ROCK / Adulation guaranteed - 'Or-right?': Mick Jagger talked to Giles Smith about his new solo album, life with the Stones and the night Ronnie Wood went down better than ever
Monday 25 January 1993
In 1992, the members of the Rolling Stones went off to make solo albums - with the exception of the bassist Bill Wyman, who simply went off. (Jagger isn't naming likely replacements, though his office briskly denies that The Who's John Entwistle is up for the job.) So, after the Charlie Watts album and the Ronnie Wood album and the Keith Richards album, here comes the Mick Jagger album which, in a radical break with the traditional way of Mick Jagger solo albums (there have been two before this), is actually rather good.
'Y'know, what's odd is that only Charlie has done a solo album which really went away from the band. The rest of the band, including myself, has done albums which are not really a million miles away from what we do in the Rolling Stones - a little bit different, sure, and done with a different attitude. But it's not as different as Charlie doing his Charlie Parker tribute. Keith's album sounds to me exactly how it is when he says to me, 'I've got this song and it goes like this.' He didn't really go out on a limb there. Ronnie the same.' Maybe this reveals where everyone's heart is. 'Yeah. Or maybe it just shows a complete lack of imagination.'
Jagger says he wrote most of the songs for Wandering Spirit at his home in the Loire Valley, choosing it above his homes in New York, London and Mustique because 'I've got this little room there, which is sort of like a library and it's really good for making demos in.' Friends dropped in for weekends and fortnights (Charlie Watts, Doug Wimbish) and the songs formed as they fooled around - 'a kind of folky / country one', 'a Stones-ey kind of joke tune', 'a stop-time rocker, sort of a lollopy thing with a few lurches in it'. Perhaps the best is 'Sweet Thing', the new single, for which Jagger shifts into falsetto - the strange, muted howl heard on 'Fool to Cry', 'Miss You', 'Emotional Rescue'.
There was a point in the 1980s when it seemed Jagger would have to go solo for good. In an argument that nearly polished off the Rolling Stones, he was accused by Richards of smuggling a solo deal into the terms of the Stones' group contract. The issue confirmed for some a suspicion that Jagger was the McCartney to Keith Richards' Lennon: Jagger the flip entertainer, the business specialist, the money man, set in unflattering contrast with Richards, the rock'n'roller who never sold out. But perhaps this is a point of view notable less for its accuracy about Jagger than for its rosy vision of Richards, whose freedom to wander around looking famously wasted is to some extent guaranteed by Jagger's hold on the Stones' business affairs.
'There's a lot of bullshit that Keith never got involved with. Not that I wanted him to get involved, because you get two people involved it takes twice as long, it's another committee for everything. But there's a lot goes on in making a record that isn't to do with guitar-playing or songwriting. I work a lot with Charlie on a lot of aspects of it. And Keith knows that if Charlie and I are doing it, then it's not only me, and it's not only Charlie.'
The fury between them dispersed. Richards has said they've been firmer friends since. As if to confirm it, last December Jagger pushed his way into the over-stuffed Marquee Club to watch his writing partner play a furtive solo show. 'It was a good gig. Kind of too small. And the drums were so loud upstairs. I was on the balcony which was full of rather horrible-looking people in raincoats; rather ugly-looking crowd, up on the balcony - all the liggers. Of course, I've seen him up close, so for me it wasn't a novelty.' Cue the Jagger grin, a wicked flash of teeth, eyes closed entirely.
In March, Jagger and Richards will begin writing the next Stones album. 'We've got to talk about where we're going to do this. Maybe I'll go over to Keith's place in Connecticut and then maybe we can go to the Caribbean. But it helps to charge up being in the city first, because it's sort of city music. If you spend your whole life in the country, you start to write like The Byrds. Which may not be what's needed.'
As with Lennon & McCartney, the question of who wrote what in the Jagger /Richards partnership has taxed the curious - a mystery compounded in their case by the instability of the authors' own recollections. 'Sometimes,' says Jagger, sounding both amused and narked, 'I see what Keith remembers he wrote and I say, 'it's completely wrong, y'know? That's not true at all, you're thinking of that other song. So wrong, you were not even anywhere near there.'
'But I do remember 'Brown Sugar'. I had one of the first electric guitars you could play through headphones. And I was shooting the film Ned Kelly and I was out in the middle of this field, way in the middle of nowhere in Australia, on an afternoon off. Somehow I'd shot my hand during a gun sequence, and it was all stitched up - the film company was really worried, because they thought I was going to sue them - and I'd just managed to get my hand together to play guitar again. So I went out with these headphones on and I started to play and it was 'Brown Sugar'.
'And 'Sympathy for the Devil', I can remember; I was living in this big house in Belgravia, wandering around with an acoustic guitar. It started out as a Bob Dylan thing - 'Please allow me to introduce myself' - and then it became this samba . . .'
