Formed: May 25, 1962 in London, England
Years Active: 1962 through present.
Group’s Main Members: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Mick Taylor, Ron Wood, Ian Stewart.
Little did the Rolling Stones know how apt their name – inspired by the title of a Muddy Waters song, “Rollin’ Stone” – would turn out to be. Formed in 1962, they hold the record for longevity as a rock and roll band. There have been hiatuses, especially in the 1980s, but never a breakup. Moreover, critical acclaim and popular consensus has accorded them the title of the “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.” Throughout five decades of shifting tastes in popular music, the Stones have kept rolling, adapting to the latest styles without straying from their roots as a lean, sinuous rock and roll band with roots in electric blues. In all aspects, theirs has been a remarkable career.
The Rolling Stones were probably the most impressive set of talents to come together in Britain before the Soft Machine: decadent vocalist Mick Jagger (who distorted soul crooning and turned it into an animal instinct), rhythm guitarist Keith Richards (who took Chuck Berry’s riffs into a new dimension of fractured harmony), multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones (who penned their baroque and psychedelic arrangements), and the phenomenal, funky rhythm section of bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts. Steeped in the blues, the Rolling Stones redefined the rock performer, the rock concert and the rock song. They turned on the degree of vulgarity and provocation to levels that made Chuck Berry look silly. Arguably the greatest rock and roll band of all times, the Rolling Stones revolutionized each of the classical instruments of rock music: the drums incorporated the lascivious tom-tom of tribal folk, the martial pace of military bands and the sophisticated swing of jazz; the guitar amplified the raw and ringing style of Chuck Berry; the bass invented a depraved sound, the singing turned the sensual crooning of soul music in an animal howl, half sleazy lust and half call to arms; and the arragements of keyboards, flutes and exotic instruments completely misinterpreted the intentions of the cultures from which they were borrowed. The revolution carried out by the Rolling Stones was thorough and radical.
Indirectly, the Rolling Stones invented the fundamental axis of rock and roll: the sexy singer, sexual object and shaman, and the charismatic guitarist. For at least forty years that would remain the only constant in rock music (and one of the external features that set it apart from jazz, folk, classical music). In an era still crowded with vocal groups of pop music (Beach Boys, Beatles) inspired by those of the 1940s’, the Stones represented a generational trauma.
After them, not only rock music but western civilization itself will never be the same again.
Throughout their career, Mick Jagger (vocals) and Keith Richards (guitar, vocals) remained at the core of the Rolling Stones. The pair initially met as children at Dartford Maypole County Primary School. They drifted apart over the next ten years, eventually making each other’s acquaintance again in 1960, when they met through a mutual friend, Dick Taylor, who was attending Sidcup Art School with Richards. At the time, Jagger was studying at the London School of Economics and playing with Taylor in the blues band Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. Shortly afterward, Richards joined the band. Within a year, they had met Brian Jones (guitar, vocals), a Cheltenham native who had dropped out of school to play saxophone and clarinet. By the time he became a fixture on the British blues scene, Jones had already had a wild life. He ran away to Scandinavia when he was 16; by that time, he had already fathered two illegitimate children. He returned to Cheltenham after a few months, where he began playing with the Ramrods. Shortly afterward, he moved to London, where he played in Alexis Korner’s group, Blues Inc. Jones quickly decided he wanted to form his own group and advertised for members; among those he recruited was the heavyset blues pianist Ian Stewart.
As he played with his group, Jones also moonlighted under the name Elmo Jones at the Ealing Blues Club. At the pub, he became reacquainted with Blues, Inc., which now featured drummer Charlie Watts, and, on occasion, cameos by Jagger and Richards. Jones became friends with Jagger and Richards, and they soon began playing together with Taylor and Stewart; during this time, Mick was elevated to the status of Blues, Inc.’s lead singer. With the assistance of drummer Tony Chapman, the fledgling band recorded a demo tape. After the tape was rejected by EMI, Taylor left the band to attend the Royal College of Art; he would later form the Pretty Things. Before Taylor’s departure, the group named itself the Rolling Stones, borrowing the moniker from a Muddy Waters song.
