Friday, 23 September 2011
The Rolling Stones "Steel Wheels" (1989) (News, Views and Music 113)
The Rolling Stones “Steel Wheels” (1989)
Sad Sad Sad/Mixed Emotions/Terrifying/Hold On To Your Hat/Hearts For Sale/Blinded By Love//Rock And A Hard Place/Can’t Be Seen/Almost Hear You Sigh/Continental Drift/Break The Spell/Slipping Away
‘The music’s screaming, my feet are flying, everybody’s laughing and nobody’s crying’
What does a band do when it reaches its 25th anniversary? Actually in AAA land we’ve only had to ask this question twice – since The Who came to a soggy halt in 1982, The Hollies lost their album contract in 1980 and The Searchers had only been a touring band since the early 1970s, this left The Kinks and Stones the only bands from the 1960s still a rocking and a rolling and making albums with any regularity. By now the Stones have been going as long as some of the grizzled blues veterans who inspired them to take up music in the first place, even though their music – perhaps of all the glorious 1960s canon – was in many ways the most young and delinquent. While The Kinks are on a go-slow on a fading record contract and struggling towards a very final end (albeit with their 1989 release ‘UK Jive’ their best in years), though, the Stones have regrouped, re-thought and re-bonded. While critics point to this being Bill’s final farewell, leaving the Stones as a core trio from here on, actually it’s the tightest the Stones have been for years (which is I think partly why Bill left, as after this album he saw that the Stones could continue indefinitely and wasn’t sure he wanted to commit that much that often with so many other things to do), it’s really the tightest the band had been in years. For the first time in a long time all the band are clean – Keith, Ronnie and Charlie having all beaten their respective demons. For the first album in many a long year Mick and Keith started their songs from scratch together, actually hanging round each other to write rather than throwing each other bits of half-finished songs on the back of tour busses. For the first time in many a long year all the band were in the studio from the first note to the last, with no breakaway solo albums or random holidays in the middle of making ‘Steel Wheels’.
Most of all, though, everyone was working from the same page: what would a logical 1980s update of an old Stones sound be like? Usually Stones records fall into ‘Mick’ or ‘Keith’ camps. The tug-of-world-war-III that nearly broke up the band many times across the 1980s was caused because Mick was used to being in control of the ship while Keith was out of it and on his recovery Richards tried to re-steer them back to where he wanted to go. Jagger, used to his role as captain across some very difficult stormy waters, wasn’t prepared to give up being in charge. The two just had very different measures of success for the band (The Stones had been far more commercial across the early 1980s with Mick in charge than they had been in the early 1970s when making their more fan favourite albums like ‘Exile On Main Street’ – they just lost popularity with their core fanbase. And who was more important?) The gulf seemed unimaginable as the captains fought over the sinking ship that found that bedraggled and becalmed somewhere around 1986’s ‘Dirty Work’. However ‘Steel Wheels’ is perhaps the first album since ‘Sticky Fingers’ that features both Glimmer twins wanting the same thing. This is not an album where Mick wants to drive the band forward to contemporary styles like disco or dance. But this is not an album that sticks to re-hashed Chuck Berry riffs in the Keith Richards mould either. k. Somehow it comes out of the frying pan sounding more Stonesy than any album since 1971, as if only after working apart do Mick and Keith realise just how badly they really needed each other. As the title suggests, this record doesn’t re-invent the wheel, it just re-enforces it, making the bond stronger so the band can last another quarter century (and counting). However never again will the band jump on such a treadmill: after seventeen albums in those first twenty-five years we will only have four in the next twenty-five. Starting with this album every Stones release is a big event, to be celebrated with a tour that lasts a year or even longer, with a massive publicity blaze which means that no fan who ever had any fondness for the Stones could possibly miss it the way they did the anonymous ‘Dirty Work’.
This would never have worked if this record had been lacklustre or disappointing. ‘Steel Wheels’ has rather fallen from favour in the years since its release (with the fuss over sequels ‘Voodoo Lounge’ and ‘Bridges To Babylon’ ever bigger) to the point where many reviewers actively hate it. At the time however this record was met with relief. It’s not for nothing that the band choose this record to talk about having ‘lost their touch’ and their need to be what they used to be if they want to have a future. It’s also notable that it’s this album that has a whole Jagger lyric about ‘Sweethearts Together’ with lines about how a long-lasting relationship offers you so much more than one-night stands ever could and given that the Stones relationship has lasted twenty years and counting longer than any of his actual relationships it doesn’t take a genius to work out that he’s actually talking about Keith here). This is also the Stones album that begins with a one-two-three punch of the rock and roll songs that had once been the band’s bread and butter, before psychedelia, Mick Taylor and lethargy had got in the band’s way. The atmosphere in the room is electric: everyone is glad to be here, not marking time before they can make another solo record. However it’s not just the return to a familiar sound that makes this album stand out: there’s a casual daring to this work too. This album marks Mick and Keith doing a country song all the way through without sending it up for once (the sweet ‘Blinded By Rahhhnbows’). This is the record that sees the return of the Pan Pipes of Jajouka, who against the odds are still going twenty years after working with Brian Jones and whose presence on ‘Continental Drift’ (featuring the children of the tribesmen who once played on that LP) somehow manages to be the most forward-looking song on the album, a sweet tribute twenty years (and a month’s delay) since the 20th anniversary of their fallen comrade’s death. ‘Almost Hear You Sigh’ is the story of the sessions, as Mick regroups with an old flame who ‘had a cold look in your eye’ and mourns their loss, imagining them next to him and wondering what they’re up to before re-connecting and finding things as magical as they ever were, the distance between the couple a ‘bad dream’. ‘Steel Wheels’ is an album that, more than ever before, cares about what the audience might think about it: ‘Mixed Emotions’ is such a template Stones song that it seems odd to think the Glimmer, Twins hadn’t written it in their first quarter century, with ‘Sad Sad Sad’ their most obviously rockabilly moment and ‘Terrifying’ their hardest ever hitting rocker, in between cute ballads, blues and something a bit different. It’s as if the Stones have taken a little bit from all eras of their past and mixed it all together in a big cup. Given that fans spent the run-up to this album (a three year gap was a long time in the 1980s) fearing the worst and that a split was imminent, this album was a huge present fans couldn’t get enough of. It’s only now, several comeback albums on similar styles later, with even higher highs (if also much lower lows) that this record seems forgettable: at the time it was an album you had to have. Even now it remains perhaps the band’s most consistent record in twenty years.
