The Story of the Rolling Stones’ First Four-Man Album, ‘Voodoo Lounge’
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The early ’90s were a transformative time for the Rolling Stones. Not long after the release of their 1991 live album Flashpoint, original bassist Bill Wyman exited the band, permanently trimming the Stones lineup down to a quartet. But rather than wallowing in Wyman’s departure, the shake-up helped them turn in their strongest studio effort in more than a decade, Voodoo Lounge, which was released on July 3, 1994.
The record was the first Stones album with new bassist Darryl Jones, who had been hired that March after an extensive search. A protege of Miles Davis who also played on Sting‘s The Dream of the Blue Turtles album, it was Jones’ jazz background that reportedly appealed to vocalist Mick Jagger and drummer Charlie Watts. Jones had laid down some tracks during the initial sessions in Ireland in the fall of 1993, but it wasn’t until he was called into help put some finishing touches in Los Angeles a few months later that he learned he had the job.
“[O]ne night I went down to the studio, and met Keith [Richards], who asked if I’d seen Charlie,” he said. “I said no, then he says, ‘Charlie asked me if we were going to play with you? We’ve auditioned all those guys, chose you to play on the record – I don’t think we’re now gonna go choose someone else’. Charlie said, ‘Maybe someone should tell him!’ So I’m telling you, you’re gonna go with us’, and that was the first I heard of it!”
To help assemble their first studio record since 1989’s Steel Wheels, the group enlisted Don Was, the former Was (Not Was) bassist who had recently helmed successful albums by Bonnie Raitt, Bob Seger and Jackson Browne.
Speaking with Rolling Stone, Was recalled being invited to discuss the possibility producing the album and was, somewhat ironically, given a lecture from Keith Richards on why the group really didn’t need a producer. He conceded that he wouldn’t be producing the Stones but thought to himself, “At least I’ve got something to tell my grandchildren.”
Of course, Was did eventually come on board for the making of Voodoo Lounge. Was told Sound on Sound that he felt his role was to help identify what would help make for the strongest songs, as opposed to trying to force his concept of what a Rolling Stones record should be.
“I never felt that my job was to impose creative concepts on them, but just to help distill the wealth of ideas that they had,” Was said. “I would point things out if I didn’t think something was going to work, but I didn’t think it was my position to say, ‘Here, Keith, give me your guitar for a minute. I’ll show you what to play’. That would be like grabbing the sax from Charlie Parker! Keith’s got so many ideas and they’re all so original that I couldn’t come up with them in a 100 years. That’s the amazing thing – the simplicity of what he does is so deceptive. There’s so much happening within a few notes.”
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The Rolling Stones had certainly endured their share of internal band strife in the decade prior to Voodoo Lounge. The band was in total disarray during the making of Dirty Work, providing the Stones with what was perhaps their lowest of moments.
Richards acknowledged that they had come through those rough waters, and felt that Voodoo Lounge was the first Stones record in a significant amount of time where the band was operating as a cohesive unit. “To not just sound like the Stones but be them,” he told Rolling Stone. “Like I told Mick, ‘You gotta play a lot of harp.’ Because with the Stones, that was one of the original instruments. And his phrasing is so uncanny on the harp. If that can roll over onto the vocals. After all, it’s just pushing air out of your mouth.”
Voodoo Lounge was the Rolling Stones’ opportunity to prove that, despite being elder statesmen, they could indeed still rock. The album’s first single (and its accompanying eye-catching video), “Love Is Strong” featured some great bluesy harmonica while another of the album’s tracks, “You Got Me Rocking,” became a staple of the Stones dynamic live show. Even the HBO television show The Sopranos acknowledged the coolness of Voodoo Lounge, featuring “Thru and Thru” in the Season Two finale of the show in 2000.
As much as Voodoo Lounge had the band working together better than they had in years, more than a year after its release, Jagger nonetheless had mixed feelings about the record – and in particular Was’ decisions – in an in-depth interview with Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner.
“I think it’s a good frame of reference of what the Rolling Stones were about during that quite limited time in Ireland in that year,” he said. “It’s very much a kind of time-and-place album. In that way, I was quite pleased with the results. But there were a lot of things that we wrote for Voodoo Lounge that Don [Was] steered us away from: Groove songs, African influences and things like that. And he steered us very clear of all that. And I think it was a mistake.”
In his defense, Was said he was “certainly not anti-groove, just anti-groove without substance in the context of this album. They had a number of great grooves. But it was like, ‘OK, what goes on top of it? Where does it go?’ I just felt that it’s not what people were looking for from the Stones. I was looking for a sign that they can get real serious about this, still play better than anybody and write better than anybody.”
Despite Jagger’s issues with Was at the time, they appear to be water under the bridge now. Was continued as a steady presence with the Rolling Stones after Voodoo Lounge. And while it might not have completely met Jagger’s expectations, the album became the band’s first No. 1 record in their native Britain since 1980’s Emotional Rescue. The international tour in support of Voodoo Lounge grossed hundreds of millions of dollars over 117 dates performed on six continents.
The record also garnered the band a Grammy award for Best Rock Album, while the video for “Love Is Strong” also won for Best Short Form Music Video. Amazingly, it was the first Grammys the Rolling Stones ever claimed, even though they were awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1986.
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