inconvenient for current SRT riders, but how can we guarantee that building a subway extension instead will be better in these respects? The SRT vehicles may break down even more in the time that it takes for a subway to be built, to say nothing of the potential disruption for Scarborough residents who are not using the SRT but whose lives and businesses would be impacted by subway construction. If we cancel the LRT and struggle to come up with subway funding, the SRT may reach the end of its life without ever being adequately replaced, and Scarborough cannot afford to face that grim possibility.

The received political wisdom that “everyone wants subways” more than any other form of transit is just incorrect. LRT is the right choice for replacing the SRT right now, and that is what you should vote for on Tuesday.

Sincerely,

(Return Address redacted)

Episode 22: Vast Dental Conspiracy

June 28, 2013

New epsiode of the Speezy, y’all!

The Speezy

Tim and Marcel blow the lid off a huge secret cabal just by chatting with writer Andre Babyn. We’re through the looking glass here, people.

Download the podcast here!

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