Steel Wheels is not just a great album. It’s a testament to the endurance of brotherhood; to love conquering all. A touch melodramatic, perhaps, but pretty much dead on. By 1986, guitarist Keith Richards and frontman Mick Jagger were all but enemies. Dirty Work, released that year, signaled a period of intense uncertainty in the pair’s relationship.
Jagger refused to tour to promote the album, instead going it alone. He released his own album, which did little to make the front pages. Richards’ own solo outing, however, Talk Is Cheap, did remarkably well – referred to by some, jokingly, as ‘the best Stones album in years’. It looked as if the Rolling Stones, one of the biggest rock acts in history, were sure to break up.
But by 1989, miraculously, the pair had more than made up, joining calloused hands once more to celebrate their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Richards and Jagger had a creative outburst, penning more than 50 songs around that time, and cementing the foundations for what would become the group’s nineteenth studio album, Steel Wheels.
And with that much riding on the back of the album, it had to be the comeback album to end all comeback albums. It had to be nothing short of spectacular. And thankfully, it was.
Steel Wheels opens with ‘Sad Sad Sad’, packing all the raw, racing rhythm of the Stones we love. An ode to reassurance – the narrator telling a girl that she may be ‘sad, sad, sad’, but she’s going to be fine – it could just as easily be an apt description of Jagger and Richards’ period of healing. Either way, it’s an electric shock to the nervous system, and a track that fires on all cylinders.
‘Mixed Emotions’, which would go on to become the biggest hit from the album, is most definitely a track devoted to the leading pair’s tumultuous past – ‘Let’s bury the hatcher/ Wipe out the past…’. It’s also just a great rock number and reminds us that even twenty seven years after their formation, they’ve still got the boisterousness and the bravado.
‘Terrifying’ proves an intriguing piece, with ‘Hold On To Your Heart’ bursting into a steaming riff, burning the blacktop and all. It’s one of Steel Wheels’ moments of filler, but if this is what we’d call ‘filler’, then we’re setting a pretty high bar. There’s a tinge of old-fashioned blues in ‘Hearts for Sale’, in stark contrast to the twinkly eyed, country ballad, ‘Blinded By Love’.
The next track, ‘Rock and a Hard Place’, got into the Billboard top 40, and remains one of the Rolling Stones’ highest points. Ever. It’s a jubilant mixture of social commentary and stadium anthem; resulting in five and a half minutes of infectious hard rock; without a doubt Steel Wheels’ punching pinnacle.
Richards gets a shine to show off his untamed vocal prowess in ‘Can’t Be Seen’, a formidable rock number, before we’re treated to the next single, ‘Almost Hear You Sigh’, a track originally bound for Talk Is Cheap. Nominated for a Grammy, it’s one of the more soulful moments in Steel Wheels’ non-stop, rock ‘n roll rollercoaster – but a more than worthy derailing.
‘Continental Drift’, meanwhile, is like nothing else the Stones had ever tried before, or since. The notable exception to a return-to-roots approach, it’s a hypnotizing concoction of classical Moroccan, dance and prog rock and, though divisive to many, I think it stands as one of the Stones’ more ambitious endeavours which really paid off.
The album’s ultimate two tracks, ‘Break the Spell’ and ‘Slipping Away’, are perhaps its least memorable. But on a record boasting twelve on the tracklist, and nearly an hour of runtime, that’s still impressive. Indeed, Steel Wheels is among the band’s best – challenging the likes of Let It Bleed, Beggar’s Banquet and Tattoo You. In terms of sound, it’s perhaps the Stones’ most commercial rock record to date and stands up over two decades later.
Over the following year, the Stones embarked on their biggest tour yet, which was met with outstanding success. The record itself was hailed unanimously, and it seemed as though the British rockers had done it again. Despite all the stress, the fatigue, the self-destruction and the infighting, Jagger and co. were on top of the world once more.
Steel Wheel is perhaps the finest example, in music, of overcoming your differences and coming together to create something truly beautiful. And, hey, if that’s a bit sentimental for you, then you can just enjoy Steel Wheels for what it is: a damn fine selection of classic rock ‘n roll.