There they were in the photograph last week, all four of them: Mick, Keith, Charlie and the new guy, Ron Wood.
The occasion was the acknowledgment that fully 50 years have passed since a musical aggregation by the name of the Rollin’ (yes, that’s how they spelled it then) Stones first stepped onstage to pluck a tune or two for public edification.
There’ll be a good bit of this anniversary roll-calling in the next few years, as the calendar catches up with the first wave of 60s rock bands, but it won’t be catching up with too many of them still plying their trade a half-century down the line.
Though the occasion for their reunion last week was only a photo exhibition, the Rolling Stones are giving every indication they’ll be taking their legendary chops out for a world tour soon.
Certainly there are older musicians still out on the road getting things done —86 year-old B.B. King comes to mind, as does nonagenarian banjoist Pete Seeger, and aren’t the Beach Boys Beach Men by now? Certainly there are bands such as the Chieftains and Golden Earring who can claim a more antique pedigree, but the fact that the mightily complicated machine called the Rolling Stones can still turn over, let alone run, is a wonder.
It was all simple enough July 12, 1962, when six scruffy teens from small English towns climbed onto the stage at the Marquee Club in London. They weren’t all Stones you might know. Though Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the late Brian Jones stayed on, this night also featured Dick Taylor, Tony Chapman and the late Ian Stewart, whose tenure with the band is worth remarking momentarily.
The fermentation of young groups, then as now, was a hectic process. Mick and Keith had a group with Taylor, called Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys, while Jones and Stewart played R&B music as Elmo Lewis. They all wound up at the Ealing Blues Club, where they often sat in with the best-known blues band in London, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, whose drummer happened to be a guy named Charlie Watts.
By June 1962, Mick had managed to wangle a spot as alternate vocalist with Korner’s group, which had a steady Thursday night gig at the Marquee. When Korner got a call to perform on BBC Radio on July 12, the bandleader informed Jagger there wouldn’t be a slot for him on the short radio show. However, there was a vacancy at the Marquee that night, and Brian Jones was asked to fill it, which he did with the combo listed above. According to Keith, Brian named the group spontaneously during a publicity phone call to a jazz periodical, calling his band the Rollin’ Stones after the name of a track on a Muddy Waters LP that happened to be in his sight line at the moment.
To be sure, the Stones began as Brian Jones’s band. Now better known for his “death by misadventure” in a swimming pool in 1969, the guitarist was an enormous fan of American blues and wanted the Stones to be the best R&B cover band in England. Check out the setlist from that first night at the Marquee, and you see songs by artists whose offerings filled the first few Stones albums: Chuck Berry, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed.
However, the story of the Stones is a story of evolution. Things were already changing by January 1963, when Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman (a bass player chosen because he had a really big amplifier) replaced Chapman and Taylor in the band. Mick and Keith had the impetus to write original material, and new manager Andrew Loog Oldham (trying to do for the Stones what Brian Epstein did for the Beatles) wanted to appeal to a mushrooming teen audience, so the dour Scot Ian Stewart had to be dropped from the performing lineup. (A Stone to the end, though, the boogie piano player stayed on with the group as road manager and studio keyboardist until his death in 1985.)
To remind myself why the Stones matter, I pulled out my tape of the Teenage Awards Music International show, filmed just two years after that rookie performance at the Marquee and perhaps the very first rock concert movie. Amid the screams of obligatory throngs of females, the boys run onstage attired in natty jackets and slacks, save Wyman, who’s wearing a vest and, with hair down to his shoulders, represents a clear danger to society. Perched atop Cuban heels, Keith rips off the unmistakable opening of “Around and Around,” and that machine starts revving. Charlie Watts is pounding his kit for all he’s worth, and Jones is right behind him, while Wyman finds the blue notes at the bottom of the audio spectrum. Jagger, perhaps laying back because there’s no way he could top James Brown, who’d immediately preceded the Stones, puts a leer in Chuck Berry’s lyrics. As the camera cutaways reveal, kids of all colors are captivated by black American music blasted back at them by pasty white British kids who absolutely get the primal directive of the big beat.
The Beatles wanted to hold your hand. The Stones had something else altogether in mind.
The music of the Rolling Stones is rough and imperfect, in the manner of its antecedents, players who understood that blues is first and foremost a feeling. It is played now by men of advancing years who have made an unimaginable sum of money off those chords and those beats, but who still yearn—well, Keith does, anyway—to get out and play it for the world one more time.
At the photo opp last week, Charlie Watts told The Associated Press, “When I joined the Rolling Stones…I thought it would last a few months, because that’s what bands last.” This band is different. This band lasts.
Courtney Haden is a Weld columnist. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.