This seems almost like old times. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are huddled together over the recording console at Olympic Studios, in London, digging the music blasting out of the speakers overhead and listening hard to make sure each riff, beat and syllable is honed to classic Rolling Stones perfection. The control room is alive with the sound of "Sad Sad Sad," one of twelve tracks on the new Stones album, Steel Wheels. It's a trademark Stones blitzkrieg in the tradition of "Bitch" and "All Down the Line," and both Jagger and Richards concur that the song is a smoker, until . . .
"It's great until it comes to the E-flat bit," Richards says in his subterranean growl between drags on a Marlboro. "My part should really lay out after that."
Jagger nods his head in agreement while the rest of his body bounces nervously in time to Charlie Watts's clockwork drumming. "Yeah, I don't think it really belongs there."
Producer Chris Kimsey, a veteran of Stones sessions going back to the 1971 album Sticky Fingers, rewinds the track, and they listen to it again – Richards drawing contentedly on his cigarette, Jagger gyrating in place to the beat, until it comes to that annoying guitar part. They hunch over the board, shoulder to shoulder, and discuss whether to riff or not to riff when the song gets to E-flat.
It's the Mick and Keith Show, in full swing. This is the way they made Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street – joined at the hip and bonded by the thrill of writing and recording definitive, historic rock & roll. This is also the way they're making Steel Wheels, the first Rolling Stones album in three years and certainly the best Rolling Stones album in at least a decade. Written in Barbados, recorded in Montserrat and mixed at Olympic in a dizzying six months, Steel Wheels is the first Stones record since the 1978 album Some Girls to be made with the unity of purpose that characterized the band's consummate turn-of-the-Seventies work. For one track, "Continental Drift," the band went to Morocco and recorded with the Master Musicians of JouJouka, the legendary tribal group first introduced to Western pop fans by the late Rolling Stone, Brian Jones.
But there are some new tensions, not all creative, at work this time around. Jagger and Richards haven't been shoulder to shoulder, much less face to face, since the fractious sessions for Dirty Work nearly four years ago. They were too busy making solo albums (Jagger's She's the Boss and Primitive Cool, Richards's Talk Is Cheap), doing solo tours and roasting each other in interviews and song (Richards's needling "You Don't Move Me"). They argued about the legacy and the future of the Rolling Stones, about the business of the Stones and who controlled it, about Jagger's wisdom in trying to keep pace with the rap 'n' funk young bloods and whether Richards was just spinning his wheels in a refried Chuck Berry boogie rut.
To make Steel Wheels, Jagger and Richards have made a kind of peace. They've set aside, if not entirely settled, their differences. There are no visible traces of residual acrimony at Olympic, where the Stones have commandeered Studio 2, in the basement, in order to wrap up the album in time for a late-August release and the band's fall North American tour. With Ron Wood away in Ireland, sprightly Bill Wyman off honeymooning with his nineteen-year-old bride, Mandy Smith, and Charlie Watts popping in to tend to a drum part, Jagger and Richards are pretty much on their own, wrapped up in – and apparently enjoying – the work at hand. But for two guys who once dubbed themselves the Glimmer Twins, they couldn't be more dissimilar.
Mick Jagger literally bounces between extremes, a bundle of nervous energy packaged in an enviably taut physique and topped with a quick, incisive intellect. One minute, he is intently studying the recording console over Chris Kimsey's shoulder, making remarks and suggestions. The next, he's breaking out in snakehips fever, dancing around the room with that familiar reptilian grace. At the same time, he is expertly juggling phone calls from assorted Stones business associates – lawyer John Branca in Los Angeles or television producer Lorne Michaels in New York, who's working on a Stones documentary to be broadcast in tandem with the release of Steel Wheels. At one point, Jagger grooves across the room while checking figures on a portable calculator.
Keith Richards, wearing his standard uniform of well-worn gray jeans, boots and a T-shirt with rolled-up sleeves, is no less involved but much quieter than his reputation as rock's archetypal party pirate would suggest. He wanders around the control room with a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other and a deceptively sleepy look on his face. You can tell how hard he's really listening to a track by the way he grins when a song or riff strikes his fancy, or the way he winces when he hears something go awry, like that guitar bit in "Sad Sad Sad."
If opposites attract, then Mick Jagger and Keith Richards should be the ideal marriage. One is the organization man with a rock & roll heart; the other is the Stones' stubborn musical conscience, a purist who analyzes the feel until it's right, to his satisfaction. "Because we've been doing it for so long," Jagger says during a session break, "we don't really have to discuss it. When we come up with a lick or a riff or a chorus, we already know if it's right or if it's wrong."
But then there's the eerie resonance of "Mixed Emotions," the first single from Steel Wheels. A pulverizing rocker powered by slash 'n' trash guitars, it has vintage Sticky Fingers moxie dosed with some hard Eighties pop reality – a kind of refined primitivism. Jagger, however, sings the chorus – "You're not the only one/With mixed emotions/You're not the only ship/Adrift on this ocean" – with a distinctive bittersweet yowl that suggests he's brought a lot of emotional baggage to this reunion and that he and Richards still have some unfinished business between them. Jagger claims he did not write the lyrics with their feud in mind. Richards, though, takes the double meaning a bit more seriously.
"I thought about that afterwards," Richards says. "I was coming back from a session, my old lady, Patts, and just arrived, and I drove over to see her. And I told her how strange it felt, because it suddenly occurred to me that there was infinite room there for subliminal subjection. I realized what we'd laid down there had all the ingredients of an interesting autobiography."
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