- 26 Jul 23
As Mick Jagger celebrates his 80th birthday, we're revisiting a classic interview...
Originally published in 1994...
There's no argument. The Rolling Stones new record Voodoo Lounge finds the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world of yore back in fighting trim, stomping out that distinctive blend of musical mayhem we know and love in positively swaggering style, and good enough, some would say, to see off any contenders to their coveted throne.
At the centre of this triumphant return to form is one Michael Philip Jagger, who sounds lean, mean, hungry and ready for the fray. Here he raps with Don Was – producer of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Was Not Was, Bonnie Raitt and of course The Rolling Stones – about the primeval power of music...
DON WAS: How do you cope with being icons of popular culture while still carrying on being creative and making new music?
MICK JAGGER: It’s really interesting when people talk about how important music is. They ask you, “Why did you play this like that?” and, “How come you wrote that song like this?”. But music’s not only about music. It’s about a whole bunch of other things – where it sits the year it came out; what else was happening that year; what were the haircuts, the fashion, the attitudes. Rock ’n’ roll, when it first happened, was all to do with an expression of popular culture – the music proved to be a sort of focal point for popular culture to express itself. I think that’s what people remember. They remember – if they go back that far – Keith’s trousers, the kind of shoes people wore – Beetle Crushers, drainpipe trousers, greasy hair. And then, of course, the music and the way they danced to it. It’s all part of a sort of sub-culture.
DW: When you went on the Ed Sullivan show, or maybe later, when people started talking about a phase of 20th century history in terms of post-Altamont, did you become aware at that point that you were impacting on things?
MJ: Yes, because people do focus in on certain moments and make them into something. I take a lot of it with a really big pinch of salt because journalists just love to do this. It’s their job. Sometimes they make a lot of fuss about something which, in other people’s minds, wasn’t such a watershed point. And sometimes they get it right. In the ’60s and early ’70s, there was a lot of intellectual posing about popular culture, for the first time really. Before then, these things just happened. And that was the whole fun of it. It wasn’t big companies merchandising things, so much as people having their own little fashions and their own grooves – popular culture just burgeoning on its own.
The first time was when there was serious music analysis of the Beatles. It had never happened before. No one had ever done it to Elvis. Then, when the Beatles come along, people – journalists and serious newspapers especially in England – started it all off. They started analysing. From then, it became analysis of popular culture; analysis of popular art and fashion. And from then on, it’s never stopped. It’s very immediate now too. Shakespeare didn’t live long enough to hear all the criticism of his work. But you’ll find out within two months what everybody thinks about your new record. I’m sure they told Shakespeare that they thought it was a deep play pretty quickly. And I’m sure he knew if it was a hit or a miss pretty quickly. What he couldn’t know is the longevity of it. And as far as I see, popular culture is not long-lived, almost by definition.
DW: You don’t think that, a hundred years from now, they’ll be injecting Let It Bleed in little diodes into peoples’ brains?
MJ: No, I have my doubts. I wouldn’t bet on it! I always laugh at people who write for posterity. I know that there’s nothing wrong with it but I just laugh at it. I had a bit of an argument with a poet in Ireland – I can’t remember his name, he wasn’t particularly famous – and he was saying that popular music is a one-generational thing. He started off the conversation by saying that he was writing a song and that it couldn’t be that difficult, and I said, ‘No, it isn’t’. And he said, ‘But poetry is really the thing because poetry lasts, poetry’s built to last.’ In other words, he was very much coming from the point of view that poetry is for posterity, whereas songs are generally not . . . He might have a point there.
DW: A song like ‘Blinded by Rainbows’ could conceivably alter people’s opinions and effect social change. Did you think about that when you were writing it?
MJ: No. It might have crossed my mind that that could happen, but I wouldn’t think about it quite the way you put it. It just comes tumbling out. You write it. And there it is on the page. And you say, ‘Well, I like that, it’s quite good’. And because it is serious, you have to think, ‘Is it clear enough or am I being too ambivalent? Do I really agree with what I’ve written?’ Because some of the things just come out. The words have a funny habit of just tumbling out, especially in songs.
