The music press must have been feeling pretty bad about spending the ’80s calling old rock bands dinosaurs, so they decided to make it up to them and dub 1989 as the year of the comeback. Thus, pretty much every album released that year by a middle-aged rock act was hailed as a return-to-form. I suppose some of those “comebacks” might have been legitimate, but I certainly wouldn’t put The Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels in that category.
Without a doubt, Steel Wheels is one the weakest albums they’ve ever released. Not that it makes a terrible listen; it’s definitely more consistent and enjoyable than Undercover and Dirty Work. On the other hand, this album sounds like it could have been released by pretty much anyone. I mean, how many ultra-polished retro hard-rock acts were out there in the late ’80s? Answer: Five billion.
I wouldn’t have particularly minded The Stones jumping on that bandwagon if only these songs were a little more distinctive. Unfortunately, these are some of the most toothless songs they’ve ever released. Take the album opener “Sad Sad Sad.” It certainly sounds nice with its well-mixed guitars, stadium drums, and boisterous lead vocals from Jagger, but where’s everything that made The Rolling Stones awesome? The riff is OK, but forgettable, and why does the chorus sound so much like any old clone from the radio? It makes a perfectly fine listen, but it’s terribly generic. I’ve accused The Rolling Stones of sucking in the past, but this is the first time I threw the term “generic” at them.
It gets even worse later on in the album. “Mixed Emotions” has such similar instrumentation to “Sad Sad Sad” that you’d might as well call them the same song. “Hearts For Sale” not only has a crappy song title, but it’s also sounds EXACTLY THE SAME. Do you remember that song by some teenaged girl’s dad sang that was called “Achy Breaky Heart?” These songs are better versions of that.
This is such a screwed up album that the album seems to get worse whenever they try to grit things up. “Hold Onto Your Hat” is a quick-paced blues rocker, but the fuzzier and squeakier guitars sound like crap, and Jagger’s ultra-guttural performance almost recalls his purposeful butchering of Dirty Work. Speaking of crappy guitars, I’m very disappointed at the lack of innovation in these solos. I mean, The Rolling Stones were still on top of the heap as far as their ability goes, but these solos sound like they were aimed directly at middle aged people wearing business suits who like to get drunk and pretend they’re rock ‘n’ roll fans. Blah.
Lucky, things get pretty good with “Terrifying,” which is not only an appealing hard-rock song, but it has a mightily toe-tapping bass groove to boot. The Rolling Stones’ instrumental performances throughout this album are boring and muzakish for the most part, but they came out of their comatose state to perform that one! My vote for the best song of the album is the Keith-Richards-led ballad “Slipping Away,” which has a tremendously sweet melody and an engaging atmosphere. Oh, if only they could have filled this album more with songs like that!
There’s a country ballad in here, too, called “Blinded By Love.” It’s better than 99 percent of country ballads you’ll hear on the radio (I know from experience), but that doesn’t excuse the fact that this is just a terribly dull experience. I have nothing else to say about that.
Interesting riffs are an unfortunate rarity in this album, but Keith finally comes up with a good one for “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” which comes very close to recapturing that old Rolling Stones glory. My main complaint about it, however, is, once again, it comes off too much like a toothless bar-rock song. Come on, guys! Stop pandering to people’s crappy tastes of 1989! That entire decade was a questionable idea to begin with! I’m also amused at their attempt to bring a little bit of Bollywood in their act with “Continental Drift.” That still manages to be a terribly sterile song, but at least it’s different. Hey, anything to get me away from the status quo!
The Renaissance for The Stones? Possibly. Possibly not. It had to be the Renaissance: after all the hassle-dazzle Mick had finally settled his troubles with Keith, and the recording of this album was a desperate affair: they had to show the world that the name of The Rolling Stones still mattered. And in doing this, they managed to put out an album which, although far from perfect, was still a serious improvement over their last two. Unfortunately, in retrospect the album had suffered a lot exactly due to all the extra celebrity-related baggage appended to it: hyped up to heaven upon release (“The Stones are back! The Stones are the Phoenix of the modern world!”), it has since become almost a cliche to bash the record for “trying to sound way too much like they’re the Rolling Stones”. Nowadays, Steel Wheels don’t get too much respect, and it’s a shame, because this is at least a serious effort, with the guys actually having taken some time to work on the material and present it from its best side.
