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Rolling Stones “Tattoo You” (1981)
Start Me Up/Hang Fire/Slave/Little T&A/Black Limousine//Neighbours/ Worried About You/Tops/Heaven/No Use In Crying/Waiting On A Friend
There are many noble reasons to release a record. The desire to communicate with an audience, the chance to put across an idea that’s never been done before, the chance to understand and come to terms with the events in an artist’s life or wanting to give an audience something back after years of success. Making a record because you want to go out on tour and have something to flog isn’t really one of them. Yet even though that’s exactly the un-noble, decidedly un-rock and roll reason Tattoo You (by far the Stones’ worst album title) was made, it’s actually one of the band’s more satisfying LPs, certainly in the second half of their long career. For those who don’t know, this record is really the world’s first rarities and outtakes set, 9/11ths of it unfinished and unreleased tracks taken from the band’s impressive archives back in the days when bands just didn’t do that sort of thing if they wanted to stay ‘valid’ and ‘contemporary’ (the ‘re-issue’ is effectively born when CDs come along in the mid to late 1980s – had the band toured in, say, 1989 without an album they’d no doubt have stuck this album out as it was). The band were cagey about it at the time too, simply not printing writing and performance credits on the original record or giving any indication of dates (although sharp-eared fans still recognised Mick Taylor’s playing a mile-off). You could view ‘Tattoo You’ as the first real sign of an AAA band coming to terms with their great heritage and history – or simply as a lazy album made with a minimal of effort. Either way, it’s generally seen by fans as a late flowering classic.
The curious thing is that this album of outtakes is generally considered superior to all the Rolling Stones albums of the 1970s these tracks could have been on. Indeed, most Stones fans prefer it to the band’s own ‘Sucking in the 70s’ compilation LP which irritates fans from the title down. In some parallel universe where ‘Tops’ and ‘Waiting On A Friend’ made it onto ‘Goat’s Head Soup’ that album would be considered a classic, not a near-miss that saw the start of the Stones’ decline, ‘Slave’ would have brightened the pedestrian ‘Black and Blue’ up no end and ‘Start Me Up’ would have made ‘Some Girls’ even more of an unexpected return to form than it already is. Better still, the two new songs recorded for this album – the sultry, adult ‘Heaven’ and the fun, funky childish ‘Neighbours’ are the best thing the band have recorded for years and actually benefit from the band being inspired and ready to rock for only two tracks for once without having to sustain the inspiration across a whole LP (as I write the band are about to release yet another new best-of compilation, ‘Grrr!’, complete with two new tracks exclusive to the set, a trick they also did with 2002’s ’40 Licks’ and 1991’s live album ‘Flashpoint’, so it’s clearly a situation that works well for the band). Perhaps the biggest tribute to ‘Tattoo You’, however, is that despite a random garb-bag rummage through the band’s past it’s easily the most ‘complete’ sounding Stones album since ‘Exile On Main Street’ from nine years earlier. Most Stones albums tend to pick a sound and then stay there (‘Goat’s Head Soup’ is rock and roll with acoustic tendencies, ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll’ is the epic ballads album, ‘Black and Blue’ the extended funk jams album, ‘Some Girls’ is punk seen through the eyes of a bunch of guys in their mid 30s and ‘Emotional Rescue’ is, well, what is that misguided album all about?!) Hearing two minute bursts of punk set against epic six minute funk jamming with the odd bit of acoustic strumming makes ‘Tattoo You’ a much more interesting album than swallowing any of the Stones’ 70s albums in one go.
One other interesting novelty that makes this album stand out amongst the pack is that the fact that this album is divided into ‘rocking’ and ‘ballad’ sides (an idea first started by Nils Lofgren when his band ‘Grin’ released their excellent ‘1+1’ album in 1969). This idea sounds stupid on paper, but it works well in practice because a) fans had been crying out for the Stones to add acoustic (or at least less noisy) songs to their setlists for some time and b) the rockers here are all subtly different and hearing them together shows off how versatile they can be at their best: ‘Start Me Up’ is prime swamp rock early 70s Stones (despite dating from 1978), ‘Hang Fire’ and ‘Little T&A’ are more contemporary with their new wave colleagues, not so much rocking as swinging; ‘Slave’ is funk from the ‘Black and Blue’ period, ‘Black Limousine’ is a welcome return of blues-rock to the band’s work and ‘Neighbours’ is a burst of retro rock that sounds like it dates from the 1950s. The safe bet for the band would have been to shuffle these rock songs around with the breathy ballads but by sticking them all together the band are showing off how many genres they’ve covered down the years.
