Released in 1991, Flashpoint is the live album which chronicles the Rolling Stones 1989-90 Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle Tour. The former covered North America and Japan, and the latter (with a different stage set) unfolded across Europe.
It was the last tour on which bassist Bill Wyman played with the band and the first on which I saw them: once in Germany and then in a rescheduled Wembley show, where they used the Steel Wheels scenery. I mistakenly thought it could be the last chance to see the band live!
On the contrary, it was the tour on which they found the formula which has enabled them to continue into the new millennium as a live outfit. Given the lacklustre, almost apathetic renditions of their previous outing (recorded on 1982 Still Life) it seemed that the Stones were simply incapable of projecting themselves as a superstadium act.
In 1989, however, they took full advantage of the technological advances of the intervening years: sound, lighting, projections and giant inflatables. So colossal and complex were the stages that two of each were needed, leap-frogging from venue to venue. Flashpoint’s simplistic album sleeve gives no indication of the enormity of the operation, though there are some good photos enclosed.
Most importantly, the band backed themselves with a BIG sound: double keyboards (Chuck Leavell/Matt Clifford), Bobby Keys sax and the Uptown Horns, and a trio of backing singers (Lisa Fisher, Cindy Mizelle, Bernard Fowler). All of which enabled Mick to rest his vocal cords when he needed to (and ad-lib to his heart content), and allowed Keith to go off on as many of his own sweet sidetracks as he felt like.
(I saw them again in San Sebastian last year, and it the recipe theyre still using: The Rolling Stones in pantomime!)
Inevitably, the live album is weighted by tracks from the Steel Wheels LP which the tour was promoting, and also includes a couple of studio extras. Most of the extra musicians on the tour had also played on Steel Wheels.
Considering the 2 hours-plus they were playing at most gigs, Ive always felt they shouldve made a double disc out of Flashpoint. Some classic performances are omitted: 2000 Light Years From Home, Angie, Gimme Shelter and Honky Tonk Women, to name but a few. At least I still have my cassettes from a Radio 1 broadcast to relive my memories of the shows more fully!
The Rolling Stones — Flashpoint: Track-by-track review
1. “(Intro) Continental Drift” [live]
Nice to have the Stones use one of their own themes as the opener. Having lost my newly-made mates from the coach on the way into the Gelsenkirchen Stadium (thanks to the neo-Gestapo security guards who confiscated my camera) I found myself in the company of a bunch of local lads.
They knew about ten words of English between them — double my German — but we drank and smoked ourselves into a mutual understanding while the support act did their stuff. At last, with clouds of smoke and spinning lights, the intro poured from the PA.
It’s a short extract from the end section of a track from Steel Wheels; a decidedly atypical composition, with an Arab feel to the percussion and “hup-hup-hup” vocal. Its frenetic swirling rhythms served perfectly to heighten the sense of anticipation for the appearance everyone was waiting for.
2. “Start Me Up” [live]
Keith Richards’ classic guitar intro sounds out from a barrage of pyrotechnics. To say the crowd went wild would be one of the most clichĂ©d understatements ever written. Lights/Music/ACTION! There they were, in they kick.
Let’s face it, the track was written to be a show-opener: if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
And flaunt it they certainly did: this is a rollicking version! One of the nice things about Flashpoint, unlike many live albums, is that the crowd-noise comes through pretty high in the mix. It does really help to give that sense of (re)being there. You only have to close your eyes to see Mick camping it up (“you make a dead man cum” — what a line!) or Keith twisting into some ridiculous note-tweaking posture or other. A final “start me up!” and a deadstop finish. The crowd goes wilder!
3. “Sad Sad Sad” [live]
Inevitable, I guess, to get a Steel Wheels track as the follow-up to the opener: get the new stuff out the way to concentrate on what everyone’s really come to hear! To be fair, the aforementioned album was one of their best for years, with some great songs, of which this (which opens Steel Wheels) is just one.
It maintains the energy well, an uptempo riff-driven number, with a couldn’t-be-easier chorus — “Sad, sad, sad” — to ensure continued audience participation (as if we needed any encouragement). I seem to recall Mr Jagger spanking his plank for this one, which was nice to see. The horn section and gospel singers start to show their worth.
4. “Miss You” [live]
No mistaking the harmonica intro for our first blast from the past of the show. Substantially quicker than the original studio version, it’s not time to slacken the pace just yet. Charlie, as ever, marks the beat impeccably, with Wyman throwing in some funky touches.
Keith and Ronnie bounce off one another with the telepathic understanding that they’d had since day one of their alliance: following the tour, the ex-Face was finally made a full member of the band, after 15 years as an ‘associate partner’.
Mick and the backing girls flirt outrageously for the “oo-oo-oo-y-oo-y-oo” refrain and especially during the talkover middle section: “wassa matta witchu boy?!!” The keyboards help to give it an extra edge, and “Texas” Bobby Keys’ saxophone solo is immense. A few complimentary comments to “el publico” in Spanish close the number (Jagger used autocue captions to communicate with non-English speaking audiences throughout the tour).
