A Special Report, Part 1: The Holy Bee Does NOT Recommend — The Rolling Stones in the ’80s

…with one exception. 

When asked who’s the greatest band the world’s ever seen, I automatically answer “the Beatles.” When asked the slightly different question of who is my favorite band, I would tend to say the same thing. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that deep in my heart, my favorite band is the Rolling Stones. 

And the reason I hesitate to admit that is due almost entirely to the damage they did to their reputation because of the quality of material they released (or let escape) in the 1980s. 

The Rolling Stones, 1980

Before the ’80s as a decade had receded far enough to gain historical perspective, rock fans always pointed to the trio of albums after 1972’s epic Exile On Main St as the band’s artistic nadir. But in an entry a while back, the Holy Bee mounted a spirited defense of Goats Head Soup (1973), It’s Only Rock and Roll (1974), and Black and Blue (1976) as artistically valid and quite worthy entries in the Stones discography, if not really at the level of their true classics. Far worse was to come after Black and Blue…

…but not just yet. 1978’s Some Girls was immediately lifted to the Rolling Stones Top Shelf to nest alongside Sticky Fingers and the like, and has managed to stay there. 1980’s Emotional Rescue was a swing and a miss, hopefully just an aberration. They righted the ship with 1981’s Tattoo You. Its monster single “Start Me Up” dominated the radio that fall, and the album as a whole is generally considered a “near-classic.” In many people’s eyes, it is the last truly good Rolling Stones album. (There may be a secret reason to its success. Read on.)

Then came Undercover (1983). And Dirty Work (1986), and suddenly the decade was a bust.  People who continue to pick on poor old Goats Head Soup out of habit probably haven’t even heard these things. They’ve been swept under the rug and forgotten. They are totally soulless, full of empty ’80s flash, and were the product of a band on the verge of falling apart. 

No one liked those albums much even at the time (though they initially sold well), but 1989’s Steel Wheels? It was hailed as a masterful artistic comeback. Rolling Stone magazine gave it a slobbering four-and-a-half star review. (Not really a surprise there, given the magazine’s unfortunate habit of fellating dinosaurs. Still, I won’t cancel the subscription I’ve had since 1991.) Unfortunately, Steel Wheels’ uber-trendy, late-80s production has stood the test of time about as well as parachute pants. When everyone got over their euphoria that the band survived its near-breakup, Steel Wheels plummeted in prestige, and it’s now settled pretty firmly near the bottom of the canon.

So the Stones’ 1980s output consisted of two mediocre albums that aged poorly, two total disasters…and Tattoo You, which everyone liked. The possible secret to its success? It wasn’t widely known at the time, but Tattoo You was entirely pieced together from 1970s outtakes, when inspiration was running a little higher.

At work in the Pathe-Marconi Studios, c. 1977

In earlier recording sessions, the Stones did rack up their share of outtakes and unreleased material here and there. But engineer Chris Kimsey, with whom the Stones began working in 1977, always kept the tapes rolling. Any musical performance in the studio, be it a false start, a tentative run-though, or an almost-ready final draft, was recorded and meticulously stored away. The band and Kimsey labored for months at the rambling old EMI Pathe-Marconi Studios in suburban Paris (the actual location was Boulogne-Billancourt), compiling the material that would comprise Some Girls, and leaving lots of stuff unused in varying states of completion. 1979’s Emotional Rescue sessions also produced a backlog of songs for the vault. This practice would come in handy a few years down the line.

Let’s start our examination of the Stones’ decade-long tumble from greatness by looking at the heights from which they fell. Some Girls (May 1978) shot to #1 in the Billboard charts, and sold in the neighborhood of seven million copies. Kicked off by the disco jam “Miss You,” highlights included “Shattered,” a multi-layered, serpentine proto-rap about urban decay, my favorite Stones power ballad “Beast of Burden,” and one of guitarist and band co-leader Keith Richards’ best outlaw anthems, “Before They Make Me Run.” There’s also a trio of diamond-hard, speed demon rockers (“When the Whip Comes Down,” “Lies,” and “Respectable”) that veer into punk territory, offset by a gorgeously lazy, swinging take on the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination.” The slow, bluesy trance-rock of the title track and the country pastiche “Far Away Eyes,” with frontman Mick Jagger putting on an exaggerated Southern drawl, are kind of an acquired taste. Guest musicians and sidemen (always a Stones crutch) are kept to a minimum. Outsiders are limited to a few appearances by Faces keyboardist Ian MacLagan, King Crimson’s Mel Collins adding saxophone to “Miss You,” and the amazing blues harp of Sugar Blue on “Miss You” and the title track. Keith, going through the lengthy process of kicking a heroin habit, did not lead the guitar attack, and was mostly content to lay back and put down rhythmic color, his battered Telecaster usually fed through an MXR reverb-echo pedal, which became the signature sound of the ‘78-’81 Stones. The real six-string pyrotechnics were provided by “new guy” Ron “Woody” Wood, making his first appearance on record as a full-time Stone, following Brian Jones (’62-’69) and Mick Taylor (’69-’74) in the second guitar slot.

