Mid-August 1988: Mick Jagger's castle, Loire Valley, France; & London, England
c. January 15-17, 1989: Blue Wave Studios, Barbados
January 29-February 6, 1989: Blue Wave Studios, Barbados
February 13-March 22, 1989: Blue Wave Studios, Barbados
March 31-May 5, 1989: Air Studios, Montserrat, Virgin Islands
May 15-June 29, 1989: Olympic Studios, London, England
June 16-17, 1989: Palace of Ben Abbou, Tangiers, Morocco
Kimsey & The Glimmer Twins
Chief engineer: Christopher Marc Potter
Mixer: Michael H. Brauer
Released: August 1989
Original label: Rolling Stones Records (on CBS)
Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Ron Wood, Chuck
Leavell, Matt Clifford, Phil Beer, Luis Jardim, the Kick Horns, the Master
Musicians of Jajouka, Bachir Attar Farafina, Bernard Fowler, Lisa Fischer,
Sarah Dash, Tessa Niles, Sonia Morgan.
Sad Sad Sad
Hold on to Your Hat
Hearts for Sale
Blinded By Love
Rock and a Hard Place
Can't Be Seen
Almost Hear You Sigh
Break the Spell
Mick came over with about twelve new songs the other day and I must admit it's sounding much more healthy now, more like the Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers time. Much more rock, Rip This Joint-type of stuff, which is great, 'cause I was a bit worried that he'd gone off at a tangent. But he's really still there, still with Muddy and Howlin' Wolf, Slim Harpo and all that. I've got 20 or 30 songs, and at least ten of them are geared towards the Stones. I know Keith's been writing, apart from his own album, and he's got lots of other songs. We're just dying to weld them all together somehow...
(The plan is to get the Stones in the studio a)s early as we can next year. I'd very much like to use the same cat who engineered this album (Talk Is Cheap), Don Smith. (Note: Smith would engineer Voodoo Lounge in 1993-94.) And Steve Jordan, too, as co-producer. Because we've had such a good thing going, we're on a roll. I'd like to take what I've done in the last two years and bring it to bear on the Rolling Stones... Those guys are the best team I can think of to make the next Stones record.
(W)e have tentative starting dates for the studio early next year. I think we may go to Montserrat, but it could change the day before... it's always like that with the Stones. I don't care where we record as long as we record, or where we tour as long as we tour. As long as we can get the ball rolling again, we can go anywhere. I think in a year we'll be on the road, and that's having a new album as well, so that's a pretty tall order going on the Stones' past track record. It would usually take us a year to make the album, and then another six months to go away and come back, mix, all the rest.
Keith and I and (financial adviser) Rupert (Lowenstein) had a small meeting first and talked about business. We were in a hotel (in Barbados) with the sea crashing outside and the sun shining and drinks, talking about all the money we're gonna get and how great it was gonna be, and then we bring everyone else in and talk about it... I'm glad we didn't (air issues), because it could have gone on for weeks. It was better that we just get on with the job. Of course, we had to revisit things afterwards.
With Mick, I mean, he's my mate, I know I'm going to fight with him. You don't think of it in terms of being carried out via the international press, and when you actually get back together again and start working, and it's just the 2 of you in a room, you're lying on the floor laughing. Remember when you said that I was a THIS, and I called you a THAT? And then we start cracking up. A lot of the problems are in other people's perceptions of us. Where we get off on each other is when we're working together, and when you walk into a room and say, Well, we've got to finish the record by June and it's already the middle of February and we don't have a song yet, and within 2 or 3 hours you've got 2 or 3 songs, you start to forget about all the other crap. You're on a roll, once things start going. I mean, nobody in their right mind breaks a roll. You follow it, and it's much more fun than recriminations.
It all sounds very boring, sitting around a couple of chairs and a tape recorder and a couple of guitars. Mick had a keyboard with him, and we flung out a few ideas. There were a couple that I'd started working on during my own album. They were embryonic at the time, and since I didn't use them, I said to him, Well, I think there's something here you might like... So we just started it. And within 2 days, we realized we had 5 or 6 songs happening. We didn't bother with anything else. I did have to take Mick to a few discos - which are not my favorite places in the world - because Mick likes to go out and dance at night. So I did that. That was my sacrifice. I humored him. And that's when I knew we could work together.
