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Rolling Stones - WHY Are They So Special?

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I first saw them at Earls Court on the '76 tour. Not the boys at their best but I was seduced utterly and am still obsessively in thrall to the most exciting band in the history of popular music. I am in for the long haul. In the beginning I mostly wanted to be Mick Jagger, sometimes Keith or Brian. I would dream of Keith coming to my school & giving my headmaster a good kicking. I once quit a decent job as they wouldn't give me leave to go and see the Stones in the US. I once queued for 9 hours in the freezing snow of NYC for the chance to get a ticket (unsuccessfully but I managed to get in anyway). 'Paint It, Black' has been my favourite record since I was eleven.

My teenage bedroom was a shrine to them, my college final year project was based on them. I have over 1100 clips of them on dvd. My loft is full of scrapbooks crammed with articles and pictures. I have spent countless hours arguing about them in pubs, praising them and defending their foibles. They soundtracked my adolescence, my early adulthood and now my middle age. It's a passionate love affair which has consumed more of my time and energy than is mentally healthy but despite their lack of musical edge in recent years; despite the small fortunes now charged for tickets & special remastered albums with extra outtakes; even despite Mick accepting a knighthood; I figure they are worth it.

I don't really put much weight on anniversaries and the Stones have never really taken them seriously either but the fact the Rolling Stones have survived 50 years is remarkable in any one's book. Here are just eight reasons why this band is special, according to one diehard fan:

rolling stones

Mick Jagger, front centre, Ronnie Wood, left, with Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, right

1. The Music :
Ultimately it is the music that will seal their place in history; in future decades their contribution may be deemed even more significant than the Beatles. Although less polished, the Stones sound is more authentically rootsy, raw and hard-edged. The consensus these days amongst critics and fans is that the 'Big Four' albums from 1968 to 1972 ('Beggars Banquet', Let it Bleed', 'Sticky Fingers' & 'Exile on Main Street') are the pinnacle of the band's output. It is hard to dispute this but I would suggest their magnificent run of singles from around 1965 to 'Brown Sugar' in 1971 is a parallel achievement.

They still had one foot in the pop camp in those days and the consistent quality of melodies, subtle tonal embellishments, particularly from Brian Jones, lyrical inventiveness and sheer raucous energy still take the breath away. The Stones sound is not just Chuck Berry recycled as detractors would have you believe but includes blues, soul, r'n'b, hard rock, country, disco, funk, gospel, reggae, rap, psychedelia and beyond.

They handle every genre with respect and an assured touch, and the unmistakable Stones swagger is filtered through the mix, making it their own. Even on the Stones less acclaimed or more overlooked albums there are several gems that bear comparison with the greats like the claustrophobic funk of 'Fingerprint File' (on 'It's Only Rock 'n ' Roll') or the swirling neo-psych rhythms on 'Continental Drift' (on 'Steel Wheels').

rolling stones

Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones

2. The Live Performances:
Sweaty, loose, wild, loud, liberating, cathartic. Sometimes chaotic. And that was in 1963! First Brian then Mick teased the girls and drove them crazy. After they'd had a hit or two screams mostly drowned out the music for a few years & there were frequently mad riot scenes. In Berlin where Mick did the goosestep the crowd tore up the venue then all the cars in the streets outside. Even in Communist Poland young people went beserk & battled with police.

The hysterical kids had grown a little older by the 1969 US tour which was the first time people really listened to the music and due to the Stones sound equipment they could hear it properly too. Altamont went down in history as the concert that killed the sixties. Some claimed the band had planned the whole debacle or even summoned up the Devil. Significantly the murder took place during 'Under My Thumb', not 'Sympathy For The Devil as the myth usually suggests. The group played on and apparently played a blinder too. The counter culture was in decline by 1972 and the drugs were getting harder: the coke-fuelled 1972/1973 dates were played harder and faster than ever but stayed tight.

