(There was a time when rock and roll was the future; today, 20 years or more into the 21st century, its past has become more legend than history.
So for those who arrived a little late for the party – and what a party it was – The Rock and Roll Canon will look back at the musicians who played crucial roles in the making of the myth. These are the men and women who any serious student or fan of rock and roll must be familiar with, and whose music was an integral part of a story that is slowly fading into legend.
Due to blind luck, I was there for the best of times. I saw the Beatles at Candlestick Park; I saw Jimi Hendrix as an opening act; as a critic, I heard the best (and worst) in small clubs, on the way up. From the mid-‘70s to the mid-‘90s, I pretty much saw them all as they came through the San Francisco Bay Area, and now, looking back, this is what I remember, and this is how it felt.)
In the early ’60s, you were either a Beatles’ guy or a Stones’ guy – and once I heard “Not Fade Away,” I was a Stones’ guy.
Did I love the Beatles? Of course. Did I sing along to every one of their songs on KFRC? Absolutely. But when the Rolling Stones’ singles started to appear on the radio playlist and the pop sheen of the Beatles replaced by rawer rockabilly and blues, I was hooked.
Still, those first two albums didn’t really measure up to what the Beatles were doing. “12 X 5” was the first one I bought, and seven of the 12 songs were covers, ranging from “Suzie Q” to “Confessin’ the Blues.” And of the songs Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote, two were credited to their pseudonym, Nanker Phelge, presumably because the pair didn’t really want their names connected to the tunes.
But unlike the clean-cut, cute, who’s-the-one-to-scream-for Beatles, the Stones had an attitude, an edge. “Little Red Rooster” – which remains one of my favorite Stones' songs – was their second No. 1 single, and the fact that the rooster too lazy to crow the day still got top billing was a hint that the times really were a-changin’.
And even though the Stones weren’t calling for sympathy for the devil quite yet, they clearly weren’t on the side of the angels either – and as a crewcut boy in a suburban high school, that worked for me.
Musically, though, it wasn’t until the Stones’ fourth studio album that they really hit their stride, as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” went to the top of the charts, and the album “Out of Our Heads” backed that up with “The Spider and the Fly,” “The Last Time” and covers of songs by Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke and Bo Diddley. And this was also the time that Jagger and Richards found new depths as songwriters, with the ability to turn raucous with something like “Get Off My Cloud,” or slow it down with “As Tears Go By.” This songwriting range is one of the most underrated aspects of the band, as not only did they vary songs musically, they tackled topics like death (“Paint It Black”) and historical romance (“Lady Jane”) that others would never think of.
And at the same time, they were the bad boys of rock and roll – which took some doing – living on the edge, getting busted and most important, showing zero remorse for anything that went wrong.
Jagger, of course, was the focal point of the band, as he was (and is) a riveting live performer. I can remember seeing one of their early shows and it seemed to me that Jagger could take the energy of the audience, run it through his body, and send that right back out to the crowd, which only fired them up more. And as the ultimate alpha, it was almost impossible not to watch him as he pranced, danced and sang.
All that said, though, Keith Richards is the best rhythm guitarist in the genre, rock solid, always on time and the engine of the band. Charlie Watts was vastly underrated, the steadying force with technique few rock drummers could match. With Richards keeping time, the role of the bass in the band was less important than for most groups, but Bill Wyman was fine – nothing special, but never in the way.
Then, however, we come to the biggest weakness of the Rolling Stones: lead guitar. Brian Jones was the original, but as best as can be determined, he was more interested in living the life of a Rolling Stone than being a Rolling Stone – and his influence steadily diminished until he was booted from the band in 1969. (He died a month later, under mysterious circumstances, but it seems unlikely that the other Stones had anything to do with it, despite lots of rumors at the time.)
Mick Taylor was hired to replace him, and though Taylor was arguably the best lead guitarist the band ever had, he didn’t last long. Ronnie Woods eventually stepped in, and like Wyman, he was competent and didn’t get in the way of Jagger, Richards and the songs.
And yes, the songs kept coming. When the Beatles were already fading into legend, the Stones were rolling out the hits: “Brown Sugar,” “Street Fightin’ Man,” “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” and “Start Me Up,” to name a few.
And so, of course, did the controversy. Altamont was, to many, the death of the ‘60s dream, and Jagger and Richards deserve their share of the blame. Richards fell into heroin addiction, and scandals followed the band as surely as did the fans who packed arenas and stadiums around the world.
For many, though, that was part of the attraction – they lived in mansions, yes, surrounded by willing women, but they sampled every drug, got their blood exchanged in Switzerland to get clean, and gloried in their seamy side, gangsters somehow made good.
And yet they didn’t die. They overcame Richards’ issues, kept on working, kept on touring, and even though the game had passed them by (the Stones were never “punk”), they never lost their hold on their audience, or their grasp on the essence of rock and roll.
Yes, the tours were blatant blowouts, over-the-top extravaganzas that despite all the smoke and mirrors couldn’t overshadow the power of a set list that never let up. After all, the Stones’ greatest hits album was called “40 Licks,” because they almost had enough powerhouse songs to reach that number.
Their creative peak, though, was 1972’s “Exile on Main Street,” and after that, their very success eroded their influence. While a young singer in 1968 could think of being Mick Jagger, by 1975, Jagger was on a different plane of existence, to be admired from afar rather than emulated. And the band was so big, the shows so overblown, they were fantasies, far beyond the reach of mere mortals who were rehearsing in mom’s garage.
In the early days, though, the Stones, more than the Beatles, more than anyone, stuck to their roots. They didn’t go for the publishing money on those early albums, covering blues, R&B and rockabilly songs rather than stuffing the records with their own efforts.
And those roots still can be heard in their songs and tours. The stage may be the size of Minnesota, but the music is still in 4/4 time, and still gives the feeling of barbarians at the gates. Jagger and Richards still rock, and though the memories of those early days have faded, even for those of us who were there, the Rolling Stones are still one of the pillars of rock and roll.
And after all these years, I’m still a Stones’ guy.
The Rock and Roll Canon: The Beatles
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