The Rolling Stones
Mick Jagger was never a rocker. He wasn't a mod, either. He was a bohemian, an antiutopian version of what Americans called a folkie. That is, he was attracted to music of a certain innocence as only a fairly classy--and sophisticated--person can be. Unlike John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and Bob Dylan), his ambitions weren't kindled by Elvis Presley; his angry, low-rent mien was no more a reflection of his economic fate than his stardom was a means for him to escape it.
Something similar went for all the Rolling Stones. "What can a poor boy do/ Except sing for a rock and roll band?" was the way they opted out of the political involvement that most young rebels found unavoidable in the late Sixties. But not only weren't they poor boys when they played that song, they never had been--except voluntarily, which is different. Only two of them--bassist Bill Wyman, the son of a bricklayer, and drummer Charlie Watts, the son of a lorry driver--came from working-class backgrounds, and both were improving their day-job lots dramatically by the time they joined the Stones. The other three, the group's spiritual nucleus through the scuffling days, were in it strictly for the art. Lead guitarist Keith Richard, although he grew up fairly poor, revolted against his parents' genteel middle-class pretensions; rhythm guitarist and all-purpose eclectic Brian Jones came from a musical family headed by an aeronautical engineer and wandered the Continent after leaving a posh school; and Mick himself, the son of a medium-successful educator, did not quit the London School of Economics until after the band became a going proposition in 1963. This is not to say the Stones were rich kids; only Brian qualified as what Americans would call upper middle-class. Nor is it to underestimate the dreariness of the London suburbs or the rigidity of the English class hierarchy. But due partly to their own posturing, the Stones are often perceived as working class, and that is a major distortion.
Working class is more like Elvis and the Beatles, who loved rock and roll at least partly because rock and roll was a way to make it. Their propulsive upward mobility thus became inextricably joined with the energy of the music they created; their will to be rich and famous was both heroic and naive, a key ingredient of the projected naturalness that was essential to Elvis, and the projected innocence that was essential to the Beatles. For disapproving elders to dismiss this naturalness/innocence as mere vulgarity--without observing, as Dwight Macdonald did about Elvis, that genuine vulgarity has its advantages in earthiness--represented more than a "generation gap." It was open-and-shut snobbery, motivated like most snobbery by class fear.
With the Stones all of this was more complicated. Their devotion to music itself was purer, but insofar as they wanted to be rich-and-famous--and they did, especially Mick, who had always been into money, and Brian, a notoriety junkie--they were neither heroic nor naive, just ambitious. And insofar as they wanted to be earthy--which was a conscious ambition too, rather than something they came by naturally or (God knows) innocently--they risked a vulgarity that was mere indeed. Inspired by the coaching of Andrew Loog Oldham, the publicist/manager who undertook the creation of the Stones in their own image starting in the spring of 1963, they choose to be vulgar--aggressively, as a stance, to counteract the dreariness and rigidity of their middle-class suburban mess of pottage. Perhaps they aspired to the earthiness of the grandfather who passes wind because he doesn't fancy the bother of holding it in, but in the very aspiration they recalled the grandson who farts for the sheer joyous annoyance value of it--and then calls it youth culture.
It would be quicker, of course, to suggest that they sought only to live up to the earthiness of the rhythm and blues music they lived for. But although there's no doubt that Brian, Mick, and Keith were passionate about hard-to-find black records that were as crude and esoteric by the standards of English pop and beat fans as they were crude and commercial by the standards of old-bohemian English blues and jazz cultists, the Stones have never been very specific about just what that passion meant emotionally. Only their affinities are clear. Elmore James was Brian's man, while Keith loved Chuck Berry, but they by no means defined the group's poles: one of the laborers in the rhythm section, Charlie, had jazzier tastes than Brian, while the other, Bill, was working in a straight rock and roll group when he joined the Stones in late 1962 or early 1963. Mick's preferences, predictably enough, were shiftier; as he once told Jonathan Cott: "We were blues purists who liked ever-so-commercial things but never did them onstage because we were so horrible and so aware of being blues purists, you know what I mean?"
