When the Rolling Stones Plundered Their Vaults for ‘Tattoo You’
Tattoo You is generally regarded as the Rolling Stones' last great album. There's a good reason for that: Much of it was recorded when they were still considered one of the greatest bands on the planet.
Before they got good again on 1978's Some Girls, the Stones were wasting their legend, and a huge chunk of the '70s, on underwhelming albums like Goats Head Soup, It's Only Rock 'n' Roll and Black and Blue. They all made it to No. 1, but following the string of history-making records the band released starting with 1968's Beggars Banquet and running through 1972's Exile on Main St., the lazy, rock-star excesses of their public lifestyles had superseded the music. It didn't help matters that assorted members were mired in booze and drug addictions that pretty much stifled any creative input and output.
Not that they weren't trying. The Rolling Stones cut a wealth of material in that dark period after Exile on Main St., and they even managed some semblance of keeping it together, with the high-profile tours and albums released on a fairly regular schedule.
In fact, there were so many leftover songs, or at least scraps of songs, from Goats Head Soup, Black and Blue and even Some Girls, when it came time to put together a follow-up to 1980's Emotional Rescue (which, like its six predecessors, hit No. 1) that they pretty much dug around in their vaults and pulled out 11 songs that needed cleaning up a bit, required some work with new vocals or were pretty much ready to go as is.
Watch the Rolling Stones' Video for 'Neighbours'
And it's not like the Stones had grown totally stagnant at this point. They had written some new songs, but with a tour looming, there wasn't enough time to record a new album and get ready to go on the road again.
Seeing that the tour planned to take the band to the U.S. in 1981 and then to Europe the following year, the decision was made to quickly go into the studio, record some new vocals and instrumental sections, slide them into the some of the best songs left in the can from 1972-79 and get a new album out there.
Two tracks dated back, at least in skeletal form, to the Goats Head Soup sessions, "Tops" and "Waiting on a Friend," which featured Mick Taylor, who left the Stones in 1974, on guitar. (He wasn't originally credited for his work on the songs, but later received compensation.) Another pair, "Slave" and "Worried About You," was left over from Black and Blue.
The Some Girls sessions yielded three songs, including two singles (and two of its best songs), "Start Me Up" and "Hang Fire," and the four remaining tracks got their start during the recording of the Stones' most recent album, Emotional Rescue. Mick Jagger recorded some new vocals here and there, jazz great Sonny Rollins overdubbed some saxophone and on Aug. 24, 1981, a new Rolling Stones album, Tattoo You, hit shelves a month before they launched their American tour.
And the thing is, it's one of the Stones' best albums -- certainly of the period -- and better than most of the albums its songs were originally omitted from. It also holds together surprisingly well -- especially for an album with a recording history that spans a decade, at least half a dozen sessions and various changes in band personnel and collaborators. It's also their toughest and most direct LP in years, even with the material essentially divided into hard and soft sides.
From the defining opening riff that kicks "Start Me Up" into place to the hectic "Neighbours" (its template was shaped during the Emotional Rescue sessions, but which sounds more like the punk appropriations the Stones were toying around with on Some Girls) to the falsetto-guided ballad "Worried About You" (there's no mistaking its Black and Blue roots) to the closing drift of Rollins' sax on "Waiting on a Friend," Tattoo You pulls together its disparate sources and fashions them in a way that most fans had no idea they were getting reheated songs.
Watch the Rolling Stones' Video for 'Start Me Up'
It continued the band's streak of No. 1 albums, staying at the top of the chart for nine weeks, their all-time record. The tour, which kept the band on the road through the end of the year, and then again for two months in 1982, was one of their biggest, setting records throughout its run. It would be another two years before the Stones made another album, and another seven before they would tour again.
Tattoo You marked an end of an era for the Stones. They haven't had another No. 1 album since, and, likewise, no single has reached as high as "Start Me Up"'s No. 2 showing. The tours got more massive, and more expensive, but the albums became more scarce as time went on (they've released only six albums since Tattoo You).
But the record also signaled a stop to their most creative period. Tattoo You represents the Rolling Stones' last bid for the world's-greatest-rock-'n'-band title they claimed about a decade earlier. It ends an era not only for the Stones, but for old-school classic rock as well. It was a new decade, and the old guard -- Led Zeppelin, the Who and others who bowed in the '60s -- was either gone or on its way out, replaced by newer bands with new agendas.
It's fitting that Tattoo You was the last great Stones album. Its parts came from a past the band would soon leave behind. After this, they were just another rock 'n' roll band making noise. But for one glorious, final moment, they took a familiar spot at the top.
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