Revisiting the Start of the Rolling Stones’ Blockbuster Era With the Steel Wheels Tour
The Rolling Stones had spent much of the '80s on the sidelines. Despite increasing friction between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the band kept putting out albums -- though to relatively lukewarm reactions. Touring, however, was another story. By 1989, the Rolling Stones hadn't played a live show in seven years.
Their longest concert drought (before or since) officially ended on Aug. 31, 1989, when the Stones launched the Steel Wheels North American Tour at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia -- though, technically, the drought ended a couple of weeks earlier at a warm-up show in New Haven, Conn.
This tour was named for their new album Steel Wheels, which was released to enthusiastic reviews two days earlier. Jagger and Richards had patched up things earlier in the year, then started to write and record a record that felt like "classic Stones." Meanwhile, Jagger (in his mid-forties at the time) was consistently pressed on whether this would his band's final tour -- a line of questioning that seems increasingly ridiculous decades later.
Besides, Jagger, Richards, Ron Wood, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts had a ready answer in the form of a marathon, 28-song opening date. After kicking off the show with the one-two combo of "Start Me Up" and "Bitch," Jagger showed he could hold up better than the power equipment – which blew a generator during "Shattered," the third song of the evening. Within minutes, the power returned and the Rolling Stones regrouped, carrying on with the Steel Wheels cut "Sad, Sad, Sad." But they'd superstitiously drop "Shattered" from subsequent shows.
The set list represented just about every Stones era, from early blues covers (Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster" from back in 1964) to psychedelic experimentation ("2000 Light Years From Home") to country-rock ("Dead Flowers") and even some '80s material ("Undercover of the Night"). Richards gave Jagger a break down the stretch by fronting the band for a couple of his own songs ("Happy" and "Before They Make Me Run") before Jagger returned to take it home with wall-to-wall hits ("Brown Sugar," "Satisfaction," etc.).
This being the Stones' first big tour since 1982, spectacle wasn't sacrificed. The band took the stage amid crackling fireworks and roaring flame towers -- both of which would become de rigueur on future tours. They also introduced what might be the most garish stage decorations in rock history: a pair of giant inflatable barflies that flanked the stage during "Honky Tonk Women."
As the mammoth tour continued, the Rolling Stones seemed to only gain momentum. "We're keeping our fingers crossed, and I'll hit the wood here, but, yeah, they're getting better every day," he told Rolling Stone. "The band's really winding up now." He also called 1989 a "dream year" for the Stones, and predicted that the North American tour would become a worldwide one in 1990 . In fact, it did, although it was rechristened the Urban Jungle Tour before hitting Europe.
As dates flew by, the Rolling Stones recorded a live album (Flashpoint), broadcast a live pay-per-view special, one that was later edited into a prime-time concert special for Fox, and filmed an IMAX movie (Rolling Stones: Live at the Max) that was the first feature film completed with only IMAX cameras.
In some ways, the Steel Wheels dates marked the start of a new way of touring. It was the Stones' first tour with backing vocalists Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer and the first American trek with keyboardist and musical director Chuck Leavell. And, of course, it makes the first in a line of record-breaking, arena-sized blowouts that would continue into the new millennium.
None of those subsequent tours, however, would include the band's founding bassist Bill Wyman as a full-time member. Wyman decided he'd had enough and quit the band after the 1989-90 concerts. In this way, the Steel Wheels tour was both the beginning and the end of a Stones era.
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