What he means, one surmises, is that the Stones' artiness never deadened their taste for certain commercially fermented blues-based songs--not as long as the songs were pithy and hummable and would induce people to dance when played loudly. But by mocking the blues purist in himself he elides "purism"'s image potential. Symbols of the English "R&B" movement--thought in 1963 to be challenging beat (and hence the Beatles) among British teenagers--the Stones had it both ways. Their first bit British hit, that winter, was Lennon and McCartney's "I Wanna Be Your Man." They scoffed virtuously at the notion of "a British-composed R&B number," but wrote their own tunes almost from the start, and ranged as far pop as "Under the Boardwalk" and Buddy Holly in their early recordings.
It is sometimes argued that such modulations of sensibility belie the group's artistic integrity; in fact, however, the Stones' willingness to "exploit" and "compromise" their own bohemian proclivities meant only that they assumed a pop aesthetic. Most artists believe they ought to be rich-and-famous on their own very idiosyncratic terms--the Stones happened to be right. To sing about "half-assed games" on the AM radio (on Bobby Womack's "It's All Over Now") or glower out hirsute and tieless from the Sunday entertainment pages was integrity aplenty in 1964.
Perhaps most important, the Stones obviously cared about the quality of the music they played. If this music recalled any single antecedent it was Chuck Berry, but never with his total commitment to fun. It was fast and metallic, most bluesish in its strict understatement. Clean and sharp--especially in contrast to the gleeful modified chaos of the Beatles--this striking but never overbearing music was an ideal vocal setting, and if it was the guitars and percussion that established the band's presence, it was the vocals, and the vocalist, that defined it. Quite often Jagger chose a light, saucy pop timbre that was also reminiscent of Berry, but something in his voice left a ranker overall impression--something slippery yet unmistakable, as lubricious and as rubbery as his famous lips. (For a simple example, listen to his tone of voice on most of "I'm a King Bee"--and then to his half-playful, half-ominous pronunciation on the word "buzz" in "I can buzz better baby/ When your man is gone.") Nor was this just a matter of being sexy. Just as there was a pointed astringency to the band's music, caustic where Chuck Berry was consciously ebullient--listen to the acerbic tinniness of Keith's lead lines, or to Brian's droning rhythm parts, or to the way the added percussion lags behind the beat--so there was a hurtful tinge to Mick's singing, especially on the slow, murky originals ("Tell Me," "Heart of Stone," or "Time Is on My Side," composed by Jerry Ragavoy but defined by the Stones) that served the group's change-of-pace needs the way ballads did the Beatles'.
The Stones' high-decibel, high-speed approach was rock and roll, not rhythm and blues. Nevertheless, they did admittedly appropriate many of the essential trappings of their music--like hooks and solos--from black sources. Jagger, however--despite his rhythmic canniness and cheerful willingness to ape a drawl--was no more a blue stylist or a blues thief than Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney. He simply customized certain details of blues phrasing and enunciation into components of a vocal style of protean originality.
Although pinning down the voice of a compulsive ironist like Jagger is impossible by definition, it is perhaps most notable for a youthful petulance that has faded only gradually. His drawl recalls Christopher Robin as often as it does Howlin' Wolf; his mewling nasality might have been copped from a Cockney five-year-old. Jagger's petulance offends some people, who wonder how this whiner--a perpetual adolescent at best--can pretend to mean the adult words he sings. But that ignores the self-confidence that coexists with the petulance--Jagger's very grown-up assurance not that he'll get what he wants, but that he has every reason to ask for it. Even worse, it ignores the fact that Meaning It is definitely not what the Stones are about. Jagger didn't so much sing Muddy Waters's "I Just Want to Make Love to You" as get it over with, and although he did really seem to wish us "Good Times," he made the prospect really sound doubtful where Sam Cooke enjoyed the wish itself.
