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Wed Oct 22 15:56:41 SAST 2014

THE BIG READ: A legend cast in Stone

Neil McCormick | 30 November, 2012 00:40
The Rolling Stones perform at the O2 Arena in London
Mick Jagger performs with the Rolling Stones in London last weekend to celebrate the golden jubilee of one of the most enduring bands in rock'n'roll history
Image by: Toby Melville / Reuters / REUTERS

On July 5 1969, the Rolling Stones were about to take to the stage on a sunny day in Hyde Park in London for a free concert in front of 250000 fans. It was just two days after the death of founding member Brian Jones, and new guitarist Mick Taylor was making his live debut.

Stage manager Sam Cutler ambled up to a microphone and, to enthusiastic roars, declared: "Let's welcome the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world." It was the first time that legendary phrase had been uttered in public, but it wouldn't be the last. Cutler repeated the introduction nightly throughout the US 1969 tour, much to the discomfort of Mick Jagger.

"It's just a stupid epithet. It just seems too Barnum and Bailey[circus] to me, like it's some sort of circus act," was Jagger's opinion.

"Mick got upset. He said, 'Hey don't say that. It's over the top.' I said, well, either you are or you're not, right?" said Cutler

Cutler has always claimed he was doing it to provoke the Stones.

"At the beginning, [they were] rusty. In a way, the slogan just made them work harder."

It was the Stones who first defined what it means to be a rock band in a modern sense - a gang with a shared world view and sense of purpose encapsulated in hardrocking electric guitar music.

Before them, during the rock'n'roll boom of the 1950s, pop cults were built around solo performers who had backing groups and who, for all the inherent rebelliousness of the medium, were carrying on show business norms.

The Stones had a frontman who didn't play an instrument, but wasn't the band leader - he was part of a whole experience that owed just as much to the dirty, resonant riffs of guitarist Keith Richards and the swinging rhythm of drummer Charlie Watts. They were determined to make music that moved them.

And move it did. From his earliest performances, Jagger could never stand still. He may have learnt from the physical showmanship of James Brown, Little Richard and others, but Jagger essentially invented the role of rock frontman.

As early as their first performances in 1962, the Stones represented a radical break with the superficiality of pop, introducing a new seriousness - not in the sense of lyrical complexity or humourless sobriety - but in terms of how the music demanded to be appreciated.

They were fixated on a raw and marginalised form, the blues, which they played with a near-religious conviction - closer, in some ways, to the spirit of jazz than to the faddishness of pop, even as their youth and modernity violently transformed the blues into something shockingly new.

Their presentation ended a significant divide between audience and performer: the Stones appeared on stage not in costume, but dressed as themselves - long-haired hipsters incarnate. The whole thing, music and image, lent rock a sense of embodying the essence of a generation in the process of change.

Scorned by the older generation, the Stones' early shows became the setting for not only female sexual hysteria, but also male disorder.

The Stones were both a part of this generational shift and above it. Their hedonistic behaviour carved out the mythic territory that this kind of music would occupy - establishing rites of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll that have turned into cliches over succeeding decades.

Shifting over time from lusty blues stompers to dark pop idols, rip-roaring roots groovers and the world's first stadium-scale entertainers, the Rolling Stones proved a slippery bunch.

They created the template, but who are the serious challengers for the title of world's greatest?

In terms of creativity, invention, art, sales and cultural impact, The Beatles trump the Stones, but they were never definitively a rock'n'roll band. Also, The Beatles broke up, while the Stones kept on rolling.

Global popularity is another factor that has given the Stones lasting purchase, a place in the mainstream far greater than that enjoyed by radical bands such as, among others, the Velvet Underground.

"Everyone talks about rock these days," Richards has pointed out. "They forget about the roll."

Maybe that is the Stones' secret. - © The Daily Telegraph

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