Rolling Stones at 50

The Rolling Stones: Fifty Years, by Christopher Sandford, Simon & Schuster, RRP£25, 512 pages

The Rolling Stones 50, by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood, Thames & Hudson, RRP£29.95, 352 pages

The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, by Stanley Booth, Canongate, RRP£12, 576 pages

I last saw the Rolling Stones at Twickenham Stadium, the heartland of English Rugby Union, in summer 2006. I am ashamed to say I made a joke about their advanced years, which was dumb because jokes about the Rolling Stones being past it are nearly 40 years old, so I was as past it as they were.

I had first seen the band at Wembley in 1973, and remember feeling the bitter tang of having arrived too late to the party. Their creative decline was already under way, and we knew it. But their true meaning to British popular culture was just beginning to make itself known. I hankered for the old hits, when I should have been reflecting on that rather pricey ticket (I still have the stub: £1.65) and wondering where this rock ’n’ roll business was going to lead us.

On the 50th anniversary of the group’s formation, we can at least begin to answer that question. I stopped going to rock concerts as I felt the onset of middle age; the Rolling Stones can’t stop playing rock concerts as they approach old age. Young people – remember them? – will wonder what the fuss is about, as they can ill afford a ticket to see for themselves. The A Bigger Bang tour, of which the Twickenham gig was a part, grossed the band around $560m, with top price tickets reaching $350.

Tour posters from the early 1970s, from ‘The Rolling Stones 50’

The journey from counter-culture rebel to corporate behemoth is a hackneyed narrative arc with which to describe some of our cultural heroes but the story of the Rolling Stones traces it better than most. In 2007, the group was reportedly paid more than $5m to play at a private party for Deutsche Bank employees. The group’s lead singer, whose ironic quips have kept pace with his love of money-making, expressed his gratitude in front of his privileged audience: “Thank you for having us. The best part is, it’s coming out of your bonuses.”

But Mick Jagger can legitimately say that he had warned us. The irony was always there, even during the group’s creative peak in the late 1960s. The swagger and the title of one of the greatest Stones singles, 1968’s “Street Fighting Man”, may have had the whiff of revolution. But no one was really listening to the words, which were a lament on the impotence of direct action. All poor-boy Jagger could do, in the face of all this social and political upheaval, was “to sing in a rock ’n’ roll band”. It didn’t change the world but it filled his pockets. “If you’re talking about having an agenda, we were about as revolutionary as my granny,” recalls Ian Stewart, keyboard player and honorary band member, in Christopher Sandford’s highly readable and well-judged The Rolling Stones: Fifty Years.

Sandford skilfully deconstructs some of the mythology around the group. He has a winning line in dry understatement – “Plagued by a lack of synchronisation in his movements, Brian [Jones] frequently made several attempts to successfully plug in his guitar” – which enlivens his narrative no end. After a while, the surfeit of sex, drugs and vaulting bank balances gets a little tedious.

Jones is a morbid presence in the first part of the Rolling Stones story, although there are flashes of the mordant too, not least when he expressed his dislike of the group’s breakthrough single “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (its release “doubled pop’s specific gravity overnight”, says Sandford) by playing “Popeye the Sailor Man” as its countermelody. Jones could, in truth, have added more spinach to his spectacularly toxic diet of narcotics and put-downs.

At the beginning, the Stones – even Brian – were nice boys. Shortly before his death by drowning, Jones was busted by the drugs squad in his London home. He was dressed in a kimono and having an acid nightmare about snakes. The next morning he sent a telegram to his parents in Cheltenham: “Don’t jump to nasty conclusions. And don’t judge me too harshly.” Sandford’s book is full of members of the Stones being nice to their mums and dads.

Jones wasn’t the only one appealing for judicial restraint. While parts of the British establishment were scandalised by the group’s embrace of the permissive society, others weren’t. The Times’s 1967 leader “Who Breaks a Butterfly” (after Alexander Pope) condemned the severe sentence handed to Jagger following another drugs raid. In a subsequent interview with the singer, the Times editor William Rees-Mogg was “astonished to discover a ‘right-wing libertarian’ who insisted, ‘I don’t really want to format a new code of living, a new code of morals.’” The Rolling Stones, it might be argued, were not even as radical as the Beatles.

But their music was defiantly dirty, and it got better and better. The syncopated chops that kicked “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” into being were the prelude to a domination of the rock scene that perfectly mirrored the febrile times. The band members themselves still flirted with the accoutrements of gracious living, twisting its elegant ways to suit their own purposes. In 1969, guitarist Keith Richards and his then partner, the actress Anita Pallenberg, moved into a Queen Anne mansion in Chelsea bought from a Conservative undersecretary of state. “The study where government officials had debated the Suez crisis in 1956 was now occupied by a large hookah,” writes Sandford with no little relish. It wasn’t the Stones selling out to the establishment, so much as vice versa.

In the same year, the Stones played a disastrous concert in Altamont, northern California, the symbolic resonance of which is so familiar that Sandford can barely dwell on it. For a compelling account, we must hurl ourselves into the breathless New Journalism of Stanley Booth, who was so traumatised by the events there that it took him 15 years to publish his account. In this new edition of The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, Greil Marcus’s introduction applauds Booth’s prose style, one that can “turn your knees to water”.

