30 Years Ago: Rolling Stones Go Old-School for Last Top 40 Hit, ‘Rock and a Hard Place’
The Rolling Stones' last Billboard Top 40 song brought the group back around to its original songwriting aesthetic: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards composed "Rock and a Hard Place" together, after decades spent writing apart while sharing official joint credit.
Sessions like this helped heal a rift that had kept the Rolling Stones apart for an extended period in the '80s. Suddenly, they had enough songs to complete Steel Wheels, their long-awaited comeback album. Released on Nov. 4, 1989, "Rock and a Hard Place" rose to No. 23, following a Top 5 finish by lead single "Mixed Emotions."
"The way we wrote these songs is very similar to the way we used to work in the '60s," Richards told the Associated Press in 1989, "before we had to split up in the early '70s and leave England and start to live apart from each other."
They recorded "Rock and a Hard Place" in the spring of 1989, working at AIR Studios in Montserrat and Olympic Studios in London. But its success was born out of getting-reacquainted sessions held in early 1988 in Barbados.
"This was like going back to the way we worked in the early days, before [1972's] Exile [on Main St.], when we were living round the corner from each other in London," Richards said in the liner notes for "Rock and a Hard Place" on 1993's Jump Back collection. "Mick and I hadn't got together in four years since [1986's] Dirty Work, but as soon as we met up in Barbados for a fortnight, with a couple guitars and pianos, everything was fine."
They fell right back into old habits, and old roles. Soon, the ideas and the music were flowing again. "Because we've been doing it for so long, we don't really have to discuss it," Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1989. "When we come up with a lick or a riff or a chorus, we already know if it's right or if it's wrong."
Watch the Rolling Stones' 'Rock and a Hard Place' Video
Within two days, Richards said they had five or six songs. Years of sniping in the music press were quickly forgotten. "Once he and Keith spent some time together in Barbados," Ron Wood, a key mediator, told the Associated Press, "they just realized the friendship was longer and stronger than any paper or any magazine."
Richards also made an important concession, though it had nothing to do with the music they were suddenly making. "I did have to take Mick to a few discos – which are not my favorite places in the world – because Mick likes to go out and dance at night," Richards told Rolling Stone. "So, I did that. That was my sacrifice. I humored him. And that's when I knew we could work together."
Jagger sat in with Richards and Wood on guitar for the recording session, where they were joined by bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts. The "Rock and a Hard Place" session was rounded out by keyboardists Chuck Leavell and Matt Clifford; backup singers Sarah Dash, Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler; and the Kick Horns.
"This is one of those songs like 'Start Me Up,' where the minute you hear the opening notes, you head for the dance floor," Jagger told Rolling Stone. "It's real '70s, in the best possible way."
They paired "Rock and a Hard Place" with "Cook Cook Blues," a rootsy outtake from 1983's Undercover, as the B-side. The single soared to No. 1 on the Billboard mainstream rock tracks chart, confirming the Rolling Stones' unlikely return – and a friendship reborn in a common musical language.
"We've been stuffed together for years," Richards told Time Out in 1990, "and one of the consequences of the break was making us realize we were stuck together whether we liked it or not. I like him playing harp, man. And I like to see his bum in front of me when I'm playing guitar, doing his shit."
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