The Rolling Stones have made one of their best albums in over a decade, and they've done it in record time. "We'd never made an album in less than a year, from start to finish," said Mick Jagger recently during a break at Olympic Studios, in London.
But work on the Stones' new album — tentatively titled Steel Wheels — only started last January, when Jagger and Keith Richards met in Barbados to start writing songs. The band then recorded fourteen new Jagger-Richards songs, plus a cover of Jerry Butler's "For Your Precious Love," at Air Studio, on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, during the spring. Mixing and track selection (to be narrowed down to ten or eleven songs) are expected to be completed in time for the record's scheduled late-August release and the start of the Stones' fall North American tour. Total time: six months.
"For the Rolling Stones to cut fifteen tracks in five weeks is fairly phenomenal, at least since the Sixties," said Richards. "Given the deadline, there's no time to get into any peripheral bits," he added, alluding to the past — and highly publicized — feud with Jagger that erupted during their respective solo ventures. "All the energy has gone into the work."
And it shows. Rolling Stone got a sneak preview of several songs recorded for the album, some still with provisional titles. "Rock in a Hard Place" and "Mixed Emotions," both prime contenders for release as singles, pack the knockout early-Seventies punch of Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. "This is one of those songs like 'Start Me Up', where the minute you hear the opening notes, you head for the dance floor," Jagger said of "Rock in a Hard Place." "It's real Seventies, in the best possible way."
"Mixed Emotions" is a rattling rocker with crash-and-burn guitars and rippling organ, while "Sad Sad Sad" and "Hold On to Your Hats" are flat-out rockers in the classic lean, mean manner of "Bitch" and "All Down the Line." One number that's likely to prick up ears is "Speed of Light," a spooky Eastern-flavored gem that Jagger described as "a bit like 'Paint It Black'" The track features the Master Musicians of Joujouka, the legendary Moroccan tribesmen whose extraordinary pipe and drum music was first introduced to Western pop fans by the late Brian Jones. The Master Musicians' contribution was recorded during an all-day session in mid-June in Tangier.
Jagger is in fine vocal form on each number, while the instrumental emphasis is on the Stones' classic strengths — the metallic whiplash of Richards's and Ron Wood's guitars, the elementary bass-and-drums thunder of Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts — with strategic but unobtrusive flourishes of brass, keyboards and background singers.
Richards said the band came to the studio ready to work, adding that the recent solo tours by both him and Jagger helped get the ball rolling quickly. "I don't think the Stones have made a record in that condition — hot off the road — for maybe twenty years," Richards says. "Probably Between the Buttons was the last one made with everyone well oiled and ready to go."
The Stones have also been making a television documentary to be aired in conjunction with the record's release. According to Jagger, the documentary will be light on interview material and will mix archival performance clips with footage shot during the recent recording sessions in Montserrat.
This is a story from the August 10, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.