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Steel Wheels Live
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Steel Wheels Live

Filmed in Atlantic City, and featuring guest appearances by Eric Clapton and Axl Rose, “Steel Wheels Live” documents a standout show from the Rolling Stones’ landmark 1989 tour, whose staging and lighting designs transformed the industry.

How the Stones Got Their Mojo Back

5 Min Read

Even the best bands can hit a rough patch. For the Rolling Stones, it struck during the mid-‘80s. After starting the decade strong with the bracing “Tattoo You” album, the group issued two follow-up sets that, by the standards of “the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band,” let many critics and listeners down. Moreover, the lead members of the quintet were at loggerheads. Mick Jagger frustrated Keith Richards by deciding not to tour, choosing instead to release two solo albums, which caused the guitarist to respond by putting out a solo work of his own, “Talk Is Cheap.”

None of this augured well for the Stones’ future. Yet in August 1989 the band turned everything around by releasing the “Steel Wheels” album and launching a like-named tour — events that not only changed the way people viewed the group but altered the cultural perception of rock ‘n’ roll itself. The on-fire and commanding Rolling Stones you see and hear in the “Steel Wheels Live” show, shot at the Convention Center in Atlantic City in December 1989, offers a different image of the band from that of any previous era, setting the Stones up for the streak of live glory that still hasn’t seen its end.

Though the “Steel Wheels” album represented a commercial and critical comeback, the media first looked askance at the tour. Taking note of the members’ ages, some scribes jokingly dubbed it the “Steel Wheelchairs” tour, while the U.K.’s Q Magazine recast the famous ‘60s headlines about the band (“lock up your daughters”) as “Lock Up Your Grandmothers.” In fact, the tour — the Stones’ first in seven years — doubled as their first to take place since all the band’s members had entered their 40s. One (Bill Wyman) was even in his 50s, all problematic ages for a band that originally promoted itself as an existential threat to the world order.

The focus of this pivotal Stones’ tour wasn’t on edge or image but on immediacy and musicality. 

If you took that image away, what would it leave? “Steel Wheels” gave audiences the chance to find out, and it turned out to be revelatory. The focus of this pivotal Stones’ tour wasn’t on edge or image but on immediacy and musicality. Freed of the unsustainable expectations of their younger selves, the Stones asserted what they always were at the core — players with a unique feel for the groove and an impeccable flair for songcraft, fronted by a singer with a timbre and cadence like no one else.

Vocalist Mick Jagger and guitarist Ron Wood strut their stuff in Atlantic City in December 1989.

From the show’s opening in “Start Me Up,” the rhythmic interaction of the band members rivets. The way Keith Richards’ razor-sharp riffs thrust and parry with Ron Wood’s terse leads keeps the beat in dynamic play, the relationship deepened by Charlie Watts’ crisp and sure drum patterns. The give-and-take between Richards and Wood proves especially key. While the lead guitarist’s predecessor, Mick Taylor, spun long and elegant solos, Wood specializes in tough and pithy ones. They are more enhancements than star vehicles. The result gives the band’s two guitarists a closer alignment. Here, they’re in ideal synch throughout, from the punchy riffs of “Bitch” to the whiplash slash of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

The result didn’t just bestow a timelessness on the band but on rock itself.

Buoyed by the rest of the players (rounded out by keyboardist Chuck Leavell in his first American jaunt with the group), the Stones idealized the idea of a live band — a thing that thrives in the moment, where there’s no history but now. The result didn’t just bestow a timelessness on the band but on rock itself. After all, the Stones weren’t the only ones crossing significant age barriers at that point. So were all of the rock stars of the ‘60s, as were their fans.

The vitality of the “Steel Wheels” show showed the entire Boomer generation for the first time that aging didn’t have to matter, in the process cleaving rock from youth once and for all. As if to bold-face the point, 1989 saw major creative comebacks for other top aging rock stars, including a then-48-year-old Bob Dylan with his point-perfect “Oh Mercy” album and the 44-year-old Neil Young with his brilliant “Freedom” set. For the Stones, that change meant they were finally entering the realm of their idols, those bluesmen of the ‘50s who sold themselves on their chops, not on youth.

To stress the connection, the Atlantic City concert features a guest-star appearance by one of their role models, John Lee Hooker, in a grinding take on his “Boogie Chillen.” The set also includes a cover of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster.” Both feature a guest turn by Eric Clapton, who revives the extended and stinging solos Taylor used to spin. Those aren’t the only guest stars at the show. Also included are the new rock gods of the day, Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin of Guns N’ Roses, who join the band for “Salt of the Earth,” a classic piece the Stones had never played live before.

To broaden things further, the setlist also references the band’s psych-pop period with “Paint It Black” and “2000 Light Years from Home,” the latter featuring an undulating bass line from Wyman, who would leave the band directly after this tour. Given the strength of the “Steel Wheels” album, the group can also confidently include five of its songs, from Richards’ moving ballad “Can’t Be Seen” to the catchy “Mixed Emotions,” whose lyrics reference the tussle between Mick and Keith.

Guitarist Ron Wood (far left), vocalist Mick Jagger (center) and guitarist Keith Richards on the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” tour.

Together, this made for the longest setlist of a Stones show to date, a full two-and-a-half hours. Likewise, the “Steel Wheels” tour included more dates than any previous road run for the band. If the marathon scale seemed designed to prove the group’s stamina, it worked to the point that now, more than three decades later, the Stones remain a band that can make any moment they play feel fresh.

Jim Farber has been writing about music since the Ramones were new. After serving as chief music critic for the New York Daily News for 25 years, he began to contribute to The New York Times, Guardian, Mojo and many other publications. A three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for music journalism, Farber is also an adjunct professor at the Clive Davis Institute of New York University.

Jim Farber has been writing about music since the Ramones were new. After serving as chief music critic for the New York Daily News for 25 years, he began to contribute to The New York Times, Guardian, Mojo and many other publications. A three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for music journalism, Farber is also an adjunct professor at the Clive Davis Institute of New York University.

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