"Tattoo You wasn't really an eighties album," says Mick Jagger, and in a sense he's right. The decision to launch a Rolling Stones tour in 1981 left the band with little time to write new songs and prompted what Keith Richards calls "a frantic search through the can" to come up with material for an album — a search that produced some ironic results.
"The album came out and everybody said, 'It's the freshest-sounding Stones album in years,'" says Richards, laughing. "We all had a good chuckle."
"Oh, that made me really laugh," Jagger says in agreement. "But now all can be revealed. I was actually rather scared at times. I thought, 'They're bound to notice. The critics can't not notice that this is from here and that's from there.'"
As it turns out, the band reached back nearly a decade for material. The ballads "Waiting on a Friend" and "Tops" were begun in Jamaica in 1972 during work on Goats Head Soup. "Worried About You" and "Slave" dated back to some 1975 rehearsals in Holland for Black and Blue. Early versions of "Start Me Up" were worked up during the Some Girls sessions in 1978. Finally, "Neighbors," "Heaven," "No Use in Crying," "Little T&A," "Hang Fire" and "Black Limousine" were initially recorded during the 1979 sessions for Emotional Rescue.
Of course, the varied origins of the songs on Tattoo You do not detract from the album's power and thematic richness. As Richards points out, having a stockpile of worthwhile material is "one of the advantages of being around for a while." Both Jagger and Richards estimate that forty or more takes exist of "Start Me Up" — one of the Stones' best singles — all but one of which treat the song as a reggae number. "We'd obviously gotten pissed off with reggae," says Richards with a laugh. "We just hit it that one time — rock & roll — and there it was lying there, like a little gem."
In addition to unearthing a single that would burn Tattoo You into the memory of their fans, the Stones pushed the boundaries of their music by bringing in jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins to play on three tracks of the album. "Instead of having all these rock players, I thought we'd go a bit more off the wall and ask him to do some solos," says Jagger. "You can't beat using the best people." In addition, Jagger credits Bob Clearmountain, who mixed the record, for the cohesiveness of Tattoo You. "He did a great job of making it all a rather more homogeneous sound," Jagger says. "It sounds crisp, like it was recorded only yesterday."
For Jagger, Tattoo You provided a valuable lesson in the uses of the past. "It just shows what you can do," he says. "Just bring the tracks out, and start doing vocals and the odd guitar bit and saxophones, and then, hey, you've got an album. And it does actually hold up quite well."