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Mick Jagger: A Stone Alone

Mick Jagger has just released <em><em>The Very Best of Mick Ja</em>gger</em>, the first overview of his many solo projects since 1970.
AFP Photo/Carl de Souza/Getty Images
Mick Jagger has just released The Very Best of Mick Jagger, the first overview of his many solo projects since 1970.

It’s been 45 years since Mick Jagger first grabbed the microphone and began singing with a youthful band of blues enthusiasts called The Rolling Stones. Today, the Stones are an industry unto themselves, and Jagger stands as one of the most legendary -- and still outrageous -- stars in rock.

The veteran singer has just released The Very Best of Mick Jagger, the first overview of his many solo projects since 1970. Jagger’s music, with or without The Rolling Stones, has always struck a balance between careful studio craftsmanship and raw, spontaneous energy.

"When you’re doing recording, there’s a very fine line to get something as good as you know you can get it -- and as crafted as you want it," he says in an interview. "A lot of people record songs line by line. I like to do the whole song and the whole song again, whole song again. And then you can pick what you want from that.

"So instead of doing 50 takes of it in a row, you do four takes of it, and then you wait a couple of days and come back and do another four takes. The overall feeling that you want people to get is you opened your mouth and it came out just like that. But, of course, life isn’t really like that."

Once Jagger leaves the studio, though, he prefers to leave the music behind. He’s dismissive of the tag “timeless” or “classic” when applied to rock songs: "I think the more you keep banging away," he says, "the more it becomes a classic, doesn’t it? Repetition is everything."

He claims not to have a favorite among more than 40 Stones and solo albums ("I mean, there’s some I like more than others, I’m sure”), and only with discomfort does he choose what he would consider a Stones signature tune.

“One track is really difficult," he says. "If I had to play some young person something, I could play them ‘Satisfaction.’ I think that would be very illustrative of what our music is and how it’s constructed.

“I don’t play a lot of my own music to myself, you know. I know people that play their music all the time for themselves, but I just don’t. So this is like the very few times I get to listen to it.”

The Very Best of Mick Jagger is the very straightforward title of a new CD collection that features 17 songs he recorded over 35 years -- without any of the Stones.

"If you’ve been in a band for 40 years, I think you should be doing a lot of work on your own, as well," Jagger says. “You get a certain amount of freedom if you do a solo record which you don’t really have if you’re in a band.”

The music on the CD is a mixed bag: fun and funky, with lots of high-energy rockers, a few radio hits and collaborations with the likes of David Bowie, Lenny Kravitz and U2’s Bono. There are also a few first-time releases, like a dance track called “Charmed Life,” as well as "Too Many Cooks (Spoil the Soup)," a soul tune from a late-night session put together by John Lennon in 1973. There’s even a country-flavored weeper, "Evening Gown." At least one element brings these different flavors together.

"They’re all sung by me. But that’s about it," Jagger laughs. "No, I think you want to show yourself in as many facets as possible. A lot of these songs are very lighthearted and sarcastic. And then some of them are kind of heartfelt, and some are just for dancing.

“I just picked the tracks that I thought were the best, and I didn’t want to have too many ballads, 'cause I wanted the whole thing to have a very up-tempo feel. I tried to show as many kinds of emotional moods as I could on this collection."

While Jagger took on side projects during the ‘60s and ‘70s, it wasn’t until 1985 that he decided to attempt a solo career, releasing the album She’s the Boss. So what was the reaction from the other Stones when he took that leap?

“When you work with people in any creative endeavor, they never like you to do anything else. They just want you to work with them. That’s just a sort of a knee-jerk reaction. I mean, you sort of understand it, but personally, I don’t mind.

“At the time, the Stones would do one album every three years and that was it. I thought, 'It’s just not enough.' I mean, 12 songs at a time? I had far too many songs of my own for The Rolling Stones to record. I could say, 'OK, make more Rolling Stones records,' but they take a long time to make and are quite complicated, and then you go on tour and all those things. I think that was the real driving force of my going solo.”

In 1989, with two solo albums and a brief Stones-less tour behind him, Jagger returned to the fold. He continues to create music under his own name, but his front-man role in the group he founded remains his primary commitment. What did he learn that he would not have experienced with the Stones?

"In the end, I’m a singer and I’m just singing. That’s what I do, and that’s what I do with The Rolling Stones, as well. People say, 'It must be really different!' It’s not really that different. You’re singing, and no one else is in the studio, it’s usually midnight and it doesn’t really matter who’s playing in the end. As long as it sounds good to you."

Much has changed in the music business over the course of Jagger’s career. He gets a feeling of déjà vu in today’s world of song-by-song downloads.

"At the beginning of my career, we didn’t make albums, really," Jagger says. "We used to make just songs, you know, and then eventually the album format came. I mean, there was a pre-rock period when singers with bands were doing them, like Frank Sinatra and Songs for Swinging Lovers , let’s say. Then rock bands like Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or The Rolling Stones created albums.

“But given the state of music-buying, I don’t know how long this idea of making an hour and a half of music, in one thought process, is going to survive. I think in a lot of ways it's evolved -- it’s gone 'round in a huge circle."

Sir Mick Jagger turned 64 in July. The years have been good to him. He’s healthy -- still touring, still recording and still looking for ways to bottle the lightning. Anything else on the horizon?

“We’re just finishing this movie with Martin Scorsese -- The Rolling Stones performing mostly at the Beacon Theater [in New York City]. It’s called Shine a Light and is coming out next April. I’ve got lots of other movie projects that I hope will come to fruition, but they’re very long and difficult, and I’m gonna start doing some songwriting as soon as I can.”

Ashley Kahn is the author of A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album. The CD The Very Best of Mick Jagger has just been released.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Kahn
Ashley Kahn is an American music historian, journalist, and producer, as well as a regular commentator on Morning Edition.