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Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Rolling Stones - Tattoo You

A double dose of old Rolling Stones reviews for today. First up, we have Tattoo You. This is an interesting review in that  you can see my appreciation for the album rising as I wrote about it. Things haven't changed. This is still the last truly classic Stones album. 

From (Originally published 22 August 2005)

Tattoo You was an album that was absolutely doomed to be one of the Stones’ worst ever embarrassments. Not only did it have unenviable job of following up an album that is generally regarded to be their worst effort yet, it was never really intended to be much of an album at all. Seen as little more than an excuse for another Rolling Stones tour, Tattoo You was compiled from old outtakes, previously discarded tracks and the odd newly recorded track – all to be released in the early nineteen-eighties, the decade that would prove to be the bane to all the once-great sixties acts. Yup, the odds were all stacked pretty firmly against this album.

Unbelievably enough, not only did it manage to overcome the odds but went on to beat these odds to a messy, bloody pulp as Tattoo You went on to become one of the Stones’ very best post-Exile On Main Street albums. Perhaps even the best post-Exile album. How exactly they managed this, I could only guess but then it is the Stones that we’re dealing with here and predictability has simply never been their stock in trade. Mind you, it’s not quite perfect as it does have a glitch or two song-wise on the first side of the album but its flaws are minor enough that I am all too glad to declare this album to be the Stones’ last true masterpiece.

 It would however be somewhat negligent of me not to point out that Tattoo You is also one of the Stones’ most controversial album so even though I absolutely adore it, I’m not one hundred percent certain that you will. Still, it’s a worthwhile risk, I think, that could end up being very rewarding. I should also point out that, much like many a Stones’ album, it is a grower so even if you have not entirely taken to it within the first few listens, you may well do so half a dozen listens later. I say this from personal experience too as it took me a good long while for the album to sink in – but once it did, well, I think “wow!” more or less covers my reactions to it. 

On the technical side, Tattoo You is divided quite rigidly between the harder, more rocking songs on the first side and the softer, ballad-type efforts on the second. Unlike the general critical consensus however (or the general critical consensus of those who actually like the album), I definitely prefer the second side.

 The rocking part of this album does have its share of gems of course but it is both less consistent and less compelling than its quieter counterpart. It probably also has something to do with the fact that the second side fits the then-modern, slightly new-wavey production better. Actually, the production on this album was probably the greatest hindrance to my assimilating this album simply because I personally prefer a warmer, more lively sound to my Stones recording than what we have here but I did get used to it enough for it not to be a problem anymore. Regardless, like I said, the production is but a small hindrance, it’s the quality of the songs that ultimately make the album and, with but one or two small exceptions, the songs are simply fantastic. 

Starting things off, we have the aptly titled Start Me Up, the most famous song here and the undisputed high point of the first side – well, for me anyway. Combining the punkish energy of the music scene at the time with the classic Rolling Stones’ swagger, Start Me Up is a classic Stones riff-rocker of the Jumping Jack Flash persuasion. It’s simply a marvelous example of what happens when you combine not one but two killer vocal hooks with an unforgettable riff – classicness abounds. 

Almost as good is Hang Fire, a song that is both poppier and more punk thanStart Me Up even if it doesn’t quite reach those lofty levels. This is also one of the few times that Jagger’s soon-to-be-obnoxious barking really worked in service of the song, giving Hang Fire an energy it would not have possessed otherwise.

 The only other song on the first side that is beyond reproach is Keith’s vocal spotlight Little T&A, an upbeat, sludgy little number with the kind of sexually-charged lyrics that call to mind Mick Jagger much more than Keith Richards. Regardless of the lyrics, Little T&A remains one of the greatest – and energetic – Keith sung-songs and is a definite highlight among an album filled to the brim with highlights. 

Unfortunately, the remaining three tracks on the “rocking” side are anything but highlights. Mind you, as I sit here listening to Slave, a groove that would have fit right in on their jam-filled 1976 album, Black and Blue, I feel that I probably should revise that statement. Why on earth would I ever have thought to write off such a prime example of Stones sleaze? Sure, it is little more than a six and a half minute long jam but how can anyone, let alone a huge Stones fan like myself, overlook that killer combination of first class Richards-riffage, provocative vocals from Mick and a number of awe inspiring sax solos. See, now that’s what I love about this band: you can listen to a Rolling Stones’ album a hundred times but there is always something new – and frequently surprising - to discover. 

