The Rolling Stones - Steel Wheels
Steel Wheels was the best Stones output since Tattoo You. It may even have been the last of the truly good Stones albums, but that hypothesis is for another debate. So many people have cited this album, that album or the other album as "THE Last Great Rolling Stones Album" that it has become a cliché in its own right. Steel Wheels is not the abysmal album some make it out to be, but neither it is a resurgence of what the Stones were all about - they had long ago left that behind. No, this is pure and simple another Stones album and should be seen as such.
As has become usual with the later Stones stuff, there are a fair number of fillers on here, but there remain some gems buried in here if you care to look for them. The trouble is that the Stones had become so much a part of the establishment by now that many people just write them, or at least their later musical output, off without so much as a second thought. But then what is wrong with becoming part of the establishment in that sense? Does anyone seriously think that the Beatles would not have become "part of the establishment" had they stuck around this long? Does anyone truly believe that a Beatles album at the end of the eighties would not have had its fair share of filler and formulaic material?
Never ones to abandon a formula which has served them so well over the years, the album starts off at a high point with the rocking "Sad, Sad, Sad", forthright vocals and plenty of hard rock style drumming. It doesn't let up after that either, for "Mixed Emotions" follows pretty much the same pattern and also has a damn good chorus. In my view this track is one of the best the Stones have done and slips into my personal top twenty Stones tracks with some ease. Not surprisingly, it is easily the best track on the album.
The rest of the first side is made up largely of fillers of which "Terrifying" is probably the weakest, though that could be because it immediately follows on after "Mixed Emotions" and it would be hard for many songs to live up to that. The second side has some good stuff on here. "Rock and a Hard Place" pretty much carried on from where the band left off with "Mixed Emotions". Then there is "Continental Drift" which had been used by the band as an intro to their live performances as far back as 1981. This has an experimental sound complete with what appear to be African inspired rhythms. Quite why it should finally surface as a full-blown album track after so many years as a recorded stage intro is not something I have pondered for longer than it took to write this sentence.
However, after this I began to tire of the Stones and slowly my purchasing options shifted elsewhere. Although with subsequent albums they still put out the occasional flash of brilliance, those moments became increasingly rare. Perhaps even the band recognised this in themselves for once Bill Wyman left the band simply to retire to the countryside to indulge in his passion for photography, amateur archaeology and underage girls, the core quartet of the band split up and something ineffable was lost to them. They are still a great band and always will be. There is still enough that they have to say to other bands, and not simply in terms of their ability to stay at the top for so many decades. But they should be best remembered for what they did in the sixties and seventies.
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