Tattoo You conclusively proved that stuck-in-the-back-of-the-fridge-and-about-to-expire-warmed-over Stones was better than most rockers of the 80s could produce in their wildest dreams.
The origins of the album are unusual, to say the least. According to Keith Richards, “The thing with Tattoo You wasn’t that we’d stopped writing new stuff, it was a question of time. We’d agreed we were going to go out on the road and we wanted to tour behind a record. There was no time to make a whole new album and make the start of the tour.” Hmm. A glance at the timeline tells us that there was plenty of time to record a new release: they’d wrapped up recording for Emotional Rescue in October 1979, played a couple of launch parties for that album in 1980 and a stray gig here and there. The only possible conclusion you can draw from Keith’s explanation is that The Stones needed serious training in time management and event planning.
Keith’s recollections were contradicted by the guy most intimately involved in cobbling the album together—associate producer Chris Kimsey. “Tattoo You really came about because Mick and Keith were going through a period of not getting on. There was a need to have an album out, and I told everyone I could make an album from what I knew was still there.” Kimsey rummaged through outtakes and unfinished tracks dating back to Goats Head Soup then handed over the batch to the Stones for overdubs, fills, add-ons and one fabulous guest star.
Sure sounds like a funny way to make an album, but Tattoo You was the first Rolling Stones album to earn a Grammy.
Okay, the Grammy was for the album cover, but still . . .
It is a great cover, but what’s inside is pretty good, too. Side one features The Stones at their best, dishing out great R&B-driven rock & roll. Side two is devoted to slow and mid-tempo stuff, and though it isn’t nearly as exciting as side one, it does contain a couple of gems (along with some yawners).
I know that everyone on the planet is probably sick to death of “Start Me Up” due to the song’s commercialization by Microsoft and its adoption by nearly every fucking sports team on the planet. What I can’t figure out is how a song that explicitly describes the delightful progression from a man getting a boner to shooting his wad made it past the marketing team at Microsoft—and why the more puritanical sports fans haven’t complained to high heaven about the use of smut after the National Anthem. The NFL got wise twenty-five years later and lowered Jagger’s mic when he sang the closing lines “You, you make a dead man come” during the halftime of Super Bowl XL.
I think the violence perpetrated by the NFL is far more obscene than a guy getting his rocks off.
“Start Me Up” dates back to the Some Girls sessions, but at that time Mick and Keith were stuck on the idea that the song should be a reggae number. They tried again during the Emotional Rescue sessions, visions of Bob Marley still swirling through their heads, and came up empty. You have to admire Chris Kimsey’s perseverance here, as he had to listen to somewhere between 38 and 70 reggae takes (depending on whose memory you want to trust) before discovering two fragments where the boys in the band tested out a rock arrangement. Keith’s memory is clearer on this discovery: “It was just buried in there. Suddenly I had it. Nobody remembered cutting it. But we leapt on it again. We did a few overdubs on it, and it was like a gift, you know?”
Stewart Mason of AllMusic opined, “It’s undeniable that this 1981 single was the last great Rolling Stones song,” and I am in full agreement. Keith’s opening riff is the call to rock ‘n’ roll arms par excellence, two-chord grit-and-power framed in delicious reverb. If you want to impress your friends by pulling out your gee-tar and duplicating that riff, be aware that most of the chord diagrams and tabs on the Internet are absolute horseshit. The mistake those chroniclers made was to assume that Keith was in standard tuning, but au contraire, he used a modified open G tuning, as described in this marvelous YouTube video. If that opening riff doesn’t get you out of your seat, Charlie Watts’s emphatic intro (enhanced by Bob Clearwater’s “bathroom reverb”) will certainly do the trick. Bill Wyman contributes lively bass runs that linger around the main beat without duplicating Charlie’s efforts, and Ronnie Wood plays a hot counterpoint on the speaker opposite Keith—the final touch that sets the stage for Mick Jagger.
Jagger is clearly in heat on this one—assertive as a hard dick and just as vulnerable to a lady’s feminine wiles. When Jagger is in his best rock ‘n’ roll voice, he’ll slip into a mode where he twists and elongates his vowels and tortures and blurs his consonants to the point where you have no idea what the fuck he’s saying (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Brown Sugar” are classic examples). I took the line “She’s a mean, mean machine” and entered how I hear it (“She’s uh mayan, mayan, mush ay annnnnn”) into the phonetic translator on toPhonetics and wound up with something that sounded like a cross between Finnish and Swahili.
