40 Years Ago: Rolling Stones Punch Back With ‘Hang Fire’
So much of the immediate praise surrounding the Rolling Stones' hodge-podge Tattoo You album was colored by the era. Same with "Hang Fire."
The band was, quite frankly, lost both personally and musically. So the arrival of an album of rock songs – not disco, not Chuck Berry knockoffs, not reggae, just rock – felt like a thunderbolt out of the blue.
Credit long-time associate producer Chris Kimsey, who did a deep dive into the vaults then presented scraps of earlier ideas like "Hang Fire" as possible reclamation projects. He heard things that they didn't initially hear, then convinced the Stones to hear them, too.
"With a band that goes on for a long time," a newly convinced Keith Richards would later admit, "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. It's stupid to leave all that great stuff just for want of finishing it off and getting it together."
"Hang Fire" was discerningly placed among a slate of other uptempo songs on Side 1, while some winning ballads completed Side 2. The results were a revelation, but not necessarily because Tattoo You (or even "Hang Fire") was uniformly great. That's where the issues of era and context come into play.
The mix of hot riffs and doo wop-influenced backing vocals on "Hang Fire" stand in direct contrast to the dancy missteps found on 1980's Emotional Rescue, owing in part to this track's origins in the earlier, more rugged Some Girls sessions. The Stones hadn't sounded this focused, so willing to jab hard and fast, in a vanishingly long time. Even when they downshifted for Side 2, the tracks boasted a maturity that felt surprising and newfound.
"Hang Fire" also became one of the sharpest criticisms of their native England that the Rolling Stones ever committed to vinyl. That gave the single, released in April 1982, a hard-eyed relevance that was likewise worlds away from their most recent work.
Driven from their country by exorbitant tax rates, the Stones looked on as England entered an ugly early '80s recession. Mick Jagger was moved to comment, adding trenchant new lines to a song whose title refers to an unexpected delay after pulling a gun's trigger: "We've got nothing to eat, we got nowhere to work. Nothing to drink, we just lost our shirts."
Watch the Rolling Stones Perform 'Hang Fire'
The government raised taxes and interest rates, hoping to control inflation – but they were too late. Lack of demand for goods and rising jobless rates – the number of U.K. unemployed shot up past 3 million, meaning one in eight was out of work – only worsened things.
Jagger clearly blamed lack of attention from politicians: At one point, this song was reportedly called "Lazy Bitch," perhaps in reference to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The opening line also threw a sharp elbow at both rising unemployment and government incompetence: "In the sweet old country where I come from, nobody ever works – yeah, nothing gets done."
As businesses collapsed, it suddenly seemed as if the country had returned to a period when the only way up the ladder was through betrothal. (By the way, Jagger's working-class narrator isn't interested: "You know marrying money is a full-time job," he spits. "I don't need the aggravation, I'm a lazy slob.") Perhaps inevitably, widespread unrest followed across the U.K.
"It serves them right for kickin' us out," Richards told Rolling Stone in 1981. England is "coming to terms with a whole lot of problems that have been brewing for years, and the only thing it needed for these problems to come to a head was for the money to get tight."
"Hang Fire" may have been an older song, but updated lyrics helped it rise to the moment: Ultimately, Jagger is left befuddled by an unfortunate situation where the destitute are left to get-rich-quick schemes ("yeah, $10,000, go have some fun – put it all on a 100 to one") as their jobs evaporate.
Panting hard, the Rolling Stones almost sound like a group reborn on "Hang Fire." Then everything comes to a crashing halt at just 2:30 in. The end result is tough, but slight – an originally unfinished thought that would always remain so.
That's not the only way they pulled this punch: "Hang Fire" became a Top 20 hit in the U.S. but was never made available as a single in England, where it presumably would have had more resonance. Fans from the Stones' home country had to skip to the second track on Tattoo You to hear this deceptively fun-sounding, yet actually very bleak commentary on their on-going economic woes.
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