It shouldn’t be surprising that The Rolling Stones are considered such a monumental band. Rock’s Grand Old Men, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Charlie Watts present the weathered, craggy appearance of some Rock and Roll Mount Rushmore. Even the standards they wrote seem to have been around since some much earlier era, as if there might be an old wax Edison Cylinder somewhere with Brown Sugar on it, or a player piano roll of Honky
Tonk Women. There are a lot of those standards, too. An awful lot. But are these fellows indeed The World’s Greatest Rock Band, or perhaps instead The World’s Most Overrated Garage Band? The debate continues. What is more surprising is that the music continues as well.
True, there are a number of bands that have been making music for decades, but the Stones are 40 years on now, making them arguably the oldest existing rock band still touring, excluding nostalgia acts playing shopping mall openings and state fairs. The unrestrained energy, the pure physicality of their music adds to the amazingness of the fact that these fellows are still performing it. In fact, the unrestrained hedonism of their lifestyle adds to the astoundingness of the fact that any of them are still drawing breath.
If I seem annoyed by this, it may be because there is usually some kind of moral to the story of a long-lived band, a sort of VH-1 Behind The Music final act. Aerosmith, for example: they fooled around, they suffered; they cleaned up their act, they survived. The Rolling Stones defy such moralism. They partied, they debauched, they partook of it all, and they’ll be appearing live this week at an arena near you. Go figure. But this is really irrelevant, anyway. History is full of performers who were, perhaps, amoral scoundrels. The issue is the music.
Essentially, the music of the Stones hasn’t changed in 40 years. It remains rough-hewn and ballsy, performed with a confident sloppiness that eschews precise instrumentation in favor of a rolling, churning groove that draws the entire body into the listening experience. It has strayed but a few chicken-strutting steps from the classic rhythm and blues that inspired it, and which was in fact the inspiration for the entire British Invasion of the early 60s.
The old bluesmen, like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, sparked British bands like the Stones, The Beatles, The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, The Who, Them, and The Paramounts to play likewise, but where many of the English rockers polished their sound to go down more smoothly with American audiences in love with mod Merseybeat moptops, the Stones refused such polishing.
With the exception of a brief flirtation with psychedelia, the Stones have remained true blue, through and through. Their steadfast adherence to their musical roots may also explain why their lineup has changed so little over the past four decades. Except for some scrambling during the band’s formation, original guitarist Brian Jones’ resentful split in 1969 (shortly before his tragic death), and the 1991 departure of bassist Bill Wyman, they have maintained a consistent musical presence, like bluesy blood brothers.
So I suppose the issue is the sloppiness, the raucousness of this band’s music. If refinement is not what you seek, if you see rock music more as this loose, visceral, loud, mean and dangerous thing, then this band is certainly playing for you. If you are a fan of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, such post-grunge players as Stone Temple Pilots, or new rockers like Three Doors Down, then these are your roots, so listen up.