Fifty years since they played their first gig, ShortList celebrates The Rolling Stones and asks musicians and experts why they remain the ultimate rock’n’roll band
Introduction by Charles Shaar Murray
Fifty years of The Rolling Stones? Well, yes and no. The year 2012 does mark the half-centenary of the first appearance of a band named The Rolling Stones – to be precise, The Rollin’ Stones – formed in 1962 to play the blues by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones. However, it wasn’t until 1963 that the original line-up coalesced, when those three scruffy bohos enticed Charlie Watts to join as drummer, providing the third leg of the Jagger-Richards-Watts tripod, which has sustained and defined the band ever since.
Since then, bassists and lead guitarists have come and gone – as have Beatles, Zeppelins, Pistols and more – but The Stones have always been with us. In that time, and never more influentially than in the first crucial decade when they created immortal songs such as Satisfaction, Sympathy For The Devil and Brown Sugar, they made the blues a vital strand in the DNA of rock, not to mention providing the template for all musical generations since
They may not have produced a classic since 1981’s Start Me Up, but when they tour, they’re the biggest draw on the circuit. They may retire or they may not, but they remain rock’s most magnificent ruin, like the Sphinx or the Coliseum, an awe-inspiring remnant of a magnificent bygone era.
Here’s six reasons from their peers and critics explaining why The Rolling Stones are the greatest band ever:
1. Keith Richards’ guitar-playing by Graham Coxon
“My earliest memories of The Stones are of my dad telling me that they were basically copying The Beatles. Of course, as I got older I realised that they weren’t. Songs like Ruby Tuesday are undeniably groovy. I like that Keith is into the same American R&B tradition that I am. Plus we both use slack tuning, which is an interesting way of playing. It means you’re tuned to an open G chord which lets you use a slide, and do other bits and bobs. That, along with a fanaticism for the Fender Telecaster, is something we share.”
Coxon is working with Philips Fidelio audio range; philipsfidelio.co.uk
2. Mick Jagger’s stagecraft by Paul Smith, Maximo Park
“We supported The Stones on tour in 2006. Mick had a treadmill backstage; he used to run to prepare for his performance. He covered every corner of the stage and gave every last drop of energy. He’s not bothered if he looks like an idiot. He’ll show off and wiggle his bum and wear an outfit that’ll entertain people. Sometimes I’ll think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t wear such a loud tie’, but then I think, ‘Mick wouldn’t care, would he?’ As a frontman, you should always be thinking, ‘What would Jagger do?’”
Maximo Park’s new album The National Health is out now
3. Their run of classic albums by music journalist Johnny ‘Cigarettes’ Sharp
By the end of the Sixties, The Rolling Stones called themselves ‘The World’s Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band’, they were in a phase of their recorded output which would cement that phrase as a statement of fact rather than an idle boast. As Brian Jones became a semi-comatose passenger, Jagger and Richards steered the band back towards their bluesy roots, fuelled by a thrilling new injection of sleazy, malevolent songs like Sympathy For The Devil and Stray Cat Blues on their first truly great album, 1968’s Beggars Banquet. Full of swaggering menace and sexy grooves, anthems such as Honky Tonk Woman and Street Fighting Man followed, then 1969’s Let It Bleed upped the ante with the leery innuendo of the title track, and the apocalyptic Gimme Shelter.
Two years later, bereaved by Jones’s death and tarnished by the Altamont tragedy, their next studio album, Sticky Fingers, was steeped in toxic emotional waste and tainted lust. And there was much more to come: the sprawling, elegant mess that was Exile On Main Street followed in 1972. Over those years, they trademarked their darkly lascivious R&B and pioneered a hybrid of rock and soul. Both would be much imitated but rarely matched.
4. Their work ethic by Serge Pizzorno, Kasabian
“At times I honestly don’t know how The Stones are still going. They’re still out there, still doing it, and I know how difficult that is because I’ve lived this for 10 years. They’re 50 deep. Fifty! I think that’s because they don’t know how else to be. We supported them in 2006 and I met Keith. My hero. I was frightened at first because I didn’t want to ruin the Keith that lives in my mind. What if he wasn’t like the myth? Then he just comes up to me and says, “It’s always nice to meet a fellow working musician.” Amazing. It just cut through all the bullsh*t, because ultimately, despite all the drugs, all the women, the arrests, the bollocks, what defines The Stones is that they’re incredible musicians, as hard working as anyone I’ve ever met in the business. That’s where I get my love for them, and that’s why I would cut off my ears to ever work with them. One ear at least. I would genuinely do that.”
Kasabian are headlining at Reading and Leeds Festivals on 25 and 26 August
5. The myths by music journalist Mark Beaumont
“The strangest thing I’ve ever snorted?” Down the phone line from his Caribbean home in 2007, Keith Richards didn’t even pause for thought, “my father.”
Richards went on to explain how, when a fine dusting had spilt from the urn, he’d racked up a line of his father’s ashes and hoofed them up in an act of hedonist’s honour. I was struck dumb. Not just because I’d bagged a story that would make headlines around the world, but because I’d become a cog in the greatest myth machine in rock’n’roll history for years.
When The Rolling Stones electrified the blues from the mid-Sixties onwards, they not only played on this tradition with tracks like Sympathy For The Devil but also modernised the mythology. Stories circulated that Richards had his blood supply changed in a Swiss clinic. That Jagger and Richards lorded over Stones parties from thrones. And that the recording of Exile On Main Street in a French chateau was an orgy of narcotics and frenzied groupie sex – described by Richards as a cross between Hitler’s bunker, Versailles and Dante’s Inferno. Richards is a grandmaster of the rock’n’roll enigma, building the legend of superhuman blues survivors (he’s outlasted every doctor who’d given him six months to live). It’s what’s made The Rolling Stones the most fantastical rock legends. And let’s all raise a shot of embalming fluid to that…
6. Their primal sound by Butch Vig from Garbage and producer of Nirvana’s Nevermind
“Their sound is very primal. It’s not super sophisticated – simple chord progressions and riffs – but Jagger’s lyrics on songs such as Gimme Shelter add a socio-political edge. A lot of their stuff taps into the darker parts of our consciousness. As a producer, I listen to them mainly for their feel. They got that trashy sound for Exile On Main Street by recording it in the basement of a rented house rather than in a studio. Their albums are often really loose, but when a record isn’t technically perfect it often makes the music sound bigger and wider. If everything is put into a computer and lined up perfectly on a grid, it doesn’t have that thickness The Stones’ sound has.
“I met Keith Richards once when I was recording over in New York. He was there making a solo album in the studio next door and he had literally moved in – he was sleeping under the console. He’d even put tin foil over all the windows so that no sunlight came in; it was pitch dark in there. He was really cool, although, to be totally honest, I don’t think he was even conscious that he was meeting me at the time…”
Garbage release their new single Big Bright World on 30 July