It would make a great soap opera. Will Mick Jagger turn his back on the Rolling Stones now that he has made a solo album and had a hit single (his remake of ''Dancing in the Streets'' with David Bowie)? Are the other Stones mad at Mick? Was Charlie Watts upset by some of the sessions for the band's new album? And how did Steve Lillywhite, the British producer best known for his successes with U2, Big Country and other thoughtful-but-with-it U.K. groups, wind up behind the board? And what on earth is the next Stones album — a crucial one, their first since signing a multimillion-dollar deal with CBS — going to sound like? And, finally, are the Stones still the Stones?
The last question, at least, is easily answered. Late in October, in a New York studio at some ridiculous hour of the morning, a typical Stones session was in progress. Well, it was sort of a session. Engineers were carrying out instructions, making minuscule adjustments in various mixes while Keith Richards and Ron Wood jammed over in a corner. Mick Jagger, not seeming too involved, took a quick tour through the place, then said goodbye to ''the boys.'' He was leaving for a holiday in India, and he didn't take any telephone calls after his departure.
In another room, mixes — possibly final mixes — of the Stones' new material were being played. The group's twin-guitar firepower hasn't sounded half as grungy or as lethal since Exile on Main Street. With the exception of a ballad, a reggae-style number and two funk tunes with big, booming bass parts courtesy of guitarist Wood, this is shaping up as an album of driving, uptempo rockers. It's all in a more contemporary vein than Stones purists are used to — there isn't one remotely Chuck Berry riff to be heard anywhere, and the closest comparison might, in fact, be to Hüsker Dü.
Stones associates are beginning to call the as-yet-untitled record Keith's Album because of the large amount of work Richards has put into the project. According to the guitarist, the LP's raw sound at least partly results from the involvement of producer Lillywhite and engineer Dave Jerden (who worked on much of Jagger's solo album). ''We started doing some recording around mid-January,'' Richards recalled. ''Mick and I suddenly realized that it had been a long time since we'd had a real outside influence in the studio helping produce the records — ever since Jimmy Miller left [in 1973], really.''
Jagger and Richards finally settled on Lillywhite, who had produced U2's first three albums and both of Big Country's LPs, as well as records by Joan Armatrading and other British popsters. At the end of February, Lillywhite met with the Stones in Paris, where the band had been laying down tracks. According to Richards, they had about thirty songs. Lillywhite agreed to produce the new album and began working on it in early April.
One of Lillywhite's trademarks is his booming drum sound, and the Stones' new songs feature Charlie Watts crashing and bashing with more fury than he's mustered in years. According to Richards, however, that was more because of the influence of engineer Jerden. ''Charlie's not a guy who really likes to tune his drums; he's a rhythm man,'' said Keith. ''But Dave would tune his set every day, depending on what song we were doing — which was great.'' Watts, for whatever reason, reportedly became a bit acerbic during some of the sessions.
Promotion and other factors surrounding Jagger's solo album, She's the Boss, limited his involvement. ''As a matter of fact, I think Mick's album was released on or near the same day we started,'' said Keith. ''So in the early stages, we didn't see a lot of him. Ronnie and I had been working for a solid year on riffs, parts and things. When the Stones stop as a band, you know, we just keep right on going. Ronnie and I can hardly talk to each other; we just tell each other jokes and keep right on playing.''
Wood sounds much more integrated into the Stones' creative process on the new recordings. On earlier albums, he was filling in, listening to and playing off of Keith, and keeping some of his opinions, and abilities, to himself. On the new album, he plays acoustic and electric guitars, bass, keyboards and, on one song, drums.
''As far as who played what, it was largely a matter of first come, first serve,'' said Keith. ''Bill [Wyman] came in, did some lovely bass work. I think Ronnie's on three or four tracks. He's sort of taking over Brian Jones' old job, which was just to flit around from instrument to instrument and pick out the necessary thing.''
According to Richards, Jagger's serious involvement came after the band's two guitarists had prepared the groundwork. ''And I must say that while Mick wasn't there at the very beginning, he's done a great job on the lyrics, and a lot of the musical ideas that we had already built up, he changed 'em all around and did a lovely job on them.''
By the end of October, work on the album had come to a temporary halt, with Jagger going off to India and Richards to the Caribbean. But on one of the last sessions before the break, an affair that got rolling after one in the morning, U2's singer, Bono, showed up at the studio with Arthur Baker and Little Steven Van Zandt, the two producers of the Sun City single and album. Bono had written a song called ''Silver and Gold'' for the benefit LP. Richards and company had agreed to help him fill out the John Lee Hooker-ish solo vocal he'd already recorded. So Richards and Wood, assisted by drummers Steve Jordan and Keith LeBlanc, put together a dramatic blues backing. Bono left the studio after the second take, clasping the tape to his bosom and saying, ''This is it.''
The band was planning to reconvene in mid-November, with hopes of finishing the album in time for a January release. Meanwhile, the perennial question: Is there going to be another Stones tour? ''Yeah, yeah,'' Richards said. ''Hopefully, first thing in the spring, when the weather breaks.'' Richards, always a prime instigator of the touring that some other Stones find more and more distressful, grinned like a Cheshire cat. ''Hey, this is our first album for CBS. We've gotta tour.''
This is a story from the December 5, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone.