The Rolling Stones have dropped a new single, and it’s a triumph. Featuring both Lady Gaga and Stevie Wonder jamming with the band, Sweet Sound of Heaven is a thrilling, uplifting proto-gospel song that belongs in the very highest echelons of the Stones’ starry catalogue.
It doesn’t attempt to recreate past glories so much as dive deeply into a roots music they love, and put their own distinct stamp on it. You would have to go back to Exile on Main Street to hear the Stones on such exultant form, deeply wrapped up in their music, lost in the groove and the moment.
Jagger leads from the front, with a towering vocal performance, the man who once asked for Sympathy for the Devil calling out to heavenly powers to make life on earth more bearable. The rhythm guitar of Keith Richards scratches and pokes away on the right side of the mix, Ronnie Wood’s sweet licks percolate on the left, and a stellar band fills all the spaces between, with Steve Jordan anchoring the sound in Charlie Watts’s old drum seat, and no less a superstar personage than Stevie Wonder rattling away on a very nimble electric piano and Rhodes organ.
The whole thing was recorded essentially live at Henson Recording Studios in Los Angeles in January this year, with the group in the round all facing each other. Footage shows Lady Gaga sitting on the floor, at first echoing and answering Jagger’s vocals, and gradually building in confidence to push beneath his voice, and drive him to ever greater heights. It is really one of Jagger’s finest ever performances, as the old devil exults mischievously in notions of heavenly reward. “No I’m not gonna end in some dusty motel / And I’m not gonna die in the dirt,” the 80-year-old frontman insists, shrugging off notions that he will meet some dismal traditional blues end.
Indeed, for a song about heavenly rewards, Jagger doesn’t seem particularly ready to meet his maker at all, preferring to revel in the pleasures of this earthly vale while he can: “I’m gonna live, I’m gonna cry, eat the bread, drink the wine / Cos I’m finally quenching my thirst.” There’s a fantastic moment, just before the horns punch in, when Jagger delivers what sounds like a justification and valediction for the Stones whole ethos of rocking til they drop: “Let us sing, let us shout, let us all stand up proud / Let the old still believe they are young!”
But the outstanding thrill of this performance is yet to come, as it builds to a huge climax and reaches a powerful conclusion after five minutes, only for Jordan to pick up the beat again. Gaga laughs and joins in, trilling the chorus melody, producer Andrew Watt adds a bass line and Jagger calls “Play me something, Stevie”, inspiring Wonder to weigh in with lubricious piano.
Gradually the whole band rejoins the fray, building it up again, higher and higher to an even more explosive climax or righteous musical joy. It is the kind of thing that can only happen when a band is playing together, live in the studio, something you will rarely hear on modern recordings. It is the essence of the Stones’ appeal in seven and a half minutes of pure pleasure. Honestly, the first time I heard it, it put a smile on this old critic’s face that lasted for a week.
Sweet Sound of Heaven is an anthem that belongs in the most soulful end of the Rolling Stones catalogue, as philosophical as You Can’t Always Get What You Want, deep and rootsy as Wild Horse, and as epic as Sympathy for the Devil. It shows off the Stones as a performing band in all their glory.
When the song was mentioned during the press launch at Hackney Empire earlier this month (for forthcoming album Hackney Diamonds), it immediately brought a gust of laughter from Richards. “It’s a kinda gospel song,” said Jagger. “Gospel!” chuckled Richards. “You’ve never been to church in your life!”
“I did go once!” protested Jagger.
“What’s it like?” said Richards, playing along.
“It’s a big building, normally, with arches,” joked Jagger.
When I spoke to Richards recently, he told me he was particularly pleased with Sweet Sound of Heaven. “The reprise (at the end) was spontaneous, it is what happens with bands. The more you play, the more you want that extra bit. It was fun to make. Stevie was in town, and he happened to drop by, and it was the same with Lady Gaga, bless her, the woman can sing.
We used to work with Stevie a lot on the road tours in the Seventies, and hey man, he is a brilliant player. It was never intended to particularly bring in other people, they happened to be around, but if you can contribute things like they did, well, we’re the Rolling Stones, join the party!”
It all bodes incredibly well for the forthcoming album, and for the continuing adventures of the world’s greatest rock and roll band. “I’d like to take Sweet Sounds of Heaven on stage,” Richards told me. “The song is strong, and I think we can pull it off. Let’s find out!”
The Rolling Stones: Sweet Sound of Heaven is now available on all streaming platforms. Hackney Diamonds will be released on October 20