Sometimes, it would seem that there is even more than one surprise because another song that I was ready to write off, Ronnie Wood’s blues-rocker, Black Limousinehas revealed itself to be pretty damned great too. It might just be that I’ve recently really started to appreciate the often (but unfairly) maligned genre of blues-rock that I’ve come, in turn, to appreciate this song but I truly do find myself suddenly loving this track. Though between those driving guitars, oddly distorted harmonica playing and typically untouchable rhythm section, I don’t really see how I couldn’t. Yes, the melody's generic but the blues have never really been about melody but about the way the melody is brought to life and the Stones simply do a top-notch job in that department. As usual. 

You know, I’m tempted to go back and just rewrite the last few paragraphs, making it appear that a) I always liked Black Limousine and Slave and that b) I actually know what I’m doing but that would just deprive you, dear reader, of witnessing the Stones magic more or less first hand (though it is closer to second hand, isn't it?). Besides, no one would ever be fooled into thinking that I actually know what I’m doing, which throws half of my reasoning clear out of the window. 

And hey, you know what, I can’t even really find any real problems with the last rocker here, Neighbours other than the fact that it’s not quite as great as everything else here. It’s fast, it’s fun, it’s catchy, Mick gives us some great barking vocals and there’s some more of that top-notch saxophone playing so really, what’s there to complain about? Not much, that’s what. 

Unbelievably, even though my estimation of the first side has gone up considerably, it’s still the second side that proves to be this album’s greatest strength (in my humble and fairly irrelevant opinion anyway). Worried About You is another one of those songs that really took a while to grow on me but, thanks in a large part to a tremendous performance of it on the band’s excellent Four Flicks DVD box set, it has quickly become on of my favourite Stones songs ever and is my pick for best track here. It starts off as a beautiful ballad sung by Mick in a revelatory falsetto (for me anyway as I only heard Emotional Rescue much later on) over a lovely piano melody before taking off and becoming a lively Motown-like groove. I could hardly gush on about Mick’s singing here enough because, as if his falsetto wasn’t amazing enough in itself, the way he changes between said falsetto and his more normal vocal-styling during the chorus is nothing short of thrilling. Great guitar playing too. 

Continuing in the Motown-inspired vain of Worried About You (I actually consider Motown to be a huge influence on these ballads), comes the soulful Tops, which once again shows the Stones in a guise that we’re not used to seeing them in but one which they do seem quite comfortable in. For a bunch of dirty, middle-class white British fellows, they sure are convincing as soulful balladeers. Then again, the Stones’ near-obsession with black American R&B is pretty well documented but the transformation that they undergo for the next track is nothing short of astonishing. 

The greatest roots-rockers (gross simplification but there you go) somehow manage to become a fully convincing avante garde outfit for the spooky, near-ambient Heaven. The guitars are processed into sounding like something else entirely, while Mick chants random, incoherent lyrics and the rhythm section takes on an African feel, resulting in the most unique Stones song ever put to tape. Even better is that even if Heaven is a departure stylistically for the Stones, it’s as good a track as any they have ever recorded. 

Returning to more familiar territory comes the very under developed but stunningly beautiful No Use In Crying. The only thing that really needs to be said about this magnificent ballad is that if you’re not moved by it you must have a lump of coal where your heart is meant to be. Yes, it really is that beautiful.

 Not that the last track on the album is any worse of course because, as the second most famous song here, the contemplative Waiting On A Friend ends the album off on a soulful, understated note. Everything from the melody to the playing to the singing to the arrangements just click for this masterpiece and, as if that isn’t enough, the sax solo here is the best on the entire album. 

All in all, Tattoo You is an even better album than I first thought (even the production has grown on me) when I started off writing this review and truly does belong in everyone’s music collection. You might not like it straight away but keep returning to it and you should be rewarded handsomely for your patience as the album reveals itself to be a masterpiece that ranks among the very best Stones albums ever. 

South African readers buy Tattoo You from Take2.

International readers buy Tattoo You from Amazon:

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