I may well be the only American between 15 and 45 — and certainly the only rock critic — who didn’t attend any of the shows on the Rolling Stones’ ”Steel Wheels” tour in 1989. Thus, for me, the experience of hearing Flashpoint, the official recording of the tour, could conceivably re-create the ecstatic rush of hind-felt excitement that ought to be the whole impetus for rock bands making live albums in the first place.
Conceivably. But not, I’m sad to report, actually. Instead of making me wish I’d been wise enough to partake in the fabulous communal experience of seeing the Stones live in America, hearing Flashpoint only served to confirm my original impulse to avoid the event at all costs. Should I have gone out of my way to see my heroes take a fall?
One listen to Flashpoint felled them anyway, though I have to admit that in recent years the Rolling Stones’ pedestal in my mind had already become a very low stump. This record — the band’s fifth live album and easily its worst — is an embarrassment. It’s a crass, predictable, and poorly executed — and I hope, for the sake of anyone who enjoyed the tour live, not entirely accurate — document of what sounds like the band’s exploitation of its public’s loyalty and love.
Flashpoint includes four songs from the Stones’ 1989 Steel Wheels album, two studio originals (”Sex Drive” and the faintly controversial — and very bad — ”Highwire,” which the Stones have said criticizes arms sales to the Middle East and for weeks topped the album-rock charts), along with 11 overfamiliar Stones classics, all performed in a manner that somehow manages to be simultaneously sloppy and calculatedly melodramatic. Why, after 28 years together, the band can’t play ”Paint It, Black” in synch is a mystery. So is the murkiness of the production, made even more mushy by the needless addition of too many keyboards and female backup singers. There are no inspired vocal performances and no surprise song choices, except for the inclusion of ”Factory Girl” from the group’s 1968 album Beggar’s Banquet. Like ”You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” another Stones classic on Flashpoint, ”Factory Girl” has lyrics that, although once a defiant expression of the band’s bad-boy mystique, are so far removed from the Stones’ current, widely chronicled jet-set life-style that Jagger’s public utterance of them now is positively startling. It’s impossible to believe him when he sings, ”I need a girl who gets drunk on Friday nights”: By all reports what he seems to need is a girl who gets liposuction on Friday nights.
Besides, by using only the ”best” takes from a series of different shows, by removing audience interference, and by overdubbing moments when their playing got extra messy, the Stones have wrecked the continuity of the experience of seeing them perform. Tinkering with live performance is a common mistake — even Bruce Springsteen made it on Live 1975-85, his 1986 boxed set. But in Springsteen’s case, you can still hear that there was plenty of excitement wafting around the arena. Flashpoint provides no evidence that these ”Steel Wheels” dates generated the kind of thick, palpitating audience heat that sticks to magnetic tape, vibrates over vinyl, and even pierces through the plastic of a CD.
Flashpoint seems flat partly, of course, because the very concept of a live album is idiotic in this video age, when anyone can watch any band perform live on MTV. Gone are the days when a poorly recorded, scream-filled concert record on a scratchy vinyl disc could evoke the holy presence of superior beings that only an exalted few would ever have the luck to encounter in the flesh. Nowadays, you’d do better just to go see the Black Crowes, whose current top 10 record, Shake Your Money Maker, combines the endearing sounds of sloppy R&B with a lip-jutting presence something like the Stones’. Sure, they aren’t original, but the Crowes, being two decades younger, have more energy — and they’re a good deal better-looking.
I treasure the memory of the first time I saw the Stones (on July 26, 1977, which was Mick Jagger’s 34th birthday). That was the same year my girlfriends and I went to see Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones at the midnight movies every Saturday for an entire winter. I’d hesitate to deny to any new young Stones fan, held in thrall as we were by the still-powerful strains of albums like Let It Bleed or Exile on Main Street, the pleasure of fantasizing about the band’s glamour and fame. But that’s exactly why I’d advise those same fans not to buy Flashpoint — because illusions like the ones those great albums can still create are far too precious to be torched by a single spin of this lousy record. F