As The Glimmer Twins approach the age when they would be more suitably dubbed ‘The Zimmer Twins’, getting the Rolling Stones’ tour machine grinding along isn’t the simplest operation in the world. The List charts the involved lead-up to the current Steel Wheels tour.
he kind of tension that crackled between Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ron Wood on their 1981—82 tour would be the finish of most bands, but for The Rolling Stones, petty animosity is par for the course. Then again, other bands might have beneﬁted musically from such tension; the Stones had to make do with kick-starting the 19805 with ‘Start Me Up’ — a song that showed they could compress their entire oeuvre into one steamrolling riff — and slipping quickly downhill.
The famed animosity between J agger and Richards was in full swing when the time came to record Dirty Work in early 1985, Jagger spending as little time at the sessions as possible. The Stones had been rehearsing for the album in Paris for two months before the singer graced them with his presence, and when he did arrive had no new material to contribute. That had all been earmarked for his first solo album, She’s the Boss. His indifference, and a tactless, widely-reported statement that The Rolling Stones was a ‘millstone’, infuriated Richards, who (more objectively) criticised his timing in making a record that was so similar to his old group just before starting work on a new Stones album.
Jagger wasn’t alone in his lack of commitment. Bill Wyman played bass on only half of the tracks, complaining later of being pursued around the world by British tabloids over his relationship with the then under-age Mandy Smith. At one point, even Charlie Watts, once described as the politest man in rock, stormed out of the studio and flew home.
Then came the hammer-blow. The effect of the death of Ian Stewart, the Glaswegian keyboard player who had always been ‘the sixth Stone’, cannot be underestimated. '
Lesser men might have abandoned the project there and then, but Richards and Wood battled on, with the help of friends and hired hands. Keith Richards is not a man who likes to admit defeat, and there were other reasons besides that for keeping going. Ron Wood had come out of detoxification, claiming to be cured of his SSOOO-a-day freebasing habit, and, according to the album’s producer Steve Lillywhite, Richards had kept Wood to a strict routine of rehearsal for the record to keep him off the coke. The fact that Wood had publicly fallen from Jagger’s grace might also explain Richards warming again to the man he had treated so caustically over his pharmaceutical indulgences.
Dirty Work had been written with live performance in mind and The Stones, more than many stars of their magnitude, have regarded live work as their bread and butter, even if most of the cash is reaped from the on-site merchandise stalls. In 1982 they had been tighter than ever before , and Jagger in better voice. This time , however, Her Majesty, as Richards had taken to calling him, announced that he would not be touring in support of the album.
‘Everything in the garden wasn’t lovely, it was fucking horrible,’ Jagger drawled. ‘The band was not getting on at all. He then went on to say how The Who’s tour had put him off the idea: ‘It was horrible, you know, Pete Townsend in another hotel and no-one speaking.’ He seemed conveniently to have forgotten that Ron Wood had been considered such odious company that he was exiled from the rest of the touring party in 1982.
Jagger was enthusiastic about his solo career. Happy to be the undisputed boss for a change, he
enlisted a tight combo of session players, a natural reaction to the ‘sloppiest bar band in the world’. He was also proud to count Jeff Beck — a world-renowned guitarist of Jagger’s own vintage — among the contributors to his second album, Primitive Cool, a record he admitted himself was not dissimilar to Stones work. Then, just before Jagger’s Japanese tour, Beck quit. In his own words, ‘As each day unfolded it turned out there were fifteen Rolling Stones songs on the set list, and I didn’t want to go to Australia and Japan to play a load of Keith Richards licks. I was not happy?
In the meantime, Charlie Watts had realised his life-long dream of putting together a big band and taking it on the road, Ron Wood had been living off his dubious painting talents, touring with Bo Diddley and jamming with everyone in sight, and Richards had been musical director of Chuck Berry’s band for the concerts that resulted in the film Hail! Hail! Rock’n ’Roll, an experience guaranteed to put ten years on a man. Even in 1986, he denied he had any plans to go solo, because it would have been ‘an admission that I can’t keep the Stones, my band, together’. But he took the plunge, releasing Talk is Cheap, and was just about to go on the road to promote it when the phone rang. It was Jagger who, emboldened by his Japanese jaunt, wanted the Stones to do another album and tour. The tour would take precedence for its money-making potential, and the right offer came from Canadian promoter Michael Cohl, who guaranteed them a cool $5.5 million each. Jagger’s timing seemed calculated to enforce his image as the band’s leader, and he declared himself as such in 1989, adding, ‘it’s very democratic. They all have a veto on what we do, really.’
The two of them agreed to go to Barbados to write. Miraculously, as soon as they sat down to work, their animosity evaporated, and they came up with fifteen songs. Jagger, without his partner around to argue the toss, claimed that on their Caribbean sojourn he wrote ‘almost all the lyrics and most of the melodies’. The resulting album, Steel Wheels, took only three months from start to ﬁnish; by Stones standards, hardly worth unpacking a suitcase for.
Steel Wheels was seen as a return to form, but it’s doubtful if there will ever be another great Rolling Stones album again. Veteran performers as they are, it’s hard to imagine them quitting without another major disaster in the ranks. Since 1976, they have repeatedly disproved the rumours surrounding each tour that it would be
their last, but no-one wants to talk about the inevitable end.
‘Everybody’s psyched up for the beginning of this one,’ said Richards during the US tour. ‘But I really would imagine that the Stones will take a bit of a break, and maybe that’s when we can sort of lie down and get it in the studio and start to listen to it and start putting it together. I imagine the boys will want a bit of a break next year.’
J agger would probably concur. For the last year and a half he has seen his partner for thirteen years, Jerry Hall, only on holidays. She thinks he’ll still be strutting into his 605, which he probably will. But whether it will be with the Stones or not, no one can say. We can expect to be regaled with tales of further conﬂicts and power struggles before their next tour, which, judging from their current timescale, we can expect to hit Scotland in around 1998.
The Rolling Stones play Hampden on Mon 9.
4The List 29 June— lZJuly 1990