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The Rolling Stones Get Back To The Blues

After an 11-year wait, the Rolling Stones recorded a new album in three days. Inside their roots revival and bright future.

After an 11-year wait, the Rolling Stones recorded a new album in three days. Inside their roots revival and bright future.

September 1965. charlie watts steps to a microphone in a smart sport jacket, introducing “one of our favourite numbers” to a packed Dublin theatre. The 24-year-old drummer heads back to his modest kit, and the Rolling Stones tumble into Howlin’ Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster”, Keith Richards’ duh-dunt-dah-duh riff battling Brian Jones’ spiky slide-guitar runs. And a thousand Irish teenage girls greet each Chess Records guitar stab with crescendoing, this-song-is-so-fab shrieks. (Later, the audience will embark on an actual riot, storming the stage, which just makes it a typical Stones tour stop.)

Ten months earlier, the band had somehow managed to push that raw take on 12-bar Chicago blues atop the U.K. singles chart (though U.S. radio refused to play it, suspecting that the lyrics’ prowling rooster was not, in fact, a bird). “Little Red Rooster” is apparently still the only traditional blues ever to hit Number One in the U.K. “It’s crackers,” Mick Jagger says five dec­ades later, on a late-October day in Manhattan, pondering that achievement, recalling those screams. He laughs. “You know, it’s crazy. I mean, that was a weirdo thing, ’cause we could’ve done anything at that time and it would’ve been Number One. That was the point.” He’s wearing a white button-front shirt with a subtle blue pattern and teensy black trousers that are probably the same waist size as his checkered pants on that Irish stage 51 years back. He looks his age, sort of, except not at all.

As with all the Stones’ early blues recordings, Jagger says that “Red Rooster” was done “out of love”. “We were kids,” he says, “and we were proselytising. The Beatles, to some extent, did the same – they talked about the music they loved, which was always, like, soul music.” The Stones’ music was rooted more firmly in their influences, however, and they went further in honouring them. In May of ’65, they strong-armed the U.S. teen TV show Shindig! into hosting Howlin’ Wolf himself, with the Stones sitting at the besuited, six-foot-three, 125-kilogram 55-year-old’s feet as he bellowed “How Many More Years”, jumping in place and eliciting some improbable adolescent shrieks in his own right. “When those blues records came out,” says Jagger, “they were, in a sense, for their audience, pop music. They would play it like we would play Kendrick Lamar. To me, take away the genres for a minute and it’s all pop music.”

Now, the Stones have circled back to the blues, with Blue & Lonesome, a (mostly) live-in-the-studio collection of 12 songs originally performed by the likes of Little Walter, Jimmy Reed and, again, Howlin’ Wolf. It’s the first Stones album to have zero Jagger-Richards originals; even their debut had a couple of attempts at songwriting. Recording Blue & Lonesome was easy – it took all of three days. “It made itself,” says Richards. As Ronnie Wood points out, however, it’s also the product of “a lifetime’s research, really”.

Figuring out when and how to release it was trickier. “I’m saying to the record company,” says Jagger, “ ’Can you make this pop music if you want? Is it marketable?'” The album came out of sessions that were supposed to be for an LP of Stones originals, still in its early stages. Jagger wondered whether they should wait to get that one finished, maybe release them together.

But then again, the last time the Stones managed to finish a studio album was back in 2005, with A Bigger Bang. “The record company probably said, ‘Well, the other one’s never gonna come’,” Jagger says, twisting those lips of his into an outsize grin. “ ’We might as well put this one out.’ I don’t blame ’em. I probably would have done the same thing. ‘Cause, ‘Now I got something, might as well put it out.'”

The freakiest thing about Blue & Lonesome is the extent to which Jagger and Richards agree on it. The two men, currently in their fourth year of détente after some caustic bits in Richards’ autobiography nearly derailed a 50th-anniversary reunion, are both genuinely excited about the roots revival. The project might, from the outside, seem more like a Richards thing, the kind of retro move he’d favour, while the Jagger of fans’ imaginations would be busy pushing the Stones to work with, say, the Chainsmokers. The frontman says the stereotype isn’t all wrong, but that in this case, “we were all equally into it. I was as into it as anyone.”

