Early on The Rolling Stones played covers of blues, rhythm and blues, country, and rock and roll music. Their first recordings were covers of Chuck Berry, Robert Johnson, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Muddy Waters, and Hank Williams songs, among others. Although founding members Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are regarded as one of the greatest songwriting teams in the history of popular music, the band never stopped being inspired by other genres. Reggae, punk, and dance, country music and even Arab music have leaked into their recordings. They are the longest surviving rock and roll band in history, and surely, in their own words, the greatest, too.
Guitarist (and original frontman) Brian Jones, although popular and charismatic, was forced out of the band in 1969 and died an enigmatic death later that year. Presumed accidental at the time, accusations have since surfaced that he was murdered, and a 2005 film based on his biography Who Killed Christopher Robin?. Jagger and Richards took over songwriting and performance leadership, and under their stewardship the band began to hit the big time. Jones had favored sticking close to the blues base, although he had also experimented with the sitar and Appalachian dulcimer, but the canny Jagger and Richards broadened their approach and kept them more in tune with current musical trends.
The band came into being in 1961 when former school friends Jagger and Richards met Jones, who named the band after a Muddy Waters’ song; at least two other bands (and one circus tumbling act) are believed to have called themselves The Rolling Stones before the Jagger/Richards/Jones band was formed. The original lineup included Jagger (vocals), Jones (guitar), Richards (guitar), Ian Stewart (piano), Charlie Watts (drums) and Dick Taylor (bass). Taylor left shortly after to form The Pretty Things, and was replaced by Bill Wyman. By the time of their first album release Stewart was, at their newly appointed sharp young manager’s insistence, “officially” not part of the band, though he continued to record and perform with them. The band, although unhappy with this decision, agreed that it was necessary in order to maximize their chances of success. United by their shared interest in rhythm and blues music, the group rehearsed extensively, playing in public only occasionally at Crawdaddy Club in London, where Alexis Korner’s Blues Band was resident. At first, Jones, a guitarist who also toyed with numerous other instruments, was their creative leader, despite Mick Jagger increasingly becoming the focus during live performances. The band rapidly gained a reputation in London for their frantic, highly energetic covers of the rhythm and blues songs of their idols. Through manager Andrew Loog Oldham The Stones were signed to Decca Records (who had passed when offered the Beatles). At this time their music was fairly primitive: Richards had learned much of his guitar playing from the recordings of Chuck Berry, and had not yet developed a style of his own, and Jagger was not as in control of the idioms as he would soon become. By this time, however, the rhythmic interplay between Watts and Richards was clearly the heart of their music.
The choice of material on their first record, a self-titled EP, reflected their live shows. Similarly, the album The Rolling Stones (England's Newest Hitmakers) which appeared in April 1964 featured versions of such classics as “Route 66” (originally recorded by Nat King Cole), “Mona” (Bo Diddley) and “Carol” (Chuck Berry). The performances were pivotal in introducing a generation of white British youth to rhythm and blues music, and helped to fuel the “British Invasion” of America. More importantly perhaps, while the Beatles were still suited, clean-cut boys with mop-top haircuts, The Stones cultivated the opposite image: decidedly unkempt, and posing for publicity photographs like a gang of surly yobs. This made many girls go crazy for their bad boy image, and soon made them a teen idol group. The follow-up album, The Rolling Stones #2 (Now in the U.S), was also composed mainly of cover tunes, only now augmented by a couple of songs written by the fledgling partnership of Jagger and Richards, having been locked in a room by their manager, who refused to let them out until they had written something they could release. Encouraged by Oldham, the band toured Europe and America continuously, playing to packed crowds of screaming teenagers in scenes reminiscent of the height of Beatlemania. While on tour they took time to visit important locations in the history of the music that inspired them, recording the EP Twelve By Five at the studios of Chess Records in Chicago, Illinois.
Back at home these early years of success represented a rare period of stability in the personal relationship between the band members. Jagger, Richards and Jones shared a squalid London house in Edith Grove, Chelsea, throughout much of 1963 along with friend, miscreant, and later biographer James Phelge. The three Stones became so fond of Phelge that they used his name as part of the “Nanker/Phelge” pseudonym to indicate early band writing compositions. Two years later Brian Jones began to see Anita Pallenberg, an actress and model who introduced them to the circle of society in which she moved: a group of young artists, musicians and filmmakers. Prompted by Oldham, who possessed sufficient business acumen to see where money was to be made, Jagger and Richards became more prolific songwriters and 1965’s Out Of Our Heads contained much self-penned material, including the classic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, and saw the dynamic of the band begin to change, with Jagger and Richards starting to emerge as the perceived leaders of the band. Jones, not unaware of his reduced importance, retreated into drug abuse, alienating both Richards and Pallenberg, who began a liaison that would last over ten years. During this period Pallenberg’s opinions about the music, as one of the few people the band trusted, should not be underestimated. With the main songwriters maintaining their rate of production, Aftermath (1966) continued the progression, consisting entirely of Jagger/Richards compositions including “Mother’s Little Helper”, about pill abuse, and the misogynistic “Under My Thumb”, whereas on Between the Buttons (1967) they wore the influences of their many contemporaries, including The Who and The Kinks.
