It’s not such a shocking thing to learn that a rock ‘n’ roll band had a vault full of unreleased material that didn’t make it on their previous albums. Most rock ‘n’ roll bands do that, I’d imagine. But it really says something about The Rolling Stones that they had material this good just sitting around! I mean, much of this stuff would have sounded great on their respective albums. Some might have even been substantial hits! Geez, can you think of any other rock band that would let such a piping-hot riff like “Start Me Up” lay around collecting dust for more than two weeks? I can’t! All things considered, though, it’s just as well that these songs wouldn’t see the light of day until 1981. The good people of 1981 definitely needed an album like this. It restored everyone’s faith in rock ‘n’ roll! Briefly.
It starts off with that powerhouse classic “Start Me Up,” which is such a widely known song that even I recognize it from my childhood, which I spent living under a rock. It has all the makings of a great pop-rock classic: the verses are just as catchy as the chorus, the guitars are crunchy and terrific, and Jagger’s vocals are thrilling. …Jagger claims that song was originally conceived as a reggae, but you wouldn’t know that by listening to it. Thank goodness it wasn’t! That song is considered a massive classic and for very good reason.
This is also the album with “Waiting For a Friend” on it, which isn’t one of the Stones’ most celebrated ballads, but it definitely should be. I never remember The Stones sounding so dang warm before! The instruments are very soft and sweet, Jagger’s vocal performance is beautiful, and the melody is really easy to take to heart. Usually their ballads are bittersweet or cynical, but … geez, that song just makes you want to grab the person nearest you and give them a big ol’ hug. It takes a lot for me to say that, because touching people gives me the willies! According to Wikipedia, The Stones were performing that song as early as 1970, and only God knows why they didn’t actually release this since it would have sold millions. Maybe its sheer good-heartedness wasn’t consistent with their image? I don’t know. But this is a great treat for anyone who hasn’t given it a listen yet!
“Hang Fire” is an incredibly catchy pop-rocker that was left off of Some Girls, and it would have absolutely thrived on that album. The riff is tight and infectious, and Jagger adopts that utterly enjoyable growl to his lead vocals. “Slave” is jammy blues-rock that dates from Black and Blue and features Jeff Beck on lead guitar. (Apparently Jeff Beck had auditioned to be in The Stones! … I was not aware of that!) It’s a very captivating song, and it’s catchier than a cactus. “Black Limousine” is more straightforward blues, and it proves exactly why The Rolling Stones were always considered masters at the stuff. It’s performed well, the melody is memorable without resorting to cliches, and it’s a whole lot of fun to listen to. Do I need to say anything else?
“Tops” is a song that dates from Goats Head Soup and it even features some extensive guitar work from Mick Taylor. (I guess Jagger and Richards were still a little peeved that Taylor left them since they didn’t give Taylor credit for it!) Anyway, that’s another one of the album’s main highlights; it’s a loud, gritty and catchy ballad that has more attitude than 98 percent of bands could generate over the course of their entire careers. Man!!! “Heaven” is the album’s odd-duck, a trippy and atmospheric ballad that surprisingly puts my brain right to the title-location. I would have thought that was something that dated from Goats Head Soup, but nope! That, along with the fun pop-rock ditty “Neighbors,” is the only song that was newly written.
…Oh man, Tattoo You is one of those rare albums where everything is a great song, and I have a hard time figuring out what I want to talk about! I haven’t yet mentioned Keith Richards’ infectious “Little T&A” and the noble ballad “Worried About You” yet, and it seems like I should have! (I also haven’t mentioned the ballad “No Use in Cryin’,” but that’s my least favorite song on here, so I don’t have to mention it. …OK, I just mentioned it, but I didn’t have to mention it, you see!) You definitely wouldn’t expect an album full of leftovers to be this great, but it seriously eclipses most of their ’70s albums. And that’s saying something. This is also considered the last great Rolling Stones album, and I definitely agree with that assessment.
“Tattoo You” is one of the most unique albums ever recorded by the Rolling Stones. It features a great collection of straight rock songs which appeared on the vinyl album’s first side, followed by an introspective “suite” of songs about unfaithfulness and betrayal. The songs are arranged in the perfect order, and the introspective songs seem to tell the story of a relationship’s progress. But amazingly, most of “Tattoo You” was assembled from unrelated studio outtakes that were left over from the previous decade!
The jumble of songs meant the album ended up with a tremendous variety of styles. “Black Limousine” is a straight blues number, complete with a sassy harmonica solo by Mick Jagger. The song “Slave” features a funky jam session with a wailing chorus of “Do it, do it, do it, do it…” (as Mick riffs about not wanting to run errands). While that song runs on for over six minutes, “Hang Fire” is over in just 2:20 – a scorching taunt that contains one of my all-time favorite lyrics. (“You know that having money is a full-time job. I don’t need the aggravation, I’m a lazy slob.”) Keith Richards even does the vocals on a rambly song called “Little T&A” (though the chorus of the song is actually “She’s my little rock and roll.”)
