Monday, August 11, 2014

The Rolling Stones

The Stones circa 1969

It's time for another band profile, and this time I'm completing the quartet of the four greatest rock bands of all time. Having already profiled The Beatles, The Who, and The Kinks, now it's time to discuss The Rolling Stones. They're the longest-lived of the four, having burst onto the scene in 1963 and continuing to record and tour, more or less intact, to the present day. By contrast, the Beatles' career lasted from 1962-1970, the Kinks' from 1964-1996, and the Who's from 1964-1978 (what the Who have done since Moon died in 1978 is a travesty, as far as I'm concerned). Over the course of that time, the Stones have regularly been called "the greatest rock and roll band in the world," and while I don't fully agree with that, they have definitely been one of the greatest and they absolutely deserve to be put on the same pedestal as the other three.

Even though the band has undergone a few lineup changes over the years, the core line-up of Jagger, Richards, Watts, and Wyman remained intact until the early 1990s when Wyman left the band; the other three still continue to the present.  The best line-up of the band is pictured above, left to right: Charlie Watts (drums), Mick Taylor (lead guitar), Mick Jagger (vocals), Keith Richards (guitars), and Bill Wyman (bass guitar). Brian Jones (guitar, sitar, instrumental dabbling) was a founding member who was sacked in 1969 and died in July of that year, while Ronnie Wood replaced Mick Taylor in 1975 and is still with the band. Throughout all these years, the band has remained true to their beloved blues, which lies at the core of all of their music. They spent most of the 1960s in the shadow of the Beatles, solidly in second place in the world's band rankings, racking up an impressive number of great singles as the songwriting team of Jagger/Richards gained in strength. Like all great bands, there was a stretch where they were in peak form and released fantastic album after fantastic album...the Beatles, Who, and Kinks all had winning streaks like this, and the Stones were no different. Starting with 1968's Beggar's Banquet, they began their run of classic albums that ran through Let it Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1970), and Exile on Main St (1972)...some would even argue that Goats Head Soup (1973) belongs, and I would tend to agree although it's definitely the weakest of the lot. Once Mick Taylor left the band in 1974, my interest in the Stones drops precipitously and I think it's fair to say that most fans agree that with rare exception (1978's Some Girls album), it's been all downhill from there. However, from 1963-1974 the Stones were indeed one of the greatest rock bands of all time, and it's this period that I intend to discuss in this profile.

The Rolling Stones were formed when Brian Jones met up with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (who had met at school), all of whom had been playing in the burgeoning blues and R&B scene in and around London in the early 1960s. Indeed, the names of the young musicians who sat in with the various house bands at this time (of which Alexis Korner's Blues Inc. is the most famous) is a who's who of British rock elite: Jagger, Richards, Watts, Jones, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, Ray and Dave Davies, Mick Avory, Mitch Mitchell, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck are just some of the names who all crossed paths with each other at this time, all of whom would go on to legendary careers in the coming years. Eventually, the trio of Jones, Jagger, and Richards poached Watts as drummer (after playing a gig or two with future Kinks' drummer Avory), and brought Bill Wyman in on bass. With their classic first line-up set, and under the management of the ambitious and young Andrew Loog-Oldham (who at the time was also working for Beatles' manager Brian Epstein), the Stones' blend of raw blues and R&B took the capital by storm and they began a stretch that would last throughout the 1960s as the only real rival to the Beatles' supremacy. However, at this time they were still a covers band; it wasn't until they had chart success with a Beatles cover ("I Wanna Be Your Man") and witnessed Lennon and McCartney finish writing the song in the studio that they were inspired to try their hand at writing their own material. Jagger and Richards hit the ground running and began a stretch of classic singles in the 1960s, including "Satisfaction," "Get Off of My Cloud," "Under My Thumb," "Paint It Black," and more.  Like the Kinks and Who, the Stones were mainly a singles band (who still put out quality albums) until the middle of the decade when the emphasis throughout rock music turned to the album as the artistic statement.