The Rolling Stones gave their first performance at the Marquee Club in London on July 12, 1962. At the time, the group consisted of Jagger, Richards, Jones, pianist Ian Stewart, drummer Mick Avory, and Dick Taylor, who had briefly returned to the fold. Weeks after the concert, Taylor left again and was replaced by Bill Wyman, formerly of the Cliftons. Avory also left the group — he would later join the Kinks — and the Stones hired Tony Chapman, who proved to be unsatisfactory. After a few months of persuasion, the band recruited Charlie Watts, who had quit Blues, Inc. to work at an advertising agency once the group’s schedule became too hectic. By 1963, the band’s lineup had been set, and the Stones began an eight-month residency at the Crawdaddy Club, which proved to substantially increase their fan base. It also attracted the attention of Andrew Loog Oldham, who became the Stones’ manager, signing them from underneath the Crawdaddy Club’s Giorgio Gomelsky. Although Oldham didn’t know much about music, he was gifted at promotion, and he latched upon the idea of fashioning the Stones as the bad-boy opposition to the clean-cut Beatles. At his insistence, the large yet meek Stewart was forced out of the group, since his appearance contrasted with the rest of the group. Stewart didn’t disappear from the Stones; he became one of their key roadies and played on their albums and tours until his death in 1985.
With Oldham’s help, the Rolling Stones signed with Decca Records, and that June, they released their debut single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On.” The single became a minor hit, reaching number 21, and the group supported it with appearances on festivals and package tours. At the end of the year, they released a version of Lennon-McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man” that soared into the Top 15. Early in 1964, they released a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” which shot to number three. “Not Fade Away” became their first American hit, reaching number 48 that spring. By that time, the Stones were notorious in their homeland. Considerably rougher and sexier than the Beatles, the Stones were the subject of numerous sensationalistic articles in the British press, culminating in a story about the band urinating in public. All of these stories cemented the Stones as a dangerous, rebellious band in the minds of the public, and had the effect of beginning a manufactured rivalry between them and the Beatles, which helped the group rocket to popularity in the U.S. In the spring of 1964, the Stones released their eponymous debut album, which was followed by “It’s All Over Now,” their first U.K. number one.
By the mid sixties the Stones were the number two band in rock behind the Beatles. They would turn out a number of great songs written by Jagger/Richards that had instruments on them that were never heard before in rock music. This all came via the versatility of Jones, “a cat who could play any instrument” as Richards would later say about him. But by the late sixties things were not going well between Jones and Jagger/Richards. Jones wanted writing credit on songs he help write in the studio, which he would never receive. He also had a drug problem that was getting out of hand and on top of everything else lost the love of his life, actress Anita Pallenberg, to his now former best friend Richards in 1968. In May of ’69, it was agreed that Jones would leave the band. Tragically, less than a month later his body was found at the bottom of his swimming pool. No credible explanation was given on how he got there and to this day many friends and fans feel foul play was involved. The band hired blues guitarist Mick Taylor to take his spot in the group. Taylor’s guitar playing compared to Jones’ was a world apart. Taylor played a more cleaner guitar than Jones and unlike Brian stuck to just the guitar. As the Stones entered the seventies he pretty much took over most of the lead guitar parts in the band as Richards’ drug problems got somewhat in the way. While all this went on, Jagger remained the front man and continued to deliver songs vocally like no one else. It was during this time period that the Stones would become rock’s best live act.With the Beatles now gone, the Stones were the true kings of rock. Unfortunately in December of 1974, Taylor suddenly quit the band. Some say it was over his lack of receiving writing credits that was the cause, a problem Jagger/Richards still hadn’t addressed to the rest of the band. In April of ’75 Ron Wood, guitarist for Faces was named as a temporary replacement for the upcoming tour. But just about everyone knew he would stick, and in time he did. Unlike Taylor, “Woody” seemed to fit in more with Richards’ style of playing. For the first time since the Brian Jones days, Richards had someone he could guitar weave with again. The band’s present lineup would stay intact for years to follow. In the mid eighties things got tense between Jagger and the rest of the band as Mick wanted to do solo projects and was seen as slipping away from the rest. For the first time it seem that maybe the end of the Rolling Stones was near. But by the close of that decade things were ironed out and the Steel Wheels tour was a huge success. In January of ’93 Wyman quit the band and once again, like Jones and Taylor, a lack of credit for song writing was one of the reasons cited for his departure. To this day the Stones have yet to replace him. They have used several different bassist in the studio since and employ Darryl Jones to play bass on the road.