Even though it’s generally been acknowledged as a good move, some fans are confused how ‘Tattoo You’ ever came into being at all. Why didn’t the band just make a new record built on the two good songs they already had? Well, one reason was timing. In 1978 the Stones had signed to a lucrative but, considering the era, pretty punishing contract with their old rivals EMI (later sold to Virgin), with the agreement of releasing six records as quickly as possible (the comparative failure of ‘Undercover’ and ‘Dirty Work’ in 1984 and 1986 means they get a bit of a break for bad behaviour before being released from their contract with ‘Steel Wheels’ in 1989). After being inspired for ‘Some Girls’ in 1978 and tired on ‘Emotional Rescue’ in 1980 the band had nothing left in the tank. Another, perhaps, is age: being among the older AAA bands (on average) The Stones were among the first to pass the major milestone of 40 during the making of this album and may have wondered what their role in the music scene now was (as ‘Waiting On A Friend’ puts it ‘making love and breaking hearts is just a game for youth’).
The other is the state the band were in come 1981. By this time the Stones were the only band from the 1960s still standing and making records with a majority of their founding members still intact and without any breaks in the interim (Brian Jones being the one exception) apart from The Grateful Dead and The Who (and they only last until 1982; The Hollies and The Kinks are still going but with several line-up changes along the way). However they were far from unified: Keith Richards had come so close to arrest and imprisonment in 1978 that he was forced to clean up his act for good –something that was going remarkably well considering the decades of abuse he’d put his body through but left him tetchy and less inspired to write. Indeed, so bad were things between Mick and Keef that Bill Wyman talked in the press about the 1981 tour being their ‘last’ and a sobbing Charlie Watts told his wife Shirley that the band were ‘over’ when Keith failed to show for a band meeting in New York (which Keef himself had arranged and then forgotten about). Just when the band did finally come to some agreement and announced their much delayed 1981 tour Ronnie Wood’s drug use got to the point where the others told him to clean up or leave the band (given the condition Keith had been in for much of the 70s it must have been pretty bad!) Most of the work on ‘Emotional Rescue’ and the two new songs on this album were down to Mick alone and I’d hazard a guess that Ronnie Wood plays as many of the overdubbed solos on this record as Keef (getting his first two writing credits on a Stones album in the process). Frankly a band can’t record an album together if they’re not a band and the Stones were struggling hard enough to play their well oiled hits routine well in this period if contemporary live album ‘Still Life’ (1982) is anything to go by. That’s actually a shame in a way – freed of the need for guitar solos or riffs ‘Heaven’ shows off Mick’s lyrical abilities better than any other Stones song since the 60s and having one undisputed leader of the band rather than two in some ways helps the band’s sound in this period.
Much of the credit for this record goes to producer Chris Kemsey, who pushed to make this record from the gems that he knew had been discarded across the sessions for previous albums he’d worked on with the Stones (unlike some producers/engineers he’d meticulously recorded and catalogued everything the band tried – which means that on a shelf somewhere gathering dust are a box set’s worth of interminable Jimmy Reed and Chuck Berry blues jams). Some of these songs Kemsey had been pushing for the band to make for years; ‘Start Me Up’ – still the Stones’ last top 40 single to date – hadn’t really caught fire in 1978 when the band had tried every variation they could to make it work (punk, reggae, disco) except the obvious one (all-out rock). Others were nice surprises: everyone had forgotten about the ‘Goat’s Head Soup’ songs ‘Tops’ and ‘Waiting On A Friend’, perhaps because these two succinct songs sounded so different from the unusual spaced-out vibe of that under-rated album. The tapes were then handed to Mick who filled in the lyrics where some were missing and then recorded his vocals without the rest of the band in Paris, ‘in a broom cupboard’ in double quick time. However, even these sessions used a patience and eye for detail the band hadn’t shown in some time; figuring the long rambling track for ‘Slave’ needed an extra added something Mick hired a true jazz legend in Sonny Rollins to add a saxophone part instead of just rambling something into a microphone, while Jagger gets his mouthorgan out of mothballs for some long overdue playing on ‘Black Limousine’. Even then the album wasn’t finished – Kemsey handed in the completed recordings to engineer Bob Clearmountain (a big name in the days of 12” remixes) and got him to remix the entire record from scratch, giving it a similar surface sheen that made it sound like a ‘proper’ unified LP, not just a bunch of outtakes stuck together.
