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In Praise of The Rolling Stones

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The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. Yeah, but there’s an implied adjective left out of the phrase. The World’s Greatest “Performing’ Rock and Roll Band. The greatest band honor period goes to The Beatles, then, now, forever. The Stones take their title by way of “we’re still rockin’” default. Against all odds.

Like David Bowie wrote in “All The Young Dudes,” “And my brother’s back at home, with his Beatles and his Stones.” It’s been this way all along, two bands joined at the hip, The Stones as dark shadow to the Beatles sunshine. They were put in this bogus rivalry during the 60s by the media, since the two bands spearheaded the British invasion. It’s always been a strange and clumsy comparison – musically, philosophically, in every way you could think of, they were a million miles apart, and except for the comparable degree of fame, they never should have been weighed together in the first place. As Kerouac says in The Dharma Bums, “Comparisons are odious.”

The Rolling Stones never set out to be on the pop charts in the first place. They were a blues band. Their heroes were Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Robert Johnson, and other black bluesmen who sang the nitty and gritty. The blues is based on harsh realities, pain not joy, sex not love. Or if it was love, obsessed love, blind love, crazy love. The blues is the brew the Stones were steeped in, these were the records they studied. They also played Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Bo Diddley covers for their ‘pop’ side, but it was the blues that they were most obsessed with.

Thing was, they had this singer, Mick, this cute guitarist, Brian, and the young girls started gathering around. There was something about them that could never have been contained in a form as rigidly proscribed as early British Blues. If Brian Jones was The Stones blues curator, Keith Richard was the prototypical bluesman. He came from a poor background, sensitive, shy, but inside was hard as nails, pissed off, and ready to let it fly. He was able to consume massive amounts of substances to kill his pain and somehow still keep functioning. He took all his blues was able to turn them, with the help of Jagger, into brilliant, scary, knife-edged songs.

Urged to start writing by their young manager, Andrew Loog Oldman, Richard and Jagger birthed amazing songs, but not about ordinary pop group subjects. These songs were about bitterness and revenge, pain, sadistic love, absence of feeling and the need for sexual control. The vocabulary of the blues, played like rock.

You’ll never break this heart of stone. You’ll come runnin’ back to me,
because time is on my side. I can’t get no satisfaction, I want it painted black

It wasn’t about holding hands or giving the girl all of your lovin.’ Jagger sang gleefully about having a girl under his thumb, and you believed him. From the start, the Stones pushed dangerous stuff. There were exceptions – "As Tears Go By," a song told from the point of view of someone looking back on their entire life, was poignant, and quite remarkable for being written by twenty-year-olds. Later, "Ruby Tuesday" and "She Smiled Sweetly," were tenderly rendered appreciations of women. But those flashes of light were brief and occasional. Mainly, it was the dark stuff of the blues. The distinction was mostly lost on the kids, though. The band had long hair and Jagger did white James Brown dance imitations that made the girls scream, so on the surface, they didn’t look all that much different than the Beatles. Another English band, a little scruffier, but just another pop group. Which couldn’t have been more wrong.

When the Beatles blasted the summer of love wide open with Sgt. Pepper, The Stones answered with Their Satanic Majesties Request, which in retrospect, is a pretty good record, but seemed to pale next to Pepper, at the time. They allowed Bill Wyman’s “In Another Land” to appear on it, one of the dopiest psychedelic songs ever, something Spinal Tap undoubtedly referenced in writing their song parodies. That year, 1967, they’d been busted for drugs and broke off their relationship with manager Oldman. The record was made under trying circumstances and it showed. While Sgt. Pepper was majestic, Satanic Majesties seemed threadbare, half-hearted by comparison.

There it was again, the comparison.

Keith Richard said that after Satanic Majesties he was pissed, “I'd grown sick to death of the whole Maharishi guru shit and the beads and bells.” The Stones decided to go back to their original source, the blues, strip it bare and start from there.

