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20 Years Ago: The Rolling Stones Attempt to Modernize on ‘Bridges to Babylon’

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As the ’90s wore on, Mick Jagger became concerned with keeping the Rolling Stones fresh. That led directly to some of the dated experimentation on Bridges to Babylon, released on Sept. 23, 1997.

“There is a great danger when you’ve done all these albums … that you think you know how to make a record,” Jagger told the San Francisco Examiner in 1997. “Someone writes a song and there is something in the song that you recognize: ‘Oh, I know what that is. That’s like [1968’s] “No Expectation” [from Beggar’s Banquet]. I know how to do that. I’ll get my slide guitar.’ I don’t want to do that first thing that comes to mind.”

Over-worried about sounding too much like themselves after succumbing to a kind of easy classicism on 1994’s Voodoo Lounge, the Rolling Stones ended up going too far the other way. That meant bringing in then-hip producers John King and Mike Simpson. Known professionally as the Dust Brothers, they’d most recently been working with Beck.

“Anybody Seen My Baby,” the lead-off single, was doomed to parody by their decision to include a sample of Biz Markie‘s 1986 track “One Two.” Deep cuts like “Might as Well Get Juiced” suffered too, as its generically electronic backing track felt somehow both relentless and largely without detail. Hiding somewhere within this tune is something that could have harkened back to the edgy smack-laced danger of 1972’s Exile on Main St. The loop-driven “Saint of Me,” written in tribute to their late long-time sideman Billy Preston, suffers a similar fate. It’s a pretty good Stones song lost in a maze of studio tricks.

Jagger even brought in the sleek R&B producer Babyface to work on “Already Over Me” at one point, before discarding the tapes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bridges to Babylon tended to come off like an utterly bloodless detour away from everything that once made the Rolling Stones interesting in the first place.

“It’s full of fance – that’s funk and dance put together,” guitarist Ron Wood enthused in a 1997 talk with the Augusta Chronicle. Fans were less enthusiastic, as the album became the Rolling Stones’ first ever – including 1986’s lightly regarded Dirty Work – to finish outside the U.K. Top 5. Bridges to Babylon ended up selling a million copies, but that was far less than the multi-platinum sales of their two most recent studio projects.

You could hardly blame Keith Richards. Favoring an abandoned back-to-basics approach, he ended up contributing some of his strongest material, and simply stayed well away from the more modernized stuff. Waddy Wachtel, the ace Los Angeles session guitarist, sat in on “Anybody Seen My Baby,” which was rumored to have been about actress Mary Badham of To Kill a Mockingbird fame. Richards doesn’t even appear on “Saint of Me.”

He claimed there were no hard feelings, despite early reports of tensions in the studio. “You always have to deal with other people’s preconceptions of what their version of the Stones is – and we can’t be everything to everybody,” Richards told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1998. “All we can do is be true to ourselves as much as possible, and say, ‘This is us now, take it or leave it.'”

Watch the Rolling Stones Perform ‘Saint of Me’

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Richards collaborated exclusively with stalwart Stones producer Don Was on the reggae-inflected “You Don’t Have to Mean It,” the soul-drenched “Thief in the Night” and his devastatingly sad album-closing “How Can I Stop.” All of them would have sounded more at home on one of Richard’s then-recent solo projects, 1988’s Talk is Cheap and 1992’s Main Offender, but with the cool addition of sweet harmonies from former Beach Boys member Blondie Chaplin.

Unfortunately, Richards’ songs couldn’t re-balance a recording that simply spent too much time chasing now-outmoded trends.

“Mick and I both knew that, because of the way we approached it, there would be some divergence – because we decided not to meet in the middle,” Richards told the Union-Tribune. “We decided to go out and each approach it from our own angles, and when you work that way, some people will go ‘yeah’ for this and ‘nay’ for that, and ‘blah,’ ‘blah’ and ‘blah.’ [Chuckles.] I’m not that interested in striking a medium.”

“Anybody Seen My Baby” then almost got entangled in a plagiarism lawsuit, before Jagger and Richards headed it off by adding k.d. lang and Ben Mink to the credits. Apparently, the Stones didn’t notice the similarity between their song and Lang’s 1992 hit “Constant Craving” until after Bridges to Babylon had already been issued.

Jagger told MTV that he’d never heard the song, but that he “really admires k.d. as a singer.” A surprised Lang said she took the credit “as quite a compliment.”

None of it helped much. “Anybody Seen My Baby?” finished just outside the U.K. Top 20, and didn’t chart at all in America. Their second single “Flip the Switch” completely flopped, as did “Out of Control” – though the latter later emerged as a concert staple. “Saint of Me” rose to No. 26 in the U.K., and became the highest-charting Billboard Hot 100 song from Bridges to Babylon – but at a paltry No. 94.

The Rolling Stones wouldn’t put out another album until 2005’s A Bigger Bang, a gritty, old school return. Charlie Watts had to admit that he was happy to see this technology-obsessed era go. “John and Michael [the Dust Brothers] are very nice guys,” he told MTV in 1998, “but it’s computers and endlessly messing about with little bits of tape. Let’s be honest: It’s boring, if you’re a drummer like me.”

For his part, Richards argued that while Bridges to Babylon may not have always worked, it had at least been interesting.

“It would be easy to go in there and toss off your bloody Rolling Stones record,” Richards told the Union-Tribune. “I could do variations on ‘Brown Sugar‘ for you all bleeding night. But it’s not what I want to do. I want to turn you on, and I want to turn myself on. And if I ain’t turned on, I ain’t going to turn you on. So, that’s really what you look for. And sometimes you miss, and sometimes you don’t. But it’s not a big deal to me. At the end of the day, when I play the record, overall, yeah, I’m very happy with it. That’s the latest record we’ve made, and so far, so f—king good!”

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