It seems unlikely that at this point any of the Stones were conscious about this. All of them, Jagger included, were attracted to the gruff, eloquent directness of so much black music; relatively speaking, they became natural, expressive, sexy, and so forth by playing it. What set them apart was Jagger's instinctive understanding that this achievement was relative--that there was a Heisenberg paradox built into the way he appreciated the virtues of this music--and his genius at expressing that as well. The aggressiveness and sexuality of the form were his, but the sincerity was beyond him--partly because he was white and English, and especially because he was Mick Jagger. He loved the blues for their sincerity, yet their sincerity was the ultimate object of his pervasive anger. He wanted what he couldn't have and felt detached even from his own desire; he accepted his inability to sing from as deep in his heart as Sam Cooke, he sometimes reveled in it, but he wasn't sure he liked it, not deep in his heart. "An empty heart/ Is like an empty life," he sang in one of his early lyrics, adding nuance to qualification as always, so that even as it adhered to all the lost-love conventions, the song evoked the most basic condition of his existence.
Jagger is obsessed with distance. He forces the Stones' music to gaze across (and down) the generation gap and the money gap and the feeling gap and the meaning gap. But then, powered by the other Stones--all of them, like most of the Stones' fans, somewhat more simple-minded than Jagger--the music leaps, so that as a totality it challenges that frustrating, ubiquitous, perhaps metaphysical margin between reach and grasp that presents itself so sharply to human beings with the leisure to think about it. This dual commitment to irony and ecstasy makes the Stones exemplary modernists. Without a doubt, it has been their readiness to leap that has won the Stones their following--no one has ever rocked on out with more ecstatic energy. But it is their realism, bordering at its most suspect on cynicism, that makes all that energy interesting, and ensures that their following will never be as huge as that of the high-spirited Beatles (or of a technocosmic doom show like Led Zeppelin, either). After all, not everyone wants to be reminded that it is salutary to think and have fun at the same time. But that is what it means to get up and boogie to "Street Fighting Man," or to party to a paean as steeped in irony as "Brown Sugar."
Jagger's distance from the Afro part of his Afro-American musical heritage was especially liberating for white Americans. Whereas for Elvis and those natives who followed him the blues bore an inescapable load of racial envy and fear, Mick's involvement was primarily aesthetic. Since as his English blues preceptor, Alexis Korner, once remarked, Jagger's chief worry was whether the music was "performed properly," he betrayed no embarrassment about being white. Not all Englishmen were so uninhibited--an obsessive like Eric Burdon (of the Animals) emulated black Southern intonations sedulously. But Jagger got off on being a white person singing black songs, and he put that across. His mocking, extravagant elocution, as wild as his hair and the way he pranced around the stage, was more than vaguely self-amused, achieving a power that compared to that of its origins because it was true to itself.
For the English audience, however, the Stones' distance from the U.S.A. itself was edifying. Because the English were far enough from American affluence and mass culture to perceive them as sources of vitality rather than of oppression, a natural perspective was commonly built into all Beatle-era rock and roll, but whereas for the Beatles it manifested itself innocently--in fun, silliness, play--the Stones' version was weirder oddball and therefore more sophisticated. They wove a mythology of America around R&B novelties like "Route 66" and "Down Home Girl," and then exaggerated every eccentricity with some vocal moue or instrumental underline. The image of the States that resulted was droll, surreal, maybe a little scary--fascinating, but no hamburger cornucopia.
It was also a cleverly differentiated musical product that rose to number-two status in England upon the release of the first Stones album in mid-1964. In the U.S., however, the Stones were number two only in publicity, with sales well behind the Dave Clark Five and Herman's Hermits and just slightly ahead of arty rivals like the Animals and the Kinks for the first year and a half of British Invasion. Then came their seventh U.S. single, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." It was the perfect Stones paradox--the lyrics denied what the music delivered, with the vocal sitting on the fence--and it dominated the summer of 1965, securing a pop audience half of which was content to shout "I can't get no" while the other half decided that the third verse was about a girl who wouldn't put out during her period.
