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The Rolling Stones - Hackney Diamonds
(Polydor Records, 2023)
We live in a curious period where we (Baby Boomers) are witnessing, in real-time, the deaths from old age of many of our rock music icons, begging the question of “...when is a band no longer a band?” due to the loss of pivotal members. And to extend that thought, when should they retire? We have several salient examples. The Who lost drummer Keith Moon in 1978 between Who Are You (Polydor, 1978) and Face Dances (Polydor, 1981). Kenny Jones was an inspired replacement for Moon, but not in the same way that Ron Wood replaced Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones in 1976.
No, The Who was diminished by the loss of Moon. But they were hardly down for the count. When The Who appeared at the Concert for New York on October 20, 2001, in the whirlwind that was immediately post-9/11 America, they dominated among a list of comparable acts in a way not seen since Queen showed up at Live Aid on July 13, 1985, burning down that festival. Peter Townsend played as if possessed and Roger Daltry's voice was in fine fiddle (queue up “Behind Blue Eyes” from that show and register the pride and rage in both).
It was not until the death of bassist John Entwistle the next year that The Who was reduced to its indivisible core of Townsend and Daltry. The band completed a compelling tour after that, with Pino Palladino on bass but no notable new music was to emerge from the band, who have faded into making their long goodbye. Likewise, AC/DC lost the incomparable Bon Scott to an alcohol-fueled misadventure in early 1980 after touring to support Highway To Hell (Atlantic, 1979) and the recording of Back In Black (Atlantic, 1980). Vocalist Brian Johnson emerged, transforming Back In Black into his own, taking the band through the 1980s, ‘90s, and ‘00s. Founding member Malcolm Young left the band in 2010, dying in 2017 from dementia and while the band continued, the power and popularity of Back In Black were long in the rearview mirror for the band.
When John Bonham aspirated his vomit after an impressive night of drinking, dying on September 25, 1980, his band Led Zeppelin was already well on their way out. The band’s masterpiece, Physical Graffiti (Swan Song, 1975), was a distant five years in the past with the intervening Presence (Swan Song 1976) and In Through The Out Door (Swan Song, 1979) being only pale visages of this once mighty band. Hell, even Coda (Swan Song, 1982), a collection of outtakes from the length of the band’s career was better. The death of Bonham effectively ended Led Zeppelin as a creative entity, and, in doing so, created the enduring image of the archetype of hard rock.
So, what of the Rolling Stones? The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the world suffered the dismissal and death of founding member Brian Jones in the Summer of 1969. Rather than ending the band, the remaining members brought on guitarist Mick Jones, and went on to record the most important music of their careers: Let It Bleed (Decca, 1969), Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out: The Rolling Stones In Concert (London, 1970), Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones, 1971), Exile On Main St. (Rolling Stones, 1972), Goat’s Head Soup (Rolling Stones, 1973), and It’s Only Rock And Roll (Rolling Stones, 1974).
Then Jones left the band and again, the remaining members auditioned several guitarists, settling on the most sensible and seamless choice of Ron Wood of the Faces and Rod Stewart. Black and Blue (Rolling Stones, 1976) resulted and was a mixed bag of songs recorded with guitarists Harvey Mandel, Wayne Perkins, and Wood, never getting the creative traction of the Mick Jones/Jimmy Miller period. That changed with the band’s last critically great recording, Some Girls (Rolling Stones, 1978). The uneven Emotional Rescue (Rolling Stones, 1980) came next, followed by the band’s equivalent to Led Zeppelin’s Coda, Tattoo You (Rolling Stones, 1981), after which the band’s commercial appeal waned.
By this time, the Rolling Stones were fully businessmen with a business model consisting of releasing a studio album followed by a tour, followed by a live recording from the tour. In 1993, bassist Bill Wyman left the band and was replaced by Darryl Jones (who was never an official band member). The band, as such, spent the rest of the 1990s, ‘00s, and ‘10s getting as much mileage from live appearances and recordings of past tours, making a pile of money. The Rolling Stones continued to defy all natural law until August 2021, when it was announced that Watts would not perform on the remainder of the No Filter tour; being replaced by Steve Jordan on drums. Watts died on August 24, 2021, throwing the band's future into question.
Watts’ death served as a kick in the pants for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to complete a current project that had become stalled. That project turned into Hackney Diamonds, the Rolling Stones’ 24th British and 26th American album, released on October 20, 2023. These sessions provided enough additional material for the band’s next album. This recording is a lot of things. The last gasp of decrepit classic rockers is not one of them.
By the numbers, Hackney Diamonds was the first studio album by the band since 2016’s collection of blues standards, Blue and Lonesome (Polydor Records), and the first collection of new compositions since A Bigger Bang (Rolling Stones, 2005). The new recording represents a sunset period for the band that could go perilously bad if not executed well.
A collection of clashing impressions expressed themselves during the first listen. The production reflects the presence of Andrew Watt (Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Ozzy Osbourne, Pearl Jam, Iggy Pop, and many others) who brought both a youthful polish and 21st Century pop music kitsch to the music. Long in the tooth for the youthful swagger of the Mick Taylor era through Tattoo You, the Glimmer Twins have grown into the petulant inhabitants of the series Thirty Something (MGM/UA Television, 1987-91) had that series been deposited in the 2010s. “Angry” and “Bite My Head Off” (featuring Sir Paul McCartney on bass) would make great married couple TikTok scenarios. “Get Close” alone, with its tasty James King tenor saxophone solo, anoints Hackney Diamonds as the Stone’s “pop” album like Some Girls being the band’s disco-punk recording.
“Depending On You” echoes “Moonlight Mile” shot through with John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses”-era Stones hommage. The song features Ron Wood’s simple but elegant slide guitar and lush strings. “Whole Wide World” continues the “Get Close” pop vibe, infused with the Clash’s “London Calling” drive. Don Was slips in to produce the punchy “Live By The Sword” which takes advantage of Elton John’s two-fisted pianism. “Drive Me Too Hard” teases the listener with a “Tumblin’ Dice” intro that quickly morphs into a Springsteen “Glory Days” sound.
“Sweet Sounds of Heaven” is that mythologic Janis song, looking forward and backward at once. Backward, it channels the country of “Loving Cup” with the Gospel patina of “Shine A Light.” Lady Gaga reprises Merry Clayton from “Gimme Shelter” funneled through the sweet sacred church of rhythm and blues. The lengthiest cut on the album, “Heaven” receives the most expansive production, that befitting a concert show stopper. In stark comparison with the rest of the album,
Mick and Keith close the recording with the Muddy Waters’ song that gave the band its name. Muddy Waters recorded “Rollin’ Stone” early in 1950 for Chess Records. It was released on the 78 rpm shellac (1426, U 7237) with the B-side “Walkin’ Blues (1426, U-7238). Jagger and Richards likely first heard the song on the LP The Best Of Muddy Waters (Chess Records, 1957). Comparing the two performances recorded 66 years apart, it seems that the two sat down and studied the original recording intently, then recorded their version immediately after. Richards stomps out the beat on an overdriven electric guitar with Jagger adding his vastly underrated harmonica to the original. Magic happens in the most low-fi ways.
Romantically speaking, this would be the perfect way to conclude their lengthy and successful careers, save for the remaining albums worth of songs from these sessions. Jagger’s vocals are undiminished (the same cannot be said for Richards, who sings the plaintive “Tell Me Straight”) Richards’ and Wood’s guitar playing also remains alert despite arthritis and other ravages of time. No, these guys remain intact as a band and are not finished yet.