- 11 Nov 21
We'll Always Have Paris. The Rolling Stones retouch Tattoo You. Words: Pat Carty. Portrait: Helmut Newton.
There’s an argument to be made – and here we go – for the late seventies in Paris as the last great creative period for The Rolling Stones. As a sixties singles band, they were second only to The Beatles and their 1964 debut album and 1966’s Aftermath – the first one written entirely by Mick and Keith – are classics. Then, from ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ in May of 1968 to the release of Exile On Main St. in May of 1972, they simply made the greatest rock n’ roll records of all time. The only way was down – Goats Head Soup is a fine record, just not as good as what went before it. It’s Only Rock N’ Roll (74) and Black And Blue (76) are better than their reputations suggest, but there is an undeniable air of water-treading about them.
Contracts are up for renegotiation in 1976. Black And Blue was, perhaps, not the strongest evidence that could be presented in order to extract a decent sized cheque so the decision was made to put a live record together.
June 6, 1976: The Stones are due to play the Pavilion de Paris in the northern part of the city, a venue also known as Les Abattoirs because of its former incarnation as a slaughter house. Keith Richards gets a phone call. His youngest son Tara has choked to death in his cot. Richards decides to go ahead with the gig. You can hear how he played that night on that Love You Live album, his way of dealing with unimaginable pain. To further strengthen their hand, the band had already decided that this double album would also include some club gig material, just like they used to do. Canada seemed like a good spot for this. Richards wouldn’t need a visa for entry, and it wasn’t a million miles away from New York where Jagger - and no better man - was doing the negotiating.
February 28, 1977: Members of the Canadian Mounted Police enter a hotel room. Keith is out of it, having been up for days. It takes several slaps to the face to bring him round so he can be charged with possession of heroin with the intent of trafficking. It’s highly unlikely that Richards had any interest in selling anything on, but the charge indicates the amount he had to hand. If we go by his autobiography, Keith may have seen himself as some sort of romantic outlaw on the run figure, but this was serious; the human riff was facing the distinct possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison. The Stones still managed to play two nights at the city’s El Mocambo club, and they were good too, as side three of Love You Live attests. The other Stones left town, but the authorities seized Keith’s passport. On March 12, the night before the court date, Richards recorded several country ballads like ‘Say It’s Not You’ and ‘Apartment No. 9’. These recordings are the definition of fragile. Even someone as outwardly cavalier as Richards must have had some sense that his luck had run out.
The Canadian authorities allowed Richards and partner Anita Pallenberg permission – they were rich and famous, after all - to enter the US for treatment and, while he endeavoured to get well, he mixed the live record with Jagger. It’s hardly essential but it sold, which must have helped in the boardroom.
September 31, 1977: Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood take the Concorde to Paris. Richards can’t remember the address of the apartment he’s kept there since 1968. The band are there to check out Pathé-Marconi studios – owned by the record company – and Keith decides on the rehearsal room in the complex instead because he likes the sound of the room. They’d be in and out of there for the next few years and the sessions they recorded there were incredibly fruitful. There are several possible reasons for this.
Until the final trial in October of ’78, where Richards would get off extremely lightly with a suspended sentence and a requirement to play some concerts for charity, he had a Damoclean sword hanging over his head. For all he – and his band – knew, they were living on borrowed time. He was determined to get as much as possible down on tape, in case this really was the last time.
While Richards may not have been aware of it, and certainly would never have admitted it, the music business had changed around The Stones. Disco and punk were in the air and Jagger immersed himself in both genres. The first album that emerged from these sessions, Some Girls (1978), is a Jagger album in the same way that Sticky Fingers was before it, with one eye on the dance floor – ‘Miss You’ – and another on The Roxy/CBCG’s with the likes of ‘Respectable’ and ‘Shattered’. Jagger probably didn’t care for being called a dinosaur – in his mid-thirties - either. It was also Mick’s decision to bring in engineer Chris Kimsey, thanks to his work with Peter Frampton and Bad Company.
Another factor, according to Richards himself, was musical downsizing. They shed the “clever bastards” like Nicky Hopkins and Billy Preston who, Keith claimed, had led them in different directions. Jagger stepped in again, making up the shortfall with his aggressive rhythm guitar, which gave the songs extra heft.
