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  • Jon Pareles

Start me up (Again)

The Rolling Stones open up about how their first album of new songs since 2005 recharges the partnership of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. By Jon Pareles. Photographs by Thea Traff.

From left: Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones. The band’s new “Hackney Diamonds” is out now.

In 2022, 17 years after the Rolling Stones released their most recent album of original songs, Mick Jagger decided the band had dithered and procrastinated long enough. Sessions had come and gone; unfinished songs were stacking up. Charlie Watts, the band’s lifelong drummer and rhythmic cornerstone, had died in 2021, but the band kept on touring without new material.


“No one was being the taskmaster,” Jagger recalls. “No one was saying, ‘This is the deadline.’ ” So the singer did just that. The result is “Hackney Diamonds”, a loud, cantankerous, unrepentant collection of new songs from a band that refuses to mellow with age.


For the new album, the sometimes fractious songwriting partnership of Jagger and Keith Richards found a way to realign. Near the end of the sessions, they even completed writing one song — “Driving Me Too Hard” — in a room together, as they had in their early years.


“We’re a weird pair, man,” Richards says via video from his manager’s New York City office, surrounded by Stones merch and memorabilia. His grey hair is tucked into a headband; framed cover art of the 1981 album “Tattoo You”, with Jagger’s striated face, hangs above him. “I love him dearly and he loves me dearly, and let’s leave it at that.”


“Hackney Diamonds” is both a new blast and a summing up. It digs into the Stones’ long-established style: sinewy guitar riffs, Jagger’s proudly intemperate vocals, bluesy underpinnings and ever-improvisatory guitar interplay.


“You know, it goes like this — but maybe it could go like that,” Richards says. “Without improvisation, it wouldn’t be anything in the first place. I mean, there are no rules to rock’n’roll. That’s the reason it’s there.”


In the band’s new songs, Jagger sings about frustration, longing, escape, endurance and transcendence. “Angry”, the album’s opener, moves between conciliation and exasperation. The punky “Bite My Head Off” — which has Paul McCartney playing a jabbing, distorted bass — barks back at someone’s attempts at control. And the wistful, countryish “Depending on You” bemoans a lost romance: “I was making love but you had different plans,” Jagger sings.


The songs are unapologetically hand-played and organic, not quantised onto a computer grid; they speed up and slow down with a human pulse. And the album honours the band’s elder-statesman status, drawing guest appearances from McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Lady Gaga and Elton John.


Jagger scoffs at the idea of the Rolling Stones as an institution. “It’s only a band,” he says.


But Ronnie Wood, the guitarist who joined in 1975, cherishes the band’s six decades of continuity. “That has been my thing all these years, to keep my institution going,” he says in a video interview from his apartment in Barcelona. “When Mick and Keith fell out, I’d do my best to get them together again — at least get them talking and start the engines roaring again.”


“Once the band gets together and that magic starts to happen, then who knows where it could go?” Wood says.

The album’s title comes from London slang. Hackney is a borough in East London that had long held a rough reputation, though it has lately gone more upscale. Wood explains that “Hackney diamonds” are bits of broken glass from car windscreens after break-ins leave them, in a word, shattered.


“A lot of the tracks on the album have that explosion,” Wood says. “This is a really in-your-face album.”


Making the new LP, the band regained “a sense of urgency”, Jagger says via video from Paris, with paintings of elegant French gentry on the wall behind him. Of course, the longtime members of the Rolling Stones — Jagger, 80, Richards, 79, and Wood, 76 — weren’t getting any younger.


“I said to Keith, ‘If we don’t have a deadline, we’re never going to finish this record,’” Jagger says. “So I said, ‘The deadline is Valentine’s Day 2023. And then we’re going to go out and tour it.’ That’s what we used to have to do. You know, you’ve got to finish ‘Exile on Main Street’ because you’ve got a tour booked.”


Even without new albums, the Stones kept touring in the 2010s and 2020s. The band had gone to studios occasionally to get started on songs, but never got around to finishing them. Meanwhile, Jagger and Richards had each amassed a backlog of new material in various stages, written separately but awaiting the band’s collaborative touches.


Jagger also realised, he says, that “We need to get someone involved who can crack the whip.”


That was Andrew Watt, who won a Grammy as producer of the year in 2021. Watt, 33, has made pop hits with Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber and revved up late-career albums by Ozzy Osbourne and Iggy Pop. Watt is also a guitarist and Rolling Stones fan who has studied every lick in the band’s catalogue.


As a producer, he was “results-oriented”, Watt says. “I was the newcomer. So I didn’t have the baggage that comes with a band that’s been together for over 60 years. There’s a lot of history between all of the people in the room, especially between Mick and Keith. So the only way I could think of how best to navigate those waters was moving quickly.”


After the years of inconclusive sessions and self-conscious second-guessing, the Stones made “Hackney Diamonds” in what Richards called “a blitzkrieg” — a matter of months instead of years.


Making the new LP, the band regained “a sense of urgency”, Jagger says.

“We worked fast, but that was the idea,” he says and adds, with a cackle, “I’m still recovering.”


