Mick Jagger: Why he likes hard work and thinks his parents' generation were the real rebels

The Rolling Stones star prepares for the launch of his solo album
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Which hard-working, spiritual singer has a solo album out next week with one song in praise of the work ethic and two others about religion? The answer isn't difficult, as his picture adorns this page, but it's still a little surprising. So when I talk to Mick Jagger over a drink in Soho, I ask him if the man who has been the byword for the sneering, rebellious rock star for more than 40 years has been misjudged.

He smiles, and it's still the case that when Jagger smiles it at first creases, splits and then lights up his face and almost the entire room. Then just as suddenly he looks deadly serious. "I was always brought up to be very hard-working. And after listening to Gordon Brown's speech this week I thought I was back in those days. All that stuff about the moral compass. But, yes, I suppose I do believe in the work ethic."

Which would explain the song's uncomplicated title, "Let's Work", and the lyric "Ain't gonna cry for you if you're lazy." A whole generation of Sixties parents might need to have second thoughts about their hate figure.

And what about religion and the song "Joy" on which he duets with Bono? "It has religious overtones, which is why I asked Bono to sing. He sings religious songs, doesn't he? I'm very ambivalent about religion. When you write songs you think it's going to be about one thing and something else creeps in, and you make that the theme."

We are both sitting on sofas, and he lies back on his, perhaps to contemplate heaven as he works life out. "Like most English people I'm not a great believer. I've read Richard Dawkins' book and it's very persuasive. I'm more in awe of the universe and that's not really a belief in God. It's a belief in something. I don't have belief in the Holy Book. I don't think many English people do.

"My parents' generation weren't religious either. They were the rebels."

Wait a minute. Is the symbol of Sixties rebellion now saying that the real rebels were that staid, conformist Forties generation? "Well, my grandparents were born at the end of the 19th century, which was when Britain was a nation of believers, and their children rebelled against that. The religious part of rebelling had already been done by our parents. We didn't have to bother about that."

Does he then agree that the standard public perception of him might be a little awry? "People are very complex, aren't they? I recently did an interview with a German journalist and all he wanted to talk about was style. I don't really think of myself as that, but he thought of me as a clothes horse. I felt like a Duke of Windsor figure. But I did it. I don't want to push it all on to Charlie. I don't know how people think of me. One doesn't want to think of that. You will go nutty."

That brief affectionate allusion to the nattily dressed drummer of The Rolling Stones leads me to cut a deal with Jagger. That's not easily done. He is one canny businessman, as his organisation of the Stones' tours (with a map in his dressing room showing at precisely which city the tour goes into profit), his relatively new career in film production (upcoming: The Women, with Meg Ryan) and many other ventures demonstrate. But though we've agreed to talk about his new collection of the best of his solo work, I say that I want to throw in three Rolling Stones question, the first of which I've never heard him address before.

He sighs to that same heaven he was spiritually contemplating a few moments before. "Oh, I hate this. I reserve my right to remain silent." Fortunately, he doesn't.

Does he think that Brian Jones was unlawfully killed? His firm "No" is stretched over four syllables, making me think that he has been keen to put an end to 38 years of conspiracy theories, articles and books about his erstwhile bandmate's drowning in a swimming pool. "I know of no evidence to suggest that it was anything but an accident. It might make a good book, but I have seen no evidence whatsoever."

OK. Would he agree that his one moment of utter naivety was to allow the Hells Angels to be security at the Altamont concert, where a fan was stabbed to death? "Actually, there have been several naive moments. But that certainly ranks as one, yes."

And, less contentiously, but at least it will forestall a year's worth of "last time" stories, will the Stones ever tour again? "I don't see why not. I can't see into the future, but at the moment I don't see why touring again should be a problem."

In the interim, there is this solo album, 17 of the best tracks from his four solo albums. It's an excellent collection, which certainly makes one reappraise Jagger's solo career. The sound is perhaps inevitably a Rolling Stones sound, even if those themes of hard work and spiritual yearning might not sit so comfortably on Stones' albums. And if the sound is a Stones one, these tracks are arguably rather better than some of the material on recent Stones' albums, if Jagger doesn't think that too double-edged a compliment.

That leads me to ask about something that has long puzzled me. Why don't or can't the great Sixties songwriters write comparable work now? Could he come up with "Honky Tonk Women" today?

"I don't know that I agree with you," Jagger says. "I think that if you didn't know when certain songs had come out you might be hard pushed to say. The factors that often lead us to judge songs to be great involve the performance and how many people cover them, things like that."

There's some vintage Jagger on the new collection, not least "Memo from Turner", with a young Ry Cooder on slide guitar, the song Jagger penned for the 1970 gangster movie Performance in which he starred alongside James Fox, and regarding which, in a telling sign of those times, Rolling Stone magazine tenderly counselled its readers: "Don't see it on acid."

The film seems never to have lost its cult status. "No," agrees Jagger. "I saw it last week in a list of the top 10 British films of all time, which was stronging it a bit. When it came out everyone said it was crap, and the studio wanted to dump it. There was a lot of stuff in there that people thought was too graphic. James found it disturbing to be in, and it was disturbing for the time. But I loved that it used documentary footage. I found that fascinating. You get the real London, not the London of Alfred Hitchcock films."

The few previously unreleased tracks on the new album include a startlingly good Rick Rubin-produced song, "Charmed Life", featuring Jagger's daughter Karis on backing vocals, and "Too Many Cooks", which will have a special resonance for rock historians, as it was produced in 1973 by John Lennon. Jagger always had a special relationship with his supposed rival.

"I was friends with all four of them in different ways, but I got on with John perhaps the easiest. We had a lot in common. He had two different sides to him: a very acerbic side – I don't want to say a Scouse thing, but it was distrust of pretentiousness, and also quick-witted and funny – and the other facet of his personality was this sort of universalist, the give peace a chance, this naive idealism that obviously struck a chord with people. And it could be difficult to reconcile those two sides.

"He was in the studio with me for this track during what was called his Lost Weekend. He'd had an argument with Yoko, but then he made up with her and went back."

During the five years that Lennon barely left his apartment before his death, Jagger spoke out publicly that others could bake the bread and change the nappies: John should be out making music.

"Yes, I did say that and I still think I was right," says Jagger. "There's a balance for creative people between domesticity and being out there. I think you have to be out there, being creative."

Jagger himself was most recently creative in the Stones' gigs at London's 02 Centre. We discuss how the idea behind the 02 was to house a super-casino until the Government eventually vetoed the idea. "I disliked the idea of having these new casinos in Britain," says Jagger. "I said to a member of the Labour government, 'Have you ever been inside a casino?' Of course, he hadn't. They're not very nice.

"But," he adds, "I don't want to sound puritanical..."

It's OK. No one's going to rewrite social history quite that much.

'The Very Best of Mick Jagger' is out on 2 October on Atlantic/Rhino Records