Any fan of rock and roll will tell you that one of the best hot streaks of any band in history was The Rolling Stones’ from 1968 to 1972. Half of classic rock radio is always playing cuts from that era and it’s the gateway for any novice into the early days of rock and roll. But it’s a telling thing to the Stones’ legacy that they have not one, but two hot streaks in their career. 1978 to 1981 showed the Stones at their most commercially successful with 1978’s Some Girls making them cool for disco boys and punk rockers alike and 1980’s Emotional Rescue was a nasty kiss-off to the nightlife they indulged in. And how did they cap off being one of the greatest rock bands in the world for the second end of a decade in a row? 11 tracks that didn’t make the last seven albums that turned out to be some of the best tracks they’d ever put to wax.
Tattoo You was released on this day 35 years ago and considered by many to be the last great Stones album. It’s got one of the Stones’ most well-known calling cards in the instant earworm “Start Me Up,” and also the last time the Stones would top the Billboard album charts in the U.S. It’s mostly composed of studio outtakes, and also one of the most definitive sounds of the Stones. There’s hints of country, reggae, blues, and early 80’s adult contemporary scattered throughout the record, and yet it’s undeniably the “Rolling Stones” sound.
It all kicks off with a song of many things: one of the best album openers ever, one of the best Stones songs ever, and just one of the best rock songs ever. “Start Me Up” is prime Stones genius on account of all members. Charlie Watts pitch-perfect kick drums, Bill Wyman’s funky bass line, Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards playing off of each other with another killer riff, and good ol’ Mick prancing and strutting like he could sleep with any woman he wants (probably because he could). “Start Me Up” is one of those rare music moments when every single thing just clicks. Every time Mick finishes a line, Keith’s in there with a riff run to warm him up for the next lyric. For something that started out as a throwaway reggae track, it’s amazing that it morphed into one of the most instantly recognizable songs in rock history.
And that’s not to discredit the rest of the album. “Hang Fire” has one of Charlie Watts’ most peppy drum lines propelling a bouncy number, while “Little T&A” is the most fun you’ll have with Keith Richards without ingesting terrible drugs or lewd sex acts. Despite his presence as the mysterious guitar player, Keith is also a very worthy frontman with the charisma in his voice being as good a lead as Jagger. “Neighbours” keeps the energy up, with the thrust and attitude of the tracks of Some Girls. “Slave” is a six-and-a-half minute cut of Wood and Richards playing around with a blues riff while saxophonist Sonny Rollins and keyboardist Billy Preston (two of the Stones’ best secret weapons) make their time in the spotlight count.
The band slows things down on the last five tracks, starting with “Worried About You” and “Tops,” which almost sound like the exact same song: slow-burning riff, little percussion, and Jagger’s vocals slower than usual. Then there’s “Heaven,” one of the weirder songs in the Stones’ catalogue and yet one of the album’s standout moments. Bordering on psychedelia, it’s led by a sunny guitar riff and Watts’ light taps on the drums while Mick uses an echo to make his voice sound dreamy. You imagine the song playing over some kind of a sexual fantasy or light acid trip, something the band has experienced either separately or at the same time. It all tops off with “Waiting on a Friend,” one of the softer and more sincere cuts in the Stones’ catalogue. It’s relaxed and feels more like a group effort instead of just being led by the Glimmer Twins, but it’s actually another star-making moment for saxophonist Sonny Rollins. His sax adds soul to the song about the band sticking it out with each other no matter how much booze and babes they take in.
Considering how quickly The Stones would crack apart within the next three years, it’s amazing how tight the band sounded on Tattoo You. Fans may have soft spots for other later Stones records, but Tattoo You truly feels like the last moment when the band sounded like legitimate acts instead of just old timers banking on world tours. Oddly enough, the only reason these songs came together on a record was because the band was booked to go on a world tour in 1981 and needed something to promote it. It’s interesting how most legacy acts use albums as means to tour (since albums don’t make enough money these days anyway) and how it so rarely works in the case of the albums. But of course it works on Tattoo You, because it’s The Stones.