Steel Wheels is the 19th British and 21st American studio album by The Rolling Stones, released in 1989.
Heralded as a major comeback upon its release, the project is notable for the patching up of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards' relationship, a reversion to a more classic style of music and the launching of the band's biggest world tour at the time. It is also long-time bassist Bill Wyman's final full length studio album with the Stones, preceding the announcement of his departure in January 1993. Wyman's final tenure with the band would be on two studio tracks for 1991's Flashpoint.
Following the release of 1986's Dirty Work, and Jagger's active pursuit of a solo career, relations between him and the Stones-committed Richards worsened considerably. While Jagger released the tepidly received Primitive Cool in 1987, Richards recorded Talk Is Cheap, his solo debut, which would be released in 1988 to rave reviews. The two years largely apart appeared to have healed the wounds sufficiently to begin resurrecting their partnership and their band.
Meeting in January 1989, just preceding the Stones' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the chemistry between Jagger and Richards easily outshone whatever differences they had and after composing some 50 songs in a matter of weeks, Ronnie Wood, Wyman and Charlie Watts were called in to begin recording what would become Steel Wheels, beckoning Undercover co-producer Chris Kimsey to perform the same role.
Recording in Montserrat and London during the spring months, Steel Wheels was designed to emulate a classic Rolling Stones sound. The one notable exception was "Continental Drift," an Eastern-flavoured piece, with The Master Musicians of Jajouka led by Bachir Attar, recorded in June 1989 in Tangier, coordinated by Cherie Nutting. With much of the past disagreements behind them, sessions for Steel Wheels were fairly harmonious.
The massive, worldwide Steel Wheels Tour was launched in late August 1989, concurrently with Steel Wheels' arrival and the release of lead single "Mixed Emotions", a partially biographical reference to Jagger and Richards' recent woes that proved to be the Rolling Stones' last major hit single in the US, reaching No. 5. Critical reaction was warm, with Steel Wheels reaching No. 2 in the UK and No. 3 in the US where it went double-platinum. Follow-up singles were "Rock and a Hard Place", "Almost Hear You Sigh" and "Terrifying". The mammoth Steel Wheels Tour, which finished in mid-1990 after being re-titled the Urban Jungle Tour, was an enormous financial success. In 1990, FOX aired a 3-D television special of the Steel Wheels tour. Unlike anaglyphic 3-D which requires the familiar red and green glasses, the method used was the Pulfrich Effect which permitted full-color video. The film was shot by Gerald Marks of PullTime 3-D in NYC. An IMAX film of the tour was released the next year, which still plays sporadically at IMAX venues around the world.
Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone writes "All the ambivalence, recriminations, attempted rapprochement and psychological one-upmanship evident on Steel Wheels testify that the Stones are right in the element that has historically spawned their best music – a murky, dangerously charged environment in which nothing is merely what it seems. Against all odds, and at this late date, the Stones have once again generated an album that will have the world dancing to deeply troubling, unresolved emotions."
Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic writes "The Stones sound good, and Mick and Keith both get off a killer ballad apiece with "Almost Hear You Sigh" and "Slipping Away," respectively. It doesn't make for a great Stones album, but it's not bad, and it feels like a comeback – which it was supposed to, after all."