When the nascent Rolling Stones began playing gigs around London in 1962, the notion that a rock & roll band would last five years, let alone fifty, was an absurdity. After all, what could possibly be more ephemeral than rock & roll, the latest teenage fad? Besides, other factors made it unlikely that such a momentous occasion would ever come to pass. 'I didn't expect to last until fifty myself, let alone with the Stones,' Keith Richards says with a laugh. 'It's incredible, really. In that sense we're still living on borrowed time.'
'You have to put yourself back into that time,' Mick Jagger says about those early days when he and Keith and guitarist Brian Jones roomed together and were hustling gigs wherever they could find one. 'Popular music wasn't talked about on any kind of intellectual level. There was no such term as ‘popular culture.' None of those things existed. But suddenly popular music became bigger than it had ever been before. It became an important, perhaps the most important, art form of the period, after not at all being regarded as an art form before.'
Times and attitudes quickly changed, in short, and now five decades later, the Rolling Stones are celebrating an anniversary that artists in any field would be overjoyed to attain. At that first show, the group was billed as the Rollin' Stones and, of what would become the band's original lineup, only Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones and keyboardist Ian Stewart performed. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts would formally join in January of 1963, and Stewart officially left the band in May, though he continued on as the Stones' road manager and occasionally played with them both on stage and in the studio until his death in 1985.
In addition, in order to further commemorate the anniversary, noted filmmaker Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) has directed a career-spanning documentary about the band, graphic designer Shepard Fairey has fashioned an eye-catching contemporary spin on the Stones' famed tongue logo, and a new book Rolling Stones:50 has been released, chronicling the group's legendary history through rare and previously unseen photographs, including images from every aspect of the Stones' history - reportage photos, shots from recording sessions, concert highlights and outtakes from studio shoots. It's a highly appropriate focus of the anniversary since such visual images constituted an essential element of how the Stones defined themselves in those pre-Internet, pre-MTV days when photos of a band on an album cover or in newspapers and magazines determined how they would be viewed for years to come.
'It was a very new development that famous photographers would take pictures of rock bands, and it was really fantastic,' Mick Jagger recalls. 'Those images were very much used and very widely seen, and they were essential to conveying who the Rolling Stones were to the public. Suddenly we were in all these magazines and one thing led to another. We became part of the whole Sixties phenomenon, breaking through the boundaries of pop music into fashion, films, television and everything else.'
'There was an amazing energy going on with people our age then,' Keith Richards adds. 'It's transformed the way the Seventies would have been or the Eighties or the Nineties or now.'
Of course, the Rolling Stones themselves are among the most important reasons for the dramatic breakthroughs and transformations that have taken place over the last five decades. Indeed, it's essentially impossible to overestimate the importance of the Rolling Stones in rock & roll history. The group distilled so much of the music that had come before it and has exerted a decisive influence on so much that has come after. Only a handful of musicians in any genre achieve that stature, and the Stones stand proudly among them. They exist in a pantheon of the most rarefied kind.
Needless to say, having lived life in the whirlwind of the Stones' history, the band itself doesn't see it in exactly those terms. 'It's been surprisingly organic,' Keith Richards says. 'I mean, there was no sort of master plan. We were flying by the seat of our pants. That is what amazes me, that the whole thing was improvised. We've been an amazingly resilient bunch of lads, that's all I say. We've been part of everything that's happened, and we're an important part, I suppose. If you say I'm great, thank you very much, but I know what I am. I could be better, man, you know?'
'I can understand a bit about the kind of influence the Rolling Stones have had, because we were in the same position,' Mick Jagger says. 'We modeled ourselves on lots of people who came before us, and I learned to sing from various blues artists and from Chuck Berry and others. When we'd play with someone like Little Richard, I would be incredibly impressed, and I'd go on stage and try to be as good as I could be because I knew that Little Richard was watching me.'
The effort clearly paid off. Every album the Stones released through the early Seventies - from The Rolling Stones in 1964 to Exile on Main Street in 1972 -- is essential not simply to an understanding of the music of that era, but to an understanding of the era itself. In their intense interest in blues and R&B, the Stones connected a young audience in the U.S. to music that was unknown to the vast majority of white Americans. Though the Stones were not overtly political in their early years, their obsession with African American music - from Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf to Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye and Don Covay - struck a chord that resonated with the goals of the civil rights movement. If the Stones had never made an album after 1965 they would still be legendary.
Soon, of course, the Stones became synonymous with the rebellious attitude of that era. Songs like '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction,' 'Street Fighting Man,' 'Sympathy for the Devil' and 'Gimme Shelter' captured the violence, frustration and chaos of that time. For the Stones, the Sixties were not a time of peace and love; in many ways, the band found psychedelia and wide-eyed utopianism confusing and silly. The Stones always were - and continue to be - tough-minded pragmatists. Against the endless promises of Sixties idealism the Stones understood that 'You Can't Always Get What You Want.' You simply want to Let It Be? It's more likely, given the harsh world we live in, that you might have to Let It Bleed.