“This is the best record Mick Jagger has ever made,” says Richards, always a fan of Jagger’s emotive harmonica playing, which flourishes on the new LP. “It was just watching the guy enjoying doing what he really can do better than anybody else.” He pauses. “And also, the band ain’t too shabby.”

Even after their early flurry of covers subsided, the Stones never stopped playing old blues tunes, both onstage and, especially, in rehearsals. The 200 hours of Exile on Main Street sessions, for instance, were punctuated by repeated attempts at covers, meant to clear the air between the midwifing of new songs. Two of them – Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” and Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” – made the 1972 album. (“It’s like ginger at a sushi restaurant,” says Blue & Lonesome co-producer Don Was. “You cleanse the palate.”)

“This is the best record Mick Jagger has ever made,” says Richards. “Also, the band ain’t too shabby.”

In 1968, Jagger told Rolling Stone that the band had always intended to move beyond the blues. “What’s the point in listening to us doing ‘I’m a King Bee’,” he said, “when you can hear Slim Harpo do it?” But at their best, the Stones weren’t merely mimicking their inspirations. They weren’t purists, except maybe for Jones; blues fans looked askance at them for playing Chuck Berry tunes at their early gigs. Among early-Sixties R&B hipsters in London, “it was always that sort of reverse psychology”, says Richards. “Anybody who had a hit record was a piece of shit.” =

“You were kind of forced into a purist style because you wouldn’t get booked if you were a rock band,” Jagger recalls. “So we made out we were blues purists to get booked. The reality is, in rehearsal we would play anything – Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly.”

That irreverence made their take on the blues matter. Their frantic, hand-clappy 1964 version of Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You” owed a lot of its approach to Bo Diddley, a fresh mixture that helped birth garage rock. The Stones didn’t get the “Red Rooster” riff right, either, playing it more like Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy”, while also drawing from Sam Cooke’s sleek 1963 soul version. (Eric Clapton recalled Howlin’ Wolf taking pains to teach him the original version when they rerecorded it for 1971’s The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, with the older man telling him, “It doesn’t go like anything you think it goes like.”)

And in 2016, Jagger is finally ready to concede that the Rolling Stones have something to add to this music. “The thing about the blues,” he says, “is it changes in very small increments. People reinterpret what they know – Elmore James reinterpreted Robert Johnson licks, as did Muddy Waters. So I’m not saying we’re making the jumps that they made, but we can’t help but reinterpret these songs.”

stones howlin
In 1965, the Stones strong-armed the teen TV show ‘Shindig!’ into hosting Howlin’ Wolf.

This past December, the Rolling Stones gathered in Mark Knopfler’s British Grove Studios in West London to begin work on a batch of original songs. Jagger is deliberately vague on the nature of those tunes. “I hope it’s gonna be a very eclectic album,” he says. “I hope some of it’s gonna be recognisable Stones and some of it’s gonna be some Stones you never heard before, maybe.”

Knopfler’s studio is gorgeous, equipped with an ideal mix of vintage and modern equipment, with high ceilings and gleaming blond-wood floors. It was also a totally alien environment for the Stones. “I know the Rolling Stones,” says Richards. “I know that recording new music in a room they’re not familiar with, there’s sometimes going to be weeks before the room breaks in.” So Richards told fellow Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood to learn Little Walter’s apocalyptically mournful 1965 B side “Blue and Lonesome” as a potential icebreaker (Wood remembers this suggestion coming in by fax, well before the sessions).

By the second day at British Grove, Richards felt his prediction coming true. “The room is fighting me,” he recalls thinking. “It’s fighting the band. The sound is not coming.” He suggested “Blue and Lonesome”, Jagger dug up a harmonica in the right key, and the band barrelled through two quick takes. “Suddenly,” says Richards, “the room is obeying and there’s something happening – a sound is happening and it was so good.”

