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The Stones at their absolute peak
on 28 May 2010
Dismissed by critics on its release as a shabby excuse for another greatest hits tour, 'Voodoo Lounge' now stands acclaimed by many as the Rolling Stones' defining masterpiece. Ending the dazzling run of classics initiated with 'Undercover' in 1983, 'Voodoo Lounge' is the crowning glory of the Stones' oeuvre, a magisterial summation of their roots and conclusive proof - if proof were needed - that the last two decades of the twentieth century belonged to the Rolling Stones.
What's truly amazing, however, is that the band managed to make a record at all. The mid-nineties were a difficult time for the Rolling Stones. While property values had held steady, the band's stock portfolios had suffered from the uncertainty surrounding the First Gulf War. Meanwhile, Mick Jagger was becoming increasingly detached from the band, agonizing over whether to send his granddaughters to Cheltenham Ladies' College and whether to renew his Conservative Party membership. As for Keith Richards, he was barely coherent, having been badly incapacitated by a fall from his library ladder in a hotheaded attempt to retrieve a first edition of 'Middlemarch'. And as if that weren't enough, Ronnie Wood was still struggling with his guitar lessons, while Charlie Watts had just been diagnosed with clinical boredom.
The legendary 'Voodoo' sessions are enveloped in such a haze of myth, romance and prurient innuendo that it's hard to separate fact from fiction. What seems clear is that in September 1993 the Stones and their entourage of back-up musicians, hangers-on, personal trainers and financial advisors began to gather at Woods's house in rural Ireland to begin cutting tracks for a new album. There seems to have been little structure to the sessions, which took place in the gritty basement of Woods's palatial dwelling. By all accounts, chaos prevailed. Woods and Richards would regularly sleep through their alarms and show up a good fifteen minutes after the nine o'clock start time. The producer Don Was recalls a notorious incident in which Richards and his driver stopped for a soy latte on the way to the house, throwing the whole morning into chaos. I was far too young to have been on the scene that magical autumn - I was barely 24 - but I often daydream about hanging with the Stones in late 1993. Chances are that if you care about rock 'n' roll and its ability to change the world, you do too.
As autumn turned to winter, the band's accountants and valets began to drift away from the house. What is more, the band found itself in trouble with the local constabulary after Watts failed to indicate during a right-hand turn. With the prospect of a police raid ever more likely, the band shifted their gear to Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin. Now, faced with an enormous mass of unfinished material, Jagger took control of the sessions, overlaying the gritty Richards-inspired basement material with a glorious sheen of studio wizardry. The result is there for all posterity. Not only does 'Voodoo Lounge' boast some of the richest melodic invention in the Western canon, but it also features some of the finest verse since Petrarch. "I go wild," Jagger sings in 'I Go Wild', "when you're in my face; I go wild when I taste your taste". 'Brand New Car' is ostensibly about a brand new car. But there's more than a suspicion that the song is meant to be understood allegorically. Let's assume, for argument's sake, that Mick's not really singing about his latest Jag; let's assume that his new 'car' is of the ... female persuasion: "Jack her up, baby, go on, open the hood: I want to check if her oil smells good. Mmm, smells like caviar". Get it? It's not PC, people, but it's dreadfully rock 'n' roll!
When 'Voodoo Lounge' was released in July 1994, the critics didn't get it. "Not particularly good", said some. "OK, but a bit boring", said others. But 'Voodoo Lounge' stands today as the greatest work of the band's 80s and 90s zenith, eclipsing even the giddy heights achieved on 'Undercover', 'Dirty Work' and 'Steel Wheels'. Sadly, however, the immortal 'Voodoo' sessions took their toll on the band. As Jagger became increasingly active in his local Tory party branch and Richards sank deeper into his obsession with the novels of George Eliot, the Stones began to lose their edge. Their albums, like the brilliant but complacent 'Bridges to Babylon', began increasingly to sound like excuses to embark on money-spinning world tours, in which the band plays umpteenth renditions of 'Too Much Blood', 'Winning Ugly', 'Continental Drift', 'Sweethearts Together' and other standards to stadiums full of adoring fans who were barely out of law school when 'Harlem Shuffle' was in the charts. But as 'Voodoo Lounge' proves once and for all, the Stones have paid their dues. Let's forget about the mythology and the nostalgia, and let's focus on the music, which will stand for all time. Bung it in your cart today.