At the time the World War III split seemed inevitable. Though it started off in the same slow manner of the state of the band in 2011 – the digs in ‘Dirty Work’, a few snarky comments in the press (or in 2010 read Keith Richards’ autobiography ‘Life’), a solo album or two (in 2011 read Mick’s new supergroup with Bob Marley Jnr, Dave Stewart, etc) and before you know it a whole year has gone by with the band on hiatus and barely speaking to each other. Keith had been exasperated by Mick releasing several solo albums in the 1980s – many of them holding up work and taking all the ‘good’ songs that the guitarist thought should have ended up on Stones LPs – and had vowed to press and fans alike that he would never do the same, before doing exactly the same with his own solo album ‘Talk Is Cheap’ in 1988 (the moment many fans say they thought it was all over, after comments that Keith would never quit the band). Surprisingly Keith’s unusually reticent about this era in his otherwise damning autobiography – this is the chapter most fans were dreading, as the bare bones of the hatred between the two chief Stones were laid bare for the first time – but after niggling over Mick’s behaviour for most of the book all Keef will say is that the two of them led very different lives in this period: Mick going to every party and business meeting he can, making sure he’s pictured with the wealthiest and most famous clients while Keef hangs around the disreputable drug dealers, musicians and anyone with an interesting story to tell. Fans know better though: just look at the (sadly rarely screened) video for  ‘One Hit To The Body’: yes, that really is the Glimmer Twins fist-fighting each other! (and no, their acting’s not that good!) Look too at the press reports for those years (Jagger: ‘I can’t see us ever being able to work together’; Richards: ‘He should stop trying to be like Peter Pan and grow up’; Wyman: ‘It looks as if the Stones are finished. How sad we went out with a whimper and not a big bang...’ (that last verse may well be what the Stones were referring too with their so-far last album ‘A Bigger Bang’ – certainly there were rumours at the time that this was the end, but we’ve been there before guys, many many times).
So how was the split avoided? Unusually – and despite the way fans perceive the dispute – it was Mick who provided the first olive branch. Whether because of the lack of success for his solo albums or a genuine love of the band or both, Mick went to Keef cap in hand saying he would pause his solo, career and commit himself to a Stones album if he wanted it too. Keith was nervous: what did they even have in common to write about anymore?, The pair agreed to spend a few days in Bermuda together writing songs together just to see if they could without throwing things at each other, before getting the rest of the band involved. Any major disagreements and they would agree that at least they tried and then go their separate ways. Understandably the first few writing sessions were tense as Mick and Keith realised they hadn’t worked this way since the 1960s. Keith teased Mick with one of his earliest songs ‘Mixed Emotions’, a lyric he cheekily admitted later at least partly came from the phrase ‘Mick’s Demotion’, a comment lifted from one of the reviews of the Keith-dominated album ‘Dirty Work’. Somehow, though, the pair stopped being bitter enemies worried about their differences and found their common similarities. Mick and Keith still had a love for all the same old music. They still had a great burning desire to be successful, even though they had done better than they ever could have guessed starting out. And they still had a shared love for this band that they didn’t want to give up on easily. Slowly, but remarkably easily, they re-discovered their old writing partnership and the telepathy they’d had in the beginning so0 that they ended up with a larger pile of songs than they had in years (1978?) Suddenly, after a decade and a half’s tradition of trawling through the vaults looking for ideas discarded last time they could use again they had too many ideas to record in one go.
It was the same for the band when Ronnie, Bill and Charlie got involved again too: these were the easiest set of sessions in years, the band sufficiently scared by the near-end of their careers to really pull together and make the most of this music, hanging out at the sessions even when they weren’t needed and pulling together as a team. Mick’s vocal gymnastics on songs like ‘Hold On To Your Hats’ are his best in years (on recent albums its only the jokey dance record  ‘Too Much Blood’ and gorgeous ballads like  ‘Heaven’ that have sustained his interest, not rockers like this one); Keef’s two songs are the yin to Mick’s yang, slow ballads that are all about worn down blues rather than Mick’s breathless energy and yet they fit better than ever before, complementing rather than competing with Mick’s songs and doing something different yet the same (many of Mick’s vocals are weary rock songs). Best of all, Charlie Watts – who’s looked patently bored on stage all the way through the Stones’ story to date and seemingly more committed to his side jazz bands - seems to have finally realised just how great rock and roll can be and he’s the band’s greatest weapon from this point on to date. Alas Bill Wyman (on his last album with the group) and Ronnie Wood get very little to do despite both being able players (indeed, Bill’s bass playing often gets replaced by Ronnie’s in this period and I’ve no idea why – Wyman’s one of the best players around) but, no matter (unless you’re poor Bill that is) – this is still the sound of the Stones, but as re-dressed for a more modern audience just getting interested again in the sound of the 1960s (1988-90 saw an absolute flood of archive releases from this website’s favourite decade). And full marks to the band – there’s not one horrible 1980s synthesiser on the whole record, unlike pretty much all their contemporaries, and no real overdubs barring horns and the Jajouka panpipes. If only The Stones had always sounded like this! I mean, when had the Stones ever pulled together as a team? The Brian Jones years were full of tension as Mick and Keith took over the band, the Mick Taylor years were marked by Keith’s drug dependency and the first decade with Ronnie Wood had been overshadowed by the power-play between the two leaders. Now, at last, there was nothing in the band’s way. After years of sly digs like  ‘Had It With You’, ‘Steel Wheels’ is a determined record and if it has a theme it’s one of survival – in songs predominantly about lovers but also world politics there are lots of references to getting back together again after an obstacle and how things are going to be different this time. There’s a sense of rebirth here, of finding your worth after nearly losing it and wanting to put the world to rights again.