5. “Rock And A Hard Place” [live]
The song had been released as a single mid-tour (giving them one of their biggest hits of the 80s) so there was no way it wasn’t going to get played! Opening with a raunchy organ swell, it drives along in classic Stones style. This time, it’s the Kick Horns who provide the big brass backing, as they’d also done on the studio version.
The title is a pretty good description of the band itself throughout the previous decade: their lack of direction and, above all, the ongoing antagonism between the Glimmer Twins. Steel Wheels had been a real return to form, and helped to heal the rift. They were back to their tried-and-tested formula: The Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World.
6. “Ruby Tuesday” [live]
A gorgeous and faithful rendition of the classic ballad. Mick brings it in, with a tinkling piano behind him, and his intonation is perfect throughout.
All of the instrumentation is spot-on: Keith’s sensitive fills are particularly lovely. Not only that, his backing vocal’s almost entirely in tune! A synthesiser layers a sweet flute sound behind it all — and of course, there’s Charlie’s lolloping drum-roll into the chorus: lighters in the air everyone…
Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday
Who could hang a name on you?
Even the band are blown away by the reception it gets: “Listen to that!” gasps Jagger at the end. They switched this song for ‘Angie’ when I saw them the second time (equally beautiful) and on some shows played both consecutively. Lucky, lucky punters who caught for the double, and shame on the Stones for not including it here!
7. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” [live]
Having got everyone into singalong mode, this is a perfect continuation. The advantages of the brass section become further evident in the intro, with that lonely French Horn bringing the vocal in. Jagger’s staccato syllable stress (“ree-sep-shon/demonn-stray-shon”) somehow fit perfectly with his “yays” “alrights” and “c’mons”. Reaching the first refrain, he leaves it open for the crowd to join him: “Now you cain’t / always get what you want…”
“…An’ if you try sometime [crashing piano; Bill’s bass and Charlie’s drums kick in] you just might find / you get what you need!”
The dynamic duo give a masterful demonstration of “the ancient art of weaving” as they pass lead and rhythm guitar duties between them. The backing singers help Mick out admirably for the rest of the track (“just like the black girls should” — oops, wrong song!) and come into their own for the gospel-choir climax. I’ll never forget the stage lights, spinning faster and faster, adding to the furious frenzy of the finish. What you want, what you need!
8. “Factory Girl” [live]
By Jagger’s own admission in his preamble to the song, it’s not one of their best-known or most-played compositions: he even has to ask Wyman which album it comes from! (Beggars Banquet, 1968). Even back then, the song was overshadowed by the other mighty compositions which surrounded it.
Jagger describes it as a country song and adopts a mock-bluegrass accent to deliver it. This is further accentuated by the banjo-style picking of the guitars. Charlie’s percussion patterns are an interesting feature of this nice, if slightly incongruous, little inclusion.
9. “Can’t Be Seen” [live]
“OK: now Keef’s gonna sing for you!” Time for Mick to go and change his shirt, no doubt.
Mr Richards was actually on something of a roll at the time: his solo album Talk Is Cheap had been considerably better received than Jagger’s Primitive Cool. ‘Can’t Be Seen’ was his vocal track on Steel Wheels. It’s a punchy number, carried along by that most-famous of rhythm sections, with Ronnie taking the solos.
Everyone knows Keith ain’t the greatest singer in the world, no-one better than himself: but if he don’t give a shit, why should we?!! Parking his cigarette in the end of his trusty Gibson, off he goes. What he lacks in finesse, he more than makes up for in enthusiasm. Personally, I’d’ve liked to have had his ‘Happy’ included, but that’s the way it is: you can’t always get what you want.
10. “Little Red Rooster” [live]
Dontcha just love Mick’s way of stating the obvious?!! Over the duh-duh-di-dum introduction, he considers it necessary to inform us “We’re gonna do a bit of a blues for ya now.”
It’s a well laid-back version of the old Willie Dixon classic, which they’d first covered as a single way back in ’64. Here, Eric Clapton guests for the guitar solos.
Messrs. Watts and Wyman hold it all together, as dependable as ever, allowing everyone else to (over) indulge however they see fit. There’s some tasty slide guitar, and the tinkling piano pays a fitting tribute to the late Sixth Stone, Ian Stewart. Mick blows a fruity harp part. Wrinkles aside, we could almost be back in the Crawdaddy Club!
11. “Paint It, Black” [live]
Keith throws in an extended flamenco-like intro, then in bursts Charlie to drive along the gothic masterpiece. Brian Jones’ original sitar sound is emulated by the synths. Mick’s vocal is maybe a little flat, though he compensates by the use of some heavy mic echo: “Black as nigh-night, black as coa-coal…”
My biggest disappointment when Flashpoint was issued was — and still is — the omission of the subsequent song, a super-spacey version of ‘2000 Light Years From Home’. It was subsequently released on the ‘Highwire’ single. Nevertheless, performed live, it provided the perfect bridge into the next song on Flashpoint, the final chapter of Their Satanic Majesties’ darkest trilogy.