By and large – and thanks chiefly to these two men with Mick Jagger’s help - ‘Tattoo You’ overcomes its troubled, potted history to become the best Stones LP in quite a while. Or at least better than it has any right to be. ‘Heaven’ is my nomination as one of the best Stones tracks of all time, romantic, ethereal, gossamer light and evidence of how much invention and imagination the band have at their best. ‘Worried About You’ and ‘No Use In Crying’ aren’t far behind, genuinely heartfelt emotional songs that add a great deal to our understanding of the real deep, caring heart that’s often covered up on Rolling Stones songs by characters acting ‘ard’. ‘Slave’ is among their better extended jam sessions, second only to ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?’ in the extended running times stakes, whilst the album’s two singles ‘Start Me Up’ and ‘Waiting On A Friend’ are cute returns to the band’s old A and B side routine respectively, offering up a punchy hook-filled hit and a more subtle and laidback bit of prime songwriting they usually kept for their flipsides. Had this album come out in 1968 or 1972 no doubt it still would have seemed like the band had lost their way and inspiration, as there certainly as much confidence, swagger or groundbreaking work as in the days of what had gone before. But looked at in context, after a shoddy album and a woefully up and down ten year period, hearing songs this good across a whole LP came as an even bigger shock than the punkish energy of ‘Some Girls’ in 1978.
Of course, this being an album from the second half of the band’s career there are as many false steps and mistakes as there are good choices (when an album as bad as ‘Emotional Rescue’ has tracks left off it for not being up to standard then it can hardly be anything else!) ‘Little T&A’ is dated, misogynistic rock even by Stones’ standards, not a love song as much as a someone being used song despite being one of the first Keith Richards wrote for his longest lasting relationship with wife Patti Hansen. Even worse is ‘Hang Fire’, a song left off ‘Some Girls’ for good reason, is one of the band’s all time worst efforts, a hopelessly out of touch song about British workers being lazy and overtaken by lands from overseas – exactly the sort of lazy, prejudiced song you’d expect a bunch of tax exile millionaires who only kept in touch with Thatcher’s Britain by phone and newspapers to write. Given that we’ve learnt in the years since 1981 that the band had even finer songs left untouched in their archives (‘Following The River’, a classy ballad from ‘Exile On Main Street’, the sparky no-frills rocker ‘Claudine’ from the ‘Some Girls’ sessions and the rambling but fun ‘If I Was A Dancer’ from ‘Emotional Rescue’ among them) you wonder why such second-class songs ever made the grade.
You also have to wonder where on earth the title and the cover art came from. The band had become somewhat fixated by the idea that they were no longer youthful enough to appear on their album covers, despite the fact that most of their fans really didn’t care. ‘Some Girls’ got round the fact with comedy, re-printing the band’s faces in small type with mocked up hairdos like some crazy hairdresser’s salon from the 1950s featuring men in drag; ‘Emotional Rescue’ simply showed the band via a thermal imaging camera that actually made them look twice as old by giving them all premature white hair. This album simply covers Mick and Keef in tattoos, covering up their wrinkles, something that looks a bit daft in terms of Jagger on the front cover and downright hilarious for Richards on the back (the rest of the band, ominously, don’t appear). The full title of this album is a mystery by the way: when Jagger approved the proofs to go to the printers he swears the title was simply ‘Tattoo’ – so is a record company employee to blame for the unconvincing title?
‘Tattoo You’ is an album pieced together like a patchwork quilt, which means that there’s less of a ‘theme’ going on here than normal. However there is a slight one: generally Mick Jagger’s narrators are bold and brash, fully in charge of their circumstances and out for everything they can get. On this album Jagger’s characters are noticeably less go-getting: he might wail ‘I don’t want to be your...’ on ‘Slave’ but that’s exactly what he is, locked into pleasing his partner with every repeat of Richards’ hypnotic riff; in ‘Hang Fire’ nothing gets done by anybody, including the narrator; ‘Neighbours’ has the people next door, not the narrator, making all the noise that keeps him up all night; ‘Waiting On A Friend’ has Jagger calmly waiting to meet an acquaintance – not angrily meeting him head-first to get a move on as the old Jagger would have done; the ethereal ‘Heaven’ has the loved one ‘kissing and running away’, not chasing the lothario Jagger but running the other way; even the catchy ‘Start Me Up’ takes someone else to kick-start the narrator’s wild side. It’s always dangerous to talk about inspiration and what causes it, but it looks to me like there’s a pattern emerging here when all the songs are viewed together – and its one that surely points to Jagger’s situation as an unwanted de facto leader of the band who still can’t make any real decision until he’s passed it through a comatose Keith.
