The Rolling Stones were formed in April 1962. So, fifty (count ‘em – that’s fifty fucking years, kids) years to the month later, I felt I should cobble together a few words to commemorate this milestone (yeah, pun intended). Nothing planned here, just let me go with the riff – that’s the way the Stones would do it.

For a band that has always taken pride in its rock’n’roll roots – a dusty and road-worn ethos of no-frills plug-and-play – the Stones have been great innovators over the years.

In the first place, they invented (one bloodshot day at a time) The Rock’N’Roll Life. With the raggedly glorious Keith Richards at one extreme – drugs and rock’n’roll – and the ever-beautiful Mick Jagger at the other – sex sex sex – they lived and mythologised a life of regal excess, sweet madness and jetsetting loutishness. Ever since their visionary manager, Andrew Loog Oldham (what a name!) pushed the band’s scuffy sexuality right under the noses of Britain’s terrified postwar parents with headlines such as ‘Would You Let Your Daughter Marry A Rolling Stone?’, the Stones were deliciously naughty.

Oldham initially packaged them, to great effect and success, as an anti-Beatles – foul-mouthed louts as against Brian Epstein’s ‘nice’ Beatles. As Malcolm McLaren had with the bête-noir Johnny Rotten over a decade later, Loog Oldham had the captivating Mick Jagger to scare the pants off little girls and the shit out of their parents. Lasciviously-lipped and androgynously snake-hipped, Jagger could not have been more perfectly suited to his role as bad boy – the next in line from the once-dangerous Elvis Presley, who by then had gone soft.

Keith Richards – the Stones’ Moon to Jagger’s Sun; Jagger’s foil – would not gain ascendency in style until much later. At first in thrall to Brian Jones – a brilliant guitarist and musicologist, found dead in his swimming pool in July 1969 after being sacked from the Stones – Richards came into his own at the end of the sixties, cultivating a style referred to as ‘elegantly wasted’. Whereas Jagger was always envied for his mythical sexual danger, Richards was adored for his Springheel Jack-like ability to live almost entirely outside the law. He seemingly took as many drugs as he liked and behaved as free as a man can be, all of it right under the noses of the authorities. To we fans, stuck in our school rooms or office cubicles or sad marriages, Keith’s exploits thrilled us to bits.

Of course none of this Style could exist for so many years without Substance. Lesser artists have played the Bad Boy card but the music can’t support it – look at Oasis. The Stones’ music has consistently been an exciting and evolving soundtrack to their adventures. Rooted in Jagger’s beloved Soul and Richards’ beloved Rock’N’Roll (with the storm clouds of Brian Jones’ beloved Chess Blues over everything they do, still to this day), the Stones’ music is as indelible to modern life as air travel, advertising and neurosis. Songs such as ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, ‘Honky Tonk Women’, ‘Gimme Shelter’ and ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ set the template for modern rock music – variations on a simple form; keep moving forward without breaking the chain to the past.

It helped that the songs were written by a pair of very bright boys – Economics student Jagger and Art College rocker Richards seemed capable of spinning wonderful shapes out of nothing. Taking all the elements of postwar rock, soul, pop and showtunes (as the Beatles were also doing at the time), Jagger and Richard consistently came up with hit after hit – gloriously irresistible hook-laden smashes that resonated deeply on many levels. They were hip, they were ass-shakin’, they were witty, but they kept that deep feeling of the old blues records the Stones worshipped. Whereas the Beatles took off into trippier and trippier territory with each new release, the Stones seemed to go in the opposite direction, saving real rock over and over again.

A good example – and no better place to start if you want to get into the Rolling Stones 50 years later – is the nonpareil diptych of 1971’s Sticky Fingers and 1972’s Exile on Main Street. I mention these because they demonstrate the delicious frisson that makes the Stones, the Stones – Sticky Fingers is generally thought of as Jagger’s album (slicker, more varied in textures and styles) and Exile is undoubtedly Keith’s (raw to the point of loose, bare bones, wild at heart) (Jagger hated it). They are both Rolling Stones records through and through and, taken together, show all that is good and eternal about the band – vibe and feeling rules, even over and above technical ability and perfect takes. The songs are uniformly wonderful, uniformly derivative of their influences and without exception the envy of any guitar rock band since. They also had a secret weapon – guitarist Mick Taylor, British boy-wonder blues player, who joined for a few years and helped make those years golden. (His solo at 2:41 on Exile’s ‘Soul Survivor’ still makes my hair stand on end to this day).

Before I polish off the rest of the Jack Daniels and start getting maudlin, I’ll finish here and thank The Rolling Stones for those fifty years of music, good juicy news copy and The (Real or Imagined) Rock Life. They have shed members, added members, made some (not much) seriously shit music and seem to have settled into a sunset tour regime, but I can truly say I love them. Over time, they have saved me from the mind-prison of school and other muggy boredoms. They can still take me to Memphis (‘Shake Your Hips’), the Cocaine Riviera (‘Angie’) or LSD London (‘She’s a Rainbow’) or, like all great and honest music, take me Home.

Published April 2012 on


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