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Music Review: God save the Rolling Stones

Ronnie Wood, Sir Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at the Rolling Stones Hackney Diamonds launch event at the Hackney Empire in London. Photos by Ian West/PA

by F Oliva

Critics have delved deep to explain the nature of the Rolling Stones phenomenon, the elements that helped forge a legend that straddles two centuries of musical insurgence: the electrifying, daring excitement of their early days, when they were hated by parents but adored by their kids, especially daughters; the substantial, extraordinary body of work between 1964 and 1974 that laid down the template of rock ‘n’ roll for the next fifty years. The Rolling Stones were the renegade heroes of the early ‘60s, when the artificially created north-south fissure between the clean-cut ‘Liverpool beat’ explosion and the even cleaner cut ‘Tottenham sound’, (Dave Clark 5 etc) amounted to not much more than a British music press deception to sell more papers, a gimmick endlessly recycled ever since.

The Stones were the only fracture on the horizon at that point, Jagger incarnated an incipient middle class iteration of Johnny Rotten – a dissident construct whose origins can be traced to the English Civil War – leading a band that personified all that is “bad, dirty, angry, and sexy” about the genre (1), driven beyond stardom by attitude that was subversive and inspiring, an edgy validation of teenage angst, also by the prodigious song-writing talent of the Jagger-Richard firm, that gained them warranted entry into the pantheon of (pre-Olympian?) Rock Gods, a mythological status earned in life.

Both (Jagger and Rotten) were considered a harmful influence, a menace to public morality and decency. Before punk, the Stones early riotous UK tours were a full dress rehearsal anticipating the chaos that was to come later.

Interestingly, in the irrepressible assault on the barren soil of mainstream popular culture, the hardcore nihilism of the Sex Pistols instigated, if not cynically manufactured, by pop Svengali Malcolm McLaren – smitten by crazed Situationist politics – and the Stones rebellion expressed in the dissolute, hedonistic lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll lore, thankfully more Shelley than Angry Brigade or RAF, formed a productive synthesis, fertile ground of expression that enriched the genre, ‘bad seeds’ that would yield a matching vintage. It was dangerous. It was cool. It was always about artistic freedom.

In 2016 ‘Blue and Lonesome’, an LP of old traditional Blues renditions settled a debt of gratitude to their own roots, to Howling Wolf, Otis Hicks, and Buddy Johnson, a fitting epilogue to a glorious career.

It was easy to write them off after that, coming full circle from their 1962 debut single: a cover version of Chuck Berry’s – great among greats – ‘Come On’. By then there was more danger in crossing a street than in the Rolling Stones. Time does not wait, not even on a friend. It is not on our side.

Extraordinarily, in 2023 with the inestimable collaboration of producer Andrew Watt, young enough to be their grandson but a musical alchemist of the stature, possibly, of Rick Rubin, the octogenarian Glimmer Twins alongside ‘The Third Man’, trusted septuagenarian confidante Ronnie Wood – the glue that has held the band together through its most tempestuous moments – have managed to produce one more, hopefully not the last, great album after years of languishing in a wilderness of creative lethargy.

‘Hackney Diamonds’ is a startling record with peaks of excellence that exceed everything they have produced in the past 30 years. However the Stones canon is monstrously superlative, it exudes disarming appeal with hits that were not just massive musically but depicted, dissected, the social and political zeitgeist like few artists could.

That was a different category: Their Satanic Majesties defined an era. Nevertheless this new album amounts to a musical resurrection of the highest order for a trio of mollycoddled icons, who have spent the last four decades in the doldrums, filling up stadiums and cashing in the corporate dividends of a succession of sold-out megatours, yet unable to replicate anything comparable to the material that cemented their status as archetypical rock stars in the 60s and 70s.

It carries the heavy weight of memory, distant tragedy and recent loss; the eerie parenthesis of the Covid pandemic. Yet Watt has managed to integrate these elements in a resetting of the band’s approach, rejuvenating the sound, sharpening the instinct, digging into dormant raw power to infuse them with the creative sweep of their youth. All the recognisable Stones traits are back, the charisma, the defiance, the swagger, implausibly refreshed, reenergized beyond anybody’s reasonable expectations.

By their otherworldly standards, the noticeable decline of ‘Black and Blue’ (1976), heralded the longest plateau in rock history; a lean period where only the excellent ‘Some Girls’ (1978) with its disco smash ‘Miss You’ provided a reprieve.

This compendium offers glimpses of everything that made them arguably the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world; attestation that they still have it. But the Stones were always about Saturday night (alright for fighting) excess, an underlying sense of enjoyment even at their most sardonic.

In that sense it is not a record that aspires to the transcendence of Bowie’s ‘Black Star’ which stands as a dark testament, the obituary of a gigantic artist who turned his own death into an apocalyptic statement. (By the way, Reggie – never my cup of tea, but credit to his work with The Who and Marc Bolan – gets behind the piano stool on ‘Get Close’ and ‘Live by the Sword’.)

