By Eleni P. Austin
I don’t know about you, but for me, there’s no Rock & Roll sound more thrilling than Keith Richards’ slashing rhythm guitar riffs ripping through a Rolling Stones song. I first heard their breakthrough hit, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in the playpen (I was two), and I’ve been hooked ever since. The venerable British Invasion band has just returned with their 26th long-player, Hackney Diamonds. The staccato salvo that announces the first song elicits that same frisson of electricity. Simply put, it makes my blood sing.
The seeds of The Rolling Stones were planted back in 1960, when former childhood chums, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards bumped into each other at a Dartford Railway station. Keith was already thoroughly obsessed with the primitive sounds of American Rock & Roll and Rhythm & Blues. The guitarist had made it his mission to learn all of Chuck Berry’s incendiary guitar licks. During their chance encounter, Keith noticed Mick was carrying a stack of American Blues records under his arm. It turned out that not only did the teens share an affinity for Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but each were beginning to explore obscure Blues artists like Elmore James and Big Bill Broonzy.
Mick had already begun singing in groups. The next logical step was to form a band with Keith. The Blue Boys briefly included Dick Taylor (who later found fame in The Pretty Things). By 1962, they discovered guitarist Brian Jones. The 20-year-old was sitting in with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. Something of a musical savant, he could pick up any instrument and master it instantly.
Following a brief apprenticeship with Alexis Korner, Mick, Keith and Brian struck out on their own. They quickly enlisted bassist Bill Wyman, along with Ian Stewart on keys. They rather cheekily poached drummer Charlie Watts from Blues Incorporated, and their line-up was complete. Ditching the Blues Boys moniker, they became The Rolling Stones, paying homage to their favorite Muddy Waters song.
Their ambitious manager, Andrew Loog Oldham insisted that Ian Stewart looked too old to be in the band. Relegated to roadie in the early years, he remained the unofficial sixth member, adding keys to their records until he died in 1985.
A year later, they were gigging regularly throughout England, building up a loyal following. Their earliest sets consisted solely of their favorite American Rock and R&B covers. Their manager encouraged the press to manufacture a rivalry between The Stones and Britain’s newest sensations, The Beatles. The scruffy, spotty, slightly feral five-piece were perceived as more dangerous than the relatively clean-cut Fab Four. An outlaw/outlier mystique shrouded The Stones which was ironic, considering their staid, middle-class backgrounds.
They inked a deal with Decca Records, and their debut arrived in early 1964, just as Beatlemania was hitting America. Even though John Lennon and Paul McCartney were already penning Beatles hits, The Stones didn’t begin to churn out original songs until Andrew Loog Oldham rather famously locked Mick and Keith in a room until they wrote their first song. When the pair emerged from their enforced isolation, they had written “As Tears Go By.”
Not long after, Keith came up with a riff in his sleep and immediately captured it on a primitive tape recorder. An insistent cluster of fuzzy chords was the impetus for “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” Creating what is probably the most recognizable riff in music history. The band spent the remainder of the ‘60s vying with The Beatles for world domination.
Dubbed The World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band, there was zero hyperbole behind that boast. The Stones served up a potent combo-platter of Brian’s adroit musicianship, Mick’s snarling androgyny, Keith’s insanely infectious rhythm riffs, as Bill and Charlie effortlessly anchored the low end.
In 1969, Brian was ousted from the band (he died a few months later under mysterious circumstances). Former Bluesbreaker Mick Taylor assumed lead guitar duties, beginning with their 10th album, Let It Bleed. Throughout the ‘70s, he played on watershed efforts like Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street, but by 1976, he was burned out from The Stones sybaritic excess. Ex-Faces/Small Faces guitar-slinger Ron Wood took his place. Even as the lads approached 40, they managed to dominate the charts in 1978 with their juggernaut Some Girls album.
The ‘80s were pretty hit and miss for the band, although the decade is bookended by two of my favorite albums, Tattoo You and Steel Wheels. At the dawn of the ‘90s, Bill Wyman opted to retire and The Stones soldiered on as a four-piece. They released a pair of by-the-numbers efforts, Voodoo Lounge and Bridges To Babylon. Meanwhile, frequent hits compilations and live albums glutted the market. Although they celebrated their 40th anniversary in 2002, new music didn’t appear until 2005’s Bigger Bang. Even as the band continued to tour, another album didn’t materialize until 2016. Blue & Lonesome paid homage to their roots by covering seminal songs from American Blues progenitors like Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Magic Sam, Buddy Johnson and Jimmy Reed.
