If there were ever a time to rush a pandemic-themed project to market, this is it. The move can seem well-intentioned, generous, or cynical, depending on the artist and the audience. The Rolling Stones proofed themselves against the latter criticism ages ago by building cynicism into their brand. They know what their audience wants, and they consistently deliver, decade after decade, playing the hits. When vague social commentary slips into a Stones tune, it vibrates at the same frequency as their trademark sleaze.
But why would we expect relevance from a band that hasn’t released any new music in eight years? “On their most recent tour,” writes Alexis Petridies at The Guardian, “which began in 2017 and would still be on course were it not for the coronavirus pandemic—the most up-the-minute addition to their setlist was 25 years old.” Who indeed “would have thought that the Rolling Stones would be early to market with a Covid-19-themed song?” They certainly don’t need the money.
In fact, the band wrote and began recording the song in February 2019. “It wasn’t written for now,” Mick Jagger told Zane Lowe in an Apple Music interview. “But it was written about being in a place which was full of life, and then now (is) all bereft of life, so to speak. And when I went back to what I’d written originally lyrically, it was all full of… well, I didn’t use them in the lyrics, it was all full of plague terms and things like that.” Jagger and Richards decided they had to release the song, part of a collection of new material the band was working on. Or as Richards put it in a statement:
So, let’s cut a long story short. We cut this track well over a year ago in L.A. for part of a new album, an ongoing thing, and then s— hit the fan. Mick and I decided this one really needed to go to work right now and so here you have it.
Richards sounds almost apologetic about the rushed version you hear above, which they finished remotely after the lockdowns began, but in his interview with Lowe, he says he's pleased. “We sort of did it from outer space. But I actually liked the way it turned out.” The track has a tight, bluesy, stripped-down dub groove. Shots of Sir Mick reading lyrics from his iPad, in what is presumably his home studio, add a Zoom meeting-like vibe to the video. “We’ve worked on it in isolation,” Jagger says.
He also admits he rewrote the lyrics, “but didn’t have to rewrite very much, to be honest. It’s very much how I originally did it. I was just jamming. I was just playing a guitar and just wrote it like that. I don’t know what frame of mind I must’ve been in. I mean, it was semi-humorous, then it got less humorous….” I think we’ve all said something like that, many times, over the last few years. The Stones were in the right place and right time to play out the end of the 1960s, when things got decidedly less humorous. But who would have guessed they'd show up over fifty years later to soundtrack our current 21st century tragedy?