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30 Years Ago: The Rolling Stones Struggle Mightily Through ‘Dirty Work’

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The Rolling StonesDirty Work arrived on March 24, 1986, during a low ebb in the relationship between the distracted Mick Jagger and an increasingly put-out Keith Richards. For Richards, the band was everything. For Jagger? “The Rolling Stones,” he memorably said during this period, “is not my only interest in life.”

The result was an album producer Steve Lillywhite once described as “a Keith Richards-inspired record.” The guitarist and Ron Wood huddled together for months, building songs on their own as Jagger tended to his nascent solo career. Jagger was still elsewhere even after Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts joined the proceedings. Videos and promotional appearances for 1985’s platinum-selling She’s the Boss were keeping the singer otherwise occupied.

Ultimately, Jagger would add his vocals – many of which displayed a new-found edge, perhaps in response to the tense times – after all the other work was done. The new Lillywhite-directed sound was better arranged and more spacious than recent efforts like Undercover and Emotional Rescue, but still a bit too sterile. Only three tracks were credited to the writing team of Jagger/Richards, the least since their covers-focused early days. A sense of disconnection prevailed.

In a move that further infuriated Richards, Jagger then refused to tour behind the album. Dirty Work was hobbled by that complicated history, even though it became a platinum-selling Top 5 album boasting two Top 40 hits: “Harlem Shuffle” and “One Hit (To the Body).” The accompanying video for “One Hit,” in a moment that felt like a peek into the difficult atmosphere surrounding the sessions, appeared to show Richards and Jagger coming to blows.

For Jagger, it was easier to walk away from Dirty Work, and maybe even necessary. “The album wasn’t that good, it was okay,” he told Rolling Stone in 1989. “It certainly wasn’t a great Rolling Stones album. The feeling inside the band was very bad too. The relationships were terrible. The health was diabolical. I wasn’t in particularly good shape. The rest of the band, they couldn’t walk across the Champs Elysées, much less go on the road. So we had this long bad experience of making that record, and the last thing I wanted to do was spend another year with the same people. I just wanted to be out.”

Watch the Rolling Stones’ Video for ‘Harlem Shuffle’

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The recent death of longtime keyboardist Ian Stewart, always a calming influence, didn’t help matters. His passing in 1985 was “the final nail in the coffin,” Richards told Rolling Stone. “We all felt the glue had come undone.”

Jagger went back to his own career, releasing Primitive Cool in 1987. This time, he failed to reach the Top 40, but he pressed on, mounting his first solo tour overseas. Wyman opened a London restaurant, called Sticky Fingers. Watts formed his own big-band jazz orchestra. Wood toured with Bo Diddley and opened a Florida nightclub. Richards then released his own solo debut, 1988’s well-received Talk Is Cheap.

It would be 1989 before the Rolling Stones reconvened, but Jagger had no regrets. He even asserts that leaving Dirty Work behind likely saved the band. “I was completely, 100 percent right about not doing that tour,” Jagger said. “The band was in no condition to tour. It’s as simple as that.” Speaking earlier to the Boston Globe, he clarified things. “If we had gone out after Dirty Work,” Jagger said, “we’d have never finished the tour, which would have been like, the end. It would have been hard to come back from that.”

Richards, even after notching his own Top 25 gold-selling project, wasn’t completely ready to let go of the hurt feelings. “I was really pissed that he wasn’t really into the album,” Richards told Rolling Stone in 1989. “I wanted to go on the road after we finished it. And I didn’t get a clear answer until the record was finished. Which was basically ‘screw off.'”

Three years later, the Rolling Stones gathered again for the Steel Wheels reunion record, but only after they’d confirmed one of their hugest tours.

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