In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You, which went to No. 1 on Sept. 19, 1981, where it stayed for nine weeks.
A few months ago, I wrote a piece called “The Five-Albums Test” that some people loved, some people hated, and everybody seemed to disagree with—which was pretty much the response I was expecting. But there was one part of the essay that I was surprised nobody said anything about. It dealt with the concept of great “bad” records, and how it relates to albums released by the Rolling Stones in the ’70s.
What’s a great “bad” record? It’s an album distinguished by “the degraded quality of the songwriting and musicianship and an overall feeling of boredom, detachment, or extremely undisciplined self-indulgence that’s palpable in the music” (that’s the “bad” part), and how this “actually makes the album more fascinating—so long as the artist in question is a genius—because it provides insight into what makes the artist’s ‘great’ records great, and demonstrates how functional he or she is even when operating on a lower level of artistry/sobriety.” (That’s the “great” part.)
After beginning the ’70s with probably their two best albums ever, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main St., the Stones retreated to Jamaica, started wearing mascara, and released 1973’s Goats Head Soup, a glammy, funky comedown record that radiates exhaustion and the kind of extreme, lobotomy-style intoxication experienced only by small-town, winter-bound depressives and rich, listless rock stars in exotic locales.
Goats Head Soup is the Stones’ first great “bad” record. (Honorable mention goes to 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request, which initially seems like a great “bad” record, but is actually just great.) A few albums later, the Stones’ released 1976’s Black And Blue, the band’s definitive great “bad” album. Recorded during auditions for outgoing guitarist Mick Taylor’s replacement, Black And Blue is essentially a collection of demos featuring Mick and Keef trying out potential Stones. The guy who got the job, Ron Wood, only appears on a few tracks, which explains why the songs on Black And Blue sound like either half-formed jams or very sleepy Jagger solo tracks. (The exception is “Hand Of Fate,” which is the great lost Stones rocker.) But even if the heavy-lidded ‘ludes-and blues ballad “Fool To Cry” is a chore to slog through, the “idea” of the Stones staggering through a MOR pop song during their most fucked-up period makes Black And Blue more fun to contemplate than most “good” records. On Goats Head Soup and Black And Blue, the music is merely what’s splayed over the really alluring stuff in the subtext.
Some might argue that 1981’s Tattoo You is another great “bad” Stones record, since the album was assembled from discarded tracks deemed unworthy of making some of the band’s sketchiest ’70s albums. A few songs, like the hit “Waiting On A Friend” and the smoky ballad “Tops,” dated back to Goats Head Soup, and featured Taylor’s old guitar parts. Other tracks derived from sessions recorded in Paris that formed the basis of 1978’s wonderful Some Girls and 1980’s wondrously skeezy Emotional Rescue.
As Jagger related in a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Tattoo You was hastily assembled in order for the Stones’ to have product to hawk on its upcoming monster tour of American arenas and stadiums in the fall and early winter of 1981. Jagger and producer Chris Kimsey combed through suitable outtakes—most of which didn’t have lyrics or even melodies—without much input from the rest of the band. “They were just bits, or they were from early takes,” Jagger said. “And then I put them all together in an incredibly cheap fashion. I recorded in this place in Paris in the middle of winter. And then I recorded some of it in a broom cupboard, literally, where we did the vocals.”
This “cheap” album of “bits” went on to become one of the most successful Rolling Stones records ever, selling 4 million copies and topping the Billboard albums chart for nine weeks, going to No. 1 right before the tour launched and staying there for much of its duration. (To date, it’s the last Stones album to go to No. 1.) Tattoo You also spawned the last big Rolling Stones single, “Start Me Up,” which was released right before the album and peaked at No. 2 for three weeks that October, eventually staying on the charts for nearly six months. A straight-ahead rocker with a catchy start-stop beat that’s been firmly entrenched as a sports-event soundtrack fixture for the past three decades, “Start Me Up” had floated around for years as a reggae track that the Stones could never get the hang of. The one rock-oriented take of “Start Me Up” is what ended up on Tattoo You.
When Rolling Stone asked Jagger for his opinion of Tattoo You, he gave an interesting answer. “I think it’s excellent,” he said. “But all the things I usually like, it doesn’t have. It doesn’t have any unity or purpose or place or time.” An excellent record that lacks the qualities normally associated with excellence—sounds like a “great” bad record to me.
Except I don’t think Tattoo You qualifies. Along with Some Girls, it’s the last gasp of the Stones’ creative prime. And I actually disagree with Jagger’s criticism of the record. Tattoo You might have been culled as a kind of shadow greatest hits from the previous 10 years of the band’s career, but it hangs together as a reflection of where the Stones were at during a crucial moment in their history, and where they could have gone.
The two sides of Tattoo You can be described simply and fairly accurately as “rock” and “ballads,” but I see the album as more like a fork in the road. Side One is all business: It starts off with “Start Me Up,” which seemed pre-ordained to become an arena-rock staple, and blows through six blustery, fast (except for the porn-ready instrumental “Slave”), and mostly stupid songs in about 20 minutes. This was the sound of the stadium-sized Stones of the ’81 tour, which launched in Philadelphia and spent 10 weeks hitting some of the nation’s largest domes and hockey sheds.
