25 Years Ago: The Rolling Stones Document the ‘Steel Wheels’ Tour on ‘Flashpoint’
When the Rolling Stones returned to the road in 1989 for the first time in seven years to support the album Steel Wheels, it was not only a massive undertaking, but easily the most anticipated concert tour of the decade. Here were Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, back together despite their hardly hidden fractious relationship that had deteriorated so much throughout the '80s that it looked like they might never return. So upon its conclusion, it was only natural there would be a live album to document what was then the band’s longest jaunt in their storied history.
Enter Flashpoint, a mish-mash of 15 live performances and two new studio tracks. The fact that the concert recordings came from culled from eight separate shows likely accounts for the lack of cohesiveness, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with taking the source material from different locales, here it led to a feeling of disjointedness.
Its lowlights include a terribly flat “Can’t Be Seen,” one of the weakest Keith Richards-sung tracks in the Stones’ catalog. It would’ve been much more prudent to include “Before They Make Me Run” or “Happy,” two other Keef songs played on the lengthy tour. “Sad Sad Sad” and “Rock and a Hard Place” both accurately reflect the over-production of Steel Wheels, itself a mixed bag of material.
Some of the standouts are “Miss You,” which feels reinvigorated and not-at-all welded to the disco-era from which it was spawned. A stripped-down version of “Ruby Tuesday” brings out the original essence of the song, and busting out the laid-back Beggars Banquet chestnut “Factory Girl” is refreshing in light of the over-the-top bombast of hits like “Satisfaction” and “Start Me Up.”
A take on Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster,” recorded in Atlantic City as the North American leg wound down, feels inspired, as is the case almost anytime the Stones step back in time to embrace their blues roots. It certainly helped a bit to have Eric Clapton solo on the song, which begs the question, where were the rest of the special guests? John Lee Hooker and Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin both appeared on the same bill, with the latter two providing a spark on “Salt of the Earth,” which hadn’t been done live by the Stones in over two decades.
Then there are the two new songs intended to lure in fans who don’t like live records in the first place. “Highwire” is a heavy-handed commentary on the Gulf War, which had ended about six weeks prior to Flashpoint's release, making it already lyrically dated. Musically, though, it’s a powerful track, giving an idea of what Steel Wheels might have sounded like had the band spent a year on the road becoming a well-oiled machine prior to hitting the studio.
“Sex Drive” is a sonic retread of Black and Blue’s “Hot Stuff,” a shameless attempt at funk which came up short 15 years before and doesn’t even get out of the gate here. Most embarrassing though are Jagger’s lyrics, which had the then 48-year-old boasting about his libido, describing, among other boasts, how he’ll “lick the fuzz right off the peach.” It’s neither sexy nor campy, but a feeble attempt at finding the provocative nature of Prince but ending up making Jagger look like a creepy old jester.
Rolling Stones Live Albums, Ranked Worst to Best