One of those two takes ended up on the album, and it’s extraordinary, with Wood playing frantic lead; Richards hitting huge, doom-y chords; Watts nailing the original track’s regally restrained drum part; and Jagger digging deep on his harp when he’s not delivering one of the least-mannered vocals of his career. “Baby, please, come back to me,” he pleads. Afterward, Jagger – who says he had already been pondering a Stones blues album – surprised everyone by calling for more covers. That night, he went to his MP3 collection, returning the next day with more song ideas.

And in keeping with the serendipity of the endeavour, a special guest showed up. On the first day, Eric Clapton happened to be mixing an album of his own at British Grove when he poked his head into the Stones’ live room. The guitarist, who had seen the Stones playing blues gigs when he was still in his teens, was taken aback. “Eric walked in, and he had the same reaction that any fan would have,” says Was. “He was just gobsmacked at being that close to something that iconic and powerful. There was this great look on his face.” They asked Clapton to jam on two songs, and he ended up picking up one of Richards’ guitars, a semihollow Gibson, instead of the Strats he’s mostly played post-1970 – which helped him reclaim the fat tone of his Bluesbreakers days: You can hear the band applauding him at the end of “I Can’t Quit You Baby”.

“How long can I do this?” asks Jagger. “How long can I run the hundred-metre stage? I mean, as long as I can.”

It all happened so quickly and naturally that the band never really discussed what it was doing, or even acknowledged it was making an album. “I didn’t even have time to change my guitar,” says Wood. “They were coming so thick and fast. It was like, ‘OK, let’s do it – this one, that one.’ Some of the harder riffs were making my fingers bleed, and Mick was going, ‘Come, let’s do it again, then!’ And we’ll go, ‘Hang on! My fingers!’ It was real hard work, but I love it.”

For Jagger, it was a chance to indulge his blues-harp habit, a subject that arouses an incongruously geeky enthusiasm in him. “If I had known I was gonna have to do this,” he says, “I would have spent a few days practicing, because sometimes I do that, sit at home and play. It’s quite easy, really; I mean, you just put on whatever, a whole bunch of Muddy Waters rec­ords.” (Muddy “Mississippi” Waters – Live, a 1979 LP featuring Johnny Winter, is one of Jagger’s favourites for this purpose.)

Jagger’s vocals are also striking in their authority. The camp he once brought to the genre is gone, replaced by something darker and deeper, perhaps reflecting the weight of real-life losses. “You can put yourselves inside the songs as a 70-year-old,” says Was, “in a way that you couldn’t when you were 21, because you hadn’t experienced the stuff.”

“On some of these, I sound quite old,” Jagger counters, “and on some of them, I don’t. Some of it sounds like when I was in my twenties doing this stuff. I didn’t really mean it to sound like that. I was supposed to be more mature!”

stones berry
Richards with Chuck Berry in 1986.

While Muddy Waters was in England in 1966, a journalist asked the then-53-year-old bluesman what he thought about Jagger and the Stones. “He took my music,” Waters reportedly said, “but he gave me my name.” Technically speaking, of course, Waters gave the Stones their name, via his 1950 single “Rollin’ Stone”, but he was speaking metaphorically: He likely wouldn’t have been playing a big show in London in the first place if not for the Stones.

The Stones never questioned their right to sing and play the blues. What is now considered by some to be cultural appropriation is hardly a sin in their minds, then or now. “I don’t think we thought about that,” says Jagger, before launching into a lengthy, learned riff on the early days of jazz, when white musicians like Bix Beiderbecke were quickly assimilated into the genre, but “the complaints were really on the fact – and you could level a lot of people with it – that the white people made more money.”

Richards has his own answer to the issue. “I’m black as the ace of fucking spades, man,” he says, deadpan. “Ask any of the brothers.” He continues, “I didn’t know what colour these people were, as a kid. I don’t think of blues as being of any particular colour at all. Obviously, its history. But there were white slaves, as well. There have been plenty of work songs from way back. Try Egypt. Quite Jewish, actually. You know, people have been doing this since history began.”