He says 'Sympathy for the Devil' is still among his favourite songs to perform, along with 'Start Me Up'. 'On the last tour, we opened with 'Start Me Up' and I sang 'Sympathy' from a tower. And all these other factors come into play. I mean, how can you divorce yourself from the fact that you're singing the first bit on top of a tower? Or that, in 'Start Me Up', it all goes BANG] before you go on and suddenly you're on in front of all these people? So all these events stick in there.
'And I always enjoy doing 'Ruby Tuesday' - you can get your voice around it. It's also quite difficult, cos normally you can't hear what's going on. On stage with the Stones, you're flying blind most of the time, to be honest. Sometimes I look at Keith and I don't know what he's playing and I'm trying to make Charlie play the time, cos I can't hear him, and so on, and when I hit the note right at the bottom - hopeless. It's the numbers that aren't so well known that are hardest: people are listening, but you don't know if they're really enjoying them, or if they think it's a bore and they should go out and get hot dogs.
'Before I go on, I'll sit down at the keyboards and sing a couple of blues songs. And I'll do 'Start Me Up' in different keys for a joke. Or 'Start Me Up' in minor keys, which is even weirder. If you go on cold, you blow your voice after three numbers. Which I did for quite a few years. But I took some advice. Most rock singers never warmed up - they'd have a couple of vodkas and a big joint and then go on. And no wonder you had so many people who had problems with their throats.'
Some think that, as a performing spectacle, the Rolling Stones are now lost to the depressing rituals of stadium rock - jetting between football grounds to play the same set, on the same stage, adulation guaranteed. Even their dressing-room furniture travels the world with them, wheeled backstage at every venue to maintain a reassuringly familiar atmosphere in those tricky pre-show moments. And while there are clearly those who enjoy watching rock in Wembley Stadium, Mick Jagger isn't among them. 'I went as a punter to watch a rock show there. I was in the so-called Royal Box - it's terrible, so far away. If the screens aren't any good, you can't see anything. Plus you can't turn it up very loud there, 'cos of all the sound restrictions.' He lets loose a noisy laugh. 'Great value for money, that is.'
And yet he's a defender of the big-scale show and of the skill involved in making it work. 'It's bullshit they're all the same. Each town has its own feeling - different personalities, and the different make-up of the culture, and the look of audiences, what they wear. And occasionally, you'll get a slow one. A dead stadium audience is, like, a nightmare. You can't just expect people to get into it - they might be cold or tired or bored, or waited too long. You get out there and you've got this rush of energy. But the whole deal is, you've got to cool down and suss out what sort of audience it is. You've got to think, well, these people in front are really wild and crazy, we don't have to worry about them. But those people to the side, we could lose them, so we've got to play to them.
'Last time around, we had that funny show at Wembley, the World Cup semi-final show? England versus Germany. I remember going through the details beforehand with Harvey (Goldsmith, concert promoter), and I said, ooh well, it's the World Cup semis, maybe we'd better not play that night. But then I thought, well, England's never going to get in the semi-final - great confidence in English football - we'll be all right. And of course it did happen. And everyone was watching little TVs, or listening to the radio. When the goal went in, Woody thought it was his solo that was getting applause. Only Woody could be so far removed from the reality. Thought his solo went down better here than it went down anywhere.'
All that stadium-adjusted thrusting and posturing can also pay off in the studio. The record producer Alan Winstanley once spoke about recording Jagger's duet with David Bowie on a cover version of 'Dancing in the Street'. During run-throughs, the hired musicians were in trouble, sounding like some limp nightclub act. Then Jagger arrived and walked directly into the sound-room, punching the air and pushing his lips out, a spinning parody of himself; and suddenly the drummer started hitting harder, the bass player locked in tighter and the whole thing drew together. This would have to be Jagger's grandest musical asset: he fires people up.
But who fired up Mick Jagger? Can he even remember any more, sat at the heart of the Rolling Stones' collosal business machine? There is at least one moment on the new album which suggests that, left to his own devices, he remembers well enough. It's where he covers a song called 'Think', a number he used to hear James Brown sing when, in the 1960s, Jagger would hang around during Brown's residencies at the Apollo.
'He was like a kind of father figure, he was full of advice. 'I'm a businessman,' he would say, 'I'm a businessman'. I don't know if this actually impressed me - he didn't strike me as a businessman very much - but that's what he wanted to be. And I used to watch how he'd handle the audience. And his dance steps, which I could never really do. I used to try, but I could only manage the one where you wiggle across the stage on one foot.
'And James had this valet who would always hold James's trousers out for him ready. And James would be talking to me and he'd take no notice of this guy with the trousers, who was just left standing there. This was my introduction into the way things are done in the world of . . .' Jagger twitches in his chair. 'Well, in the world of James Brown, anyway.'
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