Of course, the defects are still obvious – after all, the legacy of the band’s previous Eighties’ output was still fresh in everybody’s minds. As usual, Jagger barks his way through on most tracks, some of which belong in that wretched Dirty Work bag. ‘Hold On To Your Hat’, for example, is basically ‘Hold Back no. 2’ – some fans claim the number to be a highlight, but all I hear is a speedy repetitive punkish rhythm, speedy repetitive offensive lyrics, and a couple of dazzling solos which, on second glance, turn out to be pretty repetitive as well. The “rip it up” attitude simply does not work on here; the song’s only distinctive feature is that it’s the most underarranged track on the album (Mick and Keith on guitars, Ron on bass, Charlie on the kit, and not even a Bill Wyman in the studio).
Another flaw is that, when it comes to the fast numbers, the arrangements are all very similar – the rockers ‘Sad Sad Sad’, ‘Mixed Emotions’ and ‘Rock And A Hard Place’ all sound pretty much the same, although the latter is actually the best song on the entire record. A minor hit and perhaps the closest they got to a ‘classic’ on here, it’s perhaps Jagger’s best statement in support of the third world (and certainly more hard-hitting and sincere-looking than something like ‘Undercover Of The Night’); but the contrast of barking guitar/barking vocal is nothing new, and both ‘Sad Sad Sad’ and ‘Mixed Emotions’, potentially solid rockers, are reduced to lazy formula. I do admit, though, that ‘Sad Sad Sad’ is moderately catchy, whereas ‘Mixed Emotions’, with its ‘let’s bury the hatchet’ lines, did get the Glimmer Twins a lot of consolative press.
However, I’m also sorry to say that, but Keith has completely lost what few abilities he had as a solo player: the riffing work is superb, as usual, but watch out for those solos! They’re among the ugliest, most dissonant, least inspired solos you’ll ever meet on a Stones album. Whoever suggested Keith should embellish the record with his witty lead work did the man a disservice for sure; there ain’t no ‘Sympathy For The Devil On Here’. Finally, once again there are too many electronic drums, as on all the 80’s records (except for Tattoo You, of course); Charlie is more prominent than on Dirty Work, but it would still take them five more years to restore the Good Guy to his usual throne.
Plenty of defects, as you see – but who could blame them? They were coming off the worst decade in both their personal relationships and rock music. Still, not all is bad. Jagger has contributed two ballads, and that alone is news – there were no soft songs on Undercover, and the only soft (and bad) song on Dirty Work was Keith’s. Of course, ‘Blinded By Love’ has dorky ‘educational’ lyrics (with Mick’s brother Chris serving as ‘literary editor’) and a rather simple, conformist sappy pop melody, but the keyboards-based ‘Almost Hear You Sigh’ is charming, with one of those soft, engaging refrains that only Mick’s voice can bring to life.
Keith – first time ever – takes lead vocals two times, and both times it’s a score: the ballad ‘Slipping Away’ is among his best (a very rare exception: my humble opinion is that besides this one and ‘You Got The Silver’, and, maybe, ‘The Worst’, all of his ballads are completely devoid of anything remotely approaching a memorable melody), while the rocker ‘Can’t Be Seen’ qualifies as well.
All aboard! Genre experimentation! The psychedelic (sic!) ‘Continental Drift’, recorded together with the Master Musicians of Jajouka, is so-so (definitely not as abysmal as some people say – come now, people, just ’cause it’s Eastern-based and psychedelic doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to write songs like that in 1989), but the disco effort ‘Terrifying’ is very, very, very convincing, with Jagger turning it into a ‘mysterious’ song in the vein of ‘Fingerprint File’. The little jam at the end is a touch of genius: otherwise, the song would swiftly flow by as a piece of filler, but the guitar/brass/drum interplay turns it into an unforgettable “cheesy romantic” near-masterpiece.
