The first in-depth 'Rolling Stone' interview with the frontman
Although one of the most philosophically oriented and intelligent performers around today, Mick Jagger is also one of the most laconic. Since the departure of Andrew Oldham from the affairs of the Rolling Stones, the burden of directing the affairs of the group have fallen on Mick, leaving him little time for much else, including interviews, photographs and all the other routines of the rock and roll star.
This interview and the photographs — probably the finest of Mick Jagger in the last two or three years — were completed in June at the Rolling Stones' business offices in London. The interview was conducted by Jonathan Cott, assisted by Sue Cox. Although it is not the most thorough and complete set of questions and answers it is nonetheless the most extensive discussion yet available with Mick Jagger about the Rolling Stones — Someday the rest will be filled in, but in the meantime it's a pleasure to present this as a starter.
The first thing we would like to talk about are your old songs like "Poison Ivy," "Route 66" and . . .
"Poison Ivy," did we ever record that? Oh, yeah. We did two versions of that. I don't know which one you have 'cause it was never released in this country [England]. Where was it released in America?
It wasn't released in America, it was put out in England. It was a very early recording with three other things, an EP.
Right, "Bye Bye Johnny" and "Better Move On." That was the second version.
Why did you choose that type of material in the beginning?
Well, I mean, we were kids, you know, just kids. We did everything and that was a groove. You see "Poison Ivy" was unknown in this country. It wasn't a hit here by the Coasters, and other songs like "Money" were totally unheard of.
Like "I'm a King Bee"?
Well, that was pretty unheard of in America. What I mean is, there were a lot of these hit records in the states that nobody knew about here, we did them and after we thought they weren't good; but at the time it was right.
But the Stones made these songs popular.
No, not really. Everybody did those kind of songs: The Beatles, The Hollies, The Searchers, everyone. I can't explain why.
Isn't it true that with songs like "Come On" and "King Bee" you really re-discovered Slim Harpo and Chuck Berry for a lot of Americans who never listened to that kind of music before?
Yeah. They never knew anything about it and that's why we stopped doing blues. We didn't want to do blues forever, we just wanted to turn people on to other people who were very good and not carry on doing it ourselves. So you could say that we did blues to turn people on, but why they should be turned on by us is unbelievably stupid. I mean what's the point in listening to us doing "I'm A King Bee" when you can listen to Slim Harpo doing it?
At that time did you think you were going to be a writer and get into all your own things as you have?
No, I really didn't think about it much.
Your change in style came about when you thought enough people had been turned on to blues?
I think our change came about the same time a lot of the beat groups started. When there were no hit groups and the Beatles were playing The Cavern. We were blues purists who liked ever so commercial things but never did them on stage because we were so horrible and so aware of being blues purists, you know what I mean? You see nobody knew each other in those days. We didn't know the Beatles and the Animals and the this and that and the other group yet we were all doing the same material. We used to be so surprised to hear other people do the same things we were doing. The thing is that the public didn't know about any of this music because the record companies were issuing hundreds of singles a week so naturally most people missed a huge lot of them.
What were the first things you wrote?
The first thing was "Tell Me." Well, that wasn't the first thing we wrote but it was one of the first things we recorded that we had written. Also, "As Tears Go By," "That Girl Belongs To Yesterday," which was a hit here by Gene Pitney. We were writing ballads, don't ask me why.
How did you come to record "I Wanna Be Your Man," the Beatles thing?
Well, we knew them by then and we were rehearsing and Andrew [Oldham] brought Paul and John down to the rehearsal. They said they had this tune, they were really hustlers then. I mean the way they used to hustle tunes was great: "Hey Mick, we've got this great song" [done with a John Lennon accent]. So they played it and we thought it sounded pretty commercial, which is what we were looking for, so we did it like Elmore James or something. I haven't heard it for ages but it must be prety freaky 'cause nobody really produced it. The guy who happened to be our manager at the time was a 50-year-old northern mill owner [Eric Easton]. It was completely crackers, but it was a hit and sounded great on stage.