Some Girls is quite rightly seen as – to use an awful rock writing cliché – a return to form, an album that rocks and rolls, from the cornball ‘Far Away Eyes’ to Keith’s other great Keef anthem ‘Before They Make Me Run’ to the gorgeous ‘Beast Of Burden’. Further proof that these sessions were special came later on in 2011 when it was re-released as a 2-CD deluxe edition with an additional twelve songs recorded at the same time. If they had released this collection as the follow-up instead of Emotional Rescue – released in 1980, again recorded in Paris, not as good as Some Girls but better than people remember – we would still be going on about it. With proper rockers like ‘Claudine’ and ‘So Young’, and country covers like ‘We Had It All’ and ‘You Win Again’, it is that rarest of beasts, a collection of outtakes that stands up beside the original album.
The recording of a follow-up to Emotional Rescue was always going to be a problem. This was the beginning of the great Jagger/Richards conflict of the 1980s. Mick had decided he wasn’t going to tour that album, preferring instead to try and reignite his movie career by flying to South America to work on Fitzcarraldo with Werner Herzog, a project he would eventually abandon when he was needed in the studio. Richards was furious, although, to be fair, he had other stuff going on as well, having fallen in love with model Patti Hansen, the women he would marry on his fortieth birthday in 1983, and he also had his hands full becoming a full-time alcoholic to replace the heroin addiction, so he must have been a joy to work with. Accordingly, writing songs together wasn’t happening so it was Kimsey who suggested they go back into the archives – there was plenty of Paris material for a start – to put the album together.
The perceived wisdom amongst Stones aficionados is that the results of this archive-dive, Tattoo You, first released just over forty years ago, in August 1981, is their last great record. I could bore for Ireland about the fact – fact, mind – that there is at least one or two moments of greatness on every Stones album released since then, and here’s some evidence, but the general consensus is probably accurate; Tattoo You is the last one worthy of mention beside Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main St. and Some Girls.
It is then, an obvious candidate, for the bell and whistles reissue and Universal have obliged with several different formats. For one thing, there’s a cohesiveness to it that’s absent from latter efforts. It’s nicely arranged into a rockin’ side and a quiet side – on the original shellac – and side two is very nearly perfect. This is surprising given the fact that it was a cupboard raiding exercise, put together to give the band something to tour when they couldn’t be arsed, or weren’t able, to put together a new new record.
It opens, spectacularly, with the last Keith Richards/Rolling Stones riff that ate the world, the last one that casual admirers could whistle back at you without too much head scratching, a riff so brilliantly simple, you’d wonder why it wasn’t the first one he came up with when he first started tuning the guitar to that open G chord. Go and see The Stones next week and ‘Start Me Up’ is still the most recent ‘big’ number in the setlist. Some nights it might even start the show because it’s that good. It was first attempted during the German sessions for Black And Blue and then again in Paris for Some Girls, and originally envisioned as a reggae tune. It was Kimsey who rescued the take we’re more familiar with after Richards told him to erase it, something for which The Stones should send him a box of chocolates every December. Once the lyrics changed completely from “Start It Up”, the song was unstoppable. A huge hit when released as a single in August of 1981, it was supported by the most Jaggery video clip of all time where Sir Michael throws a series of shapes that only he, amongst all the people of the world, living or dead, has ever been capable of.
The Stones didn’t usually go in for message songs much, which is a good thing because there’s nothing worse than someone preaching at you when you’re trying to dance. ‘Hang Fire’ might be having a go at the state of their home country at the time but we don’t need to worry about that now because Keith does Chuck Berry, Charlie cracks the snare like an angry teacher taking a ruler to your knuckles, Mick throws in a few doo-doos, and they get out of there in just over two minutes before anyone has a chance to think too much about it.
