Revinylization #25: The Rolling Stones' Tattoo You—What's the Point?

Tattoo You is near and dear to me. It came out in August 1981, just before I entered 10th grade, the age when a person's rock'n'roll aesthetic begins to take shape. This album was formative.

I knew about the Rolling Stones mainly through the Hot Rocks compilation, from listening on radio to hits from Some Girls (which came out when I was too young and sheltered in leafy suburbia to understand the urban grit and decadence described in its lyrics), and from Emotional Rescue, which I owned, and which I thought (and still think) lacks interesting music in the grooves to match the cool cover. I figured the Stones might already be too old to rock.

Tattoo You proved me wrong and rocketed the Stones into the MTV '80s. From the first spin, I dug everything about this record. I still do. It rocks, it rolls, and side 2 has quieter, intense, textured sorta-ballads—and there's Sonny Rollins on sax! It was varied, smartly sequenced, well-paced, and wow, did Bob Ludwig cut that original LP loud!

It was the loudest thing on my turntable at the time, dynamic and punchy in all the right rock'n'roll ways. Charlie Watts's drums popped out of my New Advent loudspeakers like sound-rockets. Bill Wyman's bass spread around the floor and compelled my feet to move. Mick Jagger's vocals sneered at me, front and center. And the wonderful Stones twin-lead guitars were shooting arrows from the sides.

It turns out that Tattoo You is a complex, glorious amalgamation of collected parts. Some tracks were birthed back in Kingston, Jamaica, during the Goats Head Soup sessions and some during sessions in Munich, Germany, for It's Only Rock 'n' Roll. Most began during the Emotional Rescue sessions in Paris and were set aside in favor of the less-compelling tracks on that album.

The 40th Anniversary reissues of Tattoo You include the 5-LP Super Deluxe version reviewed here. The first LP is a new cut of the original album. The second contains nine newly released tracks from the same batch of 1970s recording sessions. LPs 3–5 document the live concert at Wembley Stadium on June 25, 1982.

The first two LPs were cut by Bernie Grundman from Steve Marcussen's high-resolution digital master files. LPs 3–5 were cut by Naweed Ahmed, at Katara Studios in Doha, Qatar, from digital files mastered by Mazen Murad. Plating, pressing, and manufacturing were at GZ Media in the Czech Republic. Also included is an amply illustrated, 124-page 12×12 hard-cover book and a lenticular cover image on the album box: Look one way and it's Mick's tattoo'd head; shift the image and it's Keith's.

As a physical artifact, this is a heavy, pretty thing. The book contains dozens of color photographs, a detailed, context-setting essay and track-by-track survey, interviews with coproducer Chris Kimsey and cover photographer Hubert Kretzschmar, and an essay about the 1981–82 tour, all written by Jeff Slate. The LP packaging is handsomely printed heavy cardboard—but that's a defect, not a virtue: The records are stuffed into cardboard inner sleeves that grip them tightly; almost every platter was visibly scuffed on first removal. At this level of deluxe, soft, plastic-lined inner sleeves are mandatory.

The extra musical content is a mixed bag. Most of the studio tracks on the second LP sound like incomplete cast-asides, but on side A, "Fiji Jim" and a neat cover of "Drift Away"—a hit for soul singer Dobie Gray—stand out. On side B, "Come to the Ball," from the Goats Head Soup sessions stands above the rest, featuring tasty Mick Taylor slide-guitar licks. "Fast Talking, Slow Walking," from the It's Only Rock 'n' Roll sessions, also features Taylor. It's also good.

The Wembley concert sounds like the book essay's description of the tour's stadium shows. The band remembered being spread out on a huge stage, with Jagger and the guitarists running and dancing way out on the side ramps, far out of sight of Charlie's drum riser. The band is not particularly tight, and Ronnie Wood's guitar is often buried in the mix. Ian "Stu" Stewart and Chuck Leavell add texture and depth on keyboards along with sax men Gene Barge and Bobby Keys. But the overall feeling is of distance: too much space between the band members for them to lock in all the time and too little intimacy with the huge crowd.

