MY Instagram feed was recently interrupted by an ad for a band that (I’m paraphrasing here) sounds as good as, or even better than the Rolling Stones and the Faces in their golden days. I heard the riffs for 20 or so seconds and thought, yes, they do sound pretty mean and funky. But then I forgot to check the name of the band, so I can’t tell you who they are. I googled, but that didn’t get me anywhere. So we’ll probably never know the identity of these contenders to the crown of the most raunchy rock ’n’ roll band.
But it did feel like a reminder that the Rolling Stones still matter. And indeed, a few days later we were treated to a new album by the band Mick Jagger and Keith Richards started 61 years ago in sleepy London town. As you all will probably know by now, it’s called Hackney Diamonds, which apparently is slang for the pieces of glass left behind after burglars smash a window.
Hackney Diamonds is the Stones' 24th British and 26th American studio album (the difference is because the first five British Rolling Stones albums were converted into seven albums for the US market, adding material from singles and the UK EPs). It is the band's first record in 18 years with original material, which may be the reason it was presented with much aplomb, including video clips, interviews and a single, Angry, which sounded shouty and monolithic to these ears and didn’t bode well for the rest of the album.
To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to this album. If I had still lived in Rotterdam, I would not have joined the groups of middle-aged men who went to the record store at midnight to be the first to own a vinyl copy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Rolling Stones fan; they are one of my three desert island bands. But, like many people in my age bracket, I prefer the 1969-1974 era when they had Mick Taylor as their lead guitarist with Richards laying down the rhythm parts. Charlie Watts was brilliant, the most economical drummer any rock band could wish for. He had a jazzy feel, a swing, slightly behind the beat, he loathed showing off, hence you won’t get a single roll on the live version of Jumpin' Jack Flash. Bill Wyman was an excellent, melodic bass player who was serving the band and not his ego. And then there was Jagger. His voice was and is instantly recognisable, cheekily mixing Cockney cool with a fake American inflection that somehow manages not to sound annoying. Mick was basically a singing actor. He could sound like the sweetest boy on earth on songs such as Lady Jane and Angie. But the next minute he would be the cynic singing Paint It, Black and Street Fighting Man. He had no trouble playing a serial killer in Midnight Rambler or a horny predator of underage girls in Stray Cat Blues, with the dodgy line: “I can see that you’re 15 years old, no, I don’t want your ID."
It was the chemistry of those five musicians that made the Rolling Stones a truly dangerous rock band, ahead of an impressive pack that included Led Zeppelin, The Who and the Allman Brothers Band. And then, around the time of 1986's Dirty Work, they lost their mojo. Jagger and Richards had a nasty falling-out, with Keith referring to Mick as “Brenda" and “Her Majesty". What followed was a series of studio albums that fans would welcome then quickly forget, Steel Wheels, Voodoo Lounge, Bridges to Babylon, A Bigger Bang.
Back to Hackney Diamonds. The album cover, the first single Angry and its accompanying video didn’t bode well. But fortunately, the end result is such that there is no need for me to slag off the group that has given me such pleasure and that has been labelled the “greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world" (check out the introduction on the Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out live album from 1970). Actually, it’s surprisingly good. In fact, it’s probably the best work they’ve produced since Tattoo You, which came out 42 years ago.
But then, “good" is the least you should expect from guys who’ve been around for over six decades. Their last couple of albums were exactly that: good, nothing more. But Hackney Diamonds really rocks, and that's surprising since the three core members, Jagger, Richards and Ronnie Wood, are respectively 80, 79 and 75 years old, with Jagger having fathered eight children, the last one when he was a 73-year old spring chicken. Imagine your oupa rocking like this, gyrating, riffing and getting away with a line like, “You think I'm your bitch/ I’m fuckin’ with your brain, yeah?" Does that sound like a granddad? Exactly. So we can forgive them for doing a Stones-by-numbers thing on some songs. After all, this is the sound they invented, starting with the fantastic singles Jumpin' Jack Flash and Honky Tonk Woman.