In truth, Booth’s wide-eyed narrative is as unsuitable for our cynical times as Sandford’s laconic asides are perfect for them. But the climax, describing the chaos of Altamont after Hell’s Angels murdered a gun-toting spectator, is unputdownable: “At stage right an Angel with a skinful of acid was writhing and wringing his hands in a pantomime of twisting Mick’s neck. At stage left Timothy Leary huddled with his wife and daughter, looking as if he’d taken better trips.” There was none of that at Twickenham, I can tell you.

Into the 1970s, the group achieved their flawed masterpiece Exile on Main St, partially recorded at the Villa Nellcôte in the Côte d’Azur, where the Stones were in tax exile. “[It] was a great house and it wasn’t too showy,” recalls Richards in The Rolling Stones 50, a handsome pictorial record of the band’s history, authorised by its members. Richards, in niggardly mood, charged the rest of the group £100 each for bed and breakfast.

It must have been good value. The Exile sessions witnessed copious amounts of frenetic coupling, drug-taking, daft arguments and VIP visits from rock royalty figures, who rarely left the house in better condition. Richards organised a heroin supply chain with the local Corsican mafia, which made the atmosphere yet more colourful. It was a long, hot summer. Sandford is at his most astringent here: Exile, he reports, “was the last non-air conditioned album the Stones would ever make”.

But along with superior ventilation came the group’s long and slow decline as a musical force. Subsequent albums, Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll, Black and Blue, found them coasting or, worse, lapsing into self-parody. But never was a decline so keenly applauded. “The whole paradox of the Stones,” writes Sandford, “was that, as the music got worse, the personal mythologies got bigger and better.” There was Mick and Jerry, Mick and Keith, Keith and Ronnie, Bill and Mandy, and best of all, Bill’s son and Mandy’s mum. The Stones were not only surviving but flourishing. Death-watch curiosity gradually turned into affectionate admiration.

Crucially, the band can still play, and make it seem like they care about what they play. Jagger is a consummate professional whose business acumen has become near-legendary. In a discussion from the late 1980s, recounted by Sandford, the concert promoter Bill Graham, making a marginally less lucrative pitch to Jagger than a competitor, asked the singer: “After all this time, what’s really the difference to you guys between $16m and $18m?” “Two million bucks, Bill,” replied Jagger. Richards lives in a kind of postmodern haze that ironises his persona at the same time as pushing it ever-further towards the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. He claimed that he inhaled his late father’s remains with a line of cocaine. He appeared in a series of advertisements for the luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton. He played Johnny Depp’s father in the Pirates of the Caribbean series in wry acknowledgement of the film star’s accomplished impersonation of him.

It is said that Richards is the “real thing”, the true spirit of the Rolling Stones. But so is Jagger, a different spirit but just as true. If there is one thing that the past 50 years has taught us, it is that the thirst for financial gain is as unashamedly prominent in rock stars as the desire for sexual conquest and powders of exotic provenance. But with the Stones, at least for a while, the music was always the thing. Groups such as Oasis condensed the Rolling Stones lifestyle template into a couple of eventful years but nobody seriously suggests that anyone will remember their songs. It was never enough to be just mouthy and rich. Both Jagger and Richards, who have been touched by musical genius, hit 70 next year. We joke at our peril.

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer

Simon Schama on the Rolling Stones: ‘I really, really like it’

So who says we have to choose anyway? “Ruby Tuesday” or “Eleanor Rigby”? The Jagger moue or the Lennon sneer; the Jack Flash strut or the Fab Four hip bob; ballsy or brainy? Is it so unnatural to love them both?

A lot of the contrast was manufactured hype: the Beatles did cheek, the Stones did dope (and Mars Bars). The adoption of the Beatles by high culture (“greatest songwriting since Schubert”) only made the nice-nasty yin-yangery of it sillier. The Beatles were supposed to be soft and symphonic, the Stones coarse-ground. The Beatles cleverer, more poetically adventurous (or pretentious); the Stones ruder, rougher, tougher, harder. But the Beatles could do fierce rock ’n’ roll – they started that way and they never lost it. “Back in the USSR” is as rocky-cocky as “Roll Over Beethoven”. And there’s plenty of soft and soppy in the Stones archive – try listening to “Angie” or Keef’s lovely, torrentially drippy “As Tears Go By”.

And yet. We bought into it in the 1960s. I was blown away by Revolver and Sgt Pepper but it was the Stones that made me really happy (and still do). If you put a gun to my head, I’d be a Stoner. The reason couldn’t be simpler: dancing. You got woozily high with the Beatles but you rocked with the Stones, no adrenalin surge higher. No one got sweaty with Mr Kite; we all did with the collective woo of “Brown Sugar”. There are moments of pure wild mad glee in the Stones – the gallop that opens “Paint it Black” (one of the greatest pop songs ever written); the rising mischief of “Sympathy for the Devil”; the faux-innocent choirboys of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.

The Beatles fell victim to the cult of their musical grandeur and got hoity-toity about concerts. For the Stones it’s perform or perish. So as we all go grey together (save Mick), it’s their death-defying romping, thumping noise I want at my funeral: “Wild Horses”, “19th Nervous Breakdown”, “Harlem Shuffle”, “Bitch” (sorry about that), “Honky Tonk Woman” and everyone had better join in with “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll” because, even dead, I will, really, really like it.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.