Beggar’s Banquet came out in May of 1968, and from the first track, you knew something was very different. The conga drums opening “Sympathy for the Devil,” with Jagger’s yelps in the background, the big piano chords and then Mick telling the story of a misunderstood man who happens to be the devil, begging understanding for someone who is after all “you and me.” This was beyond unique, the intrinsic identity of the band had suddenly emerged full force, disciples of Robert Johnson at the crossroads, bargaining with Satan for power and finesse, “Me and the Devil, walkin’ side by side,” playing with a confidence that was formidable, unstoppable, beyond their previous trademark, cocky.

This was real, and tinged with real danger. Bordering on scary. The band was changing in another way, too. Brian Jones was largely absent from the recording of Beggar's Banquet, and soon would leave the Stones, replaced by a lyrical young guitarist from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Mick Taylor, who played lead guitar on their best recordings.

Even with Brian absent, this was the true band, where their essence lay, in complex explorations of the dark side of human nature, of thorny political realities, with a view of the wide scope of history, recognizing evil as good’s necessary twin. “Street Fightin’ Man” was a sympathetic call to the rebellion of the time, at the same time admitting they were a rock and roll band and not revolutionaries. A refreshingly honest statement, more honest, it could be said, than The Beatles “Revolution,” and its rather tepid conclusion, “You know it’s gonna be all right.”

There were still some silly bits, Jagger overwriting, acid traces in his brain – “Jigsaw Puzzle’s” “mentholated sandwich” and “walking clothesline” – but the sound was good, slide guitar and barrel-house piano, a style that would become trademark later on. And a minor miracle occurred in the midst of this change – Jagger and Richard began to write with compassion, real feeling for the downtrodden, the beaten and cast-aside.

“Salt of the Earth” was a heartfelt classic, Keith’s great homage to the common man. When Jagger sings, “As I look into a faceless crowd, a swirling mass of gray and black and white, they don’t look real to me, in fact they look so strange,” it wasn’t a castigation, it was the recognition that these are people who had been robbed of essential humanity by the crush of the world. They’d been broken and disfigured by life. Underneath the surface, they were noble, they looked strange because they weren’t who they ought to be. It was an image out of Goya, one of simultaneous horror and empathy.

Meanwhile, The Beatles were becoming fractured. The White Album was full of great songs, but disjointed, no longer unified, four different Beatles doing their own songs. It all fell apart with "Get Back," and though they rallied with Abbey Road, by 1970, it was over. In November 1969, Let It Bleed came out, an even better record than Beggar’s, arguably their best.

“Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” are not are only enduring classics, they’ve become accepted phrases in the English lexicon. The silvery guitar string brilliance in Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” and Keith’s “You’ve Got the Silver,” the sexual strut of Jagger in “Monkey Man,” the serial killer scenario of “Midnight Rambler,” it was The Stones at full throttle. Their full throttle chaotic energy soon caused a catastrophic wreck at the Altamont Speedway concert, where a man was stabbed to death, numerous people beaten by Hell’s Angels. It was an event that brought a symbolic end to the 60s, the peace and love era. Despite the turmoil, the Stones’ music kept coming strong. Two more majestic records, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. Three if you count Get Your Ya Ya’s Out, which Lester Bangs called the best live record ever.

Then the records started getting thinner. Goat’s Head Soup and It’s Only Rock and Roll had a few great songs, the heartbreaking ballad "Angie," flawless rockers like "Silver Train," but it was becoming increasingly apparent that The Stones had hit their peak as far as recording, for a while anyway. They left countless casualties in the wake of their drug use and lifestyle, people who couldn’t keep up. Mick Taylor was one, he left the band and former Faces guitarist, Ronnie Wood, who always looked like he belonged in the Stones anyway, became the second guitar.

He and Keith would meld into what was for all practical purposes one guitar sound, weaving parts back and forth into each other, modeled after Robert Johnson's technique, which Keith thought was two guitars when he first heard it. Charlie Watts, a jazz drummer at heart, is, and has always been, in my estimation, the best, most tasteful drummer in rock, every crash and roll perfectly fashioned for each song. The band rolled on, Keith got clean, Jagger got passage into the social elite. They all became respectable. They met presidents.

