From the very first three chords you know that something wonderful is about to explode from out of your speakers, and indeed “Start Me Up” is not only exciting, but one of the greatest openers on any Stones album, period. It’s also one of the band’s horniest, proving that these middle-aged rockers had the libido of other men less than half their age. And as fresh sounding as it seemed, Tattoo You was in fact patched together from an assortment of leftovers scattered from the previous decade. But these weren’t just any old scraps. In fact, some date as far back as 1972 during sessions for Goats Head Soup, while others had been recorded around the time of Black and Blue. But because most of the recordings had been left in various stages of completion, lyrics had to be written, and new vocals and overdubs required. Now the group were not in the habit of revisiting their past, but with a world tour pending, they needed a new album to promote, and so the task of combing through the Stone’s musical burial chamber began. And what an interesting collection it is.
The aforementioned “Start Me Up” is a cast-iron way to get even the most rhythmically challenged individual on to the dance floor. The main riff is as infectious as anything they’d released before (including “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), and when Mick delivers the opening lines “If you start me up/If you start me up I never stop” the excitement level just builds from there and, well, never stops. The lyrics as a whole are fairly corny and even downright silly. Only Jagger could sing lines such as “My eyes dilate, my lips go green/My hands are greasy, she’s a mean, mean machine” and get away it. But who cares because the song itself is such a bona fide classic that not even a Tomahawk cruise missile could put a dent in it.
The socially satirical “Hang Fire” follows, and is an outtake from the Some Girls sessions. While I have never been much of a fan, it’s a fun little tune all the same, with humorous lyrics such as “You know marrying money is a full-time job/I don’t need the aggravation/I’m a lazy slob”.
When Mick Taylor announced in late 1974 that he was leaving the Stones, it left the band without a first-rate lead guitarist. But that didn’t stop them from rehearsing and recording their next album, 1975’s Black and Blue. “Slave” stems from these uncertain sessions, and is a bluesy, funky workout, more a jam than an actual song, and is augmented by Sonny Rollins, who plays some wonderful saxophone, and is the glue which really holds the track together. “Little T&A” (that’s tits and arse for those who might not already know) is pure Keef, all Chuck Berry riffs and enough misogynistic lyrics to get the feminists marching again. On the relaxed and bluesy “Black Limousine” Jagger seems to be reflecting on an earlier romance (in none too complimentary fashion), wailing on his harmonica, while Ronnie Wood and Richards lock strings as only they can. This is also one of the very, very few examples of where The Glimmer Twins gave a song writing credit to another member, in this case Wood himself, who fought tooth and nail to get them to agree (let’s face it, Jagger and Richards aren’t millionaires for being nice guys). The last track on side two, “Neighbours”, is one of only two new tracks specifically recorded for this album, and has Mick whining about the people who live around him, declaring “Have I got neighbours?/Ringing my doorbells/All day and all night/Ladies, have I got crazies?/Screaming young babies/No piece and no quiet”. Well, one wonders how the neighbours must have felt having The Rolling Stones living next to them.
While side one is the more ‘rockier’, side two is definitely more subdued. “Worried About You” is a slow ballad, with delicate electric piano courtesy of the late Billy Preston, and a strong guitar solo by Wayne Perkins (who was not credited by the way). Jagger sings in a lovely falsetto about how his woman seems determined to keep doing him wrong; “Sometimes I wonder why you do these things to me/Sometimes I worry girl that you ain’t in love with me”. Poor sod. The Casanova of rock and roll is obviously feeling hurt. But then in the next couple lines he confesses “Sometimes I stay out late, yeah I’m having fun/Yes, I guess you know by now, that you ain’t the only one”. Well, so much for Jagger’s sense of fidelity. Still, it’s a first-rate song, and one of the album’s standouts. “Tops” is another superb ballad, and an old outtake from the Goats Head Soup days, featuring Mick Taylor on lead guitar (uncredited on the LP of course). The gorgeous “Heaven” is next. Originally recorded soon after the Emotional Rescue album was released, the song is all soft guitars and distant heavily treated vocals, and is like nothing else in the entire Stones oeuvre (much less anyone else’s). The semi-country “No Use in Crying” was obviously considered too laid-back for Emotional Rescue, but it fits in just fine here. Now at this point I guess the listener really begins to notice just how much trouble Jagger seems to be having with his women folk (nearly every song in fact). So by the time we get to the last track, “Waiting on a Friend”, it appears that old Mick has finally had enough, deciding that all he really wants to do his hang out with a few of his trusted mates, announcing “Don’t need a whore, I don’t need no booze/Don’t need a virgin priest”. The chorus “I’m not waiting on a lady/I’m just waiting on a friend” is simply charming, especially Jagger’s sweet falsetto, and Sonny Rollins’ saxophone is sheer perfection. Once again, Mick Taylor, who contributes guitar, remained uncredited (and unpaid!), which must have really pissed him off, especially as the video to the song was extremely popular on MTV.
Tattoo You was highly praised by critics when it hit the shops in 1981, and is often regarded nowadays as the last of the great albums to be issued by the band, and so therefore marked the end of what can be thought of as the group’s finest period. And while they have managed to pull the odd rabbit out of their collective hats since, never again would The Stones manage to create an album so endearing and magnetic, where the quality of the writing spoke for itself. Perhaps they should revisit the vaults more often.