Many fans rate these shows as the group's finest. Jagger, channelling the Boston Strangler, whipping the stage with his belt during 'Midnight Rambler' then shrieking like a banshee was pure theatre. Tours became larger, shows became lengthier and more and more extravagant. Unfolding lotus flower stages, giant inflatable phalluses, swings, cherry pickers, dozens of dancing girls on stage. Some began to feel the music was being eclipsed by the spectacle, by gimmickry, and this was long before the inflatable dogs, giant screens & flame breathing cobras of the 90's. They have a point but Jagger realised that in huge stadiums people at the back needed some visual stimulation to feel involved. The playing did get sloppier from 1975 through to 1982 but in the comeback tours of 1989/90 and most of them since the music has been carefully arranged to sound more like the records and bolstered by a slew of backing players.

Despite an undoubted professional slickness that was missing before and despite increasingly safe and predictable setlists, heavy on the old hits or 'warhorses', the Stones invariably still lifted the roof and blew people away including new younger generations who'd never seen them before. There is a particular intuitive chemistry between the band and when Jagger is really singing as well as prancing, Keith & Ronnie's semi-improvised weaving slips into that groove, over Charlie's perfect beat which is "more roll than rock" (Keith) & Bobby Keys is wailing like a demon, it is easy to lose yourself, to be transported to an almost mystical state of bliss. When they are on fire the magic really works, and amazingly it still frequently does, even during the last tour in 2007; legions of young hopeful musicians must wonder if the baton will ever be passed on.

The Stones proving they still have it on the London stage this week...

Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Charlie Watts
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3. The Lyrics:
As a lyricist, Jagger is severely underrated. He may not be in the same class as Dylan or Leonard Cohen but he has contributed some of the most evocative and memorable words in rock and roll. He has a wry, satirical take on life and sometimes a surreal eye for imagery: "Your mother who neglected you owes a million dollars tax. Your father's still perfecting ways of making sealing wax" (Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown). His humour is often overlooked: "Yeah, when you call my name, I salivate like a Pavlov dog" ('Bitch'). "My wife still respects me, I really misuse her. I am having an affair with a random computer" (2000 Man).

He can write simply and directly and be very moving: "Our love was like the water that splashes on a stone. Our love is like our music. It's here and then it's gone" ('No Expectations'). "No sweeping exits or offstage lines could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind" ('Wild Horses'). 'Sympathy For The Devil' clearly illustrates a keen and erudite grasp of philosophy and literature, sourcing Bulgakov's 'The Master and Margarita'.

He can draw upon Burroughs: "You're the great grey man whose daughter licks policemen's buttons clean. You're the man who squats behind the man who works the soft machine" (Memo From Turner) & 'Casino Boogie' uses the cut-up technique of writing. His best writing in my opinion is as rhythmic, jagged, stripped down, dirty and vibrant as the Stones sound and complements the music perfectly: "Drums beating. Cold English blood runs hot. Lady of the house wondrin' where it's gonna stop" ('Brown Sugar').

He even throws elements of mythic autobiography into the pot: "I was raised by a toothless bearded hag. I was schooled with a strap across my back" (Jumpin' Jack Flash). Sheer percussive poetry. Sadly Mick's lyrical ambition seemed to desert him sometime around the mid seventies. He can still write perfectly well but on a sort of autopilot as if he is telling us it's only rock 'n' roll over and over.

4. The Girlfriends:
Marianne. Anita. Bianca. Exotic, beautiful, bright, cosmopolitan, controversial, well-read, free-thinking women. Marianne advocated everyone taking acid on Personal Choice. She was the 'nude girl in fur rug found in raid on Stones party'. She was personally condemned by the Pope. Anita was considered "dangerous" as well as beautiful: Many believed her to be a witch. Of course this was the early days. Since the seventies the women of choice seem to have been mostly supermodels.

Later this week... the OTHER four reasons the Stones are so special...

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