I thought it would be a good idea for the live album to have something new on it, not just the same old things again," said Mick Jagger, referring to the Rolling Stones' powerful new single "High Wire." "And around Christmas, this is what everyone was talking about, what's gonna happen in the gulf. War was on everyone's mind."
The Stones' first new studio recording in nearly two years, "High Wire" will be included on the forthcoming album Flashpoint, which otherwise features a bumper crop of Stones classics recorded live on the band's mammoth 1989-1990 world tour. The song is also a topical torpedo that addresses not only the terrifying prospect of apocalypse in the Persian Gulf but the war of emotions on the home front: "We walk the high wire putting the world on a deadline/Hoping we don't taste the shellfire/Of hot guns and cold, cold nights."
Opening with the knock-knock sound of Charlie Watts's drums and fueled by the metallic locomotion of Keith Richards and Ron Wood's interlocking guitars, "High Wire" bristles with the helpless rage of "Street Fighting Man" and packs the trademark punch of the Stones' early-Seventies work.
"It comes from the thing where we get ourselves in these situations, boxed into corners, and we have to act one way or the other," Jagger, who wrote the lyrics, said in a recent interview. "There is a lot of division of opinion between the people who are gung-ho, who think war solves everything, and the people on the other side, who say it never solves anything. And in the middle is most everybody else."
According to Jagger, the music for "High Wire" dates back to pre-Steel Wheels days: "It was one of those things that I played for people, but no one seemed to pick up on it." The tune got a new lease on life when the Stones decided to record a brand-new studio track for the live album. "I didn't know if it was going to come off," Jagger admitted, "whether it was anything that anyone would want to hear. But it really just sounds like the Rolling Stones."
Jagger wrote the lyrics at the end of December, as talk of an impending gulf war started to heat up, and the Stones cut "High Wire" during the second week of January, shortly before the bombs started falling in Baghdad. Indeed, much of the song deals with the struggles for political power and oil wealth that led to the war. In the opening verse, Jagger sings, "We sell 'em missiles, we sell 'em tanks/We give 'em credit, you can call up the bank/ It's just a business, you can pay us in crude/You'll love these toys, just go play out your feuds."
"I don't want it to sound like some cheap history lesson," Jagger insisted. "It is about that, though. We built the armaments up to a point where thirty years ago it might have been a very low-key affair. These days, it is not low-key. And this scenario of the mad dictator in the Middle East, it's been talked about for as long as I can remember. `One of these days, one of these guys is going to be loose out there with all this weaponry.' And eventually these things come to pass.
"I don't want to take advantage of this in terms of publicity, just because the new album's coming out and all," Jagger continued. "But I think it's good to be able to make a comment on something everyone is talking about. It's a valid function of writers and artists everywhere."
Flashpoint, which is due to be released the first week of April, features performances recorded along the entire length of the Stones' Steel Wheels and Urban Jungle tours. "It's a really good album, I think," Jagger said, adding that little was done in the way of postproduction cosmetics. "There were a few great takes with odd noises, things like that. But we had enough takes, to be very honest, that we didn't need to dress them up. We could just go to another take."
The tracks include deathless hits like "Start Me Up," "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Brown Sugar," as well as some of the less shopworn Sixties numbers that the Stones revived for the tour, among them "Paint It Black," "Ruby Tuesday," "Factory Girl" and the Willie Dixon blues "Little Red Rooster," a staple of the Stones' R&B club days, which features Eric Clapton on lead guitar. Also included are stage readings of "Miss You," "Undercover of the Night" and from Steel Wheels, "Sad Sad Sad" and Keith Richards's vocal turn "Can't Be Seen." A version of the acid-damage gem "2000 Light Years From Home" appears on the B side of "High Wire" but will not be on the album.
A film from the tour is also on tap. The as-yet-untitled documentary, currently in the editing stage, is expected to be finished by the fall and will be shown in the wide-screen IMAX format. Jagger has also accepted a dramatic role as "a baddie" in the forthcoming movie Freejack, a futuristic thriller starring Emilio Estevez and directed by Geoff Murphy (Young Guns II).
As for the perennial question of future studio or live work with the Stones, Jagger simply said, "I'm taking that as it comes." He has been working on some new songs, though. "I'm just writing some things down, sitting around with a guitar," he said, adding with dry understatement, "There's a lot going on."
This story is from the March 21st, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone.