Banging Out The Blues: A Conversation With The Rolling Stones

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Before they were England’s newest hit makers, The Rolling Stones were banging out the blues in London clubs, covering the snaking, earthy tunes of heroes Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James.

More than a half century later, the Stones are saluting those roots with Blue & Lonesome, a raw and rousing batch of blues recorded over three days last December at British Grove Studios in West London, not far from the pubs where the nascent band honed its chops on Chess label classics.

Produced by Don Was and The Glimmer Twins, Blue & Lonesome arrives December 2 on Polydor, offering fans an opportunity to experience the spontaneity and intimacy of those earliest gigs. Since their historic launch at London’s Marquee Club in 1962, the Stones have embraced a broad array of styles from disco to punk while never abandoning the bedrock sound that underpins their iconic status and secured their title of World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.

The Stones, named after Muddy Waters’ Rollin’ Stone, were synonymous with blues from the start. They nailed sharp renditions of Slim Harpo’s I’m a King Bee and Willie Dixon’s I Just Want to Make Love to You on their debut album in 1964, the same year their seductive cover of Dixon’s Little Red Rooster topped the UK chart. Through decades of massive hits, the blues continued to creep into the Stones’ own compositions, from the sinister Midnight Rambler (Let It Bleed) and ghostly No Expectations (Beggars Banquet) to the otherworldly Ventilator Blues (Exile on Main Street).

Blue & Lonesome, their first studio album since 2005’s A Bigger Bang, finds the Stones departing from a steady string of bold stadium-ready rock albums to a spirited visceral jam that captures the distinctive studio craft of ’50s Chicago blues records. It’s a deep dive for semi-obscure gems by Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Eddie Taylor, Magic Sam and others who fired the imagination of the Stones in their teens.

Mick Jagger (vocals and harp), Keith Richards (guitar), Charlie Watts (drums) and Ronnie Wood (guitar) play on the album along with touring sidemen Darryl Jones (bass), Chuck Leavell (keyboards) and Matt Clifford (keyboards). Longtime friend Eric Clapton, who happened to be recording in the same studio, sits in for two tracks.

The band entered the studio armed with new songs for a rock album. Why paint it blue? The Stones, with co-producer Don Was, explain their unplanned return to the wellspring.

Q: What does Blue & Lonesome convey about the Stones?

MICK: This album is a homage to our favorites, people that kicked us off in playing music. That was the reason we started a band. We were proselytizers of blues music. In the end, that’s what we’re still doing.

RONNIE: I was talking to Jesse Dylan. He was asking, are we a dying breed or is it going to live on, this kind of dedication and childhood enthusiasm we have to keep learning and keep touring and making music in a simply way. Hopefully, it’s not dying. Hopefully, we’re setting some standards for new generations to follow.

KEITH: Blue & Lonesome encapsulated everything we wanted to do. And so finally, after 50-odd years, we’ve made a Blues album. Although let’s not forget, we took Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Little Red Rooster’ to the top of the charts in 1964, no other band had taken a blues song and done that back then. All I’ve ever wanted to be able to say is, ‘I passed it on’, I think with Blue and Lonesome my wish has finally come true.

DON: It’s such a perfect full circle for them to revisit the material they started with and to revisit it with decades of living and playing together under their belts so they can really approach the songs from a whole different emotional perspective, just even lyrically, than when they did as 22-year- olds. There’s something in the fabric of the band that just keeps generating and gelling.

The Rolling Stones have a very unique situation. They are really an improvisational band. Nothing is planned out. Nothing is ever played the same twice. There’s a tremendous amount of listening and trading ideas and call-and-response among all the members. It’s incredible to see how far they can pull it out and still have it hold together. That comes with experience.


Q: How did this project morph from an album of originals into blues covers?

MICK: We cut quite a few new songs. One day we got fed up doing this (new) song. We tend to do that a lot. We did one blues, then another, then another. I said OK, let’s come back tomorrow and do three or four more. It was really quick.

KEITH: 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.” As we played that song, it came out very well. 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.