By then the Stones were Mick and Keith's band, although opening for Alexis Korner at London's Marquee Club in early 1963 they had been "Brian Jones and Mick Jagger and the Rollin' Stones." As vain and exhibitionistic onstage as Jagger, Jones later boasted of having been the group's "undisputed leader," a status he maintained, as Al Aronowitz observed, until it was "worthwhile for someone to dispute." Jones wanted to be a star so much he took it for granted; his relationship to the audience was self-indulgent and self-deceiving. But since outrage was essential to Jagger, Richard and Oldham's product--aggro-sex image mongering, lyrics both indecipherable and censorable, and the longest hair known to civilization--and since Brian was the most genuinely outrageous (and crazy) (and generous) (and cruel) of the Stones, he remained essential over and above his musical input. He was the one people remembered after Mick--especially the teenybopper girls who were still the Stones' most visible contingent.
The Stones got the teenyboppers because Oldham was sharp enough to extend Little Richard's First Law of Youth Culture to his scruffy band--he attracted the kids by driving their parents up the wall. But although we can assume Oldham initiated his campaign of world conquest in a spirit of benign, profiteering manipulation, something more was in store. The bohemian-revolutionary vanguard, like the Diggers, who in the mid-Sixties welcomed the Stones to San Francisco as brothers in struggle, were even more symbolic (if less numerous) than that proliferating network of hip collegiate Stones fans heir to a beatnik myth that had passed from media consciousness when San Francisco's bohemian community moved from North Beach to the Haight, none of these fans really knowing how many hundreds of thousands of arty allies they had across the country. Call them predropouts because dropping out then barely knew its name. Soon, in their fashion, they would consider the Diggers and do likewise, just as the Stones' teen hordes would consider them and do likewise later on. What it all portended was just what parents had always feared from rock and roll, especially from this ugly group: youth apocalypse.
I remember the first time I ever saw the Stones perform, at the Forum in Montreal in October 1965. I purchased my tickets on the day of the show, and even from deep in the balcony got more from Mick's dancing around the "droogy" stance of the others than I did from the music, which was muffled by the hockey rink P.A. and rendered all but inaudible by the ululations of the teenaged girls around me. It was only afterward, when I happened to walk past the bus terminal, that I glimpsed what had really just happened. There in the station were hundreds of youths, all speaking French, waiting to complete their pilgrimage by plunging back into the cold of northern Quebec. I had never seen so much long hair in one place in my life.
What was about to happen was an unprecedented contradiction in terms, mass bohemianism, and this is where the idea of "pop" became key. Pop is what the mod Oldham shared with the bohemian Stones, and what they in turn shared with the teenyboppers. Applied first to low-priced classical concerts and then to Tin Pan Alley product, the word was beginning to achieve more general cultural currency by the mid-Fifties, when London-based visual artists like Eduardo Paolozzi were proposing that a schlock form (e.g., science fiction pulp) might nurture "a higher order of imagination" than a nominally experimental one (e.g., little magazine). Shocking.
Youths like the Stones--who had never known a nonelectric culture, and who were no more wary of distribution and exposure in the modern media bath than they were of their own amps--automatically assumed what older avant-gardists formulated with such difficulty. Their pop sensibility led them to a decidedly nonslumming bohemianism--more unpretentious and déclassé than the bohemianism of the Twenties and before. This was the gift of mass culture, compulsory education (especially English art-school routing) and consumer capitalism to five young men who comprise a social sample that would have been most unlikely, statistically, to group around the arts 40 years before. Not that the Stones were untainted by avant-garde snobbishness--in their project of rebellious self-definition, exclusivity was a given. They never figured they'd spearhead a mass movement that went anywhere but record stores. That mass potential, however, was built into their penchant for pop itself.