After riding the Some Girls wave, the band traveled to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to begin recording the follow-up in January of 1979. But despite the laid-back Caribbean atmosphere, inspiration did not strike. Perhaps they just weren’t ready, perhaps the tension growing between Jagger and Richards was affecting their work, but Emotional Rescue, intended to be a worthy sequel and companion piece to Some Girls, paled in comparison to its powerful predecessor.

They started work by looking over promising leftovers from the previous sessions. The rockabilly shuffle “Claudine,” which everyone in the band loved and which by all rights should have been a minor classic, was disqualified (again) for fear of legal action by its subject, French actress Claudine Longet (who was let off with a slap on the wrist for fatally shooting her boyfriend.) Ultimately, “Summer Romance” and “Where the Boys Go” were plucked off the shelf, at the expense of several arguably stronger tracks. (“Start Me Up” was right there, just waiting to be picked up.) 

It seemed a promising start — two songs for the new album already in the can! The Stones got down to work on the remainder of the album, following their usual pattern: three or four separate batches of recording sessions, separated by long breaks and switching studios at least once, and a final round of overdubbing and mixing at yet another studio. They tended to write and arrange once sessions were underway, allowing the songs to develop organically and spontaneously, catching the vibe of the room and each other, for better or worse. 

The Compass Point sessions in January and February yielded little usable material. This was not unusual, as the first session was almost always a kind of shakedown rehearsal. The Stones reconvened months later at the site of their earlier recording triumph, the Pathe-Marconi Studios in Paris. There they spent the summer and early fall grinding away at below-average songs in a tense and moody atmosphere. Although he was finally off heroin, Keith was not averse to any other controlled substance, and like many former heroin addicts, he substituted liquor. Copious amounts of cocaine were still on the menu as well. He was usually eagerly joined by Woody. Keith veered between being a boozy, unproductive zombie and a coked-up, manic taskmaster, staying up for four days running. As he forced the band through take after uninspired take, he would growl his frequent refrain “Nobody sleeps while I’m awake!” The more even-keeled and professional Mick was annoyed to no end. Bassist Bill Wyman was rumored to be quitting the band.

By the time of the last sessions at New York City’s Electric Lady Studios in November and December 1979, Mick and Keith were at each other’s throats over every minor detail of the final mix. Keith has speculated that Mick had gotten used to running the Stones’ affairs on his own while Keith was incapacitated by opiates in the mid-70s. When he finally got clean (or his version of clean), Mick was disinclined to share the power again. 

The album hit shelves in June 1980, with a distinctive cover featuring photos taken by a thermo camera. The heat generated by the Stones’ faces on the sleeve was not always matched by the contents within. Despite some justified grumbling from music critics, the record-buying public gave the Stones another #1. 

Emotional Rescue, 1980

Side one, track one is “Dance (Pt. 1).” Originally devised as a mostly-instrumental groove piece, the main riff was cooked up by Woody, who receives a rare co-writing credit. The lyrics are minimal (although Keith complained there were still too many.) Having successfully pulled off a very nimble semi-rap on “Shattered,” Mick continues to experiment with spoken-word segments, to varying degrees of success. On “Dance (Pt. 1),” it mostly comes out as a clumsy babble that opens the song, and immediately lowers expectations. But the track recovers, becoming one of Emotional Rescue’s high points — it does indeed have a great dance beat, its minimal chorus is catchy (aided by the backing vocals of reggae artist Max Romeo), the percussion by Santana drummer Michael Shrieve creates a hypnotic rhythm, and one of the Stone’s greatest sidemen, Bobby Keys, returns on sax after a multi-year absence. 