Moving on to the more intelligible lyrics, I am of the opinion that “you make a grown man cry” is a double entendre (grown man = peak hard-on; cry = give up the creamy stuff), but I have a hard (not a double entendre) time believing that the real Mick Jagger would shoot in the three minutes and thirty-three seconds it takes to get through the song. While I realize he’s dealing with one super hot bitch (more about that particular epithet later), I’m going to cut him some slack and say that the man could probably back up his claim that he would “never stop, never stop, never never stop” (after all, he fathered a child at the age of seventy-three). Because leaving the USA left me without access to live baseball, I rarely hear the song by chance—but I do have “Start Me Up” on my fuck playlists, and my response to that number yields some of my most titillating erotic moves. It’s a great rock ‘n’ roll song, period, and if we could change the timeline and release “Start Me Up” today, I think it just might cure people of their obsession with that rap and hip-hop bullshit.
Yes, you can count me in as part of the “rock ‘n’ roll never dies” crowd.
The Stones speed things up a tad and throw in a touch of 60s girl group in their takedown of Thatcher and the “ugly politicians” (Keith’s description) in “Hang Fire.” The phrase essentially translates to “sit on your ass and do nothing,” and in this case, the people doing nothing are the politicos who sit back and get rich while the lower classes pay the price . . . and the victims of Thatcherism who quietly take it in the ass. Jagger and Richards provide the context in the opening verse (“In the sweet old country where I come from/Nobody ever works/Nothing gets done”) and it takes a while to sink in that they’re disappointed in both ends of the spectrum—the haves and the have-nots:
You know marrying money is a full-time job
I don’t need the aggravation
I’m a lazy slob
I hang fire, I hang fire
We’ve got nothing to eat
We got nowhere to work
Nothing to drink
We just lost our shirts
I’m on the dole
We ain’t for hire
Say what the hell
Say what the hell, hang fire
At first, I found the last verse a bit puzzling, as it opens with the lines, “Yeah, ten thousand dollars, go have some fun/Put it all on at a hundred to one.” Uh, shouldn’t that be pounds instead of dollars? Then I remembered that the Stones are tax exiles who store their riches elsewhere . . . but given that the song was about the UK, I think sterling would have been the more appropriate choice. I do think the title change from “Lazy Bitch” (referring to the Iron Lady) to “Hang Five” not only made sense but also negated the possibility of overusing that particular epithet on this album (again, more about that later).
Musically, the song just flat out rocks, with the late great Charlie Watts leading the way and Bill Wyman fully locked in with an exceptionally strong bass performance. Jagger gives us a great “what the hell” vocal and the girl group falsetto harmonies that open the song give the piece a strong opening lift.
Given the Stones’ history of dabbling in BDSM imagery (the famous billboard showing Anita Russell bound and gagged to promote Black and Blue, the songs “When the Whip Comes Down,” “Tie You Up,” “I Go Wild,” it’s astonishing that “Slave” has nothing to do with BDSM. The title character repeatedly sings “Don’t want to be your slave,” and we learn in a brief rap from Mick that she’s really dealing with the slavery inherent in the traditional role:
Twenty-four hours a day
Hey, why don’t you go down to the supermarket?
Get something to eat, steal something off the shelves
Pass by the liquor store, be back about quarter to twelve
In contrast, the song does have an incredibly sexy feel thanks to Charlie’s steady beat enhanced by conga and percussion, the spare crunchy guitar and touches of bluesy piano and organ (courtesy of Billy Preston and/or Ian Stewart). The centerpiece arrives in the form of Sonny Rollins, who takes the song to another level with a muscular performance on tenor sax. Charlie Watts didn’t believe Mick when he said he was going to get Sonny Rollins to perform a few tunes, but lo and behold, the great sax man showed up, completely ready to blow once Mick Jagger agreed to dance during his performances so he could absorb the beat.
Okay, we’re finally going to get to “more about later,” with “Little T&A.” Feminists and their supporters have railed against this song as sexist and misogynistic; I think that’s crap. “Little T&A” is about the experience of bonking groupies, and if you even hint that groupies are victims of predatory musicians, I’m going to laugh you right out of the room. Groupies choose to go after famous musicians for various reasons, but the fundamental truth is that they do so voluntarily, and a horny guy on the road would be a fool to pass up on the opportunity. It’s not the kind of sex I prefer today, but I was an out-and-out whore for a while and would have fucked any man or woman I found somewhat attractive. It’s a phase many of us go through in our teens and twenties.