There were solid economic reasons for the rise of mass bohemianism. Juxtapose a 20-year rise in real income to the contradiction in which the straight-and-narrow worker/producer is required to turn into a hedonistic consumer off-hours, and perhaps countless kids, rather than assuming their production function on schedule, will choose to "fulfill themselves" outside the job market. But traditionally, bohemian self-fulfillment has been achieved through, or at least in the presence of, art. Only popular culture could have rendered art accessible--in the excitement and inspiration (and self-congratulation) of its perception and the self-realization (or fantasy) of its creation--not just to well-raised well-offs but to the broad range of less statusy war babies who in fact made the hippie movement the relatively cross-class phenomenon it was. And for all these kids, popular culture meant rock and roll, the art form created by and for their hedonistic consumption. In turn, rock and roll meant the Rolling Stones.
Of course, it also meant the Beatles and Bob Dylan and the Who and the Grateful Dead--and Grand Funk Railroad. But the Beatles' appeal was too broad--parents liked them. Dylan's was too narrow--as an American bohemian, he remained suspicious of mass culture, and stayed virtually out of sight from mid-1966 until the hippie thing was done with. The Who and the Dead hit a little too late to qualify as myths; they also proved a little too committed to the mass and the bohemianism, respectively , to challenge the Stones' breadth. And Grand Funk and so many others simply couldn't match the Stones' art.
From "Satisfaction" to the end of the decade, the Stones' aesthetic stature became more heroic. Their R&B phase began with two very good albums that culminated in a classic third, The Rolling Stones Now! Then came their long middle period, beginning with two very good transitional LPs--Out of Our Heads and December's Children (and Everybody's), both of which contained many R&B covers but sold on the strength of their originals--that seemed slightly thin only when compared to those that followed. Aftermath, Between the Buttons, Beggar's Banquet and Let It Bleed are all among the greatest rock albums, and Flowers, although it includes three previously released album cuts, sounds every bit as valid on its own. Furthermore, although the 3-D/psychedelic/year-in-the-making response to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Their Satanic Majesties Request, is remembered as a washout, the tunes prove remarkably solid and the concept legitimate in its tongue-in-cheekness. I would rank it as a first-rate oddity, and note that the title alone was the single greatest image manipulation in the Stones' whole media-happy story.
After "Satisfaction" it was no longer satisfying to accuse the Stones of imitation; after Aftermath, their music came almost entirely out of their heads. Blues-based hard rock it remained, with an eventual return to one black classic per album, but its texture was permanently enriched. As Brian daubed on occult instrumental colors (dulcimer, sitar, marimbas and bells, on Aftermath alone) and Charlie molded jazz chops to rock forms and Bill's bass gathered wit and Keith rocked roughly on, the group as a whole learned to respect and exploit (never revere) studio nuance. In the fall of 1967, they announced a split from Oldham, whose image-making services had become superfluous and whose record-producing capabilities they have since disparaged. They were making mature, resonant music by then--they could permit their pace changes some lyricism now, there was warmth as well as white heat, and Mick's voice deepened, shedding some of its impertinence.
By proclamation and by vocal method--he slurs as a matter of conviction, articulating only catchphrases--Jagger belittles his own lyrics, an appropriate stance for a literate man who has bet his life on the comparative inexplicitness of music. Nonetheless, Jagger's lyrics were much like the Stones' music, aesthetically: pungent and vernacular ("Who wants yesterday's papers"); achieving considerable specificity with familiar materials ("You got me running like a cat in a thunderstorm"); and challenging conventional perceptions more by their bite than by any notable eloquence or profundity ("They just get married 'cause there's nothing else to do"). But whereas the Stones' music extended rock and roll usages, Jagger's lyrics often contravened them. He wrote more hate songs than love songs, and related tales of social and political breakdown with untoward glee. The hypocrisy and decay of the upper classes was a fave subject--many songs that seem basically antiwoman (although certainly not all of them) are actually more antirich. He was also capable of genuine gusto about sex (not as often as is thought, but consider the openhearted anticipation of "Goin' Home" or "Let's Spend the Night Together") and wrote the most accurate LSD song ever, "Something Happened to Me Yesterday."