Work commenced on a new “psychedelic” album, which Jagger envisioned as the group’s response to The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper. The record, which would eventually be released as Their Satanic Majesties' Request, received lukewarm reviews —the songs and arrangements did not lend themselves to their natural style and the increasingly-strung-out Jones contributed little—still produced a small number of songs which showcased the improving songwriting of Jagger and Richards, in particular the spacey “2000 Light Years from Home”, a song which has been revived for recent live performances. Within the band the dynamic was changing with the two principal writers steadily assuming power from their former leader, Jones.
After the excesses of Satanic Majesties, and with personal relations between Jones and Richards increasingly frayed, the band returned to the black music that had originally inspired them on 1968’s Beggars Banquet. Despite the tension, and aided by an excellent sound from an up-and-coming producer named Jimmy Miller, Jagger and Richards produced some of their most memorable work, including the distorted acoustic guitar-driven “Street Fighting Man” and the anthemic “Sympathy for the Devil” and The Stones entered the phase that would see them billed as “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band”. The songs themselves were firmly rooted in the blues, but tempered by the changes that occurred in 1960s music and assimilating the imagery of Dylan and the emergent heavy rock of Cream and Jimi Hendrix. In contrast to its predecessor, however, it was a clear rejection of the hippie ethos, replacing the platitudes of “free love” with a layer of sleaze. Two other events contributed to the change in The Stones' sound. Firstly, Richards played extensively with Ry Cooder, and was taught his open-G guitar tuning (as used by John Lee Hooker), later admitting “I took Ry Cooder for all I could get.” Secondly, both Jagger and Richards befriended Gram Parsons, who helped educate them about the country music with which he had grown up. Music was not all The Stones and the independently wealthy Parsons had in common: “We liked drugs,” Richards said later, “and we liked the finest quality.”
Drugs were, however, making Jones increasingly unreliable; he was either absent from recording sessions by choice, or locked out of them. After his minimal contribution to Beggar's Banquet he found himself forced out after an infamous late night visit from Jagger and Richards in May 1969, to be replaced by the young, jazz-influenced guitarist, Mick Taylor, drafted in from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Jones retreated to his Cotchford Farm home in Kent, a house formerly owned by “Winnie the Pooh” author A. A. Milne, drinking heavily in the local pub and planning a comeback with a blues band. Within two months however, and a matter of two days before the new-look band were due to play a free concert in London’s Hyde Park, Jones was found at the bottom of his swimming pool which was surrounded by statues of Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh. Although his death was recorded as being by misadventure, the cause of the drowning to this day remains a mystery. Despite this, the concert went ahead, with an audience of hundreds of thousands of fans, with Jagger reading from Shelley’s “Adonais” and releasing a flock of butterflies by way of tribute to the late guitarist. The band’s performance, under-rehearsed and suffering from some of the remaining members’ narcotic intake, was somewhat shambolic. Shortly after, the band released their highly successful single, “Honky Tonk Women”, which was recorded with Jones but had his guitar part edited out and Taylor’s part dubbed in at the last minute before its release in the UK on July 3, 1969. Their studio work was another matter. Let It Bleed (1969) followed a short time later and was rapidly hailed as another classic, featuring the slow and brooding “Gimme Shelter”, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (featuring a boy’s choir) and a further nod to their roots with a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain”. Immediately, the band set off on another U.S. tour, characterized by the hedonism that their position in rock’s aristocracy afforded them.
Richards spent the best part of the next decade as an addict, taking occasional cures in private clinics but always returning to the habit, and each subsequent tour would become a logistical nightmare to ensure a regular supply in the face of trouble from the police and customs officers. Richards has always maintained that the one facet of his life that was unaffected was his live performance. (Concert tapes, including the time in 1976 when he fell asleep on stage, do not bear this out.) Sticky Fingers (1971), the band’s first record under their own Rolling Stones Records label, continued where Let It Bleed had left off, featuring the rocking “Brown Sugar” (another big hit), the country-styled “Wild Horses”, the moody “Moonlight Mile” (featuring Paul Buckmaster’s evocative string arrangement), and a version of Faithfull’s “Sister Morphine”. Mick Taylor collaborated heavily on this album with Jagger, most probably because Richards could not contribute as constructively as usual due to his drug problems, and the sprawling “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” attests to Taylor’s influence. However, all the songs were credited as usual to “Jagger/Richards” which certainly frustrated Taylor.
