THE ROLLING STONES: TATTOO YOU (1981)
1) Start Me Up; 2) Hang Fire; 3) Slave; 4) Little T&A; 5) Black Limousine; 6) Neighbours; 7) Worried About You; 8) Tops; 9) Heaven; 10) No Use In Crying; 11) Waiting On A Friend.
But see, this is why you can never properly give up on the Stones. In 1976, they seemed gross, antiquated, and ridiculous — and they could still groove better than most of their competition. In 1978, they proved capable of riding the new trends under a bittersweet sarcastic sauce — and thus re-ensured their survivability. In 1980, they recorded a lazy album of renovated outtakes — and fell flat on their faces. What would be the next logical move? Why, naturally: record yet another album of even more deeply rooted outtakes — and end up with an absolute winner. Whoever thought that ʽWhere The Boys Goʼ was a sign of a formerly great band in its final death throes, was in for a pleasant surprise.
Not that Tattoo You could ever hope to recapture the attitudes and atmospheres of the band's golden age — even if it tried, it couldn't, and, wisely, it does not even try. In fact, Tattoo You does not try much of anything: it is oddly de-personalized, and, apart from the opening track, does not focus too significantly either on Mick's swagger or on Keith's riffage. The entire album, as it happens, was quickly cobbled together from various leftovers (mostly selected by associate producer Chris Kimsey) as an excuse to go on tour — there was no time to rethink the image, to put together a statement, to suck in any of the latest trends; the only «conceptual» element of Tattoo You, other than Mick's and Keith's Polynesian mugs on the sleeve, is the separation of the material into a «rockier» Side A and a «balladeering» Side B (which, surprisingly, turns out to be quite a good sequencing idea in this case).
And this, apparently, is precisely what they needed at the time. Already with Black & Blue, it was quite obvious that «overthinking» their records was generally a bad idea for the Stones, since it usually led them to a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude, and, consequently, to songs that sounded more like silly impersonations of others than proper Stones material. These songs, however, were unearthed by Kimsey's well-discerning eye, glossed up a bit to match current production standards, and released before Jagger had a proper chance to rethink them as mock-synth-pop, pseudo-hardcore punk, or suave disco. They're just... songs.
The «rocking» side, first and foremost, is striking in terms of diversity — even on Some Girls, you had songs like ʽLiesʼ and ʽRespectableʼ that were genristic clones of each other, whereas here, all six have their own identities. ʽStart Me Upʼ, the record's best known and most radio-friendly classic, is unimpeachable as perhaps rock'n'roll's finest aerobic number — it's almost impossible to resist its stop-and-start structure, although as far as classic Stones rockers go, this one is one of their most toothless ever: it's not so much about sex per se as it is about using sex as an allegory for push-ups and sit-ups (I think even the accompanying video sort of reflected that). ʽHang Fireʼ is punk-pop like all those failed attempts on Emotional Rescue, but here it is made good by a tight, catchy structure, infectious falsetto harmonies, and a welcome return to social provocation ("In the sweet old country / Where I come from / Nobody ever works / Nothing ever gets done" — hey, that doesn't quite sound like The Clash, now does it?). And while many people seem to cringe at ʽNeighboursʼ, one of only two songs that was largely written during the sessions rather than before them, I don't get it — not only is it an extremely catchy pop rocker with great sax solos from Sonny Rollins, but it is also a hilarious look at the problem of living like a rock star in the middle of everyday people. It's tight, it's danceable, and its sneer and bark is smarter and funnier than, say, ʽSummer Romanceʼ.
At the other end of the spectrum, there's ʽSlaveʼ, a riff-based blues-rock jam dating back to the Black & Blue sessions and also featuring Sonny Rollins on the sax. Keith's riff here is probably one of the best things about the entire album: slow, gruff, loose, and mean, perhaps the slowest and gruffest since the days of ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ, and the band jams around it like crazy. Trivia bits such as Pete Townshend providing backing vocals for the sessions aren't nearly as important here as the realisation of how tough and cool the Stones could sound even on complete autopilot in the heroin-soaked mid-Seventies — and the inclusion of this track adds a nice, chilly feel of that old sexual menace, already practically non-existent on Some Girls and turned into toilet humor on Emotional Rescue. Next to this, even Side A's weakest track, the Keith Richards solo spot ʽLittle T&Aʼ, sounds more respectable than it would have on Emotional Rescue, for which it was originally recorded — texturally quite close to ʽShe's So Coldʼ, but even less politically correct in terms of lyrics (even Keith Richards in 1981 can hardly be excused for referring to a lady as "my tits and ass with soul"); still, I'd rather have a dirty, but tight rocker from Keith than a shapeless sentimental ballad like ʽAll About Youʼ.