Along the way they'd learned to write about women more tenderly, and though their records weren't as strong as once, they still tossed off a number great songs – “Memory Motel,” “Fool to Cry,” “Waiting on a Friend,” "Miss You," “Start Me Up,” "Girl with the Faraway Eyes," "Love is Strong," others, but mainly they played live, toured, morphing into the role of the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. Concerts grew bigger and bigger, and well, you know the rest. Some Girls revived their recording career for a while, and the recent A Bigger Bang was genuinely good, with a least one majestic song, “Streets of Love,” Jagger’s ode to a rake’s loneliness, presumably his own.

But these days, it’s the spectacle of The Stones that people pay for. I saw them at one of the Fenway Park shows in 2005, and they were something to behold. It was the first time I’d seen them live. Most of the audience was older – who else could afford the tickets – and we all stood through the whole show, which was taxing to our aging bodies. Jagger ran around the stage the entire time, for two hours. He was 62 then. His charisma is stunning, unexplainable. Keith looked arthritic when he first walked out, but soon came to life in a kind of steely, springy spiritual resiliency, like he was able to channel the old bluesmen, draw on their authenticity and hardscrabble spirit, determined never to betray it.

Ronnie Wood strutted around embodying the eternal rocker, crafting licks that fit like dovetail joints with Keith's. Charlie Watts occasionally huffed but played with more force than most younger drummers working and when the band hit their groove, when they locked in, when the guitars gelled into one instrument and Jagger caught the wave and sashayed on top of it, there was a magic to it that was hard to describe. We knew all the songs, had lived with them, through them, The Stones played the backdrop to our whole lives, and here we were reliving it.

They were ageless, timeless, the picture of Dorian Gray. Was it the dark force, the evil side, the deal made with the devil that was giving them this inexplicable eternal youth? Come on, are you kidding? Jagger works out, Keith loves what he does, they’re paid well and are seasoned pros unlike anybody else. They’re a great band, still.

It’s only rock and roll, rock and roll as durable as the blues. That’s what The Stones have proven, like bluesmen, you can rock right to the end, and do it with majesty, integrity, and a knife's edge. So yeah, they’ve earned it, to be called that “world’s greatest” thing.

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About Will Brennan

  • Anthony

    While Mr. Brennan wrote some pleasant words about the Stones, he is so off the mark that I think he misses the mark layered in-between his redundancy and self refuting writing style.

    Case in point, he states that the Beatles and the Stones should have never been compared against each. However, the first paragraph has him saying that The Stones are the “Greatest Performing” Rock ‘N Roll Band in the World, and bestows the real title upon the Beatles? Somewhat illogical if you ask me?

    I also came off with a perception that Brennan is really a low-level Stones fan and should never have been allowed to write an article about the Stones. He missed the total reason why the Stones were, are and will be until the end of time the “Worlds Greatest Rock N Roll Band”.

    Rock ‘N Roll is not cerebral, it’s sexual. It’s not love, it’s sex. Rock ‘N Roll is emotional, sexual, rebellious and aggressive; all of which the Stones embodied ten fold over the Beatles. Mick Jagger alone has more sexual power in his lips than the entire Fab Four.

    Only a moron would argue against the fact that The Beatles were rock ‘n roll for a very short period of their recording career. And, what Rock ‘N Roll they did produce was never as true to form as the Stones. Just listen to the difference to each bands version of “Roll Over Beethoven”; the proof is in the music Brennan.

    Then, Brennan lays out the fact the Stones were only a blues band, yet another thing he is wrong about. Keith Richards almost didn’t get into the Stones because he was too much Rock ‘N Roll (Friday Night Videos 1984); I guess you forgot that he was heavily influenced by Chuck Berry as you made that a mere side note? He also has a great love for country music. Charlie Watts was/is a Jazz drummer. In the Stones, it’s much more than just the blues.