DON: You get to a point in every session where you’ve got to kind of take a break. Keith suggested that we try Blue and Lonesome, a cool Little Walter song, just to cleanse the creative palate before returning to the song we were working on. And it was just magnificent. It was so intense and so soulful. I think it took everyone by surprise when we played it back. By the end of the first day, we’d put six blues songs in the can. It was a whole lot of fun to see it unfold, just calling songs they used to play in the pubs. There was very little labor. It was a joyous musical outburst of what has been welling up for some time. Before we really took stock of what was going on, it was over.

The spontaneity is part of the flavor of the record. You can feel that and hear it in the tracks. There was never a plan to do a blues album. It was something fans had requested for decades and a really good idea, but that wasn’t why we got together in the studio.

CHARLIE: It’s bloody hard to write songs. This was a question of, did you play it well? Instead of just grinding out one song, you do three or four, and the next day you do another three. Mick kept choosing each song and we went on and on and on. Nobody bothered with retakes. It wasn’t conceived as an album.


Q: How did you go about selecting songs?

MICK: The first one was Blue and Lonesome, which is a very strange kind of direct emotive blues, heart-pulling thing. I like that one a lot. Everyone played it with a lot of verve, like they really mean it. 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 song choices as varied as possible – different rhythms, different emotions, different feels, different time signatures.

KEITH: I just followed Mick’s enthusiasm. I was just letting the man roll. I was keeping my fingers crossed that Mick didn’t get bored halfway through – “What are we doing cutting blues?” Once he got going, it was fascinating to watch. I’ve never seen Mick so intense on putting it down and getting it right and also making it much more part of the band than usually happens.

Q: Did you have to relearn these tunes or did muscle memory kick in?

KEITH: 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.

CHARLIE: I didn’t know many of them (but) they came back.

RONNIE: 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. It was either going to work or it wasn’t. There wasn’t a plan. A very 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.


Q: Four Little Walter songs demand a lot of harmonica. Mick, were you prepared for that?

MICK: I don’t really play much harmonica in my life. I’m really lazy. If I’d known I was going to do this, I would have been practicing for weeks. It’s not a very difficult instrument. The only thing about it, it’s not like a guitar or a keyboard where you can see what you’re doing. You can’t see the holes. You can only feel them with your tongue. The great thing about playing it in the studio, you can really hear. I’ve got the headphones on, and I’ve got the vocal harmonica mike turned up really loud so I can hear every nuance. Whereas if I’m playing on stage with The Rolling Stones, which is a loud band, I can’t hear a note, let alone a nuance.

KEITH: Mick is really hitting his spots on this record; he’s the only one left who can play harmonica like this. A lot of people might forget what a serious musician he is. This album sets Mick up. His singing and his harp playing are beyond par.

DON: I think it will blow people’s minds. I don’t think people realize that he’s truly one of the great blues harp players of all time.


Q: Eric Clapton plays on I Can’t Quit You Baby and Everybody Knows About My Good Thing. How did he come aboard?

RONNIE: 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 on this song and that song? 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 magic happens. It’s the relief of not being the band leader and calling all the shots. He loves that.


Q: What separates the making of Blue & Lonesome from a typical Stones recording process?

CHARLIE: Usually once it gets in the mixing world and mastering, we get lost and the great temptation is to add things and add things. It can detract from the actual spirit of the thing. This dictated that you didn’t do that. Fortunately, we didn’t. Thanks to Don Was, I suppose. He’s a Rastafarian rabbi. He’s very easy to work with. He’s very appreciative and supportive.

RONNIE: I like the immediacy of the blues. It’s exciting to make new music too, but that takes longer.

KEITH: There’s a minimal amount of overdubs or post-prod work. This one made itself as far as I’m concerned. I would say basically it’s overdub-free, straight off the head. You really can’t play around with this stuff.  We’ve never cut so many tracks in such a short time, I don’t think any of these tracks took more than two or three takes, some of them, including ‘Blue and Lonesome’ were just one. You get it fresh that way.

MICK: It’s kind of fun to knock out something and have it done straight away. It’s quite tiring in some ways. You can’t screw up. Because if you screw up, everyone’s screwed. There are difficult sound problems if you’re trying to do it live and you’re not in a booth, which you don’t want to be ever. If Charlie plays the cymbals too loud, it comes over my vocal mike, so you have to adjust that and tell him to shut up basically, or I have to move back or sing louder. It’s quite difficult recording in that manner. It’s best to record with less people rather than five or six people. But it’s pretty fun and exhilarating.

