The Rolling Stones turn 50

WARWICK MCFADYEN
Last updated 13:21 12/07/2012

Rolling Stones turn 50

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Monachists may have the Queen, but rock and roll has its own royalty - the Rolling Stones. Last month Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her diamond jubilee; today the leaders of the pack, the survivors of time's rack, celebrate their golden anniversary. One has a kingdom; the other a worldwide realm of fans.

On July 12, 1962, the Stones made their stage debut at the Marquee, a basement club under a cinema in London. The film The Day of the Triffids was playing above. Below, a group of young British white boys in their late teens, early 20s, were playing the blues. They had taken their name in a rush from a Muddy Waters song. The lads from the south-east English delta were Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Dick Taylor and Mick Avory. Ian Stewart, as ever he would be, was in the wings. Over the next few months, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts would replace Taylor and Avory.

It was a small gig before a 100 or so people. Show over, the band drifted to a pub, the crowd dispersed. But everything has to start from somewhere. No one in the audience or the band could have seen the future that night; that in but a few years all over England, the Rolling Stones would be celebrated by the young and reviled by the establishment.

The Stones were formed in the ebbing and flowing of a new social tide that would engulf the old norms. In 1962, Harold Macmillan was prime minister, one of a line of Conservative PMs stretching back a decade to Winston Churchill. Television was black-and-white; Coronation Street had begun broadcasting two years earlier. The Profumo affair was bubbling along, soon to engulf secretary of state for war John Profumo over his relationship with callgirl Christine Keeler. The Cold War was at its height; the Berlin Wall had been erected in 1961, the Cuban missile crisis was looming.

As the world found itself in trouble and strife, music found itself in the doldrums. Elvis Presley was back from his time in the army, and living off his name to hit the charts. One of the big hits was an instrumental track named after Telstar, the satellite. The time was right for a new breed of musician on both sides of the Atlantic. Enter the Beatles, the Stones and Bob Dylan.

The Stones would become the anti-Beatles, and by decade's end they would see off the Fab Four. Though part of a revolution, they were not musical revolutionaries like Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

What they had, however, was Keith Richards, the human riff, and Mick Jagger, the showman extraordinaire, a dancer and singer who could hold a crowd in the palm of his hand, sway the girls with a pout of his lips, move them with the wiggle of his hips. Jones, in the early days, was the pretender king, who became victim of his own debilitating drug excess to such an extent that he was fired. Weeks later he was found dead in a swimming pool. Watts and Wyman were, and remained for many years, the dependable rhythm engine.

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The Stones, by design and circumstance, were menace and mayhem to the mainstream world but, to the fans, they were outside society, not subject to its rules. But still they couldn't sing Let's Spend the Night Together on The Ed Sullivan Show. The shock horror of that. It had to be ''Let's spend some time together''.

When Jagger and Richards were dealt with on drugs charges in 1967, The Times, that bastion of all things right and proper in the establishment became an unlikely friend. Part of the famous editorial ''Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?'' reads:

''It would be wrong to speculate on the judge's reasons, which we do not know. It is, however, possible to consider the public reaction. There are many people who take a primitive view of the matter, what one might call a prelegal view of the matter. They consider that Mr Jagger has 'got what was coming to him'. They resent the anarchic quality of the Rolling Stones' performances, dislike their songs, dislike their influence on teenagers and broadly suspect them of decadence.

''As a sociological concern this may be reasonable enough, and at an emotional level it is very understandable, but it has nothing at all to do with the case. One has to ask a different question: has Mr Jagger received the same treatment as he would have received if he had not been a famous figure, with all the criticism and resentment his celebrity has aroused?''

Many years later, Jagger would be knighted for services to music.

The Beatles fell apart in 1970. The Stones, having flexed their muscles with a string of hits (and episodes of notoriety such as the drugs case), were now strutting the world stage. Aside from the Beatles, no group has put together a string of supreme albums such as they did from late 1968 with Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St in 1972.

It was an artistic flowering they would never reach again. The albums that followed - Goats Head Soup, It's Only Rock 'n' Roll, Black and Blue and Some Girls - suffered from being in the shadows of the earlier works.

Still, the train has kept a rolling despite derailments, collisions and new passengers. There was early death (the above mentioned Jones in 1969), retirement (Bill Wyman, 1992), interludes (Mick Taylor 1969-74), past heroin addiction (Richards), and alcohol addiction, apparently being treated (Ronnie Wood). The Stones were there at the death of peace and love (the Altamont concert), the rise and fall of disco and punk, the click of electronica, the trend of this and the fad of that.

In their latter years - the band's collective age is almost 300 years; Jagger turns 69 on July 26 - the creative juices have slowed, which is understandable. Their most recent studio album, A Bigger Bang, was seven years ago.

Aside from that, in the past 25 years there have only been four studio albums: Steel Wheels, Bridges to Babylon, Voodoo Lounge and A Bigger Bang. But still they have toured. Over two years from August 2005 they were on the road, amassing figures to put young bands to shame: more than 4.5 million tickets sold for 147 concerts in 118 cities in 32 countries.

The record producer Don Was, who has worked with the group, told the Los Angeles Times: ''They are right up there with Duke Ellington's band and the Miles Davis quintet from the 1960s as one of the greatest aggregations of musicians ever put together.

''Watching Mick and Keith through the years - when they get along and when they don't get along - is like a morality play. When you hear the music all the other stuff evaporates.''

The pair have known each other nearly all their lives, united by a love of music, particularly the blues. However, like siblings, they have engaged in long-distance epic feuds that have lasted years. Songs have been written; one of the most corrosive was by Richards on his solo album Talk Is Cheap. It was entitled You Don't Move Me (''What makes you so greedy/Makes you so seedy.'')

In a relationship that lasts a lifetime, there are times of motion and inertia; a pulling away from the moorings. Both Richards and Jagger have drifted apart to pursue solo projects.

In Life, Richards' recent memoir he noted not only the size of Jagger's manhood, but his lack of success as a solo artist, forcing him to return to the Stones, Richards believed, for the sake of identity and redemption.

But time can heal all. Recently, there's been another detente. Said Richards: ''What some of our detractors forget is that although we look like old codgers living an ocean apart, we are still at bottom the boys on platform 3 at Dartford station [where they met half a century ago]''.

In Life, he reproduces a letter he wrote to his aunt Patty in April 1962. It describes the fateful meeting:

''One morning on Dartford stn (sic), I was holding one of Chuck's records when a guy I knew at primary school came up to me ... He's got every Chuck Berry record ever made ... Anyway the guy on the station, he is called Mick Jagger.''

Three months later, the Rolling Stones were playing the blues in a little club in a basement in London. They had started a journey few in any industry, especially the artistic could emulate. Their music, and their history, are part of the fabric of the cultural times. They have entered the homes and lives of millions of people.

Some of those early Stones' fans are now retired. Perhaps they are grey nomads, setting off down the highway towing their caravans with Gimme Shelter or Satisfaction playing loud and defiant in the car.

That's the strength of the Stones at their best. Like all sublime music, of whatever type, the songs enter the bloodstream, become part of the DNA. Forever.

But the last word should go to Richards:

''There's a certain moment when you realise that you've actually left the planet for a bit and that nobody can touch you. You're elevated because you're with a bunch of guys that want to do the same thing as you. And when it works, baby, you've got wings. You know you've been somewhere most people will never get; you've been to a special place. It's flying without a licence.''

-The Age

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