Friday, May 10, 2013

The Rolling Stones at 50

The Bad Boys of Rock 'n Roll in 1963
Last Friday the venerable Rolling Stones kicked off the American leg of their "50 and Counting" Tour at the Staples Center in Los Angeles to rave reviews (the tour will pass through my hometown of Philly on the 18th and 21st of June). Founding members Keith Richards (guitar) and Sir Mick Jagger (vocals, harp) are now 69 years of age. Matchless drummer Charlie Watts is now 71. Current guitarist Ronnie Wood, with the band since 1975 after a time with the Faces, is the "baby" of the group at 65 (founding member Brian Jones [guitar] died [was killed?] in 1968; founding bassist Bill Wyman, now 76, left the group in 1992; "6th Stone" and formidable pianist Ian Stewart, whose corpulence and somewhat "cleaner" lifestyle disqualified him from "official" membership in the group at the insistence of manager Andrew Loog Oldham in 1963, died of a heart attack at the age of 47 in 1985). From clips I have seen of their recent performances,   however, it is more than clear that time and age have done little to diminish the power of the band's performances. And that is more than can be said of any of the Stones' peers.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the recording of their debut UK single, a cover of the somewhat obscure and uncharacteristic Chuck Berry song, "Come On." Today the Stones are most well known for their classic, timeless original compositions like "Satisfaction," "Paint it, Black," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Gimme Shelter," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," and "Miss You." In 1963, however, the Stones were a blues/R&B/ rock 'n roll cover band with an enviable Sunday afternoon residency at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, Surrey, specializing in the work of Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. At a time when "Beatlemania" was sweeping the UK, the Stones represented a different trend. They, along with such other bands as Eric Burdon's Animals in Newcastle, Eric Clapton's Yardbirds in Kingston-upon-Thames, and Van Morrison's Them in Belfast, worked to revive and popularize the grittier sound of Chicago blues that had been all but ignored by the general population in the land of its origin. And the Stones quickly proved to be the best of the bunch.

Listening to their version of "Come On," the band's immaturity is clearly evident. This immaturity is most evident, surprisingly, in Jagger's vocals, which are devoid of the swagger and snarl he would develop in short order. As they would do the following year to good effect with Waters' "I Just Want to Make Love to You," they sped up Berry's tempo somewhat. They likewise added to the excitement by emphasizing the staggered rhythmic guitar pattern and modulating up a step for the final verse. But the song was, after all, not one of Berry's best, and the band was reluctant to play it live even after it was released. But it was a start.

In 1968, after a failed experiment with psychedelia, the Stones began referring to themselves as "the World's Greatest Rock 'n Roll Band." And, with the series of classic albums from that year's Beggar's Banquet to 1972's Exile on Main Street, they proved it. Nowhere is this more clear than in 1978's intense, straight-ahead rock 'n roller, "Respectable," from what is arguably their last "classic" album, Some Girls. No one then, and no one since, could play this song like they did and still do. They simply understand the inner workings of this music like no other artist does. Beatles fans may want to disagree, but I would argue that they deserved that moniker from the very beginning, playing with a grit and instrumental prowess their more popular peers could only hope to achieve. This prowess may only be recognized in inchoate form on their initial recording. But this would change in short order. Listen to their live BBC recordings (officially unreleased even now) of Berry classics "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Memphis, Tennessee," or to their cover of the immortal "Carol" from their first LP, and compare it to the Beatles' recordings of those songs, and you will have all the proof you need. Jagger and Richards may never have been able to write a good "pop" song. So what? They are the definitive rock 'n roll band. May they reign for years to come.

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