Most of the songs on Steel Wheels were written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards during a three-week session in Barbados. That get-together was the make-or-break point for the Rolling Stones' 1989 reunion — a reunion that had been imperiled by Jagger's and Richards's solo records and by a year of public backbiting between the two.
Their attitudes in approaching the Barbados session say a great deal about the differences between them. "I said to the old lady, 'I'm going over to Barbados to write songs — I'll see you in two weeks or two days,'" Richards says of the conversation he had with his wife, Patti, before leaving. "I had no idea, and I'm sure Mick didn't either."
Jagger, however, admits to having no such doubts about his ability to work with Richards. "I never worry about those things," he says. "I just get on and do it. Keith is very supersensitive about all that sort of thing and worries that maybe it can't happen. I said, 'Well, we'll just try. If we don't do it, we don't do it.'"
Each man brought material to the session. Jagger had a rocker, "Hold On to Your Hat," while Richards had a ballad, "Almost Hear You Sigh." But they began writing together immediately. "We got two or three songs in the first hour, and once you get a roll going, there's no problem," Richards says. "What's good for the music will be good for us personally."
And Richards says there was something of a rapprochement. "It was very funny, because, with all the shit that's been going down over the last few years, you never know," he says. "But it was 'Do you remember when you said ...' and both of us are cracking up."
Charlie Watts's arrival on the scene also bolstered Richards's sense of possibility for Steel Wheels. "I drove up to the rehearsal place, and I heard him playing," says Richards. "I just sat in the car for five minutes and listened, and I said, 'Yeah, no problem. This year's made.'"
Musically, Jagger was concerned that the songs on Steel Wheels not repeat the sort of problems that had made him feel constrained in the Stones. The album's most radical departure is "Continental Drift," with its North African feel and use of the Master Musicians of Joujouka, from Morocco. "I never thought I'd get away with that with the Stones, but they bought it," Jagger says.
Steel Wheels also seems to have provided Jagger with an opportunity to respond to Richards's public criticism of him. On the album's first single, "Mixed Emotions," Jagger sings, "Button your lip, baby," and declares, "You're not the only one with mixed emotions." But the song ends with Jagger singing, "Let's stick together." "I just averted my eyes," Richards says, laughing, about his response to hearing the song's lyrics. "Although I realized it's not 'Mixed Emotions,' it's 'Mick's Emotions.'"
Jagger moans when told of Richards's remark. "Well, I wrote that about this girl I know, actually — it's got nothing to do with the Rolling Stones," he says with a laugh. "I hate to disillusion you."