Last Thursday, July 12, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first time the Rolling Stones, one of the most emblematic symbols not only in the music industry but in the entire cultural scene of the XX century, played together before an audience. It all happened in London’s rather discrete Marquee Club, signaling the beginning of a career that no one at the time could have faintly envisaged – not even in their wildest dreams!
Over the course of the years, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards came to be the lyricists of the century, expressing the feelings and emotions, the yearnings and, above all, the ambitions of a generation that reveled in the adverse historical conditions into which it had been born and admirably embraced the imminent doom with a simple philosophy: live fast, live wild, but by all means live well. In a way, like John Keats and Heinrich Heine encompassed the zeitgeist and the essence of the XIX century before them, Jagger & Richards most vividly expressed the spirit of their own time.
The impact of the Stones as a band can be gauged from Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the greatest rock n’ roll acts of all time, which it first launched in 2004/2005 to celebrate 50 years of the R’n’R era. In its most recent update, the Rolling Stones were included in number 4, only behind The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley. Personally, we think they’re off the mark by three places, but that is neither here nor there.
The Stones remain a phenomenon, even as they set about celebrating their very own Golden Jubilee. Fifty active, writing, performing, touring, producing, hard living and loving years! Fifty years during which they have released over a 100 singles and more than three dozen albums. No mean feat, by any standards. But by the extremely high standards of the Stones an absolutely unparalleled achievement that has gifted three generations with absolutely essential songs. From the vibrant “Gimme Shelter” (1969), to the heartfelt “Angie” (1973) or the mischievous “Memory Hotel” (1976), these are not merely good tunes, these are true anthems of an evolving society.
Rooted in the purest melodies of American rock n’ roll, the Rolling Stones set out initially as a cover band, appropriating and reinventing hits, such as “Carol” and “Route 66”. Soon enough, however, the brilliance of Jagger and Richards – something that went well beyond talent, a special sensibility that enabled them to seize the sentiment of an entire generation and to express it in more than words, in an attitude, in a rhythm, in a show – took center stage, and there was no stopping them. First came “Tell Me” (1964), in their debut album, closely followed by “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965), an emblematic song if there ever was one, “Paint It Black” (1966), perhaps the most powerful depiction of angst in the history of R’n’R, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (1967), “Jumping Jack Flash”, “Sympathy for the Devil” (both 1968)… The list goes on, and on, and on…
Through the best part of two decades, despite the tragic loss of Brian Jones, despite the controversy and the scandals, or perhaps precisely because of them, the Stones remained the most genuine, and successful, reflection of the society that revered them (or loathed them, which ultimately is one and the same thing). They were the years of the albums Beggars Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971), Exile On Main Street (1972), Goats Head Soup (1973), Some Girls (1978), undoubtedly the core of the band’s contribution to music.
Indeed, the latter was a pivotal album in the history of the Stones: released on the heels of two relatively indifferent productions, Some Girls went a long way to disprove critics, who claimed the addictions of Jagger and especially Richards had eaten away their talent and rendered the band mediocre. But songs such as “Miss You” and “Shattered” not only proved that the Stones were well and alive, they also constituted a conscious effort – maybe the first – by the band to swing with the times, to adapt their rhythm to the quicker, more histrionic beat of punk, in other words, to look around and take notice of what was happening.
As it turned out, adapting and swinging with the times would prove to be what the Stones would really be about. The 80s were a particularly difficult period for the group, not financially – their albums were always successful – but in almost every other aspect. After all, in 1982 they turned 20 (twenty!), a natural crossroads for most music ensembles, and each of the members showed interest in exploring different avenues with other bands, not least Mick Jagger, who concentrated almost exclusively in his solo career. December 1985 marked a particularly low point in the group’s history, as long-time friend, original band-member (playing the piano) and one-time road manager, Ian Stewart passed away.
But the induction of the Rolling Stones into the Hall of Fame of rock n’ roll in 1989 led to a highly successful world tour that lasted a full year – and suddenly, a new version of the Stones went into breeding.
It would take three years, solo albums by Wood, Watts, Richards and Jagger, and the final retirement of Bill Wyman for the Stones to get back in the studio, but once they did they produced their best album in years, Voodoo Lounge (1993), and set off on another year-long tour that firmly established the band as a huge live-entertainment machine. Since then, the stages have only gotten bigger, the screens better, the pyrotechnics more extreme, the paraphernalia ever more elaborate and the overall experience simply flabbergasting. Just ask anyone who went to their show in Puerto Rico, part of the “A Bigger Bang Tour” (2005-2007), which also included a free concert in Rio’s Copacabana in 2006, attended by an estimated 1.5 million people. Any of them could tell you…
But that’s not all there is. Discussing, the other night, the secret to the worldwide phenomenon that is the Stones we entertained the thought that, perhaps, the reason why they are so enormously popular, even beyond people of their generation, might be because nearly everyone must have had a love affair that ticked or began to the tune of the Stones. And a good number of babies in this world must have been conceived with one of their songs rocking in the background!
As they turn 50, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger are all still there, together from the days when the band came to light in London in 1962. Ron Wood plays guitar with them since 1975, and is the fourth member of the core of the group. Then there is Darryl Jones on the bass, Bobby Keys on the sax and Chuck Leavell on the piano. Together with the fabulous Lisa Fisher and Bernard Fowler performing the background vocals, these five are unofficial but crucial parts of every Rolling Stones gig.
During this extraordinary birthday celebration, LIFE’s newly-launched photo-history of the band is certain to be just one of the many that will focus on four guys who, through the years, have combined great amounts of creativity and resilience to put up, quite literally, the greatest show on earth. So sing along, Baby Boomers!
WRITTEN TOGETHER WITH ADRIAN KOBBE AND PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON JULY 21, 2012.