When Keith and I sat down originally and talked about going on the road, playing together, I never thought that it would be problematic. I think Keith thought making an album and going on the road with it was a huge deal, that we could never really do it. Historically, he was quite correct. We'd never made an album in less than a year. I thought, Let's get it ALL done in a year. Then we've done it. We've proved we can make a record, we've proved we can tour. We can do it and still be up for it, not be bored with it all. A year's only a year. So we just have to put up with each other for a year.
Because we've been doing it for so long, we don't really have to DISCUSS it. When we come up with a lick or a riff or a chorus, we already know if it's right or if it's wrong.
So the deadline was really important, in that the band really tightened up. After 2 or 3 weeks Mick and I had enough songs to call in the guys. I heard Charlie in there when I was out in the parking lot, driving up to the rehearsal joint, and I just sat there for 5 minutes, and I was smiling like, no problem. He was so crisp, so tight, I thought, we've got the songs, and now we've got the drummer, and so the rest of it (snaps fingers), it's like that.
Everything is there (at AIR Studios in Montserrat). A great bar, great restaurant, great cook. You got pool tables, a swimming pool, TV, video, all in the studio complex. The studio itself is like a plus. It's the best place to live on the island! Mick had reservations: I'll go crazy there for 2 months, there's nothing to do. And I said, You could always work!
I thought that after the 7-year lay-off time from touring and the recent re-amalgamation of Mick and Keith, I just sensed the vibe like, they know I've got a lot of ideas, but they wanted to get their Glimmer Twins thing back together - and I respected that.
(For Steel Wheels), we just had these little baffle boards on either side of the amps, just to stop one from flooding right over too much to the other, but not even with a deadboard on the end. We LET the sound move in, and then we put ambient mikes up, and just shift them around and see where it sounds more interesting - you know, where the ambiance might be... And then Charlie was straight out in the room. The only thing we did was build what we called the Love Tunnel for the bass drum, like a little plywood box that we knocked up on the spot, so instead of deadening the bass drum to stop it from ringing around the room, we used that... These are the cheapest things to do. It's much easier to make records like that.
I'd get up the next morning and I'd feel like I'd just done 15 rounds with Mick Tyson. Get out of of bed and my knees would buckle. I'd be lying there on the floor, and Mick would go, What's the matter with you? It's Charlie, man, I know it. Charlie was not going to let me off the hook. I think he was a little pissed, too, that I'd gone off and played with Steve Jordan. Like he was telling me, I'll show you how it's done.
From getting into the studio to cut the first track to having 25, maybe even 30 tracks - not all of them completed, but at least a good 20 that could be considered tracks - (it took) five weeks... We're all still in shock (laughs).
Things were happening so fast. And there was really nothing else to do. Two hotels, two restaurants. So we did a year and a half's work in 5 weeks.
For the Rolling Stones to cut 15 tracks in 5 weeks is fairly phenomenal, at least since the '60s. Given the deadline, there's no time to get into any peripheral bits. All the energy has gone into the work. I don't think the Stones have made a record in that condition - hot off the road (Mick, Keith and Ronnie were all touring solo at the end of 1988) - for maybe 20 years. Probably Between The Buttons was the last one made with everyone well oiled and ready to go.
(I)n actual fact, working to the deadline added an incredible amount of zest and much more decisiveness in the playing and in the decision making: Yeah, THAT'S the take, that's it right there. Instead of 30 or 40 takes, if you didn't have it in 5, screw it! We've got plenty more! (laughs) Try another one! In actual fact, nothing went much beyond that; some of them are 2 takes.
I thought, Yeah, we need something like this, the unification of what this band is about. (Going to Morocco) really pulled a string in me.
