The Rolling Stones’ Last Great Album, ‘Tattoo You,’ Adds Bonus Tracks and Full Concert in 40th Anniversary Edition: Album Review

Rolling Stones 'Tattoo You'
Courtesy UMe

After decades of not really dealing with their catalog, the Rolling Stones have been digging deep into their vaults for the past dozen years or so, releasing expanded versions of past albums, many full-length archival concerts, and finishing up old songs that they’d started recording decades earlier.

The latest in this series, released just a few weeks after the 40th anniversary of its original release (vinyl pressing plants are really backed up these days), finds the Stones rolling out a deluxe boxed set of the album that many agree was their last great studio effort, “Tattoo You,” which actually was less a new album than an odds-and-ends collection of songs from the preceding decade that they’d finished up, dating back as far as the “Goats Head Soup” sessions nine years earlier. Regardless, it’s one of the strongest albums from the Stones’ second decade, smartly splitting the sides — an important distinction in the vinyl era — into rockers on side 1 and the softer songs on side 2. For the super-deluxe edition, the group has tacked on nine bonus studio cuts as well as an entire 1982 concert.

The “Tattoo You” album proper not only gave the group a pair of big hit singles and videos to feed the then-brand-new MTV — the all-time classic “Start Me Up” and the ballad “Waiting on a Friend” — but a strong platform to present their biggest tour in several years, which rampaged across North American arenas for the entire fall of 1981 and Europe the following summer. There was no reinventing the wheel here — no controversial, disco-tinged songs like “Miss You” or “Emotional Rescue” or country tracks (serious or tongue in cheek), just a bevy of straight-up rockers like “Hang Fire,” “Neighbors,” “Black Limousine” on the first side and softer, hazier tracks like “Worried About You” and “Tops” on the flip. The arrival of guitarist Ron Wood as a full time member had completely rejuvenated the band after several years of dissolution and, beginning with 1978’s galvanizing “Some Girls” album, helped them lock in the hard-riffing template for most of what they’ve done since, and that formula was solidified with “Tattoo You.”

So that’s the 40-year-old part of this collection — what about the “new” stuff? The outtakes that the Stones have appended to past deluxe editions have largely been decades-old instrumentals or sketches that were gussied up with new lead vocals and overdubs, to varying degrees of success; the bonus cuts on “Exile on Main Street” and “Some Girls” feel kind of embalmed. While that happily is not the case here — all nine tracks are lively performances — they’re also not A-list songs. There are three covers — Dobie Gray’s soul ballad “Drift Away,” the Chi-Lites’ “Troubles a’ Comin’,” and a hot version of blues legend Jimmy Reed’s “Shame Shame Shame” — four originals that are energetic but a bit dashed off, and a reggae-tinged version of “Start Me Up” that is interesting but much less compelling than the familiar version (apparently, the group kept passing over the several-year-old song because this version was first on the tape and the rocking one was at the end).

That leaves the concert, which captures a June 1982 London stadium date from the second leg of the tour. It’s almost exactly the same career-spanning set featured in the “Let’s Spend the Night Together” concert film and the “Still Life” album recorded the previous autumn, including three relatively rare covers, “Going to a Go-Go,” “Twenty Flight Rock” and “Chantilly Lace.” There’s not much we haven’t heard before, but with this multi-month jaunt the Stones basically wrote the book for all the arena/stadium tours that followed, and it’s great to hear the group at this particular peak of their live powers — they would not tour again until the end of the decade. By the time they returned in 1989, the Stones were all well into their forties (or, in former bassist Bill Wyman’s case, his fifties), and were also well on their way to proving that a great rock band can put on monumentally entertaining and musically satisfying concerts well into their seventies and possibly beyond.

How much longer the Stones will continue without Charlie Watts, one of the greatest drummers in rock history and the backbone of the band, remains to be seen. But this album, and this concert document, cap their second decade — the period that set the template for everything that followed over the next three.

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Rolling Stones ‘Tattoo You” Courtesy UMe