The year 1967 was an eventful one for the Rolling Stones. Not only did they release three albums, but also they were beset with legal troubles stemming from a string of drug busts engineered by British authorities wanting to make an example of them. When the dust cleared, Jagger, Richards and Jones narrowly escaped draconian prison sentences. However, whereas the ordeal seemed to strengthen Jagger and Richards’ resolve, ongoing substance abuse was rapidly causing Jones’ physical and mental states to disintegrate. He was only marginally involved in sessions for Beggar’s Banquet, the Stones’ 1968 masterpiece, and his departure due to “musical differences” was announced on June 9, 1969. Less than a month later, Jones was found dead in his swimming pool, the official cause being given as “death by misadventure.”
His replacement was Mick Taylor, an alumnus of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, who made his debut with the Stones only days after Jones’ death at a free concert in London’s Hyde Park. With a crowd of more than 500,000, the enormous outdoor concert launched the Stones’ 1969 tour while also paying last respects to Jones. By this time, the Stones had returned to definitive, hard-hitting rock and roll. The string of muscular Stones classics from this period includes “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Midnight Rambler.” The last two songs came from Let It Bleed, an album filled with violence, decadence and social cataclysm. Perhaps the all-time classic Stones album, Let It Bleed debuted on the U.S. charts at Number Three, behind the Beatles’ Abbey Road and Led Zeppelin II. While the counterculture foundered, the music scene remained unassailably strong as the Sixties drew to a close.
As the Beatles’ final chapters were being written, the Stones shifted into high gear. If the former group expressed the heady idealism of the pop Sixties, then the Stones, by contrast, were blues-steeped, hard-rocking realists. It was them to whom the baton passed at the close of the decade. The Rolling Stones staged a free concert at Altamont Speedway outside San Francisco on December 6, 1969, mere months after Woodstock. The episode literally and figuratively marked the end the Sixties. A violence-prone, drug-wracked, daylong nightmare for which Hell’s Angels provided security, Altamont was marred by the stabbing death of a concert attendee. The event, viewed in hindsight as an epitaph, was filmed and preserved in the unnerving documentary Gimme Shelter.
In 1970, the Stones launched their own record company, Rolling Stones Records, for which they signed a distribution deal with Atlantic Records. The initial releases on the new label were Sticky Fingers and its raunchy, rocking first single, “Brown Sugar.” With a cover designed by artist Andy Warhol that featured a working zipper, Sticky Fingers benefited from guitarist Taylor’s melodic touch, especially on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and “Moonlight Mile.” British designer John Pasche came up with the famous red “tongue” logo that remains a Stones icon to this day.
They followed this succinct, well-tuned work with a sprawling, raucous masterpiece: the double album Exile on Main St. At this point, the Stones’ had their fingers firmly on the pulse of the fractured mood of the early Seventies. Recorded in France, where they’d moved as British tax exiles, the album also reflected the group’s internal yin-yang in grainy aural black-and-white: bristling musical energy vs. heavy-lidded world-weariness, love of rock vs. loyalty to the blues, the downward pull of decadence vs. a dogged effort to capture the moment. They took this juggernaut on the road shortly after Exile’s release.
