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1980s ushered in a mid-life career crisis for The Rolling Stones

Twenty years is an unthinkable lifespan for a rock and roll group. The very nature of rock and roll is transient, at least according to the accepted wisdom. There was no precedent. And that’s where The Rolling Stones found themselves in the early 1980s.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This excerpt, “1983-1993 Winning Ugly” is from “The Rolling Stones: 50 Years of Rock” by Howard Kramer. Copyright 2011 by the author; reprinted by permission of Krause Publications. Available at

Twenty years is an unthinkable lifespan for a rock and roll group. The very nature of rock and roll is transient, at least according to the accepted wisdom. There was no precedent. And that’s where The Rolling Stones found themselves in the early 1980s.

At that time, many vocal groups from the ’50s were still performing, but they were just that — live acts existing on reputations established decades before, with no possibility of making an artistic or commercial impact on any large scale.

Rolling Stones Goldmine Giveaway button

The Rolling Stones were different. Their careers as individuals and a group had continued to grow and prosper.


Hal Ashby’s movie of the 1981 tour, “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” which premiered in the U.S. in February 1983, pulled in a respectable $1.3 million its opening weekend.

Rumors of a “final” Rolling Stones tour had been aired in the press since 1966. At this point, it looked like it might be true. At the end of the 1982 tour, it was clear that band members needed a break. After living in each others’ back pockets for two decades, band members’ relationships were frayed, particularly that of Jagger and Richards.

Rolling Stones Undercover album

Rolling Stones Records’ distribution deal was up with Atlantic and EMI. CBS Records, now owned by Sony Corporation, was aggressively pursuing the band; the Stones’ value as a superstar group would be a feather in the cap of label president Walter Yetnikoff. In August, The Rolling Stones signed a new deal with CBS reportedly worth $28 million dollars, one of the most lucrative deals signed in history. Unknown to the other members of The Rolling Stones was that the pact included a solo deal for Mick Jagger.

For the group’s new record, The Rolling Stones started mostly from scratch with sessions at Compass Point and EMI Studios. There was friction over the musical direction. The resulting album, “Undercover,” released in November 1983, was an adventurous record.

“Undercover” incorporated more of a dance-club sound than previous Rolling Stones albums. Tracks like “Undercover of the Night” and “Too Much Blood” were ready-made for club-style remixes, and, in fact, received those treatments.

For the first time since 1973, an outside producer, Chris Kimsey co-produced a Stones album. Sonically, the band was expanding its horizons and avoiding the pitfalls of glomming onto trends. “Undercover” went into the Top Five in both the U.K. and the U.S. But of the singles released, only “Undercover of the Night” broke the Top 10, and that was only in the U.S. This album marked the final record of the band’s current distribution deal.

Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts joined a veritable who’s who of British rock in support of ARMS, a charity devoted to multiple sclerosis research. The event was spearheaded by ex-Faces bassist Ronnie Lane, who suffers from the condition. Following two shows in London, the all-star group that included Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Joe Cocker and others, did a brief U.S. tour.


In 1984, Mick Jagger recorded the duet “State of Shock” with Michael Jackson. The song was included on The Jacksons “Victory” album. In addition to collaborating with Jackson, Jagger also was at work on his first solo album.


In early 1985, The Rolling Stones regrouped in Paris to begin work on their first record for CBS/Sony. Shortly after, “Just Another Night” Jagger’s first solo single — not counting “Memo From Turner” from the movie “Performance” — came out. The album “She’s the Boss,” peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 200 — and the project served to build friction between Jagger and Keith Richards.

Mick Jagger She's The Boss album

Meanwhile, Bill Wyman continued to pitch in to help ARMS as part of Willie and the Poor Boys, an all-star band that included Watts. The collection of blues and rock songs features contributions from Paul Rodgers, Jimmy Page and Chris Rea.

Bob Geldof met with The Rolling Stones in Paris in an attempt to recruit the group for his fundraising initiative to alleviate the hunger crisis in east Africa. Although the whole group didn’t participate in Live Aid, the Stones were represented notably. Ron Wood and Keith Richards accompanied Bob Dylan in a sometimes shaky acoustic set. Mick Jagger and Tina Turner performed a duet, with backing from Daryl Hall and John Oates’ band.

Jagger was on a roll with collaborations in 1985 — he cut a duet of the Motown classic “Dancing in the Streets” with David Bowie, which was released as a single to benefit Live Aid.

