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How the Rolling Stones finally got it together and made a great new album

Mick, Keith, Ronnie, and Stevie (Wonder, that is) break down the star-packed Hackney Diamonds, an album the Stones only could have made now

By Kory Grow

The Rolling Stones (Picture: Mark Seliger)

Last year, Mick Jagger started feeling restless. Seventeen years had passed since the Rolling Stones had released an album of original material, and though they’d toured regularly — and made the difficult choice to soldier on after the devastating 2021 death of drummer Charlie Watts — the on-and-off sessions they’d held for a potential new LP over the past decade hadn’t produced much they could use. When the Stones’ tour ended in Berlin last August, Jagger decided he’d had enough. So he pulled Keith Richards aside.

“I told Keith, ‘I think some of the tracks are good, but most of them are not as good as they should be’” Jagger recalls on a phone call from Italy. “‘I think we should give ourselves a deadline [to finish the album], and then we should go out and tour the album.’ And then he looked at me, and he said, ‘Yeah, OK. That sounds like what we used to do.’” Jagger pauses and laughs. “I’m sure Keith would tell a completely different story.”

“The thing started with Mick saying, ‘It’s important now that we make a record,’” Richards says on a call from New York. “I’ve always thought that, but I said, ‘Well done, Mick.’” Richards laughs. “So he said, ‘We should blitz this thing and go for it.’ I said, ‘If you think you have enough material that you want to sing, then I’m right there behind you.’ If the singer likes to sing what he’s singing, that’s 90 percent of the game.” 

Jagger suggested a deadline of Valentine’s Day 2023, a finish line Richards told him was “a bit optimistic.” 

“I said, ‘I know it’s optimistic, but we’ve got to give it a date,’” Jagger says.

The sense of urgency made the difference. Hackney Diamondsdue on Oct. 20, spans the many styles the Stones have mastered in their six decades, from hard rockers (‘Angry’) to four-on-the-floor disco rockers (‘Mess It Up’) to country honks (‘Dreamy Skies’.) The band included two tracks recorded with Watts before his death, and the rest feature Steve Jordan, a drummer who’s toured with the Stones and played with Richards since the Eighties.

“We weren’t trying to re-create some retro record or retro sound or even retro playing,” Jagger says. “It’s supposed to sound like it’s recorded this year, which it more or less was.”

The record’s guest list reads like popular music’s Hall of Presidents: Paul McCartneyStevie Wonder, Elton John, Lady Gaga, and even self-exiled Stones bassist Bill Wyman, who returned for one of Watts’ final recordings. The album ends, however, with only Jagger and Richards performing Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone,” the blues staple that inspired the band’s name. Somehow in their 61 years, they’d never recorded the song. The way they tell the story, it’s an album that could only have happened now.

Moving forward without Charlie Watts, one of rock & roll’s all-time great drummers, was far from easy. “Anything I do is a tribute to Charlie Watts,” Richards says. “It’s impossible for me to lay anything down without automatically thinking that Mr. Watts is laying the backbeat down.” Watts’ presence on the album was important to the Stones. “If you’ve got Charlie Watts on it, man, that’s it,” Richards exclaims. “I so miss that, man.” But working with Jordan, whom Watts introduced Richards to, felt natural. “Steve actually moves the stage when he plays the drums,” guitarist Ron Wood says on a call from Barcelona. “He’s very earthquake-y.” 

Sometime last year, before they’d given themselves a deadline, the Glimmer Twins decamped to Jamaica with Jordan and pianist Matt Clifford to work on some new songs. Jagger, who was already familiar with Jordan’s style from the tours, found an easy collaborator in the drummer. “I’m a very groove-orientated person, so [when I write] I got an idea of what I think the groove is,” Jagger says. “It’s a band, so you can’t really lay the law down completely, but I kind of know what groove I’m going for.”

The session produced an early version of ‘Angry,’ which Jagger fleshed out with Jordan, singing along solo to the drumbeat. “I would just whap out the song’s lyrics to get the tempo,” Jagger says. “What accents can we put in? You want the chorus to be a different, slightly different feel from the verse. It’s a lot to do with danceability and spitting the lyrics out in the right tempo.” Jagger and Jordan also used this method for ‘Whole Wide World,’ a rollicking song with lyrics about escaping London’s “dreary streets,” and the gospel raveup ‘Sweet Sounds of Heaven,’ which Jagger had written at home on piano.

“I tend to overwrite, and then I take syllables out,” Jagger says. “You don’t want the vocals all the time there. You’ve got to leave space. I’m very aware of that.”

Meanwhile, they realised that their go-to producer since the early Nineties, Don Was, might not be available within their timeframe. “The whole thing was getting a little bit out of hand, and I said, ‘We need a referee,’” Wood says. “I was at dinner with Paul McCartney, and he was saying, ‘How’s it all going?’ And I said we need someone to boss us around. And he said, ‘Well, there’s this young New York boy, Andrew Watt. Give him a try.’” 

