In the early days, around 1965, the Rolling Stones were arrested for pissing on the wall of a gas station that wouldn’t allow them to use the facilities because of their long hair, uncouth demeanor and general disregard for the customs of polite society. Almost 60 years later, they’re still at it.
Oh, I don’t mean that we are in any danger of Mick whipping it out in a Durstian fit and spraying all over the candy counter at CVS. As the Stones’ lyrics said way back in 1978, “Now we’re respected in society / We don’t worry ‘bout the things that we used to be.”
What I do mean is that while the Stones may have mellowed just a bit since their filling station days, they are still into throwing out a big “fuck you” to any naysayers or skeptics who dare to cross them. And by releasing a vital new album at this point in their lives, their first in 18 years, the Stones have done just that, making their point eloquently. That they are still here, still relevant, and still to be reckoned with.
Is Hackney Diamonds in the league of Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., Beggars Banquet or Let It Bleed? No. It’s not. But who really thought it would be? That run of albums, ranging from 1968 through 1972, represents a creative apex that may never be surpassed.
As for Hackney Diamonds, I will say this: it’s a great listen, from a bunch of old pros doing what they do best. Time, if anything, has sharpened their attack. And as my mother might say, Mick is still something of a potty mouth. These old bastards are definitely not coasting.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of glamorizing the Exile era and dismissing most of what came after it. But to do that is to miss the point. The new album is a reflection of where the Stones are today, just as Exile mirrored their “elegantly wasted in the south of France" / “where is my syringe?” phase in 1972.
And where are the Stones today? My best guess is that they are on an informal victory lap, doing it once more for old times’ sake. To prove to themselves that they still can. To honor their fallen comrade, drummer Charlie Watts. And to preserve their legacy, taking care not to cheapen it with a pale imitation of what has come before.
And since they were at it, why not throw a bit of a party? Invite Paul McCartney over to play some bass. See if Stevie Wonder is free for a session or two. And if Lady Gaga is hanging around the studio, hell, give her some headphones and put her to work. Elton John? Well, yes, he has referred to Keith as an “arthritic monkey,” but that’s all water under the bridge. Bring him along too!
Much of the excitement around Hackney Diamonds has to do with the fact that a Beatle is appearing on a Rolling Stones album, but that has happened before, as when McCartney and John Lennon provided some background vocals for the Stones’ “We Love You” and “Dandelion.” What makes this go-round interesting is that the song in question, “Bite My Head Off,” is a post-punk rocker featuring a fuzzed-out bass from Macca, with Jagger spitting venom at a(nother) woman who has raised his hackles.
Elton John occupies the piano bench for “Live by the Sword,” a solid rocker which also features an appearance by original Stones bassist Bill Wyman and the late Charlie Watts, but the prize for Best Cameo on Hackney Diamonds is shared by Lady Gaga and Stevie Wonder on “Sweet Sounds of Heaven.” The track begins in an understated manner, soon blossoming into a fiery gospel throwdown, with Jagger and Lady Gaga trading lines, going back and forth, goading each other to greater heights. Fortunately, the Stones are in no hurry to get through the song, letting it simmer and build until everyone is ready to cut loose, with Wonder’s soulful piano holding it all together.
Producer Andrew Watt (Miley Cyrus, Ozzy Osbourne, Justin Bieber) gives the record a shiny, hard edge, which is, I suppose, appropriate given the album’s title. Nothing here sounds like it came out of the basement of Nellcôte, the French villa that hosted many of the Exile sessions. What the album does have in common with Exile is that Watt – much like Stones producer Jimmy Miller before him – takes an active musical role in the proceedings, playing bass on several songs and even getting three songwriting credits from the notoriously parsimonious Messrs. Jagger and Richards.
With Hackney Diamonds, the Glimmer Twins have entered their own Götterdämmerung (Stöneserdämmerung?), the twilight of the gods. They are lions in winter. Their 60-year run has been historic, impacting both popular music and popular culture, but it’s almost over. Charlie Watts’ unexpected passing in 2021 reminded both them and us that they are close to the end of the road, not knowing exactly how or when things will end.
Maybe the best thing that producer Watts did during the recording of Hackney Diamonds was to convince Mick and Keith to perform a duet to close the album. At first blush, the choice of repertoire – Muddy Waters’ “Rolling Stone Blues” – may seem a bit too on-the-nose, but it is, in fact, perfect. Just the two of them, together in the studio, united in the music that brought them together as teenagers in Dartford. The performance is deep and resonant, a perfect way to end this album and very possibly the Stones’ career as recording artists. Keith has recently gone on record as saying that this is a misinterpretation of circumstances, but I believe that he doth protest too much.
There has been talk of the Stones touring next summer, but nothing is official at this point. As much as I would like to see the Stones on stage one last time, maybe this is where it should end.
Right now, I am happy for the Stones, and I am happy for us.
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