That Time the Rolling Stones Regrouped for ‘Steel Wheels’
By the '80s, Rolling Stones fans had grown accustomed to the turbulence surrounding the band as a way of life. But the fallout from the group's 1986 album, Dirty Work, was so toxic that for a brief period, it seemed like they might never find their way back.
Between 1986 and 1988, the Stones were effectively on hiatus while the band's creative nucleus -- Mick Jagger and Keith Richards -- released solo records and traded barbs in the press. But while it took some mediating, their differences were ultimately overcome by the power of their long partnership. On Aug. 29, 1989, the proof arrived in the form of their 21st U.S. LP, Steel Wheels.
"We've been stuffed together for years and one of the consequences of the break was making us realize we were stuck together whether we liked it or not," Richards laughed later. "I like him playing harp, man. And I like to see his bum in front of me when I'm playing guitar, doing his s---. I like about him all the things he probably hates about himself." Jagger agreed, "Because we've been doing it for so long, we don't really have to discuss it. When we come up with a lick or a riff or a chorus, we already know if it's right or if it's wrong."
Jagger and Richards tested the waters in Barbados, meeting up to try and write in early 1988. As they quickly discovered, the time off hadn't watered down their creative chemistry. In short order, they'd churned out dozens of new songs. "We just started in. And within two days, we realized we had five or six songs happening," Richards later recalled. "I did have to take Mick to a few discos -- which are not my favorite places in the world -- because Mick likes to go out and dance at night. So I did that. That was my sacrifice. I humored him. And that's when I knew we could work together."
Even after Steel Wheels was finished, Jagger continued to maintain that the various members' solo careers were essential to the Rolling Stones' survival, but by all appearances, he needed that outlet more than anyone. "If Keith had sold like Michael Jackson figures, he would have still been back in the Stones. He would have dropped everything to come back," insisted guitarist Ron Wood, whose efforts as a go-between for the squabbling songwriters were credited with helping heal the breach. "What surprised me was that Mick didn't do those figures. That probably surprised him, too, and maybe it did make him realize the strength of the band. But once he and Keith spent some time together in Barbados, they just realized the friendship was longer and stronger than any paper or any magazine."
After dabbling with producer Steve Lillywhite for the occasionally glossy Dirty Work, the band reunited with longtime associate Chris Kimsey to co-produce Steel Wheels. Having served as an engineer on Sticky Fingers and Some Girls, Kimsey was well-acquainted with the group's strengths, and helped steer them into what amounted to a roots-oriented record -- cleanly recorded and boasting some modern touches, but distinctly the work of a band.
"What most people are concerned with nowadays is not rhythm itself but the sound of the thing that's creating the beat. They got these new toys, things that'll go crash and woo-wooo-woooo, and what is actually lacking is rhythm," Richards complained after Steel Wheels was released, explaining his approach to making music in the late '80s. "All this s--- don't seduce me. It's like a department store at the moment and nobody can get out of the toy department."
Though quite a bit of Steel Wheels found the band plying its trade in relatively back-to-basics fashion, the album wasn't without its share of adventure, particularly on the song "Continental Drift," which featured the Moroccan ensemble the Master Musicians of Joujouka -- a deliberate nod to deceased Stones co-founder Brian Jones, who'd recorded the Master Musicians in 1968 for the album Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka.
"We became a hard-rock band, and we became very content with it. The ballads got left a little behind as well. The hard-rock thing just took over, and we lost a little bit of sensitivity and adventure," argued Jagger. "It's boring just doing hard rock all the time. You gotta bounce it around a little."
For the record's first single, however, they played things safe, releasing "Mixed Emotions," a pure Stones rave-up that surged on the strength of the group's classic sound and a soaring chorus whose refrain ("You're not the only one with mixed emotions / You're not the only ship adrift on the ocean") seemed to speak to the dark spell its co-writers' relationship had recently weathered.
It was hard not to hear "Mixed Emotions" as a comment on Jagger and Richards' public feuding ("I realized what we'd laid down there had all the ingredients of an interesting autobiography," Richards told Rolling Stone), and in fact, even as the Glimmer Twins renewed their partnership, they remained somewhat testy about the way things fell apart after Dirty Work -- particularly Jagger's refusal to tour in support of that record.
"The album wasn't that good," Jagger said in a 1989 interview with Rolling Stone. "It was okay. 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."
Richard shrugged, "I was really pissed that he wasn't really into the album. 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.'"
Steel Wheels was a Top Five hit on both sides of the Atlantic, setting up a major worldwide tour brokered behind a record-setting deal that padded that band's bottom line significantly. Even in an era of corporate sponsorship, the Stones came under fire for cashing in so successfully, but Jagger was unequivocal in batting back accusations that they'd sold out.
"Of course, we're doing it for the money, as well," he pointed out. "We've always done it for the money. People get highly paid in rock and roll. That's why it's so attractive. It's like boxing. People don't do boxing for nothing. They start off doing it because they hope to get to the top, because when they get to the top, they'll make lots of money. I mean, that's America."
As would increasingly be the case with Stones records, Steel Wheels was compared favorably to their recent efforts, leading to critics' cries of "their best since (insert classic Stones LP here)" along with questions about just how long the band could keep going. Jagger, as ever, remained noncommittal, telling Rolling Stone that "Keith should be encouraged to do whatever he wants to do. And I should be encouraged to do what I'd rather do. What it is, I don't know. But I should be encouraged to push it further. I don't want to stay only with this."
Richards, meanwhile, was perfectly content to just keep rocking. "The funny thing about those riffs, those songs, is that if I'm playing them, it's because I still get the same kick out of it, y'know?" he laughed in a 1990 interview with Time Out. "There're riffs like 'Tumbling Dice' where you go [he kisses both hands and blows on them] 'Jesus Christ, it's a sweet riff. This is the feeling I been looking for forever. Jesus Christ! Is this ME!? HEY, THAT'S ME, BABY, AND I SOUND LIKE THIS!'"