Hard to believe that they were already considered graying, grizzled veterans over 30 years ago. But such was the case when on this day in 1989, the Rolling Stones roared back from rumored retirement (as a band at least) with Steel Wheels. On this side of the Atlantic, it was their 21st studio album, and followed a several-year hiatus during which both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had put out solo albums.
Steel Wheels followed the albums Dirty Work and Undercover, two albums which had so-so commercial success and generally lukewarm receptions from the band’s hardcore fans who found them too experimental and unfocused. That in mind, it’s no surprise this album sounded a lot more like a traditional Stones album, with 12 songs picked from an estimated 50 that Jagger and Richards wrote in a short period of time at the start of the year. Adding to the effect was their recruitment of Chris Kimsey to co-produce it with them. He’d done their Undercover album it was true, but had been in the studio for their “classic” albums of the ’70s dating back to Sticky Fingers. The result was a pretty traditional, rock/blues effort not unlike material from Goat’s Head Soup or Some Girls, perhaps with the exception of the experimental “Continental Drift”, complete with Eastern influences and Moroccan instrumentalists.
While part of the “Glimmer Twins” reasoning with the album may have been an annoyance at the criticisms they’d drawn for deviating from their norm with songs like “Harlem Shuffle” ,from Dirty Work, there was also a practical reason. For the first time in seven years, they were doing a world tour, and doubtless wanted some new rockers to add to the classics like “Brown Sugar” and “Start Me Up” which would feature in their year-long, 115 show tour.
The tour was wildly received, with some six million fans taking it in (an average of almost 60 000 per show) and it raking in close to $200 million, making it their most successful and one of the biggest for anyone to that point. The album… well, it did OK too though it didn’t break any records.
Steel Wheels got to #1 in Canada and Norway, and #2 in the States. In their homeland, it was a #3 hit. Across the board it was their best showing since 1981’s Tattoo You and it got them a gold record in the UK, double-platinum in the U.S. and a triple platinum award in Canada. It was helped along with their biggest single in close to a decade, “Mixed Emotions”, which also topped Canadian charts and got to #5 in the U.S. The follow-up, “Rock and a Hard Place” made #23 in the States, their 42nd top 40 hit there.
Critics liked it, but didn’t love it. For example, the magazine named after them (Rolling Stone) rated it 4.5-stars, suggesting “in the past few years, the reverence typically shown both the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan has worn perilously thin”. They decided that this album should restore the Stones image since it “signals renewed convictions” and makes the upcoming tour “enticing.” Later on, Q would give it 4-stars while allmusic considered it a 3-star effort. They noted it followed so-so solo works from both Jagger and Richards who’d found “clearly they were worth more together than they were apart” and while the album was alright, it was “A little long, largely due to its lack of surprises.”
Two surprises came from it. It would be their last studio album with bassist Bill Wyman, who left the band in ’93, and the last one for their monster deal with Columbia Records. Fans would have to wait five years for their next album, Voodoo Lounge, after this one, by which time they’d signed to Virgin Records. But as we know, the Stones have kept rolling to this day, and seemingly will continue to do so, despite the sad death of drummer Charlie Watts this week. Charlie had been a member since the band’s second year, in 1963.