As The Rolling Stones prepared to embark on a worldwide tour at the end of 1981, a new collection of songs was being put together that would promote the string of stadium shows. For the first time in the group’s history, however, the proposed new studio album would not consist of any new material; instead, it would find them digging in their vaults and revisiting forgotten songs.
Hungry for something new, the group’s manager, Prince Rupert Loewenstein, had wondered aloud to Jagger and Chris Kimsey, who’d engineered both albums, how they were ever going to follow them up. Kimsey, who’d kept a comprehensive log of everything the group had recorded with him, immediately suggested leftovers that could be salvaged and considered for release.
Kimsey spent months trawling through a mountain of recordings. “If it was happening, I made sure it got on tape,” he said. Some Girls alone had produced 150 reels of tape. “So I wasn’t surprised at all to go back and find that – from Goats Head Soup and Black and Blue – some really good material had just been forgotten about, really.”
“That’s an advantage you don’t think about really, with a band that goes on for a long time,” Keith Richards commented. “One way or another, you end up with a backlog of really good stuff that, for one reason or another, you didn’t get the chance to finish or put out because it was the wrong tempo or too long – purely technical reasons, you know? Sometimes we write the song in installments – just get the melody and the music, and we’ll cut the tracks and write the words later. That way, the actual tracks have matured just like wine – you just leave it in the cellar for a bit, and it comes out a little better a few years later.”
While recording in the Pathé Marconi Studios in Paris in late 1977, the Stones were working through a song based on a reggae lick that Keith had composed a couple of years earlier. The band had tried it out for Black and Blue, and it further evolved through multiple takes during the Some Girls sessions.
“A lot of the Stones’ songs would take about four or five days to nail,” Kimsey explained. “They would play each song for three or four hours, then move on to a new one. That was the pattern of recording. Then one day it would be, ‘Oh wow, that’s a really good version of that one,’ and we’d keep that take and move on.”
This particular tune, which had developed the working title of “Never Stop” through Jagger’s improvised mumblings, seemed to fall short of completion. For a couple of takes amid the countless reggae versions, the group had attempted the song with a straighter rock beat, as Keith and drummer Charlie Watts locked into a crisp, punchy rhythm, but later gave up on the idea. Keith even instructed Kimsey to wipe the tape. “Never Stop” had, ironically, come to a stop.
Having defied Keith’s orders, Kimsey rediscovered the two rock takes a little over three years later, and presented them to Jagger. After Mick had drafted some new lyrics (substituting “Never Stop” with the phrase “Start It Up”), he and Kimsey met in Paris, where the Stones’ mobile recording unit was parked in a freezing warehouse on the city’s outskirts, and put down the song’s vocals. “He’d give it the full performance, moving all over the place,” Kimsey remembered. “It was great to watch and equally great to record. He knows how to work a microphone.”
Aware of the disparate sources that would make up what would become the Tattoo You album, Mick brought in famed producer Bob Clearmountain to re-edit the tracks into one cohesive audio experience. Moving to studios in New York in early 1981, Ronnie Wood and Keith sharpened the song’s blistering twin guitar lines with overdubs, and Keith emerged with the classic power chord intro. Clearmountain’s mix of “Start It Up” pulled the drums up, adding extra weight to Charlie’s steady snare cracks with reverb, and turned the guitars into a stinging two-pronged attack.
It was here that Jagger refined the final vocals, revising the main hook to “Start Me Up.” The lyrics were loaded with innuendo pertaining to motorcycle metaphors, where his “mean machine” revs him up and has him “running hot,” and references blues singer Lucille Bogan’s explicit number “Shave ’Em Dry” in the closing lines.
Released in August 1981, 10 days before Tattoo You would hit the shelves, “Start Me Up” was a confident, fresh return for the Rolling Stones. Less brash than their recent punky outings, its self-assured licks sounded like the very definition of a Stones song. It reached the Top Ten in the UK and US, and hit Number 1 in Australia, as well as the Billboard Top Tracks chart, where it spent an unprecedented 13 weeks in pole position – a record that would remain unbeaten until 1994.
It has become the Stones’ sixth most-played song in concert, having appeared on every tour since its release. Most notably, it was performed as part of the group’s 2006 Super Bowl halftime show.
“Start Me Up” also received a boost in 1995 when Microsoft used the song to score its first-ever TV commercial, launching Windows 95 and its pioneering start button to great acclaim. It netted the Stones a cool $3 million in the process. “The purchase of that classic hook,” Newsweek reported, “symbolizes the brilliant way that Microsoft marketing wizards have managed to transmogrify a technological molehill into the Mount McKinley of software…”
Today, “Start Me Up” stands as a towering masterpiece whose trademark riffs immediately identify its legendary authors. Despite its immeasurable stature, the fact that the song almost evaded the band still irks them even now. “The fact that I missed ‘Start Me Up’ for five years is one of my disappointments,” Keith admits. “It just went straight over my head, but you can’t catch everything.”