So I guess it’s fifty-fifty for this album, or maybe even something like sixty-forty; that’s why a rating of 6 sums it up nicely. Indeed, I’ve considered pumping it up, but then it would’ve been equal to Goats’ Head Soup, and that ain’t really so. Cut the hype, cut the anti-hype, and you’re left with a moderately solid effort, and a good start for their Big Return. I do pity those poor souls for whom this album was an introduction to the Rolling Stones, though. It should have come up with a sticker saying something like, ‘From the men who brought you the far superior Let It Bleed twenty years ago!’.
Steel Wheels was the best Stones output since Tattoo You. It may even have been the last of the truly good Stones albums, but that hypothesis is for another debate. So many people have cited this album, that album or the other album as “THE Last Great Rolling Stones Album” that it has become a cliché in its own right. Steel Wheels is not the abysmal album some make it out to be, but neither it is a resurgence of what the Stones were all about – they had long ago left that behind. No, this is pure and simple another Stones album and should be seen as such.
As has become usual with the later Stones stuff, there are a fair number of fillers on here, but there remain some gems buried in here if you care to look for them. The trouble is that the Stones had become so much a part of the establishment by now that many people just write them, or at least their later musical output, off without so much as a second thought. But then what is wrong with becoming part of the establishment in that sense? Does anyone seriously think that the Beatles would not have become “part of the establishment” had they stuck around this long? Does anyone truly believe that a Beatles album at the end of the eighties would not have had its fair share of filler and formulaic material?
Never ones to abandon a formula which has served them so well over the years, the album starts off at a high point with the rocking “Sad, Sad, Sad”, forthright vocals and plenty of hard rock style drumming. It doesn’t let up after that either, for “Mixed Emotions” follows pretty much the same pattern and also has a damn good chorus. In my view this track is one of the best the Stones have done and slips into my personal top twenty Stones tracks with some ease. Not surprisingly, it is easily the best track on the album.
The rest of the first side is made up largely of fillers of which “Terrifying” is probably the weakest, though that could be because it immediately follows on after “Mixed Emotions” and it would be hard for many songs to live up to that. The second side has some good stuff on here. “Rock and a Hard Place” pretty much carried on from where the band left off with “Mixed Emotions”. Then there is “Continental Drift” which had been used by the band as an intro to their live performances as far back as 1981. This has an experimental sound complete with what appear to be African inspired rhythms. Quite why it should finally surface as a full-blown album track after so many years as a recorded stage intro is not something I have pondered for longer than it took to write this sentence.
However, after this I began to tire of the Stones and slowly my purchasing options shifted elsewhere. Although with subsequent albums they still put out the occasional flash of brilliance, those moments became increasingly rare. Perhaps even the band recognised this in themselves for once Bill Wyman left the band simply to retire to the countryside to indulge in his passion for photography, amateur archaeology and underage girls, the core quartet of the band split up and something ineffable was lost to them.
They are still a great band and always will be. There is still enough that they have to say to other bands, and not simply in terms of their ability to stay at the top for so many decades. But they should be best remembered for what they did in the sixties and seventies.
Nothing reinvigorates Sixties icons like having something to prove. In the past few years the reverence typically shown both the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan has worn perilously thin. The Stones’ last two albums, Undercover and Dirty Work — not to mention Mick Jagger’s solo recordings — ranged from bad to ordinary, and Keith Richards’s bitter public baiting of Jagger suggested that this particular twain might never again productively meet. In Dylan’s case, the most obvious message conveyed by the shoddy, almost willfully unfocused nature of his recent work — specifically Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove — was that he had simply stopped caring about making records.
Now, in the summer of love of the past, the Stones and Dylan have weighed in with albums that signal renewed conviction and reactivated sense of purpose. Steel Wheels rocks with a fervor that renders the Stones’ North American tour an enticing prospect indeed, while Oh Mercy explores moral concerns and matters of the heart with a depth and seriousness Dylan has not demonstrated since Desire. Deep-sixing nostalgia, the Stones and Dylan have made vital albums of, for and about their time.