Keith Richards is the lead vocalist on this one, and it’s pretty obvious that he considers groupie sex as due compensation for the trials and tribulations of a long tour . . . and he fully understands the risks:
The heat’s raiding, the track’s fading
Joint’s rocking, could be anytime at all
But the bitch keeps bitching, snitcher keeps snitching
Dropping names and telephone numbers and all
. . . She’s my little rock ‘n’ roll
My tits and ass with soul, baby
She’s my little rock ‘n’ roll
Oh, she’s my little rock ‘n’ roll, yeah
Oh no! Keith called her a “bitch!” That misogynistic pig! Look, I’m a passionate feminist that doesn’t take shit from anyone and I like it when a guy comes up to me in a bar and says, “You’re one hot bitch, babe.” “No shit, Sherlock,” I often respond, letting the guy know I’m self-confident and far from an easy lay. Words always have contextual meaning, so yes, the word “bitch” can be derogatory, but earning the epithet “hot bitch” is a validation of the sexuality I’m choosing to project in public. If a guy came up to me and said, “You’re a really pretty girl,” my ego would be crushed like a spent cigarette. And as for referring to a human being as “tits and ass,” all I can say is “Do you really think that a man’s first impression of you is going to have anything to do with your intelligence?” It all starts with the physiology, my friends! And for a groupie, what the hell else does she have to offer to fulfill her dream of banging a rock star? “Hi, Keith, I have a master’s degree in economics,” is unlikely to wiggle his willie.
Every year I work as a volunteer for domestic violence agencies and there’s a huge difference between the typically horny male and a sociopathic monster. Lighten up, grow up and have some fun, people! (And make sure you get some training in the martial arts to take care of the real assholes).
Bottom lines: “Little T&A” is a fun rock ‘n’ roll song and a great dance number. Keith doesn’t have Mick’s pipes, but he does alright and projects a certain sincerity when it’s his turn at the mic.
“Black Limousine” is one of two songs where Ronnie Wood earned some royalties as co-songwriter, graciously giving credit to Hop Wilson and Big Moose for their inspiration. I’ll go even further with the accolades by saying his lead solos and counterpoints are the focal points of the song and his fellow co-writers serve in supportive roles—effective but supportive. The song is pretty much a straight blues number that’s been compared to early Stones, but this is a much more energetic ensemble performance than you hear in their early works. I listen to Ronnie Wood and I say, “Goddamn, I wish I had that man’s fingers,” the cuss word taking on even greater emphasis because I’m a confirmed atheist.
As for the lyrics, I wonder if Mick was thinking of Marianne Faithfull when he sang these lyrics:
We used to ride, baby
Ride around in limousines
We looked so fine, baby
You in white and me in green
Drinking and dancing
All inside a crazy dream
Well now, look at your face now, baby
Look at you and look at me
I get so scared
Just to see you on the street
They’re living dead
You’re all the same, you never speak
You’re wrecked out now
Washed-up high up on the beach
I know this was recorded after Broken English, but I think there had to be some memories influencing his performance. Keith interprets the lyrics from a more mature perspective:
That song does have a more generous view of relationships with women… I guess, because the women in our lives at the moment have made a change in our attitudes toward it. I guess because everything that comes out from the Stones is just as it comes out… That’s how we used to feel about it, and that’s how we feel about it now. This is purely a guess… but it seems logical that the people you’re with are the ones who are gonna influence you most, whether you intend it or not. Mick might intend to sit down and write a real Stones song – you know, ‘Blechhh! You cruddy piece of shit, you dirty old scrub box!’ But obviously, that’s not the way he’s feeling now. It’s not the way I’m feeling now. (From timeisonourside.com)
Translation: dem boys has grown up!
Side two ends with “Neighbours,” a true-to-life story with lyrics written by Jagger that captured Keith Richards’ experience with his New York neighbours that resulted in his eviction.
Sorry, Keith, but if I found out I shared a common wall with you, I’d move out in a heartbeat.
“Neighbours” is another fun song featuring Charlie Watts in I’ve-had-it-with-this-shit bang mode and Jagger adopting a slightly manic oh-for-fuck’s-sake orientation. Speaking on behalf of Keith, he tries to point out that Keith’s guitar is just one of many noises produced by the cooperative:
Have I got neighbours?
Ringing my doorbells
All day and all night
Ladies, have I got the crazies?
