1/03/2013

The Rolling Stones: Five Decades and Still Rocking

It once would have been regarded as highly unlikely (and highly inappropriate) that The Rolling Stones would be able to achieve the vaunted milestone of a fiftieth anniversary, but that is what they have done. As a result of five decades of performing, composing, recording, and touring, along with well-known rounds of casual misbehavior, the durable musicians of The Rolling Stones (currently comprising Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Charlie Watts as the essential members, and Ronnie Wood as a longtime mainstay) have stubbornly ascended to the uppermost height of both fame and infamy. They have been through the mill of rock'n'roll, openly defying their narrow-minded detractors and always doing things in their own impudent way, and after a total of fifty years of making unforgettable music on countless stages, they still are around to tell their tale. Few of their peers can make the same claim.

In the 1960s, when British musicians tunefully seized the ears of the world, The Rolling Stones were a close second to The Beatles. Unfortunately, The Beatles, for all their boundless charm and collective magic, did not survive past the end of the 1960s as an active foursome. The Rolling Stones, however, not only stayed together and survived (apart from the late Brian Jones, who founded the band), but actually thrived as a musical and business concern in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and have kept on rolling into the 21st century. In the process, the Stones have easily outdone and outshone the derivative offerings from several generations of younger musicians. Onstage, The Rolling Stones still are renowned as the "greatest rock'n'roll band in the world," and in the realm of recordings, they have created an enviable collection of unassailable hits, songs whose permanent freshness is certain to be heard into the distant future.

The Rolling Stones began their journey to the pinnacle of worldwide stature on the evening of July 12, 1962, performing for the first time at the Marquee Club (as The Rollin' Stones, a handy name taken, apparently at random, from a song by Muddy Waters), on Oxford Street in London. On the occasion of that first gig, their membership included Mick Jagger (vocals, harmonica), Keith Richards (guitar, vocals), and Brian Jones (guitar, harmonica), along with Ian Stewart (piano), a trusty friend who later became their chief roadie, in addition to playing on many of their records. Bill Wyman (bass) joined in December of that year, and Charlie Watts (drums) became a member in January, 1963. From the start, the five Stones displayed a fierce dedication to the blues, to soul, and to rock'n'roll, earnestly seeking to pattern themselves after the black musicians in America, such as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry, whose vigorous music had prompted their first aspirations.

In 1963, with shrewd assistance from their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham (who modified their name, changing Rollin' to Rolling, and deliberately pitched them as a gang of obstinate troublemakers), they signed with Decca Records, releasing their first single, a cover of Chuck Berry's "Come On," in June, and their second single, "I Wanna Be Your Man" (written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney of The Beatles), in November. In 1964, they released their third single, a cover of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," which reached #3 in the United Kingdom, and their first album, The Rolling Stones. Later in 1964, another single, "It's All Over Now," became their first #1. It was followed by "Little Red Rooster," and in 1965, their second album, The Rolling Stones No. 2, along with more singles: "The Last Time," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," and "Get Off of My Cloud," each composed by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and each reaching #1. By the middle of 1965, The Rolling Stones had fully arrived as undisputed stars in both the United Kingdom and the United States.

While The Beatles succeeded in being generally acceptable in the 1960s, appealing to nearly everyone and mostly coming across as safe, smooth, and sweet (although not without a bit of cheekiness), The Rolling Stones were seen altogether differently. They were perceived as being rough and surly, unafraid to be rude and unwilling to conform or compromise. Their music had an edgy and insolent sound, with a hint of youthful danger that was darkly thrilling, especially to teenage girls. Most people over thirty tended to fear and abhor The Rolling Stones with a strength of feeling that was equal to the ardor of the people under thirty who loved them. The elder guardians of demure convention, ever watchful for anything that might be designated as a threat to public morality, openly loathed them with a vengeance. In provocative headlines, the British press sneeringly asked, "Would You Let Your Daughter Marry a Rolling Stone?"

Mick Jagger, with his wild and unmistakable voice, quickly came to the forefront of the band in the early days, setting a frantic pace during their riotous performances. His unrestrained style as a performer was unblushingly physical, wantonly combining elements of male and female, and frequently brought forth a sexual response among the more excitable women in the audience. Keith Richards was an adventurous urchin with a reckless grin, who seemed happiest when his guitar was firmly in his hands. Brian Jones was a dapper character, with an arresting air of unsavory daintiness, who sported a thick mass of blond hair that caused him to stand out in the spotlight. Charlie Watts usually was straight-faced and rarely had much to say, but his sturdy touch on the drums, reflecting the measured feel of a confirmed jazzman, served as the musical backbone of the band. Bill Wyman, who was older than the others, and whose sober demeanor on the bass was reliably tasteful, also was a man who kept to himself.

