I just downloaded the new Rolling Stones single from itunes.
Stop and look at that sentence for a moment. It’s an anachronism on the same level as those jokes about how the Natural History Museum has a fossilized digital watch in a T-Rex skeleton in the basement. The Rolling Stones, patient zero for an entire stream of rock and roll, aren’t just alive, aren’t just still recording, they’re on itunes. The past and the future have met, and the past is old, venerable and somehow still wearing leather trousers.
The thing is though, it’s actually really good. Not Paint It Black or Sympathy for the Devil good but frankly what is? The first of those I associate forever with the Tour of Duty TV show, which used it as as the theme tune. Tour of Duty was notable for a couple of seriously brave narrative twists, an unflinching if slightly action heavy look at the plight of soldiers of in Vietnam and being an hour long and starting fifteen minutes before I had to go bed. I watched that credit sequence a lot and the constant, sustained threat of Paint it Black, the not quite tune never quite forming was massively intimidating and impactful. Even now I can’t hear it without thinking of the three main characters saluting the flag on TV as the song crashed to a close. Likewise, Sympathy for the Devil is another punch that’s chambered but never lands, a razor thin dance of endless threat and menace that’s wordy and verbose and possibly the only rock song in the last sixty years to reference the Hundred Years War. It’s also, along with Johnny Cash’s excellent The Man Comes Around, one of the most used pieces of musical shorthand there is. Want to class up your vampire movie? Chuck Sympathy on there. Want to raise your superbowl episode to mythical proportions by having your team of FBI agents clear a house to something contemporary and sinister? Get the Neptunes to remix the track and you’re golden. Those two (well, two and a half counting the remix) pieces are fantastic, the gold standard against which I measure every other Rolling Stones track. Doom and Gloom is not as good as they are. But very little it is.
It is very good though, and crucially, it’s actually quite funny. I’m a mark for music that winks and there’s a couple of interesting things going on here thematically. The first is the sort of ‘The world’s screwed so let’s dance and have lots of sex’ approach , at this point, the Stones could comfortably expect their grandchildren to be singing about. It’s not subtle, or clever, and it’s backed up by exactly the sort of pebble-smooth, frictionless guitar work and thudding drums that only a band who’ve been together longer than I’ve existed could pull off.
Underneath that though is a rich vein of self-deprecation. The entire song is a raised eyebrow, looking at the never ending excesses and catastrophes of the last couple of years with a combination of mild surprise and amusement. After all, these are men who remember the Profumo scandal.
Well, they were alive for it at any rate.
The Stones have been everywhere, done everything and that gives them a perspective most people don’t. It’s a very smart line to take as well, because otherwise what you have here is a cadre of geriatric millionaires producing a song that could best be summed up by the phrase ‘Cheer Up, Mopey!’. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s a reference to zombies in the first couple of lines, pretty impressive zeitgeist surfing when you consider this is coming from a band who just celebrated their 50th anniversary, and, by my reckoning, fourth commercial recording medium.
Unusually light on its feet, Doom and Gloom is propelled along with a lot more urgency and a lot more noise than most classic Stones tracks. There’s nothing sparse about the production, with Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards’ driving guitar lines wrapped around the sort of thunderously purposeful drum work that Charlie Watts excels at. It even has a bit in the middle where Mick takes a break so the instruments can show off and comes to an absolute definitive end. It’s an insanely tight, well performed and produced piece of music and it also clearly has an eye on its market. If this isn’t used as the opening music for an episode of CSI or as the accompaniment to a SWAT-style training montage inside the next two years, then I’ll be amazed.
Doom and Gloom isn’t a classic, it doesn’t mark the start of a major new musical direction and it certainly breaks no new ground. However, it’s an incredibly well done rock song, and weirdly charming with it. We know these men are old enough to be our Grandfathers, we know they’re about as far from rock’n’roll rebels these days as UK politics is from having distinct parties and it doesn’t matter. Because it’s Mick Jagger, somehow still strutting, somehow still magnetic, somehow still asking us to dance with him. And we do, just, carefully. He is getting on a bit.