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.Powered by Sidelines