As Richards removed himself from society, Jagger began to move in more elevated social circles. He married the Nicaraguan model Bianca Perez Moreno de Macias, and the couple’s jet-set lifestyle put further distance between himself and Richards. Pressured by the UK Inland Revenue service about several years of unpaid income tax, the band was forced to leave for the South of France, where Richards rented a gothic chateau and sublet rooms to the band members and a multitude of assorted hangers-on. Using the recently completed mobile studio, they set about recording the double album Exile on Main Street (1972) in the basement of their new home. Dismissed by some on its release as sprawling and self-indulgent, the record is now considered among the band’s (and Rock and Roll’s) greatest.
By the time Exile on Main Street had been completed Jagger had made the other band members aware that he was more interested in the celebrity lifestyle than working on its follow-up, and increasingly their records were made piecemeal, with tracks and parts laid down as, and when, the band —Jagger and Richards in particular—could get together and remain amicable sufficiently long enough to do so. When it finally arrived, Goats Head Soup (1973) was disappointing, and memorable largely for the hit single “Angie”, popularly believed to be about David Bowie’s new wife, but in reality another of Richards’ odes to Anita Pallenberg. Interestingly enough, the popular ballad “Waiting on a Friend” was recorded during the Goats Head Soup, but was not released until Tattoo You. The making of the record was not helped by another legal battle over drugs, this one dating back to their stay in France. But the tour of Europe in fall 1973 showed The Rolling Stones in top form, particularly Taylor, who played extensive solos on songs like “Midnight Rambler” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” in an exciting interplay with Richards on rhythm guitar. A live recording made in Brussels was intended for an official release, but due to legal problems it appeared only on bootlegs (Nasty Music and Brussels Affair). Many fans and critics regard these recordings as the best Rolling Stones’ concert recordings ever.
By the time they came to the Musicland studios in Munich to record 1974’s It's Only Rock 'N’ 'Roll, there were even more problems. Regular producer Jimmy Miller was not asked to participate in the sessions because of his increasing unreliability and drug use. Critics generally wrote the album off as uninspired from a band perceived as stagnating, but both album and single of the same name were huge hits, even without the customary tour to promote them. Intra-band strife continued. Curiously, Its Only Rock 'n' Roll was more akin to The Stones’ great late 1960’s-early 1970’s albums than to their mid-to-late 1970’s works, which were heavily influenced by glam rock (Goats Head Soup), reggae (Black and Blue) and disco (Some Girls and Emotional Rescue). Taylor’s intricate lead style and shy persona never quite matched Richards’ outspoken image and basic, Chuck Berry-inspired rhythm work. By the time of It's Only Rock ‘n' Roll Richards was reportedly berating Taylor during recording sessions, and Taylor contributed little to the album. Irked by perceived mistreatment, and a small share of the band’s royalties, Taylor announced he was leaving the band shortly before sessions commenced for the next album, Black and Blue (1976). The band used the album’s recording sessions in Munich to audition possible replacements. Guitarists as stylistically far-flung as Humble Pie lead Peter Frampton and ex-Yardbirds impressario Jeff Beck were auditioned. American session players Wayne Perkins and Harvey Mandel appeared on much of the album, but the band settled on Ron Wood, a long time friend of Richards and guitarist with The Faces, whose singer Rod Stewart had recently gone solo. Wood had already contributed to It's Only Rock'N'Roll, but his first public act with the band would be the 1975 United States tour. The shows featured a new format for The Stones with their usual act replaced by increasingly theatrical stage props and gimmicks. This represented a further breakdown in Jagger and Richards’ relationship —the pragmatic Richards considering it entirely superfluous and distracting from the music. Again, Jagger was, if nothing else, shrewdly interpreting market trends —the mid-1970s were the era of flashy stage acts such as Queen and Elton John, and the band’s tours were to become even more expensive and elaborate in the years to come.
Although The Rolling Stones remained hugely popular through the 1970s, music critics had grown increasingly dismissive of the band’s output until the seminal late-1970s album Some Girls. By this time punk rock had become highly influential, and The Stones were increasingly criticized as being decadent, aging millionaires and their music considered by many to be either stagnant or irrelevant. The Clash vocalist Joe Strummer even went so far as to declare “No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones in 1977”. What people did not realize at the time was that many punk bands idolized The Stones, Keith Richards in particular, and in hindsight this does not seem surprising given the band's earlier rebellious image.
