- 06 Oct 23
Are the greatest rock n’ roll band in the world still in there? Stones hardliner Pat Carty takes a listen and offers his evaluation.
I put on the vinyl copy of Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! I’ve had since I was a teenager. There’s a few crackles and then the voice of tour manager Sam Cutler asks, “Is everybody ready… for the next band… We’re sorry for the delay… the greatest rock n’ roll band in the world… The Rolling Stones!”
After much rumour and speculation, the Stones that are still standing announced a new album, Hackney Diamonds, on September 6. It was on the same date eighteen years ago in 2005 that they released their last album of new material, A Bigger Bang. My daughter was born the year after and she’s now doing her Leaving Cert. That’s a long time. “We’re sorry for the delay.”
It’s not like The Stones were sitting around scratching their arses in the intervening years, or at least not all the time anyway. There were augmented archival releases, the enjoyable zombies-in-the-swamp action of ‘Doom And Gloom’, and 2016’s slightly over-produced but still pretty great blues covers album Blue & Lonesome which had one quite possibly inebriated hack speculating, after a spectacular night out in Hamburg, that “they’re plugging into their past to get the power back on.” During lockdown they treated the most captive audience in history to the appropriately titled ‘Living In A Ghost Town’ single, which prompted the same amadán to comment that, “The twilight of the gods is a ways off yet.”
But is it still a ways off? Can the greatest rock n’ roll band in the world – and remember, Cutler was saying that at a time when there could have been little doubt – still be in there somewhere? Can they, like Dylan, Cohen, Bowie and, more appropriately, Muddy Waters before them, deliver a classic this late in the day?
And can a lifelong fanatic who sees the work they did from 1968 to 1972 as the pinnacle of all human achievement and can pick at least two or three great songs off every album since then – even Dirty Work – be trusted to review this record with anything even approaching objectivity? Will I too fall foul of the “new Stones album” syndrome where reviewers declare it “their best record since Exile/Some Girls/Tattoo You”, as they’ve done with every release since Exile/Some Girls/Tattoo You before filing it away with all the others?
A Kick In The Arse
“1… 2… 3” A drum groove gives way to the same sort of Keith Richards riff he’s been peddling since he first tuned his guitar to G somewhere around 1968, and despite the slight will-this-do whiff off it, it manages to be simultaneously as loose as a pair of old sweat pants and tight as a bend on a mountain road. Mick Jagger, sounding at least half his age, hollers, “Don’t get angry with me” and we’re off.
There’s a guitar solo filthier than your uncle’s jokes; the men in the back chant “An-Gry”; Jagger ad libs, imploring the missus not to spit in his face as he was only taking the piss; and, admirably making fun of his infamous amorous adventures, declaring that he’s off to Brazil; and Keith and Ronnie, in time honoured fashion, weave it all home.
Ok, the inventors of the wheel won’t be making any urgent calls to the patent office, but it rocks, it rolls, it’s The Rolling Stones. Is ‘Angry’ their “greatest single in 40 years” as some have claimed? I might cry out for ‘Almost Hear You Sigh’ or ‘Love Is Strong’ or ‘Streets Of Love’, but it’s a good one and there’s better to come.
‘Get Close’ takes its cue from ‘Slave’, the glorious extended groove centrepiece of 1981’s Tattoo You, the last Stones album that really was great, before this one anyway. Steve Jordan’s drums take up where Charlie Watts’ left off, proving he’s the right man for the job. On Keith Richards’ solo records, as great as they are, Jordan was sometimes a bit too loud for his own good, but on Diamonds, he’s playing in the band, not on top of it. Perhaps Jagger had a word, reminding him whose name is over the door.
Richards pulls another riff out of his seemingly inexhaustible supply, but the thing is – and you can say this about the majority of the tracks here – it’s not just a riff looking for a song, something they’ve been guilty of in the past; it’s a great song that happens to have a guitar riff at its centre. A saxophone solo worthy of both the late Bobby Keys and Sonny Rollins is another ‘Slave’ nod, and that’s Elton John playing the piano, because when The Stones put out the call, everybody shows up. This should have been the single.
‘Depending On You’ is the sort of mid-tempo, slightly melancholic number the Stones have written many times before, but this is better than most of them. As strings swirl up around him, Jagger shakes his head as another love heads off, and it’s good to hear him declare that he’s too young to die, despite losing again at the game he invented. All three of these opening songs are co-writes with producer Andrew Watt. Brought in by Jagger to give them a kick in the arse, his boot print is certainly on the seat of their collective trousers. No, it’s this one, this should have been the single.
I received an excited phone call from Stuart Clark who was also privy to an advanced copy of the album after we both donned ceremonial robes and signed solemn blood oaths. “'Bite My Head Off' sounds as much like the Pistols as the Stones!” gushed a man who fought bravely on the frontlines of the punk wars, and I can kind of hear where he’s coming from, as a bouncier version of the monumental noise Steve Jones spewed up onto the Sex Pistols’ ‘Liar’ comes out of the speakers.
Some Girls aside, the band’s 1978 riposte to the young pretenders which took on punk, new wave and disco at their own games, the Stones tried something similar with ‘Hang On To Your Hat’ on 1989’s Steel Wheels but it pales in comparison. ‘Bite My Head Off’ is driven by a furious and affronted Jagger (“The whole fuckin’ ship is sinking!”), has some real kick to it, and of all the songs that you might have thought Paul McCartney would tog out for, this seems the least likely. Alright, Jagger’s “Come on, Paul, let’s hear some bass” is probably unnecessary, but if you had a Beatle playing in your band, you’d tell people about it too.