We know now that relationships within the band are about to get a lot worse, not easier, with the band referring to the mid 80s estrangement of their two writers as ‘World War III’, with in the blue corner Mick cheesed off that Keef gets all the plaudits for doing the least work and not taking his fair share of responsibility, while in the red corner Keef is laughing his head off at his old colleague’s dreams of becoming ‘respectable’ and hanging out with smart rich friends at parties. The two Stones are going two separate roads even by 1981 and yet there’s nothing either man can do about it: Mick has to wait for his friend to show to get anything done, while Keith is, as yet, too comatose to go his own way. Fans have been rude for many years about Mick Jagger’s first solo album ‘She’s The Boss’ in 1985 (or two Stones album’s time – note the title which leads on from what we’re talking about), looking on it as the record that broke the band up and caused unnecessary grief. But I’m a fan that’s largely sympathetic to it (as long as it means I don’t have to actually listen to it!) as Mick must have longed to do something on his own, without the weight of the Stones on his shoulders and to have something he made more or less on his own credited as such. The fact that the album isn’t even up to the low standards the Stones are setting themselves in the mid-80s suggests that, however much the pair might disagree, Jagger and Richards really do need each other and always have. Of course, there’s always the possibility that the Stones are getting into feminist politics a decade late, but that seems pretty unlikely given the songs that are released on their next album ‘Undercover’ in 1983 (the title of songs like ‘Tie You Up – The Pain Of Love’ ‘Pretty Beat Up’ and ‘She Was Hot’ put paid to that...)
The record starts, naturally enough, with ‘Start Me Up’. For years this song was treated for so many years as the vintage sound of the Stones that it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that its actually a five-year-old outtake, one that got abandoned in a hurry after the band attempted to re-arrange the track as a reggae song (which makes sense in the context of the ‘Black and Blue’ sessions, but not in terms of how obviously the song’s riff harks back to ‘Satisfaction’). The band never quite got it right and soon gave up (the chief problem with the ‘Black and Blue’ album as a whole, which took laziness to new levels despite some good ideas) after ten or more so versions of the song (this is apparently take two). I’ve never heard this song in a reggae version but somehow I don’t think it would go – the riff and the later strutting lyrics are crying out for rock and roll and only a slightly irregular beat in the rhythm section suggests anything else. Signs of inspiration waning are there in the lyrics, which after a strong start turn equating this ‘wild ride’ to ‘freedom’ turns into just another ‘car song’ comparing the narrator’s woman to his favourite motor (and how many of these songs have we covered on this site by now?!) However there’s no doubting either the song’s glorious riff (similar but not the same as past glories) or the performance which is one of the Stones’ strongest – past the 1960s at least – and you wouldn’t know from Mick Jagger’s gritty lead that he’s singing in a different room five years later compared to the rest of the band, so in tune are they. Listen out for a risqué fade out ‘...you make a dead man come’, stolen from one of two blues songs; ‘Till The Cows Come Home’ by Lucille Bogan dating from 1935 and way ahead of its time (the Stones still got into mild trouble for using it 46 years on!) or possibly the ‘traditional’ (ie no one admits to writing it!) blues ditty ‘Shave ‘Em Dry’ which would have been well known to blues players in the clubs of the 1960s. After punk and disco on ‘Some Girls’ and ‘Emotional Rescue’ respectively, its great to hear the Stones getting back to their roots and this song deservedly became a top ten hit, the band’s last to date – even if the song is ultimately a cleverly carved illusion, rescued from the bin and given a bit of spit and polish.
