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Did the Rolling Stones Peak 40 Years Ago with ‘Tattoo You’? Discuss.

On its 40th anniversary, the album that gave us “Start Me Up” cries out for a reexamination. An expanded edition lets us do just that

Helmut Newton*

Few of us knew it at the time, since its credits were skimpy and vague, but the Rolling StonesTattoo You — released 40 years ago this fall — was far from the typical album cranked out to accompany a tour. Desperate for fresh product to plug in time for their 1981 American shows, the band, with Mick Jagger and engineer Chris Kimsey in the lead, rummaged throughout the vaults, unearthed various shelved or incomplete tracks, added new vocals or instrumental parts to them, and presto — something new for the record stores! Talking with Rolling Stone in 1995, Jagger admitted as much: “It’s all a lot of old tracks that I dug out. … The rest of the band were hardly involved.”

Tattoo You’s simple-strut opener, “Start Me Up,” which always felt as if it had been conceived and written with stadiums in mind, has survived all these years. And the atypically warm and winsome “Waiting on a Friend,” with that snaky Sonny Rollins sax solo, has attained classic-cut status in their canon. But the album has also receded in time. With its 40th anniversary upon us, the Stones have naturally rolled out one of those overstuffed deluxe editions: the original album paired (on a special edition) with a disc of outtakes and two discs of live recordings from London’s Wembley Stadium in 1982. But how has this most cobbled-together of Stones studio albums held up?

Pretty well. Can we all agree it’s the last great Stones album?
As Jagger also said in that same interview, Tattoo You “doesn’t have any unity of purpose or place or time.” True, but from the kicky “Hang Fire” through the grinding blues “Black Limousine” and all the way to “Waiting on a Friend,” the album has no genuine duds, which can’t be said for every Stones album from Undercover onward. (Remixer Bob Clearmountain also did an ace job of making all the disparate sessions feel seamless.) Perhaps picking and choosing from the leftovers was the trick.

If you’re a vinyl-nostalgia person, Tattoo You is here for you.
In its first incarnation, the album was divided into two halves: a rock-rooted Side One (lots of guitars and beats) and a softer, plusher Side Two (more keyboards and midtempo rhythms). That style of sequencing started vanishing with CDs and is now truly DOA in the streaming era, but Tattoo You recalls those long-ago days when each side of an album could have its own personality. The “ballad” half remains one of the most cohesive and consistent album sides the Stones ever made. Bookended by the human-scale “Worried About You” and “Waiting on a Friend,” its middle tracks — the slow jams “Tops” and “No Use in Crying,” and the utterly spectral “Heaven” — add up to an extended mood piece that made the best (and most earnest) use of Jagger’s falsetto.

The outtakes of outtakes aren’t as dubious as you’d think.
Given that Tattoo You was culled from sessions dating back to 1972-73, nearly a decade before its release, you’d think the remnants would truly be the dregs: tracks so lame the band passed on them twice? Sure enough, some of the cuts on Lost & Found: Rarities, like “Trouble’s a Comin’ ” and “Living in the Heart of Love,” are rote rockers, even if the guitar work on the former (uncredited) has a slithery allure.

But “Come Back to the Ball,” a mildly leering grinder that appears to have rarely leaked, recalls the Sticky Fingers era, and a remake of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away,” from the It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll sessions, is charming and, for them, understated. We also finally get to hear a cleaned-up version of the Some Girls outtake “Fiji Jim,” a long-bootlegged Keith Richards raver that attains perfect decadent-Seventies sleaze. It’s too bad, though, that we don’t get to hear any of the rough early versions of these songs before they were manicured: What did “Waiting on a Friend” sound like during its gestation?

Thank God, or Jah, that they dropped the reggae version of “Start Me Up.”
Also included on Lost & Found  is one of the earliest takes of that song, which was played reggae style at first. They made the right move in dumping those attempts: The version here is sluggish next to the take we all know. (“Cherry Oh Baby,” from Black and Blue, is a better example of the Stones attempting reggae.)

And speaking of Black and Blue
We now know that “Slave” originated during that period and that album, the Stones’ most groove-oriented. It makes total sense, too: Like “Hot Stuff” there, “Slave” amounts to one set of wonderfully sleazy chord changes repeated over and over, but the instrumental trade-offs, which include Rollins on sax, show how much the Stones could sometimes do with so little.

Wait, Paul McCartney called them a “blues cover band”?
Sorry, we got distracted.

Actually, Macca should have called them “an R&B cover band,” based on this box set.
The deluxe edition of Tattoo You includes two discs of live recordings from that Wembley show. The Stones always had a soft spot for soul and R&B covers, and here, we get their takes on the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace,” Eddie Cochrane’s “Twenty Flight Rock,” the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me),” and the Miracles’ “Going to a Go Go.” Alas, most of those covers are pretty leaden, rarely achieving liftoff except for the extended instrumental jam during “Just My Imagination.”

Oh, look, it’s “Brown Sugar”!
The Stones may have temporarily dropped it from their set, for lyrics that some may now feel are questionable, but here it is in all its 1982 live glory. Unfortunately, by then the song had become just another shout-along crowd-pleaser, and the naughty menace and grind of the original had been left in the Seventies dust.

Listen to Charlie with fresh ears
Right after Watts’ death two months ago, many of us began unearthing our old Stones records and paying added attention to his playing. Tattoo You provides another way to newly appreciate him: the way Charlie arrives with a splash halfway through “Worried About You,” his kicky intro to “Hang Fire” and battering one to “Slave,” the stick work in “Heaven,” and his subtle accents throughout. You’ll miss him all over again — and also wonder anew about their future without him.

From Rolling Stone US