A lot of (the band's adventurousness) had gone by the boards in the last few years... (T)he whole idea of pushing the envelope a little bit. We became a hard rock band, and we became very content with it. The ballads got left a little behind as well. The hard rock thing just took over, and we lost a little bit of sensitivity and adventure. And it's BORING just doing hard rock all the time. You gotta bounce it around a little.
I knew that album was about starting over. The important thing was to do it, not how good it was or wasn't. Either that was where the thing was going to break and all the wheels would fall off forever or we'd survive and carry on. The next ten years for me were just trying to reinvent and re-establish the Stones in a new way, considering what we'd all gone through.
(We want to prove) that we can still make a better record than we've ever made. Whether you do or not doesn't really matter. It's just going for it and thinking the possibility is there and not just trying to make time. Or, God forbid, go backwards.
This one went pretty quickly, and I think there are a lot of good things on there. There are some good rock tracks like Mixed Emotions, Rock and a Hard Place, and Sad Sad Sad, and then there's some ballad-y ones. So I think there's enough variety to keep you interested all the way through.
Mick and Keith are relating very well right now. And they did a great job in my absence, like during the mixing of the album. I'm real pleased with the record overall. I've got lots of favorites... I have no non-favorites on this album. A good case can be made for every single track on there.
I'm very happy with Steel Wheels. It combines the elements and the feel of some of our better ones like Exile or Some Girls. There's a real good feel to the playing throughout.
It's definitely one of the most exciting albums I've worked on since Some Girls... (Bill's) bass playing was so lively yet steady, and it just pounds you away. I think the bass on this album is even louder than on most of the other ones.
Steel Wheels, you know, that was the miracle that it ever came back together, you know. 'Cause that was the hump that a band goes through.
Steel Wheels was a very tentative restart, in a way. It was almost another chapter. Certainly there was a lot of energy in there.
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... Now, in the summit 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... Deep-sixing nostalgia, the Stones and Dylan have made vital albums of, for and about their 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.
(T)he material on Steel Wheels is a lot like them - up to date but fundamentally unchanged... The Stones still have the stamina, but there's always at least a hint of strain in the music too, a self-consciousness about the energy, as if they were the oldest guys at the gym and trying to look good on the Nautilus... That old winning smugness - their magisterial self-assurance - is gone... The band must know it too, because finally, on the last song, they face it. Slipping Away is a song about - indeed, almost consumed by - a sense of impermanence, of loss, of lives eliding into compromise. It's about ending. It's about dying, and it's a great Stones song.
All rancor and bad vibes, Dirty Work was the Stones; all impartiality and bad boys grown up, the reunion is an amazing simulation. Charlie's groove enlivens - and IDs - the mature sentiments while gibes at "conscience" and "reason" hint obliquely at self-awareness. But for Mick, self-awareness means above all accepting one's status as a pop star. Maybe he thinks So get off the fence/It's creasing your butt saves Mixed Emotions from its own conventionality. Probably he thinks giving Keith two vocals is democracy and roots. Certainly he thinks he needs the money. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. B-
The Stones, or more accurately the relationship between Mick and Keith, imploded shortly after Dirty Work, resulting in Mick delivering a nearly unbearably mannered, ambitious solo effort that stiffed and Keith knocking out the greatest Stones album since Tattoo You, something that satisfied the cult but wasn't a hit. Clearly, they were worth more together than they were apart, so it was time for the reunion, and that's what Steel Wheels is - a self-styled reunion album. It often feels as if they sat down and decided exactly what their audience wanted from a Stones album, and they deliver a record that gives the people what they want, whether it's Tattoo You-styled rockers, ballads in the vein of Fool to Cry, even a touch of old-fashioned experimentalism with Continental Drift... Even though it's just 12 songs, the record feels a little long, largely due to its lack of surprises and unabashed calculation (the jams are slicked up so much they don't have the visceral power of the jam record, Black and Blue). Still, the Stones sound good, and Mick and Keith both get off a killer ballad apiece with Almost Hear You Sigh and Slipping Away, respectively. It doesn't make for a great Stones album, but it's not bad, and it feels like a comeback - which it was supposed to, after all. (3/5)
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