“Start Me Up” is a song by the Rolling Stones featured on the 1981 album Tattoo You. Released as the album’s lead single, it reached number one on Australian Kent Music Report, number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and number seven on the UK Singles Chart.
The basic track “Start Me Up” was recorded during the January and March 1978 sessions for the Rolling Stones’ album Some Girls. The song began as a reggae-rock track named “Never Stop”, but after dozens of takes it was abandoned. “Start Me Up” was not chosen for the album and was saved for later use. Richards commented:
It was one of those things we cut a lot of times; one of those cuts that you can play forever and ever in the studio. Twenty minutes go by and you’re still locked into those two chords … Sometimes you become conscious of the fact that, ‘Oh, it’s “Brown Sugar” again,’ so you begin to explore other rhythmic possibilities. It’s basically trial and error. As I said, that one was pretty locked into a reggae rhythm for quite a few weeks. We were cutting it for Emotional Rescue, but it was nowhere near coming through, and we put it aside and almost forgot about it.
In 1981, with the band looking to tour, engineer Chris Kimsey proposed to lead singer Mick Jagger that archived songs could comprise the set. While searching through the vaults, Kimsey found the two takes of the song with a more rock vibe among some fifty reggae versions. Overdubs were completed on the track in early 1981 in New York City at the recording studios Electric Lady Studios and The Hit Factory. On the band’s recording style for this track in particular, Kimsey commented in 2004:
Including run-throughs, ‘Start Me Up’ took about six hours to record. You see, if they all played the right chords in the right time, went to the chorus at the right time and got to the middle eight together, that was a master. It was like, ‘Oh, wow!’ Don’t forget, they would never sit down and work out a song. They would jam it and the song would evolve out of that. That’s their magic.
The infectious “thump” to the song was achieved using mixer Bob Clearmountain’s famed “bathroom reverb”, a process involving the recording of some of the song’s vocal and drum tracks with a miked speaker in the bathroom of the Power Station recording studio in New York City. It was there where final touches were added to the song, including Jagger’s switch of the main lyrics from “start it up” to “start me up.”
The song opens with what has since become a trademark riff for Richards. It is this, coupled with Charlie Watts’ steady backbeat and Bill Wyman’s echoing bass, that comprises most of the song. Lead guitarist Ronnie Wood can clearly be heard playing a layered variation of Richards’ main riff (often live versions of the song are lengthened by giving Wood a solo near the middle of the song, pieces of which can be heard throughout the original recording). Throughout the song Jagger breaks in with a repeated bridge of “You make a grown man cry”, followed by various pronouncements of his and his partner’s sexual nature.
Percussion (cowbell and guiro) by Mike Carabello and handclaps by Jagger, Chris Kimsey and Barry Sage were added during overdub sessions in April and June 1981.
A music video was produced for the single, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. According to Linday-Hogg’s recollection, Jagger and Watts proposed the collaboration to him over lunch with Jagger particularly keen to emulate the style of video shown on MTV, which he regarded as “the future”. The subsequent production became one of the most programmed videos of MTV’s early years.
“Start Me Up” peaked at number seven on the UK Singles Charts in September 1981 and remains the last Rolling Stones to appear in the UK top 10. In Australia, the song reached number one in November 1981. In the US, “Start Me Up” spent three weeks at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in October and November 1981. It also spent 13 weeks atop the Billboard Top Tracks chart. This set a record for most weeks at #1 that was not broken until 1994, when Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song” spent 15 weeks on top. The B-side is a slow blues number called “No Use in Crying”, which is also included on Tattoo You.
“Start Me Up” is often used to open the Rolling Stones’ live shows and has been featured on the live albums Still Life, Flashpoint, Live Licks, Shine a Light, and Sweet Summer Sun: Hyde Park Live. It also features on several Stones live concert films: Let’s Spend the Night Together (1983), Stones at the Max (1992), The Rolling Stones: Voodoo Lounge Live (1995), Bridges to Babylon Tour ’97–98 (1998), Four Flicks (2004), The Biggest Bang (2007), Shine a Light (2008), and Sweet Summer Sun: Hyde Park Live (2013). The song was one of three played by the Stones at halftime during Super Bowl XL in 2006.
The song has been included on every major Stones compilation album since its release, including Rewind (1971–1984), Jump Back, Forty Licks and GRRR!. Writing for AllMusic, Stewart Mason noted, “there were hits after ‘Start Me Up,’ but at this remove, it’s undeniable that this 1981 single was the last great Rolling Stones song.” Rolling Stone magazine ranked it the 8th Best Sports Anthem.