Stones still rolling half a century later

WHEN The Rolling Stones toured Ireland in 1965, there was no local music scene.

There were no bands, no venues and no regular rock gigs. They played in cinemas in Cork and Dublin, on makeshift stages stacked with tinny amplifiers and speakers. There was barely a name for what they were. The categorisation of popular music into genres like heavy metal and blues-rock was still far in the future. But they were something new, radiating sexual charisma and exoticism to their young audiences. They were a sign, a token in a burgeoning culture clash between a conservative older generation and a young one just beginning to find its voice. They were a phenomenon. And they were huge.

The band — or the group, as they were known then — were just three years old, having formed among friends in London in 1962, but they already had a string of hit singles and legions of dedicated fans. The rivalry with their Liverpudlian counterparts, The Beatles, was already sharp and clear enough to define two very different brands of cool.

The Beatles might have been seen as shockingly long-haired pop wailers, with brash manners and a sound that was incomprehensible to anyone older than 20, but they were also cute, safe, almost cartoonish; the loveable mop-tops of legend, the sort of pop group your mammy might have a soft spot for.

Not the Stones. They were tough, sexy and dangerous. As one former teenager who was screaming along with her fellow Stones fans in Cork’s Savoy cinema almost half a century ago said this week: “If you were a nice girl you followed The Beatles. But if you didn’t want to be a nice girl, if you wanted to be a rebel, you were into the Stones. And I was into the Stones.”

The hardest thing to grasp today is just how long ago all of this was, and how the things we now take for granted were still unformed, still in the process of being born. Few people imagined that any of it would last.

The first wave of rock’n‘roll music — based on the Delta blues, amplified and speeded up into a crescendo of sexual fury — had peaked in the 1950s, and the tide seemed to have gone out again. It had been a purely American phenomenon, although the records — 7” vinyl discs with a three-minute song on each side — had crossed the Atlantic and been avidly collected.

For the moment, however, it was seen as a fad that had come and gone. Several of its leading practitioners had dropped out of sight. Elvis Presley joined the US Army, and Buddy Holly died in a plane crash. Other short-lived musical fads such as skiffle came and went. Compared to Elvis in his pomp, the music filling the charts in the early 1960s was bland and vapid: The beast of rock’n‘roll had apparently been tamed.

Then, out of nowhere, the beast was back. British and Irish teenagers had soaked up the music coming out of the US in the ’50s and were ready to explode into a life of their own. At first they were just disconnected individuals, looking for like-minded sorts to get a band together: Lennon and McCartney in Liverpool, Eric Burdon of The Animals in Newcastle, Van Morrison in Belfast. And in sleepy London — still far from being the epicentre of the swinging ’60s — two former schoolmates named Mick Jagger and Keith Richards met a charismatic blonde boy named Brian Jones, and started to rehearse.

The birth date of the Rolling Stones is impossible to pin down. The band themselves, or their publicity apparatus, have selected July 12, 1962, when they played their first paying gig under that name at the Marquee Club in London. But they had already been playing together for three or four months, with different band members coming and going around the nucleus of Jagger, Richards and Jones.

The musical fad of the moment that spring of ’62 — the big music among the kids, as Richards later remembered — was traditional jazz. Some of it was staid and tweedy, music for chaps who smoked pipes and wanted to look intellectual. “Very wet” was Richards’ verdict. But round the fringes of this jazz circuit — really just a few clubs in London basements — something was starting to happen.

Alexis Korner was the lynchpin. He was already a minor celebrity and knew everybody in this nascent scene. He had a harmonica player named Cyril Davies, who had been to Chicago and played with Muddy Waters, the king of the Chicago blues. Korner let Jagger play with him and Davies a couple of times, and introduced him to a quiet-spoken jazz drummer named Charlie Watts. Brian Jones proved to have a natural talent for bottleneck guitar playing. The Jones-Jagger-Richards band didn’t have a name yet, but by March something was in the air.

Richards was young, hip and bored, and desperately wanted something new to happen. “Rock and roll had already drifted into pop,” he said later. “No good music coming out of the radio, no good music coming out of the so-called rock and roll stars. No good nothing.”

