There have perhaps been other groups who were better, other groups who were more controversial and others more inventive, but year in and year out, for 50 years now, there has been no group who have epitomized the culture of rock and roll like the Rolling Stones. From the beginning they were always considered the rebellious ones. Their blues influenced sound was rougher and rawer than the polished pop sounds of The Beatles. Parents might not have been sure about John Lennon, but they damned well wouldn’t want their daughters coming home with Mick Jagger. Not only wasn’t he as cute as any of the Beatles, even in the earliest years he was too blatantly sexual to make you feel safe handing your daughter over to him.
The hint of danger that surrounded the Stones was only exasperated by the mysterious death of original guitarist Brian Jones in the late 1960s and by members of the band’s drug habits. Even when they became firmly entrenched as members of the pop culture establishment selling out football stadiums the world over on their concert tours, they never lost that edge. While they might have aged physically over the years, like Peter Pan’s Lost Boys they’ve somehow never become adults either. While others their age might be calmly settling into retirement, they continue to thumb their noses at what’s respectable and play rock and roll with an exuberance and sexual energy few bands can match. With age might have come a certain elegance and style, but underneath the fancier clothes and jewellery lurk the jeans and switchblades of the tough kids who made parents nervous in 1964.
A new book from Insight Editions, Rolling Stones 50X20, edited by Christopher Murray, founder of the Govinda Gallery of photography, offers a pictorial history of the band’s first 50 years as seen through the lenses of 20 photographers. Even a casual perusal of this book’s pages reinforces everything you’ve been told or thought about the Rolling Stones. From the staged photographs for album covers, concert footage, candid photos, and sittings for studio portraits, the pictures in this book not only offer a pictorial history of the band but show how even through death and lineup changes their essence has remained unchanged.
Each of the 20 photographers has written a blurb about personal experiences working with the Rolling Stones. While some of them were members of the rock fraternity in their own right, working for Rolling Stone, others are simply portrait photographers hired for studio shoots. However, no matter who they were, or where they were taking the pictures, the only remotely negative comment anybody has about the experience was to relate how Keith Richards said, “Oh I don’t really want to do this, do you? I’ve been photographed with them for 30 fucking years and it’s really fucking boring”. But as it was said without malice, more self-deprecating than anything else, you don’t really see it as a negative.
Mark Seliger was shooting publicity stills for Rolling Stone before the band went on tour to promote the album Voodoo Lounge when Keith made that comment. Seliger’s portraits of Richards and Mick Jagger included in the book from that shoot are absolutely amazing. Simple black and white head shots can be some of the hardest pictures to take for both the subject and the photographer. However Seliger’s shots are works of art comparable to those Karsh took of people like Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. You feel like you’re being given a unique opportunity to really see these two men in a way you’ve never seen them before. There’s a repose in both of their faces that lets you see something of the inner strength that has allowed them to endure being in the spotlight for so long and yet still manage to love what they do.
Richards’s fight with addictions has been well documented and this pictorial history lets you see how harrowing the journey must have been at times. His shy, almost innocent face in shots taken by Bob Bonis, their first American tour manager back in 1964, give way to shots from the 1970s showing the life ebb out of it, which could be heartbreaking if it weren’t for the fact he comes alive again in the 1990s. The pictures of him and Ron Wood playing together from the 1990s until the present make you understand why they call it “playing”. A shot of the two of them together taken by Fernando Aceves in 2002 captures the simple pleasure the two are taking in doing what they obviously love.
Of course Mick Jagger has to be one of the most photogenic people in the world. The irony is that he’s not classically handsome or good-looking. However, even in repose he exudes personality and energy on a level nobody else approaches. The only person who might have even come close was the late James Brown. A photograph taken of the two by Bonis in 1964 shows them leaning into each other in idle conversation. While your eye is first caught by Brown, actually his pompadour is what really grabs you; even casually dressed in jacket and slacks, Jagger more than holds his own in the picture. Of course it’s also fun speculating what the two are talking about.
While the book includes iconic shots like Baron Wolman’s of Jagger on the set of the film Performance holding a Polaroid camera, a good deal of the book is made up of shots not as well known. Some of the ones I appreciated most were those from the mid-60s by Gered Mankowitz, Jan Olofsson, and Eddie Krammer. An outtake of Mankowitz’s from the photo shoot for the album Between The Buttons from 1966 has the band huddled in overcoats against the fog that leaves them blurry and ghostlike against the haunted background of Primrose Hill. Olofsson’s shots are all taken on the set of the British pop music show Ready Steady Go. There’s one he’s taken shooting up at the band from below the stage which catches Jagger in mid-vocals and the top half of a seated Brian Jones playing sitar. Not only didn’t I know the Stones had ever used sitar in their music, I had no idea Jones had been such a virtuoso musician. One of Mankowitz’s pictures of the band shows him playing cello.
Krammer of course is better known as Jimi Hendrix’s recording engineer than a photographer. However he got into the habit of keeping a camera by the soundboard and would take pictures of whomever he was recording when he had a chance. So when he was hired to engineer Beggar’s Banquet in 1967 he took a couple of candid shots of the band. One of them is a beautiful shot of Jones leaning back with a light behind his head giving him a near-halo. Of course being Hendrix’s sound man he has a picture of Jagger and Hendrix together backstage at Madison Square Garden in 1969. Both men are smiling and laughing and looking completely at ease with each other – it’s just a nice simple shot of two friends hanging out and taking the time to enjoy each other’s company.
While both Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman appear in any number of the photos in this book, they are the quintessential rhythm section. You only notice them when they make a mistake. Always the glue holding together their more mercurial front men, the two are constant stolid presences in every group photo of the band. It’s interesting to note how very few of the pictures of the band taken after Wyman left them in the early 1990s include a bass player and one of the few that do, taken in 1995, doesn’t identify the band members. It’s almost as if after he left the decision was made to reduce the band to four permanent members, although they have employed the same bass player, Darryl Jones, for recording and touring ever since.
When Kris Kristofferson wrote “Blame It On The Stones”, he was poking fun at people’s reactions to the band’s dark reputation. Blaming all of society’s ills on the Rolling Stones is of course more than a bit of a stretch. However, compared to the wholesome, clean-cut image The Beatles were projecting in the early 1960s the Stones came across as scruffier and a little bit dangerous. The fact of the matter was they played, and continue to play, blues-based rock and roll that reflects the rebellious nature inherent in the music. The photos included in Rolling Stones 50 X 20 not only capture what it was about the band that established that reputation, they make a wonderful pictorial history of both the band and popular culture. While the text included by the various photographers and editor Chris Murray, Richard Harrington’s forward, and Chris Salewicz’s afterword don’t contribute much new to the story of the band, the collection of photos is superlative and tell you more about the band than any text could hope.