What we get, too, is a mixture of the two very different sounds Mick and Keef had been busy working on across their respective solo albums ‘Primitive Cool’ and ‘Talk is Cheap’, as if the two have been laid over the top of one other. Like Keith’s first solo record the riffs are there, there’s lots of room to rock with a swing the pair could never have managed on their own and there’s a grunt and power you’d expect, but also there’s a sense of something a bit deeper and a bit different from the best of Jagger’s solo work that Keith couldn’t come up with on his own. Mick’s ‘Goddess In The Doorway’ and ‘Primitive Cool’ are dance records in all but name, like Stones single  ‘Miss You’ but long after that single’s use of falsetto and dance beats were pioneering. They’re the sound of Mick showing off his great vocal range and his poppier commercial instincts, dressed up to sound huge. Keith, meanwhile, had been getting all informal with some laidback confessional songs on the acoustic guitar, more akin to Cat Stevens or Paul Simon than the Stones of old. How could these two very different styles possibly connect on a single Stones album? Quite well, as it turned out as this album is retro and reflective but also aware of modern sounds – this record sounded, in 1989, quite cutting edge for the first time since punk but without the problems of ‘Dirty Work’ or many albums by the band’s peers (Chris Kimsey’s last hurrah as producer is terrific: there are no synths and Charlie plays real drums on every track; even the chorus of backing singers is more sparingly used than in times past).
The lyrics to this album are a step up from ‘Undercover’ and ‘Dirty Work’ for the most part, with some autobiographical bits about the band’s recent fall-out and what was happening in the Stones’ always busy love lives at the time. But the music is a mixture of the Stones rock of old and new kind of groove, a four-to-the-beat dance groove, stapled firmly into place by Charlie Watts’ excellent drumming, but not as limiting as the productions on Mick’s albums had been, with space for the others to find their own style within the noise. Quite why parts of this album works so well – and admittedly why parts of it doesn’t – is a mystery: dance doesn’t usually mean confessional writing (or even good music for the most part) and yet the backing is infectious, a propelling engine room that hurries the songs through without robbing them of their subtlety or delicacy. Things can only go downhill from here – producers like Don Was will hear what they think are great big whacking holes in the middle of this new Stones sound and attempt to fill them with every gimmick and sound effect under the sun – but here for the most part the silence helps the songs, giving them space to breathe and head out in lots of directions at once.
Perhaps the biggest change between the still-scattered Stones of ‘Dirty Work’ and the new look ‘Steel Wheels’ band happened in December 1985 and is sadly little commented on by reviewers. Sixth Stone Ian Stewart may have given up his rights to being a full stone back in 1963 (when manager Andrew Loog Oldham made the curious decision to make the band a quintet because ‘six was too many for a record cover’; try telling that to Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers!) but he never stopped guiding them down the years – at first as a roadie and driver and occasional piano player and later as the band’s one last link to their ‘old days’; the one person admired enough by the band to get away with telling them when they were doing badly. In December 1985 Stu died of a massive heart attack. Aware that She had been critical of the direction the band had taken, did the band decide they wanted to get back together and do things properly, so that their old friend could be proud of them? Or did his death remind them of just how lucky they’d been to have only lost Brian Jones during their amazing daredevil circus ride through music? (The same happened with Brian’s death in 1969, where onlookers remembered a haggard-looking Mick yelling ‘It goes on!’ over and over – tragedy brings out the stubborn streak in this band). ‘Steel Wheels’ doesn’t have much boogie-woogie in it (and Stu would have hated the minor chords of some of the ballads on the album) but otherwise it feels as if ‘Steel Wheels’ was made as an album Stu could have been proud of. Brian too thanks to the extra overdubs and exotica across this album. Only Mick Taylor would have sounded at odds with this album’s style (the biggest difference between this record and ‘Voodoo Lounge’).