As seen in Hal Ashby’s nearly unwatchable 1982 concert film Let’s Spend The Night Together, the Stones blew through songs on the ’81 tour with the speed and subtly of elephants stomping through an aerobics class. It’s a treatment that suits energetic Tattoo You tracks like “Hang Fire” and “Neighbours,” which unfold staccato-style like late-night, coke-fueled conversations that make up for their vapid content by not dwelling on it too long. The rush of the songs is thrilling, but also alienating, similar to how Ashby frames the Stones in Together to emphasize the vast spaces of their enormous stage and the band members’ distance from the audience.
Side Two of Tattoo You, on the other hand, is the last truly outstanding music of the Stones’ recording career, and certainly the most “mature” they ever dared to sound. If Side One is about whipping up pumped-up flash for the joint-smoking burnouts in the cheap seats, Side Two feels more personal and grown-up, the sound of guys who have been around the block dozens of times starting to come to terms with the wreckage they’ve created by so much rapid movement.
Songs like “Worried About You” and “Tops” dig deep into regret and self-recrimination, slinking about on chicken-scratch guitars before ripping your heart out with a soulfully shouted Keith Richards’ backing vocal. “Sometimes I stay up late, having fun,” Jagger sings in his “Miss You”/”Emotional Rescue” falsetto on “Worried About You,” slipping elegantly into the capper: “I guess you know by now, that you ain’t the only one.” Jagger playing the catting-around lothario is nothing new, nor is the strain of self-pity of “Worried About You” that undercuts his macho posturing. But “Worried About You” isn’t a kiss-off to uppity, controlling women like so many Stones songs; Jagger is giving himself the kiss-off here.
He does the same on “Tops,” where Jagger mocks the aging show-biz sleazeball who uses his power and celebrity to seduce young women with promises of fame and fortune. He goes back to the falsetto by the song’s end, singing “I’ll take you to the top” over and over, letting the hollowness of his promises echo as the song fades.
The best song on Tattoo You is the album’s final cut, “Waiting On A Friend,” which Jagger wrote new lyrics for after discovering the old, unfinished track from nearly a decade earlier. Jagger has said that the lyrics are “very gentle and loving, about friendships in the band,” but who are we kidding here: By 1981, the Rolling Stones weren’t friends, which at least partly explains why Jagger recorded the vocals for “Waiting On A Friend” by himself in a Parisian cupboard. “Waiting On A Friend” is really a song about a guy who has finally come to see a woman as his equal. “I’m not waiting on a lady, I’m just waiting on a friend”—because, for the first time, they’re one in the same.
That’s how I interpret “Waiting On A Friend”—it’s Mick Jagger’s declaration of independence from his old rock-star bullshit. “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,” Jagger sings, forsaking sex (whore) and drugs (booze) in favor of an adult partnership. (He’s also given up rock ’n’ roll for a light, sensuous Latin rhythm.) At the end of “Waiting On A Friend,” right before the second breathtaking Sonny Rollins sax solo, Jagger sings: “Making love and breaking hearts, it’s a game for youth.” Side One of Tattoo You is the Stones rapidly huffing and puffing in a desperate attempt to be young, a charade that would stifle the Stones for the next 30 years. But on “Waiting On A Friend,” Jagger lays this out for what it is—a game he’s outgrown.
If only the game weren’t so profitable. The Stones ended playing for 2 million people on the ’81 tour, performing 50 shows in 29 cities and grossing $50 million, which at the time made it the most successful rock tour ever. Tickets were priced at around $15, and went for as much as $250 on the scalper market. For the band’s New York shows, 3.5 million people sent in requests for 150,000 tickets. Subsequent Rolling Stones tours would prove to be even bigger moneymakers: Until recently, when it was surpassed by U2’s “360” tour, the Stones’ “Bigger Bang” tour was the highest grossing in history, raking in nearly $560 million.
After Tattoo You, the Stones made one of their strangest and daring records, 1983’s Undercover, and their least notable and loved work, 1986’s Dirty Work. After that, Stones records picked up where Side One of Tattoo You left off, acting as lead-ins for the highly profitable tours that justified the Stones’ continued existence more than any apparent artistic spark.
What makes the less-inspired Stones records of the ’70s great is their honesty; right or wrong, they show a band living with their self-imposed failings. Sometimes they fight through them, other times they sail through like dead-eyed sharks—but they’re always moving. That’s why I love them. While I’m enough of a Stones apologist to muster up a defense of latter-day efforts Steel Wheels, Voodoo Lounge, and A Bigger Bang, there is a phoniness to those records that can’t be denied. They’re all about proving that the Stones (and Mick specifically) “still have it.” The Stones remain a very capable of live unit, but their post-Tattoo You albums consciously tried to re-create past glories that seem to have very little to do with their present lives as millionaire British geriatrics.
Sometimes I wonder about the other Rolling Stones, the one that exists in my imagination, the one that took the other path in the fork in the road. What if the Stones had made records that dealt candidly with growing old in rock ’n’ roll and apart from your former friends in the band? Would that have been preferable? Would the Stones still even be a band? My feeling is probably not. Because the Stones are still here, I’m still hoping that they’ll make a record like that some day. Even if it ends up being only great in a “bad” way, that’s preferable to cold competence any day.
Up next: The Doors' Waiting For The Sun