For those reasons, as the Sixties drained into the Seventies, the Stones went on a creative run that rivals any in popular music. Beggars Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971) and Exile on Main Street (1972) routinely turn up on lists of the greatest albums of all time, and deservedly so. All done with American producer Jimmy Miller - 'an incredible rhythm man,' in Richards' terse description - those records shake like the culture itself was shaking. As the Stones were working on Let It Bleed, Brian Jones died, and the band replaced him with Mick Taylor, a profoundly gifted guitarist whose lyricism and melodic flair counterbalanced Richards' insistent, irreducible rhythmic drive, adding an element to the band's sound that hadn't been there before, and opening fertile new musical directions.
After that, the Stones were an indomitable force on the music scene, and they have continued to be to this day. The albums Goats Head Soup (1973), It's Only Rock ‘N' Roll (1974) and Black and Blue (1976), found the Stones creating such hits as 'Angie' and 'It's Only Rock ‘N' Roll' and exploring their way through a period of transition, with guitarist Ron Wood coming on board in 1975 to replace Mick Taylor, contributing another key element to the band's evolving sound. Then in 1978 the album, Some Girls, rose to the challenge of punk ('When the Whip Comes Down') - whose energy and attitude the Stones had defined a decade earlier - but also swung with the sinuous grooves of disco ('Miss You'). The album is one of the very best of that decade. Tattoo You (1981) added the classics 'Start Me Up' and 'Waiting on a Friend' to the Stones' repertoire, and took its prominent place among the Stones' most compelling - and most popular - later albums. Possibly the most underrated album of the Stones' career, Dirty Work (1986) finds the band at its rawest and most rhythmically charged, a reflection of the tumult within the band when it was recorded. True Stones fans have long worn their appreciation of Dirty Work as a hip badge of honor.
With the release of Steel Wheels in 1989, the Stones went back on the road again for the first time in seven years and inaugurated the latest phase of the band's illustrious career. They've made strong, credible new studio albums during this period - Voodoo Lounge (1994), Bridges to Babylon (1997), A Bigger Bang (2006) - along with the excellent live album Stripped (1995) and the fun, immensely satisfying hits collection, Forty Licks (2002).
More significantly, though, the Stones have set a standard for live performance during this time. That is an achievement completely in accord with the band's history, something that has defined the group from the very start. Mick Jagger remembers that 'As soon as we got in front of audiences, they went crazy. It started in clubs, and then it just continued to grow.'
'Something was happening in the late winter of 1962 and afterwards,' Keith Richards says, 'because suddenly hundreds and then thousands of people were queuing up to see us. And it doesn't take a nail driven through your head to realize that something's going on and that you're part of it. It was an amazing experience and it happened so fast, starting in London and then moving out from there. It was like hanging onto a tornado.'
When the Stones began to be introduced on their 1969 tour as 'The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World,' they were staking that claim on the basis of their live performances. It was almost fashionable for bands to withdraw from the road at that time - Bob Dylan and the Beatles had both done so. But the Stones set out to prove that writing brilliant songs and making powerful records did not mean that you were too lofty to get up in front of your fans and rock them until their bones rattled. The Stones' live shows - epitomized, of course, by Jagger's galvanizing erotic choreography - had earned the band its reputation, and that flame was being rekindled.
It was lit again twenty years later, and it's burning still. Since 1989 the Stones have repeatedly toured to ecstatic response. Bassist Darryl Jones, who had formerly played with Miles Davis, began performing with the Stones 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 more than 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 statements, divorces, feuds, affairs, stints in rehab, all the usual detritus of a raucous lifetime in the public eye. And there's no doubt that Mick Jagger is as recognizable a celebrity as the world has ever seen and attracts all the attention, positive and negative, that such a status inevitably entails.
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 ultimately an extraordinary lead singer and one of the most riveting performers - in any art form - ever to set foot on a stage. Keith Richards is the propulsive engine that drives the Stones and makes their music instantly recognizable. Their complementary styles, incomparable collaborative genius as songwriters and even their all-too-public battles have made them the very definition of the rock & roll singer/guitarist partnership, battling brothers who have often been imitated and never surpassed.
Ron Wood, meanwhile, is a guitarist who has formed a rhythmic union 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, most supple drummers. He is both the rock that anchors the band, and the subtle 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 & roll rhythm section with an irresistible, unpretentious, jazz-derived sophistication.
'It's incredible to think about working with the same band for fifty years,' Mick Jagger says. 'Of course, members have come and gone over the years, but it is still the Rolling Stones. Inevitably it makes you think about the mortality of it. But here we are making plans and attempting to get things organized for the future!'
'It's still too early for me to talk about the Stones' legacy,' Keith Richards says. 'We haven't finished yet. There's one thing that we haven't yet achieved, and that's to really find out how long you can do this. It's still such a joy to play with this band that you can't really let go of it. So we've got to find out, you know?'
Musicians live and create in the moment, and that's why fans still yearn to go see and hear the Stones, and there may be some surprises to come along those lines in celebration of this milestone fiftieth anniversary. Certainly there's a catalogue of songs that very few artists could rival. Surely there's the desire on the part of fans, both young and old, to encounter a band that has played a pristine role in shaping our very idea of what rock & 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.