So if the sound is good, the players are committed and the album improves heartily on the last half dozen Stones albums, why isn’t this record a true classic? Well, for one thing, there’s that godawful cover: if you had to sum up the band’s undying spirit and rock belief it would not be a bunch of grey wheels interconnecting with each other. Unlike most people in the world I happen to like gray – it’s the world’s greatest colour, it goes with everything without drawing attention to itself and can be very interesting when used in the right way (ever seen a really good black and white film or Dr Who episode? It’s the grey passages that are the most atmospheric) but this is just horrid and ugly. No wonder people assumed such a boring looking album cover houses such a boring looking album! It even makes the lurid costumes worn by a suddenly aged band on the cover of ‘Dirty Work’ look good! And the inside gatefold picture of the band is an even worse picture than that: a photo-collage of a screaming Mick Jagger is quite simply frightening, Keef and Ronnie’s attempts to look cool make them look anything but and all we get of Bill Wyman is his chin and of Charlie Watts an eye. Full marks for the music – none at all for the horrid packaging! The production too is best described as ‘busy’. As poor as records like ‘Emotional Rescue’ and ‘Dirty Work’ are, at least everything is in its place and there’s a place for everything; much of your enjoyment of ‘Steel Wheels’ depends on if you can unscramble this disjointed mix back together again in your imagination, with everyone so badly separated in the mix the Stones and sundry guest parts sound like ghosts sweeping in and sweeping out. This is also the start of a tendency to make Charlie the noisiest member of the band, recorded up loud to the point where he drowns out everything; he should be right in the middle holding everything together, not on top as the strap that keeps the band from breaking free placed over the top. Even so, even if ‘Steel Wheels’ is nearly great rather than ‘wheely great’ there’s a lot more to like than dismiss: the power of those performances! The depth of those songs! That impressive variety! The sense of team spirit! The feeling that the Stones can now go on to do anything again, their catalogue reborn! The Stones juggernaut and the feeling the band members have for their legacy is too strong to let it die out and instead ‘Steel Wheels’ finds them all further down the road, finding new things to say and new ways to say it. As loved as it was when it came out, nearly thirty years on now ‘Steel Wheels’ seems like one of the band’s more unfairly forgotten LPs which even below the production titanium wheel-nuts that make it sound very of its era still somehow manages to be a later-period classic and a very timeless release.
Unlike some reviewers, who see the straightforward rock and roll first side as merely a ‘warm up’ for the more experimental second, I think the album begins with perhaps one of the greatest one-two-three-four rock and roll punches of the band’s career, perhaps anybody’s career.  ‘Sad Sad Sad’ is the most traditional of these, the most obviously Stones-like song on the whole album. Though it comes with that title, it’s actually a bouncy sort of song, perfect for the unusual role an opening track on an album always has (needing to lure you in without using up all the big guns too quickly). The album starts with the line ‘Fling you into orbit, nobody’s going to hear you shout!’ and can be seen as Mick and Keith’s response to their solo careers sinking without trace and their need to fly back to the Stones mothership. It gets weirder though: the elephant in the room neither can talk about is in the bedroom ‘throwing all his weight about’ with the narrator locked in the tinier bathroom, wondering why his world is growing smaller. It could be that this song started out as a nasty song on the lines of  ‘Had It With You’ but the Stones calmed down before going that far (‘Are you ready for the tears of rage, that, baby are going to drown you out?’) Like many a song on this album, you could see it as being about the band: the lover, expecting yet another confrontation, finds himself sympathising with the person he thought he hated and ends with the reassuring line ‘you’re gonna be fine’ (although admittedly the strangulated scream Mick gives this line makes it clear this tempestuous relationship might not be ‘fine’ after all). However something seems to have changed: as heard rather than read this is a song of unity that could only work with a band as tight as the Stones playing it (this track would sound horrid with sessionmen playing). Keith’s latest riff is very Chuck Berry heavy and is immediately followed by a fast propelling Ronnie one, while the pair weave better than they’ve ever weaved before, while Ronnie’s solo is his single best one a Stones LP, all dark demonic desperation and wild fury that simply explodes out of the speakers. Meanwhile Mick’s sly vocal (singing ‘Sad’ the way he once sang  ‘Slave’, sometimes singing it as ‘mad’ too just for variety), and Charlie’s drumming right in the middle of all this chaos daring everyone to keep up with him really adds up to a storm of noise where everybody goads each other on and everything suddenly feels bigger as if we’re wrapped up in a tornado. Talk about taking a sad song and making it better! Only the presence of some unnecessary backing singers, handclaps and horns near the end overladen this simple song and make it topple over.
 ‘Mixed Emotions’, the first single from the album, got quite a ‘mixed’ response when it came out. Goodness knows why – it’s the best Stones single in years, catchy but deep, with a very recognisable Stones groove and strut but with a depth and purpose missing from the band’s singles for years and a particularly cracking chorus. This is another song that sounds like a metaphor for the Stones’ split: basically the sound of one lover saying to another that they’re sorry too about parting and have feelings to consider, it’s a song about uncertainty, about working out whether to go forward or split completely, sung with a certainty and confidence that suggests the pair are still coming to some sort of arrangement. Even so they’re badly hurt and wounded (It’s hurting my guts!’ sings Mick at one point), telling their lover to shut up with their accusations and taking them out dancing instead where they can forget their differences and worries and simply enjoy being together at last. The lyric gives Mick the opportunity to do his usual screaming, pleading, anger and niceness characters all in the space of a few verses as he offers to ‘bury the hatchet, wipe out the past’ and he returns to the scene of  ‘Sitting On The Fence’ with the line that his partner always sitting there is ‘hurting your butt!’ Again, the star of the track is Charlie Watts, whose high place in the mix gives the song a real rock and roll strut and makes this song sound like much more than just yet another variation on the  ‘Satisfaction’ riff the Stones have used so many times down the years. Sure some of the lyrics in the verses are a bit clunky, and Jagger’s line about ‘life being a party’ sounds awfully out of place in a song about an understanding over a lover’s feelings. But I’ll forgive anything for the adrenalin rush which is the chord change into the chorus, building the tension line by line until a particularly welcome group chorus soar their harmonies over the precipice, to land squarely back on their feet on the verses. The moment when the chorus topples over and spills over into the verses and back on Keith’s angry, restless riff is particularly clever, the song feeling for a moment as if its levitating before falling sharply down a very big cliff. Forget what the naysayers said: yes the odd line sinks like a, well, non-rolling Stone and the production separating everybody leaves you desperate for as remix one day, but in terms of both song and performance this is top notch, with everybody pulling together on a song that manages to be both light and fluffy for a single and dark and sombre enough for an album track that digs a little more than normal, with both the hurt and the recovery of the Stones in this period together in a single song.