    A strong argument could even be made that Stones are really a country band as many of their songs are in the key of ‘C’ and ‘G’. Those aren’t Rock ‘N Roll traditional keys. Country Blues use those keys, but Electric Blues and Rock dominate with ‘A’ ‘E’ & ‘D’.

    Then I could go on about how a strong argument could be made that Lennon was so jealous of Jagger that he dropped out of Rock ‘N Roll completely because he could never match Jagger’s sexuality. Instead, he turned to the white, European cerebral version of Pop music that lacked any sort of rhythm to it. Just read the Rolling Stone Interview with him in 1970 about how he rips into Jagger for ‘shaking his ass’. John was just upset that he couldn’t dance and look cool at doing it; a traditional English white boy for you. Taking a simple college psychology class exposes this for what it is.

    Another thing about Brennan that I didn’t quite like is that he didn’t see the Stones for the first time until 2005? I saw the Stones in Boulder Co. in October 1981 at the young age of seven, and have seen them forty plus times since then. I’m afraid I’m a real Stones fan and Brennan is diet version of a Stones fan; he’s Tab Stones Fan.

    My last argument against Brennan’s opinion is that he states ‘Let It Bleed’ is the best Stones album and mentions Exile On Main Street only in passing. A real Stones fan could never think Exile is best the Stones ever created. You might as well say that Even Williams is a better whiskey than Jack Daniels.

    No, the Rolling Stones, contrary to Brennan’s assessment, were, are and will be from now until the end of time the “Worlds Greatest Rock ‘N Roll Band”. Let The Beatles be “Greatest Pop Band”, but Rock ‘N Roll, no way buddy! As in the words of Pete Townshend, “The Stones are British Rock for me. They embody the spirit, and pull it off, better than any band from England”. Heck, even a stronger argument could have been made for Led Zeppelin or AC/DC, but The Beatles? Go to any bar on a Friday night and rare are the times a Beatles song is played, and many are the times a Stones song is played. Give me a break.

  • Will Brennan

    Well, you can’t please everybody. It’s called an opinion piece, and you’ve got yours, Anthony, which is cool. I kind of torture myself in writing these, because there’s so much you can’t include in a short article when you’re trying to talk about a whole career. So you do what you can.

    And yes, I was caught in a conundrum that in refuting the Beatles/Stones comparison I had to use it. Writing’s tricky sometimes.

    I haven’t seen the Stones live but that one time, it’s true, but I’ve listened to their music thousands and thousands of times, every song, every album, right from the beginning. I’m in my fifties, so I heard a lot of them on AM radio when they first hit the waves. I’ve played in bands and played Stones covers. So I’m not a casual listener.

    Keith loves Chuck Berry, but he loves and loved Robert Johnson as much. That’s fact, you know. I’m not going defend that. And yeah, there was the whole Gram Parsons/Keith alliance, Wild Horses, Keith loves country, but like I said, I only had so much room to write.

    I know people love Exile and think of it as peak Stones, and in some ways it is. It’s Exile, but my own take is it’s got a lot of filler and should have been one truly great record. Just an opinion again.

    But hey, Anthony, I was trying my best… that’s all. Why don’t you write one, see how you do? I’m sure we’d all benefit mightily from your insights.

  • Will Brennan

    Oh, and I don’t drink anymore but Knob Creek is the best bourbon, hands down. And I do have direct experience with that.

  • Anthony

    Well, Brennan, [Personal attack deleted by Comments Editor]. You’ve played in bands…so have I. I can only conclude that they must have been weak bands if you’ve played in a rock band and still think the Beatles are a better Rock ‘n Roll band. Played for the VFW did you? A blogger who can’t handle criticism, that’s basically what you are. That’s cool, and opinions are entitled to everyone; you just happen to be wrong Tab Stones Fan. Love Knob Creek, I could care less. But don’t write articles about a band you know very little about and state things as fact when they are just your [Personal attack deleted by Comments Editor] opinion.