DW: Do you think that the role of the popular musician is, like the rappers say, just to reflect the culture around us?
MJ: One of the functions of music is to reflect the times that you live in. Which is why sometimes it’s really good to get the bloody things out.
DW: Without wishing to dwell on this, do you think you can understand the impact you’ve had on a whole generation?
MJ: Yeah, I think I understand it because I’ve talked to people who can express it very eloquently. And I’ve read people’s university papers that they’ve sent me, their theses on popular culture and so on. But it’s not my function to be a critic and analyse that. I’m not interested in it. I’m not a social historian. I’m very interested in social history but I’m not a social historian.
DW: You were talking about the spontaneity of things coming to you when you’re writing. How does that work in a collaborative setting? Specifically, for you and Keith.
MJ: Sometimes, Keith will create something that’s half-done, like ‘Baby Break It Down’ or ‘Sparks Will Fly’, and I’ll embellish it and flesh out the idea. I quite enjoy doing that. I’ve done that for years and years. I do that for other people sometimes, just for fun. The other thing is just starting completely from scratch with an idea, with Keith just sitting in a room, and you just hear something. Keith might just be sitting there playing something, just doodling, and you say, ‘That’s really good’. Collaboration has a lot to do with picking up on things. But just one piece – however great it is – is not enough for a song. Songs need three pieces. Sometimes they even need four pieces. And sometimes I feel that I’m like a broken record when I say to Keith, ‘Yeah, that’s great, but we need another piece, and then we need another piece’. And he says, ‘Boy, that piece is great!’ And it’s, ‘Yeah, and we need more’. And sometimes I’m right and sometimes I’m not. But it’s always better to have more rather than less.
DW: But take a song like ‘I Go Wild’ which, as far as I can tell, is really your song – is it still collaborative, in the sense that, at some point, Keith is going to have to pass judgement on it? Do you hear Keith in your head?
MJ: Sometimes you do. But sometimes with a song you don’t think about that. You just write them. When I wrote ‘Blinded By Rainbows’, I didn’t think of any of that. I just wrote the song. But with ‘I Go Wild’, I was sitting with Charlie and – I don’t really remember how it happened – but it just started on this groove. And it just had a really good mood to it. I didn’t really think until later how Keith would fit in on it.
DW: It strikes me that people could listen to Voodoo Lounge and find linkage to earlier periods in certain songs, but also find that there’s forward motion, that this is still a vitally creative enterprise.
MJ: Well, I hope it is. I mean, I get very worried about things being too much a repeat of something else because I feel that it’s just pointless doing it.
DW: A song like ‘New Faces’, which has got certain ‘Ruby Tuesday’ recorders – the lovely work of Frankie Gavin – might be one of the songs that one could say was derivative. Yet I think that, had you written those lyrics in 1966, you wouldn’t have been the young buck.
MJ: Oh, yeah. Lyrically it’s totally different. I was only referring to the musical form and instrumentation really. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with playing, you know, 16th century ballads . . . it’s a beautiful form to express yourself in. Especially if you’re English. It kind of comes very naturally. It’s a lovely musical form. But I also think there aren’t many rock ’n’ roll songs where there’s an acknowledgement of the fact that you’re not 24 years old anymore. The fun of being a writer is that you can put yourself in all kinds of different situations. You don’t really want to just put yourself in the situation that you really are in. Not only the age you are – where you’re living; how many children you’ve got – all that should be thrown out of the window. I mean, I could have written a song from a woman’s point of view . . . if I’d have written it well enough. It’s interesting to do that. The fun of being a writer is that you come at it from different angles.
DW: Just deal with the subject of age. I saw CNN the other night: “Can they still roll?”
MJ: Can they rock? Can they roll? Hopefully.
DW: You’re really the only band that’s been around long enough to deal with these issues.