 ‘Terrifying’ adds a kind of bluesy, subdued feel to The Stones’ canon without lessening up on the rock and roll thanks to one of Keith’s slinkiest, snappiest guitar riffs and is yet another success on the album’s strong first side. At first glance there’s not much to this song: a lazy list of animal metaphors and a chorus of ‘terrifying!’ matched to an insistent two-note riff hardly sounds like the greatest of platforms for the band to fly. But they do: Jagger’s dreamy, withdrawn vocal is miles away from the annoying ‘barking’ he kept giving lesser Stones songs in the 1970s, full of depth and yearning, as he admits he’s so addicted to someone (some band?) that he can’t keep away. Lyrically, this is another nothing song about how the lover draws out the animal lust in the narrator, infecting him with strange desires he’s never felt before. Unlike the past few dozen times the band have tried to pull off that trick, however, it all seems to come together: everything about this song is believable, from both the singer and the backing. Usually Stones tracks come in shades of colour but this one succeeds by never varying from the same tight claustrophobic riff except for a slight rise and fall in the chorus. Putting Charlie so central to this song, with the bass and two guitar parts weaving round him for a change, is a brilliant move and the Stones rarely put in a better performance than they do here on a song that sounds menacing and threatening throughout. An intriguing attempt to do something slightly different, it’s the perfect combination of Mick and Keith’s recent solo styles: the jazzy primal howl of ‘Primitive Cool’ and the pure Chuck Berry riffing of ‘Talk Is Cheap’ turning out more like house music, but better. The closing minute or so extended jam is particularly fine and the end result isn’t terrifying at all but exhilarating, so much tighter than the sloppy work on the earlier 1980s Stones albums that it’s hard to believe it is all by the same band.
Just as The Stones are getting too experimental for some comes  ‘Hold On To Your Hats’, one of the band’s greatest no-frills rockers that cranks the adrenalin back up to about a million and dispenses with all the period production trickery for a gloriously noisy performance with everyone playing live. Another variation on the old Chuck Berry riffs, this features yet another great performance, with Mick’s growling vocal relishing the words (has he ever sounded as animated as he does on this song’s second verse?), Ronnie filling in with some fiery guitar solos and Charlie doing more damage to a drum kit than anyone since the late, great Keith Moon. There’s nothing deep here – the narrator is simply exhorting his former lover to get out as quickly as possible – but it does make for another fascinating metaphor for the band situation, as if Mick and Keef are using their songs as therapy to work off their last bits of anger towards each other. ‘We’ll never make it!’ worries Mick, but adds that the band have to feel it and ‘can’t fake it!’ Mick’s narrator has recently been released from an asylum because his mental health is all better now, but his first thought is to celebrate by going back and tearing it all down. Seeing all the problems that have happened since he’s been away (‘You’re getting loaded and I’m being goaded!’) he implores the band to come back together one last time, to ‘get up or get out!’ I think it’s fair to say after this electrifying performance that the band get it up!!! Sure this is very retro stuff, sounding like a 1950s song covered by a punk band, but the lyrics and the riff do everything they need to do to, complete with a clever little backwards guitar riff at the second verse of each verse which prevents the song getting boring. The result is one hell of a lot more convincing than past attempts to rock out, such as 1986’s lacklustre  ‘Had It With You’, with everyone using the song to have fun and sound committed to the music that started their careers off in the first place. One of the best band performances on any Stones record of any era and one of the band’s more successful rockers of all time, an amazing fourth great recording in a row! (Even ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ and my beloved ‘Between The Buttons’ can’t compete with that!)
Alas, the Stones can’t keep this energy up and the album definitely dips from here. In fact, the band might have been better splitting up the opening four rock songs so that the rest of the album sounded a little more, well, alive.  ‘Hearts For Sale’ doesn’t sound bad in its own right – it is another experimental song that’s more like a Crazy Horse number with its slow tempo and slow build towards a crescendo – but it pales in comparison to the tracks before it, the slow tempo showing up the holes in the stones’ musicianship. While the earlier songs have been all about the melody and riffing, this one is all about the lyrics and seem to be an early one created from scratch for this album by Mick and Keith together. A couple have got back together again after a long time away and can’t remember why anything ever seemed more important than each other. In his element at last Jagger’s narrator cries that ‘the music’s screaming and my feet are flying’ as he remembers what it was to dance in front of a cracking band all over again. Dreaming of being back on stage again Mick cries that ‘the women look so beautiful I feel like singing!’ and admits that he’s ‘losing the willpower’ that made him vow never to get back with the ex who broke his heart. Instead of keeping it locked up tight forever, instead Mick is eager to offer his heart for sale over again, at a low bargain price. Nowhere in the song does the narrator actually talk to the girl to see what she wants but then, well, this is a Stones record after all – and it’s still a nice surprise after decades of such did-they-just-say-what-I-thought-they-said songs like the pro-rape  ‘Midnight Rambler’ and slavery singalong  ‘Brown Sugar’ to hear Mick actually be so pleased to be with someone. Perhaps it’s the confused resolution, perhaps it’s the slower tempo, perhaps Keith hasn’t got as ,much to do as before, but whatever it is there’s something about ‘Hearts For sale’ that prevents this song being a successful experiment, even while you applaud the band for doing something a little different.