The problems begin with the very next song, “Summer Romance,” one of the Some Girls outtakes. It’s easy to see why it was left off that album, as it sounds pretty much like the punky Some Girls fast numbers…only not as good, lacking the feral ferocity of something like “Lies.” The lyrics are a disaster, and the music is generic and predictable. Woody revealed a lot of songs were being arranged to this simplistic template around this time because Mick wanted to play rhythm guitar. “Send It to Me” is the album’s token reggae song, and it is thoroughly listless. The band clearly loves the genre, but their attempts at performing it were always ham-fisted.

Things perk up a little with “Let Me Go” — the Stones finally sound like the Stones on this track. Unlike the stiff, cookie-cutter “Summer Romance,” the music here breathes and motors along effortlessly. The lyrics hearken back to mid-60s cold-hearted blow-offs like “Out Of Time” and “Yesterday’s Papers.” Keith lets loose with a terrific solo, and the punchy beat is perfectly accentuated by guest percussionist Michael Shrieve (and if I make a point of praising a tambourine, you know it’s good.) 

Hopes raised…then dashed. “Indian Girl” may be the worst Rolling Stones song…ever. The lyrics, sung by Mick in an earnest tremolo, are an attempt at writing a socially-conscious protest song about the plight of orphans caught in the crossfire of the Nicaraguan Revolution. This sort of thing was never the band’s strong suit, and they really put their foot in it here, with lines like “All the children were dead/Except for one girl who said/’Mr. Gringo please find my father…’” The music is mostly inoffensive, a basic acoustic country ramble with some Spanish flourishes on marimba, but when those totally tasteless mariachi horns come blaring in…no thanks. 

“Where the Boys Go,” the second Some Girls leftover, is unsurprisingly another variation on the “Summer Romance” formula — a labored, short & fast, uh-oh-Mick’s-on-guitar number, and the amateur female vocals on the fade-out chorus (rumored to be Mick’s girlfriend Jerry Hall and Woody’s wife Jo) are an embarrassment. And just like almost every latter-day Stones album has a token reggae track, it will usually have a token blues track. “Down in the Hole” fulfills that role here, and does little else. The Stones have always been much more comfortable with the blues than with reggae, and they were able to toss this one off in two takes. Despite the return of Sugar Blue on harmonica, and some nice guitar work, this is filler.

Then…Emotional Rescue trots off to a surprisingly strong finish. The title track is essentially “Son of ‘Miss You’” (much as “Get Off My Cloud” was “Son of ‘Satisfaction’” back in ‘65). The same solid four-on-the-floor disco beat courtesy of drummer Charlie Watts, the same percolating bass from Bill, and Mick doing his best lascivious Jagger. Seductive falsetto, by turns domineering and pleading, and some faintly ridiculous spoken asides (“I’ll be your knight in shining armor…coming to your em-o-tional resssscue…”) It never lifts into the stratosphere the way “Miss You” does, and a lot of people, post disco-era, found the song pretty hard to take. I have a soft spot for it, and it’s having a bit of a revival. It was included on their 2013-14 tour, and people are starting to realize it’s a cool bit of campy fun.

“She’s So Cold” is one of two songs that made the cut from the initial Compass Point sessions. The lyrics come in bursts, all chattering desperation, the singer’s lust being repaid with the ice queen’s cold shoulder until he finally explodes in frustration — “She’s so goddamn cold!” Woody’s slide guitar winds around Keith’s muscular MXR-assisted rhythm like a sinew, and he also provides a few lines of tasty pedal steel. “She’s So Cold” was released as a single, so I guess it can’t really be called a “deep cut,” but it’s one of my favorite “minor” Stones songs.

The other Compass Point track closes out the album, and features Keith on lead vocals. “All About You” was the first in a long line of Keith’s “slow jams” that tended to appear late in an album’s second half — a very minimal melody that wraps around his seductive talk-singing, spare arrangements featuring a few jazzy horn bleats, and bleary, phased guitar that all combine to create a three-in-the-morning vibe. The lyrics of “All About You” were interpreted to be about the bitter end of Keith’s decade-long relationship with Anita Pallenberg. “Well, if you call this a life/Why must I spend mine with you?…I’m so sick and tired/Of hanging around dogs like you…You want, you want, you want, you want/You get, you get, you get, you get…So how come I’m still in love with you?”

Even at the time, Keith admitted if the song was about anything, it was about Mick.

Taking a break from promoting ER, NYC, July 1980

Once the promotional work for the album was done, Mick flew off on a long vacation in Morocco, informing the disappointed band there would be no 1980 tour, just as there was no 1979 tour. He sent the bad news via telex after he was long gone.