But what makes this album stand out is the remarkable suite of thoughtful songs on the album’s second side. The five-song set culminates with the easy ballad “Waiting on a Friend,” which became a popular single. It’s the album’s final track, in which Mick sings wisely that “making love and breaking hearts is a game for youth.” But the four songs that precede it give an example of Mick doing just that. “Tops” wanders through all the pick-up lines that involve promises of success, and “Heaven” offers a dazzled, echoey montage about “kissing and running away.” The chilly aftermath appears in the album’s second to last track, in which Mick warns that “I ain’t never coming back,” and then re-creates the voice of a crying female as the chorus sings out the song’s title: “Ain’t No Use in Crying.”
Some saw the album as the Stones’ first acknowledgment of middle age. The album’s most famous track is probably “Start Me Up,” in which Mick croons that “You made a dead man come alive.” And at least one critic noted the more “mature” tone of the songs showing some regret over the one night stand. It’s preceded by a song of genuine self doubt, as Mick agonizes to his lover that he’s “Worried About You” and “I just can’t seem to find my way.” Ultimately the theme seeps into all the tracks, uniting both its bluesy numbers and its wild rock anthems into one great album.
Part of the fun of reviewing all these great albums is discovering that some of your own long held preconceptions are, in fact, false. Approaching this album, Tattoo You by The Rolling Stones, I was “sure” on a couple of things that I had always “known”. I was “sure” it was a bit of a comeback album for the band, a return to Sticky Fingers-like rock n’ roll after the various glam, disco, and funk tangents that the band undertook in the 1970s. I was also “sure” that it was a fun and cohesive album for the band to make (I mean, just listen to the first two songs and tell me they’re not having fun).
But with some initial research for this article, I found that I was wrong on both counts. The album is not directed or cohesive. It is a mishmash of unreleased material recorded over that same time period when the Stones were exploring different tangents. It was also recorded at a time of great stress within the band, so it was hardly “fun” to make, despite the resulting vibe.
In fact, album’s creation is the direct result of a practical business decision. The band was about to embark on a huge worldwide tour in late 1981/early 1982, and it was decided that having a new album to promote would boost the band’s ticket sales. With no time to write, rehearse, and record new material, long time associate and producer Chris Kimsey stepped in. He told the band that he could make an album from what he knew already existed as outtakes over the past decade or so and began sifting through old recordings to find suitable material.
Kimsey spent a few months going through the material from several previous Stones albums, discovering many incomplete or under-developed songs that had been either forgotten or rejected in the past. The earliest of these would become the songs “Tops” and “Waiting For a Friend”, the latter being Tattoo You‘s critically acclaimed signature number that closes the album’s laid back second-side.
These songs were originally written and recorded in late 1972 during the sessions for the album Goat’s Head Soup and feature ex-guitarist Mick Taylor. “Waiting For a Friend” also features a solo by jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins.
In 1975, during the sessions for the album Black and Blue, the band recording the backing tracks for a reggae-influenced song, but after twenty or so takes they got frustrated and shelved it. This same song would be re-born three more times during sessions for subsequent albums, as “Never Stop” during the sessions for Some Girls in 1977, then as “Start It Up” during the Emotional Rescue sessions in 1979. At that time, most of the band were convinced they had a hit, but guitarist Keith Richards was sure that he heard something very similar on the radio somewhere and insisted it be scrapped. Finally, with the production of Tattoo You, the song would be released as “Start Me Up” to tremendous success, reaching #2 on the Billboard pop charts, a position that the band would not reach or eclipse again in their lengthy career.
The remainder of the album comes from the sessions of those two most recent albums, Some Girls and Emotional Rescue. Most of these “songs” already had the instrument tracks recorded and just lacked vocals from Mick Jaggar. In fact, the bulk of the actual recording sessions for Tattoo You Jaggar was the only band member in attendance. The exceptions were “Neighbours” and “Heaven” which were the only brand new songs on the album.
However, even though the album was not constructed in a traditional fashion nor did it contain much up-to-date material, it certainly used cutting promotion. On August 1, 1981, MTV went on the air, a mere three weeks before the album’s release. The band would produce four videos to appear on the new network, including a rather creative one for “Neighbours” that plays off of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window and a memorable one for “Waiting For a Friend” that takes place in front of the same New York building featured on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.
The use of this new cable medium, would bring this (then) twenty-year-old band front and center to a new generation of music fans, including myself. At thirteen, I believed this was all new material by the Rolling Stones, and I continued to believe so right up until earlier this week.
The Rolling Stones were about to head out on a world tour that would last for a year. They wanted a release they could tour behind and so Tattoo You was born. Rather than creating a totally brand new album the Stones searched their archives for out takes, abandoned songs and unreleased material. The tracks selected would cover the years 1972-1981 and feature such former contributors as Mick Taylor, Bobby Keys, Billy Preston, Wayne Perkins, and a host of others. Mick Jagger would oversee the re-working and updating of these tracks plus the Stones would cut two new ones for this release.
This would not seem to be the best way to create an album but in the case of Tattoo You the results were excellent.