 ‘Blinded By Love’ also slows the album to something of a crawl. A sweet acoustic ballad in the style of  ‘As Tears Go By’  ‘Lady Jane’ and  ‘Waiting On A Friend’, it manages to sound more naive, more generic and less heartfelt than any of them. Just listen to Jagger’s vocal, which by comparison to the past five tracks rambles all over Mick’s (admittedly large) vocal range, without commitment: it’s more like a guide vocal than something that should be on a piece of finished work. Not that Keefs’ backing vocals are any better, which make him sound drunk (as, indeed, he probably was). It’s often said of the Stones that Mick is as good as the band are at any one time: when they’re cooking there’s no one better and when their cocking it up he sounds like a mess. This is good evidence of that theory: the rest of the band sound unsure too, without any chance for the newly invigorated Charlie to shine and the addition of guesting organ and fiddle players is a bad sign of an arrangement getting out of hand. Country music is often the downfall of many a Stones record (however much Keith thinks he has a feel for the genre, he patently hasn’t, as a quick listen to close friend Gram Parsons’ records will show you) – while this song isn’t as bad as similar efforts like  ‘Dear Doctor’  ‘Faraway Eyes’ and  ‘Dead Flowers’, neither is it anything to get excited about. Lyrically it’s a why-did-they-bother? Song about love down the ages, starting with Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, working up to Samson and Delilah and ending up with King Edward and Wallis Simpson, all of them passing up their power in favour of love. This doesn’t sound a very Stones thing to do, but oddly nor are the band outwardly critical of this. The message: that love can make you do funny things. Like writing nothing songs like this, I suppose. There’s one great line in this song though: ‘Don’t mortgage your soul to a stranger’, one rife with ideas like long-term commitment, problems with finances and the fickleness of ever really getting to know a human being but alas that’s fleeting: most of this song is bog standard stuff. Amazingly Mick’s brother Chris gets a credit for ‘literary editor’ – was this song set to be even worse at one point before he got involved? The weakest song on the album.
Side two starts off with a more traditional Stones sound on  'Rock And A Hard Place', on a song that’s musically and lyrically a close cousin of the under-rated political rant  ‘Undercover Of The Night’ (the last big Stones hit to date at the time of recording – and as long ago as 1984). Over another classic and classy rock and roll riff, Mick tells us to spare a thought for people who haven’t got as much as others in life and which is a much better re-action to the Thatcher-inspired recession of the late 1980s than the lazy  ‘Hang Fire’. It’s easy to get sarcastic about rock stars writing songs about poverty when they could arguably get together and solve it themselves single-handedly, but there’s no doubting the Stones’ commitment on this track. The lyrics are among Mick’s best on the album: a starting line about the garden of Eden ‘full of trash’ is a great image, while there are other spot-on lyrics about offering hope and encouragement rather than attacking people let down by society. There’s also a great line that Presidents Bush and Blair would have done well to pay attention to: ‘This talk of freedom and human rights means bullying and private wars and chucking the dust in our eyes’. Our leaders won’t tell us the truth, goes this song, so the artists have a duty to tell us what’s really going on and the people are caught between a dictatorship that gives them no freedom and an abused democracy where everyone gets to mess up with nothing trickling down to the bottom. Interestingly the cold war came to an end not long after the Stones’ World War III’, with this one of the last of all AAA songs depicting two superpowers at war, neither of them with their people’s best interests at heart (the Berlin Wall came down three months after Steel Wheels’ release). That, I think, is what the rock and hard place is in this confusing song, between communism and capitalism. How odd that the Stones should have cottoned onto human rights as late as the 1980s, after twenty years of their peers condemning Vietnam and Korea but it is a sound that suits them. Perhaps it’s only here, some twenty-two years after their drug convictions were overturned, that the band feel safe speaking out? Or perhaps Jade Jagger’s charity work is having a good effect on her husband? Either way, I applaud the Stones for attempting this song, which at least attempts to put things right even if it’s not as exciting or as well thought out as other songs on this album. A slightly sterile horn arrangement and a group of anonymous backing singers detract from what should have been a great performance with the band themselves on great form: there’s another electrifying guitar solo, angry and penetrating, Charlie is menacing and gives no mercy and even Bill, on one of his few appearances on the album, gets a quick solo that’s mad, bad and dangerous to know. However, this is Mick’s show: no one else can get away with preening themselves and verbally strutting on a political protest song, but he gets away with it with flying colours. Deservedly the album’s second single, this song deserved to do better in the charts than it did - the band’s lowest up until that point.
 ‘Can’t Be Seen’ is Keef’s first vocal on the album and, unusually in this period for him, it’s a rocker, with an even more retro feel than the others on this album. Keef tries hard, with both his vocal and his guitar-work, but somehow despite a pretty interesting riff there’s not enough going on in this song to keep the listener’s ear. Ostensibly a song about hiding a relationship from prying eyes, it’s very similar to Ray Davies’ rants about the media and makes it clear that it’s probably more about the band than a loved one finding out, with a hint of  ‘Backstreet Girl’ in there too. Given that Keef’s singing the vocals, it’s probably fair to say that a fair share of the words are his and they make for fascinating reading: still angry at Mick perhaps, with complaints that past remarks ‘went just too deep with me’, it may even be about the pair’s worry that someone would spot them working together and make it into a big story back when both are still wary of each other. Somehow, though, this song became more about a marital relationship, an affair that’s too ‘dangerous’ (the one Mick had with President Trudeau’s wife maybe?) There’s a moment of conciliation, too, in the middle of the song which has the two protagonists coming together to fight off the media, ‘setting us up so they can shoot us down’ whereas the only person with the right to end their relationship is them – and neither of them want to. There’s even a bit of a band joke too when Richards’ narrator imagines himself in bed with his unnamed partner – we’d never sleep because ‘I’d always be awake’, listening to Jagger natter! Caught halfway between being played for drama and played for laughs (few other songs have a chorus that runs ‘Oh Shit!’), this song is good fun, running with the same energetic bounce of  ‘happy’ but with a sudden unexpected lurch to the minor key that keeps up guessing. Just how committed is this narrator, who keeps trying to duck and dive his commitment and whose vocal line never goes where we expect it to? A fascinating song to read in the lyric booklet, this is less satisfactory to hear, thanks to Keef’s aged strained vocals (his constitution might be made of steel but his voice certainly isn’t) and a messy backing track that sounds like it was taped early in the sessions before the band have really connected with each other. The fact that Mick is missing from the performance credits suggests either that this song still rankled or that Jagger wanted to keep out of the way and give Keef his own ‘voice’ unimpeded (a frequent complaint of the last few Stones albums). The result almost works and has enough to keep you involved, but doesn’t seem as memorable as some others from the album.