The 1982 album Still Life, which was tightly edited together from numerous stops on the US tour, better captures the energy of the Rolling Stones at their best at that time. Of the songs that overlap Still Life, the American performances and recordings are better. That said, the Wembley concert has more songs, including some deep-catalog gems like "Let It Bleed," "She's So Cold," and the Stones' excellent cover of "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)."

Soundwise, these platters are a letdown. The album and bonus studio tracks were cut from hypercrunched digital tracks, which renders them fatiguing at rock'n'roll listening levels and shaves the pop and smash off Charlie's drums. The original Ludwig-cut LP is superior in every way, the standing definition of what a rock LP should sound like. The live material is less crunched; its washed-out sound seems more the result of the original recording and mixing than the mastering and cutting.

It's a pity because this album is such a rocker. Would it have been that much more trouble to cut a stand-out LP from either the master tape or a noncrunched "flat" transfer? The smart buyer will save some coin and get the CD set. Why pay extra for nothing better?

Anton's picture

Now there are some sad things known to man,
But ain't too much sadder than
the tears of a Stones fan when a pressing's a big let down.

I wish they had been a bit more 'audio epicurean' with this.

tonykaz's picture

150 sold vinyl per month -- new and used !
50 CDs sold per month -- new and used !

Prices range from$30 New to $5ish Used.

Tony in Florida

Sal1950's picture

You just can't underestimate the stupidity of the general public.
The sound quality of digital is so superior to vinyl yet people continue to throw money away to drag a rock thru a ditch.
Oh well, it ain't my money for sure.

tonykaz's picture

Vinyl was a successful Format, for quite a long time. Music people made money with that system. It's been hard to give up despite the desirability of the Digital replacement's many virtues.

As a nostalgic audiophile culture, we're in a Make it Great Again sort of mindset.

Our lifetime committed Audio Collectors have entire houses filled with thousands of Vinyl Recordings of which they Curate but can never listen to ever again, there are far too many records, they have little lifetime remaining, phono cartridges are fragile and so very pricy to replace, the quality of most of existing vintage vinyl is horrible by comparison to today's standards ( which is why re-mastered versions are presented and purchased at great costs ) .

Collecting Vinyl is for us old timers.

Tony in Florida

Sal1950's picture

Many people collect items that are too fragile to play with any more, it should be the same with vinyl. People don't play Edison cylinders for musical enjoyment any more either. ;)
I'm 71, don't get much more "old timer than that. LOL

JS M's picture

100% agree. I can not understand the revival of vinyl. It sounds worse. It's impossible to maintain and track selections and flipping the record are a pain.

tonykaz's picture

My vintage age group is no longer physically agile or capable, we've lost our full ambulatory capabilities and now struggle to just walk and climb stairs.

Buying and Collecting is nearly the only thing left that we are still competent at.

Vinyl is one of the nice things we old timers resonate with.

Our wives knit quilts for the veterans.

Migrating to Florida allowed me to maintain an aggressive outdoor physical activity discipline ( and postpone the onset of deteriorating strengths ).

Frozen North's icy paralysis enhances schemes like Vinyl Record Collecting.

Tony in Florida

rschryer's picture

Now quiet while I pop open another beer and clean my LPs so they're sparkly for Christmas.

Enjoy your sleigh ride in Florida.

Happy Holidays.

Rob S.

tonykaz's picture


Cleaning Vinyls and Beer seem like the ideal pairing for a Winter Cabin Fever episode series. You might call it "Shampoo & Booze" !

Thank you for writing, it's always nice reading notes from Y'all !!

Tony in Florida

deckeda's picture

I too bought the LP when it was new. I was heavily into both old and new rock at the time, but purchasing an “old band’s” new stuff made me wary. It holds up as well as any “classic” Stones LP.

For many years the industry’s willful neglect regarding what makes a release sing has turned me away from this hobby. The only people in control of this frequently don’t care but will take our money just the same. And if you happen to get hold of anyone in charge it’s all “we couldn’t do it” or “why?” or “huh.”