But that was as far as it went. Traditionally, bohemian revolt has been aimed at nothing more fundamental than puritan morality and genteel culture. That's the way it was with the hippies, certainly, and that's the way it was with the Stones. They did show a class animus--even though it wasn't proletariat-versus-bourgeoisie ("Salt of the Earth" evokes that struggle no less sensitively than it evokes Jagger's distance from it), but rather the old enmity between the freemen of democratic England and its peerage--and a penchant for generalized social criticism. They earned their "political" aura. But their most passionate commitments were to sex, dope, and lavish autonomy. Granted, this looked revolutionary enough to get them into plenty of trouble. The dope-bust harassment/persecution of individual Stones did keep the group from touring the States between 1966 and 1969. But their money and power prevailed; in the end, their absence and their apparent martyrdom only augmented their myth and their careers.
Throughout this time, the Stones were heroes of mass bohemianism. They lived the life of art, their art got better all the time, and as it got better, remarkably enough, it reached more people. But although their art survives, its heroic quality does not; the Stones betray all the flaws of the counterculture they half-wittingly and -willingly symbolized. Their sex was too often sexist, their expanded consciousness too often a sordid escape; their rebellion was rooted in impulse to the exclusion of all habits of sacrifice, and their relationship to fame had little to do with the responsibilities of leadership, or of allegiance.
Not that leadership was Mick's--or any ironist's--kind of thing. All he wanted was to have his ego massaged by his public or bathed in luxurious privacy as his own whim dictated. This he got, but it wasn't all roses--it was also dead flowers. Early on, in "Play With Fire" or "Back Street Girl," say, he had attacked decadence with a sneer--it was something that happened to others, especially the idle rich. By "Live With Me," or "Dancing With Mr. D.," the implication was that Mick's life of pop star luxury was turning him into a decadent himself.
But if Mick was a decadent, he was also a professional. His project of radical self-definition flourished where so many others failed. Most bohemians can find ways to waste themselves--it's often fun for a while, and it's certainly easy. But the bohemian art hero has polar options--he or she can persist and make a career out of it, becoming more exemplary as his or her success becomes more unduplicable. His talent, his resilience, his sure pop instinct, and a boom market in creativity all contributed to Jagger's singular preeminence. Among the many who couldn't match up was Brian Jones. Originally the key to the Stones' rebel-purist image (and reality), he proved to be the group's natural decadent. Despite what those who consider Mick a prick suspect, it is rather unlikely that Brian was forced out of the group because his attraction to the bizarre endangered Mick's self-aggrandizing aesthetic calculations. Quite simply, he seems to have fucked and doped himself past all usefulness. Brian was one of the damned by choice of personality. He drowned in his own swimming pool on July 3rd, 1969.
Two days later the Stones introduced previously hired ex-John Mayall guitarist Mick Taylor at a free concert in Hyde Park that served as Brian's wake, and that November they commenced history's first mythic rock and roll tour. They hadn't swept the U.S.--or anywhere--in three years; the world had changed, or so it seemed; Woodstock hung in the air like a rainbow. It seemed only fitting to climax all that long-haired pomp and circumstance with yet another celebration of communal freeness. The result was Altamont--one murdered; total dead: four; 300,000 bummed out. It seems more a chilling metaphor than a literal disaster in retrospect, as much the Grateful Dead's fault as the Stones'. But the Stones are stuck with it--if it is typical of their genius that their responsibility is difficult to pinpoint, it is typical of their burden that everyone who's into blame blames them anyway.
But in the end that's typical of their genius too, for it means that whatever the specifics--pinpointing is always difficult--the Stones acknowledge their complicity in a world in which evil exists. Above all, they are anything but utopians. They never made very convincing hippies because hippie just wasn't their thing. Jagger's taste for ecstatic community was tempered by that awareness of limits that always assured the Stones their formal acuteness. A successful artist may epitomize his or her audience, but that is a process of rarefaction--it doesn't mean conforming to the great mean, even of the time's bohemianism. So while it is true that the Stones' flaws and the counterculture's show a certain congruence, ultimately Mick is congruent to nothing--he always leaves himself an out. He doesn't condone the Midnight Rambler or Mister Jimmy, he just lays them bare. His gift is to make clear that even if the truth doesn't make you free, it needn't sap your will or your energy either. As with most bohemian rebels, his politics are indirect. He provides the information. The audience must then decide what to do with it.