What happened during the time between that and "Satisfaction"?
That's a lot of time. I don't know what happened. You say "I Wanna Be Your Man" and I'd forgotten about it. Next came "As Tears Go By." We never dreamed of doing that ourselves when we wrote it. We just gave it straight to Marianne [Faithfull]. We wrote a lot of songs for other people most of which were very unsuccessful.
Did you write "As Tears Go By" specifically for Marianne?
Yeah, but I could never do it again. I keep trying, night after night. Then we did "Not Fade Away" and went to America and that was really a change.
How did that affect you?
Well we started going back to blues a bit more. I remember we went to Chess Recording Studios and recorded all the old blues numbers we used to do, a lot of which have never been released.
Who was doing your production then, Andrew?
Yeah, but he didn't know anything about blues. The cat who really got it together was Ron Marlow, the engineer for Chess. He had been on all the original sessions. We did "Confessin' The Blues," "Down The Road A Piece," and "It's All Over Now." Murray The K gave us "It's All Over Now" which was great because we used to think he was a cunt but he turned us on to something good. It was a great record by the Valentinos but it wasn't a hit.
That was when you first ran into censorship problems with the words "half-assed games." Many of the disc jockeys in the states just cut that part out.
Did they really? I didn't know that. I really don't know what's considered rude in America cause it's all so different, isn't it! Here you can use Americanisms and people don't know what you're saying. Censorship is weird.
Even though you had several hits before, "Satisfaction" was really the turn on for a vast majority of people. Was there any specific incident that brought those lyrics to you?
It was Keith really. I mean it was his initial idea. It sounded like a folk song when we first started working on it and Keith didn't like it much, he didn't want it to be a single, he didn't think it would do very well. That's the only time we have had a disagreement.
Even when it was finished, he didn't like it?
I think Keith thought it was a bit basic. I don't think he really listened to it properly. He was too close to it and just felt it was a silly kind of riff.
Did you think "Satisfaction" would become the number one pop song of this era as it has?
No, not at all.
Did you think about the problem of writing a song to follow it?
No, I didn't give a fuck. We knew it wouldn't be as good but so what.
Where were you when you wrote it?
Tampa, Florida, by a swimming pool.
Did you do a lot of your writing on tour?
Oh yeah, always. It's the best place to write because you're just totally into it. You get back from a show, have something to eat, a few beers and just go to your room and write. I used to write about twelve songs in two weeks on tour. It gives you lots of ideas. At home it's very difficult because you don't want to do anything really but read, and things like that.
I'd like to ask you a personal question about "Play With Fire." There are lines about getting your kicks in Knightsbridge and Stepney, and a rich girl, and her father's away and there is a suggestion that the guy in the song is having an affair not only with the daughter but with the mother . . .
Ah, the imagination of teenagers! Well one always wants to have an affair with one's mother. I mean it's a turn on.
Often times when you record, you mumble your lyrics. Is this done purposely as a style?
That's when the bad lines come up. I mean I don't think the lyrics are that important. I remember when I was very young, this is very serious, I read an article by Fats Domino which has really influenced me. He said "you should never sing the lyrics out very clearly."
You can really hear, "I got my thrill on Blueberry Hill."
Exactly, but that's the only thing you can hear just like you hear "I can't get no satisfaction." It's true what he said though. I used to have great fun deciphering lyrics. I don't try to make them so obscure that nobody can understand but on the other hand I don't try not to. I just do it as it comes.
For some reason people don't think about the fact that you and Keith are great writers and your lyrics like "Get Off Of My Cloud," which are really good . . .
Oh, they're not, they're crap.
"Union Jacks and Windscreens" . . . It's a nice poem.
It's nothing. Thank you for the compliment but I don't think they are great at all. If a person is that hung up on lyrics he can go and buy the sheet music because it's all there, all wrong of course but . . . You should see the one for "Dandelion," they made up another song!