 ‘Almost Hear You Sigh’ is a breathy pop ballad, something very in fashion back in 1989, and while not the deepest thing on the record there is an aura of maturity about this track that makes it one of the better examples of this short-lived genre. Yet again, it could well refer to the band, with an upset lover remembering past times and wondering what the other is up to now as they regret things said in haste and how a relationship that once offered so much ended ‘with a cold look in your eye’. You can’t have gone though life being as close as Mick and Keef (on and off they’ve known each other since the mid-1950s) without it filtering through to your subconscious somewhere and if so then this quite a sweet song of conciliation, with what sounds like alternating verses about Mick and Keef as they fought in their own unique ways (‘turned on the charm’ sounds like the former, ‘acted much too calm’ sounds like the latter). However the pair know each other so well Mick can easily imagine his lover next to him – the way they used to look, the way they used to feel, the way they used to think. Even without that sub-plot, however, this is a charming song with Mick perfectly cast as the regretful lover, wondering whether things really are over or not and unsure where the future leads from here. There’s a lovely guitar lick that sounds more like Mark Knopfler than the usual Stones, while for once the ooh-ing choir sound as if they belong on this song, putting an eerie distance between Mick and the rest of the band. There’s even a most unexpected acoustic Spanish guitar solo from Keith that really makes the song, short as it is. For once on a Stones breakup song, you feel as if reconciliation is possible and Mick sings one of his best vocals on the fadeout, singing louder as everyone around him gets quieter. The arrangement of this song is probably the antithesis of the rest of the record then: for once it’s the piano and synth overdubs and especially the oooh-ing backing harmonies that work the best, with Keef’s guitar licks and Charlie’s drums getting in the way. Still, an impressive song handled surprisingly sensitively, the likes of which we fans never thought we would hear after ‘Dirty Work’.
 ‘Continental Drift’ is at once the simplest and most complex song here based around very few notes that all seem to come at an angle whilst also being the hardest recording to listen to for any length of time and yet the most rewarding of all the experiments on the album. A very psychedelic, surreal song without much going on, this is more of a phrase than a song, with Mick recalling  ‘2000 Light Years From Home’ as he tells us how ‘love comes at the speed of light’ and we need to be ready for it when it does. A song about changing horizons and the willingness to re-shape everything you thought you knew about your life’s direction, the clever title isn’t mentioned anywhere in the song. There was a lot of talk about this being the band’s 25th anniversary year and inevitably thoughts turned to the ‘missing’ Stone Brian Jones. One of the last things he did before his death was travel out to Morocco to record the Panpipes of Jajouka, one of the last musical tribes still in existence, with the aim of making a record so they were never forgotten (which was released posthumously on the Stones’ own label in 1971). Brian is still talked about in Tangier today with great love and reverence by the people there when he arrived– how amazed they were that a white Westerner had the intellect and the patience to understand their music and wanted to spread it to others. Back in 1989, many of the musicians who had first played with Jones in 1968 were still alive and their children had always wanted to play the way they had, on a shiny disc that could be replayed. The Stones’ tentatively reached out via their management, a really difficult task in itself given that they were hidden out in the jungle and they were sure that their invitation was going to be rejected. The tribe, though, was eager to take part and they really enhance a song that sounds tailor made for their unusual haunting abstract music, building up a trance-like hypnotic riff that sounds both beautiful and dangerous, with the power to transform and to destroy. The whole effect is, in true Stones manner meant to sound like the effect of having sex, building to a peak and then slowing, although the smutty interpretation of the lyrics in no way detracts from their poetry and romanticism in their own right (‘open the door and let the light pour over, it’s as pure silver, it’s as pure as gold, let it run all over me!’) The spiralling solo, which seems to have reached a climax, halts to a full stop and then runs off again in quite a different direction, without any natural sense of direction, while chanted backing vocals call at us from left and right brings out the tribal animalistic feel in the song, about love’s pure power in its most basic sense. Quite unlike any other track in the Stones canon, you have to applaud the Stones for their bravery and for the most part they pull of this experiment well. The only problem is that admiration doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with something you want to play over and over and this song can be hard work, especially now when the 1980s synths used underneath the track sound so dated. Still, I’d rather have dozens of experiments like this than yet another tired re-tread of  ‘Satisfaction’ and for me this is the last moment when the Stones were exciting and daring, giving us the last thing we would have been expecting. Surely the grandchildren of the Jajouka tribe are worthy of a comeback soon?
