Sucking the marrow out of life

What exactly do we expect from our musicians as they age? A graceful fade-out? A Vegas residency? A lingering farewell tour of British seaside venues before a final retreat into reclusiveness and bath chairs?

In recent times, the media has balked at the prospect of Madonna’s continued eroticism at 65. They have worried about the endurance of Bruce Springsteen, 74, famed for his three-hour shows, but recently forced to postpone his tour after developing a peptic ulcer. In June, Piers Morgan suggested that, at 76, Elton John could no longer remember the lyrics to his own songs.

Rock ‘n’ roll has long been touted as a young man’s game – the rationale, presumably, is that you can’t keep rebelling against the man when you are now that man. But the truth is we find ourselves in uncharted territory: if we are to measure the years since Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats’ Rocket 88 (broadly regarded as the first iteration of the genre, though please feel free to disagree), rock ‘n’ roll itself is only 72.
This summer, Mick Jagger entered his ninth decade. He is the same age as the leader of the free world, but still bounds the stage like a frolicsome goat. Last year, his band marked 60 years together not with carriage clocks or misty-eyed TV specials, but by embarking upon a sold-out tour across Europe.

In his ninth decade Jagger still bounds the stage like a frolicsome goat

During the last twenty years something shifted in the way we regarded the Rolling Stones. I’m not sure when or why we made a collective decision that they were probably incapable of making another great album. Perhaps because their previous offering, 2016’s “Blue & Lonesome”, was a collection of blues covers. Perhaps because the last release of their own material was eighteen years ago. And maybe because there seemed no real impetus for the band to step off the perpetual touring cycle and enter the recording studio once again.

But more than anything I suspect it’s because audiences winced a little at the idea of a group of ageing rockers still rocking; or rather, at the notion they might have anything new to say. We expect ruminative late life records from the likes of David Bowie or Leonard Cohen: these are the sages, the illuminators. But with the advancing years, the Stones’ presiding subject matter – lust, love and late-night escapades, combined with their distinctive style of telling – rollicking, raucous, riff-laden, might prove harder for audiences to digest.

Still, it seems naïve now. After all, the Stones’ defining quality across seven decades has been their understanding and articulation of pleasure: there in the way Keith Richards plays guitar – loose, blues-rooted, somewhere between fighting and fucking, in the elegance and reserve of Charlie Watts’ drumming, in Jagger’s treacled yowl.

Their lyrics have never been tremendously profound, but somehow they have the capacity to brush against the listener in a way that feels electrifying. There’s a reason, too, that the Stones are loved so deeply as a live band (it’s worth remembering they have released approximately twice as many live albums as studio records, and their 2021 “No Filter” tour was the highest-grossing in the world) — the particular enjoyment they bring is earthly and instinctive. Only a fool would assume that such pleasure pales with the years.

The sheer visceral joy of “Hackney Diamonds”, then, should not have come as a surprise. And yet somehow it did. It holds plenty of scuffed-up moments of delight – lead single Angry, for instance, or Mess It Up, both of which stick their chests out and strut. And it includes an array of unexpected appearances – the dear, departed Watts, a brief return from Bill Wyman, cameos from Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Lady Gaga, all of which enhance rather than overbear.

But the record’s points of deepest pleasure are its more lugubrious moments – the heart-wrench of Depending On You, the hazy, horizontal Dreamy Skies, the slow-gathering rapture of Sweet Sounds of Heaven. In these songs, they sound like a band sucking the marrow out of life.

“Hackney Diamonds” closes with a cover of Muddy Waters’ Rollin’ Stone (here titled Rolling Stone Blues) performed in stripped-back form by the band’s founding members, Jagger and Richards. The legend has long run that Brian Jones named the band during a 1962 phone call with Jazz News; asked for the name of his fledgling group he looked around him and spotted a Muddy Waters album lying on the floor. “The Rolling Stones”, he told the journalist.

There is, then, a sense of return and completion to its inclusion on this record. A sign-off perhaps, or a statement of fresh galvanisation. Either way, it feels like the most romantic track the band has ever recorded, a return to the Stones’ original source of pleasure.

Laura Barton is a writer and broadcaster. Her book, “Sad Songs” is out now

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Arts & Culture, Music, November 2023

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