The Rolling Stones: Tattoo You

The Rolling Stones: Tattoo You

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the Rolling Stones’ 1981 album, a blueprint for how to exist as an aging, internationally famous rock band.

The Cockroaches arrived in Toronto at the end of February 1977, in need of a quick break from being the Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band in the World. They’d been together for a decade and a half, their masterpiece album was five years behind them, and the three LPs they’d released since were not quite as spectacular. But they were richer and more famous than ever. Their most recent tour of North America, in 1975, had helped set the era’s standard for silliness and excess. There were six straight nights at Madison Square Garden, and five at the Forum; a flying trapeze for the singer, a confetti-breathing dragon, and an inflatable penis that stood as tall as two men when it wasn’t suffering from chronic mechanical dysfunction.

The band was planning on releasing a live album culled from these concerts, but there wasn’t enough worthy material. This is where Toronto came in: two secret shows booked at a tiny venue, under a fake band name, for a crowd of 300 unsuspecting fans, with a recording truck parked outside to capture the sort of energy that only arises when those fans are smashed into close contact with their idols. These would be the band’s first club gigs since they rocketed to worldwide stardom shortly after forming in the early ’60s. After all that glitz and decadence, perhaps becoming the Cockroaches was a way to get back to being the Rolling Stones.

It didn’t quite work. Typically for the era, the spectacle of the March 4th and 5th shows at Toronto’s El Mocambo tended to overshadow the music. Keith Richards, whose ever-deepening heroin addiction probably had something to do with the declining quality of the recent records, was arrested with about an ounce of it almost as soon as he arrived in Canada. Margaret Trudeau, the young and newly estranged wife of the Canadian prime minister, was seen cavorting backstage with the band, leading to slobbering speculative coverage from international tabloids. Love You Live, the resulting live album, wasn’t very good. But onstage, the Stones were finding their spark again, providing at least one glimpse at the unlikely musical resurgence they’d make over the next several years.

The Mocambo shows included the live debut of a neon-lit R&B vigil called “Worried About You,” marking the first public performance of any song from 1981’s Tattoo You, the last great Rolling Stones album. Each of its two sides presents an aesthetically distinct vision of the Stones. The first, led by “Start Me Up,” finds them settling into their role as a legacy-oriented stadium rock band, grabbing the essence of the sleazy blues-based music they’d perfected a decade before and blowing it up to Jumbotron proportions.

The second side, opening with “Worried About You,” briefly drops the world-conquering posture and allows them to appear as weary and middle-aged as they actually were at the time, with a stretch of bedraggled late-night soul music that’s both distinctly Stonesy and also not quite like anything else in their catalog—or anyone else’s. The production, in some liminal zone between ’70s analog warmth and ‘80s digital chill, only heightens the elegance of the performances. Tattoo You’s first side guaranteed the Rolling Stones’ sinecure as a hugely profitable enterprise for decades to come; the second side is their final gasp of brilliance before those profits became more important than anything else.

By the early ’80s, some of the fissures of the previous years had closed for the Rolling Stones, but new ones were beginning to open. Richards was (mostly) off heroin, prompted in part by his narrow avoidance of a long potential jail sentence after the Toronto bust. His (relative) sobriety allowed him to take a renewed presence in the Stones’ music and business affairs around the time of their hit 1978 album Some Girls, and according to Richards, Jagger wasn’t happy about that. The camaraderie at the center of the band they’d started as teenagers in 1962 would sour considerably in the coming years, eventually prompting a handful of ill-advised solo projects and a seven-year hiatus from performing live. But for now, they had a massive tour booked for the end of 1981, with no new album to promote and hardly any new material to record.

That Tattoo You exists at all is largely thanks to Chris Kimsey, an audio engineer who’d begun working with the band on 1971’s Sticky Fingers.Tattoo You really came about because Mick and Keith were going through a period of not getting on,” Kimsey told an interviewer years later. “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 and Jagger spent three months searching the band’s archives for recordings of rejected and forgotten songs, jams, and sketches from previous sessions, going as far back as 1973’s Goats Head Soup and as recent as 1980’s Emotional Rescue. They took the compiled instrumental tracks to a warehouse on the edge of Paris and recorded vocals and a few additional overdubs there—a process that could have been finished in a few days, according to Kimsey, but instead took six weeks due to Jagger’s extensive social commitments in the city. Assembled for commercial reasons, from a backlog of unused material, at a time when the players involved were beginning to hate each other and the singer often couldn’t be bothered to come to work, Tattoo You didn’t have any reason to be particularly special.

