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.