Rolling Stones: Tattoo You – [Record 142]
Tattoo You is the 16th British and 18th American studio album by The Rolling Stones, released in 1981. The follow-up to Emotional Rescue (1980), the album is mostly composed of studio outtakes recorded during the 1970s, and contains one of the band’s most well-known songs, “Start Me Up”, which hit second place on the United States’s Billboard singles charts.
The album proved to be both a critical and commercial success upon release, reaching the top of the Billboard charts, and selling more than four million copies in the United States alone. It was also the final Rolling Stones album to reach the top position of the US charts, thus concluding the band’s string of number-one albums there, dating back to 1971’s Sticky Fingers.
1. Start Me Up.
2. Hang Fire.
4. Little T&A.
5. Black Limousine.
7. Worried About You.
10. No Use in Crying.
11. Waiting on a Friend.
History: Tattoo You is an album primarily composed of outtakes from previous recording sessions, some dating back a decade, with new vocals and overdubs. Along with two new songs, the Rolling Stones put together this collection to have a new album to promote for their worldwide American Tour 1981/European Tour 1982 beginning that September. Guitarist Keith Richards commented in 1993:
“The thing with Tattoo You wasn’t that we’d stopped writing new stuff, it was a question of time. We’d agreed we were going to go out on the road and we wanted to tour behind a record. There was no time to make a whole new album and make the start of the tour.”
Recording: The album’s associate producer, Chris Kimsey, who’d been associated with The Stones dating back to Sticky Fingers (1971) said Tattoo You “…came about because Mick [Jagger] and Keith were going through a period of not getting on. There was a need to have an album out, and I told everyone I could make an album from what I knew was still there.” He began sifting through the band’s vaults: “I spent three months going through like the last four, five albums finding stuff that had been either forgotten about or at the time rejected. And then I presented it to the band and I said, ‘Hey, look guys, you’ve got all this great stuff sitting in the can and it’s great material, do something with it.”
Many of the songs consisted at this point of instrumental backing tracks for which vocals had not been recorded. Jagger said in a 1995 interview, “It wasn’t all outtakes; some of it was old songs… I had to write lyrics and melodies. A lot of them didn’t have anything, which is why they weren’t used at the time – because they weren’t complete. They were just bits, or they were from early takes”. Despite the eclectic nature of the album, the Rolling Stones were able to divide Tattoo You into two distinct halves: a rock and roll side backed with one focusing on ballads.
The earliest songs used for Tattoo You are “Tops” and “Waiting on a Friend”. The backing tracks for both songs were cut in late 1972 during the Goats Head Soup (1973) sessions and feature Mick Taylor, not Ronnie Wood, on guitar; Taylor later demanded and received a share of the album’s royalties.
The album opens with “Start Me Up”, originally rehearsed under the working title “Never Stop” and as a reggae-influenced number in 1975 during the Black and Blue sessions, and the balance of it was recorded during these particular sessions and during the 1978 Pathe Marconi sessions for Some Girls where the more rock-infused track was recorded. Also dating from the Black and Blue sessions are the backing tracks for “Slave” and “Worried About You”. They feature Billy Preston on keyboards and Ollie E. Brown on percussion. Wayne Perkins plays the lead guitar on “Worried About You”.
“Start Me Up”, “Hang Fire” and “Black Limousine” were worked on during the 1978 Pathe Marconi recording sessions for Some Girls.
- The basic tracks for “No Use in Crying”, “Little T&A”, and re-recordings of “Black Limousine” and “Hang Fire” came from the Emotional Rescue (1980) sessions.
- “Neighbours” and “Heaven” were recorded during sessions in October–November 1980, after the release of Emotional Rescue. “Heaven” has an unusual line-up, consisting of only Charlie Watts on drums, Bill Wyman on synthesizer, guitar and bass, Mick Jagger on guitar, and producer Chris Kimsey on piano.
- Many of the vocal parts for the songs on Tattoo You were overdubbed during sessions in October–November 1980 and April–June 1981. Mick Jagger was the only member of the band present at some of these sessions. Other overdubs, such as Sonny Rollins’s saxophone parts on “Slave” and “Waiting on a Friend”, were also added at these sessions. Most of the album was mixed at this time as well.
