13 Dec 2016

Blue and Lonesome: The last great Stones album?

From The Sampler, 12:00 pm on 13 December 2016

More than fifty years after they began, The Rolling Stones have made a blues record. Nick Bollinger believes it is the last great Stones album.

The Rolling Stones in 2016

The Rolling Stones in 2016 Photo: Supplied

It’s almost 2017 and, incredible as it may seem, we’re still talking about The Rolling Stones. Then again, as a friend reminded me last week, people are still talking about Shakespeare and Charley Patton.

Though in the half-century-plus since they started the Stones have never gone away, there’s a reason for this latest discussion. They have got a new album, their first in more than a decade.

The first question is what’s it like? The simple answer is, it's like the Stones. You can guess from the first stomping bars, and it’s confirmed the moment Mick Jagger opens his big old rubbery mouth.

The opening song, ‘Just Your Fool’, predates the band. A swing blues by Buddy and Ella Johnson, it was reinvented in the early ‘60s in jumping Chicago style by the great harmonica player Little Walter Jacobs, and it’s Walter’s version the Stones take as their template.

It’s not the only Little Walter song they cover here. There are three more, including ‘Blue and Lonesome’, the album’s title track. The other eight cuts are similarly modelled on classic Chicago blues templates.

So the Stones have made a blues album, arguably for the first time.

Of course the blues (with an extra dash of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley) is the music the Stones started out playing in London in the early 60s, when the term ‘British blues band’ still sounded like a contradiction in terms. Their first British number one, in November 1964, was a straight blues: their version of the Howlin’ Wolf song ‘Little Red Rooster’.

Yet other forces were at play. The massive success of the Beatles was remaking the rules for any British band wanting to be taken seriously. Those rules included writing one’s own songs.

The Stones’ early originals didn’t come out all that Beatles-y, but they weren’t that bluesy either. An early Jagger-Richard writing session produced the winsome ‘As Tears Go By’. Yet the blues always remained a foundation stone for the group, and their golden period – let’s say from Beggar’s Banquet in ‘68 to Exile On Main Street in ‘72 – is steeped in blues, whether originals like ‘Parachute Woman’ and ‘Midnight Rambler’ or brilliant adaptations of Robert Johnson’s ‘Love In Vain’ and Reverend Robert Wilkins’ ‘Prodigal Son’.

But why have the Stones made their first all-blues album now? For that matter, why have they made an album at all?

Critics argue about how long it’s been since the last really good Stones album. (I’d nominate 1978’s Some Girls.) Yet that hasn’t affected their drawing power as a live act. At most, a new Stones album these days is just another item for the merch stalls, along with the T-shirts and baseball caps.

The story goes, they were holed up Mark Knopfler’s London studio trying with little success to fashion a new set of originals, when Keith Richards suggested running through a few old blues to get the juices flowing. Three days later they had this entire album down, though more time and effort may have gone into recording and mixing – getting just the right grade of grit – than it might appear.

To judge by the online discussion, Blue and Lonesome has raised the old question ‘Can white men play the blues?’ – or to reposition it in the modern discourse, ‘Are these privileged white males practising cultural appropriation?’

Certainly Jagger can’t play the harp as well as Little Walter. Ron Wood is no match for Luther Tucker or Hubert Sumlin, let alone Muddy Waters. And Keith Richards – who is generally credited as the authentic blues heart of the Stones – seems to be on light duties. Blue and Lonesome is the first Stones album in ages where he doesn’t sing at all, and his rhythm playing is merely functional. The flashiest stuff here belongs to guest Eric Clapton, who, by his own account, would sometimes sit in with the Stones in the early 60s when they were still resident band at London’s Ealing Club. In those days he would only sing, not yet confident enough to whip out his guitar.

Still, there is a genuine spontaneity about the performances. They are anything but slick. Listen to their version of Lightnin’ Slim’s ‘Hoodoo Blues’. You can hear them feeling their way, tuning in to each other to see where the next chord change is going to come, or whether Jagger is going to put down his harmonica and launch into the next verse. I can’t think of another band of the Stones’ stature who would put out a record as unvarnished as this. It’s rough but real.

To the question of what the Stones have taken and what they’ve given.

Like so many other young pop fans growing up in the ‘60s, I’d never heard of – let alone heard – black blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed or Willie Dixon, until I saw their credit on Stones records. That led me to the originals, where I found an artistry and depth of tradition the Stones couldn’t match.

What the Stones did, though, was create something else: an extravagant, occasionally camp, sometimes surprisingly heartfelt hybrid, that combined the music they loved with some of their own spirit and blood. In the end, Howlin’ Wolf was as unlikely to have written ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ as Jagger and Richards were to have invented ‘Little Red Rooster’. The fact that the Stones made fortunes their black idols could only dream of is inarguably unjust, but hardly the Stones’ fault.

You can find on YouTube the original versions of all the songs on Blue and Lonesome, and they are sublime. The Stones, after all, are not just men of wealth, but also taste.

Yet Blue and Lonesome has a rough vitality of its own. In a year that has seen the passing of an uncommon number of their contemporaries, the Stones have gone back to the well that gave them life. And they have returned from that well with what is surely the last great Stones album.