When the Wheels Came Off: The History of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Dirty Work’
For many Rolling Stones fans, 1983’s ‘Undercover’ represented a painfully steep comedown after the outtake-laden — though solidly consistent — ‘Tattoo You.’ But they only faced further disappointment with 1986’s ‘Dirty Work,’ written and recorded during one of the lowest points in the band’s long history.
Chief Stones songwriters Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were already known for their often tempestuous relationship, and in fact, their friction tended to produce some of the band’s best music. But the months leading up to the sessions for ‘Dirty Work’ found the group in general disarray; aside from ongoing conflicts between Jagger and Richards, the other members of the band — including drummer Charlie Watts, bassist Bill Wyman, and guitarist Ron Wood — had their own issues within and without the lineup.
“Mick and I weren’t on great terms at the time, but I said, ‘C’mon, let’s go out,'” Richards recalled in the pages of his ‘Life‘ memoir, looking back on a memorable incident in 1984 that outlined the fissures in the band. “I lent him the jacket I got married in. We got back to the hotel about five in the morning and Mick called up Charlie. I said, ‘Don’t call him, not at this hour.’ But he did, and said, ‘Where’s my drummer?’ No answer. He puts the phone down. Mick and I were still sitting there, pretty [drunk] — give Mick a couple of glasses, he’s gone — when, about 20 minutes later, there was a knock at the door. There was Charlie Watts, Savile Row suit, perfectly dressed, tie, shaved, the whole f—ing bit. I could smell the cologne! I opened the door and he didn’t even look at me, he walked straight past me, got hold of Mick and said, ‘Never call me your drummer again.’ Then he hauled him right up by the lapels of my jacket and gave him a right hook.”
Admitting “the atmosphere was bad” even before the ‘Dirty Work’ sessions started in 1985, Richards recalled that the band had been kept waiting because of Jagger’s budding solo career — and to add insult to injury, by the time they finally convened in Paris to record, “Mick had come with barely any songs for us to work on. He’d used them up on his own record. And he was often just not there at the studio.”
“We usually jam around for a week and then start seriously getting into tracks. But this time we messed around for three weeks. Mick was flying back to London to do 12-inch re-mixes and video edits on his solo stuff. That was a sore point,” admitted Wyman in an interview with Creem. “We thought he should have forgotten his solo album, which was already out and finished. He should have worked with the Stones, but instead he let it drag through and he continued to work on that instead of with the Stones, which was disappointing, and we thought he had got his priorities wrong. His mind wasn’t there.”
Discussing Jagger’s early-1985 solo debut ‘She’s the Boss,’ Richards said, “I thought the timing was very strange. Bringing out something like that, an obviously commercial album, just before we were starting work on the new Stones album. … I mean, if he’d done his favorite Irish folk songs with a lady harpist, or have Liberace accompany him on Frank Sinatra songs, whatever. Something you couldn’t possibly do with the Stones — that would’ve been fine. To my mind a Mick Jagger album should have been a ginormous event, not just another record. I told him it was dumb timing and not an inspired piece of work.”
With Jagger preoccupied and Watts battling alcoholism, it fell to the rest of the band to shoulder the creative burden for the record — and since Wyman, as Richards put it in his book, “almost stopped turning up,” that meant Richards and Wood were left to collaborate on a series of tracks that included ‘One Hit (to the Body),’ ‘Fight,’ and ‘Had It With You.’ As Richards later admitted in ‘Life,’ those violent-sounding titles were no accident.
“We made a video of ‘One Hit (to the Body)’ that more or less told the story — we nearly literally came to blows, over and above our acting duties,” he revealed. Looking over the lyrics to ‘Had It With You,’ which include the line “I love you, dirty f—er,” he added, “That was the kind of mood I was in. … I don’t think I’d ever written a song before, apart maybe from ‘All About You,’ in which I realized I was actually singing about Mick.”
Wood, meanwhile, served as the glue/intermediary between the increasingly distant Jagger and Richards. “During the ‘Dirty Work’ days, that was a really bad time,” he recalled during a 2011 interview with the Guardian. “I got them through that. I’d be like, ‘You stay near the phone, I’m going to get him on the phone and I’ll ring you back.'”