Scheming young babies
No peace and no quiet
I got T.V.’s, saxophone playing
Groaning and straining
With the trouble and strife
Is it any wonder (3)
That we fuss and fight
Neighbours, do unto strangers
Do unto neighbours
What you do to yourself, yourself, yourself, yourself, yourself
Ronnie Wood appears with another blistering solo, and after another chorus and a brief transition, Sonny Rollins matches the guitarist’s energy with a performance that soars to the upper reaches of the tenor trombone, rocking with enthusiasm and fire.
Gosh, this is fun! I hope side two is just as hot!
While I can’t deny the professional musicianship and production of the songs on side two, three of the five simply aren’t as musically or lyrically interesting as the songs on side one:
- “Worried About You” features Jagger on electric piano (so 80s) while attempting to blame his cheatin’ heart on his apparently indifferent squeeze. Recorded for Black and Blue—when the Stones were missing a second guitarist after Mick Taylor blew his top—the solo fell to a guy named Wayne Perkins from the Muscle Shoals bunch who was auditioning to fill the role. He’s not a bad guitarist, but his tone and feel simply didn’t mesh with what the Stones were dishing out. The song has too many worn clichés like the old bullshit, “I bring you my money ergo you owe me something” to warrant my undivided attention.
- “Tops” takes us all the way back to Goats Head Soup, an album I intensely dislike. Upon learning that tidbit, I thought, “Shit, if it couldn’t make it onto that piece of crap, it can’t be that good.” And it isn’t. The assertion that “Every man has the same come on/I’ll make you a star/I’ll take you a million miles from all this . . .” is both completely inaccurate and horribly dated, because only a dumb shit would have fallen for that crap once feminism left its mark. It’s definitely b-side material for Little Anthony & The Imperials.
- “No Use In Crying” is one of those songs where you say, “Haven’t I heard this before?” The basic message is “I’m leaving, I’m not coming back, go waste your tears on a few episodes of General Hospital.” Not much there there.
The two songs that do grab my attention do so for different reasons.
When I first heard “Heaven” years ago while driving and scrolling through Sirius XM, I would have bet a gazillion dollars and sworn on a stack of Joyce’s Ulysses that I was listening to Radiohead. The high, soft falsetto filtered through various patches was reminiscent of Thom Yorke; the imagistic lyrics echoed mid-period Radiohead; the synthesizers and light grunge guitar sounded like it might have been a transitional song linking OK Computer and Kid A (but the latinate beat is more like a softer version of “There, There” on Hail to the Thief). After I learned that Mick Jagger “got quite creative with overdubbing and mixing on parts of the Tattoo You album” (Songfacts), my admiration for the man’s musical breadth increased a thousandfold. “Heaven” was fortunately dropped from Emotional Rescue to give Mick more time to work out the details. Accompanied only by Charlie on drums and Wyman on bass and synth (that’s Jagger on guitar), Mick fashions a lovely and intriguing composition marked by a deeper sensuality than expressed in their more overtly sexual numbers.
There was a good reason “Waiting on a Friend” failed to secure a spot on Goats Head Soup—the boys hadn’t written the lyrics yet. On the compilation album Jump Back, Mick noted, “We all liked it at the time but it didn’t have any lyrics, so there we were . . . The lyric I added is very gentle and loving, about friendships in the band.” That may be true, but the song applies to friendships in general, and like his co-writer, Jagger had begun to see women as people who had other admirable qualities in addition to gorgeous tits and tight asses:
Don’t need a whore
I don’t need no booze
Don’t need a virgin priest
But I need someone I can cry to
I need someone to protect
Making love and breaking hearts
It is a game for youth
But I’m not waiting on a lady
I’m just waiting on a friend
I love the bright but soft sounds of Keith’s guitar as he strums the introductory riff featuring the enhanced Cadd9 and F6 chords resolving to F major. And man, does Sonny Rollins make his entry just at the right moment or what? His contribution blends beautifully with the gentle dreaminess of the piece while adding variation in texture. “Waiting on a Friend” is one of those songs that could be interpreted through a variety of genres (country, rock, soft jazz) and works well as a singalong piece if you want to try it out in the shower. Fundamentally, it’s just a damn nice song—and a great album closer.
Love side one, love “Heaven” and love “Waiting on a Friend” . . . but I’ve been very hungry for rock ‘n’ roll lately and in my current state, I would have been happier had the Stones not insisted on a rock side and a slow dance side.
I’ll get over it . . . and pretty quickly, too! My next review covers an album featuring thirty-five minutes of kick-ass rock and roll . . . an unexpected explosion from a place that suffered from too many explosions for far too long.