How did you feel when you went on The Ed Sullivan Show and had to change the lyrics from "Let's spend the night together" to "Let's spend some time together"?
I never said "time." I really didn't. I said mumble. "Let's spend some mmmmm together, let's spend some mmmmm together." They would have cut it off if I had said "night."
When you first came to San Francisco in 1965, the Diggers put out a proclamation calling the Stones the embodiment of what they represented, the breaking up of old values. This came about after a series of songs like "19th Nervous Breakdown," "Mother's Little Helpers," "Have You Seen Your Mother" . . .
"Have You Seen Your Mother" was like the ultimate freakout. We came to a full stop after that. I just couldn't make it with that anymore, what more could we say.
But obviously these songs bothered people because for the first time rock songs were saying things that couldn't be said before, not just on a sex level like old blues tunes "I'll squeeze your lemon till the juice runs down your leg" you don't get close to things like that but what you said was strong.
I like that one very much, we used to do it. It's spending all the time in America. All these songs were written in America. It is a great place to write because all the time you are being bombarded with all of it and you can't help but try and put it in some kind of form. I think the Mothers of Invention do it so well. You could never be the Mothers if you lived here. I don't know why, you just couldn't. It's all here as well, but not so obvious. As far as I'm concerned those songs just reflect what's going on.
What about people who see your songs as political or sociological statements?
Well it's interesting, but it's just the Rolling Stones sort of rambling on about what they feel.
But no other group seems to do that.
They do, lots of groups.
What other group ever wrote a song like "19th Nervous Breakdown," or "Mother's Little Helper"?
Well, Bob Dylan.
That's not really the same thing.
Dylan once said, "I could have written 'Satisfaction' but you couldn't have written 'Tamborine Man.'"
He said that to you?
No, to Keith.
What did he mean? He wasn't putting you down was he?
Oh yeah, of course he was. But that was just funny, it was great. That's what he's like. It's true but I'd like to hear Bob Dylan sing "I Can't Get No Satisfaction."
Did you like Otis Redding's version?
Yeah, I dug it but . . . not . . . well I dug it. I think it's great cause it's sort of . . . no I'm not going to say. Well, the sounds were great and he was great when he first started off singing but then it sort of went into oooh, aaah, gotta gotta gitta which is great because that's his scene but I like Aretha Franklin's better. I was very turned on that Otis cut it.
Your songs about girls like "Out Of Time," "Please Go Home," "Got to Get Away," "Yesterdays Papers," "Lady Jane" and many more like "Back Street Girl" seem rather bitter and mean whereas "She Smiled Sweetly," "Ruby Tuesday," "Like A Rainbow" are all about mystical girls.
Different girls. I don't know what to say except they speak for themselves. They are all very unthoughtout songs. I write them and they are never looked at again.
But it sounds as though you mean it at the time.
Well I do, that's the scene. Those songs reflect the day and a few stupid chicks getting on my nerves. "Lady Jane" is a complete sort of very weird song. I don't really know what that's all about myself. All the names are historical but it was really unconscious that they should fit together from the same period.
Satanic Majesties is probably the most controversial LP you've had, people either hated it or loved it. It seems to be a personal statement rather than a collection of songs. What were your original ideas about putting it together?
None at all. Absolutely no idea behind it. No, it's wrong to say there is or was no idea at all, there was but it was all completely external. It was done over such a long period of time that eventually it just evolved. The first thing we did was "She's A Rainbow," then "2000 Light Years From Home," then "Citadel" and it just got freaker as we went along. Then we did "Sing This Song All Together" and "On With The Show," "The Lantern" and then Bill's one (In Another Land). It took almost a whole year to make, not because it's so fantastically complex that we needed a whole year but because we were so strung out.
That was the year in which several arrests were made.
Yeah that took a lot of time plus we didn't know if we had a producer or not. Sometimes Andrew would turn up, Sometimes he wouldn't. We never knew if we would be in jail or what. Keith and I never sat down and played the songs to each other. We just made that album for what it is.