The Stones' first truly great album of this era was 1966's Aftermath...while it couldn't compete with the Beatles' Revolver, it was still a damn fine record that signalled where the band were headed. 1967's Between the Buttons was understated but solid, but the biggest misstep of this phase of their career was Their Satanic Majesties Request, released at the end of 1967. It was on the back end of the psychedelic boom in '67, created during a time of inner turmoil (mainly bad blood between Jones and Jagger/Richards) and overindulgence in drugs that resulted in an interesting (and in some places, excellent) but deeply flawed album. The fact that, in every way from the cover art to the music, it appeared to be trying to mimic the monumental achievement of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (released in June '67) didn't help. (Interestingly, while the two bands were friends, John Lennon was quoted several times about how the Stones tended to ape the Beatles, even saying "anything the Rolling Stones do, the Beatles had already done six months before"). With Jones becoming increasingly unstable and isolated from the rest of the band, Jagger and Richards assumed complete control and proceeded to lead the band into their greatest period.

The Stones in 1966, with Jones at center

Beggar's Banquet was a return to their blues and rock roots after the previous few album's forays into psychedelia and was chock full of classics like "Sympathy For the Devil," "Street Fighting Man," and "Stray Cat Blues," as well as some really gutsy blues like "Parachute Woman," "No Expectations," and "Dear Doctor." It was also the final full album to have a meaningful contribution from Brian Jones. He only played on two tracks on Let it Bleed, and on both he was reduced to dulcimer and slide guitar (his forte); he was sacked partway through recording and his replacement, Mick Taylor, played on the remainder of the album. The day after Jones' death in July 1969, the Stones played their massive show in London's Hyde Park and began a series of legendary tours that saw them playing the best shows of their was the years 1969-1973 that truly solidified the Stones as a great live rock band. Even the disastrous (and murderous!) appearance at the Altamont Festival in December 1969 couldn't slow the Stones down...Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., and Goats Head Soup, while fueled by ridiculous intakes of drug and alcohol, showed that the Stones' only peers at the top of the rock heap in the early 1970s were the Who, Led Zeppelin, and (perhaps) David Bowie. The sheer number of great songs, from "Gimme Shelter," "Brown Sugar," "Rocks Off," and "Tumbling Dice" to "Wild Horses," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," and "Angie" is amazingly impressive.  By 1973, however, the band were showing signs of running out of steam, and while 1974's It's Only Rock and Roll was a very good album, it wasn't up to the standards of the previous five and it coincided with the departure of Mick Taylor, who left after the record was released but before the tour in support of it.

Ronnie Wood, former guitarist with Faces, was initially brought in solely as a fill-in touring guitarist on 1975's Tour of the Americas (which is the last tour of the Stones I enjoy listening to). However, despite auditioning numerous guitarists after the tour in order to permanently fill the role, the band eventually asked Wood to join the band, and he's been a member ever since. From here on, this is where I don't really care for what the Stones have done, although there is some good material. As mentioned before, Some Girls is a really good album, as are parts of Emotional Rescue (1980), Tattoo You (1981), and Voodoo Lounge (1994), but overall I think it's safe to say that the Stones went into a slow decline in terms of their recorded output; this pertains to both the quantity and quality. However, they've continued to tour into 2014 and remain and exciting live act. I've never seen the Stones live but I hope to before they call it quits for good!

The Stones in 1978...Ronnie Wood is 2nd from the right

So what made the Stones so great? Unlike the Beatles, Who, or Kinks, they weren't really innovators, either in terms of their writing or their production. They didn't push the envelope in terms of what could be done in a recording studio, didn't write song suites or concept albums, and didn't revolutionize rock music from the standpoint of breaking the rules and rewriting them. They didn't redefine what could be done with an instrument the way contemporary virtuosos like Hendrix, Page, and Clapton did with the guitar, Entwistle and Bruce did with the bass guitar, or Moon, Bonham, and Baker did with the drums. What they did do was take the heart and soul of their music (blues and R&B) and find new, interesting, and exciting variations on it in all of the great songs they wrote and recorded. Once they moved past the straight cover versions they peddled in the early 1960s, they brought their love of blues into everything they did but changed it up enough, and in so many different ways, that it sounded fresh, exciting, and ballsy. Indeed, the raw, gutsy, and raunchy (both sonically and lyrically) feel of so much of the Stones' best work is one of the reasons they packed such a punch during their peak years.  Musically, they were as tight a unit as you'll ever find, with Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman laying down a rock solid foundation that really swung and grooved. Over this, Keith Richards could play his endlessly inventive riffs and chords, all the while weaving (his favorite term) lead guitar licks in and out with Jones, Taylor, or Wood. While of the three lead axemen, Taylor was the best, it's also no coincidence that his tenure in the band was also their absolute peak. He brought a highly accomplished musicianship into the band, one they haven't had before or since, and the work they completed during those years stands with the best of any band before or after. The most iconic aspect of the band is Jagger addition to his unmistakable and unique voice, which isn't necessarily good in the purest sense but is absolutely perfect for the Stones, his stage persona and visual appeal is undeniable. He is, quite simply, one of the most captivating and engaging frontmen in rock history, rivaled only by the Who's Roger Daltrey and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant in terms of both vocal and visual dynamism.