Also putting a damper on the sessions was the unexpected death of keyboard player Ian Stewart, who’d been rudely dismissed from the lineup in 1963, but remained as the band’s road manager and studio session player. Calling Stewart’s passing his “hardest hit” since the death of his son in 1976, Richards admitted, “At first you’re anesthetized, you go on as if he’s still there. … I got really mad at him for leaving me.” In a 1988 interview with Rolling Stone, Richards went a step further, saying that Stewart’s death derailed the promotional campaign for ‘Dirty Work': “The glue fell out of the whole setup. There’s not a lot of people who realize quite what a tower of strength he was, and how important he was within the band.”
“I produced the worst-ever Rolling Stones album,” ‘Dirty Work’ producer Steve Lillywhite said, laughing during an interview with the A.V. Club. “But basically, I couldn’t turn down the Rolling Stones. A real man would never turn down the chance of working with legends like them. But that doesn’t mean I knew it was going to be any good whatsoever. You need a good tailwind to make a great record, and there wasn’t a great tailwind with the Stones at that point. There was too much bitterness. It was the bad end of the drug-taking. It was just messy, but I had to do it. … I enjoyed working with them and it was great fun hanging out with Keith Richards.”
Of course, even the worst Stones record is better than some bands’ best, and although Lillywhite’s generally shrill production for ‘Dirty Work’ hasn’t aged well, it was right in line with what was popular at the time, and that helped the singles ‘Harlem Shuffle’ (a cover of a 1963 single for the R&B duo Bob & Earl) and ‘One Hit (To the Body)’ break the Top 40. The album itself, one of the better sellers of the year, peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard chart — and while the Stones weren’t really functioning as a band during the recording, they at least had enough taste (and clout) to pull in some stellar guest stars, including Jimmy Page, Bobby Womack, and session drummer Steve Jordan.
Lukewarm as the album’s contents were, promoting them still became a sticking point between Jagger and Richards — one that, for a time, seemed like it might break up the band for good. “I badly wanted to tour with it,” Richards wrote. “So, of course, did the other band members, who wanted to work. But Mick sent us a letter saying he wouldn’t tour. He wanted to get on with his solo career. Soon after the letter came, I read in one of the English tabloids of Mick saying the Rolling Stones are a millstone around my neck …I had no doubt that some part of his mind was thinking that, but saying it is another thing. That’s when World War III was declared.”
“Touring ‘Dirty Work’ would have been a nightmare,” retorted Jagger during an interview with Rolling Stone. “It was a terrible period. Everyone was hating each other so much; there were so many disagreements. It was very petty; everyone was so out of their brains, and Charlie was in seriously bad shape. When the idea of touring came up, I said, ‘I don’t think it’s gonna work.’ In retrospect, I was a hundred percent right. It would have been the worst Rolling Stones tour. Probably would have been the end of the band.”
Richards “became very upset and overreacted when I wanted to do a solo record, which in retrospect seems a natural thing to want to do,” Jagger countered. “But even before that, everyone was bored playing with each other. We’d reached a period when we were tired of it all. Bill was not enthusiastic to start with. There’s a guy that doesn’t really want to do much. He’s quite happy, whatever he’s told to do, but he’s not suggesting anything, not helping — a bit morose and bored. You’ve got Charlie overdoing it in all directions. … We just got fed up with each other. You’ve got a relationship with musicians that depends on what you produce together. But when you don’t produce, you get bad reactions — bands break up. You get difficult periods, and that was one of them.”
Conceding that you’ve got to have a powerful ego to be a rock frontman, Richards argued to Rolling Stone that in the wake of ‘Dirty Work,’ Jagger was guilty of trying to compete with younger, flashier artists. “My point around ‘Dirty Work’ was this was the time when the Stones could do something. They could mature and grow this music up, and prove that you could take it further,” he insisted. “That you don’t have to go back and play Peter Pan and try and compete with Prince and Michael Jackson or Wham! and Duran Duran. But it’s all a matter, I think, of self-perception. He perceived himself as still having to prove it on that level. To me, twenty-five years of integrity went down the drain with what he did.”
Even at the band’s lowest point, however, Richards didn’t let his anger toward Jagger cloud the bigger picture; he always seemed to know they’d eventually make up — as they’d, in fact, go on to do for 1989’s more cohesive ‘Steel Wheels’ record. “I really enjoy playing with the Stones. I’ve played with loads of other people too, you know? And as good as any other people really are,” Richards said, shrugging from the set of the ‘One Hit (to the Body)’ video shoot. “But whatever it is I do, I can do it better with the Stones.”