‘Slave’, another track that first surfaced during the Black And Blue sessions, is simply as good as anything The Rolling Stones ever recorded. “Clever Bastard’ Billy Preston’s contribution is vital, as is jazz maestro Sonny Rollins’ sax – recorded later, while he watched Jagger dance – but this is really The Stones at their most distilled. If you need to know what was lost when Charlie Watts passed on, just listen to him here, nobody does a spoken word put-down like Jagger – “pass by the liquor store and be back by a quarter to twelve” and if they need a Keef riff for an entry in some class of rock n’ roll encyclopaedia, this might be the one to choose. It’s the groove. It seems simple but very few – if any – other bands have ever been able to manage it. There is a near-ten minute version of this knocking around out there – it’s years before Rollin’s sax would be added and there’s another guitar, possibly Jeff Beck’s – and while it’s a shame that they couldn’t find room for it here, the finished release is one of their finest five minutes.
To tell the truth, side one does go off the boil a bit after that. Keith’s ‘Little T&A’ – take a wild stab in the dark as to what those letters stand for, the Ronnie Wood co-write ‘Black Limousine’ and even Mick’s affectionate take on Richards getting evicted from his apartment for playing loud music are all grand, but they’re not as good as the rest of the record. Still though, the piano and saxophone on ‘Neighbours’ jump and wail, proving they were still plugged in.
The songs that bookend side two – ‘Worried About You’ and ‘Waiting On A Friend’ – both stretch back past Paris; the former was worked up for Black And Blue while the latter first took shape as far back as the Goats Head Soup sessions in 1972 in Jamaica. The question remains, why weren’t these cuts of genius included on those albums in the first place where they would have easily outshone everything else? Whatever the reason, they’re probably the two greatest songs on Tattoo You and yes, that does include ‘Start Me Up’. The soulful, yearning ‘Worried About You’ is one of Jagger’s finest recorded moments as he slips in and out of falsetto, Charlie watts proves again that he could play anything, the wondrous guitar solo from Wayne Perkins – they were in between permanent guitar players at the time – makes you wonder why he didn’t get the job and it’s one of the last recorded examples of Mick and Keith actually singing together, a feature of all their best work. ‘Waiting On A Friend’ is as good a song about male friendship as you're ever going to hear, and it might be the love song of - not just by - the glimmer twins. It also inspired the greatest music video of all time and is, quite possibly, the last single truly worthy of their name.
‘Tops’ – hop into my bed and I’ll make you a star – also comes from the GHS sessions and features Mick Taylor on guitar and Nicky Hopkins on piano, while ‘No Use In Crying’ - Ronnie Wood's best ever Stones writing credit - and the slinky, dream-like, un-Stonesy ‘Heaven’ both came from Paris, and that was that. Tattoo You was a hit and it’s still their last album to top the American charts. The tour was on, and they got to keep the crown, for another while at least.
As alluded to earlier, The Stones have cracked open the archives during the last decade or so, expanding their best post-sixties output. Allen Klein’s company still holds the rights to the likes of Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed so don’t expect anything similar for those records anytime soon. This closet clearing has uncovered some brilliant music – ‘Plundered My Soul’ and ‘Following The River’ added on to Exile, ‘Scarlet’ and ‘Criss Cross’ appended to GHS and that great extra Some Girls disc. There has been some grumbling from the gallery, complaining – churlishly, in my opinion – that Jagger, the driving force behind these exhumations, has dared to mess with what was already there and not just release the tapes as they were. This is daft, for a few reasons. First and foremost, the majority, if not the entirety, of these tracks weren’t finished at the time. A lot of the instrumentation was but the vocals were rough if they were there at all. They were never going to release them like that. Another point to make is that while of course Mick Jagger in his seventies does not sound the same as he did in his twenties and thirties, his voice is in much better nick than most of his contemporaries and, one could argue, a lot of his voice was always about his personality anyway, and that is most certainly still there. This argument seems even more spurious when we’re talking about Tattoo You because that was what they did at the time anyway – dig out old cuts and finish them off. Anyway, it would take even the most gormless internet luddite about five seconds to locate a recently leaked collection which I won’t name wherein they’ll find a lot of the untouched tapes if that’s what they’re after.