Unbeknownst to Wood, Jagger was already in touch with Watt, a Grammy-winning producer whose credits range from Miley Cyrus to Ozzy Osbourne. Don Was had introduced them a few years earlier when the Stones were remixing some singles. Shortly after the band’s concert in London’s Hyde Park last June, Jagger asked Watt if he’d be interested in producing the album. Since the Stones are one of the 32-year-old’s favorite bands, Watt says he blurted out an emphatic “Does a bear shit in the woods?” 

“Andy seemed very enthusiastic,” Jagger says matter-of-factly. 

The band convened at New York’s Electric Lady Studios not long after and invited Watt. “You gotta understand, I’m a fucking fan,” Watt says. “If I told them how many Rolling Stones concerts I’d seen, I don’t think they’d ever talk to me again. When we were in the studio, I’d tell them, ‘You let a freak from behind the barricade produce the album.’ I wore a different Stones T-shirt in the studio every day.” With Watt on board, they recorded variously in New York, London, Paris, and Los Angeles over the next few months — and they met their deadline.

Watt began his work by sifting through demos of more than 100 songs. “[Andrew] came in, bossed us around, listened to the stuff, shuffled the pack, and chose the royal flush of the songs,” Wood says. “The pick of the bunch is amazing.”

“We’d worked before like this,” Jagger says. “We learned and rehearsed some songs … and bang, bang, bang. So, yeah, we did a lot of songs like that, 20-something songs. And then we started overdubbing them, prioritizing them.”

“We had only been off the road for a few weeks or months,” Richards says, “so we were all wired up, playing-wise.”

Watt remembers Richards putting in hours of overdub sessions and instances where, after a night out, he’d tell Jagger that he was going back to the studio. Jagger would insist on coming with him. “Keith worked very hard,” Jagger says. “He worked a lot of days consecutively. And then I came in and did some vocals, and Ronnie did the same. And then I went to Nassau, or Bahamas, and did my vocals in January.”

As they worked, they also started welcoming guests into the studio — including an old friend and fellow legend: Stevie Wonder, who helped to summon a vibe on the gospel-ish ‘Sweet Sounds of Heaven.’ Watt has a tattoo of Wonder on his finger, and thought the artist, who’d toured with the Stones in 1972, would be the perfect fit for the song. “How cool, as a fan, for Stevie Wonder to be playing on a Rolling Stones song?” he says, pride still in his voice.

Before they started recording, Wonder and the Stones talked a little about the old days (Wonder says he took the energy from the road then into the studio when he recorded ‘Superstition’), and they jammed on a jazzy version of ‘Satisfaction,’ and then on a reggae version. Then they got down to business. Wonder played traditional piano, Fender Rhodes, and Moog bass on ‘Heaven.’ The band transposed his bass line into a rousing horn section à la Sticky Fingers’ ‘I Got the Blues.’

“I felt that the song needed a place of celebration, a celebration of the spirit of the rhythms and the spirit of just everybody coming together for that event,” Wonder says, adding how he was moved by the way in which the song paid tribute to Watts. “It’s not saying, ‘Goodbye,’ to me, it’s saying, ‘Hello.’”

“It just was so moving to be in the studio with Stevie,” Wood says. “Watching Stevie play his array of keyboards: a little bit of synthesizer, a little bit of Moog here, and a bit of clavinet there, and a grand piano here, and the lovely moods that he invoked. It was lots of great inspiration in the whole band.”

“To get Stevie to play it with all those gospel chords, it makes it come alive and takes it to another level,” Jagger says. “And you feel, ‘Oh, wow.’”

Lady Gaga was recording in the same studio at the time and asked Jagger if she could stop by to say hello. “She just walked in, in front of me, and she just curled up in a ball in front of me on the floor,” Jagger recalls of the “Sweet Sounds” session. “And then someone gave her a mic, and she started singing oohs and ahs.” 

It was off-the-cuff, but he liked it. “She was sitting there on the floor just digging it and singing along,” Wood says, “and Mick said, ‘Well, come on in. Stand up. Let’s make a thing of this then. Let’s do it properly.’” They did another session to tighten it up, singing while facing each other. “It just showed me how versatile she is,” Wonder says. “It was great to hear her sing [with] sort of a soulful feeling.”

At one point, when the song started to end, they all picked it back up again with Wonder playing a solo. The vibes were excellent. “It’s just a great thing we were able to come together again to think about Charlie and think about his consistent kindness,” Wonder says. “It was as consistent as the driving beats of the songs when they played.”