12. “Sympathy For The Devil” [live]
Who could fail to recognise that drum pattern, with maracas as back-up, steadily building in intensity? Some eerie touches of piano, then a reverbed “WOWWW!” But just where the hell IS Mr Lips? Disappeared completely.
Then the floodlights flare, and there he is, at the top of a fifty-foot tower: “Please allow me to introduce myself!” [Apparently, he had a backstage elevator.]
The ominous piano chords which accompany him through the first verse are very remeniscent of the original version (Charlie’s chack-chack-chackety percussion remaining constant, naturally). Then, as we reach the first chorus, the whole thing cranks into life: “Pleased t’ meet you / hope you guess my name”, and in comes some of the raunchiest guitar to grace the album.
There are two extended solo sections, with the backing singers and crowd carrying the “woo-woos” (presumably to the band’s great relief!) until, after 5 1/2 minutes, it culminates in a superbly tight classic rock ending. Phew!!!
13. “Brown Sugar” [live]
A quick “thank you” in Japanese, and we launch into a stomping rendition of the Sticky Fingers opener. Everyone on stage locks together for a full-on, full-scale attack on this ambivalent anthem to hard drugs and wild women. As well as the familiar dirty sax solo, the brass backing throughout gives it an energetic ‘Blues Brothers’ feel.
The highlight for the audience was, of course, the “Yeah-Yeah-Yeah-WOOOOH!!!!” finale. One of my most treasured memories from the shows I attended is the vision of the sea of hands which accompanied it, watching right from the back of the now demolished Wembley Stadium with my ol’ mate Top. Priceless: you shoulda heard us, just around midnight: we said “Yeah-Yeah-Yeah-WOOOOOOOH!!!!”
14. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” [live]
Maintaining the pace of the previous track, this ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ is certainly a gas! The arrangement is that classic Stones combination of tight and loose at the same time. Charlie in particular goes for it like a man possessed; Bill, bass vertical, chugga-wuggas implacably, while K&R; do their thang.
Those chorus girls are superb again, leaving Mick to flounce about in the way everyone knows and loves, with a throat-ripping rendition and a thousand throwaway improvisations. A final onslaught from Mr Watts, guitars wheedling away, for the crashing climax.
15. “Satisfaction” [live]
Of course they weren’t going to leave us without doing this one: “Let’s go!!!”
It’s a turbo-charged version (Keef, apparently, was fed up with playing it the same old way). It couldn’t’ve been anything other than the final encore: Mick must’ve been completely hoarse by the end of it!
Once more, the horn section gives it an extra edge and the backing vocals add to the freshness of it. The playful lead-in to the solo halfway through is marvelous: “Can ya hit me one time, two times, three times, four times?!!” (Charlie and the brass-boys obliging with the appropriate interjections). “Hey-hey-hey, that’s what I say”: complete and utter Satisfaction!
Released as a single shortly before Flashpoint, ‘Highwire’ is a ravaging criticism of the then recently-ended Gulf War, an atypically political departure from the band’s usual sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock and roll subject matter. This said, musically it’s unmistakably them: hefty rhythm, chunky riff and blazing solo. It gave them their first UK Top 30 for over five years.
There’s a heavy irony to the lyric: “We sell ’em missiles, we sell ’em tanks, we give ’em credit, you can call up the bank…” Thatcher and Bush Senior’s motivation for their mutual meddling in international affairs is summed up perfectly in my favourite couplet from the song:
Our lives are threatened, our jobs at risk
Sometimes dictators need a slap on the wrist
Like father like son, like the most right-wing socialist Britain’s ever seen.
17. “Sex Drive”
Jagger crows about his celebrated libido on this funk-tinged number.
I got this sex drive, driving me mad
I’ve got to drive you crazy, the best you’ve ever had
Apart from a super-rare promo single, the track is unavailable anywhere else. As Mick was still at the start of his relationship with Jerry Hall, it’d be interesting to know what she made of the lyric!
The music comes across like something halfway between James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’ and something by Talking Heads, or maybe Grace Jones. The Uptown Horns’ contribution and the vocal backing of Bernard Fowler, Katie Kissoon and Tessa Niles further add to the disco-soul feel. It’s not a bad track exactly, but it just doesn’t fit comfortably on the album.
Flashpoint by The Rolling Stones
“(Intro) Continental Drift” [live]
“Start Me Up” [live]
“Sad Sad Sad” [live]
“Miss You” [live]
“Rock And A Hard Place” [live]
“Ruby Tuesday” [live]
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” [live]
“Factory Girl” [live]
“Can’t Be Seen” [live]
“Little Red Rooster” [live]
“Paint It, Black” [live]
“Sympathy For The Devil” [live]
“Brown Sugar” [live]
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” [live]