Track by track

Opening track ‘Angry’ revolves around a trademark Richard rock ‘n’ roll riff, of the type that keep falling off his fingers with natural ease. The boys are just warming up. This is straightforward well-trodden Stones territory, a steady beat embroidered with the familiar Richard-Wood guitar interplay; catchy chorus and Jagger sounding as if he had just stepped out of the ‘Some Girls’ studio sessions, rounded off with a great, uncomplicated six string solo.

Perhaps too ordered and polished for my liking but an entertaining single nonetheless.

Get Close is an earth shaking, emotionally laden infectious song, one of the strongest in the album. Another glorious open G tuning signature Keef-Riff on a par with that from the memorable – though disconcerting – jazz/Fripp-infused ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ from the classic ‘Sticky Fingers’ (1971), harmonised with a gamut of stylish guitar flourishes from the man who has made a parallel career out of cheating the Grim Reaper – and long may he continue. Jagger sings , “I can’t stand this chaos , it’s churning up my mind,” to accentuate the rage in his voice.

‘Depending on You’ revisits the band’s enduring infatuation with barrelhouse country music, evocative of pinnacle moments in their back catalogue. Slide guitar and harp glide melodiously adding warm embellishments to Jagger’s fine vocals, great chorus and soothing fusion of world weary reflections spiced up by balmy, subtle guitar touches.

The Jagger-Richard-Wood interaction has an enduring mark of real identity, far more meaningful than the snake oil tidings that (t)roll off politicians tongues, enriched by great organ work from Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fame, no less. There is regret, the passing of time “too young for dying and too old to lose,” the pain of failed relationships. Life, no more and no less, and who best to chronicle it, than the fallen angels of rock ‘n’ roll.

Recurring themes, leit motifs surfacing across the album. ‘Driving Me Too Hard,’ & ‘Dreamy Skies’ are terrific variations of the same theme.

The Stones go ape with the explosive concoction of ‘Bite My Head Off’ that sets off at a searing pace with ‘a little help from my friends’ guest appearance by none other than Sir Paul McCartney, delivering the added bonus of a blistering distorted bass solo. Jagger sounding more than ever like David Johanssen – they were always in my view two sides of the same coin: a nod to the NY Dolls and to the Sex Pistols’ ‘Liar’, with massed guitars reminiscent of Steve Jones’ sound, borrowed from Thunders the trailblazer of punk rock.

Using expletives like an exhilarating outtake of ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’, this is a proper ass-kicking decibel overload. A primal, high octane number.

‘Whole Wide World’ is an animated, up-tempo song, a driving pop hit with muscular drumming.

It works as an anthem to a London sadly lost in the mists of time, dripping in nostalgia for “the filthy flat in Fulham, the smell of sex and gas”; to their youthful struggles and disappointments as an up-and-coming band, the drug busts and the fifteen minutes spent “behind the bars of prison.”
Mick’s Kray twin fantasies more like, since even The Times, the stalwart of a conservative establishment published an influential editorial in their favour. They had star quality from the outset. No one can escape their past, not even Jagger, it seems. Literary licence.

‘Live By the Sword’ is perhaps an obvious filler track, an unremarkable pastiche of Stones bluster without focus, like a reel throwing up snatches of lesser moments of their discography, which not even a resplendent chorus of Cheap Trick proportions, can rescue from oblivion.

Wholly expendable. The stand out feature is the presence of drummer Charlie Watt recorded before his sad passing, and of the only other surviving Stone, Bill Wyman on bass. Pretty much the same can be said about ‘Mess it Up.’

Keith takes up vocal duties in the excellent, introspective ‘Tell Me Straight’, where he reprises some of the stylistic textures of his noteworthy solo effort ‘Talk is Cheap’ of 1988, with the band on the verge of break-up. It is a poignant, subdued moment in the album, intuitive guitars breezing effortlessly through a relaxed groove, controlled tension as he explores issues of life, their amazing longevity and his own mortality leaning ever heavier on his shoulders, “I need an answer, how long can this last…Is my future all in the past?”

Keef’s wonderful playing, the unhurried, instantly recognisable syncopated imprint adds authority to the track.

The gospel number ‘Sweet Sounds of Heaven’ features an impressive guest appearance from Lady Gaga in an epic, soul-wrenching vocal duet-duel with Jagger, who sounds as if he has just taken a dip in the fountain of eternal youth, underpinned by a superb bluesy accompaniment that adds a human attribute to an otherwise mesmerizing spiritual powerhouse of a song: moving showpiece laden with Christian religious imagery.

Stevie Wonder guests on piano. An obvious choice for second single.

‘Rolling Stones Blues’ is an inspired tribute to Chicago Blues titan Muddy Waters, year zero in their history, the man responsible for bringing Jagger and Richard together in a shared ideal.

Waters, a contemporary of the larger than life figures of Son House and Robert Johnson, is the stem from which his disciples cross-fertilized into the world. Swampy, thick, atavistic deep south, rousing stuff. Harp stabs and guitar, Jagger and Richard, the bare essentials for a magical conclusion. Hairs stand on end. It doesn’t come more real than this.

I cannot think of a better Christmas present. And yes, it is possible to love the Beatles and the Stones in equal measure, and not to fall for manufactured rivalries, just as it is to adore Camaron de la Isla, Paralisis Permanente, PiL and Magazine as much.

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