  • Will Brennan

    I think you’re getting all mavericky on us here and breaking the personal attack rule, Anthony, but that’s just my opinion.

    I did play at a VFW once, yep. Made a record too, though.

  • duane

    Well, I’m no expert on the Stones, but I enjoyed every word of the article, Will. Anthony coming out with the word “moron” is just another example of what’s wrong with internet communication. Lighten up, bub.

    The music experts will show up here soon enough, I expect. Maybe then a decent back-and-forth on the finer points of your article can be discussed.

    Oh, and Anthony, I happen to know that Chuck Berry wrote at least a couple of straight ahead blues-based rock ‘n’ rollers in C#. Do you suppose that musicians sometimes choose keys to match the vocal range of the singer? Hmmm…

  • Anthony

    Duane:

    Thanks for your input. As a matter of fact, the reason Chuck wrote those songs in C# were not vocal range, but Johnnie Johnson’s piano, that’s a fact and documented in Hail, Hail Rock ‘N Roll. [personal attack deleted]

  • Anthony

    Will:

    Who cares if you played on a record, you still made a statement as if it were a matter of fact, I rebutted and you have not defended or countered my argument.

  • Will Brennan

    Hey Duane, thanks.

  • Will Brennan

    I get the feeling, Anthony, that a rebuttal won’t do much good.

    But, to say that C and G aren’t traditional rock and roll keys and electric blues and rock are in A, E and D is… well, I’ve played in bands since I was 15 and I don’t know how to address it. Where exactly did that theory come from? Did you learn it from categories on home recording software?

  • DiceMan

    why not just whip it out and get it over with?

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    And, what Rock ‘N Roll they did produce was never as true to form as the Stones.

    All I have to say is that Helter Skelter from The Beatles is far more Rock’N’Roll than anything the Rolling Stones conceived and produced in their entire career! I would even dare say that,for 1968, it was very much Metal!

  • Glimmerjim

    Well written piece. The Stones are from the nads, the Beatles from the mind. The Stones are the ones dancing around the fire in ancient days…the Beatles are sitting around the home with the fire burning in the fireplace and a glass of wine in hand. Unfortunately, the members of the Stones knew exactly who they were,and morality was what they decided and they decided right. The Beatles main man was a forlorn wife beater, the drummer was a no talent hack, and the only one with any natural charisma was in his own world trying to decide about spirituality.
    Give me a break…the Beatles are the 60’s Lawrence Welk, the Stones are the “Greatest Band In the World”. (not just rock and roll!!!)

  • duane

    Anthony: As a matter of fact, the reason Chuck wrote those songs in C# were not vocal range, but Johnnie Johnson’s piano, that’s a fact and documented in Hail, Hail Rock ‘N Roll. [edited]

    There you go, Anthony. See, it’s possible to contribute useful and interesting information to a discussion about the history of rock music without calling people morons. Good job [edited].

    Glimmerjim: the Stones are the “Greatest Band In the World”. (not just rock and roll!!!)

    Nah. That would be Led Zeppelin.

  • zingzing

    ish… led zeppelin…

    anyway, in this beatles vs stones thing, as ROCK bands, these two peaked nearly 10 years apart from each other.

    the beatles were at their ROCK peak in 1961 or 62, while the stones were at their best in the early 70s.

    still, the stooges are the greatest rock band. raw power stomps all over any beatles or stones claims to ultimate rock greatness.

  • http://www.seangallagher.biz Sean

    Nice piece you did. I would say the Rolling Stones are the Greatest Rock Band in the world for a number of reasons: The Stones have a record number of top 40 hit songs- a record number of consecutive # 1 albums- best selling rock DVD ever (Four Flicks sold x 10 platinum- most enduring band- have garnered more publicity than any other rock band, and the Rolling Stones are the most successful touring band of all-time (A Bigger Bang alone made $550,000,000,). Critics tend to over-look that incredible feat!
    I consider the Beatles to be a great pop group. Yes, The Beatles sold tons of records too, but the Stones music is still current. The Beatles music is somewhat dated.