Hackney Diamonds, the first Rolling Stones album with new material in 18 years, gets its name from old slang used in the East London borough Hackney. It means broken pieces of glass. What I found more interesting, though, is the backstory to this. Explaining it recently on The Howard Stern Show, Keith Richards told the American celebrity broadcaster that the phrase referred to an explosive culmination of a boozy Saturday night binge where someone picks up a brick and slams it through the glass window of a store, maybe in an attempt to steal something or, more likely, on just a reckless whim. The shattered glass pieces that would be strewn in front of the window were known as “hackney diamonds”.
The Stones have been an astonishingly long-lived band. Formed in 1962, they have been playing non-stop for 61 years. The average age of the current band members (Mick Jagger on vocals, Richards on guitar and Ronnie Wood on bass) is 78. Drummer Charlie Watts, who was with the band from the start, died at 80 in 2021.
In the six decades that they have been rocking, the Stones have turned into a gargantuan business empire. It is estimated that they have grossed more than $2.5 billion (around ₹20,750 crore now) in their career, selling 27.8 million tickets, 85 million albums, endorsing brands, and hawking merchandise.
Yet, “broken pieces of glass” describes their latest album well. On it, the three men try very hard, too hard really, to relive their best days. That attempt has produced a set of 12 songs you may regret playing. The trio, aided (or perhaps goaded) by their producer Andrew Watt (who has produced for, among others, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Iggy Pop and Ozzy Osbourne), has tried to live up to an image that might have suited them 40 years ago. Today, though, it ends up somewhere between ludicrous and pathetic.
The production quality, however, is top-notch, polished and sleek. Perhaps too sleek to fit the band’s attempt to recreate their long gone image of the blues-fuelled, rock-turbocharged, aggressive and angry band they were in their prime—say, 1971, when Jagger was 28 and Richards was 27 (Wood joined the band in 1975). They sound tense, too preoccupied with fitting that image.
Some of the lyrics too are unconvincing and incongruous. On Whole Wide World, for example, Jagger sings about memories of a filthy flat in Fulham and the smell of sex and gas, of how he didn’t know where he would sleep next, followed by the lament that the world was against him—words that today somehow seem like a parody or satire coming from one of the most successful and wealthiest rock stars the world has ever known.
Hackney Diamonds has its moments. Such as when Paul McCartney puts in a stupendous bass riff on Bite My Head Off, or when Richards does the lead vocals on Tell Me Straight, a loose, less tense song about the chances of a relationship surviving. Then there is the fillip of novelty, added by collaborators such as Elton John, Lady Gaga and Stevie Wonder. But there is nothing memorable about the album. None of the songs on Hackney Diamonds beg to be replayed or curated on a playlist that you would like to play when you yearn for a dive into the music of The Rolling Stones.
Mercifully, if you want to do that, there is the band’s impressive back catalogue to pick from. Albums such as 1969’s Let It Bleed; 1968’s Beggars Banquet; or 1972’s Exile On Main Street. But I have a personal favourite and that’s what saved the day after the “meh” experience with Hackney Diamonds.
Disappointed by their new album but still jonesing for the Stones, I turned to, yes, 1971, and their brilliant album Sticky Fingers, which came out that year with a cover designed by Andy Warhol (the original has a closeup of a man’s jeans-clad crotch with a zipper that works). The album features some of the Stones’ most iconic songs, including Brown Sugar and Wild Horses, but also my personal favourite, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, which I consider one of rock’s best songs.
Clocking in at more than seven minutes, it has a jam segment that features Richards, of course, but also keyboardist Billy Preston, saxophonist Bobby Keys and a solo by Mick Taylor, who was with the band for five years, till 1974. That song is definitely among the Stones’ finest moments.
Sticky Fingers followed a tumultuous period in the Stones’ career. They had been involved in drug busts; their 1969 free concert at Altamont had turned into a murderous nightmare when the Hell’s Angels, who were ostensibly in charge of security at the gig, turned violent and got involved in the killing of a young man; and their original founder and bandmate, Brian Jones, had been found dead in his swimming pool a few months before Altamont.
Sticky Fingers emerged out of that pall of darkness—and it was as dark, reflecting the shock of the events preceding its release but also depicting the decay and degeneration that had set in among the youth of the time. In other words, it is a masterpiece, one by which I shall always remember the Stones.
Sorry, Mick, Keith and Ron, but the broken shards of glass just don’t cut it.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music. Narayan posts @sanjoynarayan.