The 19th studio album by The Rolling Stones was released in 1989. Recorded in Montserrat and London in spring, before launching into the band's biggest ever world tour to date, Steel Wheels is the closest the band ever came to a comeback album.
The Rolling Stones have never made a comeback album because they’ve never broken up. They’ve been written off many times, and some records have fared better with fans and critics than others; but they’ve never formally called it quits and agreed to go their separate ways.
On the contrary… And what else do we expect? They are The Rolling Stones, the world’s most contrary rock ‘n’ roll band… On the contrary, in the mid-eighties, when the creative unity of the band stood in greatest peril, they disagreed and went their separate ways instead, in high dudgeon and ripped to the very tits on the purest umbrage too, if the intra-band sniping in the press of the era was anything to go by.
It was a hard time, no doubt, rocks to the left of them and hard places to the right. Mick announced that he was feeling stultified by The Rolling Stones, refused to tour Dirty Work, toured solo instead, featuring Stones songs in his set, and put out She’s the Boss and Primitive Cool. Keith retaliated with Talk Is Cheap. They blamed each other bitterly and publicly, seeming at times – Mick in particular – to be admitting that it was all over. The end of The Rolling Stones seemed inevitable, and imminent.
Then something happened, only they know what, to make them both, along with Charlie, Bill and Ronnie (who’d watched things fall apart glumly, although never entirely resigned to a post-Stones world), start working together again. The result was Steel Wheels, which is as close to a comeback album as they’ve ever made – with the possible exception of Beggars Banquet, depending on how you feel about Their Satanic Majesties Request.
It’s fair to say that Steel Wheels rocks. It rolls a bit too, it’s true, and there are a couple of tracks where it comes off the rails; but by any standards it’s a big old locomotive of an album. It's not the most streamlined or beautifully designed musical vehicle they've ever built. But The Rolling Stones, even on occasionally ring-rusty comeback form are still the equal of almost any other band at their peak; and on Steel Wheels there are some moments of brilliance that are and will only ever be available to the bands who comprised genius to begin with, have played, toured, written and recorded together for 26 years, and have recently endured a two-year communal Near Death Experience.
First the worst? Opener Sad Sad Sad is probably one of the lesser songs on Steel Wheels. It’s not so much that there’s anything wrong with it, exactly, but there’s not a lot of originality here either. It’s a predictable, four-square, safety play, The Rolling Stones (80s version) doing a damn fine job of sounding exactly like The Rolling Stones (80s version). Mixed Emotions, the second track and the first single off Steel Wheels pulls off the same trick, albeit with more intense lyrics – commentators and critics have made much of the possible commentary the song offers on Mick and Keith’s relationship. “Let’s bury the hatchet, wipe out the past” certainly sounds like it; although “…get off the fence/ It's creasing your butt” demonstrates that the Stones’ robust sense of humour and perspective on human relationships is still functioning perfectly.
Hearts For Sale ratchets things up a bit in the ‘The Stones play The Stones’ selection on Steel Wheels. A splendid blend of chugging, dirty, rolling guitar riffs (including a twanging solo turn from Ronnie and the intro theme itself, courtesy of Mick), some jaunty, laconic work from the rhythm kings, Charlie and Bill, and a growling vocal from Jagger, all combine here to give the track something a little extra, even if the singer does sound more as if he’s looking for a fight than love. Single number two from the record, Rock And A Hard Place, another piece of straightforwardly radio-oriented AOR , is lifted from the ordinary by The Kick Horns’ show time brass work, a genuinely danceable Wyman bass line and the VERY 80s arrangement and production mix. The guitars wail and clash, Mick adds the usual drama and urgency on lead vocal, but only problem is that as backing vocalists Bernard Fowler, Lisa Fischer and Sarah Dash whoop out the chorus in the extended play out, it could almost be anyone.
Can’t Be Seen suffers a bit from the same problem – this record is not only very much a Rolling Stones record, it’s also very much a late eighties record. Wanting to make an original but popular album, while having access to exactly the same influences and technology as everyone else, means that genericism does creep in too easily sometimes. On the other hand, Terrifying manages to overcome the problem easily enough. Check it out: it could be an outtake from a contemporary The The album; but closer inspection reveals that this is actually an early version of X-Press 2/David Byrne’s 2002 dance hit Lazy, thirteen years before it was released. And what’s more, it’s better.
Other highlights including the pacy and menacing rocker, Hold On To Your Hat, and the disarmingly sweet mid-tempo singalong/strumalong love song Blinded By Love, with lovely, mellow folk overtones courtesy of Wood/Jagger/Richards accoustic guitars, and Matt Clifford’s harmonium, and Phil Beer’s fiddle and mandolin. Almost Hear You Sigh is another slower love song, all soul this one, and could almost be a George Michael track. Keith’s solo work on his 1956 Velasquez ‘Guts’ is stunning here.
Weirdest of all, on this strange eventful sonic history of how the band that nearly fell apart came back together, is an astonishing piece of music called Continental Drift. Featuring the Master Musicians of Jajouka (the connection with Brian Jones adds a level of poignancy), it’s best described as World Music; but that doesn’t begin to do it justice. Full of bazaar noises, hooky licks and riffs both vocal and instrumental, to the constant refrain “Love comes at the speed of light, the song grows and builds through the incorporation of layered chants, incredible Jajoukan drum rhythms, echoing strings, and a driving, accelerating beat; until it ends up sounding very much like the accompaniment to a midnight chase through the medina in the old town at Fez: completely out of control if you don’t know where you’re going, and you just have to trust those who do to get you where you’re going safely. Which they do, of course: these men are master musicians, and so are their Moroccan guests.
Steel Wheels needed to get the Rolling Stones from the mid-decade sidings of Dirty Work and near dissolution, to 1990 and another decade in which to reinvent themselves. The ride is not always as exhilarating as it might be. Slipping Away, the album’s last track, is frankly sub-standard, and shows a rare moment of not being contemporary but actually out of touch: “All I want is ecstasy/But I’m not getting much” sings Keith in the middle of The Second Summer of Love, while, in fields all over England, the kids were getting enough of the stuff and dancing to a very different beat indeed.
But Steel Wheels did get them there, and did indeed prove to be the vehicle that provoked or enabled their next big shape change. The Steel Wheels tour, which itself metamorphosed halfway through to become the Urban Jungle tour, was the first of the really big tours for which the contemporary Rolling Stones are now most admired. It’s hard to come back from near death and some very public, more or less unforgiveable insults with anything like integrity; but a disregard for the normal standards and a devotion to making music together is what has always kept them going, and never more so than on Steel Wheels. (rollingstones.com)