The latest album by The Rolling Stones is their strongest release since their 1978 album Some Girls. Despite claims from rock critics since the mid-1980s for other albums like Steel Wheels, Voodoo Lounge, and Bridges to Babylon, it may be hard to believe that their newest album, Hackney Diamonds, is truly that good. In fact, it may even be better. Even when I expressed my enjoyment of it to Mick Jagger, he was skeptical, stating, “I’ve received positive reactions from people that seem sincere.”
The Rolling Stones have not released a new album since 2005’s A Bigger Bang. Instead, they have done a covers album called Blue & Lonesome in 2016 and have been on a series of highly-energetic, record-breaking world tours. Mick Jagger turned 80 this year, and with Keith Richards turning 80 in December, I had expected them to do something similar to Johnny Cash’s final recordings with Rick Rubin. However, with the recent passing of Charlie Watts, the band’s drummer since their first studio recording in 1963, it is possible that they may take a more somber approach, reflecting on their legacy with a melancholic tone.
However, Hackney Diamonds is an incredibly diverse album, with moments of energy and tranquility, playfulness and pain, anger and spiritual harmony. The album features collaborations with notable artists such as Lady Gaga, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, and Elton John, and Jagger himself delivers a wildly entertaining performance. According to the album’s producer, Andrew Watt, it encompasses every era of the Stones, from the 60s and 70s to the dance music of the 80s, and even includes a stripped-down cover of a Muddy Waters song.
Jagger explains that the Muddy Waters cover, Rolling Stone Blues, which concludes the album, was not his original idea. His voice, with its light tone and fluctuating between Sloane Square and the Thames estuary where he grew up, may come across as somewhat critical, but he quickly realizes his words and clarifies, “I think it’s a brilliant idea! It just wasn’t mine. We’re often labeled as a bluesy rock band – and yes, we end with a Muddy Waters song. However, we are fully capable of branching out into other genres that you may not expect. I’m not trying to say we are underrated; I don’t believe we are. But I am proud that we can perform songs like Depending on You – a heartfelt ballad – as well as Bite My Head Off – a punk rock song featuring McCartney on fuzz-bass. There is a vast range between those two songs, and that is what I appreciate about this band: we are not afraid to try new things, and we excel at covering diverse genres.”
We’re sitting in a bohemian-posh house on the north bank of the Thames at Hammersmith, rented for a documentary being filmed about the band. Jagger’s been talking about himself all day, and rubs his eyes, which have a touch of milky cloud to them. But he is affable, engaging and open, even if I get the sense there are whole rooms of Jagger’s life that remain closed to the public.
Even though it has been 18 years since their last album, Jagger and Richards have continuously written songs. Watt reveals that they presented him with a large number of songs, around 60, 70, or 80. When asked if Jagger regrets not making an album sooner, he responds with a “kind of”. He admits that he wasn’t pushing for it and that Keith had said in interviews that he would only do an album when Mick was ready. Jagger reflects, “If that’s all I have to say, then great!”. He acknowledges that they were caught up in the cycle of going on big tours, but there’s no use dwelling on it now.
I was given the directive by the band to “listen to all of our material and choose what you like.” I followed their instructions and listened to a mix of demos and unfinished songs, as well as tracks featuring Charlie that needed to be reviewed. Watts had previously played on initial versions of Mess It Up and Live By the Sword, which were later completed after his passing. To fill his role, Steve Jordan was selected by Watts and now plays drums for the band on tour.
“It’s been a few years now, but Charlie still crosses my mind often,” Jagger reflects. The day before our meeting, he watched as their beloved England cricket team dominated against New Zealand. “I know Charlie would have enjoyed Ben Stokes’s incredible innings; I wish he could have witnessed that impressive 182. I miss his dry humor, his impeccable taste in music, and his effortless grace. He had a carefree attitude – he never took things too seriously. Keith and I, on the other hand, tend to get caught up in the intensity of things.” There was a period in the 1980s where the two would often bicker and trade jabs – Richards even gave Jagger the nicknames “Brenda” and “Her Majesty.” This tension resurfaced after Richards’ caustic memoir in 2010, which was not particularly kind to Jagger’s manhood, among other things. “But Charlie wouldn’t have bothered with any of that, and it has rubbed off on me – I’m not as intense as I used to be. When I’m performing, I can’t help but think about him and wonder what he would have played; if he would have enjoyed this song, because I always bounced ideas off of him. I would play him all the silly pop songs of the moment, and he would love it all.”
“As we age, unfortunately, we often experience the loss of our friends. Does this pain ever lessen?” “No, it doesn’t get easier. People around my age are constantly passing away. I don’t have many friends who are older than me, except for one. Most of my friends are younger, apart from my bandmates.” He jokingly suggests that this is a form of self-preservation, adding with a dark chuckle, “It’s just easier that way!” I wonder if the death of his bandmate, Watts, made him more aware of his own mortality. However, he responds, “You become aware of your own mortality at a young age, it’s not something that dawns on you in your 70s.” I mention that becoming a parent made me feel more aware of my own mortality. “I agree,” he says. “I became a father in my late 20s, so it’s not a new concept to me.”
The act of raising children has been a constant for this individual, as he is now on his eighth child. From Al Pacino to Robert De Niro, it appears that many rebellious male celebrities feel the need to have children even in their older age. Mick Jagger is no exception, as he welcomed his son Deveraux with his girlfriend Melanie Hamrick when he was 73 years old and she was 29 years old.