“Start Me Up” is the first track, and the last of the Rolling Stones’ signature songs. The thwack of its backbeat and strut of its opening riff are so familiar today that it’s difficult to fathom its earliest iteration as a reggae song, a product of the Stones’ extended flirtation with Jamaican music in the mid-’70s. They labored over “Start Me Up” unsuccessfully for years, trying something like 70 cumulative takes at multiple different studios before landing almost accidentally on the final version, playing it as a charged-up rocker on a lark for the first time ever. Richards hated it. According to Kimsey, the guitarist went as far as ordering him to wipe the recording from the tape. “So of course,” Kimsey remembers, “I didn’t wipe it.”

The final version was recorded on the same day the Stones also nailed Some Girls opener “Miss You,” and there are echoes of that discofied hit in “Start Me Up”’s piston-pumping rhythmic drive. But “Start Me Up” belongs to the stadium, not the dancefloor. It’s the first Stones song that seems specifically designed to reach the highest bleachers and get tens of thousands of people clapping along in time. Fittingly, it became a sports arena staple. It frequently opens setlists on the band’s ultra-professional latter-day tours, where even the cheap seats are pretty expensive. It soundtracked the launch of Microsoft Windows 95, netting the Stones several millions of dollars in fees and providing the groove for a few of the world’s richest people to execute a few of the worst dance moves ever captured on video.

If “Start Me Up” is a real-time document of a feral band of outsiders mutating into a bloodless big business, it’s also one of the most undeniable rock’n’roll songs ever recorded. Scrape away decades of overexposure and it’s still possible to hear the improvisatory rawness of those early demos in the finished version, especially in Bill Wyman’s bass playing, which still carries the faintest whiff of subterranean dub, and in the frenzy of yelps, grunts, and wheezes that constitutes Jagger’s vocal take. The tension between the off-the-cuff source recordings and their glossy final presentation is part of Tattoo You’s distinct charm. For an album with such muddled origins, it has a consistent sonic quality, with crisp echoes that are distinctly of its early-’80s era. Even that effect is stranger and more human than it seems, achieved not with any fancy technology, but by playing the tracks back in a studio bathroom and capturing the echoes from the tiles.

“Slave,” rides a slow-motion blues-funk groove that sounds like it could go on forever, and nearly does: a bootleg of the raw take runs to 11 minutes, cut down to five for the album. Its chanted and spoken vocals surely had something to do with Jagger’s newfound love of disco as a frequent patron of Studio 54, and its swaggering rhythm is a reminder that Richards spent his time off from the Stones in this era jamming with reggae and funk heavy-hitters like Sly & Robbie and Zigaboo Modeliste. Though their paths were diverging, 20 years after they initially bonded over a mutual love of Chuck Berry and John Lee Hooker, both Mick and Keith were still devoted students of black music.

Recorded at a time after guitarist Mick Taylor had left the Stones, but before Ronnie Wood formally replaced him, the initial “Slave” session featured marquee guests like Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, and frequent Stones collaborator Billy Preston on keys. Beck’s contributions were likely scrubbed from the final version, and no one seems to agree whether Townshend was playing guitar or just adding backing vocals. The unlikeliest contributor is Sonny Rollins, the master tenor saxophonist, whom Jagger invited to overdub solos on “Slave” and several other songs after seeing him play at a New York City jazz club in 1981.

Rollins’ phrasing is carefree and conversational throughout Tattoo You, sounding perfectly pleased to be playing circles around these guys. His participation is a poignant image of human connection from the otherwise fractured process of adding isolated new takes to previously existing recordings. Jagger remembers: “I said, ‘Would you like me to stay out there in the studio?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you tell me where you want me to play and dance the part out. So I did that. And that’s very important: communication in hand, dance, whatever. ” But the pairing was too brilliant to last. Rollins never collaborated with the Stones again, leaving drummer and jazz aficionado Charlie Watts lamenting that he was on a record backing up one of his heroes without ever having actually played with him.