Let’s get the live one out of the way first. Included in the super deluxe version is a complete concert recorded in Wembley in 1982. Frankly, it was surely more fun to be at then to listen back to, although if you require evidence that Charlie was good every night, then here it is. This is the tour that would stop in Slane about a month afterwards but it might be better served by the original Still Life album released in 1982 and that one is hardly anyone’s favourite Stones record either. In its favour, it has fine versions of Smokey Robinson And The Miracles’ ‘Going To A Go-Go’ and ‘Time Is On My Side’ and at least, as a single album, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. This version stretches over a patience testing three records. If you want to know what all the fuss is about when it comes to The Stones live, the ones to track down are still the incendiary Some Girls: Live In Texas ’78, Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out!, and – perhaps the greatest live rock n’ roll album of them all - Brussels Affair, recorded in 1973 and included with the Goats Head Soup reissue.
The meat then is Lost And Found, a further disc of outtakes to go with the original album, of outtakes. The surprise is that the well still isn’t dry. The long-bootlegged ‘Living In The Heart Of Love’ – Charlie batters the floor tom, Keith riffs, Mick yelps – should really have been finished at the time as it would have improved It’s Only Rock N’ Roll no end, and you can hear elements of it in the half-arsed reggae of ‘Luxury’ that they did put on that album. ‘Fiji Jim’ – previously known as ‘Fiji Jin’ – comes again from Paris and sounds like it was a good party. Jimmy Reed’s ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’ does at least show what the slightly over-egged Blue And Lonesome could have sounded like but the other two covers are exceptional. Apparently, their go at Dobie Gray’s ‘Drift Away’ was left off IORAR at the last minute, which was a serious error in judgement as it’s a marvellous performance. I also suspect it was the most finished outtake which required the least touching up. The third cover, of The Chi-Lites ‘Troubles A’ Comin’’ – here’s a useless pop fact, the song comes from their 1970 album I Like Your Lovin’ (Do You Like Mine?) which also featured “Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So)’ from which Beyoncé lifted the horn riff for ‘Crazy In Love’ – is a welcome surprise with the “get it together” line that could have been written for them.
Is Jagger having a go at the purists with ‘It’s A Lie’, those devotees who insist he shouldn’t be allowed to go back and finish his own work? Dig out the original version of this mid-tempo rocker, recorded in Paris for Some Girls, and the vocal is a mumbled guide at best. On this finished release he also seems to be taking shots at Jerry Hall and the press, and he helpfully mentions eBay and the internet in case anyone still thinks we’re in the seventies. ‘Come To The Ball’ is produced by Jimmy Miller and features Mick Taylor on guitar which puts it squarely in The Stones imperial period. I’d happily listen to recordings of Jagger and Richards ordering breakfast from room service if I was told they were from 68-73 but this has a slashing rhythm that calls to mind the great Metamorphosis outtake ‘I’m Going Down’ so I’ll take it instead. Taylor and Billy Preston also feature on ‘Fast Talking Slow Walking’ and again, it doesn’t matter if Jagger’s vocal is from forty days or forty years ago, there’s no one like him.
We finish off near where we came in with that early take of ‘Start Me Up’ where, as Chris Kimsey remarks in the beautiful hardback book that accompanies this box, you can hear Richards and Jagger pulling against each other. Keith is still playing reggae while Mick is starting to rock. It does prove that they and Kimsey made the right decision by giving us the version that they're possibly playing in some American enormodome as you read this.
The last Rolling Stones studio album of original material was A Bigger Bang, which is now sixteen-years old. Despite some perfectly good stand-alone fare like ‘Doom And Gloom’ and ‘Living In A Ghost Town’, we’re still waiting for the follow-up. Will it ever arrive, now that Charlie has left us? Who knows, but the thing is, it doesn’t really matter, the outtakes from the seventies are always going to be better. Would I like to see The Stones release a late career masterpiece akin to Dylan’s Rough And Rowdy Ways? Sure. Is that likely? Again, who knows, but why leave it to chance? Is it not better to enjoy again the music from when it seemed effortless to them, when their arsing around was better than nearly everyone else's best efforts, from the last times when they really were the greatest rock n’ roll band in the world?
The anniversary edition of Tattoo You is out now, in various formats and would make a very fine present indeed, especially for yourself.
Thanks to all the team at Universal Music Ireland, especially Lady Laura Allen.
By the way, this is really the last great Stones album.