The Stones. While “Steel Wheels” may not be thought of in the hallowed light of classic Stones releases (and listen I’m not saying it’s on par with Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers,Exile, Some Girls,etc.) nonetheless it is a significant album on a number of levels.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards spent much of the 1980’s bickering and pissed off at each other. For much of this time the future of the Rolling Stones staying together was very much in jeopardy. One sticking point between them was Mick’s refusal to tour with band while Keith wanted to go out on the road. There was also considerable tension between the two about the musical direction the band was taking. Mick wanted to experiment with the sounds of the day while Keith was firmly rooted in his blues based rock. Richards had cleaned up a little from his decadent behavior of the 1970’s and with his new found clarity wanted to insert some creative control over the band that Mick had handled on his own for many years. Then Mick ignored the band in an attempt to launch his solo career which really rubbed Richards the wrong way (to the point where he went out and recorded and toured with his own band the X-Pensive Winos…Talk Is Cheap was received better by critics than Mick’s solo effort with some reviewers calling it the best Stones album in years). Then there was the elephant in the room…..the last 2 Stones records Undercover and Dirty Work both fell far below the bands high standards and were as close to a flop as a Stones record can get. Not known at the time was that this would be Bill Wyman’s last full record with band.
The album also holds personal significance for me. Growing up in the 1980’s I became a huge Stones fan. When the band toured in’81 to support Tattoo You I was 13 years old. I was a fan already at that point having both Tattoo You and Emotional Rescue in my newly growing collection of music. I was hitting the age where I wanted to go to concerts and this was one that I REALLY wanted to attend. My parents said no. As the 80’s moved on and I moved through my teen years, I was going to tons of concerts. All the while becoming an even bigger Stones fan….but alas there were no Stones tours for me to attend. Until Steel Wheels. I remember how excited I was when it was announced that would be touring for the first time in 8 years. Initially there was no Minneapolis date announced. WTF…I was nearly devastated. I remember telling my girlfriend Julie that this would probably be the last time that they were going to tour (Ok so I may have been a little naive at 21 years old) and that if we would have to go to Chicago to see them that’s what we were going to do. Finally a Minneapolis date was announced….and at the Metrodome no less. I was beyond elated. Now this was 1989 and Al Gore had not yet invented the internet, so getting tickets to a show was quite different back in the day. There were 2 basic ways to get your stubs for a show. The first was the old fashion ticket office (either at Dayton’s or the venue where the show was taking place….I spent a few nights “camping out” to get tickets for a concert) and the other was by using your credit card over the phone. Then it was announced that they were only going to be using credit card via the telephone sales, there would be no camping out for Stones tickets. Now this put me in a little bit of a pickle. In 1989 there were no Debit cards…and they didn’t give 21 year old dirty white boys like me credit cards. Then, like always for me…..Grandma Vi came to the rescue. Grandma Vi would let me use her credit card to buy Stones tickets….yeah she was a pretty cool Grandma. Problem solved. Now of course there could be nothing stopping me now from seeing my beloved Rolling Stones…I know it’s only rock and roll, but I like it. So as the sun rose on a Ham Lake trailer park on that Saturday morning I was perched with Kevin & Erin’s phone in one hand and my Grandma’s credit card in the other just waiting for 8 AM ticket sales to start. Here it comes…8 bells…start me up. And nothing. The phone lines in the Twin Cities were so jammed with people calling for tickets it was taking nearly a minute just to get a dial tone. Call…busy..hang up and wait for dial tone…rinse and repeat. This went on for a good 15-20 minutes when…BAM…IT RANG…I got through and the girl started taking my information. I am going to see the Glimmer Twins at the Dome! Then, before I could give the lady my credit card information…..I got disconnected. FUCK ! Are you shitting me? I can’t get no satisfaction, no no no. For the next hour I kept calling back and getting a busy signal. On the radio KQ92 kept telling me that tickets would be sold out soon, I was shattered, sha doo bee. I was nearly in tears when, by a pure “according to Hoyle” miracle I got a ring and got my tickets. November 29th 1989 at the Metrodome with my best friend Kent Larson on one side and girlfriend Julie on the other. Now for the anticlimactic ending…the Stones added another show for November 30th because the first one sold out so quickly…but that kind of sucks the sense of urgency out of my story.
Now back to the lecture at hand.
This is not the gritty blues rock of the ’70’s Stones. It is a much more polished production effort. Both Jagger and Richards were 46 years old and were probably not capable writing a new Tumbling Dice or Sweet Virginia. But Steel Wheels was a triumphant return for the Stones doing what they do best…delivering straight ahead Rock and Roll. The first guitar chords blaring out on track 1 were a testimonial that there weren’t going to be any Undercover Of The Night or Harlem Shuffle‘s on this disc. “Sad,Sad,Sad” busts out and reminds you of a raggedy old Stones rocker circa “Rocks Off” although once again a little more studio polished. It is a great way to kick off the record. The real gem of the disc, which was also the lead single released, was “Mixed Emotions”. This song was a semi autobiographical announcement from Mick and Kieth that, despite their bickering, the boys were back together and kicking ass. Mick’s voice sounds as wiry as his body as he growls out the vocals on “Hearts For Sale”. Some of my favorite Stones songs are the “Keith Songs”…and this record provides 3 of them. “Almost Hear You Sigh” was a song that Keith had left over from his solo album. Mick reworked the words and provided the vocals…but technically this is still a Kieth song. It’s a great ballad that was also released as a single. Another ballad “Slipping Away”, this time sung by Richards, closes out the record. My favorite Richards offering though is his ode to infidelity “Can’t Be Seen” in which he laments all the reasons that he can’t be seen with the married woman that he is having an affair with (although he waits until the end of the song to let the cat out of the bag). While it is not Little T&A, Happy or Before They Make Me Run….it’s a solid Richards tune.
In many ways Steel Wheels was both a triumphant comeback record and a fitting swan song to making legitimate rock and roll all wrapped up in one. And in the end….still the greatest rock and roll band…ever
other Rolling Stones on this blog: