Three years had passed since the release of Dirty Work and The Rolling Stones were smart to have taken the time off. They gathered in Barbados to record their next album which would become Steel Wheels.
The relationship between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards was on sound footing. Richards was functioning at a high level and would again become Mick Jagger’s partner in the studio. Charlie Watts had kicked his addiction and even Ron Wood was mostly sober. Only Bill Wyman missed significant studio time and this was relationship related. The basic tracks for the album were recorded in an intensive two month period with only time off to fly to Cleveland and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
Steel Wheels, for the most part, was a return to a basic guitar based rock ‘n’ roll sound. It would be embraced by their fans and remains a very good effort by The band. The album would reach number 3 on the Billboard charts and quickly sell two million copies.
Three of the first four songs from Steel Wheels are all out rockers. “Sad Sad Sad” is a guitar driven classic that finds Keith playing better than he had in 15 years. Check out the Flashpoint live album to hear this song in all its glory. “Mixed Emotions” was the lead single from the album and continued the Stones rock approach. “Hold On To Your Hat,” with an excellent vocal by Mick Jagger, completed this very welcome rock trilogy. The only problem was the average slow ballad “Terrifying” was misplaced as the third song and interrupted the flow.
There were a number of other highlights from Steel Wheels. “Slipping Away,” with a lead vocal by Keith, was a mature, well constructed song with sophisticated lyrics and shows his surprising growth as a songwriter. “Rock and A Hard Place” is just six minutes of flat out rock ‘n’ roll. “Almost Hear You Sigh” was a nice balled that featured an affecting Jagger vocal.
“Continental Drift” was an oddity on the album but the Stones meant well. Mick, Keith, and Ron flew to Morocco to record the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Brian Jones had recorded them for a never released album back in 1967 and now the group was down on their luck. These recordings would be worked into this song giving it a mid-eastern flavor and some royalty money to the players.
The Rolling Stones would leave on their massive Steel Wheels world tour shortly after the release of the album. They would be on the road for a year and visit 16 countries on three continents. Each of the four Stones was guaranteed 18 million dollars. Good old Ron Wood was still on salary.
I have to fess up that I missed the boat on a legendary Rolling Stones performance. I lived in Connecticut at the time and was a semi- regular attendee at Toads Place in New Haven. The Sons Of Bob were scheduled to be the opening act on August 12, 1989 for a to be named later main act. The Rolling Stones kicked of their tour in front of 700 people who each paid the entrance fee of $3.01.
Steel Wheels was an excellent comeback album for the Stones and provided a positive foundation for their tour. It remains very playable today and shows The Rolling Stones producing relevant rock ‘n’ roll again as the 1980s came to a close.