On Tattoo You’s flickeringly transcendent second side, the Stones sometimes sound like they’re shooting for Al Green or Prince (who opened a couple of gigs on the subsequent tour and got booed offstage at least once), and always like they’re a little too sad, loaded, and British to pull it off. Blues and country are here too, but only as shadows and reflections. The guitars are airy and transparent; the rhythm section softly works the pocket; Jagger whispers and convulses, using plenty of falsetto. It’s like the disarrayed intimacy of the classic Some Girls ballad “Beast of Burden” has been expanded into a five-song suite; only now, the burden has become much too heavy to bear.

In bootlegs from the Cockroaches’ Toronto ’77 shows, “Worried About You” is loose and jammy, nearly formless, stretching out to about eight minutes, with Mick Jagger audibly cueing the band through a sparse set of changes. In the studio version the public heard four years later, the changes were essentially the same, but the compositional arc had become clearer, and the bleary 5 a.m. atmosphere more vivid: Jagger channeling the spirit of past hedonism while reckoning with its effects in the present; tension building through ticking hi-hats and glowing electric piano toward a chorus that’s over almost as soon as it begins. “I’m worried, and I just can’t seem to find my way,” Jagger admits as the band sighs back into the verse behind him. That very moment captures the feeling of a halcyon period reaching its close.

The languor reaches a peak with “Heaven,” one of two entirely new compositions on Tattoo You, recorded by a skeleton crew version of the band—just Jagger, Watts, possibly Wyman, and Kimsey helping out—on a late night in Paris during the particularly cold winter of 1980. Kimsey recalls being able to see Jagger’s breath as they worked. The music is likewise swirling and vaporous, barely even there, far more psychedelic in its way than anything recorded during the band’s brief acid rock period of the late ’60s, and at least as erotic as any of their more openly hip-thrusting material. Jagger mumbles half-intelligibly, as if entranced, in the throes of sexual or religious ecstasy or both. Kimsey has been quoted as saying he “played alleged piano” on “Heaven,” which may be the result of a journalist’s bad transcription—there is some electric piano audible at the edges—but the odd phrasing is nonetheless appropriate for the rare Stones song that works by suggestion rather than demonstration, a half-formed memory or fantasy of events that may never have transpired at all.

Tattoo You closes with “Waiting on a Friend,” an ode to platonic companionship that’s among the most purely sweet songs the Rolling Stones ever wrote. From today’s vantage, it looks like one final expression of boyhood love between Jagger and Richards before the years of business-driven bitterness that would follow. As it fades into the mist with some Jagger falsetto and a beautiful sax solo from Rollins, it’s possible to close your eyes and imagine the Rolling Stones chose to wrap it up here, allowing the entire ’60s rock era to draw gracefully and finally to a close.

But they didn’t. After Tattoo You, there were bigger and more remunerative tours and public spats between Mick and Keith about music and money and penis size. Many albums took the backward-looking approach of Tattoo You as a figurative starting point, but without any of the sweat or ingenuity. “It’s almost as if Mick was aspiring to be Mick Jagger, chasing his own phantom,” Richards wrote scathingly in his 2010 memoir Life about his old friend during the post-Tattoo You ’80s. If you were feeling equally uncharitable, you could say the same about the band as a whole.

Shortly after the album’s release, a Rolling Stone interviewer expressed to Keith that he hoped the band would continue to exist and create music for another 20 years. “So do I, because nobody else has done it, you know?” Richards answered. “It’s kind of interesting to find out how rock & roll can grow up.” According to Billboard, the Stones’ 2019 “No Filter” tour grossed $415.6 million, placing it high on the list of the most profitable tours of all time. Their latest album, 2016’s Blue and Lonesome, is a collection of classic blues songs of the sort the Stones began their career by covering, another trip into the past.

And despite everything, on a good night, it’s still possible to catch the spark and recognize the Rolling Stones are still the Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band in the World. It’s no wonder they once chose to rename themselves after a famously persistent prehistoric household pest for a few shows, intent on getting back to basics and recapturing the old glory. Cockroaches can live through anything.

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