“He mentions that restarting fatherhood can feel a bit challenging at first, as it’s not as easy as riding a bike. As a parent to multiple children, you tend to become more relaxed and laid-back with each additional child. However, each child has their own unique personality, and while you can shape them to some extent, their likes and dislikes are apparent from an early age. It’s enjoyable to have children at any stage of life, but it can be more difficult to fully appreciate the experience if you are constantly working and away from home. When Deveraux was born, I had a lighter workload and was able to spend more time with him. The lockdown also provided an opportunity for me to bond with him, as I had fewer work commitments with the band.”
It is alluring and enjoyable to speculate on the origins of Jagger’s recent lyrics, specifically in the songs Angry and Bite My Head Off which are brimming with heated arguments that couples may have experienced during lockdown. Are these conflicts based on real-life experiences? It is possible. However, Jagger explains that he often transforms these personal moments into a more light-hearted and exaggerated form, making them amusing for the audience.
He flashes a bright, intense smile as if trying to distract me from my line of questioning, resembling his appearance in Jane Bown’s stunning 1977 photograph: with crinkled eyes and gleaming teeth.
Inspired by the Covid lockdown at his country house, Jagger’s Dreamy Skies reflects on the beauty of nature and the joy it brings. He also recalls the time between his youth and becoming a rock star in the upbeat song Whole Wide World, where he offers support to those facing hardships. Living in student digs at the time, Jagger was uncertain about his future and the struggles of being in a band with little financial stability. However, their luck changed quickly and they went from nothing to success in a short amount of time.
What are your thoughts on Jagger’s song “Depending on You,” where he sings about being rejected for someone else? According to him, it’s completely made up. However, as someone who never had overlapping sexual partners but rather a continuous stream of them, he has plenty of inspiration for stories about being scorned by lovers. He vaguely admits that he draws from personal experiences when writing, but also relies on his imagination. This song falls under the classic genre of “jilting” songs and is a common theme in pop music. It’s also a classic example of a “kiss-off” or “fuck-off” song, as well as a “you’re being dumped” song. Flash! Another flash of inspiration.
Additional songs were composed in Jamaica (where I knew Keith enjoyed being) before moving on to recording sessions in various cities with Watt as the producer. According to Watt, one of the greatest things about The Stones is their freestyle style, how they speed up and slow down together, creating an internal rhythm. Watt recorded them live, without the use of click tracks to keep them in time. Jagger would often wear a sweater, button-down shirt, and T-shirt while recording his vocal takes, as Watt recalls. During the first and second takes, Jagger would still be wearing the sweater, but by the end of the second take, he would have removed it. After two more takes, he would unbutton his button-down shirt, and eventually be left in just the T-shirt. Watt describes how Jagger’s stage persona would come to life when he was in that T-shirt and singing into the microphone, exuding pure energy. He would even shake and sweat while hitting certain notes.
Taking inspiration from Bob Dylan, Jagger intentionally avoided finesse in his vocals, as seen in the song “Depending on You” where he allows the word “you” to fall away in a dissonant manner. According to Watt, both Jagger and Keith felt that the vocals needed to have more of a Dylan-esque quality. Rather than traditional singing, Jagger’s style is more like speaking with great attention to detail in order to create a raw and imperfect sound. This uniqueness is admired, as most other singers would aim to perfect their vocals. In fact, Jagger was hands-on during the mixing process, displaying an unparalleled work ethic. He ensured that every element of the song, from the snare drum to the interplay between Keith and Ronnie, was clearly heard. This is a stark contrast to most singers who typically leave the technical aspects to the producer. Jagger’s dedication to the band and their representation is truly impressive.
According to Jagger, there are still numerous unreleased songs in the 80-odd cache, including some collaborations with Charlie that will potentially be released. Jagger hopes that Charlie enjoys the rest of the record and his presence can still be felt in the music.
Additionally, there are “social comment songs” stored in the vault. The issue with social commentary is that it becomes outdated very quickly, as stated by Jagger. This conversation took place before the Israel-Hamas conflict, but Jagger has been concerned about politics, specifically the divided views in the US and the lack of understanding and collaboration among people. He also acknowledges that this tension affects other countries, with the US having a significant influence on European opinions and cultural norms. Jagger expresses worry about a potential shift towards semi-autocratic governments, though he acknowledges that it may have happened regardless.
He praises Australia’s implementation of mandatory voting, as it helps to suppress extreme beliefs. He believes that compromise is not always necessary, but collaboration is essential. When extremists dominate politics, problems arise. He acknowledges the presence of extremism on both ends of the political spectrum.
Is this also a concern in the UK? “Not to the same extent, but America is concerning because if we have extreme government leaders, there will be too much conflict. Honestly, people often don’t fully comprehend what they’re saying. I apologize, but it’s the truth. They have very strong opinions.”
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However, Jagger is still pondering the question: “How long can one truly continue this? It’s like asking: how long can someone continue to play for England? The answer is usually not very long.” I inquire if he dwells on this thought. “I do think about it. But I am constantly writing. The key is to keep writing, and now all the members of the band can see that recording is quite simple. It only took three weeks in the studio. It’s not a difficult task. There used to be too much stress and worry surrounding recording. If a song doesn’t turn out well, it’s okay; there will always be another one. Just do it!”