The Stones culled Charlie Watts’ two Hackney Diamonds tracks, ‘Mess It Up’ and ‘Live by the Sword’ — both recorded around 2019 — from their massive stockpile of recordings. “We have so much stuff in the can … nobody could figure out how to make an album out of it,” Richards says. Watt suggested they bring in Wyman for ‘Sword,’ so Jagger phoned him up. “I said, ‘Are you still playing? Can you come and do this one track with Charlie on it?’” Jagger recalls. The bassist, who left the band in the early Nineties, agreed. “It’s really sweet,” Wood says of having a reunion of sorts of the Some Girls lineup of the band. “You have a kind of unique rhythm section there, a slightly different feel to the other songs,” Jagger says.

“Mick got in touch and asked if I would play on one of the new album tracks featuring Charlie on drums, which I was happy to agree to,” Wyman tells Rolling Stone in a statement. “It was a great opportunity to play alongside the late Charlie, my much missed and closest friend, once again.”

“I’ll never forget, Mick and I listened to just the bass and drums soloed up and it was so emotional,” Watt says. “Charlie playing straight, and Bill swinging so hard — that’s, like, the most ‘Sixties’ song on the album.”

Wyman cameo aside, low-end duties were mostly handled by Richards, Wood, and Watt; the producer says that the band’s longtime bassist, Darryl Jones, was unavailable because he was on tour during the sessions. Until, that is, another legendary old friend, who just happens to be pretty good at playing bass, got involved. Watt was already working with McCartney on another project in Los Angeles when Jagger got wind and asked his old friend to join the Stones in the studio. “I’d sung with Paul before and I’d hung out with Paul a lot, but I’ve never played with him,” Jagger says. “I didn’t know what song to do. Should we do ‘Depending on You,’ like a ballad? Or something else? And Andy said, ‘Well, let’s try him on your punk song, on ‘Bite My Head Off’. Paul seemed very happy to play in a band where he didn’t have all the responsibility; he was just the bass player. And he really rocked out. He fitted straight in. It was like we’d been playing with him for years. It was a really good feeling.”

“Paul said to me, ‘Can you believe, here we are in the studio together?’” Wood says. “He said, ‘I have a dream come true: I’m playing with the Rolling Stones. And guess who is producing? Andrew, like we said.’ He was loving it, like a kid in a toy shop.” Wood says McCartney also played on another track they plan to use for another release.

Elton John wound up becoming something of a session player, commanding boogie-woogie piano (and not even singing) on ‘Get Close’ and ‘Live by the Sword,’ to Jagger’s surprise, since the Stone suspected John would have wanted a larger role on the songs. John decided to do it for fun. “Elton loves to play, and he started as a session musician,” Watt says. “Everyone’s a fan of the Rolling Stones. Just like Paul, Elton was like, ‘I just fucking played with the Rolling Stones.’” 

The thing that makes Hackney Diamonds special, though, is that despite its guest list, it’s thoroughly a Rolling Stones album, with Jagger sounding particularly emotional and in your face. “Sometimes he’d do a take and he’d say, ‘I’m singing too good,’” Watt says. “‘I gotta do that again and “throw it away” more.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Throw it away more — feeling.’ And he’d go back out there and do the most effortless shit that you’ve ever heard in your life that was so much better and catchier.”

“You need time to really get into it to be able to sing [a song] as if you know it really well,” Jagger says. “Because how many times have I done [something new] compared to how many times I’ve done ‘Paint It Black’ ? You don’t have to do it 2,000 times, but you can’t just do it on take three, because you don’t really know your own song. You have to learn the song, how it would be if you’ve done it onstage a few times.”

Jagger and Richards wrote the lyrics, drawing on personal moments and digging deep. “It is an album about a lot of personal relationships, though there are other things,” Jagger says. “‘Dreamy Skies’ is kind of introspective. ‘Sweet Sounds of Heaven’ is kind of like a gospel song, but it’s got personal things in it. ‘Whole Wide World’ is supposed to be sort of tongue-in-cheek, uplifting, so that whatever happens to you, you can always get over it. I threw in a few things from my youth in London to throw into some of those verses about living in Fulham and all that.” He pauses. “I never really lived in Fulham, but it alliterates with ‘filthy,’ so it’s better than ‘Chelsea.’” Jagger laughs.

Wood says ‘Whole Wide World’ is his favorite on the album, but he felt inspired by many of the songs. “I like Keith’s guitar on ‘Angry,’ ‘Tell Me Straight,’ and ‘Driving Me Too Hard,’” he says. “There’s a different kind of feel on ‘Driving Me Too Hard’; it’s almost country. And ‘Dreamy Skies’ is very sweet. It has a ‘Sweet Virginia’-type feel. You’ve got the dance track, ‘Mess It Up,’ which has also got Charlie on drums. There’s so many different genres on it that I love.” 

