It is mid-afternoon in Hackney, East London. Since before noon, a chunk of Mare Street next to the Hackney Empire, an early 20th century theatre, has been cordoned off. There are news crews setting up facing a specially constructed raised platform, a camera crane hovers in mid-air and a crowd of onlookers gather expectantly. It could be a crime scene, but the truth is no less dramatic. We are here for the unveiling of Hackney Diamonds – the Rolling Stones’ first album of original material since 2005.
The launch itself has been teased for a few weeks, since a cryptic advert appeared last month in The Hackney Gazette for “Hackney Diamonds, specialists in glass repair, opening September 2023…” The ad was followed a week or so later by a snippet of a song called “Angry” which appeared on a website called www.dontgetangrywithme.com… that didn’t quite load properly. Shortly after, some more conventional digital messaging appeared – fancy computer-generated artwork on the Stones’ socials promising “A new Stones era. Worldwide September 6th”, accompanied by a YouTube clip of Jimmy Fallon receiving a summons to Hackney via a call on his ’70s-style rotary “Stones phone”. Yesterday, Jagger and Fallon were pictured sitting in The Old Ship pub next to the Empire, reading copies of local free paper, The Hackney Citizen – presumably before jumping on a 38 bus up to Dalston for an ocakbasi.
As album campaigns go, it’s far more relaxed and confident than the usual hoopla around these kinds of launches. Jagger, you suspect, rather enjoyed the way in which a half-page ad in a local London paper – such an analogue idea – became a global news event. It leads us, anyway, to today and the goings-on at the Hackney Empire. A 20-minute press conference, livestreamed on Youtube, with Fallon in conversation with Jagger, Keith Richards and Ron Wood.
What to make of such a thing? Ostensibly, it provided an opportunity for Fallon to deliver some excellent impressions of Jagger while also revealing the album’s full tracklisting ahead of plan. The band, meanwhile, showcase an easy chemistry – they’re pros, of course – with Jagger at his most charming. It lasts 20 minutes – including bows – about as long as a modest side of vinyl.
But for all the laughs, there are some revelations. Prospective album titles, we learn, included Hit And Run and Smash And Grab, before they settled on Hackney Diamonds. “When you get your windscreen broken on a Saturday night and all the bits go on the street, those are Hackney diamonds,” explains Jagger. Beyond the slang reference, it appears to be a wry, Jagger-esque witticism. The diamond/stone gag aside, Hackney is far from the Stones’ usual haunts. From one end of their career, it is the other side of the river to Dartford, while these days you assume that the Stones are more comfortably at home in Chelsea or Kensington than the pavements of E1. But perhaps Jagger recognises something in Hackney’s gentrification that – at least on a romantic level – reflects his band’s own transition from scruffy miscreants to upwardly mobile suburban rockers.
Speculation aside, Jagger is suitably droll when Fallon asks why it’s been 18 years since A Bigger Bang, the last Stones album of new material. “We’ve been lazy,” he deadpans. “Then we decided to put a deadline. We had a chat and decided to make this record at Christmas and finish it by Valentine’s Day… We went into the studio in December, cut 23 tracks, finished it off on January and mixed it in February.”
Jagger and Richards wrote “Angry” in Jamaica – “the first song to stick out,” says Keith – then Wood joined in New York, recruited producer Andrew Watt and recorded the album in Los Angeles. They recorded 23 songs, of which 12 made it to Hacnkey Diamonds.
Meanwhile, two songs, “Mess It Up” and “Live By The Sword”, feature Charlie Watts, from sessions recorded in 2019. The latter also features Bill Wyman – his first time on a Stones track since the band’s 2011 cover of Dylan’s “Watching The River Flow” for the Ian Stewart tribute album, Boogie 4 Stu.
Another song, “Dreamy Skies”, is about Jagger “trying to get away from it all”; “Tell Me Straight” features lead vocals from Richards; “Sweet Sounds Of Heaven” is a gospel song that features Stevie Wonder and Lady Gaga. “You’ve never been to church in your life,” Richards ribs Jagger.
The conversation quickly expands to include the absence of Watts (“ever since Charlie’s gone, it’s different”), playing festival shows during daylight hours (“imagine playing ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ at 8 o’clock”), whether or not they can play darts (spoilers: they can’t) and Wood’s extra-curricular guitar playing (more recently, with Van Morrison). Needless to say, it’s all good fun.
After Fallon’s Q&A, we get to see the video for “Angry”, which finds the actress Sydney Sweeney being driven around Los Angeles while billboards display historic Stones images (Mick Taylor eras onwards) that have been animated, as if the band are singing this new song. It’s a clever device, although one might like to see a little more mono Stones – though how they’d stand up in the California sun is anyone’s guess.
We’ll finish, however, with Jagger’s memories of The Rolling Stones’ very first press conference for their debut album: a very different experience to today’s shebang. “Keith and I were in a pub on Denmark Street. We had the album and there were two journalists, one from the NME and one from the Melody Maker. We bought them a pint of beer, said, ‘Here’s our album, give it a listen.’ Then we went out and that was it. There were no photos, nothing. The reviews were mixed, but it sold well…”
And if anyone’s interested, here’s the tracklisting for Hackney Diamonds as revealed by Fallon:
Dependng On You
Bite My Head Off
Whole Wide World
Mess It Up
Live By The Sword
Driving Me Too Hard
Tell Me Straight
Sweet Sounds Of Heaven
Rolling Stone Blues
You can pre-order a copy here.