MJ: There are people writing songs who are as old, if not older. Maybe they’re not writing the same kind of songs, I admit. But Carol King was writing songs while I was still in school. And having hit records with them. And she’s still writing songs. I think you’ve just got to come at it from a mature angle and use the maturity and experience you have to write the song. Which is fine. To write things from a sort of adolescent point of view – that would be stupid. But I don’t think it would be great to write songs from this kind of ageing point of view either. I mean, that’s not really what I feel at the moment. It’s a very fine line. You’ve got an hour on this record, say. So, you have time to express immaturity; you have time to express maturity. And everything in between and social comment and silly songs about girls that really say they’re about cars! You have all that. I first wrote songs in the blues idiom. And most of the writers that I learned form were blues writers – John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon – they were all in their forties when those songs were written. Those guys were not particularly young or particularly old . . . they just wrote as they felt it.
DW: Well, you mentioned your old blues influences, which leads me into your harmonica playing, which you have tended to malign in various recording sessions. But it really stands out, most notably on ‘Love Is Strong’.
MJ: The trouble with an instrument like harmonica, is that it’s not like a guitar where you can sit down and play it on your own. I know you can because it’s so portable, but the way I play harmonica doesn’t really work like that . . . I just prefer to sit and play guitar if I’m on my own playing. Like any instrument, you need to play it a lot, and on this album, or in the rehearsals, I decided to get into it. So, every afternoon, I would get to the rehearsal in Ireland and practise along with old blues records, which is really good fun.
DW: That actually amazed me, seeing you warm up to a record, and you knew all the lyrics – you knew the whole record by heart.
MJ: It’s great fun. You close your eyes and you’re in this band, in like 1952, and you really feel you’re in there, especially being in a recording studio with all the things going on . . . and the fidelity of it all. And with the things being on CD, it sounds so much better than it used to. They really sound good, and they’re all going the right speed. So I got into that, into practising playing the harmonica, and I had good fun with it.
DW: The vocal of ‘Love Is Strong’ is a different kind of vocal for you. It’s a slinky, low-key kind of thing. And I wondered if the harp mike affected you when you did it.
MJ: Yeah. And you know, it’s always those kind of things, like the sound of amps and things that make you change your style. So I was playing harmonica on that song and I was singing through the harmonica mike, and that way of delivering the song evolved, rather than the more obvious way that it could have been done.
DW: The thing that also struck me about that vocal is that even though it’s tremendously understated, it still really projects. The character really leaps off the tape. Are you aware of how much you can project your personality?
MJ: If you have a voice that’s distinct, people just recognise it. You can have a great, great voice technically but, if there’s a certain timbre of it that people don’t recognise or don’t like, that annoys people. But if you put enough energy into the delivery, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have such a fantastically technical voice. The other thing is, every time you perform on a record, you’ve really got to be on. It’s like acting in a film. You can go through the motions and still deliver the lines, but if you’re not on, the personality won’t come across. So you’ve gotta be jumping for that take.
DW: But there’s also an element of ‘gift’ involved in this.
MJ: It’s something you’re born with, a distinctive sound on your voice. Frank Sinatra certainly had that voice. I don’t particularly like Frank Sinatra’s voice, but it’s fantastically distinctive, and you know it’s him as soon as you hear it. And it’s just completely luck. It’s like an opera singer’s voice. You can’t train someone to be an opera singer if they’re not born with that equipment.
DW: I’ve noticed that you have the hand-held microphone and, even if no-one is around, you still perform. Is that live criteria entering into the studio performance?
MJ: You’re still performing the song in the studio because you characterise the song. Obviously, on stage you get to entertain more. But even in the studio you can’t take that away. As far as I’m concerned, if you get carried away – get carried away! And if I’m not dancing to the track, the track’s not good or I’m not happy singing.
DW: Do you write with live performance in mind?
MJ: No. Very rarely . . . there’s certain songs that are going to be good on stage if they have a certain groove. But I never write them with that in mind. Maybe I should.
DW: Let’s talk about the cumulative effect of thirty years of live performance. It’s extremely evident that there’s this really intuitive interplay between the musicians.
MJ: There’s just a lot of practice, really. It’s experience . . . that’s why it’s really good to keep playing with someone like Charlie. It’s all to do with the rhythmic take between the singer and the drummer. I mean, obviously there’s intuition between all the other instruments and the guitar, but I’m not playing the lead guitar, so I’m not talking about it. Intuition’s just another word for a lot of experience that’s stored, and then you don’t have to intellectualise it anymore. He just kind of knows what I’m going to do next, and I kind of know what he’s going to do before he does it. It’s to do with interplay and dance, really. And you see that between Keith and Charlie too. The less people playing it, the more chance you’ve got to focus in on it, which is why sometimes it’s really good just to do tracks with very few people . . . like with ‘Sparks Will Fly’, there’s only three of us in the studio.
