The Rolling Stones: A Bigger Bang

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A BIGGER BANG, The Rolling Stones (Virgin) 

It’s too long, the title is lousy, and a couple of songs sound like they escaped from one of Mick Jagger’s dreadful solo albums. Still, A Bigger Bang, the Rolling Stones’ first studio record in eight years, is surprisingly entertaining; if not an event of the magnitude implied by the title, at least a reasonable bang for your buck.

As one listens to these pensionable pop stars kick up the type of din young garage bands all over the globe still aspire to, it’s comical to contemplate that thirty years ago people were already joking that “this could be the last time”.

The doomsayers had a point. While albums like Goats Head Soup and Black and Blue had more good moments than reviews suggested (the narcotic reverie of ‘Coming Down Again’, the voodoo jive of ‘Hey Negrita’, to identify just a couple), the Stones had certainly lost the edge that had once earned them the epithet Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World.

And on stage they were becoming ridiculous; check the breathless, emotionless renderings of stale hits on their live albums of the 70s and 80s. Their redundancy was thrown into relief by the flood of fresh new rock ‘n’ roll groups spawned by punk.

Yet they literally outlived the competition. The original Ramones are dead, bar one. When the Sex Pistols reunited a few years ago, they seemed older, fatter and more chained to a memory than the Stones.

And curiously, the 90s saw the Stones smarten up their act. Sure, their recordings were increasingly off-target (swamped in technology on Dirty Work, mired in mediocre songs on Steel Wheels), but their live shows grew in elegance. They developed elaborate staging that allowed Jagger to behave less like an overwrought aerobics instructor and more like the tent-show queen he really is.

And if the word ‘dignity’ can possibly be applied to a 60-year-old man with party decorations in his hair, a pink satin blouse slashed open to the navel and a guitar swinging from his crotch, then Keith Richards deserves it.

On their 2001 tour, immortalised in the Four Flicks DVD set, they wisely bypassed unmemorable recent songs to explore forgotten corners of their own vast back catalogue, and seemed to get as much of a kick as the crowd out of freshly detailed versions of long-overlooked classics like ‘Rocks Off’, ‘Monkey Man’ and ‘Wild Horses’. And Charlie was good every night.

A Bigger Bang sounds as though the Stones walked offstage after one of those shows and straight into the studio. There are few of the contemporising gimmicks that have made their records of the past couple of decades sound so desperate; no trendy remixers, world music excursions, overcooked backing vocals. It’s wall-to-wall guitars and drums, with Jagger’s voice crisp and snarling. There are moments when this could be one of the numerous younger bands that have, over the years, emulated the early Stones; the Replacements, Whiskeytown, the Strokes.

The songs sound like they were tossed off, like rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to. Jagger is funny, self-mocking. “Once upon a time I was your little rooster/but now I’m just one of your cocks”, he crows in the opening cut. And when he’s not sniggering at his own infelicities he’s engaging unexpectedly with the real world, as in ‘My Sweet Neo Con’, an anti-Bush broadside as staunch as anything in Steve Earle’s catalogue.

In “This Place Is Empty” Keith finally crafts the great country weeper he has been working up to since he first met Gram Parsons, while ‘She Saw Me Coming’ and ‘Dangerous Beauty’ show he can still live up to his reputation as the Human Riff. Ronnie Wood smears everything with his greasiest slide guitar, and Charlie just swings.

At over an hour in length, it would have benefited from some trimming. Let It Bleed, a much better album, has only nine tracks compared to Bang’s sixteen. The listener’s energy flags long before the band’s does.

Still, in their 42nd year, the Rolling Stones can take their place in the rarefied company of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, B.B King, and just a handful of others: elite entertainers who created their own signature and maintained it for the best part of a lifetime. That’s no small achievement.

Tags: keith richardsrolling stonesmick jagger

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