I've been listening to the Stones as long as I can remember, and I've always been amazed at the sheer number of great songs they've written, especially when looking at their 1960s singles. There's always been something sleazy and a bit dangerous about them, whether it's the smutty "Honky Tonk Women" with that incredibly sexy groove, the lewd and sassy "Brown Sugar," the shockingly vulgar and nasty "Star Star," or the sheer balls and savagery of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." They also have several excellent ballads, like "Wild Horses," "Angie," and "Lady Jane" to name but a few; they also have their fair share of misogynist lyrics, like "Under My Thumb," "Stupid Girl," "Back Street Girl," and "Mother's Little Helper." In a way, though, it's rather refreshing...unlike other bands at the time who were still singing love lyrics and pining for the girls they were singing about, the Stones sang from an aggressively male point of view. Similar to early Who songs (see their debut album My Generation for the clearest examples of this), they sang from an almost anti-love, pro-male perspective. Regardless of how you feel about the words, you can't deny that these are still great songs, and that is the crux of why the Stones are rightly considered one of the greatest bands of all time. They didn't innovate, but they've sure as hell influenced a huge number of musicians and the sheer volume of quality work they've put has more than made up for that one (and really, only) shortcoming of theirs.


  1. Mike D. (Matt Busby on the bible)August 21, 2014 at 1:08 PM

    Very well written and from what I know, accurate. I would have liked to have seen some mention of the influence, and their liking of, country music. A prime example is "Faraway Eyes", but their country leanings are evident in many songs ("Country Honk", even "Let it Bleed" has a country-ish tone).

    1. Hey man, glad you made it over here!

      You're right, they did have a bit of a country influence, even some of the blues on Beggar's Banquet (like "Dear Doctor") and you're right that Let It Bleed (the album) has a fair bit on it, but I never considered it to be a major component of their sound. I also stop listening to them after 1974 apart from a handful of songs...maybe there's more after '74?

  2. great aricle i agree they didnt much innovate and are great on its own way

  3. Nope, they didn't really innovate but they took what they loved, made it their own, and modified it enough along the way that it became something wholly theirs (and great!). Killer live performances, especially between '69 and '75, certainly didn't hurt!

  4. One of the things the Stones were also good at was performance. If you watch the TAMI Show DVD filmed back in 1964, they already had a lot of stage presence. Jagger was really fun to watch and a great front man. Their live performances only got better, for the most part, longer, and more extravagant--giving fans a pretty good show for their bucks.

    Tattoo You might have been their last great album? I don't know, I sort of stopped buying their music after that. But they still had some nice radio hits afterwards.

    1. Jagger is definitely one of the best rock frontmen of all time, as you said his stage presence was still is even at his old age!

      Tattoo You has some decent songs, although it's an album made up leftovers from the 1970s that they finished off before release (ie "Waiting On a Friend" was recorded when Mick Taylor was still in the band, for the Goats Head Soup sessions I believe). I'm with you, even though I don't really like their stuff after '75, I don't mind it until Undercover or so, where they seem to have just lost it.

  5. My favorite music rock bands artists are Jagger, Watts and John. Can you please update some famous rock music albums of these famous music artists?

    1. Sure, I'd be open to doing that. What in particular would you like to see?