Not many bands could wait 18 years between albums and retain an enthusiastic audience, but The Rolling Stones are no ordinary band. Recording started and stalled over the years, between Keith learning to recalibrate his playing due to painful arthritis, Mick’s reported lack of enthusiasm. Everything ground to a halt for a couple of years during the pandemic. Sadly, in the midst of that crisis, Charlie Watts’ quietly succumbed to cancer in August 2021. Before he died, he played on two new tracks. Once he was gone, his death proved the impetus for completing the new record.
The album is front-loaded with a trenchant trifecta of tracks. The record crackles to life as Keith’s signature rapid-fire riff-age collides with angular bass lines, sinewy lead guitar and a rock steady beat. Mick’s feral growl walks the line between pique and apathy, as he conducts a romantic post-mortem: “It hasn’t rained in a month, the river’s run dry, we haven’t made love and I wanna know why, why you angry with me, why you angry?” By the sweet-and-sour chorus it’s all in the rearview: “Please just forget about me, cancel out my name, please never write to me, I love you just the same, I hear a melody ringing in my brain, just keep the memories, don’t have to be ashamed.” Ron’s splayed solo is by turns spiky, soulful and stinging, underscoring the lyrical resolve.
A loose-limbed Boogaloo beat anchors the rakishly appealing “Get Close.” Over hopscotching rhythm riffs, shimmery Wurlitzer, shaker percussion, tensile bass and majestic piano, Mick turns on the charm, angling for a little, um, emotional rescue: “I walk this way for a million miles with a blindfold on my eyes, it’s a nighttime business, with an angel in disguise, I bargained with the devil, I need heaven for one night, I can’t stand this chaos, it’s churning in my mind, I wanna get close to you, I wanna get close to you, I wanna get lost in you.” On the break, the urgency is underscored by wailing sax and a punchy trumpet solo, as staticky guitar licks dart through the mix.
The action slows on the bottleneck Blues of “Depending On You.” Shang-a-lang chords are matched by cascading piano runs, woozy Hammond B3, slivery bass and a propulsive beat. Mick’s mien is rueful as he navigates the rocky shoals of another broken romance: “It’s time to harden my shell, the toughest part is I know you too well, embroidering the truth with things you never felt, you steal the spirit out of a man, now you’re working on him and you don’t give a damn.” Ron’s searing solo is augmented by a swelling string fanfare as Mick acknowledges “Now I’m too young for dying and too old to lose, cause I was depending on you.”
Charlie Watts added his elegant time-keeping to two tracks, “Mess It Up” and “Live By The Sword.” The former weds springy, elastic guitars to limber bass lines and a lithe backbeat. Mick is a study in indignance as he confronts a duplicitous ex: “You stole my numbers, you stole my codes, you took my keys and then you nicked my phone, seduced my landlord, broke in my home, don’t get excited, why don’t ya leave me alone?” On the break, lead and rhythm guitars converge, equal parts waspish and sleek.
The latter is a bit of a panther-walk blending brutish guitars, strutting bass, courtesy Bill Wyman, rollicking piano, propulsive handclaps and a chunky backbeat. Mick is merciless as he dispenses some wise-ass wisdom: “If you live like a whore better be hardcore, if you live by the clock, you’re in for a shock, if you’re living for food, better lick up your plate, if you wanna be in fashion, well, you’ll be out of date.” See-saw guitars and twinkling piano notes wrap around the bridge. Despite Mick’s sneering demeanor, there’s a measure of poignance to this song, thanks to Charlie and Bill’s tandem timekeeping.
Drop the needle on any track here and you’re instantly transported to a classic Stones era. Both “Bite My Head Off” and “Whole Wide World” could sandwich nicely between “The Whip Comes Down” and “Shattered” from the Some Girls album. On the fractious and Punk-tastic “Bite…” rawboned bass and fuzz-crusted guitars collide with a walloping beat, Mick sounds suitably sullen as he demands answers: “Why you bite my head off? Why you bite my off? Why you bite my head off? Why you get so pissed off? Why you bite my head off now? Yeah, why you bite my head off? Actin’ like a jerk-off, why you have to mouth off? I got the world to worry about.” On the break, guitars duckwalk through the arrangement, a surreptitious homage to a dearly departed brown-eyed handsome man.