In 1978 the band recorded Some Girls, their most focused and successful album in some time, despite the perceived misogyny of the title track. Jagger and Richards seemed to channel much of the personal turmoil surrounding them into renewed creative vitality. With the notable exception of the disco-influenced “Miss You”, (a hit single and a live staple) and the droll, country-ballad “Far Away Eyes”, the songs in this album were fast, basic guitar-driven rock and roll or impeccable ballads like “Beast of Burden”, and the album was widely praised as both a Stones’ classic and a summation of late 1970s music trends. Emotional Rescue (1980) was in a similar vein, but lacked the redeeming features of its predecessor. Tattoo You (1981), was composed partially by using new material and by using unused songs from earlier recording outings (the ballad “Waiting on a Friend” dated back to the Goats Head Soup sessions). It also featured the hugely popular single “Start Me Up”, showing that Richards was still capable of writing monster guitar parts of the same calibre as ten or fifteen years earlier. Tattoo You and the subsequent tour were major commercial successes.
Throughout the early 1980s the Jagger/Richards partnership continued to falter, and their records would suffer because of it. Undercover (1983) was widely seen as Jagger’s attempt to make The Rolling Stones' sound more compatible with current musical trends. The album’s slick production and violent political and sexual content were coolly received by both critics and fans, though not without controversy. To make matters worse, Ron Wood was now suffering from his own growing drug habit. In 1982 Jagger had signed a major solo deal with the band’s new label, CBS Records. This move angered Richards, who saw it as a lack of commitment to the band. Indeed, Jagger was spending a great deal of time on his solo recordings, and most of the material on the turgid 1986’s Dirty Work was authored solely by Keith Richards. The album again sold poorly, and sales were probably hurt by Jagger’s decision not to tour in support of the album.
To add to the band’s woes in 1986, longtime collaborator and unofficial band member Ian Stewart (often called the sixth Rolling Stone) died of a heart attack. The Rolling Stones’ only live appearance during this time was a tribute to Stewart. However, a bright spot that year was when they were awarded a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. But by this point Jagger and Richards had begun openly criticizing each other in the press, and many observers assumed the band had broken up. Both quality and sales of Jagger’s solo records (She's the Boss (1985) and Primitive Cool (1987)) did not live up to expectations, but ironically, Richards’ first solo record, Talk is Cheap (1988), which he had been reluctant to make because of his loyalty to The Stones, was well received by both fans and critics.
A rapprochement was reached by Richards and Jagger, who decided to shelve his own solo career and reform the group for 1989’s Steel Wheels album and massive tour. Widely heralded as a return to form, the album even included a song called “Continental Drift” which featured the musicians of the Moroccan mountain village of Joujouka, who had previously been recorded by Brian Jones during the ill-fated 1967 trip to North Africa with Keith Richards and Anita Pallenburg. The Stones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.
It was lit again twenty years later, and it’s burning still. Since 1989 The Stones have toured every few years to ecstatic response. Bassist Darryl Jones, who had formerly played with Miles Davis, joined the band in 1994, replacing Bill Wyman, and The Stones turned what could have been a setback into a rejuvenating rush of new energy. The Stones’ live success during this period is not a matter of dollars or box-office breakthroughs, though the band has enjoyed plenty of both. It's about demonstrating a vital, ongoing commitment to the idea that performing is what keeps a band truly alive.
And that’s the critical misunderstanding of the question, “Is this the last time?” that has been coming up every time The Stones have toured for close to forty years now. It’s true that over the decades The Stones have been in the news for many reasons that have little to do with music - arrests, provocative statement, divorces, affairs, all the usual detritus of a raucous lifetime in the public eye. And there’s no doubt that Mick Jagger is as famous a celebrity as the world has ever seen.
But, for all that, The Stones are best understood as musicians, and their own acceptance of that fact is what has enabled them to carry on so well for so long. For all the tabloid headlines, Mick Jagger is finally an extraordinary lead singer and one of the most riveting performers - in any genre - ever to set foot on a stage. Keith Richards is the propulsive engine that drives The Stones and makes their music instantly recognizable. Ron Wood is a guitarist who has formed a rhythmic brotherhood with Richards, but who also colors and textures the band’s songs with deft, melodic touches. And Charlie Watts, needless to say, is one of rock’s greatest drummers. He is both the rock that anchors the band, and the force that swings it. At once elegant in their simplicity and soaring in their impact, none of his gestures are wasted, all are necessary. He and Darryl Jones enliven the often-monolithic notion of the rock and roll rhythm section with an irresistible, unpretentious, jazz-derived sophistication.
Musicians live and create in the moment, and that’s why fans still go see The Stones. Certainly there’s also a catalogue of songs that only a handful of artists could rival. Surely, there’s also the desire to encounter a band that has played a pristine role in defining our very idea of what rock and roll is. But seeing The Rolling Stones live is to see a working band playing as hard as they can, and there’s no last time for that.