Were you happy when it was finished?
I was happy, yeah. I breathed a sigh of relief because we had finally finished it. It's just there to take it or leave it.
Were any of the songs written after your or Brian's arrest?
I'm very conscious of the fact that it doesn't reflect that in any of the songs. That they aren't all about policemen as they could well have been. But it is an album like Aftermath is an album but December's Children isn't, it's just a collection of songs.
Is there any one album you consider your best?
Well no. I like out first album very much 'cause it's all the stuff we used to do on stage. Then I like Aftermath 'cause I like the songs, although I don't like the way some of them were done.
. . . What about Between The Buttons?
I don't like that much.
I don't know, it just isn't any good. "Back Street Girl" is about the only one I like.
Going back to Satanic Majesties for a minute. I've noticed that there seems to be a constant mood of sleeping and dreaming throughout the whole thing.
I read somewhere else that it was supposed to be about travelling which is weird too 'cause it is when you come to look at it that way. You heard what? Dreaming and waking up? I don't know, maybe it is. That's great if you get that from it, that's fantastic.
There also seem to be certain words which constantly reappear like ritual objects, for instance "light," "high," and "flower." Am I just reading into it or was that done purposely?
I don't know what to think about it. It's very weird really and doesn't have anything to do with me. It hasn't got any sort of songs in it, all the words are very obscure, no they aren't really. "2000 Light Years" isn't. That is my favorite but it's lousy in stereo.
Do you feel that Satanic was your first attempt at the "Strawberry Fields" type of music?
Well it's a very heady album, very spaced out.
What can we expect to hear in your new album Beggers Banquet?
"Jumpin' Jack Flash" is the most basic thing we have done this time, although that may or may not be in the album. There are a couple country tunes 'cause we've always liked country music.
Have you been influenced by The Byrds and Dylan with their country albums?
Yeah, but Keith has always been country. That's what his scene was. We still think of country songs as a bit of a joke, I'm afraid. We don't really know anything about country music really, we're just playing games. We aren't really into it enough to know. I think it's going to be a good album.
Are you interested in doing stage performances again?
I'd like to do them but the thought of going on stage and playing "Satisfaction," "Paint It Black," "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and six others just doesn't appeal to me.
What if you could have a quiet and receptive audience?
I don't think it's going to be like that. I'd like to perform and I think the Stones would but we're stuck because we feel it's no good having everybody sit down and be quiet. I don't want anybody to have to do anything. I think they should do whatever they like. Pop concerts are just gathering of people who want to have a good time and I don't think they really have a higher meaning.
People say that audiences are listening now, but to what? Like the Rolling Stones on stage just isn't the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra. It's a load of noise. On record it can be quite musical but when you get to the stage it's no virtuoso performance. It's a rock and roll act, a very good one, and nothing more.
It is hard to imagine you doing your sexy thing, jumping about with everyone just sitting there quietly listening.
Right. I certainly don't want to go on stage and just stand there like Scott Walker and be ever so pretentious. I can't hardly sing, you know what I mean? I'm no Tom Jones and I couldn't give a fuck. The whole thing is a performance of a very basic nature, it's exciting and that's what it should be. The idea of doing it all over again is a drag. I'd like very much to have someone produce a show with us. I'd like that, I'd really like to do that.
Do you ever feel guilty about getting up on stage and pointing to those little girls and singing "Everybody Needs Somebody" when you really don't want them at all?
Of course I want them.
What sort of show would you hope to be able to do with someone producing it?
When I say produced I don't mean slick and corny, I mean crazy and mad. Something to add to the excitement. I loved the show we did at Wembley [The Stones played two numbers as a surprise to an audience who came to see Mick accept an award from the New Music Express as the "best R&B group of the year"] but it was two numbers and that's all I could make. Maybe when we finish the new album and have twelve new songs to do then we can get something together?.
You're getting into films now, aren't you?