Meanwhile, on “Whole…” Mick is a bit of a Cockney rebel, wrapping his East End leer around wah-wah rhythm riffs, jittery bass lines hard-charging lead guitar and a leapfrogging beat. Lyrics revisit a bit of the band’s hardscrabble beginnings: “The streets I used to walk on are full of broken glass, and everywhere I’m looking there’s memories of my past, the filthy flat in Fulham, the smell of sex and gas, I never ever really knew where I was sleeping next.” Happily, the sugary chorus offers something of a silver lining: “When the whole wide world’s against you, and you’re standing in the rain, when your friends have all let you down and treat you with disdain, and you think the party’s over, but it’s only just begun, let’s raise a glass, get up and dance, cause life’s just hit and, hit and run.”
“Driving Me Too Hard,” wouldn’t seem out of place on Tattoo You, a mid-tempo groover anchored by a stuttery beat. flinty bass, shimmery keys and gunslinger guitars. Mick attempts to decide who’s the boss: “You’re driving me to ground, I don’t know why I stick around, I guess that you’ve become a part of me, well, that will have to do for now.”
Finally, the Honky-Tonk shuffle of “Dreamy Skies” echoes the good ol’ Country comfort of Beggar’s Banquet and Let It Be. Drowsy bottleneck guitar, thready bass, feathery Fender Rhodes and stately piano brush up against a high-hat kick. Looking for a little respite, Mick puts the big city in the rearview, with only an old AM radio that plays “Hank Williams and some bad Honky-Tonk” for company. “And I won’t hear the sirens or the maddening crowd, just the bark of a Fox and the hoot of an Owl, I ain’t got no connections or a satellite phone, I’m avoiding the pictures and the people back home, and I just got to break free from it all.” Rangy harmonica and bottleneck guitar intertwine in a delicate pas de deux on the break. Throughout the years, Mick has ceded the spotlight to Keith on songs like the infectious “Happy,” the ramshackle “All Down The Line,” the outlaw saga of “Before They Make Me Run” and the shivery ache of “Slipping Away.” Here, Keith turns in the album’s most nuanced vocal on the rueful “Tell Me Straight.” Spare and economical, the arrangement is awash in flickering guitars, downcast piano and thrumming bass, bookended by a cantilevered beat. As this reprobate looks at 80, he’s still looking for answers: “Is the future all in the past, just tell me straight, play me a song, life’s moving too fast, just tell me straight, tell me straight.”
The final two numbers end things with a bang. The penultimate track, “Sweet Sounds Of Heaven” is the record’s magnum opus. A Bluesy, Gospel-inflected Soul-shouter, that includes churchy keys from Stevie Wonder, it finds Mick trading verses with Pop superstar Lady Gaga. Clocking in at a little over seven minutes, the arrangement starts slowly, blending sparkly Hammond B3, meandering guitars, brass accents and a tick-tock beat. It builds to a stirring crescendo before the instrumentation powers down as Mick & Gaga lock into some playful call-and-response.
The record closes with a call-back to the band’s earliest beginnings with a stinging and scabrous take of Muddy Waters’ “Rolling Stone Blues.” Their bare-bones rendition is lean and unfussy, quietly paying tribute to their earliest influence with the song that inspired their name. It’s a full-circle moment.
Along with Gaga and Stevie, special guests included Paul McCartney and Elton John, as well as Tom Petty Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, drummer Steve Jordan, Matt Clifford on keys and string arrangements courtesy David Campbell. The album was produced by Andrew Watt.
Sixty years after it all started, these rough and ready ruffians have courted controversy, flouted laws and convention and generally done exactly what they pleased. Like it or not, they’re now the elder statesmen of Rock & Roll, outlasting heroes and several contemporaries. Hard and perfect, incendiary and iridescent, Hackney Diamonds is The Rolling Stones most cohesive effort in decades. If it’s their last hurrah, they’re going out in style.