It’s not hard to read “Mixed Emotions,” the most assured Stones single since “Start Me Up,” as Jagger’s measured, characteristically pragmatic — and guardedly conciliatory — reply to the verbal pounding he took in the round of interviews Richards gave after the guitarist released his solo album, Talk Is Cheap, last year. “Button your lip, baby,” counsels Jagger over a swinging guitar groove in the song’s opening line, before offering to “bury the hatchet/Wipe out the past.” In a bid for some understanding from his band mate, Jagger sings, “You’re not the only one/With mixed emotions/You’re not the only one/That’s feeling lonesome.”
The feral rocker “Hold On to Your Hat” seems to sketch some of the problems of excess that threatened to drive Jagger out of the Stones. “We’ll never make it,” Jagger sings angrily, as Richards unleashes a flamethrower riff. “Don’t you fake it/You’re getting loaded/I’m getting goaded.” Never to be outdone, Richards ends the album on a lovely, elegiac note with his ballad “Slipping Away,” about his own brand of mixed emotions. “All I want is ecstasy/But I ain’t getting much/Just getting off on misery,” the Glimmer Twins harmonize on the song’s chorus, and then Richards returns to sing the concluding verse. “Well, it’s just another song,” he sings. “But it’s slipping away.”
Jagger’s and Richards’s conflicting emotions fuel full-tilt rock & roll on “Sad Sad Sad” and “Rock and a Hard Place,” while “Continental Drift,” with its north-African feel, and the elegant “Blinded by Love” extend the Stones’ musical reach further than it has gone in some time. Jagger miraculously avoids camp posturing in his singing, and the rest of the band — Richards, Ron Wood, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, augmented by keyboardists Chuck Leavell and Matt Clifford, a horn section and backup singers — plays with an ensemble flair more redolent of the stage than the studio. Jagger, Richards and their coproducer, Chris Kimsey, strike an appropriate balance between up-to-date recording sheen and the Stones’ inspired sloppiness.
All the ambivalence, recriminations, attempted rapprochement and psychological one-upmanship evident on Steel Wheels testify that the Stones are right in the element that has historically spawned their best music — a murky, dangerously charged environment in which nothing is merely what it seems. Against all odds, and at this late date, the Stones have once again generated an album that will have the world dancing to deeply troubling, unresolved emotions.
Oh Mercy can perhaps best be thought of as a collaboration between Dylan and producer Daniel Lanois. Lanois, who most recently produced the Neville Brothers’ extraordinary album Yellow Moon, hooked Dylan up with members of the Nevilles’ band — guitarist Brian Stoltz, bassist Tony Hall, drummer Willie Green and percussionist Cyril Neville — and fashioned evocative, atmospheric soundscapes that elicit every nuance of meaning from Dylan’s songs while never overwhelming them. Dylan’s lyric style on Oh Mercy — a plain-spoken directness with rich folkloric and Biblical shadings — finds an ideal setting in the dark, open textures of Lanois’s sonic weave.
The thematic context for Oh Mercy is defined in “Political World,” a churning rocker stricken with anxiety and despair, and “Everything Is Broken,” a rollicking catalog of psychic dislocation. The cultural breakdowns chronicled in those songs are mirrored on a more personal level in the dreamy ballads “Most of the Time,” a love song of taunting regret in Dylan’s characteristic manner, and the self-examining “What Good Am I.”
Haunting the center of the album is “Man in the Long Black Coat,” a chilling narrative ballad suffused with a medieval sense of sin, death, illicit sexuality and satanic power. Sung by Dylan in a husky, tormented whisper, the song tells of a woman who leaves her man for a demonic stranger, prompting a series of reflections on the nature of conscience, religious faith and emotional commitment. As the spare musical background evokes a universe frighteningly devoid of absolute meaning, Dylan sings, “There are no mistakes in life, some people say/And it’s true sometimes, you could see it that way/People don’t live or die, people just float/She went with the man in a long black coat.” Against such radical uncertainty Dylan holds, in songs like “Where Teardrops Fall” and “Ring Them Bells,” to a faith that is millenarian but far more generous than the one he has articulated on his more overtly Christian records.