Release and aftermath: “Start Me Up” was released in August 1981, just a week before Tattoo You, to a very strong response, reaching the top 10 in both the United States and UK, and number 1 in Australia. Widely considered one of the Stones’ most infectious songs, it was enough to carry Tattoo You to No. 1 for nine weeks in the United States, while reaching No. 2 in the UK with solid sales. It’s been certified 4x platinum in the United States alone. The critical reaction was positive, many feeling that Tattoo You was an improvement over Emotional Rescue and a high-quality release. “Waiting on a Friend” and “Hang Fire” became Top 20 US hits as well.
“Start Me Up” would prove to be The Rolling Stones’ last single to reach as high as No. 2 in the US, while Tattoo You is their last American No. 1 album to date.
The album title was originally planned to be simply “Tattoo”. Jagger claims to this day that even he has no clue how the “You” became attached to the title. The title caused friction between Jagger and Richards, with Richards suspecting that Jagger had changed the title without seeking his input.
There were several videos directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg for this album including:
- “Start Me Up”, “Hang Fire” and “Worried About You”: Consisting of a standard band performance setting, miming to a backing tape.
- “Neighbours”: An homage to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, it features the band playing in one apartment of an apartment building with various happenings seen in the windows of the other apartments: A working-class couple relaxing and making love, a t’ai chi practitioner exercising, and most notoriously, a man putting bloody body parts in a suitcase. This video was heavily censored when presented on television.
- “Waiting on a Friend”: Filmed on location in New York City’s East Village, it consists of Richards walking down the street, meeting Jagger, who’s sitting on the front steps of a house (the same house used on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti) with several other men, one of whom is the late reggae musician Peter Tosh, who also shakes Keith’s hand. They then proceed down the street and enter a bar where the rest of the band is waiting. The video also features Wood, rather than Mick Taylor on guitar (similar to the videos for “Hot Stuff” and “Worried About You” in which Harvey Mandel and Wayne Perkins respectively actually played). The bar in the video was co-owned by Wood during that time.
Band appraisal: In the 1995 Rolling Stone interview during which editor Jann Wenner called Tattoo You the Stones’ “most underrated album,” Jagger said, “I think it’s excellent. But all the things I usually like, it doesn’t have. It doesn’t have any unity of purpose or place or time.”
Critical reaction: Reviews for Tattoo You were largely positive, proclaiming the album a return to form and ranking among the Rolling Stones’ finest works. Debra Rae Cohen commented in Rolling Stone, “Just when we might finally have lost patience, the new record dances (not prances), rocks (not jives) onto the scene, and the Rolling Stones are back again, with a matter-of-fact acceptance of their continued existence – and eventual mortality…”
Though Robert Christgau gave the album a good review, however, when criticising “Start Me Up” in his Pazz and Jop essay in 1981, said, “…its central conceit—Mick as sex machine, complete with pushbutton—explains why the album it starts up never transcends hand-tooled excellence except when Sonny Rollins, uncredited, invades the Stones’ space. Though it’s as good in its way as “Street Fighting Man”, how much you care about it depends entirely on how much you care about the Stones’ technical difficulties.”
Patty Rose, in Musician, said, “The feel of the album… is more one of rediscovered youth, of axes to play, not grind, of the latest cope, not dope. After Emotional Rescue, it seems the Stones couldn’t make it anymore with the theme of life getting harder and harder. The old themes are not invalidated by the new, but rather taken for granted, like knowing how to tie one’s bootlace. The Stones have shed yet another layer of self-consciousness and their shiny vinyl new skin tingles with an open, early-decade kind of excitement.”
Accolades: In 1989, it was ranked No. 34 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980s. In 2003, the album was ranked number 213 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
The cover of the album was designed by artist Peter Corriston, who won a Grammy Award in the category of best album package for the design. The photography was done by Hubert Kretzschmar and illustration by Christian Piper.
In 1994, Tattoo You was remastered and reissued by Virgin Records, and again in 2009 by Universal Music. It was released on SHM-SACD in 2011 by Universal Music Japan.