The Rolling Stones

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The Rolling Stones

While the Beatles and other exponents of "the British Invasion" served an updated version of rock 'n' roll to the United States, the Rolling Stones emerged in 1963-1964 as the most prominent of the British acts who brought the Afro-American musical form of blues to a young, white American audience. The group was at the peak of their musical and cultural significance at the end of the 1960s, when their violent lyrics and brooding blues-rock seemed to reflect the potentially cataclysmic clefts in American society. After the early 1970s, the Rolling Stones made very few musically or politically radical records, but their famous 1960s songs continue to resound.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards attended the same primary school in Dartford, England, during the late 1940s, but lost touch until a legendary reunion at Dartford railway station in 1961, when Richards' interest was piqued by Jagger's selection of Chuck Berry records. Jagger and Richards soon began to play with slide guitar afficiando Brian Jones. The trio recruited jazz drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman, Jones naming the fledgling group the Rollin' Stones after a Muddy Waters song. In April 1962, aspiring pop-group manager Andrew Oldham saw the Stones at the Crawdaddy club in Richmond, London. Oldham later reminisced: "I knew what I was looking at. It was sex."

Oldham negotiated the Stones' contract with Decca Records in early 1963. The group's earliest recorded songs were a compromise between expurgated rhythm and blues (R&B), and pop ballads intended to exploit the popularity of the Beatles. In early 1964, however, Oldham began to promote the Rolling Stones as the antithesis of the "Fab Four," ordering the band to abandon their "Beatle boots" and leather waistcoats and to accentuate the slovenly, surly sexuality which he had seen have such an effect on audiences at their early Crawdaddy gigs. Oldham's propaganda included planting newspaper headlines such as "WOULD YOU LET YOUR DAUGHTER GO WITH A ROLLING STONE?" When the Stones' arrived for their first tour of the United States in June 1964, American newspapers fulminated that the "New Beatles" were a disgrace compared to the adorable, mop-topped originals. Old-school crooner and compeer Dean Martin made sneering references to the Stones' long hair during their appearance on Hollywood Palace. But hip American youths embraced the Stones, not least because the Beatles had been coopted by their parents, and, as Lillian Roxon later noted, "No one had ever seen a white man move on stage the way Jagger moved."

The Rolling Stones' commercial appeal to young Americans was confirmed when the single "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," a sexually aggressive anthem of disillusion with society, reached number one in June 1965. A run of similarly incendiary hit singles followed, before the 1967 albums Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request, a disastrous foray into fay Anglocentric psychedelia, revealed the extent to which the Stones had neglected their R&B influences during their immersion in the "Swinging London" scene. Nevertheless, the Stones remained notorious during the "Summer of Love." Jagger and Richards were busted for possession of drugs at the latter's English country home, and the June 1967 court case was a very public microcosm of the clash between traditional moral strictures and the liberalized youth culture burgeoning on both sides of the Atlantic.

In May 1968, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was released, instigating an astonishing period during which the Stones harnessed sinister and salacious lyrics to an intense, rootsy sound. Their finest album, Beggars Banquet, released in late 1968, featured "Streetfighting Man," on which Jagger pondered his position as a figurehead for an imminent revolution, and "Sympathy for the Devil," an ironical ode to their own demonic image which incorporated a topical reference to the murder of Bobby Kennedy. In June 1969, Brian Jones was sacked and replaced by young blues virtuoso Mick Taylor. The following month, Jones drowned in his swimming pool. On Let It Bleed (1969), the Stones extended their devilish disquisition on violence in contemporary society on such songs as "Midnight Rambler" and "Gimme Shelter" ("Rape, murder, it's just a shot away"). In December 1969, the Stones headlined a free festival, organized in the spirit of Woodstock, at Altamont speedway in California. Hells' Angels, fuelled by liquor and LSD, murdered a young black teenager while the Stones performed. In hindsight, "Gimme Shelter" (also the title of the Maysles brothers' brilliant tour film, which concluded with the horror of Altamont), seemed to have anticipated the nihilistic death knell of 1960s idealism.

Sticky Fingers (1971) was a prime piece of Americana featuring "Brown Sugar," a typically scurrilous account of sex and slavery in Dixie. Though criticized at the time, Exile on Main Street (1972) has since been recognized as the influential apogee of the Rolling Stones' relationship with the American musical forms of country, blues, and soul. They adapted to the glam era with what Philip Norman called the "mid-1970s high camp" of "It's Only Rock'n'Roll (But I Like It)." The song's title, however, was telling: creating musically innovative and culturally representative music was no longer the Rolling Stones' top priority. Jagger would later admit that after 1972 the group became "complacent." Instead, the Stones became, along with Led Zeppelin, the archetypal early 1970s rock 'n' roll circus, a touring cavalcade of sexual, chemical, and egotistical excess. On Some Girls (1978), the band was somewhat reinvigorated by the influence and challenge of disco and punk, but the "Glimmer Twins" were now more media celebrities than musicians: Jagger revelling in his jet-set, high-society lifestyle, Richards' renowned for his decline into heroin addiction.

The group effectively split between 1986 and 1989 due to antagonism between Jagger and Richards. Wyman belatedly emerged as a target of tabloid opprobrium over his relationship with 13-year-old Mandy Smith. During the 1990s, Jagger and Richards made millions from commercials: their seminal mid-1960s attack on consumerism was adapted to promote the "Satisfaction" provided by a particular chocolate bar, while the 1981 hit "Start Me Up" provided appropriate lyrics for the launch of Microsoft's Windows 95 computer program. The reunited Stones, minus the retired Wyman, continued to undertake extravagant world tours into the late 1990s, during which a bewildering variety of official Stones merchandise was sold. Appropriately, Andy Warhol's lapping-tongue logo had become the massively reproduced signifier of the Rolling Stones' commodifiable cultural endurance.

—Martyn Bone

Further Reading:

Booth, Stanley. The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. London, Heinemann, 1985.

Kent, Nick. The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music 1972-1993. London, Penguin, 1994.

Norman, Philip. The Stones. London, Penguin, 1993.

Wyman, Bill, with Ray Coleman. Stone Alone. London, Viking, 1990.

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The Rolling Stones

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