The tight recording schedule pushed aside second thoughts, Jagger says. “We do like four or five takes. ‘OK’, and we move on,” he says. “So no one had time to really think, ‘Well, was this a good song? Should we be doing this song?’ Because I get introspective, you know. Is this song as good as the other one? Is this song like another one I’ve done? You can figure that out later. Let’s keep moving.”


At the recording sessions, Watt was an enthusiast as well as a critical listener. The album was made in Paris, New York City, the Bahamas, London and, primarily, Los Angeles, a convenient magnet for the album’s guest stars. Every day in the studio, Watt wore tour T-shirts from shows by the Stones and its spinoff bands like Richards’ X-Pensive Winos and Wood’s New Barbarians. He also sourced vintage equipment. A clear Plexiglas Dan Armstrong guitar, like the one Richards had played on “Midnight Rambler”, delivers the caustic riff of “Whole Wide World”, as Jagger sings about pushing past bad options, declaring, “You think the party’s over/when it’s only just begun.”


For the band members, the most crucial part of the Rolling Stones sound is what Richards calls “weaving” — the ever-changing, spur-of-the-moment interplay between the instruments, particularly the guitars. The band recorded the core of most of the songs together in the studio, playing off one another as they would onstage. For nearly every track, Watt placed Richards’ guitars on the left and Wood’s on the right — the opposite of what a concertgoer would see, but the way the band would hear itself onstage. “I wanted it to sound huge,” he says. “Because they are larger than life. They’re the [expletive] Stones.


When you listen to this album you should picture the Stones playing in a stadium, because that’s what they are.”


Wood, who shares the tangle of guitar lines with Richards and Jagger, says, “Once the band gets together and that magic starts to happen, then who knows where it could go?”


A tour was put off, delayed by the lag in pressing vinyl and by stadiums already booked for Beyoncé and Taylor Swift tours. But the album got done; it was indeed recorded, though not fully mixed, by February 14.


Jagger says, “I think we got along on this record really well. Of course we have disagreements about how things should be, but I think that’s pretty normal. I sometimes feel that Keith thinks I like everything too fast. But I know how fast they should be, because I’m completely a groove person.”


So is Richards. “Rhythm is the most important thing in your goddamn life,” Richards says. “A lot of what you hear ain’t what you hear — it’s what you feel. And that’s a matter of rhythm.”


Richards calls the late drummer Charlie Watts “one of the warmest guys I ever, ever met”.

The Stones groove got its foundation from Watts, who died at 80. “There would have been a Rolling Stones without Charlie Watts, but without Charlie Watts there wouldn’t have been the Rolling Stones,” Richards says. “He was one of the warmest guys I ever, ever met, just so tolerant of other people. He would actually stop me from murdering people. When I just thought his name, I started to weep. Thanks for bringing me to tears.”


Watts’ final full album with the band was “Blue & Lonesome”, a set of blues covers, in 2016. But Watts’ drumming, from sessions with the Stones’ previous producer Don Was, drives two songs on “Hackney Diamonds”. One of them, “Live by the Sword”, also includes the Stones’ retired original bassist, Bill Wyman, and some two-fisted honky-tonk piano from Elton John.


When Watts grew too frail to perform, the Rolling Stones continued touring with a new drummer: Steve Jordan, whom Watts had recommended to Richards in the 1980s when Richards started the X-Pensive Winos.


“Charlie was like a fireworks display, and Steve is like a train,” Wood says. “With the passing of Charlie and the baton handed over to Steve Jordan from Charlie, that was a very special moment. We were rehearsing in Boston when Charlie actually passed away. We were rehearsing when we heard the news, and we had one day off. And we thought, Charlie didn’t want us to sit around and mope and everything. We went straight back to the grindstone and carried on — kept the flame going.”


For the Rolling Stones, “Hackney Diamonds” is the beginning of the band’s next phase. “With Charlie leaving us, I think we needed to make a new mark with Steve,” Richards says. “To reset the band was important.”


Jagger says, “I don’t think it’s the last Rolling Stones album. We’ve got almost three-quarters through the next one.”


But the final group of songs on “Hackney Diamonds” hints at an alternate story. Richards sings lead on “Tell Me Straight”, a weary-voiced, introspective ballad that contemplates endings. “I need an answer/How long can this last?” he sings. “Don’t make me wait/Is my future all in my past?”


It’s followed by “Sweet Sounds of Heaven”, a gospel-charged song about music as salvation, stoked by Stevie Wonder on keyboards. “Let us sing, let us shout/Let us all stand up proud/Let the old still believe that they’re young,” Jagger and an exuberant Lady Gaga sing, pushing each other to one peak and then, after a pause, restarting the groove as a studio jam that reaches even higher — an ecstatic climax to the album.


But then there’s an epilogue: a Jagger-Richards duet on the Muddy Waters blues that gave the band its name: “Rolling Stone Blues”. It’s just Jagger’s voice and harmonica and Richards’ guitar, unadorned in real time, circling back to the love of the blues that brought them together as teenagers. It could be a career postscript or a reaffirmation.

“There were six takes total,” Watt says. “The one that made the record is take four. And as they went through each take, they moved closer and closer together. Closer and closer.” 


© The New York Times


This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our tenth edition, Page 32 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Start Me Up (Again)”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  

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