It’s the season for jubilees. Especially for royal anniversaries, whether the royal in question is the sovereign of the realm or a rajah of the senses. Before Britain can recover from the extravagance of Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee, arrives another golden jubilee, no less royal, no less majestic.
The trumpets have been brought out for Their Satanic Majesties, the keepers of kitsch and guardians of groove. The Rolling Stones complete 50 years of music, mayhem and mania in 2012. It is an incredible, tumultuous journey that started on the fringes of a 1960s Britain desperate to freeze cultural and social mores in time. But this movement wormed its way right into the heart of the nation and successfully planted there its subversive standard of studied insouciance.
So, a book was needed to document this manic journey. And here is an ebook commemorating the first 25 years of the 50 years of the Stones. Unfortunately this season of remembrance has spawned a cottage industry of similar books — at last count this reviewer found at least 15 books on the Rolling Stones’ half-century. So what is special about this book, especially since its 1,000 pages are devoted to only the first 25 of the band’s years. Well, it’s The Stones — and that, I think, is a good enough reason.
The Stones, like other bands of the time, were musical renegades by club nights and wicked unwashed boys by day. Thumbing their nose at middle-class values and wearing clothes that defied middle-of-the-road mores, the Stones set about defining youth culture for the turbulent 1960s. Kids from grammar schools and working-class families, the Stones boys eschewed class pretensions, creating an aura and an attitude that bordered on the rebellious but stopped short of the anarchic. They spoke, dressed and acted with premeditated impertinence. They even hid pianist Ian Stewart backstage because he did not fit the hungry, unruly, slightly seditious image.
But it was their music that really raised conservatives’ hackles. Defying the syrupy and poppy music of the time, the Stones found solace in rhythm and blues, performing cover versions of well-known blues and soul artists — Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Didley, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Chuck Berry. In fact, when pushed to decide on the band’s name, they randomly chose the first thing lying around — the title of a song from the album Best of Muddy Waters. The sound of brass was the only thing missing from the Stones’ soulful dirges.
Over time, inspired by the receptive audiences that were warming up to the blues and goaded by the realisation that cash actually flows from copyright ownership over songs, the Stones started writing their own songs and producing albums, instead of releasing singles and EPs that were actually cover versions. Straying into a hash-induced slipstream and finding shelter under the multi-hued arches of acid portals, the Stones’ sound acquired a new sharpness, a biting edge, and their poetry a laconic wryness, a street-side mordancy.
And what a unique sound that was — singer Mick Jagger growled with guttural disdain, Keith Richards’s searing guitar riffs defined the Sixties sub-culture (the five-note introduction to “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” has acquired anthemic status), drummer Charlie Watts produced an unobtrusive yet effective style inspired by the bebop sound of Charlie Parker, Bill Wyman patented a thumping bass line and, of course, the misplaced genius of Brian Jones (of the sitar and Appalachian dulcimer fame) with unconventional sounds.
Ah, Brian Jones... the pivot around which the Stones turned, but who was eventually unhinged by acid, heroin, amphetamines, booze and paranoia. Jones died in 1969, soon after the band was forced to split with him. One of my first viewings of a live Stones gig — courtesy a grainy videocassette — was a tribute concert to Jones in London’s Hyde Park. Jagger read poetry, released hundreds of white butterflies and crooned “Street-Fighting Man”, “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Honky Tonk Woman”, among others. The mystique was complete.
The last time I saw Jagger live was in Mumbai. He was past 60 (he once promised to retire by 33) but gyrating and belting songs out with the same vigour. The Stones have travelled capriciously — flirting with the devil (“As heads is tails just call me Lucifer / I’m in need of some restraint”), warding off arrest and court cases, romancing society, jettisoning luggage, adding some oompah and acquiring a lot of respectability. Jagger of the overt sexuality, splayed lips and twitching hips has since become Sir Mick. The musicians are all millionaires now, but still touring and singing. In fact, even as they near 70, they are still among the top revenue-grossers in the music industry.
So, does the book do justice to the Stones? It contains scores of interviews and articles from newspaper and magazine archives that provide an insight into the band and the changes that accompanied its growth over the years. The ebook also contains a wealth of details about the band and their personal lives. A lot of it is minutiae. But what is really missing is engaging language. One of the endearing facts about rock-and-roll is the revolution in writing that accompanied it, especially in the USA: liner notes, promo material, magazine articles, newspaper profiles, etc. Unfortunately, this book is sorely deficient in that department.
There are also many annoying and tell-tale signs of the book having been rushed to market. Editing, therefore, is a casualty. Sample this caption with a photograph on page 607: “Bianca Jagger at a patty [sic] in London, England in 1974.” Here’s another line, from page 140: “He draws our attention to the social and political upheavals that are background to the creation of the LP and thus indicates that the band is perspective of the time this was well aware of these events.” WTF??
The ebook format seems to have another drawback. Considering the occasion and the opportunity, the photographs do look a bit impoverished, though in fairness that could be due to the hasty publication of this book. Would I put down some more money for the second part, expected out in September or October? I’ll wait to see the entire crop come to market before parting with my cash.
THE ROLLING STONES — VIEWS FROM THE INSIDE, VIEWS FROM THE OUTSIDE, PART 1
Author: Hanspeter Kunzler