But touring was the band’s bread and butter…they all knew for certain they had to get back out on the road some time in 1981. The other certainty: a new album was needed to tour behind, with enough big, catchy songs to please a stadium audience when sprinkled among the Stones’ road-tested staples. They knew Emotional Rescue lacked that visceral punch, plus it would be well over a year old by the time the tour eventually kicked off, and two by the time it finished. And frankly, the band didn’t like it much anyway. (“Let Me Go” would be the only Emotional Rescue song that found a permanent spot in the ‘81-’82 tour setlist. “She’s So Cold” was added intermittently.) 

But no one really wanted to go into the studio and whip up a new batch of songs. Keith was a full-blown alcoholic, rarely seen without a bottle of Jack Daniel’s tucked into the crook of his arm. And Woody was going down the dark path of freebasing rock cocaine, skipping meetings and rehearsals, and coming to the brink of getting fired. Bill and Charlie shrugged and retreated to their country estates, waiting to be summoned back to work. Bill was rumored to be quitting the band.

Chris Kimsey

It was up to Chris Kimsey to save the day. The enterprising recording engineer knew there was a vast amount of unreleased material ripe for the picking, and with maximum ingenuity on his part, and minimal effort on the band’s part, he could assemble what would be presented as the new Rolling Stones album for 1981, and no one would be the wiser. When Mick returned from his holiday, he and Kimsey spent the late summer of 1980 sorting through literally hundreds of unused recordings. Some of the artifacts were practically complete, some merely promising fragments. They culled what they thought had the most possibilities, and presented the tapes to the rest of the Stones when everyone met up again at Pathe-Marconi in mid-October.

For the next four weeks, the Rolling Stones plunged into polishing up the unearthed songs. Some received minimal overdubs and were deemed complete, some needed a little more elbow grease, and at least one was treated as a demo for an entirely new recording (“Neighbors”). When the band wrapped up this speedy (for them) process and scattered to the four winds again, the basic tracks were finished, but lacked vocals and a final polish. Once again, the project was left to Mick and Kimsey to shepherd. In April and May of 1981, a sheaf of lyric sheets in hand, Mick recorded all the main vocals in a freezing Paris warehouse, rented on the cheap, using the Stones’ famous “Mighty Mobile” portable studio equipment. Kimsey remembers seeing icy breath coming out of Mick’s mouth. Mick himself remembers cutting some vocal tracks in the warehouse’s janitorial closet. A few days in June saw a final round of sessions at Atlantic Studios in New York to apply the finishing touches — backing vocals, various bits and pieces, and grace notes like the sax of Sonny Rollins and the percussion of Michael Carabello. The final sprinkle of pixie dust was a crisp, uniform mix by Bob Clearmountain designed to disguise the album’s patchwork origins. And voila! a spanking-new Stones album concocted using half the man-hours it usually took.

The album was released on the last day of August 1981. And here’s my “Holy Bee Recommends” within a “Does NOT Recommend” essay — I really enjoy Tattoo You…and so did millions of others. Another #1!

Tattoo You, 1981

The charge is led by “Start Me Up.” Just as people remember Tattoo You as the “last good Stones album” (I always defend Voodoo Lounge as my choice for that spot, usually to blank stares), “Start Me Up” is the “last great Stones anthem.” It dates from the 1975 Black and Blue sessions, and it was a reggae song at the time. You can still hear the song’s reggae origins in the stutter-stop main riff. It was re-worked as a rock song during the ‘77 Some Girls sessions, but didn’t make the cut. 

The tempo speeds up still further with the hard, fast “Hang Fire,” also originally recorded in 1977. The new lyrics decry the state of Thatcher’s Britain, all bad economy and low morale. “Nobody ever works, nothing ever gets done…I’m on the dole, we ain’t for hire…Say what the hell…” It’s a guitar tour-de-force from Keith, and we get a little piano from original Stones pianist Ian Stewart, whose appearances on record were getting rarer. “Slave” dates from 1975, which explains why the organ of Billy Preston and percussion of Ollie E. Brown are in the mix. A grinding funk work-out with minimal lyrics, Keith is the sole guitarist and provides the growling, dirty riffage, while the Who’s Pete Townshend chants along on backing vocals. A 1981 addition is the saxophone of Sonny Rollins.