Subsequent albums – Goats Head Soup (1973), It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (1974) and Black and Blue (1976) – yielded solid individual songs but lacked their predecessors’ sustained brilliance. Various factors, including Richards’ drug problems and Taylor’s abrupt departure in 1974, contributed to an air of instability in the mid-Seventies. Even so, Jagger and Richards were now firmly bonded as the “Glimmer Twins” – a name that they used as their joint production credit on albums from It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll onward. Ron Wood, a member of the Faces and Rod Stewart’s frequent collaborator and accompanist, was chosen as Taylor’s replacement for the Stones’ 1975 tour. He became an official member by the time of Black and Blue, appearing on that album’s cover (even though he’d only actually played on a few of its tracks). Wood’s selection made perfect sense, as he was a British rock and roller who fit in solidly alongside Richards.
Richards’ arrest in Toronto on drug charges, including heroin possession, didn’t stop them from playing their scheduled club dates at Toronto’s El Mocombo club, excerpts from which appeared on one side of the double album Love You Live. The fallout from the bust would be 18 months of legal limbo, as Richards faced up to seven years in prison if convicted. (He was ultimately ordered to perform a benefit concert for the blind as his sentence.) Richards beat his heroin addiction during this period, “closing down the laboratory,” in his words.
With Wood’s integration into the lineup, and driven by the insurgent challenge of punk-rock, the Stones rebounded in 1978 with Some Girls, their strongest effort since Exile On Main St. The cover and certain lyrics proved controversial, with the title track eliciting charges of sexism, and the songs paid heed to musical trends, including unmistakably Stonesy takes on disco (“Miss You”) and punk-rock (“Shattered”). Some Girls remains among the group’s best-selling albums, having been certified six times platinum (6 million copies sold) by the RIAA.
The Eighties saw the Stones achieve their highest-charting album (Tattoo You, Number One for nine weeks in 1981) but also take the longest period between tours (eight years). They kicked off the decade with Emotional Rescue, which included straight-ahead rockers like “She Was Hot,” as well as curveballs like the falsetto-sung title track. Tattoo You, highlighted by the instant classics “Start Me Up” and “Waiting on a Friend,” remains among the most revered of all late-period Stones albums. Undercover, from 1983, took a more contemporary tack, especially on the outre, New Wavish single “Undercover of the Night.”
At mid-decade, Jagger launched a solo career with the release of She’s the Boss. A growing estrangement between Jagger and Richards culminated in a three-year lull after the release of Dirty Work (1986), during which another solo release from Jagger (Primitive Cool) and Richards’ own solo debut (Talk Is Cheap) were released. The standoff ended when Jagger and Richards resumed their working relationship during a 10-day songwriting retreat in Barbados, resulting in the creative resurgence of the Steel Wheels album and tour.
Bassist Bill Wyman, increasingly suffering from fear of flying, announced his retirement from the band after the Steel Wheels tour, in 1992. “I did everything but hold him at gunpoint,” said Richards of his efforts to keep him in the band.” After auditioning many musicians, the Stones picked Darryl Jones – who’d played with various jazz, funk and soul musicians – to take over on bass. The Stones released two albums of new music in the Nineties, Voodoo Lounge (for which they won a Grammy for Best Rock Album) and Bridges to Babylon. Between those albums, they re-recorded a batch of classic older songs in the then-popular “unplugged” format, released at mid-decade as Stripped. Their three tours during this busy decade were the best-attended and most lucrative live outings in rock history to that point in time.
Keith Richard went solo in 1988 with Talk Is Cheap, an impeccable album with which he unleashes his passion for the roots of rock music (I Could Have Stood You Up), but also for dub (Make No Mistake). Main Offender (Virgin, 1992) includes the enticing 999, Wicked As It Seems and Body Talk and the long raga-reggae Words Of Wonder. For the “icon of the Dionysian excesses of 60s” as sociologist Camille Paglia has defined Richard, these records are humble, modest and discreet.
