The Rolling Stones get cringeworthily political in “Highwire”

Getting the morning writing engine going with some musical thoughts.

Here’s the weird thing about how time works. This particular Rolling Stones song, a forgettable little tune called “Highwire,” appeared as one of two “bonus studio cuts”* on a 1991 live album called “Flashpoint.” At this point, the Stones were thought to be over and done with, these last songs just the death rattle of a once-great band.

(*-The other song was called “Sex Drive,” and it was the kind of slinking groove that the Stones could create in a two-minute cab ride, about as finished as a runny egg.)

But that was a quarter-century ago, and the Stones are still around, still making plans for yet another tour. Now, flip that same length of time back the other direction, and you’re in the mid-’60s, right when the Stones were starting. It’s disorienting, how much can happen in a short period of time, and how much time passes when absolutely nothing’s happening.

Anyway, this song is one of the Stones’ few overtly political tunes, released right as the Gulf War was kicking off. It’s tough to remember now, but America had been told that we were in for a struggle for the very soul of American freedom, that our enemy was vast and without number. It turned out we were in a struggle to reopen some oil pipelines and our enemy got his ass handed to him in about six weeks, but let’s not focus on that, shall we?

What Jagger, Richards & co. do best is summon up the spirit of an age, not the actual events. “Gimme Shelter” is one of the most terrifying songs ever when you consider it in the context of the time it was written (the late ’60s). This one, by sharp contrast, feels grafted together, an oddly specific set of lyrics referencing the 82nd Airborne and Munich and dictators who “need a slap on the wrist,” a bouncy chorus that doesn’t fit the moralistic message against “hot guns and cold nights.”

Plus, this is straight out of the pre-grunge ’90s, with the ultra-slick production that wraps the band in an antiseptic sheen. In the video, they’re in one of those factories that apparently manufactures nothing but sparks, with a camera style obviously modeled on those missile cams that were in vogue during the early ’90s.

So there you go. “Highwire” is a relic of its age.


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