It's only rock and roll but we like it: why the Rolling Stones are always there when we need them
You can always count on the Rolling Stones.
On the face of it, that seems counter-intuitive. After all they’re a brand as much as a band – and a brand built on an idea of rock and roll as a city populated by the dissolute, the reckless, the flamboyant, the leather-clad, the hard-partying, the incurably romantic, the unconventional and, yes, by the defiantly unreliable. Sympathy for the devil and all that. Two fingers to the Establishment and its lackeys. One finger – the middle, natch – to The Man.
Reflecting once on a 1977 drugs bust in Canada, the band’s insouciant strummer Keith Richards recalled being dragged out of bed by the Toronto fuzz and countering their rough ministrations by trying very hard to stay asleep. “You can’t be arrested if you’re not awake,” he said. I’m not sure which lawyer told him that or how much he was paid for the advice, but Richards seems to have taken it to heart. It’s popularly believed that he did spend much of the 1970s asleep. And when he wasn’t slumbering un-arrested in the Land of Nod – or, more likely, the Land of the Lotus Eaters, so prodigious was his drug use – he was hanging out in New York’s Studio 54, or on some Caribbean island, or in a French chateau with an entourage of the dissolute, the reckless, the flamboyant etc. to record shape-shifting rock masterpieces like Exile On Main Street.
He is, by his own admission, a minstrel, a troubadour, a wandering guitar player. King of the one-night-stand. And that’s why you can always count on the Rolling Stones despite the apparent easy come-easy go lifestyle underpinning their metier. They’re just always there, in the background, doing their thing then moving on to the next show. Like the Dude in The Big Lebowski, the Rolling Stones abide.
Nobody under 60 has ever experienced life without them, another reason they are a constant, a band to be relied upon implicitly. Since their formation in 1962, their recorded music has soundtracked billions of lives and the band themselves have performed live to millions on tours which have criss-crossed the world. They don’t even need a mononym – they can be reduced to an iconic image of a huge lolling tongue and pair of lips. The Stones were an emoji before anyone knew what the word meant or how it would come to be used.
To underline the fact they have put that logo and that big anniversary number front and central on the branding for their new, globe-straddling tour. Not only that, it’s all in capital letters. The tour, SIXTY, landed in the UK on Thursday for a gig in front of 50,000 people at Anfield Stadium, storied home of Liverpool FC. The Stones performed a cover of The Beatles’ I Wanna Be Your Man because, well, they were in Liverpool and it would have been rude not to. Mick Jagger (for whom the phrase ‘snake-hipped’ is still miraculously appropriate) posted a photograph of himself hugging the statue of Cilla Black which stands on the city’s Mathew Street, and later quipped that it was closer than he ever got to the real thing. Regrets? Even he clearly has a few. The rest of the set contained hits such as Street Fighting Man, 19th Nervous Breakdown, Get Off My Cloud, Gimme Shelter (accompanied by visuals of the war in Ukraine), Paint It Black, Satisfaction and, yes, Sympathy For The Devil. No Brown Sugar these days but there was room for new song Living In A Ghost Town, the Stones’ response to the pandemic lockdown (“Once this place was humming/And the air was full of drumming”. Well at least they tried, right?).
Tomorrow night it’s Amsterdam – mind how you go there, Keef – followed by Bern and Milan. Then, on June 25 and July 3, come the biggies: two gigs a week apart in Hyde Park in London where, 53 years earlier almost to the day, they played for a crowd of a quarter of a million just 48 hours after the death of Brian Jones. A founder member of the band, Jones was found floating in his swimming pool in the early hours of July 3 1969. Cue half a century of outlandish conspiracy theories.
At these Hyde Park gigs the band will be remember another fallen comrade: drummer Charlie Watts, who died last year aged 80. Also in July the BBC will air a season of programmes dedicated to the band, including four stand-alone films promising intimate portraits of Jagger, Richards, Watts and Ronnie Wood. From one establishment to another, a love letter of sorts.
Talking of establishments, we have just had the celebrations for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (if you’re still in hiding, by the way, the coast’s clear. You can come out). Many people of a certain age and worldview will have watched the hullabaloo through the prism of the band and the song which soundtracked the Silver Jubilee of 1977 – the Sex Pistols’ searing riposte to the all things royal and Jubilee-related, God Save The Queen. Along with a certain international football match played at a certain famous London football stadium at which a set of goalposts were certainly sat on and broken by a crowd of jubilant, tartan scarf-brandishing, Rod Stewart lookalikes, it’s about the only thing anyone remembers from that year.
It’s worth reflecting, however, that the Queen had only been on the throne for nine years when the Stones formed and there’s only 10 years between her and Bill Wyman, the band’s bassist until 1993. Which means he was a near-contemporary to the Queen’s free-spirited younger sister Princess Margaret, who partied (and more?) with Jagger throughout the early 1970s. So if there’s any band which soundtracks the Elizabethean era, it’s the Rolling Stones. Every Jubilee, every moment, they have been there.
Moreover, Jagger has been almost as confrontational towards the monarchy as John Lydon ever was. The latter railed against “the fascist regime” – Jagger reportedly referred to the Queen as “chief witch”, according to his biographer Christopher Andersen. And the feeling of animosity was mutual. Turned down five times for an honour, Jagger was finally knighted in 2003 though the Queen conveniently scheduled an operation for that day and handed the knighting duties to somebody else. “The Queen disliked what he [Jagger] stood for,” Andersen wrote in the Daily Mail in 2012. “Not only had he fathered seven children by four women and faced drug charges, but his early public persona ¬– scruffy, surly, obscene, resolutely anti-establishment – had been calculated to offend.”
Today, Sir Mick likes cricket and tax havens and he may even have warmed towards Her Majesty now the gong’s safe on the mantlepiece. So it’s a less abrasive version of that persona which he accesses on stage. But it’s still there, the flamboyant, anti-establishment rock and roller who for 60 years has fronted probably the world’s greatest band. It’s a neat balancing act – made neater as the years pass and the on- and off-stage Mick Jaggers move apart – but it’s one we are comfortable with because, well, the Stones are the Stones. They are always there, and reliably so. Sure, they will stop rolling one day but not this day. Not tomorrow. Not the day after that. On this, you can count.