Of all the Stones Charlie Watts is the one who has ventured solo the most. Watts, one of the great poets of rhythm, has formed a jazz quintet inspired by Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington. Long Ago & Far Away (Pointblank) a compilation of refined ballads avails itself of a classical orchestra. Live At Fulham Town Hall (Columbia, 1986) and Warm And Tender (Continuum, 1993) deliver high-class jazz. The album, a collaboration with percussionist Jim Keltner (Higher Octave, 2000) is a small new-age masterpiece of sampling and traditional music – every title bears the name of a jazz drummer.
Of all the Stones Mick Jagger is the one who has recorded the worst solo albums: She’s The Boss (Atlantic, 1985), Primitive Cool (Atlantic, 1987), Wandering Spirit (Atlantic, 1993). The third is the least objectionable, thanks to Rick Rubin’s production, Flea and Doug Wimbish’s collaboration on the ballad Angel In My Heart, echoing Lady Jane, and decent songs like Out Of Focus, Put Me In The Trash, Wandering Spirit. Goddess In The Driveway (2001) parades the aging rocker with a cast of stars (notable Bono in Joy, Wyclef Jean in Hideaway and Lenny Kravitz in God Save Me Everything).
Aside from the changes in style, throughout their career there are constants easily recognizable that, not by chance, go back to the canonical elements of the black tradition. Jagger’s singing has embodied the fervor of the great singers of profane gospel, Richard’s riffs are a variation of Chuck Berry’s, the rhythm section is either the heavily syncopated cadence of New Orleans or that of the magical tribal rituals of Africa, the goliardic sarcasm of their sabbath is an exaggeration of the obscene metaphors of the blues.
The Stones added to these elements the spirit of their time and a messianic evocation to evil. From this synthesis stemmed the great trilogies: that of frustration (Satisfaction, Last Time, Paint It Black), that of psychosis (Mother’s Little Helper, Have You Seen Your Mother, 19th Nervous Breakdown), that of depravation (Let’s Spend The Night, Honky Tonk Women, Sympathy), that of psychedelia (Rainbow, Tuesday, We Love You). To those trilogies, to comprehend all the masterpieces of the Stones, we may add the trilogy of existential blues (All Sold Out, Out Of Time, You Can’t Always Get What You Want), that of the anthems (Street Fighting Men, Jumping Jack Flash, Brown Sugar), and the corporeal one (She`s So Cold, Start Me Up, One Hit).
In their twenty year career The Rolling Stones have set the standard for composing and performing that all successive generations had to match. The Stones planted the seed of what became rock music: the political protest, the liberalization of sex, the specter of death. Every one had to compete with the sensual excesses and the lurid laments of Jagger, the rough ebullience of Jones and the razor sharp chords of Richard. Their presumed rivalry with The Beatles was, in reality, the rivalry between two different ways of understanding life and was, therefore, a rivalry between two public camps. The Beatles were moderate, The Rolling Stones were radical; The Beatles were the light, The Rolling Stones were the darkness; The Beatles were marijuana, The Rolling Stones were heroin.
Their tormented saga was twofold, first musical then personal, but always coherent with an intimate “sympathy for the devil”. The Rolling Stones were the first to profit from William Blake’s vision of the devil as ego.
Within the band Jagger was the businessman, the cynic who willingly sacrificed Jones and ruined Marianne Faithfull, the calculating one who always came out undamaged by all their trials and tribulations to transform it all into millions of record sales. Richard, the co-author of all their masterpieces was the true musical leader although often he seemed estranged from the events of the group, the result perhaps of his drug use. His guitar is the second voice of the band, sometime the first.
Jones controls from above this drama of jealousy and mystery, this mix of classic tragedy and Dostoevskyan romance. Jones was, in the beginning, the catalyst and perhaps the guide toward degeneration. Jagger marginalized him systematically, taking away a little at the time all his influence, alienating all his friends. By the time John Lennon stepped in to lend him a hand, Jones had lost the will to react. Jagger finished him ruthlessly by extruding him from the band. Jones’ mysterious death by overdose, raised a multitude of conjectures and suspicions.