The production, courtesy of Andrew Watt, known for his work with Ozzy Osbourne, Pearl Jam, Iggy Pop and Justin Bieber, is lean and modern. It gives us a full yet clear sound so we can hear the mesmerising instinctive interplay between Keith and Ronnie, who trade riffs as if they are identical twins. Any signs of experimentation, electronic beats, auto-tune vocals? Some Brian Eno-esque soundscapes perhaps? No. But then, we don’t want that from Keith, Mick and Ronnie. They are first and foremost a rock ’n’ roll band, dabbling in blues, soul, funk, country, reggae and disco but always returning to that unmistakable Stones sound they nailed in 1968. And would we enjoy it if they veered off the path? They tried it once, with the Sgt Pepper-inspired album Their Satanic Majesties Request, which came out in the year of the summer of love, 1967. It was kind of interesting but it didn’t work. Nope, we want them to live on, rock on, show us that we, too, can be forever young, funky grandparents, and that, hey hey, my my, rock ’n’ roll will never die.
That said, I do have a gripe with Hackney Diamonds. It is that unlike the albums they made in their heyday, say between Beggar’s Banquet (1969) and Tattoo You (1981), it doesn’t have a truly unforgettable track. Even if we leave out obvious classics such as Gimme Shelter, Brown Sugar, Tumbling Dice, Angie, Miss You and Start Me Up, every album they recorded in their golden era offered one or two unusual masterpieces. Think of Jigsaw Puzzle (Beggar’s Banquet), Midnight Rambler (Let It Bleed), Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (Sticky Fingers), Time Waits for No One (It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll), Let It Loose (Exile On Main Street), Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker), Memory Motel (Black and Blue) and the touching country and western pastiche Faraway Eyes (Some Girls).
This new album rocks and shakes and swings, and the relative newcomers Darryl Jones, who replaced Wyman, and Steve Jordan, who had the impossible task of filling the shoes of the deceased Watts, provide a perfect foundation for the stop-start guitar interplay of Keith and Ronnie. The band sounds truly energetic and unexpectedly fresh, but there’s nothing that really stands out. If I had to rate the songs, most of them would get a seven, except for Angry, which I still think is a dud. The forgettable mid-tempo rocker Driving Me Too Hard also doesn’t really stick. Some of the other songs are saved from mediocrity by little touches, such as James King’s saxophone on Get Close, Paul McCartney’s fuzz bass on the otherwise dumb Bite My Head Off, Elton John’s piano boogie on Live By The Sword, and Jagger’s harmonica on Rolling Stone Blues, a tribute to the man who gave the band their name, Muddy Waters.
Way above average is the fine acoustic ballad Dreamy Skies. And there’s Mess It Up, which starts as a rocker then gets into an unexpected dance groove. My favourite upbeat track is the gorgeously grooving Whole Wide World, which has Jagger reminiscing about his London days while giving us, for once, an uplifting message: “When the whole wide world's against you/ And you’re standing in the rain/ When all your friends have let you down/ And treat you with disdain/ When the whole wide world’s against you/ And that's got you on the run/ And you think the party is over/ But it’s only just, only just begun." And then there’s what momentarily seems to be the highlight of the album, the gospel influenced Sweet Sounds of Heaven, where Jagger receives impressive help from Lady Gaga and Stevie Wonder.
For the nerdy fan and the sleuth there are many moments of joy. In Angry, you can hear some of Jagger’s screechy mannerisms that first surfaced in Fingerprint File. You hear the falsetto he employed on Fool To Cry making a return in Mess It Up. The intro of Driving Me Too Hard is a direct reference to Tumbling Dice. The acoustic ballad Depending On You has echoes of No Expectations, while Bite My Head Off has guitar bits that are reminiscent of Star Star.
And now, three days later, I’ve listened to several past Stones album for comparison. I’ve also read the scathing review on the Pitchfork site (4.5 out of 10). And I’ve played Hackney Diamonds at least seven times. I am enjoying it more with each new listen, although, holding it against previous records, the production has started to bother me a bit — it’s just a tad too polished. And at some stage you do get tired of Jagger’s shouting and wanting to sound young, and you long for him to do a bit more singing. Thank god, we have some reprieve when Keith has a go at the vocals on Tell Me Straight.
Meanwhile, my favourite song is no longer Sweet Sounds of Heaven but the country and blues-infused Dreamy Skies, with Ronnie playing a lean slide guitar and Jagger singing (not shouting) weary words about needing “a break from it all". He goes: “And I got to break away from it all/ To thе city and the suburbs and sprawl/ And the small town chatter and thе know-it-alls/ To a place where no one can call/ And I won't hear the sirens or the maddening crowd/ Just the bark of a fox and the hoot of an owl/ Ain't got no connections or a satellite phone/ I'm avoiding the pictures and the people back home." And I’m sure many of us can agree with these words that come from the most vital octogenarian in rock.
♦ VWB ♦
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