There’s a strong sense of déjà vu on The Rolling Stones’ new album as the band heads back to songs they started out with, in their teens
BLUE & LONESOME, the first studio album by the Rolling Stones since 2005’s A Bigger Bang is a tribute to “people that kicked us off in playing music,” as Mick Jagger puts it. “We were proselytizers of blues music. In the end, that’s what we’re still doing,” says the frontman.
For guitarist Keith Richards, the album encapsulates everything they ever wanted to do. “Finally, after 50-odd years, we’ve made a blues album,” he says. The band did take Howlin’ Wolf’s Little Red Rooster to the top of the charts in 1964, which is an indication of how old they are. In Ronnie Wood’s view, yet, “It’s a perfect full circle” for them to revisit songs that they started out with as 20-year-olds. Jagger, Richards, Wood and Charlie Watts settle in for a chat about their new album.
Did these sessions transport you back to your earliest days of playing the blues?
Keith Richards This is taking us back to the beginning, and there’s a real sense of déja vu. We’re playing songs, some of which we haven’t played since 1962 or ’63. It’s stuff we used to play whenever we had a gig. It’s Southside Chicago blues from the late ’50s era, perhaps the epitome in sound, singing, and songwriting.
And despite the passing of 50-odd years, and me thinking at times, “I don’t know if I can remember this.” I didn’t have to. My fingers are remembering, and while it’s easy music on the surface to play, it’s a lot more complex in reality.
Mick Jagger It was a completely different style of music to the kind of saccharine pop that was available. It was raunchy compared to most pop music. The sounds were more vibrant, the rhythms more interesting and more danceable. It had an instant appeal.
For my generation, it’s the equivalent of suburban white kids doing rap. It’s so culturally far away from your own experience. I’ve been doing it for so long, I’m probably more connected to it than when I was 19. I love doing it.
Charlie Watts I played jazz. I actually had never played blues until I joined Alexis Korner’s band (Blues Incorporated). We used to play some Muddy Waters songs. I joined a few other bands. When I got with the Stones, it was Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. Rock ‘n’ roll and jazz are sort of a fringe thing of the blues. Huge similarity. The blues are what they borrowed from. Chuck Berry is a great blues artist. Likewise Louis Armstrong. If you play jazz, you play the blues.
How did this project morph from an album of originals into blues covers?
KR I was an innocent instigator. In October (2015), I called Ronnie: “Get down this Little Walter song, Blue and Lonesome.” It’s always good in the studio to warm up with things we know and throw something in when there’s some dead air. We get to London, where we were in a new studio, so we spend a couple of days working on new stuff. I said to Ronnie, “Now’s the time, break out that blues song.” Then suddenly Mick says: “Let’s do Howlin’ Wolf.”
It just took off. After that, you couldn’t stop Mick. Cool, I said.
Let’s keep rolling, boys. In a way, it was a total accident.
How did you go about selecting the songs?
MJ The first one was Blue and Lonesome, which is a strange kind of direct emotive blues, heart-pulling thing. I like that one a lot. Everyone played it with a lot of verve. I had to go home and look at my collection. What songs can we do tomorrow?
I tried to pick the ones that were not overly familiar to blues fans. They’re not the ones we’ve done over and over. I tried to find slightly obscure ones. I tried to make the choices as varied as possible – different rhythms, different emotions, different feels, different time signatures.
Did you have to relearn the tunes or did muscle memory kick in?
KR Some of the stuff we hadn’t played since the club days. It was quite amazing. I don’t know if I can remember this. You don’t have to. Your fingers are remembering. It had that beautiful freedom about it.
CW I didn’t know many of them (but) they came back.
RW I had to learn some of them. Some of the titles were new to me like, Ride ‘Em On Down. Others I knew by ear. Others, give me the key and the arrangement and I’m ready. There wasn’t a plan. An unusual choice was Little Rain. I use it as a lullaby for my little twin girls. They love to go to sleep with that one.
Eric Clapton plays on two tracks, I Can’t Quit You Baby and Everybody Knows About My Good Thing. How did he come aboard?
RW That was another simple twist of fate. He was a wallflower while we were cutting one of the previous songs. (We asked him) Would you like to play? His hands were hurting at the time. He did one song finger-style and one on slide. I think Eric excels when he plays with the Stones. Something magical happens. It’s the relief of not being the band leader and calling all the shots. He loves that.
Blues remains a marginalised genre. Where’s the audience for this album?
CW The days of it being a fashion have gone, (but) there’s always an audience for jazz and blues.
Blue & Lonesome, The Rolling Stones, Rs 395 (audio CD),
Rs 5,005 (double vinyl set)
— Team Indulge