A disquieting aspect of the history of The Rolling Stones is the sequence of deaths that flanked their path, as if their immortal myth had the need of continual human sacrifice.
If a lot of their history is at the very least amoral, the Stones also had a clear moralizing function: they expunged hypocrisy from the recording industry, from the media and from the society of the 60s. In accordance with the racism of those years, the industry had imposed the absolutely whitest possible rhythm and blues that had little or nothing to do with its origins.
The “teen idols”, The Beach Boys and The Beatles had brought back the melodic song simply up-dated by the instruments of a rock band. The Rolling Stones accomplished an operation three times more revolutionary: they recovered rhythm and blues as it was, they assimilated all that was “bad” about it (the riveting rhythm, the vulgar singing, the arrogant attitude, the obscene lyrics) to marry it to the frustrations of an entire generation two minutes before those frustrations exploded into riots.
Where The Beatles tried to contain revolt by assimilating it to a common and bourgeois ideology, The Rolling Stones amplified it beyond measure, to infuse it with a new ideology – anarchic, rebellious, appealing to the underclass.
After them, not only rock music, but the whole western civilization will never be the same again.
In 2002, the Rolling Stones issued Forty Licks, a double-disc retrospective that appended four new tracks. Their 40th anniversary tour followed that same year. In 2005 came A Bigger Bang, their only studio album of new material in the decade. The Stones’ primary activity came on the touring front, as their two-year A Bigger Bang World Tour set a new record (more than $550 million) for concert grosses. Not even a serious head injury sustained by Richards during a fall from a coconut palm in Fiji could stop the juggernaut for long.
The Stones celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2012. They released yet another greatest-hits album, GRRR! The album included two new tracks, “Doom and Gloom” and “One More Shot.” On October 25, they played a surprise show to about 600 people in Paris. In November 2012, the group played two shows at London’s The 02 Arena, and in December, they performed at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and the Prudential Center in New Jersey. The Stones were joined on stage by Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman for these gigs. The band also joined artists including the Who, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney for “12-12-12,” the Concert for Sandy Relief at Madison Square Garden.
Through their five decades as a band, no one has yet stripped the Rolling Stones of their title as the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band. In 2002, Keith Richards had this to say in USA Today about the group’s improbable longevity: “People thought it couldn’t be done. We never thought of trying it. We are just here. It’s a vague mission you can’t give up until you keel over.”
In 2006, Martin Scorsese filmed two of the group’s performances at New York City’s Beacon Theatre. The resulting Shine a Light, which included guest appearances from Buddy Guy, Jack White, and Christina Aguilera, was released in theaters in 2008. The accompanying soundtrack reached the number two spot on the U.K. charts. Following Shine a Light, the Stones turned their attention toward their legacy. For Keith Richards, this meant delving into writing his autobiography Life — the memoir was published to acclaim in the fall of 2010; it generated some controversy due to comments Keith made about Mick — but the Stones in general spent time mining their archives, something they previously avoided. In 2010, they released a super deluxe edition of Exile on Main St. that contained a bonus disc of rarities and outtakes, including a few newly finished songs like “Plundered My Soul.” This was followed in 2011 by a super deluxe edition of Some Girls that also contained unheard songs and outtakes. That same year, the Stones opened up their Rolling Stones Archive, which offered official digital releases of classic live bootlegs like 1973’s The Brussels Affair. All this was a prelude to their 50th anniversary in 2012, which the group celebrated with a hardcover book, a new documentary called Crossfire Hurricane and a new compilation called GRRR!. The Stones also played a handful of star-studded concerts at the end of the year and in the first half of 2013, several of which featured guest spots from the long-departed Mick Taylor. These live shows culminated with a headlining spot at Glastonbury and two July 2013 concerts at Hyde Park; highlights from the Hyde Park shows were released that July and, later in the year, there was a home video/CD release of the concert called Sweet Summer Sun: Live in Hyde Park.