Even while oozing contempt for the rockers of the day, however, Richards and the others were deadly serious about music. They began playing covers of American standards, songs by Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. Some time in April they were offered a chance to play in public and had to come up with a name. Somebody — nobody remembers exactly who it was — thought of a song named ‘Rollin’ Stone’, and named the band after it.

This zen-like ability to get it right first time — or perhaps to stick with something doggedly — remains close to the essence of The Rolling Stones. Among their near contemporaries, the other bands who would make up the British explosion in the ’60s, there were several who needed a few tries before hitting on the right image. The Who, for example, a group of mods led by Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend, started off calling themselves The High Numbers. Even The Beatles flirted with the name The Silver Beatles. But the Stones casually chose a name, locked it in place, and stuck with it.

At first, there was no name for what they were. English kids were not expected to become surly, growling, sex-charged bluesmen. English kids might produce pop music full of gentle harmonies — which is the niche The Beatles found themselves hammered into, despite having served a proper apprenticeship as leather-clad rockers. The Stones were alien, other, different, right from the start.

Look at early photographs or film of the band now, though, and it’s hard to see why. Compared to the skeletal figure marinated in booze and heroin that he became, the young Richards looks like a cherub. Jagger, on the cusp of 20, looked like a nice middle-class boy, his hair just beginning to grow over his ears. The young Brian Jones, to our modern eyes, looks like the frontman for a boy band.

Yet, somehow, even at the start, the Stones had an aura of danger, a sexual ambiguity, and a kind of morbid fascination with the dark side. The clothes and hair that seem so harmless now were carefully-coded symbols of rebellion, guaranteed to outrage the guardians of decency. If there was trouble brewing, the Stones always looked like they were caught up in it.

And trouble followed them. After a few months of playing live and living in grinding poverty, they were rocketed to success. They found themselves out in front of the pack, riding the wave of the ’60s. Everything was new, and the rate of change was incredible.

Their first two hits were covers of American blues standards: This was expected in the world of jazz and blues. Then, Jagger and Richards got together and began to write their own songs: This was practically unheard of. Together, they laid down the basic template for what we now call rock music: Amplification; electric guitar; a backbeat; a charismatic singer; your own words and tonnes of attitude.

In New York, a young Bob Dylan had broken away from folk music and started to write strange, cryptic songs, songs like nothing before. The Beatles and the Stones began to have hits with their own material. Rock music grew and warped and twisted, day by day. It became something new in the world. It was more than a style; it was a new art, a new medium of expression.

As the ’60s went on, the Stones mutated into vampires, dandies, aristocrat thugs. They created the shapes to go with the music and the style. Hit followed hit, tour followed tour. Seven-inch records were succeeded by 12” LPs, albums, no longer just a collection of hits and B-sides but a piece of recorded music with a conscious theme.

Meanwhile, trouble kept close at hand. Bassist Bill Wyman — who suffered from a weak bladder — got out of their car to urinate against a garage wall. Somebody objected. Jones and Richards decided to join in: “We can piss anywhere, man,” announced a sozzled Jagger. The judge was not inclined to agree.

They came back from their first US tour in 1964 as superstars. A gig in Belfast lasted only 12 minutes because of the crowds pressing onto the stage. In Jan 1965 they flew to Dublin, did interviews, and played a couple of shows. The hysteria was incessant. Brian Jones, already using uppers, downers, psychedelics and any other mind-altering substances he could get his hands on, developed the habit of vanishing into the crowd during a gig. He was the band’s heartthrob — and its original sexually ambiguous heart of darkness — but he was starting to become detached from its music-making core.

When he went to Morocco, he heard some tribal musicians play in a village, and wanted to bring them back to perform with the band. To Jagger, it was a sign that Jones was losing it. Perhaps the sounds he heard were mainly in his head, but he also anticipated the vogue for world music about 20 years too soon.

The Stones had lived on the edge, inviting the darkness to take them. Now, in the later ’60s, the darkness seemed to embrace them. There was a series of high-publicity drug busts. Brian Jones, officially out of the band, drowned in his swimming pool. A free concert in Altamont, near San Francisco, resulted in violence and death in the crowd, carried out by the Hell’s Angels whom Jagger had hired as security. Altamont became the anti-Woodstock, the official death of the hippie dream of peace and love.