Tattoo You, released August 24, 1981, would become the Stones eighth consecutive, and last, number one album in the United States. It would also sell more copies than any other Stones studio album with the exception of Some Girls.
The opening guitar chords of “Start Me Up,” which lead off the album, immediately show that the rock ‘n’ roll Stones are back and all is well with the universe. This all time modern Rolling Stones classic song had been re-worked from its reggae roots in the Miss You sessions. If ever a song deserved to be a number one hit this was it. Unfortunately, it stalled at number two for three weeks behind “Private Eyes” by Hall & Oates.
“Start Me Up” has probably been the opening song for more live Rolling Stones concerts over the last twenty-five years than any other. If you want to hear this song in all its glory just check out the live Flashpoint album.
There were a number of other good to very good songs on the album. “Hang Fire” featured some nice piano from Stu and falsetto vocals from Mick Jagger. “Slave” is a mid-paced song from the Black and Blue sessions and features nice guitar work by Keith Richards and brilliant sax lines from Sonny Rollins. I happen to like “Little T&A.” This is a Keith Richards sung ode to his girlfriend Patti Hanson and basically the title says it all. “Waiting For A Friend” would bring the album to a soulful and peaceful conclusion. This easy flowing track from 1972 would be released as a single and reach number 13.
There were some misses on the album as well. “Neighbors” was more noise than melody. “Tops” was an average Mick Taylor era song about the pitfalls of show business. “Heaven” contained one to many Mick Jagger falsettos.
There were several other interesting developments connected to Tattoo You. Mick Taylor sued the Stones for royalties as he played on some of the songs. Ron Wood received an unprecedented writing credit on not one but two songs; “No Use In Crying” and “Black Limousine.” Mick Jagger was alone in the studio for the final mix of the album and as such played the guitar on a number of the tracks. Jagger was ultimately an average guitarist at best and the quality of this album would have been better if Richards and Wood had attended these final sessions.
Tattoo You was a good effort for the Rolling Stones and provided a nice send off for their tour. It was a reminder to millions of fans that The Rolling Stones were after all a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Tattoo You was the second Rolling Stones album released in the 1980’s, following Emotional Rescue. Out of the two, Tattoo You is the superior album. When released the album recieved rave reviews from the music press and some people even saw it as a return to form for the Stones (which was truly bull***, they were in form and didn’t need any return.
Recently, the album was voted #211 on Rolling Stones Magazine’s Top 500 Albums.
1. Start Me Up – Featuring one of the best riffs in rock history, this is probably the most recognizable Stones song besides “Satisfaction”. It embodies everything great about the Rolling Stones, and proved that they were not ready to give up any time soon. 5/5
2. Hang Fire – To me, the best part of this song is the vocal performance. Mick really captures the lyrics in this song through his singing. The words to this sometimes make me laugh, because they are so well written and truthful. 5/5
3. Slave – Starting off with a nice drum beat, this song takes the album is a little bit of a slower direction after two fairly fast songs. Mick sings this in a very rock n roll falsetto voice, and believe me, that is hard to pull off. Actually, parts of this song are rapped, too. Also, towards the 2 and a hlaf minute mark of the song, a quick sataphone comes in. It carries on for a while, but overall, this song is a 5/5.
4. Little T & A – Keith sings this song in his usual snarling voice. Charlie’s drum beat is very infectious. For reference, T&A = tits and ass. Keith throws down his usual pottymouth cusses during the course of this song, and overall it’s really enjoyable. 5/5
5. Black Limousine – Here, the Rolling Stones slow it down to mid-tempo for a nice blues-rock song. The guitar improvisation and harmonica are the key parts, featuring about a minute-long guitar solo.
6. Neighbours – “Neighbours” has gone on to become a Stones concert staple. The snare hits on this track are specifically accentuated, which adds to the aura of the song. I’ve always found it sort of jokey, but it’s still a 5/5.
7. Wooried About You – Again, the Stones put the album into mid-tempo, and, again, Mick takes on a falsetto (though during the chorus, he uses his usual voice). “Worried…” sees the Stones taking on balladry rock style, like they do very often. It incorporates elemnts of funk and dance music, yet is still a slow rock ballad, which I commend them for pulling off. 5/5
8. Tops – Being a mid-tempo funky ballad, I see this as one of the key tracks of the album. It has a certain mystique that’s primarily caused by song structure and the use of several different tempos within the song, which the Stones have always done well. 5/5
9. Heaven – Feauturing echoing vocals, a repetitive yet infectious drum beat, chimes, and a simple riff, “Heaven” is the strangest song off this album. It shows the band pushing into new territory. Also, the song is an extreme change is tempo, being also the slowest song featured on the album. 5/5
10. No Use In Crying – This song has well mixed harmonies throughout, and in a general sense does what most Stones ballads do, which is triggers the listener’s emotions. 5/5
11. Waiting On A Friend – “Waiting…” is the most memorable slower song off this album. After hearing the song once, I could actually remember most of the lyrics. There is a very effective saxophone part about midway through the song which the song would not be the same without. 5/5