The Rolling Stones: Why they matter


The Rolling Stones recently announced a series of new concert dates on their current “50 and Counting” tour.

As usual, the dominant media conjecture has been whether these will, at long last, be the band’s final stage performances. With the added uproar about the ludicrously high ticket prices and the band members’ physical decrepitude, a casual observer could be forgiven for losing sight of why the Stones ever warranted such attention in the first place.

An answer to that question would have to begin with the music, specifically the body of work the band produced between their formation in 1962 and the end of their golden period, in 1973.

Though the Stones arrived on America’s shores mere months after The Beatles, they quickly set themselves apart from their British Invasion counterparts.

From the beginning it was clear that more than simply a vehicle for cranking out hit singles to screaming teens, the group was devoted to the point of obsession with carrying forward a music that had been all but forgotten in its home country.

The Stones early work consisted mainly of cover versions of obscure blues and R&B songs all but unknown to the vast majority of music listeners in the states, both black and white. But through an alchemy that even they would be hard pressed to explain, the early Stones were able to transform these rare cuts into something uniquely their own, transcending mere imitation to create a new synthesis of rock and roll that combined the rhythmic cut and thrust of blues artists such as Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker with the melodic appeal of early rockers like Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers.

Part of this was attributable to the band’s wide-ranging influences, but the most important element of their early and future success was the individual members’ singular talents and how they melded those gifts into a unified sound.

While most other rock bands of the era thudded and plodded along, the Stones swung. Huddled around a stove in their dismal apartment for months on end, guitarists Keith Richards and Brian Jones developed a playing style that blended rhythm and lead into a swirling, driving force that Richards has described as like “one guitar player with four hands.”

In drummer Charlie Watts, the Stones were lucky enough to find a drummer who had very little regard for the primitive roar of rock and roll, honing his skills instead in a number of early English jazz bands. This disdain only added to the group’s unique sound, which matured into a clanging, limber wall of noise that pulsed and danced as it simultaneously flirted with chaos.

And then, of course, there was the singer, Mick Jagger, a strange, sullen bohemian possessed of a voice that could convey bored menace, frothing lust or disarming tenderness with the seeming ease of a child playing dress-up. For all his theatricality, even during the Stones’ earliest days there was something in that voice that reached beyond the sneer or the lascivious giggle, that almost despite itself expressed an absolute, almost mystical belief in this music and this band.

Plunged into the mid-1960s world of the three-minute hit single, the Stones quickly developed their latent songwriting talents, marrying their blues roots to a newfound mastery of pop and commercial soul music.

The band’s singles from this time, such as Paint It Black, Mother’s Little Helper, Under My Thumb, and Ruby Tuesday, highlight a band that could have simply cashed in on their pop skills and the throngs of wailing teen girls that made their concerts at that time more akin to barely controlled riots than musical experiences.

To their credit, however, they chose to reach deeper.

Realizing that the teeny bopper era was coming to a close with the darkening of the global political and cultural landscape, the Stones reached back to their early love of blues, country and gospel to create a series of albums that stand among the finest in all of rock. By the late ’60s, jail time, drugs, and personnel upheavals had matured and deepened the Stones’ vision, resulting in a sound that was far more potent, assured and aggressive than their earlier work.

“Beggars Banquet,” the first album to feature the Stones’ new sound, begins with an African-inspired samba voiced by Satan, moves through shimmering country blues and acoustic-electric hard rock, and ends with a warped gospel sing-along. On subsequent albums such as “Let It Bleed,” “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile On Main Street,” the Stones would explore similar paths, moving from strength to strength, the music seemingly feeding off the turmoil in the group’s personnel lives and the world at large.

It’s on those albums that Keith Richards staked his claim as one of the most important rhythm guitar players in rock history. Using open guitar tunings favored by early blues players, Richards devised an entirely new approach to the art of rhythm guitar, one that explored silence and ringing, ghost-like chords combined with a sense of groove so profoundly his own that it remains virtually impossible to imitate.

While his musical accomplishments have often been overshadowed by the crazed legends that have grown and calcified around the man, at his peek Richards was every bit as innovative on his instrument as Jimmy Hendrix, David Gilmour or any other famed six-string artist.

Richards is also the band member that would come to exemplify the other, non-musical aspect of the Stones that has kept them in the headlines for the better part of five decades: The outlaw image tied to the cultural revolution that they were both swept up in and helped bring into existence.

The group’s appearance, in their earliest days, was just as shocking as their sound. Compared to the other scrubbed and shined groups of the day, The Beatles included, the Stones appeared as beings from another planet, grimy, slouching louts with little regard for either personnel hygiene or social niceties.

Yet, even then, the group exuded a kind of raw, almost incidental glamour that set them apart. If plopped down amongst the shabby, prep school dullards that have taken over much of the popular and alternative music scenes of today, the early Stones would look every bit as strange as they did circa 1967, when band members routinely walked on stage in jewelry and scarves borrowed from their girlfriends.

Their fashion sense exemplified the generational upheaval that was taking place in the ’60s, as crewcuts and slacks gave way to shoulder length hair and bell-bottoms and young people began to question not just the rules but the very sanity of their elders.

The Stones were at the forefront of that tumultuous period, when fundamental bedrock values were openly questioned for the first time. The group met that moment head on, never shying away from speaking their minds during interviews, in their songs, or from jury boxes.

And yet, even during their foggiest days in the wilderness of drug busts, world tours, and allegations of black magic, there remained an earth-bound rawness, a sense of devotion to both the music and the lifestyle that they had come to exemplify. All the money and drugs somehow never touched their basic, human appeal.

If the world was going to hell, the Stones were going to get there first, private jets and French Riviera mansions be damned.

After their 1973 world tour, regarded by many as the finest of their career, the Stones essentially metamorphosed into a different band, one seemingly drained of the all-powerful force that animated their past music. Whether due to drug abuse, complacency, or sheer exhaustion, their music thereafter, while showing occasional hints of the old magic, would increasingly feel bereft of the spirit that had guided it for so long.

Which brings us to today. In terms of personnel wealth and concert attendance, the band has continued to prosper throughout the last three decades. Police raids and burning hotel rooms have given way to quiet family lives in the English countryside.

The group now essentially functions as the greatest Rolling Stones cover band in the world, grinding out the hits and putting on the rebel costumes for their old fans and their grandchildren—a thoroughly depressing spectacle for anyone who values creativity and passion. A band with nothing to lose, that could explore any musical avenue their hearts desired, content instead to revisit past glories to increasingly diminishing artistic returns.

But that once unconquerable magic, the music that for a time dripped from their fingertips like dark honey, is available for anyone with the ears and heart to hear it, preserved on vinyl, CD, or digital MP3s for all time: The Chicago blues opera of Midnight Rambler; the apocalyptic gospel beauty of Gimme Shelter; the impossibly elegant, lazy drawl of Tumbling Dice; the heartbroken soul of Wild Horses.

When all the headlines and rumors have faded, the music will stand. The world will never see its like again.


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