‘Hang Fire’ possesses the same breathless sense of energy and passion, but it’s significantly inferior as a song. The song has another fine riff, this time played by Wood and Richards together in the ‘weaving’ style used so often on ‘Some Girls’ (for which this song was originally recorded), but having been recorded as a jamming session rather than a song it’s busy and messy, without the ‘space’ for a vocal that a ‘proper’; song would have had. The lyrics Mick added to complete this song for ‘Tattoo You’ are among his worst, a lament about lazy British workers (or at least that’s what we presume from the line ‘the sweet old country where I come from’) ‘never getting anything done’ which, ironically enough, is as lazy a lyric as you can get. There were loads of songs like this in Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s, which seems appalling to me given the massive unemployment, welfare cuts and all-round unnecessary poverty. Then, as now, the media were telling a very different story to the reality and backing the Government up in-between small bursts of outrage so many people from other countries got completely the wrong impression – it sounds to me as if this is millionaire Jagger reading the world press from his home as a tax exile in France and America and tut-tutting over his coffee. There is no substance to any of this and the song must surely rank as one of the Stone’s worst, misguided shallow and empty. Not that Jagger is solely to blame for this surprising lack of empathy, Richards commented in publicity for ‘Tattoo You’ that the problems in the UK ‘serve them right’ for the way they’d treated the Stones – eh?! The band were attacked by the establishment, not the public who for the most part stuck by the group through thick and thin. This comment - and this song – shows just how removed from ordinary life the Stones were at this time and, irony of ironies, ‘Hang Fire’ is a lazy song about supposedly lazy people that needs one hell of a lot more work than the band give it here.
‘Slave’ is much better and one of the highlights of the album, its funky, heavier-than-normal riff giving away the fact that it dates from the ‘Black and Blue’ sessions once again. This is another band jam later turned into a song, but much more successful because Mick’s later lyrics (all two verses of them) complement rather than overpower the song, adding in the vocals in short bursts rather than singing oblivious to the backing. Mick picks up on Keith’s intriguing riff too, adding a lyric about a henpecked male desperately trying to escape from his partner’s shadow and – like a close cousin of The Beatles’ I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ it’s a suffocating, powerful riff looped so it chases its own tail seamlessly without a break in the sound. This is a musical prison with no escape route and all Jagger’s narrator (with harmonies from the rest of the band – a rarity on this album – and a guesting Pete Townshend, who sadly doesn’t add any guitar) can do is hurl himself aimlessly against it, desperate to break free. This song is spun out to some five minutes (seven if you own a CD copy of the album) and doesn’t outstay its welcome at all, adding in a few twists and turns every time it’s win danger of becoming stale. The biggest surprise of these – and the most successful - is a delightful saxophone solo by jazz great Sonny Rollins which squeals and squawks its way through the song’s hypnotising riff. Jagger’s demented screams, ducked low in the mix, then see out the rest of the song behind a particularly aggressive and snarling Richard guitar solo. Given the flimsiness of much of the ‘Black and Blue’ record (where only one song – Melody – is worth your time and even that is a Billy Preston song and vocal, with minimal input from the rest of the band) its amazing this song was never used at the time and had to sit in a drawer for five years before being dusted off for this album. An entertaining experiment, it’s welcome to hear the Stones trying to do something different, even if that idea was born from a jam session with some overdubbed lyrics rather than being designed as a masterpiece from the start.
Alas ‘Little T&A’ is another of Keith Richard’s hopelessly misguided misogynistic songs, the like of which had already cluttered up ‘Emotional Rescue’ and will be the nadir of the next couple of Stones albums too. Sure, we’re used to hearing the Stones be the bad boys of rock, uncaring about their feelings of the women in their song, but what’s more depressing is that this song isn’t a generic rock and roller – it really is Keith’s idea of a love song to the new love of his life Patti Hansen (the pair are still together, in the longest union of Keith’s life). In case you haven’t realised, the title refers to ‘little tits and ass’ and the song goes downhill from there rhyming ‘snitch’ with ‘bitch’ and adding the bad-sex-in-rock-lyrics award with lines like ‘you’ve got my juices pumping baby’. History hasn’t recorded what Patti thought on hearing the track but you doubt she’s have been swept off her feet somehow. That’s a shame because there’s a good song in here somewhere – Keith starts off in the first verse recording what’s around him while he writes in the recording studio (‘The heat’s raiding, the track is fading’) before updating his long list of semi-autobiographical tracks with lines about his new life as a reformed drug outlaw (‘The scars are healing, though the dealers’ still squealing’) which would both have made for a far more interesting song. The melody is pretty fun too, in a retro sort of a way, with the song’s riff the most blatant steal from Chuck Berry the band had come up with for some time. Charlie Watts is particularly at home here and enjoys filling in the ‘spaces’ with dashes of colour and interesting ideas which he simply hasn’t had a chance to on the bottom-heavy Stones’ records for some time. The song could have been worse, though – the backing track for this record was first listed as ‘Bulldog’ during the ‘Emotional Rescue’ sessions...
