The Rolling Stones at 50? It feels like a contradiction in terms. The wild men of the British invasion were never supposed to become a cosy elderly institution. When the Roger Daltrey sang “I Hope Die Before I Get Old” in 1965 it was hard to imagine the prolific, almost scholarly, music fanatic Pete Townsend hanging up his six string. Those words seemed to linger over another band and another starlet all together.
Between the disastrous Altamont Free Concert, complete with deadly beatings at the hands of Hells Angels, the Mars bar scandal, unexpected deaths, and a Chateaux overflowing with cocaine, The Rolling Stones and Keith Richards simply weren’t supposed to live this long. They were destined to burn out, not fade away into the warm arms of international acceptance.
When Johnny Depp satirised Keith Richards with his sauntering and perennially plastered Capt. Jack Sparrow, the once rebellious Richards wasn’t supposed to cement his rock’n’roll caricature status by appearing in the tedious and unnecessary third Pirates film as a cuddly besodden grandpa, happy to wink and nod along. Then again, The Rolling Stones weren’t supposed to indulge in vomit inducing deferential fanboy flicks (even if the starry eyed fan is Martin Scorsese), and they certainly weren’t supposed to be a birthday party band for hire. The 60s symbol of youth, freedom and rebellion, playing at the behest of Sheiks and Princes? It doesn’t bare thinking about.
As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of The Rolling Stones they won’t be toasting the latter day legends, but the ferociously ragged young men who turned a love of Willie Dixon and Buddy Holly into the most storied career in all of rock’n’roll.
Whereas Lennon and McCartney dived right into songwriting, and would later show the struggling duo of Richards and Jagger just how easy it could be, The Stones started life as a covers band. R’n’B was their game, and they quickly overcame the label of fresh faced cultural appropriators by developing their own signature style. The sweeping sway of lonesome blues lay in place, but Jagger had a knack for slick pop melodies, which he juxtaposed with feral barks and sleazy drawls. Capturing teenage hearts and earning the ire of parents the world over. Jones and Richards on the other hand sounded wonderfully thrown together, one honked slightly out of step while the other played irresistible slide guitar.
While radio staples “I Just Want To Make Love To You” and “Everybody Needs Someone To Love” garnered populist kudos, it was the bleak heart and dark sexuality of 1965’s The Rolling Stones, Now! that singled the band out for superstardom. The album also happened to boast The Stones first real songwriting triumph, “Heart Of Stone”. A tear stained anthem that has only grown in prominence in the ensuing decades.
The Rolling Stones’ eventual songwriting breakthrough came just four months later (yes the 60s promotional machine was that intense), but if Richards had had his way the world would have been denied a timeless anthem. The “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” that music fans laud today was salvaged by producer Andrew Loog Oldham, who overruled Richards who was intent on having his famous riff buried beneath a barrage of horn overdubs. The track’s famous resounding riff helped The Stones conqueror the States and laid the blueprint for their transition from overawed Bluesmen to rootsy rock innovators.
The covers quickly began to pale in comparison to stunning originals “Get Off Of My Cloud” and “As Tears Go By”, and by ’66 The Stones were their own men. Unfortunately for Richards and Jagger their great creative breakthrough, Aftermath, came out within months of Rubber Soul, Blonde On Blonde and Pet Sounds, ultimately paling in comparison. Still if the first 100% Stones record has become lost in the historical shuffle, the album’s standout moments still shine brightly. The windingly hypnotic “Paint It Black” and the oppressively jazzy “Under My Thumb” are positively timeless.
The Stones’ ascent appeared inevitable. The songwriting tightened, the subject matter became more despairing, and the live performances became wild word of mouth sensations. Between The Buttons (1967) closed the gap on Jagger and Richards’ high art peers. Melancholy and majestic, “Ruby Tuesday” was a deft composition that transcended the raw revivalist tag, as psychedelic influences were slowly infused. By ’68 The Stones were ready to stand toe to toe with Bob Dylan and The Beatles.
Beggars Banquet surpassed all expectations. The Southern blues wound and slid divinely (“No Expectations”), the rock and roll was beyond transcendent as “Street Fighting Man” proved incendiary while the fearsome flickers, enticing boasts, and howling licks of “Sympathy For The Devil” displayed a new level of compositional and narrative genius. Even the “blues pastiches” now rivalled if not surpassed the Delta originals. The Stones were rock classicists, pop modernists, and compositional experimentalists, all at once.
From this point on The Stones became myths in their own time. Their legendary antics outside the studio were captured in sensationalist tabloid headlines, while their manically mercurial live performances live on in a series of revered bootlegs (start with the 1973 Brussels Affair). On record, The Stones did whatever the hell they wanted: unironic children’s choirs (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”), cinematic desperation (“Gimme Shelter”), killer riffs (“Brown Sugars”), awe inspiring solos (“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”), sordid disco (“Miss You”), gospel experimentation and double albums (Exile On Main Street).
Today Richards and Jagger may be happy to relive the past with wide smiles while collecting even wider cheques, but it’s The Stones of 1965-74 that will live on forever in every music fan’s heart. The unassailable Stones simply aren’t that interesting, but those scruffy, sexy, underdogs who groped around in dingy Dartford trying to master the Mississippi blues, who had to sit down and be shown how to write songs by Lennon and McCartney - they truly inspire. In a wild drug fuelled 15 years, The Stones went from stylish imitators to peerless innovators – and today, we remember the wily world beating outcasts and not the wobbly hipped institutions.
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