Filmmakers had long been keen to train their cameras on the Stones. The legendary French auteur, François Truffaut, filmed them recording in the south of France. But the Jagger of this era is best seen in Performance, Nic Roeg’s extraordinary 1970 film of violence, decadence, and broken dreams. Almost in passing, it features a sequence that can claim to be the first true music video.

Roeg — who gave lead roles in other films to David Bowie and Art Garfunkel — had hit on an essential truth about rock stars. They were not necessarily good actors, but they had charisma. As stars, they were already living inside a distorted, magnified persona, an exaggerated version of themselves. Find them a role that chimed with this persona and you had your film. It worked with Bowie, playing a humanoid alien in The Man who Fell to Earth. It worked even better with Jagger, playing a drugged-up, sexually ambiguous, reclusive rock star.

Watts remained a soft-spoken jazz drummer, temporarily slumming in rock music for 50 years. Richards had street cred: despite his addictions and his cartoonish persona, he was a real musician before he was a legend. Jagger was something else. With Jones gone, he tried to impose himself as the band’s undisputed leader. His inner control freak emerged and he attempted to turn the Stones into his backing band. They told him where to get off.

This manipulative side can be seen in Performance, as Jagger cajoles, seduces and gives orders to those around him. The setting, a mansion in London’s Mayfair, reveals another side: His growing infatuation with aristocracy.

When the Stones were snotty-nosed teenagers with attitude, they were accused of trying to dismantle the class system and destroy everything that old England stood for. When he’d made some money, however, Jagger began to show a marked fondness for an aristo-crat or two. He liked their confidence, their arrogance, their louche manners. And he liked their castles.

When he visited Ireland it was not to find a hippie retreat, like John Lennon, or to be inspired by Irish music, like Dylan. It was, rather, to stay with the Guinness family in Leixlip Castle. Aristocracy was somewhere he could relax and escape, neither mobbed by the crowds nor judged by the media.

Perhaps the Stones should have quietly retired then, some time after Goat’s Head Soup or Some Girls. The hit singles were drying up, although they could still make millions with an album and a tour. They were officially proclaimed as the greatest rock’n‘roll band in the world. But to the new generation of 1970s punks they were dinosaurs, remnants of a bygone era.

This is the real measure of the Stones’ tenure at the top of the heap. Bono is now regarded as an elder statesman of rock, the singer with the only band to come close to rivalling the Stones for staying power. Yet Bono and U2 don’t really come close. When they started out in the late ’70s, most of Jagger’s productive years were behind him. The Stones have been around, as a con-sistent single entity, for far longer than any remotely comparable rock band.

And this is the point. This is what they are. Comparisons are simply impossible. Their 1960s rivals all split apart decades ago. Some, such as Pink Floyd or Jethro Tull, have reformed from time to time for lucrative comebacks. Only Dylan, a one-man septuagenarian troubadour with a ruined voice, carries on endlessly touring. The Stones have risen above the fray, more a brand than a band. They don’t need to make music together anymore: they just have to endure.

It’s been an astonishing journey, the ultimate long strange trip. When the Stones began, there wasn’t yet a name for the things they were trying to do. They made it up on the fly. They framed the stencils from which thousands of other bands have been cut. Rebellious cool, sexy surliness, cod-aristo posing, street cred and style icons: Wherever you turn, they’ve been there first.

This is why no group of musicians today could hope to emulate even a tiny fraction of what the Stones have done. You could mimic the sound or the attitude — but it would be one sound, one attitude, a snippet from their long career. And it would be secondhand, making the whole exercise pointless.

Maybe, as the Stones reach their half century, some kids somewhere are dreaming of something new, because they think — as Keith Richards once did — that there is “no good nothing” around now. But their new thing won’t be rock or blues or rap. It’ll be some new new thing, a true original, a novelty out of nowhere to resonate down the next 50 years.

That’s how fundamental the Stones were to popular culture and that is why nobody has ever challenged them on their home turf.


RP O’Donnell says it is hard to find anywhere better than Boston to show your family a great time as he returns to a city he used to call homeA family friendly holiday guide to get the best out of beautiful Boston

More From The Irish Examiner