DW: Let’s talk about Charlie’s drumming. He’s one of a kind.
MJ: Yeah, definitely. I’ve never played with a drummer quite like him. He really swings. That’s the bottom of it. A lot of drummers are great but they don’t really swing. Charlie is not a power drummer. He’s a swing drummer, which I suppose shows that he’s a jazz drummer; he started being a jazz drummer. I don’t think he ever thought of playing rock ’n’ roll. Rock and roll was a dirty word to him, I should think, when he was growing up, because he liked all these jazz drummers that play with a very light touch, swing drummers that never played eights. Charlie, I don’t think, ever played eights, when I met him. He just played tsst tssst tsssst, or variants on that. Then he had to get into playing heavier shuffles, but he plays it with a very light touch. He loves all those blues drummers of the period, like on Chuck Berry’s records and the drummers that play with Muddy Waters. Those kind of shuffle drummers. When you listen to those records you can’t really hear the drums like you hear them now, but it just swings like crazy.
DW: You’ve managed to make a Rolling Stones record without Bill Wyman being there. Could you conceive that you could make one without Charlie being the drummer.
MJ: It wouldn’t be the same band . . . I don’t know . . . Charlie’s unique. He plays musically and listens to the song, and he listens to the time, and he watches. It’s all to do with body movement too, you know. Playing the drums is the most primeval aspect of the thing, and it’s all to do with body movement. And so if you’re playing for a singer, you’re playing with a singer. You’re watching him, how he’s moving. That jazz drumming thing . . . it always goes back to the much older thing of people dancing. It’s all to do with dance. If you drum in, like, a Brazilian band, you’re watching them dance and you stop when they move. They turn their heads, you give it a beat, and so on.
DW: On ‘Moon Is Up’, Charlie is completely charged up, playing the garbage cans. There was a mood of experimentalism on that song that kind of harkens back to some of the textures you had on ‘Beggars Banquet’.
MJ: It’s good to get Charlie off the traps, because trap drumming is very limited. If I was a drummer, I’d get crazy drums all the time . . . you can make noises on anything. You can go and play the garbage cans and everyone says it sounds great. I mean, it’s not the first time that garbage cans have been played as drums. And you can make anything sound good. There’s guys that go around doing that, and there are steel drum bands all made of people that play car parts . . . And it’s good to get the drummer off the traps, because you get just another vibe going.
DW: I’d say everybody’s doing something pretty bizarre on that record.
MJ: Everything on that track is put through some sort of device. I’m playing harmonica through a harmoniser and whatever other pedals I had, and Keith is playing acoustic guitar through an amp which is put through something else. So everyone has got an effect. And the voice has got an effect. And it’s all put in one great sweltering echo to make it all sound like it’s all in one room.
DW: And it doesn’t really sound like anything you’ve ever done before.
MJ: Yeah, and it wasn’t all put on afterwards, which it could have been. It was done at the time, which is usually a good way of doing it.
DW: I think that happened a lot on this record. What do you think about the tendency to overdub records to death?
MJ: We said at the start of this record that we were going to try and make it a bit simpler and less overdubbed.
DW: If I was looking for a link between this and, you know, the best Rolling Stones record, I see that there’s a great deal of collaboration between you and Keith.
MJ: It was in the writing especially, from the beginning.
DW: But even in the performance. I think of something like ‘Sweethearts Together’, where the two of you were like a foot away with two microphones facing each other, singing like the Everly Brothers. And I know that the people who were in the control room at the time, who’d been watching you guys, who’d been with you for a long time, were like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening!’ I think that that’s an important part of this record.
MJ: I think it is. It’s a difficult thing to do but this time we seem to have gotten into it, spending a lot of time writing together, Keith and myself. I agree. That’s very important.
- 08 Dec 23