‘Black Limousine’ is more fun retro grooves from the Stones, this time delving back into their blues heritage with a delightful song about the narrator’s social and economic fall from grace which may or may not be autobiographical (believe it or not the Stones were struggling financially a little bit till this hardly-any-work-needed album got them out of a hole). The trouble with writing about these sorts of a song is that they all sound the same and, frankly, the Ronnie Wood era line-up of this band can’t compare to previous versions recorded by the Brian Jones or Mick Taylor versions of the band. That said, I’d rather hear the (semi)modern Stones stretching themselves than repeating their old rock and roll styles and ‘Limousine’ has two things going for it; a superb adrenalin rush guitar solo from Richards and better than average lyrics. Unusually for the Stones the narrator lets his guard slip, admitting that he’s ‘scared’ to see people living off the streets and knows that he might well have been there himself if not for a ‘crazy dream’ of success. There’s a sign of the old Jagger showing at the end of the second verse, though, spotting a familiar face in the crowd, ‘washed up’ and ‘wrecked out’ and laughing ‘look at our face baby – look at you now look at me!’ This might be simply Jagger writing in character, but there’s a grain of truth about his old partner Marianne Faithful who was in the process of making a comeback when this album was released after years living homeless on the streets of London. It’s tempting to see this whole song as Jagger singing to his old beau, perhaps spying her in the crowds on a rare trip back to the UK, which gives this song’s lyrics some real emotional depth (‘Those dreams are gone baby, locked away and never seen’ Jagger purrs, almost sympathetically, at the end of the song). The song was actually recorded for ‘Some Girls’ and may well have been left off the album because stylistically it sounded so different to their other ‘punkish’ songs; that’s a shame because the band were clearly quite fond of it, this being the only song bar ‘Start Me Up’ and ‘Waiting On A Friend’ to make it into the band’s set lists. Note the rare credit to Ronnie Wood in the album credits, one of only three in his career as a Stone so far. Another of the album highlights.
Most fans dislike side one closer ‘Neighbours’, seeing it as a noisy, unsubtle blast of new wave rock that the band couldn’t do anything like as well as their younger rivals. I see it as simply a bit of fun on the only new song recorded for the album with the whole band playing live in the studio (note how littler guitar there is on this track by the way – just how poorly was Keef in this period?) Watts’ drumming is again top notch, more basic and angrier than normal while Jagger’s demented vocal is a delight and clearly relishing the idea of singing lighter and emptier lyrics than average (the song is simply a moan about having noisy neighbours – yeah, like you guys aren’t!) Legend has it that this song was written by Mick about Keef after he was ‘evicted’ by his Manhattan neighbours for making too much noise! If so then it’s one long hilarious in-joke, with Mick hinting at the distance growing daily between the pair by taking on the ‘role’ of one of Keith’s neighbours but also showing up the hypocrisy of small town rich people by making every bit as much as noise and mayhem himself. The second verse is particularly telling: the narrator moans about ‘screaming young babies’ who can hardly help the noise they make, before covering the noise up with ‘TVs and saxophone playing’, seemingly not realising he’s making the situation worse! Mick then becomes piously tongue-in-cheek, imploring his audience to ‘do upon strangers, do upon neighbours what you’d do to yourself’ – yeah right, Jagger! A noisy bit of comedy, this song divides fans like few other Stones songs but if you approach ‘Neighbours’ in the right spirit – and realise its no ‘Satisfaction’ never mind another ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want – then you have to admire its cheek and laugh at its jokes!
Side two is the album’s ‘ballads’ side and opens in fine form with ‘Worried About You’, the third Stones song to feature Jagger’s falsetto vocal (after ‘Fool To Cry’ and ‘Emotional Rescue’) but by far the best. Another outtake from ‘Black and Blue’ (and another outtake superior to anything on its parent album), this song finds Jagger apparently worried about what his loved one is up to when he’s not around, but the opening verse and the falsetto fragile vocal isn’t fooling anyone; this is a hardened narrator more worried about himself than her. Even with that in mind, however, this song is still quite a breakthrough for the Stones as songwriters as it repeats how ‘worried’ and ‘lost’ the narrator is, unsure what his partner is up to (in 99% of Stones songs its them messing around, not their partners). A sensitive keyboard part, presumably by Billy Preston given the style and vintage though he goers un-credited, underpins a more sensitive song than usual and the switch when Jagger drops his falsetto act and suddenly charges full steam ahead into the chorus is one of the most exciting moments on any Stones album. The guitar solo in the song could be by just about anyone, to be honest, given that this song comes from the ‘auditioning’ process that was ‘Black and Blue’ but sounds like Wayne Perkins’ other work on that album as opposed to Wood, Richards, Taylor or the ‘other’ guitarist being tries out for the band’s sound Harvey Mendel. Sonically brighter and more fluid than any other solo heard since Mick Taylor left the band, it shows what a fine new direction the Stones might have gone in with Perkins a full time member rather than Wood. Listen out too for Richards’ fine harmony work, sorely missing from the rest of this album but a great contrast with Jagger’s harder edged lead.
