How do you get to work with Mick Jagger 60 years into his career? Challenge him.
“Out of the blue, I got an email from a guy I didn’t know, [composer] Daniel Pemberton,” Jagger tells Rolling Stone from England. “I’d heard of him, because he’d done quite a lot of TV and film music, English guy, and he’d gotten a lot of kudos [and] nominations for awards. He said, ‘Would you be interested in doing this TV theme?’ I’m always up for doing something different.”
Jagger rose to the occasion, co-writing and singing “Strange Game,” the dusky, mysterious theme song for Apple TV+’s upcoming new espionage series, Slow Horses. The show adapts Mick Herron’s novels about a group of disgraced and misfit MI5 agents who have been exiled from the head office to work at Slough House for another disgraced spy, Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman). The series also stars Olivia Cooke, Jonathan Pryce, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Jack Lowden. Both the series and “Strange Game” will debut on Friday.
Jagger found the challenge of writing the song easier than expected since he’d already read three or four books in Herron’s Slough House series. “They’re kind of a new take on spy stories,” he says. “It’s sort of an anti–John le Carré or anti–James Bond. … I’ve always liked that genre, and it’s always nice to see it get slightly reinvented.” When Jagger heard Pemberton’s music, it all clicked together. “It’s got a slight Kurt Weill vibe to it, but it’s still kind of bluesy without being a blues,” he says. “It’s not my usual kind of thing; it kind of is and isn’t.” Between the familiar feel of the music and his familiarity with Herron’s books, Jagger says he “ripped off a whole bunch of lyrics straight away.”
Over a gently lilting, shuffling guitar and percussion line, Jagger sings about misfits, losers, and boozers who “made one mistake” and “got burned at the stake” before it simmers down into something more mysterious. “It’s a strange, strange game,” he sings. “Such a shame, shame, shame.” Echoes of piano call out here and there as he whispers and howls the lyrics out of the shadows in between.
When Jagger first heard the song, though, it was only an instrumental — a repeated theme without any obvious place for a chorus. So he demoed some vocals on his iPhone for Pemberton’s approval and headed into the studio to get in the mood. “I was trying to think, ‘Oh, this is going to be a quite sleazy feeling,'” he says, reflecting on the source material. “I know it’s going to be, like, grim-looking London. So I tried to get a vibe going with … [quoting the lyrics] ‘In this strange game’ and give it a little bit of dynamics, which the track didn’t really have.”
The chorus he came up with, about wanting to “dance with the big boys again,” came directly from the characters in the books. “It fits with the loser characters, because what they want to do is get back to that big posh office,” he says. “They don’t want to be in this shithole. When you see the show, you’ll see how smooth the top operation is and how they’ve got kicked out of there. They want to transfer back, and how are they going to do that?
“[The characters] are all failures,” he says. “So we don’t really know what the Gary Oldman character is up to. He’s obviously a failure, otherwise, he wouldn’t be in this position. … He’s given these mostly young people that have made some really bad mistake early in their career and, on one hand, he treats them like shit, and, on the other hand, he has a paternalistic feel from them. Deep down he wants them to do better somehow. In the end [of the books] something bad happens; one of the characters usually comes out with some kind of success, one character might come out dead. It’s a cool series.”
Jagger’s other challenge of late has been prepping for the Rolling Stones’ upcoming European trek, commemorating their 60th anniversary. If the band were royalty, that milestone would call for a “diamond jubilee,” as Queen Elizabeth II celebrated a decade ago, but the singer says the group will mark it with “a light touch.” “I’m not going to push it that hard,” he says.
Jagger says former Stones bassist Bill Wyman and guitarist Mick Taylor would not be making appearances again, as they did with the band’s 50th. “We’re not going to go there, I don’t think,” he says. “The tour’s called Sixty, but apart from that we’re not going to do too much. I think that’s enough.”
Beyond that, he’s still figuring out the perfect set list after 60 years. “It’s hard,” he says. “It should be easy but it’s not as easy as all that to get ones that everyone likes and goes for. It’s the common denominator of getting 50,000 people to want to hear a song that they want. You want to be adventurous — and you can be adventurous for a minute — but you can’t be adventurous for too long, because they get bored.”
The anything-but-boring Sixty Tour kicks off June 1 in Madrid and wends across the continent, including two gigs at London’s Hyde Park, before wrapping July 31 in Stockholm. Along the way, Jagger will try to pick songs that will please both fans and himself after six decades. “You always got to do some things for yourself,” he says. “That’s one of things I’m working on.”