In the end, Jagger asks rhetorically, “Has it hurt the music, this influx of foreigners and people from outside of the blues tradition, or has it helped the music? The performers that I spoke to, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, when they were alive, they thought it had helped. There is an exchange.”

Occasional Stones jam partner and Chicago-blues standard-bearer Buddy Guy agrees. “They did so much for all the blues people, especially the black people,” Guy says. “They were putting the music where we never had put it before, and they just let the world know who we were. They didn’t just come in and say, ‘Well, this is new.'”

Even before the Stones, the Chicago bluesmen were supportive of white players – Muddy Waters mentored the harp player Paul Butterfield in the Fifties, for instance. And the Stones grew close to the Chess Rec­ords crew, beginning with their pilgrimage to the label’s headquarters in 1964, where they were befriended by Waters. (Richards has long maintained that Waters was painting the ceiling when they showed up, which Marshall Chess has denied – but the guitarist is still positive this happened: “Why would I bother to make it up?”)

“Muddy made you feel like you were really part of it,” says Richards. “He sort of brought you in. And Howlin’ Wolf was very much the same. There was none of ‘Well, I didn’t know white guys could play like that.’ We connected, and they were not particularly impressed about what colour you happen to turn out to be or whatever. Of course, Muddy and the other guys did recognise that for some reason, the Stones had brought this music back to America and repopularised it. Or not so much popularised it, just brought it to attention again. And for that, I’m eternally proud, and that’s probably the only way I’m going to get in heaven.” He lets out a long, strangled laugh.

Unlike many blues guitarists, Richards never had much interest in being a lead-playing gunslinger. He was more fascinated by ensemble players like the Myers brothers, who backed Little Walter. “The idea was to make the fucking band slam together,” he says. “A quick, short, sharp solo here, boom, great. Otherwise, to me, the fascination has always been that four or five guys can create a sound that sounds a lot larger than the actual number of members actually involved.”

Richards is convinced that rock lost its groove, its “roll”, distancing itself from its African-American influences, with the advent of the electric bass some 60 years ago. “By the middle Sixties,” he says, “you have the worst guitar player in the band playing bass. So he goes plunk-plunk-plunk, and that’s a very European thing.”

While he’s at it, he shares another opinion: “I mean, Jimi Hendrix,” Richards says. “Love him dearly. Incredible. He ruined guitar. That whistling saw sound. That’s what they say about Coltrane with saxophones. Fantastic player. Unfortunately, he ruined the instrument, because after that everybody growled through it.”

stones harmonica
Jagger (shown circa 1970) shines as a harmonica player on the new LP.

In October, as the stones stepped onto the Desert Trip stage in Indio, California, some thoughts crossed Mick Jagger’s mind. “It was 30 metres wider than our normal stage,” says Jagger, “which is quite wide, by the way, which I usually run. And I heard that nobody else went out there, apart from me. So what the fuck did they build the stage for?

“Was that just for me? And I was just thinking, ‘How long can I fucking do this? How long can I run the hundred-metre stage?’ I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, as long as I can. And then should I stop performing when I can’t run the hundred-​metre stage, is that it? Does that mean I have to stop? No one else is using the hundred-metre stage!”

As early as 1986, Richards was suggesting that Jagger simply stand in front of the mic and sing, an idea that sends Jagger’s eyes skyward. “That’s good advice, Keith,” he says, with caustic sarcasm. “Thanks so much. It’s very useful. He should stop playing the guitar. I mean, come on! There is some other option besides ‘Are you gonna run the hundred metres or are you gonna sit?’ You can still move a bit in the middle!”