‘Tops’ features Mick Taylor on lead guitar and is one of the two ‘oldest’ songs on the album, dating back to ‘Goat’s Head Soup’. It’s a simple story of a director promising an impressionable young girl that ‘I’m going to make you a star’ before revealing that he has much more ‘earthly matters on his mind. Another strong song, it’s hard to believe the band should have overlooked it for so many years whilst releasing such inferior work, although its walking pace tempo and occasionally annoying high pitched backing vocals don’t really suit the Stones it has to be said. Still, this song has a pretty tune, one that’s a little more complex than normal for the Stones and seems to come in three parts, building up tension slowly instead of going straight for the jugular. The lyrics might not be the finest Jagger ever wrote and perhaps repeat the line ‘I’ll take you to the top’ too many times, but they have their moments too, generally with the listener themselves filling in the blanks: for every promise about ‘putting her on a pedestal’ we ourselves look down on the narrator and the lines about ‘we don’t need no casting couch’, seemingly innocent, are surely about the fact the narrator wants to get his ‘star’ into a bed instead. Jagger’s vocal is a welcome mix of innocent and knowing, never quite pinning his take on the song down to one or the other and leaving us ashamed in places that we’re thinking these unsightly thoughts when all he wants to do is make a talented actress a success. The lyrics tread a thin line throughout, ending with the fantastic pay-off ‘You better take your chance now, sugar, or be sorry for the rest of your sweet loving life’ – after all, who could refuse an offer like that from a Stone?
However the greatest moment on the album is surely ‘Heaven’. Only the second entirely new song specially written or the album, it features Jagger’s guitar, Bill Wyman’s clever bass, engineer Chris Kemsey adding some twinkling piano and some light taps from Charlie Watts – both Richards and Wood are absent, but the sound is so huger it sounds like an orchestra. Some elegant and sophisticated studio trickery gives the whole song a fascinating, ethereal quality as if the whole track is about to float away on a cloud, and Jagger’s impressionistic lyrics (which are more a collection of words rather than a traditional song) make the most of his lovely melody. Jagger’s guitar work is the star of this record, surging up in bursts of emotion and power and dressed in so much reverb it sounds like a whole new instrument. However his vocal is revelation too, after so many decades of hearing him barking his lyrics, gossamer light and delicate, mysterious rather than powerful and loud, alluring rather than straightforward and strutting. This vocal suits a song that lyrically is more of a series of impressions, with Jagger using all of his ‘senses’ to tell if this is love and getting the affirmative from each one. The key line often repeated in this song is ‘kissing and running away’, repeated like a mantra of life with love there for those prepared to do the running, but the most effective are the unusually sensitive ‘no one will harm you, nothing will stand in your way’, with Jagger sounding like some mystical guardian angel. Like the best songs on ‘Goat’s Head Soup’ this is a spaced out dreamy ballad created out of the simplest pieces imaginable (Jagger never does get much of a lyric in) but treated to sound epic and huge. Jagger often gets short shrift these days, next to the outlaw giant that is Keith Richards, the larger-than-life character of Ronnie Wood or the tabloid favourite Bill Wyman. But even though so many fans think Richards is the real talent and the ‘heartbeat’ within the band, its interesting how many great tracks Jagger wrote while Keef wasn’t there; sensitive, groundbreaking, stylistically adventurous and a million miles away from anything people expected of the Stones in 1981 ‘Heaven’ may well be Jagger’s greatest moment with the band, proof positive of his musical talent.