On Dec. 12, 1985, pianist Ian Stewart died of a heart attack. There was no disputing among the band that his loss was a massive blow; he’d been lovingly referred to as the “sixth Stone.” To some, The Rolling Stones were Stewart’s band, and much of the music the band made was a direct result of his influence.

Rolling Stones video still for Harlem Shuffle

The Rolling Stones film the promotional video for ‘Harlem Shuffle,’ which was included on the ‘Dirty Work’ album. Photo © Ken Regan/Camera 5 1986.


Keith Richards served as first inductor at the inaugural Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony held Jan. 23, 1986, in New York. Suitably, Richards inducted guitar idol Chuck Berry.

In February, The Rolling Stones played what became the band’s only show in a six-year span when members came together for an invitation-only audience at the 100 Club in London to salute Ian Stewart.

Rolling Stones Dirty Work album

With a new record ready to go — “Dirty Work” — and no plans to tour behind it, The Rolling Stones shot a video in New York for “Harlem Shuffle,” an R&B nugget that was a minor hit for the duo of Bob and Earl in the 1960s.

“Dirty Work” was the band’s first record of new material for CBS/Sony. If tension marked much of “Undercover,” it was the main theme of this record. Perhaps the indicator is the fact the Ron Wood received three co-writing credits and Chuck Leavell received one. The production was handled by Steve Lilywhite, best known for his work with U2 and XTC.

Lilywhite found himself in a difficult position on the project. At various points, the songs sound like they could be from Jagger’s solo record or a Richards-led project that Jagger sang on. Overall, “Dirty Work” is not considered to be among the Stones’ best work, although “Had it With You” and “One Hit (to the Body),” two of Wood’s co-writes, are memorable. Of the two singles released from “Dirty Work,” “Harlem Shuffle” made the best chart showing at No. 5.

Hail Hail Rock N Roll movie poster

Photo courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries.

The rest of the year was full of activity for the members of The Rolling Stones, just not as a group. Richards appeared on stage with Etta James and Chuck Berry, and he teamed up with Wood to contribute to Aretha Franklin’s version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Wood sat in with Bob Dylan and Bo Diddley. Mick Jagger worked on his next solo project, and Charlie Watts formed an orchestra. To many observers, the Rolling Stones no longer appeared to be a going concern.


1987 brought another solo record from Jagger: “Primitive Cool.” Meanwhile, Keith Richards signed his own solo deal with Virgin Records. The film “Hail, Hail Rock ’N’ Roll,” directed by Taylor Hackford, was released. Richards was part of an all-star musical cast that had backed Chuck Berry for the filmed concert, and he served as musical director and foil to Berry.

Wood and Bo Diddley teamed up for a U.S. tour which concluded in Miami at Wood’s new nightclub, Woody’s on the Beach.


Keith Richards Talk is Cheap album

At the third annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in January 1988, Jagger inducted The Beatles with Ringo Starr, George Harrison and Yoko Ono in attendance.

Despite Richards’ objections, Jagger mounted a solo tour of Japan and Australia. Wood and Bo Diddley also went to Japan, as well as Europe.

Richards launched a solo effort of his own. He formed the X-Pensive Winos, a band with Steve Jordan, Charley Drayton, Waddy Wachtel, Ivan Neville and Sarah Dash, to back him on his album “Talk is Cheap.” Richards’ album received universal praise, and its ensuing tour was a sellout.


Rolling Stones Steel Wheels tour poster

Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions.

The Rolling Stones finally got their turn to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January 1989. Jagger, Richards, Wood and Mick Taylor appeared together in New York to be inducted into the Rock Hall by The Who’s Pete Townshend.

The new year seemed to signal the end of tensions between The Rolling Stones’ principals. The band entered the studio again to record a new album, working again with Chris Kimsey. The sessions take place at George Martin’s AIR studios in Montserrat, West Indies.

Canadian promoter Michael Cohl signed the band to an exclusive deal guaranteeing more than The Stones ever grossed on a tour before. Sponsors were ready to throw money at The Stones, and this time major deals are cut with Budweiser in the U.S. and LaBatt in Canada.

The announcement of the Steel Wheels tour, the Stones’ first American trek since 1981, is met with a ticket-buying frenzy. Four shows at Shea Stadium in New York, sell out within hours. Because of the money involved, all but one date is played at stadiums. The tour kicked off in Philadelphia in August and wrapped in Atlantic City in December, with a pay-per-view concert. This time the band added a slate of guests, including Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker and Guns N’ Roses members Izzy Stradlin and Axl Rose. When all was said and done, the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour was the most successful North American tour of all time, bringing in $98 million.