As the 1960s continued, each new album that was released by The Rolling Stones constituted a daring step forward, raising their musical standing and proving that their talent had progressed beyond the primitive earthiness of the blues. On Aftermath (1966), Between the Buttons (1967), Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967), and Beggars Banquet (1968), Mick Jagger and Keith Richards steadily expanded the range of their ambition as songwriters, with the considerable growth of their abilities being evident in "Lady Jane," "Under My Thumb," "I Am Waiting," "My Obsession," "She Smiled Sweetly," "All Sold Out," "She's a Rainbow," "The Lantern," "2000 Light Years from Home," "Sympathy for the Devil," "Factory Girl," "Salt of the Earth," and many other songs. (Although many people did regard Their Satanic Majesties Request as being "too psychedelic" at the time of its release.) In addition, Brian Jones deftly enhanced the texture of the compositions through his skillful use of piano, organ, sitar, marimba, dulcimer, koto, saxophone, and mellotron.

In June of 1969, Brian Jones was eased out of The Rolling Stones, mainly because his usefulness as a musician had markedly decreased, but his stated aim of forming a new band became moot when his lifeless body was found at the bottom of a swimming pool, within a month of his departure. After Mick Taylor (formerly with John Mayall's band) came aboard as second guitarist, The Rolling Stones entered their prime years and commenced a hot streak of definitive albums: Let It Bleed (1969), Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! (1970), Sticky Fingers (1971), Exile on Main St. (1972), Goats Head Soup (1973), and It's Only Rock'n'Roll (1974). (Also in 1969, they encountered conflict and violence during a free concert at the Altamont Speedway, near San Francisco, on December 6.) When Mick Taylor suddenly chose to quit in 1974, his duties were assumed by Ronnie Wood (a former member of The Birds, The Creation, The Jeff Beck Group, and The Faces), who played on the last three albums that the Stones released in the 1970s, Black and Blue (1976), Love You Live (1977), and Some Girls (1978), and has remained in the fold ever since.

Along the way, The Rolling Stones have doggedly endured a number of afflictions and tribulations: an abundance of drugs and a surfeit of alcohol (Keith Richards, in particular, was a regular user of heroin for many years, which constantly put him at odds with the law and nearly destroyed the band, and Ronnie Wood has struggled with alcoholism), varied arrests (Mick, Keith, and Brian all answered to charges before magistrates during 1967), juicy scandals (usually resulting from ill-advised dalliances with young women), and serious disputes among themselves (Mick and Keith had a falling out in the 1980s and were barely on speaking terms for a while, and Bill Wyman resigned from the band in 1993). Nowadays, in spite of being comfortably settled into fashionable lives as landed millionaires (and in spite of Mick Jagger receiving a knighthood in 2003), they still like to pose as bad boys, cheerfully nurturing an impressively scarlet reputation in which they appear to take great pride.

The Rolling Stones made fewer records after the 1970s, with only eight albums of new songs being released between 1980 and 2005: Emotional Rescue (1980), Tattoo You (1981), Undercover (1983), Dirty Work (1986), Steel Wheels (1989), Voodoo Lounge (1994), Bridges to Babylon (1997), and A Bigger Bang (2005). They maintained a heavy schedule of touring, however, repeatedly performing in huge stadiums that were filled to capacity. The brazen power of their musicianship remained unquestionably intact, but after they had completed an extensive tour of the world in 2007, it was not known when, or if, they would resume their activities. Had The Rolling Stones finally come to the end of their long road? Were they now too old and too tired to rock? When Keith Richards was promoting his autobiography, Life, published in 2010, he made it clear that he was ready, and eager, to get back into action as a Rolling Stone. Mick Jagger was more coy in his response to inquiries, which left everyone wondering.

A firm answer to the question of whether The Rolling Stones would ever perform again was not formally given until October, 2012, when they announced their intention of returning to the stage in November and December, to play a handful of shows at venues in London and on the east coast of the United States. The mere thought of Sir Mick Jagger nimbly strutting before tens of thousands of frenzied fans (with Keith, Charlie, and Ronnie behind him), barking out "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Brown Sugar," "Tumbling Dice," "Miss You," "Start Me Up," and other cocky hits, at an advanced time of life that many people would hold to be more suitable to the gentle pursuit of quiet activities involving grandchildren, is a cause for wonder. It seems that The Rolling Stones, having already succeeded in preserving their rebellious ways from youth to middle age, are now gamely heading toward a boisterous dotage.

More about The Rolling Stones at the Altamont Speedway here