M ick Jagger had a simple plan for making A Bigger Bang, the Rolling Stones' first new studio album in eight years: "Concentrate on what you're doing. No fucking about or jamming for days," Jagger says bluntly in his dressing room in Toronto during a break in the Stones' rehearsals there for their upcoming world tour. "I thought, 'We can't do this album the way we've been doing them, spending months in a studio with hundreds of people. It's difficult, expensive and not much fun.' "
Instead, it was a bare-bones Stones — Jagger, guitarist Keith Richards, drummer Charlie Watts, guitarist Ron Wood and bassist Darryl Jones — that cut the bulk of the sixteen new Jagger-Richards songs on A Bigger Bang, which will be released by Virgin on September 6th. There are no special guests on the record — which runs the gamut from the old-school-Stones raunch of "Rough Justice" and "Oh No, Not You Again" to the country-soul ballad "Biggest Mistake" and the bleak R&B of "Laugh, I Nearly Died" — and there is only occasional piano and organ from touring keyboardist Chuck Leavell and the album's co-producer Don Was. On three tracks — the crunchy blues "Back of My Hand," the slow, hard strut "Dangerous Beauty" and the topical stomp "Sweet Neo Con," which takes dead aim at the Bush administration with lines like "You say you are a patriot/I think that you're a crock of shit" — the entire band is the founding trio of Jagger, Richards and Watts, now fully recovered from his battle with throat cancer last year.
"It's not just a lineup," Richards says of the Stones with a rusty chuckle. "It's a feeling — what the musicians who are playing can do when they have to. Mick would not have played the bass [on some tracks] for any other reason than we didn't have a bass player around at the time. And I guess we were feeling that if there's no Charlie, we had to rethink what we could do, even if it was just because he wasn't there for now."
Jagger and Richards were only a couple of days into writing together for the album at Jagger's home in France when they got the news of Watts' diagnosis. The drummer told Jagger that he had been given excellent prospects for a complete recovery following surgery and chemotherapy. "So I didn't go into a total tailspin," Jagger says. "I just carried on making a record." But Richards says that waiting for Watts to get well "made Mick and I play together more, on that basic level of putting songs together. For the blues 'Back of My Hand,' we just went, 'Let's start with where we started.' It was a beauty to play."
The Stones are so pleased with A Bigger Bang that, according to Wood, they have rehearsed a dozen of the new songs for the tour, which opens on August 21st at Boston's Fenway Park and, like the 2002-03 jaunt, will include stadium, theater and arena productions with different set lists. "A lot of our studio stuff is too overdubbed," says Watts. But A Bigger Bang "is a very basic record, and I hope people like it," he adds, smiling hopefully, "because it will make us do another one like it."
This story is from the August 25, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.