Though Jagger blames the dusty field for a recent bout of laryngitis – and he originally questioned the idea of a festival of “old, over-70 white English people playing all the same music” – the band had a good time at Desert Trip, treating it as a sort of boomer-rock class reunion. They were all particularly happy to see just-anointed Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, who brought onesies for Wood’s now-six-month-old twin girls. Wood and Watts asked Dylan how he felt about his honour. “He said, ‘I don’t know’,” recalls Wood. “ ’How should I feel? Is it good?’ I said, ‘You’re kidding. We really think it’s great and you deserve it.’ And Dylan said, ‘Do I?'”

Richards is in his manager’s SoHo offices, slumped majestically on a brown couch beneath a vintage Stones tour poster. On his feet are the same bright-red Nikes Dylan noticed when the two hung out at Desert Trip: “Nice kicks,” Dylan said, to which Richards replied, “I thought you’d never notice.”

Richards is wearing a grey overcoat, snug jeans and a T-shirt that reads do not x-ray. There’s a Rasta-style rainbow headband on his forehead and a lit Marlboro in his hand. For the first time in his adult life, Richards has lost his skeletal gauntness. His face is fuller. He looks almost… healthy. His 2006 head injury meant “goodbye to cocaine”, he says. “I was actually fed up with the stuff. I was in a habit.” After quitting, he says, “you make up for all the lost meals and all the lost sleep”. While Wood has been sober since 2010, and even quit cigarettes for the birth of his daughters, Richards hasn’t taken it that far. “I like a drink now and again,” he says. “And I do like a nice piece of hash. Or weed. I hear weed is legal!”

He and Jagger do seem to have found some genuine peace. “I love the man,” says Richards. “That doesn’t mean I can’t get pissed off occasionally, and I have no doubt it goes the other way around. But you have to forgive and forget, and also I would say that 89 per cent of the time we’re in total agreement. But people only hear about the 11 per cent, you know, where it flares up. What would the Stones be without it? If you had the perfect machine and everybody in total agreement, you’d probably be fairly bland…. It’s amazing we’re both alive. I celebrate Mick’s life. He’s always five months older than me!”

In his book, Richards complained that he hadn’t been in Jagger’s dressing room for decades. That hasn’t changed, but the guitarist doesn’t care. “The fact is, Mick and I really don’t want to hang together before we go onstage,” he says. “He has a routine of how he gets together for the stage. Me, I have a party.”

The Stones are discussing more shows next year, and they really do intend to work on that album of originals. “There’s about 10 or 12 new songs that Mick actually has been cooking up,” says Wood, “and Keith’s got the odd one, too.” Richards suggests that at least some of the songs might be unfinished compositions that date back 15 years or more.

They’ll all be in New York soon for the opening of Exhibitionism, an elaborate, immersive pop-up Stones museum that includes a reproduction of the squalid apartment shared by Jagger, Richards and Jones circa 1963, and collectibles including the cassette recorder Richards used to demo “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. While they’re in town, Richards is trying to persuade them to do some recording, which may be a stretch. Jagger is positive they’ll finish that album, “but I don’t know when, because you want it to be really good and everything”.

They all share an almost scientific curiosity about their future as a rock band plunging through its sixth decade. Again, how long can this go on? “I think we’re as interested to find out as anybody else,” says Richards. “But, man, I just got offstage a week ago and we were playing ‘Brown Sugar’, and I turned to Charlie Watts and said, ‘This time we got it right.'”

At 75, Watts is the oldest band member, and also happens to have the most physically demanding job. Understandably, he struggles with back pain, according to Wood. It’s unclear what the Rolling Stones would do without him, and that’s a prospect Richards refuses to contemplate. “Charlie Watts will never die or retire,” Richards says. “I forbid him to.”

Jagger doesn’t seem eager to contemplate his own mortality, at least in interviews. But if you remind him that he’s convinced everyone he’ll live forever, he’ll shoot back without a pause: “I’m not going to.”

Richards knows exactly how he’d like to go, and he’s sure that doctors will want to have “a good look at the liver” when he does. “I’d like to croak magnificently,” he says, savouring the prospect. “Onstage.”

From issue #782 (January 2017), available now. Additional reporting by Patrick Doyle.