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The Rolling Stones: the case for and against

25 June 2012

The world's greatest rock'n'roll band or an outdated irrelevance? Two writers discuss why they love or loathe the Rolling Stones.

The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones © Everett Collection /

Love ’em

By Rob Fitzpatrick

In 1972, as the Rolling Stones rumbled across America for eight months playing to 750,000 people for $3 or $4 a time, Life magazine took a look at this odd English band, already a decade old, and decided, ‘with The Beatles disintegrated and Bob Dylan not appearing in public any more, the Stones are the only deities visible on Olympus’.

Four decades later, the once mighty Life is now merely a photo channel on, but The Rolling Stones are still Olympian gods. Why? Because they, more than any other band of their or any other generation, represent something unique and tangible, something so real it almost hurts to think about it.

Rock stars 

Due to a mixture of excellent timing, talent, good looks and outright bloody cheek, the Stones had a great deal more dangerously transgressive, thoroughly polluted fun than any of us ever have had or will have. They created, celebrated and revelled in a lifestyle that the rest of us can only dream about, so while we have our greasy noses pressed to the window they are inside doing a tremendous amount of awful things and getting showered with cash while they do them. Crucially, The Rolling Stones were never scared of anyone or anything; and while it’s true that The Beatles created a more brilliant run of LPs, frankly, when you’re luxuriating in the Dartford hitmakers’ glowering, glimmering majesty, who cares? And if you do care, try listening to Dandelion or I’m Free or Blue Turns To Grey or Sway or Silver Train – or a multitude of vastly more famous songs – and having another think about it.

More importantly, Mick and Keith were and are Rock Stars, something the fab four never survived long enough even to attempt being. These two have lived their lives right on the jet airliner’s nosecone while we pay – and pray – so that we might get swept along somewhere in their slipstream.

'The Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band in the World'

It’s become popular to mock the Stones, to chortle every time someone wheels out the phrase ‘The Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band in the World’, but unfortunately for rock’n’roll, it’s true. Rather like Google or Spotify, the Stones have the First Man advantage; they invented the game and their performances and personas retain every ounce of their raw power.

For six decades now, people have attempted to pull the Stones apart to see how they work, but no one has ever been able to explain it. When they were young they sounded old, now they’re old they sound young, but if it was that simple everyone would do it.

The Rolling Stones still matter because they define a great deal about who we are and even more about what we would like to be if we only had their guts. There’s a reason every drunk dad at a wedding pulls a Mick Jagger face as he cavorts on the dance floor and that reason is he would dearly love to abandon himself utterly to the emotion as Jagger does and look as good while he does it. The fact they (we) never do never stops them (us) trying and nor should it.

Here then is the point – remove the Stones from the equation and popular culture no longer adds up because their overwhelming impact, spread over half a century, reaches far, far out from beyond their records. The Stones’ genius was that, unlike those premier stylists The Beatles, they didn’t just play music, they were the music and every note, every twitch, every sly grin and lop-sided sneer just said, ‘Follow that’.

Loathe ’em

By Eamonn Forde

It’s not that the Rolling Stones  are wholly awful – they’re just mostly awful. In their lumbering half-century career, they were exciting and vital from May 1965 – starting with (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – until February 1969, ending with Sympathy For The Devil. Less than five years of greatness. In their lifetime, they have been nearly 10% great. That’s a lot of bread and very little filling.

Their dogged longevity is sold as proof that the self-trumpeted ‘World’s Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band’ can weather any storm, but it just exposes their rasping irrelevance and the fact that they have long outstayed their welcome. The rolling cast of former members (eg, Ian Stewart, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman) shows whatever initial sparks and vitality they once had fading into dullness as they become their own franchise – a bloated brand dragging itself around the world in the undignified pursuit of yet another pay day.

An average blues band 

The Stones started as an average blues homage band but the majority of their career has been defined through a phlegmatic parody of that. Spare a thought for poor jazz-obsessed Charlie Watts, who has spent his time on the drum stool looking calamitously bored with the same hoop the band forces itself to jump through again and again.

The furrow the band chose to plough is both narrow and short. Twelve-bar blues drenched in lazy misogyny: the women in Jagger’s lyrics are two-dimensional spoiled rich girls due a comeuppance (Play With Fire), idiots (Stupid Girl) or there to have their silly dreams of independence squashed like an ant (Under My Thumb). 

The Beatles 

Then, of course, there is the ‘B’ word. They were willingly positioned as a bad boy version of The Beatles, but it was rebellion within tight parameters (weeing against a wall, taking some drugs, having long hair, that’s it), treating it all like grey brand extensions without the rapid-fire musical experimentation of their Liverpool peers. Yet, at the first whiff of money and fame, they burrowed deep into the very heart of the status quo and social hierarchy they claimed to want to topple. Society weddings, country estates and knighthoods were the way they greedily gelded themselves. Even Keith Richards’ rock’n’roll pirate image became a dressing-up box routine.

Even though 1972’s Exile On Main St was a critical disaster at the time – and recorded, in tax exile in a French château because Mammon, not rebellion, was their only god – the album has retrospectively been positioned as a band reinvigorated and writing the manual for rock sleaze. In fact, it’s badly recorded and lazily self-indulgent.

At that time, the roles of Richards and Jagger (the Glimmer Twins, no less) became ossified – the former a louche drugs bin playing blues scales and the latter singing and dancing like a dyspeptic hen on a hot plate. If they’d called time on it all then, we might have respected them. Instead, they booted the cliché (with a side-tracked clowning attempt at disco) through the next 40 years to the point where it became a raggedy ball of nothing.

The Stones are now as far away from their formation as their formation was from the doomed voyage on the Titanic. Yet even the icebergs of public apathy and howling ridicule can’t sink them.

This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of Saga Magazine


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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