#213: The Rolling Stones, "Tattoo You" (1981)

Side 1

When you talk about an album—its impact, influence, and meaning—you almost always end up profoundly dating yourself. You’re saying: I loved this music at this very specific point in time, in this place, and, after listening to it, over and over, things changed, even just a little. You’re marking a turning point, a sea change, in your consciousness. (Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Joni Mitchell’s Blue. The Clash’s London Calling.) As you’re trumpeting the big, no-turning-back recordings in your life—the ones that helped define your sense of style, cool, politics, etc.—you’re also writing your own musical manifesto.

Of course, there’s a difference between falling in love with an album when it comes out and coming across an album years later, generations later, and falling in love with a relic. Both are valid, of course, but essentially different. (The Beatles gain converts every 5 years.) Often an influential recording is come upon in reverse; you like something that sends you back to something else, through sample or echo or homage, and that sends you back further and, bam, you run straight into Howlin’ Wolf or Buddy Holly or Joni Mitchell or Black Uhuru. You think, What the fuck is this? Why didn’t anybody tell me?

I came to Tattoo You right as it arrived in the record stores in 1981. Actually, my dad came to it and I listened in. He’d been playing Emotional Rescue, Some Girls, It’s Only Rock & Roll, and Goats Head Soup, and I’d been staying up late to listen with him. But there was something different about Tattoo You. I wasn’t yet aware of the genesis of the album. I didn’t know it was a bunch of outtakes cobbled together, added to, remastered, remixed. Didn’t know that I was listening to parts of all the albums I’d been listening to since I was 12. Debra Rae Cohen nailed this strange phenomenon in Rolling Stone: “This unity is partly the work of Bob Clearmountain, who mixed the finished tracks and gave them his characteristic vacuum-packed clarity (you could bounce a quarter off each of Watts's rim shots).” Maybe that was why I liked the sound so much; it felt new and lived in at the same time, like stone washed jeans.

Or I‘d changed, just turned 16, knee deep into high school, my brother fresh out the door for college. I’d turned some important corners and experienced all the new things. Girls, pot, jazz. And Tattoo You seemed to embody this new world—sexy, glittering, raunchy, strutting, bluesy, soulful. All about sex, this hypnotic late night feel. I couldn’t get enough of “Start Me Up,” that testosterone-laden anthem of braggadocio and swagger. Or “Hang Fire,” which sounded like the Beach Boys revved up by coke to 78 rpm. And then stomping around on my bed to “Neighbors,” slapping the walls and throwing pillows.

I didn’t know until my father told me—a huge lover of jazz—that it was Sonny Rollins on sax for “Slave.” Oh my god, I could listen to the rolling solo a thousand times over—its easily sexy rhythm, heavy on back-beat; the killer cool backing vocals; and that awesome break at the end with Mick rapping out surreal lines, screaming and laughing.

Collage by Sebastian Matthews

Collage by Sebastian Matthews

Side 2

And while Side 1 rocked out hard, Side 2 slowed down, chilled out. (Here comes the dating yourself part, for this was still the world of the record album, the original disc. Two sides, brothers and sisters! Watch as the disc turns in the light!)

Needle back down on “Worried about You” with its tight backing vocals and that gradual building to a peak before tumbling down into Mick’s “Baaaabyy!” and “oooohhh” then Keith’s bluesy solo taking the song on down. Next, the sultry, seducing “Tops”: “Every man has the same come on, I’ll make you a star. I’ll take you a million miles from all this…”And then the eerie, ethereal “Heaven,” which isn’t really a song, more like a drum and synth track salvaged—part filler, part segue, part morning-after soundtrack. Listen how the vocals skim and echo over the surface of the beat…“kissing and hugging, kissing and hugging…kissing and running, kissing and running away…senses depraved... no one will harm you, nothing will stand in your way…nothing…just nothing.”

“No Use in Crying” carries on the mellow, overcooked groove. Nothing more than three little bluesy vignettes with the song’s actor standing in a picture, standing in a station, standing on a balcony, always at a remove, ever at a distance. “Ain’t no use…stay away…there’s no using in crying…I ain’t never coming back…ain’t no use…ain’t no use.”

And then the album’s finale, “Waiting on a Friend.” I still remember that funky street-corner video with Mick hanging on someone’s brownstone stoop. The clanging guitar, Mick’s doo wop backing vocals. The pseudo reggae shuffle-step. Who was he waiting for? His pusher? His lover? One and the same? Did it matter? That song never seemed to end; Rollins kept pushing it out, further and further out, rolling wave after rolling wave, until it sailed itself off into the sunset.

Tattoo You. A middle-aged band’s return to form whispering to a mid-teen trying to climb up into a realm of maturity he hasn’t earned or fully yearned for yet. That album gave me a path, I tell you, and taught me more than a few things. It gave me a sense of the groove and pace and style that would be needed to mature into adult cool.

And I shared it all with my father, which is rare in and of itself, and we shared each others' company while listening. A whole world waiting.

—Sebastian Matthews