Get ready to rock 'n' roll
Fifty years. “You can’t get away from that number,” Keith Richards said with a chuckle by telephone from Paris, where the Rolling Stones have been rehearsing for arena concerts. The Stones, led by Mick Jagger and Richards, played their first gig in 1962. And with less than two months remaining in this anniversary year, the machinery of commemoration and promotion has swung into motion.
There are arena concerts scheduled in London and Newark, N.J. There are documentaries new and old, as well as a comprehensive retrospective of Rolling Stones films and videos at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. There are even two new Stones songs recorded this year: Doom and Gloom, a Jagger song that mentions fracking, and One More Shot, written by Richards.
In one way the Stones have been doing the same thing for half a century: playing obstinately unpolished rock ‘n’ roll. It’s American music — blues, country, R&B, gospel — refracted through English sensibilities while ditching decorum and riding the backbeat. Yet around that music, every conceivable meaning has changed.
What once was taken as radical, wanton, even dangerous, has become old-school and privileged; tickets for the band’s two shows at the Prudential Center in Newark run $95 to $750 plus fees. The songs that once outraged parents are now oldies to pass on to the grandchildren.
“You’d gone all the way from ‘It’s too dangerous to go’ to people bringing their children” to shows, Jagger said from Paris. “It became a family outing.”
A band that was once synonymous with a riotous volatility has become a symbol of stability. Members now describe the band with an unexpected word for the Rolling Stones: discipline. “It requires quite a bit of discipline to be a Rolling Stone,” Richards said. “Although it seems to be shambolic, it’s a very disciplined bunch.”
Interviewed separately, the guitarist Ronnie Wood, who joined the band in 1975, agreed. “No matter what was going on the outside, no matter how much we whooped it up,” he said, “we felt a responsibility, and we still do, to make great music.”
Simple familiarity, through the passage of time and generations, is one reason the Stones’ popularity has endured. Yet, since the late 1980s, when the Stones pulled themselves together to make ‘Steel Wheels’ and return to the stadium circuit, arguably every tour and album has been largely a victory lap for what they accomplished in their first 20 years.
By then, Jagger and Richards had forged a catalog of great songs as diverse as The Last Time, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Ruby Tuesday, No Expectations, Honky Tonk Women, Brown Sugar and Gimme Shelter. There’s no naivete in Stones songs; they have worn well.
The band’s box office potential is unmistakable. Latter-day Stones studio albums, when they get around to making them, have each sold at least a million copies in the US, without major hit singles. Richards’s 2010 autobiography, Life, topped The New York Times’ best-seller list. The Stones dependably sell out arena tours. The fascination continues.
Nostalgia and durable songs are part of the Stones’ perpetual appeal. So are the big-stage rock spectacles that the Stones helped pioneer, with inflatable appendages, pyrotechnics or perhaps a cherry-picker lifting Jagger over the crowd.
Onstage and, far more often than not, in the studio, the Rolling Stones keep their sound loose: it’s practiced and not to be mistaken for sloppy, precisely imprecise. Above Charlie Watts’ drumming the band’s two guitars share a musical cat’s cradle, constantly twining, unraveling, reconfiguring. “We’re always sliding between rhythm and lead,” Richards said. “It’s an intuitive thing, instinctive. You couldn’t map it.”
But songs and showmanship still don’t fully explain the Stones’ hold on their audience. Soon after forming, they made a choice as fateful as their musical tastes.
Their early-1960s manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, urged them to become the “anti-Beatles”: the opposite of an ingratiating, uniformed, clean-cut pop-rock band.
“The Beatles being so squeaky clean, they were obviously wearing the white hat,” Richards recalled. “The other role to play was putting the black hat on. The more the press played up to it, the more you found yourself thrust into the role of the villain. And then you got used to it. It was easier. You could actually be yourself in the Stones.”
That attitude not only freed the Stones to look, behave and write as they pleased, but also made them rock archetypes, living out a freedom that most fans could only wish for. Of course, there had been earlier R&B and rockabilly wild men, and Jagger clearly studied them, but their careers were briefer or far less celebrated.
The Stones, improper Englishmen, breached the mainstream, creating an example for every rock wastrel, talented or untalented, that followed. Decades later, on giant stages amid computer-controlled effects, the Stones’ distant whiff of anarchy is still a draw, especially because it’s underscored by the tight-but-loose sound of the band, the way even venerable songs sound up for grabs.
“We were such nice children, underneath it all,” Jagger recalled. “It’s the blowback from Andrew Oldham: The Rolling Stones are the rebels. And the blowback was quite intense, because you got labelled with this and it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Violence gave way to decadence.
The Stones stopped touring after the bleak 1969 Altamont concert in California, where four people died, withdrawing to studios to complete three of their masterpieces: ‘Let It Bleed’, ‘Sticky Fingers’ and ‘Exile on Main Street’. Cameras followed them to the ‘Exile’ recording sessions, and onto the road in 1972, where Robert Frank shot a rarely shown film with an unprintable title.
Crossfire Hurricane, a film that documents key periods of the Rolling Stones’ career, includes uninhibited outtakes from that film, with casual nudity and open drug use. “I was a very well-adjusted” addict, Richards said. “I never felt that it hindered what I did. But it was an experiment that went on far too long.”
It couldn’t last. After a 1977 arrest in Toronto threatened to imprison him and break up the band, Richards ended his heroin habit. “I don’t miss it anymore,” he said.
After Wood joined the Stones, the band had its best-selling album with ‘Some Girls’ in 1978, kicking back at the disco and punk coming out of New York City. Yet, by the early 1980s, the band’s camaraderie was disappearing; “World War III” was how Richards has described his friction with Jagger. “It was a very difficult time,” Jagger said. “Everyone had had enough of it.” Jagger, and then Richards, started bands of their own while making desultory Stones albums.
But with ‘Steel Wheels’ in 1989, the Stones re-emerged in its current guise: a band that does flashy megatours about every five years, tied to a new album or, this time around, a hits compilation with the two new songs (titled “Grrr!”).
“People say, ‘Oh, it’s a business,”' Jagger said. “It’s not really the business of it. It’s the creation of the whole thing. Of course, the money thing is part of it, but the most important part is getting the thing on the road, with hundreds of people and tons and tons of equipment. It’s an interesting undertaking.”
The band is delving into its catalogue for the upcoming concerts, but Jagger knows the audience expects hits. “I don’t want to be totally predictable, which is kind of hard when you’ve been doing something for 50 years,” he said. “It’s the Rolling Stones onstage. You know what it’s like. They do Honky Tonk Women. They do Satisfaction. People coming to a 50th-anniversary show want some kind of predictability.”
Richards pronounced himself “amazed” at the band’s longevity.“There is a certain magnetic glue that pulls us all together, that overrides any other peripheral things,” he said. “Once we get behind our instruments there’s something bigger. The sum is greater than the parts. There’s just a feeling that we were meant to do this, we have to do this, and we’re just following the trail.”