Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus: A Guide To The Rolling Stones, Part 3 (1983-2005)

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Undercover (1983)

Released November 7th, 1983 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #3 UK, #4 US

Singles:

Undercover Of The Night” (#11 UK, #9 US)

She Was Hot” (#42 UK, #44 US)

Too Much Blood

The band’s first original recordings of the 1980s found them in a creative tug-of-war between Keith Richards, who wanted to stick to the band’s core strengths of blues and rock, and Mick Jagger, who wanted to continue on with his reggae and dance experiments (experiments which, by 1983, included the sharply angular music of New Wave).  It’s a decent enough album, but it’s ultimately inconsistent, populated with half-hearted attempts at breaking their mould and some weakly sub-par material.  The production tends to bring the material down perhaps a bit more than normal, reliant as it was on the audio idioms of the day; many of the songs have that sound you can point to and say “yeah, that was 1983” even though the songs themselves are rooted in much older traditions.  It’s also singularly nasty, reeking of kinky sex, political corruption, madness, and suicide; the leadership struggles in the band at the time play out perfectly in the recordings, and whether or not this is ultimately a good thing is left up to the listener.

Dirty Work (1986)

Released March 24th, 1986 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #4 UK, #4 US

Singles:

Harlem Shuffle” (#13 UK, #5 US)

One Hit To The Body” (#80 UK, #28 US)

Winning Ugly

By 1984 Mick Jagger was distancing himself from the Rolling Stones, working instead on his first solo album.  The reins of the band were largely passed to the mostly-sober Keith Richards, who worked closely with Ronnie Wood to craft Dirty Work.  The results stick to what Richards’ has always watned for the band:  roots-rock with no side-journeys into dance music.  As far as it goes, however, it is an undistinguished affair, with nothing really essential as far as the bands catalog is concerned.  Jagger’s work on the album is more or less phoned-in, with lead-off track “One Hit (To The Body)” being really the only exception.  One can surmise that he was saving his best lyrical and vocal work for his solo albums, although if one listens to his solo albums they can perhaps be forgiven for wondering how this could be.  Like so many other great bands of their era, the Stones seemed to finally be slipping into the malaise of mainstream rock in the Eighties.

Steel Wheels (1989)

Released August 29th, 1989 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #3 US

Singles:

Mixed Emotions” (#5 US)

Rock And A Hard Place” (#63 UK, #23 US)

Almost Hear You Sigh” (#50 US)

Terrifying

Steel Wheels is notable mainly for being the album on which Jagger and Richards managed to get back to getting along.  It feels like a reunion album, and in many ways it is.  The band seemed to get back to doing what they do best:  rocking, affecting ballads, and the odd Jagger-based experimentation (kept on this record mainly to “Continental Drift”).  It’s very much a professional album, however; everything seems calculated to scream “Rolling Stones” to whomever listens to it, and there isn’t really anything here that feels off-the-cuff.  That being said, it’s a decent enough sort of album, hardly essential, but hardly bargain-bin material at the same time.  The mainstream rock world may have by and large passed the band by at the end of the Eighties, but Steel Wheels found them in fine form regardless.

Voodoo Lounge (1994)

Released July 11th, 1994 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #2 US

Singles:

Love Is Strong” (#14 UK, #91 US)

You Got Me Rocking” (#23 UK)

Out Of Tears” (#36 UK, #60 US)

Sparks Will Fly

I Go Wild” (#29 UK)

By the mid-1990s, most bands that came of age in the 1960s were either long broken up or relegated to the nostalgia-tour circuit.  Not so for the Rolling Stones, though; even though they weren’t making the greatest music of their career, they were making something that definitely approximated it, even without bassist Bill Wyman, who had left in 1991.  Although Voodoo Lounge is five or six songs too long (it is a product of the CD era, after all) there are about ten songs on here that, taken together, make one hell of a roots-rock album.  It’s not Exile On Main Street or even Tattoo You, but it holds its own and proves itself to be more than a tour souvenir.  They were brought back to the basics by then-hot producer Don Was (everybody get on the floor…) who even convinced them to break out the acoustic guitars for some of the sinister English folk they hadn’t played around with since the late 1960s. Jagger, of course, hated it, and insisted that they return to out-there grooves, African rhythms, and other grandiose accouterments on their next album.

Bridges To Babylon (1997)

Released September 24th, 1997 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #6 UK, #3 US

Singles:

Anybody Seen My Baby?” (#22 UK)

Flip The Switch

Saint Of Me” (#26 UK, #94 US)

Out Of Control” (#51 UK)

Jagger got his experimental grooves back, but it all still sounds like a classical revival of traditional Stones albums; it was not earth-shattering or original, but it did rock on a nice, solid plateau.  Looking for some modern cred (and having enjoyed their work on Odelay) Jagger brought in the Dust Brothers for three songs – lead single “Anybody Seen My Baby?”, “Saint of Me”, and the slippery, vaguely nasty “Might As Well Get Juiced”.  Nothing exceptional, a couple of good singles, and off on tour again:  Bridges To Babylon in a nutshell.  The sound of the elder statesmen of rock ‘n’ roll slipping gracefully into old age.

A Bigger Bang (2005)

Released September 6th, 2005 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #3 US

Singles:

Rough Justice

Streets Of Love” (#15 UK)

Oh No, Not You Again

Rain Fall Down” (#33 UK)

Biggest Mistake” (#51 UK)

After nearly twenty years (!) of okay-not-great albums the Stones finally came out with what is, if not a classic Stones album, a pillar of their latter-day career.  After eight years of touring, the band was tight, and it shows on the recording:  the riffs slice like knives, the rhythm section is solidly in the pocket, and all of the sleaze and blues are intact from decades of being mined for inspiration.  Put simply, there is no reason why a band of 60-year-olds should rock this hard, and yet here we are.  It still devolves into generic filler and auto-pilot Stones Rock(TM) but there’s less of it than you might imagine and it’s not as objectionable as it logically should be.  It’s not their best, but it’s certainly their best since Some Girls, and that’s saying something.

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