The ‘80s were, to put it mildly, unkind to legacy rockers like the Rolling Stones. Ultimately incompatible with both burgeoning alternative scenes and mainstream pop, the Stones soldiered on, cutting albums that now sound as dated as the decade’s very worst records, all the while searching for a hit that could sit comfortably alongside the songs of the day (it should be noted, too, that they continued to crack the top ten with some regularity).
What’s more, while the band didn’t formally break up in the ‘80s, it certainly did break down. Mick Jagger pursued a solo career, Keith Richards bitched about Mick ad nauseum, Charlie Watts struggled his way through a heroin addiction, and Ronnie Wood… well, he kept right on being Ronnie Wood.
That being said, the Stones laid down some terrific tracks in the ‘80s. Here are five choice cuts from the period (and songs from Tattoo You don’t count—sure, it’s a great album, but the music therein all dates back to the ‘70s).
On “Undercover of the Night”, a rare foray for the Stones into overtly topical songwriting, Mick spits venom over rampant political corruption in Central and South America. Bill Wyman offers up some fine, rubbery bass and Richards, some typically terrific guitar work. Danceable, to boot. I dare you not to boogie along. Also, an absolute classic video.
Yeah, it’s a dumb lyric, but since when have you wanted the Stones to wax philosophical? And, sure, it’s not exactly a nuanced approach, but since when does that matter? It’s really direct, and it really rocks. Don’t forget, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll.
Dirty Work (1986)
A pummeling rocker, graced with some pugilistic riffing by Keith and a positively vicious vocal from Mick. Granted, the back-up singers are a bit cheesy, but the song itself is remarkably strong. Apart from a tell-tale ‘80s mix, “One Hit” finds the band in winningly spare, swinging form.
Steel Wheels (1989)
In which Mick and Keith set aside their differences for the sake of rock ‘n’ roll—and, let’s not forget, more money than you can shake a stick at. Is this where the Stones sell out once and for all? A lot of folks think so, but I don’t care, so long as the music’s as good as it is here. The video signifies camaraderie, but the song itself signifies something far more ambivalent, not to mention combative (after all, Mick implores his companion to “button her lip” in the first line - not exactly a conciliatory suggestion).
Steel Wheels (1989)
A strikingly reflective moment for Keith, with a moving, impeccably phrased vocal and a terrific melody. As the last track on their last album of the ‘80s, it set the tone for much of the band’s subsequent work.