No one could accuse Mick Jagger of rushing into a solo career. From the point of The Rolling Stones’ debut single, “Come On”, released in June 1963, it was more than seven years before his own name appeared on an album cover, and almost 15 more before he released his first solo album. But his body of work across four solo albums is full of delights, detours and surprises.
After “Memo From Turner,” his 1970 song from the movie Performance, Jagger’s name appeared on Jamming With Edward, the 1972 collaboration with fellow Stones Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, as well as Ry Cooder and Nicky Hopkins. In 1978, with reggae star Peter Tosh, there was the one-off single remake of The Temptations’ “Don’t Look Back,” styled as “(You Gotta Walk And) Don’t Look Back.” In 1984, he guested on the Jacksons’ late-period Michael Jackson co-write “State Of Shock.”
She’s The Boss (1985)
Then, finally, February 19, 1985 saw Jagger’s first full-length solo adventure in the shape of the album She’s The Boss. It was released during what became recognized as a chill in communications with Keith Richards, and at a time when the Stones weren’t recording. Thankfully, they would achieve a rapprochement and a resumption of their working partnership, but 1985 marked the frontman’s opportunity to shine in his own light, and She’s The Boss wasted no time in making the Top 10 in both the UK and Australia. It was gold in America by May, and turned platinum just a few weeks later.
She’s The Boss was recorded at Compass Point Studios in Nassau and co-produced by Mick with Nile Rodgers and Bill Laswell. Billboard observed that it was set to confirm Rodgers as the hottest producer in the world, as he had come into the year with the top two singles of the time to his name, Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” and Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys.”
Perhaps ironically, the album began with a lively opening track carrying a Jagger-Richards writing credit, “Lonely At The Top.” Its first single, “Just Another Night,” was a No.1 hit on Billboard’s Rock Tracks chart and a No.12 on the Hot 100. Longtime compadre Jeff Beck contributed guitar, with Robbie Shapespeare, of reggae bastions Sly and Robbie, on bass and Who sideman John “Rabbit” Bundrick on synthesisers. Billboard dance editor Brian Chin said that what made She’s The Boss a great album was that “its rhythms are smooth and rigid, with the long grooves of dance music rather than the spurts and starts of rock‘n’roll.”
A raucous call to arms
For a man who has never done things by halves, it was appropriate that Jagger’s one and only live performance around the album came in front of an estimated television audience of 1.9 billion. He played the Philadelphia leg of Live Aid on July 13, 1985, in a five-song set that started with “Lonely At The Top” and “Just Another Night” and featured the Stones’ staples “Miss You” and “It’s Only Rock‘n’Roll (But I Like It).”
That short performance also contained a duet version of “State Of Shock,” featuring another old friend, Tina Turner. It wasn’t Jagger’s only Live Aid-related duet; he had, of course, swiftly recorded the flagship single for the epic charity event, remaking Martha Reeves And The Vandellas’ Motown hit ‘Dancing In The Street’ as an unashamedly raucous call to arms with David Bowie.
She’s The Boss had a robust rock demeanor, decorated by the synth textures of the day and driven by Jagger’s indefatigable ear for melody and a sharp lyric. “Half A Loaf” was a frustrated depiction of a stolen relationship (“I can’t go on seeing you like this!”) while the superstar’s expertise in bluesy, soulful flavours shone through on the likes of “Turn The Girl Loose” and “Lucky In Love,” the latter released as the album’s second single.
Primitive Cool (1987)
After contributing “Ruthless People” to the 1986 film of the same name, and after the Stones had returned to the studio (but not the road) with Dirty Work, Jagger was back in action as early as 1987 when Primitive Cool hit the shelves on September 14 that year. Made in the Netherlands and Barbados, it found him sharing production duties with Keith Diamond and Eurythmics’ David A. Stewart, with Jeff Beck assuming more prominence as the album’s chief guitarist.
Stewart, who in the 00s would become Mick’s bandmate in the one-off project SuperHeavy, co-wrote three Primitive Cool songs with him, including the lead single, “Let’s Work.” That became another Top 10 rock radio success from an album of sturdy, guitar-driven pieces such as “Radio Control” and somewhat poppier tracks like “Say You Will.” Of particular interest was the title track, which began in reflective mood before picking up speed, as a younger man muses on the nature of fashion and asks his father about his own salad days.