Keith takes the microphone spotlight for his devotional love song to his new girlfriend, model Patti Hansen — “Little T&A.” I guess she was flattered, as they married in 1983 (and remain married to this day.) The song itself dates from the early ‘79 Compass Point sessions, and is a great chunk of retro rock & roll. The blues song “Black Limousine” originated from 1974’s It’s Only Rock and Roll sessions, but Kimsey picked a ‘77 version as the basis for the final cut. It has an undeniable spark of energy and inspiration (unlike “Down in the Hole”). Woody’s late-addition guitar solo earned him another co-writing credit, and Mick doubles the main riff on harmonica. “Neighbors” is another up-tempo rock & roll number, the bare bones of which date from the Emotional Rescue sessions in the summer of ‘79. But it was entirely re-recorded in the fall of 1980, with Mick’s new lyrics added the following spring, inspired by the trials and tribulations of the poor souls who lived near Keith in his Manhattan apartment circa 1979-80. He was evicted (or almost evicted, memories are hazy) for blasting reggae on his massive stereo at ear-splitting volume at all hours.

The first half of Tattoo You burns by — four kick-ass rock songs, an uptempo Chicago blues, and a blistering slab of dancefloor funk. The second half is the “slow side.” This is where the album eases off the gas, settles down, lights some candles, etc.

“Worried About You” is one of the Stones’ great lost treasures (or nearly lost — it has been revived for several tours in the 2000s-2010s), a soulful ballad originally intended for Black and Blue. The guitar of Wayne Perkins, a big presence on those sessions as a possible Mick Taylor replacement, is retained in the final mix. (Woody eventually got the job.) The song makes good use of Mick’s falsetto and Keith’s underrated harmonies. Mick Taylor himself is prominently heard towards the end of “Tops,” a slow-burner in the mold of late-period Motown or “Philly Soul.” The track is one of the deepest dives Mick and Kimsey took, dating from the fall of 1972. 

The moody, atmospheric “Heaven,” with its breathy vocalizations and Eastern feel (similar to “Moonlight Mile”) has mysterious origins. The whole conceit of Tattoo You was that it was assembled from earlier material, but no one knows where “Heaven” came from. It is likely that it is the only song composed specifically for Tattoo You, during the fall 1980 overdub sessions. Keith still couldn’t deal with Mick for very long, and left Paris quite a bit earlier than everyone else. Lord knows where Woody was at any given time. One night, the lonely little trio of Mick, Charlie, and Bill concocted “Heaven,” with Bill laying down a bed of synths and Kimsey kicking in with some electric piano. Improvised on the spot? Based on an older idea? No one remembers, but the results are very pretty. It is followed by the Emotional Rescue outtake “No Use in Crying,” to my ears the album’s lone weak spot. Nothing is specifically wrong with it, it’s just another soul ballad, slightly pedestrian. Anything it does, “Worried About You” or “Tops” does better.

The album closes with a second dusted-off ‘72 Goats Head Soup relic, and what many consider its second-strongest song (after the mighty “Start Me Up”). The powerful ode to friendship, “Waiting on a Friend,” is another number widely believed to be about the Jagger-Richards relationship. This interpretation seems to be confirmed by the song’s sentimental video. Mick waits on an East Village stoop for the arrival of Keith, and after a friendly embrace, they head for a nearby bar for a leisurely jam with the rest of the band. I’m not a jazz guy, but I’m told Sonny Rollins is one of the greats, and his sax solo here is considered one of the most sublime moments ever provided by a Stones guest musician. (I’m partial to Al Perkins’ pedal steel solo on “Torn and Frayed” myself. Again, not a jazz guy.) 

The U.S. leg of their world tour kicked off in September, and Tattoo You proved its worth as concert fodder — “Hang Fire,” “Neighbors,” “Little T&A,” “Black Limousine,” and especially “Start Me Up” kept audiences on their feet. “Waiting on a Friend” allowed everyone to catch their breath. (“Tops” was the only choice that didn’t really work in concert — it was dropped after a couple of appearances.) The tour was a massive success, re-confirmed the Stones’ status as rock gods, and spawned the concert film Let’s Spend the Night Together directed by Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, Shampoo, Being There, etc.), though Bill was rumored to be quitting the band.

By the time they came off the road in mid-summer of 1982, Mick and Keith had reached enough of a detente to begin working on new material together. The bonhomie displayed in the “Waiting on a Friend” video was largely a put-on, but they were willing to be professional. However, within a year, there was a nasty surprise waiting to be sprung that would threaten to end the Jagger-Richards relationship, and the Rolling Stones, permanently… 

TO BE CONTINUED.

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