Bad Honky Tonk
There’s an undeniable dip in the middle, if only a mild one. ‘Whole Wide World’ – Jagger gives it some cockney while walking the “the dreary streets of London” of his youth – tries hard but tries a bit too hard. The country strum of ‘Dreamy Skies’ sounds slightly unfinished and could have used more Keith on the harmonies, although hearing Jagger go on about “Hank Williams and bad honky tonk” in his ‘Faraway Eyes’ accent before his harmonica comes in is far from unpleasant.
As a lot of the older material has been shelved, for now at least, the late Charlie Watts only appears on two tracks. He’s by far the best thing about ‘Mess It Up’, the sort of dance number that Jagger (some young one has nicked his phone and is sharing out photos) always insists on including. You can hear Charlie lifting his stick off his hi-hat as he hits the snare and it’s worthy of inclusion for this alone. And the riff because there's always a riff.
‘Live By The Sword’ reunites Watts with Bill Wyman for the first, and probably the last, time since ‘Highwire’ was added to 1991’s Flashpoint. The song might remind hopeless obsessives of 'Flip The Switch' from Bridges To Babylon cross bred with ‘I’m Gonna Drive’, the B-side to 94’s ‘Out Of Tears’ and it’s perfectly ok, like the other three songs in this slightly sagging midsection which, to be fair improve with repeated spins. It’s just not as good as the rest of the record.
Long ago, before marriages and money and differing lifestyles and all the rest of it got in the way, Mick and Keith used to write songs facing each other. ‘Driving Me Too Hard’ was, apparently, written in the old fashioned way, with these two friends who will never get away from each other for all eternity cheek to jowl. Richards’ riff, his best in a long time, descends from the opening blast of ‘Tumbling Dice’, one of the most joyous sounds there has ever been, before moving slightly to the left, allowing his mate to bemoan another lover’s unreasonable demands. Richards steps out of the riff into a guitar solo as rickety as a house of cards in a hurricane and as solid as a lonsdaleite redwood that couldn’t be from anyone else and there’s even a nod to ‘Soul Survivor’, the closing track on the greatest record ever made.
One of the joys of the last fifty years of Stones records has been Richards’ unlikely emergence as a great balladeer. It’s no accident that he’s often played Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘The Nearness Of You’ in concert because, in a way, he’s carrying on that tradition. ‘Tell Me Straight’ continues the line and if finally giving up the gaspers hasn’t magically transformed him into Pavarotti, it has added warmth and tone to his lovable rasp.
All this talk of greatest albums since whenever is one thing, but ‘Sweet Sounds Of Heaven’ is – by far – the best thing with The Rolling Stones name on it in decades. Let’s get the necessary out of the way first. Lady Gaga sings her ass off and adds just the right amount of wailing, complementing Jagger without overwhelming him. Stevie Wonder is Stevie Fuckin’ Wonder so naturally every note he plays is the right one.
That being said, the song, written on the piano in one of his many gaffs, belongs to Mick. On an album of exceptional, time-defying, vowel-stretching, soul-charged, goat-acting, Mick-Jaggering, rock-n-roll-defining Jagger vocal performances, this is where he pulls out all the stops. Listen to the way he climbs up the bridge before the horns come in and take the song a step higher. It’s his best vocal since the seldom-heard ‘Following The River’ on the deluxe edition of Exile On Main St.
It ends but it doesn’t. The band don’t want to let it go. Jordan starts a shuffle, Gaga comes back in alongside the bass. “Play me something, Steve,” Jagger says and Wonder obliges. Mick goes into his best falsetto “Oh Yeah” since ‘Worried About You’ in 1981. Then everyone crashes back in, the horns, guitars, and drums are let off the leash, and Jagger uses a stream of "HeavenOhYeahComeOnFallingEarthWoo!" to drive it towards the final finish. It’s gospel, it’s soul, it’s The Rolling Stones. It’s the greatest rock n’ roll band in the world.
Back Down The Road I’m Goin’
Once upon a time, a young man called Brian is on the phone, trying to get a gig for his new band. The booker on the other end of the line asks what they're called. Brian and his friends look around them. A copy of The Best Of Muddy Waters (Chess LP 1427) is on the floor, perhaps even the same copy that Mick Jagger had under his arm alongside Chuck Berry’s Rockin’ At The Hops when he met his childhood friend Keith Richards on platform two of Dartford Railway Station on October 17, 1962 and they decided to do something. One of the tracks is ‘Rollin’ Stone’. They’re called The Rolling Stones.
Hackney Diamonds closes with Mick and Keith, all these years later, side by side once more, playing and singing Muddy’s ‘Rollin’ Stone Blues’. Richards bends guitar notes that stretch all the way from Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale, where the young McKinley Morganfield first heard ‘Catfish Blues’, to the top of the world. Jagger, the most famous of Little Walter’s students, blows his harp before wishing that he too was a catfish with all the good looking women fishing after him. The last six decades disappear as Little Boy Blue identifies himself as the child who’s gonna be a rolling stone.
They might claim a next record is already halfway finished, but wouldn’t this be the appropriate place to end it, circling back to where they started, before they were a band at all, not to mind the greatest one the world will ever know? And are the greatest rock n’ roll band in the world still in there on Hackney Diamonds? Yes, against all sensible bets, they are. Is this the best Rolling Stones record since…? It might be the best one since Keith Richards’ Talk Is Cheap, the greatest Rolling Stones record that never was, and that’s something. The old gods are with us still.