And yet that is perhaps too kind. Somewhere inside, the Stones knew that any undertaking as utopian as Altamont was doomed by definition. If their audience didn't understand it that way, it was because the Stones themselves, in all their multileveled contradiction, were unwilling to come out and tell them. They would suggest it, yes, embody it, but they wouldn't make it plain, because the nature of the Truth is that it isn't plain. If a male fan wants to take Mick's struggle with male persona as an invitation to midnight rambling, well, that's the nature of the game.
After Altamont, the Stones played with a vengeance. Sticky Fingers, in April 1971, appeared to trifle with decadence just when some retribution seemed called for, and on its two masterpieces, it definitely did. "Moonlight Mile" re-created all the paradoxical distances inherent in erotic love with a power worthy of Yeats, yet could also be interpreted as a cocaine song; "Brown Sugar," in which (if you listen with care to a rocker so compelling that it discourages exegesis) Jagger links his own music to the slave trade, exploits the racial and sexual contradictions of his stance even as it explores them. Exile on Main St., released in conjunction with the 1972 American tour, was decadent in a more realized way: weary and complicated, barely afloat in its own drudgery, with Mick's voice submerged under layers of studio murk, it piled all the old themes--sex as power, sex as love, sex as pleasure, distance, craziness, release--on top of an obsession with time that was more than appropriate in men pushing 30 who were still committed to what was once considered youth music. It stands as the most consistently dense and various music they've ever made.
Arguably, those two albums are the Stones' summit. It is now as long since Altamont as it was between Altamont and the Stones' recording debut, and the Stones, their halfhearted fantasies of a new cultural order long since forgotten, have found their refuge in professionalism. Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. both featured Mick Taylor, a young veteran of the rock-concert tradition of the boogieing jam, and session hornmen Bobby Keys and Jim Price; in a way they are both (Exile especially) triumphs of Taylor/Keys/Price-style musicianly craft over the kind of pop-hero mongering that can produce an Altamont. But if that's so, then Goat's Head Soup and It's Only Rock 'n Roll are mere product, musicianly craft at its unheroic norm, terrific by the standards of Foghat or the Doobie Brothers but a nadir for the Stones. Even the peaks--"Starfucker" ("Star Star") and "If You Don't Rock Me," respectively--had déjà entendu musical and lyrical themes, and it's hard to imagine the Stones putting their names on tunes as tritely portentous as "Dancing With Mr. D" or "Time Waits for No One" in their prepro days. Only rock and roll indeed.
A similar distinction can be drawn between the 1972 and 1975 tours. In '72 the mood was friendly; "Sympathy for the Devil" was not performed; the gentle Taylor wafted through the proceedings; and Mick undercut his fabled demonism by playing the clown, the village idiot, the marionette. Very professional, yet their most rocking show ever. In 1975, with ex-Face Ron Wood aboard in place of Taylor, they worked even harder, but rather than celebrating professionalism they succumbed to it. Jagger's hyperactive stamina was an athletic marvel, but his moves often looked forced, and although Wood and Richard often combined for a certain bumptious dirtiness, the musical energy seemed forced as well. The 1976 album, Black and Blue, put the Stones' recent failures in context, however. It was no masterpiece, but it was rock and roll that didn't deserve an "only," a genuine if derivative departure that showed off artistic professionalism at its best--creative ups and downs that can engross an attentive audience. Not what we want, maybe, but what we can use.
Only rock and roll? The Stones are the proof of the form. When the guitars and the drums and the voice come together in those elementary patters that no one else has ever quite managed to simulate, the most undeniable excitement is a virtually automatic result. To insist that this excitement doesn't reach you is not to articulate an aesthetic judgment but to assert a rather uninteresting crotchet of taste. It is to boast that you don't like rock and roll itself.
(Chart positions compiled from Joel Whitburn's Record Research, based on Billboard Pop chart.)
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1976