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The Rolling Stones go back on tour: will they still have the world under their thumbs?

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Is there an audience for a band of fiftysomething rockers who wouldn’t be caught dead in flannel? The answer will come this spring when the Rolling Stones release the first offering from their 1991 deal (estimated at $45 million) with Virgin Records, and their first studio album since 1989’s Steel Wheels.

As usual with the Stones, much secrecy surrounds the project, but here’s what’s for sure. Last fall, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ron Wood went into Dublin’s Windmill Lane studio to begin recording. After months of speculation about finding a new bass player—and auditions with Living Colour’s Doug Wimbish, NRBQ’s Joey Spampinato, ex-E Street Band bassist Garry Tallent, among others—the group decided not to replace laconic Bill Wyman, who resigned last year, saying he was tired of touring. ”The band has been having such a laugh together,” says a Stones spokesman. ”(They) felt a permanent fifth member wouldn’t have been in on the joke.”

In Wyman’s absence, Richards and Wood traded off bass duties during rehearsals, which were held at a 17th-century farmhouse outside Dublin. The recording sessions have also featured appearances by several guest players, including ex-Miles Davis bassist Darryl Jones and Ireland’s venerable folk- revivalists, the Chieftains. The group completed basic tracks just before Christmas, and now Jagger, Richards, and producer Don Was (best known for reviving the career of Bonnie Raitt) are planning to relocate to Los Angeles for postproduction.

The famously fractious Jagger-Richards collaboration apparently survived the sessions intact. There were reports of a squabble over whether to record in Dublin or Barbados, where Jagger and Richards had retreated last year to work on new songs as well as to pare down a 100-plus backlog of tunes. The differences, however, appeared to be ironed out by the time the duo arrived in Ireland in early fall: Jagger and Richards stopped by Ashford Castle, a remote hideaway on the country’s West Coast, and chartered a boat for a trip around Lough Corrib, the local waterway, during which they smoked, drank, and asked the boat captain to make the little tugboat ”go faster.” ”They were getting along,” says Richards’ manager, Jane Rose. ”The music sounded great.”

Good vibes aside, the Stones are still entering the unchartered waters of the ’90s. The band’s six-year deal with Virgin pays a reported $8 million advance per album, plus a formidable 25 percent royalty. Yet the last three Stones albums—recorded under a $25 million deal signed in 1983 with Columbia- sold an anemic 3.5 million copies combined in the U.S., and recent solo albums by Jagger and Richards have barely registered on the charts.

But a Stones comeback isn’t implausible at a time when such stalwarts as Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, and even Meat Loaf are keeping pace with Pearl Jam and Nirvana. ”It’s conceivable that they could turn in something that sounds old and clueless and embarrassing,” says one MTV insider, ”but I don’t see that happening. You can’t really dismiss these guys too quickly. Look at Stewart. People have called him an old fart for longer than the Stones, but he had a phenomenal year with the Unplugged stuff.”

No matter how the album does, the success of the subsequent Stones tour is assured. Without word of a substitute for Wyman, the group is planning a stadium tour from August to October, and if past numbers are any barometer, ”it’s gonna be monstrous,” says Jay Smith, an editor at the concert-biz guide Pollstar. (The Stones’ 1989 show grossed $90 million, says Smith; last year’s top-grossing act, the Grateful Dead, took in half that amount.)

”There are very few legends that have been around as long as the Stones that can still pack ’em in,” says Smith. ”When they go on the road, it’s not a tour; it’s an event.”

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