THE ROLLING STONES: STILL LIFE (1982)
1) Intro: Take The 'A' Train; 2) Under My Thumb; 3) Let's Spend The Night Together; 4) Shattered; 5) Twenty Flight Rock; 6) Going To A Go-Go; 7) Let Me Go; 8) Time Is On My Side; 9) Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me); 10) Start Me Up; 11) (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction; 12) Outro: The Star Spangled Banner.
It was a bizarre thing, that whole Stones tour of America and Europe in 1981-82. Their last before an almost decade-long break, and yet also their first where they played almost exclusively in huge arenas and stadiums to massive, record-breaking crowds. Their most dynamic and energetic ever, with tempos driven to surrealism and any softness or sentimentality banished for good, yet also the first one where you could look at all that rush and sigh, «man, these dudes are actually getting old and pitiful». Their last one where they seemed to be adamantly refusing to rest on past glories and insisting on their ongoing relevance, yet also the first one where you'd look at the setlist and go, «come on guys... no, seriously?»
Yes, formally the tour was in support of Tattoo You, but in spirit it looked more like a tour in support of Emotional Rescue — the self-parodic, clownish atmosphere of that record permeated the stage, and although you could still have fun watching the band, it was all but impossible to take it seriously. In 1978, the show was punkish: Mick sported quasi-working class clothes and pulled stern, angry faces, while Keith and Ronnie played it as mean and gritty as possible. By the early Eighties, that style had all but evaporated, and now Mick spent most of the time running, running, running around the stage in stupid oversized sports gear, sometimes looking more like a hopelessly drunk quarterback than a rock star — and his guitar-toting friends followed suit, now also setting their minds on having as much stage-hoppin' fun as possible, and, perhaps, steal just a tiny bit of the spotlight away from their hypercocked-up frontman.
It was also the first Stones tour to be exceedingly well documented — as of now, there are at least three commercially available videos, including the original Hal Ashby movie Let's Spend The Night Together and two recent from-the-vault releases (full shows from the Hampton Coliseum in Virginia, December 1981, where some of the Still Life recordings also come from, and from the Roundhay Park in Leeds, July 25, 1982 — the last show of the tour and the last Rolling Stones concert for seven years). The Hal Ashby film, with the exception of a few moments, was dreadful, a bungled and stupid edit probably intended to present The Rolling Stones as an unstoppable force of nature, but instead presenting them as a bunch of dorks with ants in their pants, whose only purpose was to rush through all the songs as fast as possible and get back home just in time to catch the late show. The two from-the-vault releases are much stronger and allow the band to recapture some face at least — but, unfortunately, the accompanying live album is closer in spirit to Let's Spend The Night Together, and, up to this day, arguably remains as the band's most embarrassing live release, closely followed by Love You Live.
Unlike Love You Live, it is a single, not double, LP, and considering the insane tempos at which they drive home most of these tunes, it gives the impression of a rushed job delivered by disinterested people even more strongly than the Hal Ashby movie. The Rolling Stones are not the Ramones, and breakneck speed was never a crucial trademark of theirs — their songs are too melodically complex to allow for that much slurring without tragic results, and even though Keith was all cleaned up and ready to go, he never had that strong technique which would allow him to play fast and clean at the same time. Besides, as I already said, this was the first tour where both he and Ronnie started getting hyperactive on stage: Keith as the ardent, expressive, obsessive Don Quixote of rock'n'roll, and Ronnie as his loyal bouncy Sancho. That made it fun to watch, but it didn't exactly help to improve the playing style, and we are, after all, talking about an audio piece where watching is out of the question.
Thus, if the idea of listening to a ridiculously sped up runthrough to classics such as ʽUnder My Thumbʼ and ʽLet's Spend The Night Togetherʼ appeals to you — if you are ready to forget what it was, exactly, that provided the magic in the first place, and just accept them as Superbowlish warm-up anthems to keep those pulses beating and those limbs thrashing, then Still Life is OK. Actually, that's not a condemnation: I myself occasionally find a craving for these «let's get physical!» aerobic versions of the songs, accepting their temporarily disemboweled status. And in a way, starting those huge stadium shows with ʽUnder My Thumbʼ was an interesting gesture: with dozens of thousands of people swooning and swaying to the sounds of Keith's fanfare riff and Mick's triumphant, finger-waggin' "a change has come, she's under my thumb!" exclamations, it was almost as if the message was directed at all those people — you're under my thumb — and somehow, they still were, no matter how ridiculously dressed that lead singer was and how much he wanted to pass himself for an aging athlete, desperately set upon proving to the jury that he should still be given his last chance for the upcoming Olympics.
But yes, both the videos and the album clearly show how deeply in the pangs of their mid-life crisis the Stones found themselves at the time. All this insanity, all this rush, all the barking, all the sweating, all of it served one purpose: show the world that The Rolling Stones still «got it», that they were immune to the disease of aging and the danger of becoming irrelevant — and the more actively they tried, the more obvious it became that they weren't at all immune. On Still Life, this becomes painfully evident when they launch into ʽTime Is On My Sideʼ: the song is no longer a love ballad, but an attempt to affirm their own longevity — but if so, why does Jagger oversing it so comically? Less directly, it is also evident when they reach out for a golden rockabilly oldie, Eddie Cochran's ʽTwenty Flight Rockʼ, and butcher the verse section while trying to go for an odd time signature at top speed — takes Ian Stewart on the chorus section to set them back on track with his marvelous boogie-woogie playing (in fact, Ian, for whom this would also turn out to be his last tour, sounded like the only musician on this tour to have been fully committed to music — even Bill Wyman looked a little lost and out of his usual element).
A brief run through the few saving graces of this record. The cover of Smokey Robinson's ʽGoing To A Go-Goʼ is not sped up as ridiculously as everything else, and is actually performed quite tightly and with the same joyful revelry as the original, including a blissful solo from saxophonist Ernie Watts (who was replacing Bobby Keys for most of the tour). Same goes for ʽJust My Imaginationʼ, also much embellished by the sax. And, ironically, even though the only song included here from Emotional Rescue is ʽLet Me Goʼ, this is the one instance when toughening and speeding up actually helped the material — this version sounds angrier and punkier than the lazier, fuzzier, muddier studio original. Perhaps they should have capitalized on that and simply recorded an Emotional Rescue Live instead, so that our basis for comparison would be with one of their worst studio records and not with the Rolling Stones legacy as such.
Still, no thumbs down. Once again, as time goes by, it gets easier and easier to simply regard this collection as the musical equivalent of an adrenaline overdose — an embarrassment that is still fun, in a certain way. At the very least, one thing you cannot accuse the Stones of, at this time, is stagnation: this was a period when each new tour brought about an image shift, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better, but always with an element of curiosity. This, too, was an important milestone in their career, well worth getting to know if only for historical reasons: for instance, it is instructive to compare the chronologically concurrent «last» tours of the Stones (who never intended it to be their last one, but almost ended up that way) and of the Who (who did intend for their tour to be the last one, but fate decreed otherwise) — The Who were grim, tired, pessimistic, and seemed to represent the cruelly dark end of an era, whereas The Stones were joyful, boundlessly energetic, radiant, and seemed to represent the obnoxiously lightweight end of the same era. When both bands, against all odds, re-emerged on stage at the end of the decade, they would be coming back as revenants altogether, and life would never be the same.