Watt suggested they do an acoustic blues, but Jagger wasn’t interested in writing an original. “He’s like, ‘Andy, I don’t have time to write fucking blues lyrics; I’m writing 28 lyrics that I have to make sure I have finished,’” Watt recalls. So they decided instead that Jagger and Richards should take it way back with ‘Rollin’ Stone.’ “That was a fun thing to do with Keith,” Jagger says. “We’ve never done that song, so we had to get it down. There’s so many Muddy Waters songs. That one, the song that we named the band after, we’d never done. I don’t know why.”

“I love the fact that Andrew kicked everyone out of the studio and said, ‘Mick and Keith, you are going to play the song when you first met, inspired by the album you had under your arm on the station when you were kids: Muddy Waters’ ‘Rolling Stone Blues,’” Wood says. “I thought that was very sweet.”

Getting in the Muddy Waters mindset was no problem for the twosome. “Mick and I can toss that off in a barroom to pay for a drink,” Richards says, adding he was impressed how Watt got the right sound and guitars for the recording. “It was beautiful to be able to do it, because it wouldn’t have occurred to me to do that. And Andrew had to force us both to say, ‘Come on.’

“I mean, the song is, in a way, the most obvious thing to do,” Richards continues. “After all, the band is named after that track. When we did it, Mick and I were just together face to face and going, ‘We got to do the shit here and lay it out.’ And so that’s what we did.”

“With each take, they moved closer and closer together,” Watt says. “I believe what you hear is take four. And in the beginning, the timing is wobbly and cool — it’s two people playing against each other. By the end of the song, they’re literally playing the same licks at the same time on the harp [harmonica] and the guitar. It’s the same inversions, the same notes, the same rhythms. They become one another. That to me encapsulates that these two guys fucking need each other.”

Jagger and Richards — and Wood, too — all need one another. It’s hardwired into them. Jagger and Richards have now known each other for approximately 75 years. Sometimes when Richards thinks about his age, he questions everything. “What the fuck am I doing? I’m 80 years old and playing rock & roll,” he says, punctuating his thoughts with a belly laugh. But he says those thoughts are usually fleeting. “I don’t think about age or anything at all,” he says jovially. (For the record, Richards is 79 and Jagger is 80.)

With a final track like “Rollin’ Stone,” does that mean this might be the last time the Rolling Stones record? “People have been saying that for 40 years,” Richards says, laughing. “That is one of the weird things like, ‘What the hell are you doing here at this age?’ And the only answer is ‘This is what I do.’”

One of the most difficult parts of making the album was choosing a title. “We’d been throwing out a lot of ideas, but no one could agree on anything,” Jagger says, tension building in his voice. “I was at the end of my tether.” Then a friend of his, painter and sculptor Marc Quinn, showed him photos of what he called “Hackney diamonds.” “Hackney’s a part of London, so ‘Hackney diamonds’ is when you go out Saturday night, and you feel rough and ready to destroy things,” Jagger says. “You smash the windshield of a car, and it all splinters out and the glass falls on the ground, and you call that ‘Hackney diamonds.’ I sent it ’round to Ronnie and Keith, and Keith said, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ I said, ‘Thank God for that. We’ve got one.’” The relief still echoes in his voice.

Although Hackney Diamonds has 12 songs, the band worked on between 23 and 29 tracks in their blitz, depending on who’s telling it, meaning they have plenty to work with if they want to make another record. Jagger says some of the other songs that they’re holding onto for now had messages of social commentary. “It’s all within the Stones’ orbit of music,” Jagger says. “I don’t think we’re really breaking out. There’s a few tracks that we didn’t release that perhaps were a little bit more … [sounds and styles] that you’ve never heard the Stones do before.” Watt says he hopes one day to finish the rest of the songs. “It’s like Batman,” he says. “They put the tongue up in the air, and I will fucking be there. It would be amazing.”

So what does Jagger hope the record says about the band that previous LPs haven’t? “I think this album is the Stones, but now,” Jagger says. “I just think it’s the Stones this year…. I wanted it to be great. I didn’t want it to be just an album that was OK. And I think the album delivered what I wanted.”

“I think this record is halfway a tribute to Charlie Watts and the Stones’ history,” Richards says, “and [half] an attempt at the future and how much there is left.” That said, the guitarist is still making sense of it, since the recording process was a blur. It’s been so long since the Stones put out new music, he says, it’s almost like a new feeling for him. “I’m as fresh as anybody else on this,” he says, laughing. “I’m growing into it.… It’s like, ‘Here’s a new Stones record.’ And I’ve heard it for the first time, and I’m still trying to decide.”

Richards nevertheless looks forward to developing the songs on the road. “Without anybody croaking or breaking a leg in the next year, I wouldn’t be surprised at all [if we toured],” he says.

At the end of the day, he knows why the Stones still play rock & roll. “Who else can do it?” he says when asked what keeps him going. “If the Stones can’t do it, nobody else can.”