It’s all played live, but you’re still using the studio as a massive tool. There are millions of bits of electronics at work. There’s so much echo, so much distortion, so much equipment. Your job as a performer and a producer is to make it sound as exciting as possible (and) a bit like it’s 1954 but with overtones of 2016.


Q: With this kind of loose approach, does technical precision take a back seat to preserving energy and excitement?

DON: With The Rolling Stones, technical issues always take a back seat to feel. They’re the best when it’s raw and alive and spontaneous. We’ve always tried to maintain the sound of five people playing at the same time. We never start with a drum machine and build the song. I think that by not performing original songs, some of the need for artistic gravitas evaporates. You’re not making any statement as a songwriter. I think that’s a great relief. It lets everyone play a little more freely and to accept the rawness of the playing. This was totally live. If there was a mistake, we left it. If it broke down, we did another take. It’s a great way for The Rolling Stones to make record. Very few bands can do that. It’s testimony to what great musicians they are and how the whole is way larger than the sum of the parts.


Q: Once you’d finished 12 tracks and started considering the next step, did everyone like the idea of funnelling these covers into a distinct album?

CHARLIE: I did, but then I’ve always thought we should do an instrumental album. The Rolling Stones are a very good blues band. This is an example. When we let go, that’s what we sound like. I personally am very pleased with it. I know Keith particularly, but me as well, always wanted to do an album like this. I think it’s a very good thing to do even if it’s not a big thing. It’s a good piece of work to put out. It’s very well done. (The songs) sound pretty authentic, actually. We played them more like a Chicago band than we’ve ever done.

RONNIE: I feel really good about a blues album. It’s a natural thing. I’ve come full circle from being the (Stones) fan in the early days to cutting the blues with them now.

KEITH: It took a few weeks and months for the idea to coalesce. It was sort of screaming, “Put me out!” This is part of the band. We’ve never done this before and it sounds great.


Q: Did these sessions transport you back to your earliest days of hearing and playing the blues?

KEITH: This is taking us back to the beginning and there’s a real sense of déjà vu. We’re playing songs, some of them 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: It was a completely different style of music to the kind of saccharine pop that was available. It was very raunchy compared to most pop music. It spoke to direct experience, and 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: 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.

RONNIE: I was on the happy receiving end of imports coming in. The ones we did get our hands on came in the form of collections. It became our bread and butter. I had a little record player in my bedroom, and I used to copy the licks and do my impersonation of Chuck Berry or Big Moose and some of the guitar players – Elmore James, Hubert Sumlin.


Q: You dipped into Blue & Lonesome at your Desert Trip appearances. Do you foresee playing more of these songs on stage?

MICK: In a stadium it’s hard to do. To do one song and then go back to playing Brown Sugar is kind of difficult. It’s a different kind of music and it requires a different discipline and sound mixing. You can do it but it’s easier if you did them all together. If you were in a small club, if you could ask the Stones to play quietly, if that was possible, then you could probably do it.

RONNIE: I can imagine that. They are natural contenders for a club gig for the Stones. That’s maybe something that would happen. I would love to see it happen down the line.

CHARLIE: For me, they need a room, a club. I’ve never been to a football stadium to see anyone. I think it’s the daftest place to see music. And I make my living doing it.

Q: In the early ’60s, the Stones popularized the blues, introducing American fans to their own music culture. Blues remains a marginalized genre. Where’s the audience for this album?

CHARLIE: The days of it being a fashion have gone (but) there’s always an audience for jazz and blues.

DON: The first time I heard the blues was through The Rolling Stones. I thought The Rolling Stones invented the blues. I think there will be some young people today who don’t know about the blues who will hear this album and want to know more about it. It’s certainly a slap of freshness in the world of programmed music that dominates radio today. If you’re not moved by it, you should be examined. I played this album for my buddy Ryan Adams, who’s a huge Stones fan, who said, “Rawness is their superpower.” I’m anticipating a really great response to this record.


Q: Would you consider digging out more vintage blues for a sequel?

KEITH: I would do anything again as long as the impulse came from within the band. The stones never plan anything; Blue and Lonesome just came together. Never say we should do volume two or we should do a country album. With the Stones, things just happen. If you’re lucky and the mikes are hot and everybody’s on, then catch it while you can.

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