When the nascent Rolling Stones began playing gigs around London in 1962, the notion that a rock & roll band would last five years, let alone fifty, was an absurdity. After all, what could possibly be more ephemeral than rock & roll, the latest teenage fad? Besides, other factors made it unlikely that such a momentous occasion would ever come to pass. “I didn’t expect to last until fifty myself, let alone with the Stones,” Keith Richards says with a laugh. “It’s incredible, really. In that sense we’re still living on borrowed time.”
“You have to put yourself back into that time,” Mick Jagger says about those early days when he and Keith and guitarist Brian Jones roomed together and were hustling gigs wherever they could find one. “Popular music wasn’t talked about on any kind of intellectual level. There was no such term as ‘popular culture.’ None of those things existed.”
Times and attitudes quickly changed, in short, and now five decades later, the Rolling Stones are celebrating an anniversary that artists in any field would be overjoyed to attain. Indeed, the Stones will be marking the fiftieth anniversary of their first gig at the Marquee Club in London on July 12, 1962 with a celebratory appearance at that storied venue, five decades later to the day. At that first show, the group was billed as the Rollin’ Stones and, of what would become the band’s original lineup, only Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones and keyboardist Ian Stewart performed. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts would formally join in January of 1963, and Stewart officially left the band in May, though he continued on as the Stones’ road manager and occasionally played with them both on stage and in the studio until his death in 1985.
In addition, in order to further commemorate the anniversary, noted filmmaker Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) has directed a career-spanning documentary about the band; a forthcoming new book will chronicle the group’s legendary history; and revolutionary artist and graphic designer Shepard Fairey has fashioned an eye-catching contemporary spin on the Stones’ famed tongue logo.
Needless to say, having lived life in the whirlwind of the Stones’ history, the band itself doesn’t see it in exactly those terms. “It’s been surprisingly organic,” Keith Richards says.
“I can understand a bit about the kind of influence the Rolling Stones have had, because we were in the same position,” Mick Jagger says. “We modeled ourselves on lots of people who came before us, and I learned to sing from various blues artists and from Chuck Berry and others. When we’d play with someone like Little Richard, I would be incredibly impressed, and I’d go on stage and try to be as good as I could be because I knew that Little Richard was watching me.”
The effort clearly paid off. Every album the Stones released through the early Seventies – from The Rolling Stones in 1964 to Exile on Main Street in 1972 — is essential not simply to an understanding of the music of that era, but to an understanding of the era itself. In their intense interest in blues and R&B, the Stones connected a young audience in the U.S. to music that was unknown to the vast majority of white Americans. Though the Stones were not overtly political in their early years, their obsession with African American music – from Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye and Don Covay – struck a chord that resonated with the goals of the civil rights movement. If the Stones had never made an album after 1965 they would still be legendary.
Soon, of course, the Stones became synonymous with the rebellious attitude of that era. Songs like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Gimme Shelter” captured the violence, frustration and chaos of that time. For the Stones, the Sixties were not a time of peace and love; in many ways, the band found psychedelia and wide-eyed utopianism confusing and silly. The Stones always were – and continue to be – tough-minded pragmatists. Against the endless promises of Sixties idealism the Stones understood that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” You simply want to Let It Be? It’s more likely, given the harsh world we live in, that you might have to Let It Bleed.
The Stones have set a standard for live performance. That is an achievement completely in accord with the band’s history, something that has defined the group from the very start. Mick Jagger remembers that “As soon as we got in front of audiences, they went crazy. It started in clubs, and then it just continued to grow.”
“Something was happening in the late winter of 1962 and afterwards,” Keith Richards says, “because suddenly hundreds and then thousands of people were queuing up to see us. And it doesn’t take a nail driven through your head to realize that something’s going on and that you’re part of it. It was an amazing experience and it happened so fast, starting in London and then moving out from there. It was like hanging onto a tornado.”
When the Stones began to be introduced on their 1969 tour as “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World,’ they were staking that claim on the basis of their live performances. It was almost fashionable for bands to withdraw from the road at that time – Bob Dylan and the Beatles had both done so. But the Stones set out to prove that writing brilliant songs and making powerful records did not mean that you were too lofty to get up in front of your fans and rock them until their bones rattled. The Stones’ live shows – epitomized, of course, by Jagger’s galvanizing erotic choreography – had earned the band its reputation, and that flame was being rekindled.
It was lit again twenty years later, and it’s burning still. Since 1989 the Stones have repeatedly toured to ecstatic response. Bassist Darryl Jones, who had formerly played with Miles Davis, began performing with the Stones in 1994, replacing Bill Wyman, and the Stones turned what could have been a setback into a rejuvenating rush of new energy. The Stones’ live success during this period is not a matter of dollars or box-office breakthroughs, though the band has enjoyed plenty of both. It’s about demonstrating a vital, ongoing commitment to the idea that performing is what keeps a band truly alive.
The Stones are best understood as musicians, and their own acceptance of that fact is what has enabled them to carry on so well for so long. For all the tabloid headlines, Mick Jagger is ultimately an extraordinary lead singer and one of the most riveting performers – in any art form – ever to set foot on a stage. Keith Richards is the propulsive engine that drives the Stones and makes their music instantly recognizable. Their complementary styles, incomparable collaborative genius as songwriters and even their all-too-public battles have made them the very definition of the rock & roll singer/guitarist partnership, battling brothers who have often been imitated and never surpassed.
“It’s incredible to think about working with the same band for fifty years,” Mick Jagger says. “Of course, members have come and gone over the years, but it is still the Rolling Stones. Inevitably it makes you think about the mortality of it. But here we are making plans and attempting to get things organized for the future!”