 ‘Break The Spell’ sounds a little bit ordinary after such daring, one of those generic blues songs the Stones still insist on sticking on all their recent album seven though nobody but the band seems to like them. This sounds very much like one of those honorary covers the Stones used to do as a matter of course, but is a fully paid up Jagger-Richards original that just happens to sound like Howlin’ Wolf on an off day. Mick sings in an unusual, deeper-than-normal whisper which sounds quite threatening, but it’s hard to work out what he’s singing and to be honest after studying the lyrics they’re not that rewarding when you do. The opening verse recalls  ‘Winter’ with its tale of snow and ice, but moves on to be another love story, the narrator saved from his endless drudgery by a gypsy girl who brings warmth and colour to his life. ‘Can you break the spell, can you ring the bell?’ is the single most banal lyric on the album, although some of the other lines are much better, sounding half-biblical and half-ghost story, with the narrator pleading with a gypsy ‘dressed in white’ to break the spell that’s left him lonely and miserable. It’s good to have a blues song from the Stones’ dim and distant past to reflect the attempts at psychedelia and the prog rock years and the punk ones, but this isn’t one of Mick and Keith’s better examples down the years and the band seem to have temporarily forgotten how to play it. Full marks to Mick for getting the harmonica out of the loft – I wish he’d used it more down the years – but that’s the only exciting thing about a song that doesn’t really go anywhere or particularly have fun trying. ‘
The album ends with its other out-and-out classic  ‘Slipping Away’, perhaps the best song so far that Keith has recorded pretty much entirely on his own. I wonder if he had this song all ready to go for a solo album as it sounds very much like an outtake from ‘Talk is Cheap’, a song that seems to mix the same sense of hollowness and frustration with its Stones-lite feel (even Charlie and Bill don’t sound much like their usual selves here). The theme, too, is surely about the ‘split’ years – Keith once had a dream that seemed so bright but little bit by bit it’s slowly ‘drifted away’. Richards has only just noticed how old he’s getting too, every breath slowly slipping away as he loses ‘first the sun and then the moon’, both the initial fire that drives him on and the mini reflection, which could well be the anger that got him through his first solo album. It’s something that every musician and indeed everybody can identify with: how did the thing that once made us bounce out of bed each morning turn into work or something that merely reminds us of blown chances? Proof, perhaps, that Keith was warming to the idea of a reunion even before Mick came a calling, it’s a really sweet song – and the perfect ‘so this is why we came back’ song to have on a reunion album. The difference to anything from ‘Talk Is Cheap’ though is the confidence to do something totally un-Stones like; the choir of backing harmonies really come into their own here, an angelic choir reflecting on everything that once was, whilst Charlie must have been impressed with the subtle jazzy overdub sprinkled on top of this song to make it sound fluid and dreamlike, so different to the Stones’ usual strict rock and roll. Yet for all this song’s downbeat mood there’s something quietly hopeful about this song: just as the melody has reached rock bottom, after going lower and lower for three verses, the backing singers suddenly burst into life on a ‘slipping awa-y-y-y-y-y-y’ chorus that’s exquisite and sounds like the sun coming out and shining all over again, the arrangement simply basking in the golden glow. Just to show some belated unity Mick even turns up for a middle eight that sounds like it comes from another song altogether that never got finished (‘All I want is ecstasy…it seems I lost my touch!’ And yet somehow it does, as if Jagger is in the distance also licking his wound and singing a short burst that’s so Mick-like it instantly pulls the song back into the shape of a Rolling Stones song. Far from slipping away, this is the band regaining everything that made them special on a song about coming together and remembering all the reasons why they started in the first place. Thank goodness that the Stones didn’t take their own advice and let things ‘slip away’ – because tracks like this one are the best Stones records in an awful long time.
Not many comeback albums are full of as many songs about how the band wants to end it and how much they hate each other, but for all the mixed messages and bruised egos there’s something very uplifting about ‘Steel Wheels’. As the title implies, the band just ignored how close they came to disaster and simply got on with things, forcing themselves further down a road that once seemed closed but suddenly opened up to let the band travel to places they had never been before. If only some of those destinations are worth revisiting all these years later then that’s alright, because that’s what albums are built for: giving people something new to think about as well as giving them what they expect. ‘Steel Wheels’ has plenty of room for both and even with a couple of duff tracks is a strong reminder of just how great a band the Rolling Stones could be on a good day. There’s a feeling of slow burning optimism on this album which tries to reconnect with the past on their 25th anniversary year like never before: we have the blues beginnings (‘Break The Spell’), the riff-based pop tunes from 1966 (‘Sad Sad Sad’), the psychedelia (‘Continental Drift’), the early 1970s (‘Mixed Emotions’ could have been straight off ‘Sticky Fingers’), the punk of ‘Some Girls’ (‘Hold On To Your Hats’), the political end of the 1980s (‘Rock and A Hard Place’) and the band’s usual dips into country-rock (‘Hearts For Sale’) and pure balladry (‘Almost Hear You Sigh’) from any era, plus ‘Slipping Away’ representing something new. Only the prog rock Mick Taylor years are missing – fans of every other Stones period will be satisfied by at least something here. As I write in 2011 it’s been a torrid few years for The Stones. Their last album was six years ago and, while well received, didn’t sell as well as previous albums. Mick is off playing with other musicians, just days after Keith reported that the band might work on something for their 50th anniversary in 2012 (later editor’s note: which ended up in just two new songs on a compilation). The release of Keith’s autobiography also stirred up a hornet’s nest for the band (especially Mick) and the arrival of two completely separate accounts of the band on radio two a day apart suggests that all is not well in the Stones camp and World War IV may yet break out before the fiftieth anniversary is here. But we’ve been here before – half the Stones’ lifetime in fact – and all the Stones need to get back on track is for Mick and Keef to meet up as equals, away from all the hangers-on and distractions that go with being one of the biggest rock bands on the planet and get back to writing songs like these, eyeball to eyeball once more, like they did in their teenage years and on and off ever since. The world would be better for it if the Steel Wheels rolled into town one more time like this, as a reminder of what a powerful, significant and professional band The Rolling Stones could be when they really set their minds to it.