The truly neglected gem on the first side is ʽBlack Limousineʼ, a song that few people pay attention to just because it is a generic 12-bar blues (16-bar blues, actually) — in reality, it is way above generic: a tight, concentrated blast of spite and loathing... self-loathing, one could even say, if you allow yourself to not interpret the song in the key of ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ (Mick taunting a former flame for wasting away her life), but as one that refers to the Glimmer Twins themselves: "look at you and look at me!" is basically Mick addressing Keith, which is only natural, considering that if you looked at Keith's face in 1981 and compared it to Mick's, you'd clearly see who of the two got more beat up by Mother Nature for a life of sin. What's even better, the whole playing team gets behind Mick — Ronnie gets a flurry, scorching solo, Ian Stewart's piano lines never sounded better, and then Mick himself blows some of the most shrill harmonica blasts since those early days. Arguably their best pure blues number here since 1972's ʽStop Breaking Downʼ, and perhaps the last great pure blues number they ever did.
The second side, meanwhile, incidentally turns out to feature a weird spiral — with three numbers in a row that go from strange to stranger to strangest ever, far from your average platter of Rod Stewart ballads. ʽWorried About Youʼ, also dating back to the Black & Blue sessions (in fact, they'd already played it live at El Mocambo in 1977), features Mick in full-fledged falsetto mode (more accurately, slowly winding his way from falsetto to growling, handling this quite masterfully), not to mention a great solo from Wayne Perkins (the same guy who also played lead guitar on ʽHand Of Fateʼ). Then there's ʽTopsʼ, an outtake from Goats Head Soup — for some unexplainable reason, this great song was left off in favor of rubbish like ʽHide Your Loveʼ, but now it gives you a chance to hear some more lead guitar from Mick Taylor, as well as an odd mix of recited ad-libbing and sung verses; they tried to make a Spinners-style soul number out of it, but with Mick's barking and Taylor's bluesy symphonies, it becomes significantly more dark and dangerous, a ballad straight out of hell, if I might say so.
And then there's ʽHeavenʼ, which is, hands down, the weirdest piece of music from the Stones camp since... well, probably since 1967 or so. I have no idea where it came from, and even less of an idea where it is going. I know they also began recording it during the sessions for Emotional Rescue, and I'm almost glad they never put it on that album — sitting in between ʽWhere The Boys Goʼ and ʽSend It To Meʼ and all that crap. It has no Keith on it (it's mostly a Jagger / Wyman collaboration, with Bill on synth and guitars, and should have been credited as such instead of the usual Jagger / Richards credit), it almost has no discernible vocals, it's all drenched in special effects, it's totally unrecognizable as a Stones song, and it totally rules. Take the lyrics literally (once you locate the sheet, that is), and it's a love ballad: "smell of you baby, my senses be praised...". Take them figuratively, and it's a religious anthem: "nothing will harm you, nothing will stand in your way". Disregard them completely, and the song is a bona fide psychedelic experience — is this the Rolling Stones or the Cocteau Twins? With those guitar tones, those phased vocals, the soft kaleidoscopic electronic tinkling in the background, it creates an atmosphere of «mortally dangerous celestial beauty» that is as art-rockish as they come, and up to this day remains one of the most bizarre and overlooked sonic gems in the band's catalog.
Next to this psychedelic oddity, ʽNo Use In Cryingʼ is a return to more traditional R&B balladeering (and also bears an uncanny resemblance to ʽHeart Of Stoneʼ in its basic chord sequence), but the perfect final touch is ʽWaiting On A Friendʼ, a song that, for the first time since ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, ends a Stones album on a deeply positive note — though not necessarily on a deep note, considering how ʽMoonlight Mileʼ gave you the atmosphere of final blissful relaxation after a torturous journey; ʽWaiting On A Friendʼ just gives you an atmosphere of relaxation as such, and not particularly blissful — still, it might be one of those perfect, straightforward buddy anthems that get you with their simplicity and open-hearted nature (in the accompanying video, we saw this personalized in the form of Mick actually waiting for Keith down at St. Mark's Place, and it just isn't possible that anybody who saw this video at the time could have previewed the deep rift between the two that had already begun to spread open).
And really, that's what Tattoo You is all about. It's a simple, fun-lovin' record, tempered with a bit of intelligence and spiced with a couple weird surprises. There's no agenda to it, no special conceptuality, no intuitive understanding and artistic expression of their «band on the run» status as there was on Exile, and no conscious selection of songs according to the principle of «let's include this because it makes us sound like 15-year olds peeping in the girls' bathroom». There's just 45 minutes of non-stop good music, for the last time ever in Stones history. Thumbs up.