“Kow Tow” and “Shoot Off Your Mouth,” both among the album’s strongest tracks, may have been fuelled by the stalled relationship with Richards. The “human riff” didn’t hold back in expressing his dissatisfaction that Jagger toured She’s The Boss (albeit only for shows in Japan and Australia) rather than reconvening with the Stones. “The wicked lay stones in my path/And friends who are snakes in the grass” was a particularly noticeable lyric in the former song.
There was later endorsement of the attractively Celtic-inspired “Party Doll” when it was remade by American singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter; Jagger’s original featured whistle and Uillean pipes by Chieftains leader Paddy Moloney. Primitive Cool concluded with “War Baby,” a comment on the arms race of the 80s by a man who was himself a World War II baby (“The war made us poor/Made our future unsure”). In an interview at the time with European trade weekly Music & Media, Jagger said: “I don’t like to be a slave to what’s current, because I don’t really feel that it does me any good.”
Wandering Spirit (1993)
The Stones’ return to active service, in a period during which they would define the best aspects of stadium and arena rock, meant that Jagger didn’t resume his solo work in earnest until 1993. Wandering Spirit was recorded over a seven-month period before the band started making Voodoo Lounge. Jagger’s third solo album was co-produced by Rick Rubin, who by now had long since extended his creative reach beyond his Def Jam origins, and had overseen rock releases by the likes of the Black Crowes, Danzig, Slayer, and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“Sweet Thing” was the lead single, a Jagger composition with a knowing blend of funk and acoustic elements which he sang in a “Miss You”-style falsetto. It became a Top 10 hit in several European countries and led the way for an album including ten originals among its 14 tracks, of which two were written with New York artist-producer Jimmy Rip.
Three covers on Wandering Spirit laid bare Mick’s love of vintage soul. “Use Me,” his version of the much-covered Bill Withers song, included guest vocals by Lenny Kravitz and had Cashbox admiring the way it “takes on a new life with the venerable rocker at the mic.” There were remakes of Frederick Knight’s 1972 Stax gem “I’ve Been Lonely For So Long” and Lowman Pauling’s “Think” – not the Aretha Franklin song, but the one recorded by The “5” Royales and given a second lease of life by one of Jagger’s favourite artists, James Brown.
All the way around, the album made a broader sweep of the star’s inspirations, with further elements of gospel (“Don’t Tear Me Up”), country (“Evening Gown,” featuring Jay Dee Maness’ pedal steel), rootsy, bluesy rock’n’roll (the title track) and folk (“Handsome Molly”). They sat alongside some straightahead rockers like “Put Me In The Trash” and “Mother Of A Man,” the latter with Jagger’s nimble harmonica. Longtime sideman Matt Clifford played harpsichord on one of the most affecting pieces, “Angel In My Heart.”
Goddess In The Doorway (2001)
Jagger’s most recent solo studio release was 2001’s Goddess In The Doorway, chiefly produced with Clifford and Marti Frederiksen, but also featuring credits for Chris Potter, Wyclef Jean and Jerry Duplessis. Kravitz returned on the rock hit “God Gave Me Everything,” which he co-produced, and there were cameos by Bono, Pete Townshend and Rob Thomas. Dot Music described it as an “energetic, intelligent and fairly modern rock album.”
In 2004, Jagger was back at the movies for the soundtrack of the romantic comedy drama Alfie, teaming with Stewart for a score including “Old Habits Die Hard,” which won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The pair were together again in 2011, in the aforementioned, genre-straddling SuperHeavy, with Joss Stone, A.R. Rahman and Damian Marley.
The rest of the decade would be dominated by extensive touring with the Stones. But in 2017 Jagger released the double-sided “Gotta Get A Grip”/“England Lost” as another reminder of an artist who, true to his word, remains a wandering spirit with infinitely more to offer than merely being the world’s most famous rock star. He resumed his acting career in the 2020 thriller The Burnt Orange Heresy, and the spring of 2021 brought the surprise collaboration with Dave Grohl, “Eazy Sleazy.”
The spring of 2022 had Jagger releasing “Strange Game,” his impressive theme song for the Apple Original series Slow Horses, co-written with film composer Daniel Pemberton. There are doubtless further unpredictable adventures to come.