Plenty of 60s icons struggled to find their place in the 80s, but with their second album of the decade, The Rolling Stones proved, yet again, just why they are the Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band In The World. Released 35 years ago, on 24 August 1981, Tattoo You consolidated the finest elements of the Stones’ music, demonstrating their willingness to embrace change while never betraying their roots – and, in the process, producing an album brimful of energy.
By the band’s own admission, it had been pieced together from sessions stretching back several years. In Rolling With The Stones, Bill Wyman noted that “some of it was ‘leftovers’ from Emotional Rescue”, while a brace of tracks – ‘Top’ and ‘Waiting On A Friend’ – stretched back to the Goats Head Soup sessions of 1972. But while Mick Jagger later told Rolling Stone magazine, “It doesn’t have any unity of purpose or place or time,” that’s exactly what gives Tattoo You its power: no longer were the Stones the establishment-baiting bad boys of the 60s, or shouldering the weight of having to out-do themselves in the 70s. Almost casually assembled, the album could stand for what it was: 11 stand-out cuts that give each member a place to shine.
Even now, ‘Start Me Up’ arguably remains the finest opener to any Stones album – no small praise, given that it has competition from ‘Brown Sugar’ (Sticky Fingers), ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ (Beggars Banquet) and ‘Gimme Shelter’ (Let It Bleed). But it’s loosey goosey riff – the only evidence needed to illustrate how Keith Richards earned his epithet, “The Human Riff” – and handclaps are the perfect bedrock for Jagger’s vocals: simultaneously at his lascivious best while being wryly self-deprecating. Infectious, humourous and utterly self-aware, it sets the tone for what ultimately becomes the Stones’ most reflective album.
Before they get there, however, they prove that they’re still firing on all cylinders. As Rolling Stone noted in their five-star review: “it sounds like the Stones simply decided it was time to challenge themselves again”. Bringing jazz colossus Sonny Rollins in on saxophone, they not only nod to the pomp of their early 70s masterpieces, but ensure that they collectively rise to his level. If, on ‘Neighours’, as Rolling Stone put it, Rollins plays with “the full-bodied sound of classic R&B – always about to go over the edge”, the Stones were unafraid to follow, unleashing a performance that rivals ‘Start Me Up’ for its infectious charge.
Effortlessly establishing their rock’n’roll credentials with the first half of the album, the Stones used the second half to, as Billboard noted at the time, explore “the various vocal and instrumental permutations of the ballad form, while retaining the quintessential Stones soul”. And “soul” really is the watchword – both musically and thematically. Having covered The Temptations’ ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)’ on Some Girls, they pay their own musical homage to the classic 70s soul cut with Tattoo You’s ‘Worried About You’. Elsewhere, ‘Heaven’ is awash with reverb, an ethereal oddity that could almost drift off on its own, were it not for Charlie Watts’ deceptively simple drumming keeping it grounded.
As Watts is to the Stones, ‘Waiting On A Friend’ is to Tattoo You: the secret weapon. Closing the album, it’s a world-weary ballad up there with ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘No Expectations’ in the Stones’ discography. “I’m not waiting on a lady, I’m just waiting on a friend,” Jagger confides, before later acknowledging, “Making love and breaking hearts, it is a game for youth.” Again, Charlie provides the ballast, while the rest of the band lays a bluesy lament on top; two minutes in, Rollins’ saxophone enters to give the song its redemptive lift.
Tattoo You remains the last Stones album to hit No.1 in the US charts, where it sat for nine weeks. It also gave the Stones their first Grammy, thanks to the album cover, designed by Peter Corriston, who was then working on his third artwork in a row for the group; a portrait of Jagger, photographed by Hubert Kretzschmar, is made to look heavily tattooed, and the image remains one of the most memorable album covers in the Stones’ discography.
The album has also had a curious afterlife in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Having already seen fit to play ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ and ‘Brown Sugar’ at his rallies, at the Indiana primary, on 3 May, Trump preceded his victory speech with ‘Start Me Up’. The Stones immediately asked him – again – to refrain from using their music.
Ever ornery, Trump may have countered that he’d never stop – though the Stones and their fans are likely to paraphrase a different lyric, hopefully asserting: “he can’t compete with the riders in the other heats”.
Click here to follow the Rock Icons playlist, which features a host of other Stones classics, among them ‘Paint It, Black’ and ‘Gimme Shelter’. Tattoo You was given a remastered reissue in 2009, and can be purchased here: