Bands are rarely advised to wait too long between album releases. In a fast-moving marketplace, artists can sometimes return to a very different world from the one they last visited. But in the case of the Rolling Stones, a gap of 18 years since their last album of new songs only helped build the anticipation for their new record, Hackney Diamonds, to fever pitch.
There were several times, in the years after their last album of new material, 2005’s A Bigger Bang, when they were said to be recording the next one. There were indeed sessions, but they were unfocused and largely unfruitful. Who says so? Mick Jagger himself.
“We recorded a lot of stuff and we did a lot of sessions,” he tells us. “But there was no deadline, there was no ‘Let’s finish these next week,’ none of that. It was just ‘Do two weeks’ recording’ and then there were no plans to come back together again.”
There were occasional, impressive singles, notably 2012’s “Doom & Gloom” and 2020’s lockdown narrative “Living In A Ghost Town.” But generally, after each of their record-breaking tours, the band would retreat to their respective corners. When it was time to reunite, it was not to make an album, but to begin rehearsals for the next epic itinerary.
Thus 50 & Counting, 14 On Fire, Zip Code, América Latina Olé, the extended No Filter, and finally last year’s Sixty celebration all played the world’s stages with millions of ticket sales. But the only studio offering during that time was 2016’s Grammy-winning blues covers set Blue & Lonesome. After Charlie Watts died in 2021, and that 60th anniversary passed without new work, we wondered if there would ever be a new Stones album at all.
That all changed when they finally made a firm commitment to get in the studio, and hooked up with a new producer, 32-year-old, Grammy-winning New Yorker Andrew Watt, at Henson in Los Angeles. By their own description, he has breathed fresh air into a venerable rock institution. After trial sessions, they got down to serious business in L.A. last December, and Jagger gave the band a finishing date of Valentine’s Day.
“I’ve got to give the man hats off for this push,” says Keith Richards of his bandmate of 61 years. “He said ‘Come on, we’ve just got to do something. Doesn’t matter what we do. We’ve got to make a record.’ I said ‘Ok, let’s not pussyfoot about. You’ve got what you want to sing, let’s go.’ And the man had got a lot stored up.
“It was a pleasure to put it together, it was a pleasure to work with Andrew Watt, who really added the gas in there and kept the thing going. Probably the most important thing about the record, at least from my point of view, is it was a lot of energy and it was a forced-in blitzkrieg. You either went in all the way or you didn’t, and it came pretty much as we’d hoped. It was interesting work, and now I’m still catching up with it, actually. I never used to work this fast.”
Adds Jagger: “We’d been messing around too long and not concentrating, and not being clear enough about our goals, and letting it drift. I’m not really going to blame everyone for that, it was my own fault as much as anyone else’s. But I did realise that we couldn’t let it drift anymore, and we had to do it properly, and in a quick way with someone that’s going to really concentrate on it. And that’s what we did.”
What’s more, they more or less made that deadline. “After a while, we knew we were getting somewhere, and we were going fast as well,” notes Mick. “So we’d do at least two tracks a day, if not three – we’d do two and maybe rehearse the next one, [which] we’d come in and do the next day. So when you’re going fast, you don’t have to stop, you know you’ve got a lot of stuff. I think we were only cutting for three weeks.”
Spontaneous guest appearances by Lady Gaga and Stevie Wonder were shared ahead of the album release on the testifying “Sweet Sounds of Heaven,” while Paul McCartney adds a scintillating bass solo on “Bite My Head Off.” “Paul seemed to really enjoy it,” says Jagger. “I didn’t know which track to say to suggest he should play on, and when Andy said ‘Do ‘Bite Your Head Off,’’ I thought that was maybe not Paul’s cup of tea, but it turned out he played brilliantly on it.
“I’m glad it happened, that‘s all I can say, and it was really good fun doing,” says Mick. “So yeah, I wish it had happened before, there was no reason it couldn’t have done, it’s just we were being a bit lazy, I think. I was getting a bit frustrated because there was no urgency about anything. So we had to create that urgency, and say ‘Ok, are you guys in for being urgent?!’ And everyone was. I just needed to say it, and everyone fell in, and it was a good feeling that everyone was so supportive.”
Watt’s confidence in telling perhaps the biggest rock band in history what he wanted was transformative. Wood describes him as “a young boy, full of fire, full of front, and he bosses us around, and it’s so encouraging and pleasing to follow his orders. It’s backed up by the fact that Andrew can play, and he knows what he wants. This is exactly what we needed.”
With longtime bassman Darryl Jones unavailable for the track dates, Watt plays bass on many numbers and has three co-writes with Jagger and Richards, almost unheard of in the time-honored songwriting axis. One of these is the urgent, irrepressible first single “Angry,” which made the Stones a global talking point for their new music in a way that hasn’t happened in a long while. “It was a good track to kick off with, I think,” says Jagger. “Almost the first song we recorded [for the album]. Sort of kicks along, which is what you want.” Adds Ronnie Wood: “I’m just blown away with the way it’s been accepted. Unbelievable.”
Hackney Diamonds is the band’s first album with longtime friend Steve Jordan, who had Watts’ express blessing to take the drum seat if he was ever indisposed, as sadly he became. “After Charlie handing the baton on to Steve, the ship kept sailing, we didn’t stop,” says Wood. “We just kept the wind in our sails and said ‘Charlie wouldn’t want us to stop,’ and we carry on with a huge bang from Steve Jordan.”
But Watts does make two poignant cameos on the album, on parts recorded in 2019, for the almost disco-flavored “Mess It Up” and the rockier “Live By The Sword,” the latter also featuring one of Elton John’s two piano contributions. Even more touchingly, “Sword” also has bass by Bill Wyman, thus becoming a recreation of lost times.
“We asked Bill to come in,” explains Mick. “I said ‘Do you want to do it? It’s an old track with Charlie, it’s not one of the ones we just recently did’ and he said ‘Yeah, I’d love to do it.’ So it does have a slightly different groove, that song, I think, because you’ve got Bill and Charlie who are the original rhythm section.”
Asked about Watts’ posthumous appearance, he adds: “I am emotional [about it], but I like the fact that he’s on it, in another way. We do have some really great tracks with Charlie on that we recorded in that period, some other really good ones, so who knows, we might put some others out.”
Indeed, those three weeks of recording produced a remarkable 23 songs, to such a standard that there is already talk of the possibility of another record. “They’ll have to be finished,” says Jagger, “but we’ve got a good jump on getting the next album done.”
There’s also every possibility of new dates, especially in the wake of the eve-of-release, 40-minute set of tracks from Hackney Diamonds and Stones classics at a New York launch party. Keith reveals: “By the time we get it on stage, it’ll be great, man. That’s the whole plan. As Mick says, ‘Let’s finish a record.’ I said ‘Yeah, then what? And then, we take it on the road.’ Next year, I guess.”
Taking a step back, he concludes: “In a way, it’s so bizarre. ‘Oh my God, I’m putting out a new record!’ and I’m going ‘How long?’ So I’m sort of getting used to this thing again. You forget. Funny how time slips away,” he laughs. “Who knows when these things happen? 18 years I cannot believe. But you get to my age, you can believe anything.”
Buy or stream Hackney Diamonds.