Yeah, well you can do a lot with film.
What is it like to work with Jean-Luc-Godard, the director?
I don't know him very well. Godard is a very nice man. I mean I've seen all his pictures and I think they're groovy.
What is "One Plus One" about?
I have no idea, really. I know he's shooting with color film used by astronauts when re-entering the earth's atmosphere. I mean he's completely freaky. I think the idea for the movie is great but I don't think it will be the same when it is finished.
What is the idea Godard has told you?
Well it's his [Godard's] wife who plays the lead chick. She comes to London and gets totally destroyed with some spade cat. Gets involved with drugs or something. Anyway, while she is getting destroyed we find the Rolling Stones freaking out at the recording studio making these sounds.
Godard happened to catch us on two very good nights. He might have come every night for two weeks and just seen us looking at each other with blank faces and it would have been the same side of the coin as the chick destroying herself and us sitting there looking bored. One night he got us going over and over this song called "Sympathy For The Devil." It started out as a folky thing like "Jigsaw Puzzle" but that didn't make it so we kept going over it and changing it until finally it comes out as a samba. So Godard has the whole thing from beginning to end. That's something I've always wanted to do on film. It's probably very boring to most people but when he's finished cutting it, it will be great.
When is "The Performance" due to begin?
Wasn't the script written especially for you?
Yeah, I mean it's very much me. I'm going to make it if I can, different to me. I mean, he is me, the me on that album cover. He is supposed to be a great writer, like Dylan. But he's completely immersed in himself, he's a horrible person really.
How do you feel about acting as opposed to singing on stage?
I don't know. They are both just projections of your ego, which you're not supposed to have, but you can't do it without. You certainly can't act without it, that's why the Maharishi had so much trouble. This character in the film has this fantastic ego thing, which is alright 'cause I can make that. If people get the feeling that you are out there with them, and if you come on strong then you'll make it. It's just a matter of looking confident, being confident and believing the part, then it's cool.
Do you think this might open a movie career for you?
No, not really. We are doing another film in November, which is fantastic.
It's called "The Maxigasim." I can't really say much about it, but it's great.
Who is directing it?
A few freaks.
What did you think of 2001?
It was one of the best movies I've ever seen. It's a very commercial movie. I really got hung up on the audience more than the movie. They kept leaving at the freaky parts 'cause they just couldn't make it. I think the point of the movie is that he [Kubrick] wants to get this whole thing across to the mass audience. He's fantastically interested in doing all these games with the spaceship models and all, that's his hangup, but it's incidental. The point is to freak everybody out, which he is very good at. But if you have already been through all that then you can turn onto all the other's levels.
If you haven't then you get totally looned out because all the time you are being brought home by all these telephone calls and plastic shoes and you think "ah it's just like home really, it's alright." He lets you identify with it. I mean the toilet thing is the greatest, it's so awful. He spent so much time doing that it's almost heart rending. It's like he's saying, "get it across to those people but give them a bit of relief." Then at the end it all happens. You've forgotten about the stone as soon as you enter the Space Hilton, you can think it was a bad dream, until he brings it back.
People's comments are the greatest: "you need a lot of imagination to understand the movie," "it's a million dollar put-on."
I heard a little girl coming out of the theater saying that the slab was just a big block of hash.
Do you find it difficult not having any privacy?
Difficult? No, it's really nice and easy. The only hang up is the fuzz. Now that's a drag. Once you get in trouble with the police, you're always in trouble and that's it. Before, we were never in trouble and they were always very nice to us. They should be looking after people and turning American tourists away from Picadilly Circus. That's the only hang-up but it doesn't have anything to do with being me.
Do you feel that the police made a definite effort to pick on the Stones?
Well, there always has been. Before all the hassle it was just the boring newspapers, but when the fuzz start getting into that, it can be very draggy. They have the wherewithal to do it to you if they want to. The newspapers can only scream from their drunken haunts like The Wig & Feather Club but they can't do anything, the police can.