Dylan also renews his ongoing, if recently interrupted, dialogue with his audience on the last two songs of the album, “What Was It You Wanted” and “Shooting Star.” Seemingly about a former lover, “What Was It You Wanted” sets forth a series of chiding questions about expectations — expectations that the singer has failed to meet, implicitly because of their unreasonable nature. They are the sort of questions Dylan has been raising in songs as long ago as “It Ain’t Me Babe.”
Then, on “Shooting Star,” a kind of restless farewell, Dylan sings, “I saw a shooting star tonight, and I thought of me/If I was still the same, if I ever became what you wanted me to be.” Never one to pander to his audience, Dylan has often gone to the other extreme, eluding his listeners’ desires in a manner that has bordered on the perverse. The Rolling Stones, too, carry the burden of their own history; the question of how a rock & roll band can carry its music into adulthood is part of the struggle that nearly broke the band up.
But fans have a right to their desires, too, and frequently an artist’s defensiveness about the narrowness of audience taste is really a response to work even the artist fears is second-rate. The best defense of exacting audience demands is the straightforward fact that these great expectations derive from the artist’s own work. Another is that those demands are sometimes met by work that is both challenging and satisfying — as these splendid new albums prove.
Three years had passed since the release of Dirty Work and The Rolling Stones were smart to have taken the time off. They gathered in Barbados to record their next album which would become Steel Wheels.
The relationship between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards was on sound footing. Richards was functioning at a high level and would again become Mick Jagger’s partner in the studio. Charlie Watts had kicked his addiction and even Ron Wood was mostly sober. Only Bill Wyman missed significant studio time and this was relationship related. The basic tracks for the album were recorded in an intensive two month period with only time off to fly to Cleveland and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
Steel Wheels, for the most part, was a return to a basic guitar based rock ‘n’ roll sound. It would be embraced by their fans and remains a very good effort by The band. The album would reach number 3 on the Billboard charts and quickly sell two million copies.
Three of the first four songs from Steel Wheels are all out rockers. “Sad Sad Sad” is a guitar driven classic that finds Keith playing better than he had in 15 years. Check out the Flashpoint live album to hear this song in all its glory. “Mixed Emotions” was the lead single from the album and continued the Stones rock approach. “Hold On To Your Hat,” with an excellent vocal by Mick Jagger, completed this very welcome rock trilogy. The only problem was the average slow ballad “Terrifying” was misplaced as the third song and interrupted the flow.
There were a number of other highlights from Steel Wheels. “Slipping Away,” with a lead vocal by Keith, was a mature, well constructed song with sophisticated lyrics and shows his surprising growth as a songwriter. “Rock and A Hard Place” is just six minutes of flat out rock ‘n’ roll. “Almost Hear You Sigh” was a nice balled that featured an affecting Jagger vocal.
“Continental Drift” was an oddity on the album but the Stones meant well. Mick, Keith, and Ron flew to Morocco to record the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Brian Jones had recorded them for a never released album back in 1967 and now the group was down on their luck. These recordings would be worked into this song giving it a mid-eastern flavor and some royalty money to the players.
The Rolling Stones would leave on their massive Steel Wheels world tour shortly after the release of the album. They would be on the road for a year and visit 16 countries on three continents. Each of the four Stones was guaranteed 18 million dollars. Good old Ron Wood was still on salary.
I have to fess up that I missed the boat on a legendary Rolling Stones performance. I lived in Connecticut at the time and was a semi- regular attendee at Toads Place in New Haven. The Sons Of Bob were scheduled to be the opening act on August 12, 1989 for a to be named later main act. The Rolling Stones kicked of their tour in front of 700 people who each paid the entrance fee of $3.01.
Steel Wheels was an excellent comeback album for the Stones and provided a positive foundation for their tour. It remains very playable today and shows The Rolling Stones producing relevant rock ‘n’ roll again as the 1980s came to a close.