‘No Use In Crying’ is another strong song from ‘Tattoo You’s generally excellent second side and is another ‘Black and Blue’ outtake that shows a great deal more subtlety and invention than anything that made the record. In fact ‘Crying’ is probably unique in the Stones’ canon in that it tells a whole story without any boasting or autobiographical touches. The narrator is calling out to an old partner to let him go, to not think of him any more, imagining her first pausing in her kitchen to stare out the window, imagining him coming back to her, a second at a station imagining him on a train pulling up on the track and a third on a balcony ‘staring out at sea’. Of course the joke is we don’t really know what she’s thinking at all and the fact that the narrator is going to so much trouble thinking of her speaks volumes about his inability to let her go. If this song is a 1981 lyrical invention then it’s another rare case of Jagger showing his more vulnerable side and that makes for a much more interesting character than his usual bravado image. The song has several neat touches, from a group harmony that intones the line ‘Ain’t no use in crying, stay away from me’ like a Greek chorus throughout the song, and Jagger’s emotional plea that the ship that’s coming on the horizon ‘its not me, it’s not me’. Compared to the very best songs on this album, however, it’s probably fair to say there’s something missing here, some extra middle eight or some variation in tempo that might have made a good song great.
Tattoo You then ends with its second best known song, the minor hit ‘Waiting On A Friend’. This song started out life as an instrumental during the ‘Goat’s Head Soup’ record before having a new set of lyrics penned by Mick in 1981. Like the other songs on this record’s second side, it’s a surprisingly warm and tender song about an old friendship – one that’s been assumed by many fans as being about the Stones themselves (‘at least that’s what I think it was about!’ adds Mick in the liner notes to the band’s ‘Jump Back’ compilation). Given how bad things were becoming between Mick and Keef it’s nice to hear him be so warm to his old partner, even if the lyrics are more about what he’s not doing than what he is. However some of the lyrics which deal with the friend suffering some ‘tragedy’ or other appear to relate more to Brian Jones or even Mick Taylor more than they relate to Keef (‘A smile relieves a heart that grieves’) so I’m going to speculate here that the ‘friend’ Mick is waiting for is actually the former and that he’s never going to show. Listening back to old tapes of the band in session from the past ten years or so (a common enough thing now but so rare for a band still together back then) must have given cause towards thoughts of Brian and what he might have added to the band if he’d stayed with them (ditto Taylor; presumably the band didn’t go back further in the tape vaults as Allen Klein still owned the copyright of tracks up to 1971). However, this is clearly Jagger in the present, mentioning middle age in song for the first time ever on a Stones record (‘making love and breaking hearts is a game for youth’), perhaps taking a minute to acknowledge those lost on the way. Lovely as the track is, however, and deserving as it was as a single (with a lovely video where Keef comes by at the end to put a patient Mick out of his misery) its not quite up to the strongest songs on the album. Sonny Rollins’ second sax break on the album is not as good as his first, while the song sticks far too rigidly to its one chord riff, without the freedom to explore where this song could have been. Not that this is song is a travesty either – its just one of the few songs here you can believe is made up out of off-cuts recorded ten years apart.
Indeed, the greatest achievement about ‘Tattoo You’ is that it manages to sound like a fully unified album, one made by a band on cracking form in a handful of inspired sessions, not a protracted monster that it come cases took eight years to reach maturity. Given the paucity of many of the Stones albums in this period (‘Black and Blue’ and ‘Emotional Rescue’ are probably the band’s weakest ever efforts, along with 1986’s ‘Dirty Work’), it’s amazing that the outtakes are so much better, with even the songs abandoned during the excellent albums ‘Goat’s Head Soup’ and ‘Some Girls’ able to give the better tracks on those albums a run for their money. Overall, ‘Tattoo You’ works because despite the poor cover and title this record seems like so much more than the sloppy last-minute we-need-a-record-quickly cut and paste job it really is. Kemsey’s ability to unearth some real gems from the band’s back catalogue, the idea of sequencing the album into ‘rock’ and ‘ballad’ sides, the production surface sheen that makes the album sound as one across the board not a bunch of songs cut in different countries on different studios with different atmospheres and sounds and Jagger’s hard work in crafting new lyrics pays off handsomely. Ironically the two new songs here suggest that the band might well have come up with a great new album anyway given time, sounding more inspired and inventive than they had for some time anyway. Perhaps it was best that the Stones stuck to their outtakes, however, as its the sheer mixture of sounds and ideas from a decade of Stones history that makes this record as strong as it is, sounding like some alternate ‘greatest hits’ compilation where the band’s best work from different eras all intermingle together. The Stones should be justly proud, not only at the fact that they were still making great music in their 29th year but that they could create one of their better albums by barely having to lift a finger. How many other bands have tried to do just that and come a cropper?! In the end only two misjudged tracks on the album’s first side let the rating down – substitute the other prime outtakes mentioned earlier that have trickled out on other Stones re-issues in the years since 1981 and you have what could have been the greatest Stones LP of all.