The Rolling Stones Biography

Originally billed as the Rollin’ Stones, the first line-up of this immemorial English 60s unit was a nucleus of Mick Jagger (Michael Philip Jagger, 26 July 1943, Dartford, Kent, England; vocals), Keith Richards (b. 18 December 1943, Dartford, Kent, England; guitar), Brian Jones (b. Lewis Brian Hopkin-Jones, 28 February 1942, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England, d. 3 July 1969, Hartfield, Sussex, England; rhythm guitar) and Ian Stewart (b. 18 July 1938, Pittenweem, Fife, Scotland, d. 12 December 1985; piano).

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were primary school friends who resumed their camaraderie in their closing teenage years after finding they had a mutual love for R&B and particularly the music of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. Initially, they were teamed with bass player Dick Taylor (b. Richard Clifford Taylor, 28 January 1943, Dartford, Kent, England, later of the Pretty Things) and before long their ranks extended to include Jones, Stewart and occasional drummer Tony Chapman. Their patron at this point was the renowned musician Alexis Korner, who had arranged their debut gig at London’s Marquee club on 21 July 1962. In their first few months the band met some opposition from jazz and blues aficionados for their alleged lack of musical ‘purity’ and the line-up remained unsettled for several months. In late 1962, bass player Bill Wyman (b. William George Perks, 24 October 1936, Lewisham, South London, England) replaced Dick Taylor while drummers came and went, including Carlo Little (from Screaming Lord Sutch’s Savages) and Mick Avory (later of the Kinks, who was billed as appearing at their debut gig, but did not play). It was not until as late as January 1963 that drummer Charlie Watts (b. Charles Robert Watts, 2 June 1941, Wembley, Middlesex, England) reluctantly surrendered his day job and committed himself to the band.

After securing a residency at Giorgio Gomelsky’s Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, the Rolling Stones’ live reputation spread rapidly through London’s hip cognoscenti. One evening, the flamboyant Andrew Loog Oldham (b. 29 January 1944, Paddington, London, England), appeared at the club and was so entranced by the commercial prospects of Jagger’s unbridled sexuality that he wrested the band away from Gomelsky and, backed by the financial and business clout of agent Eric Easton, became their manager. Within weeks, Oldham had produced their first couple of official recordings at IBC Studios. By this time, record company scouts were on the prowl with Decca Records’ Dick Rowe leading the march and successfully signing the band. After re-purchasing the IBC demos, Oldham selected Chuck Berry’s ‘Come On’ as the Rolling Stones’ debut single. The record was promoted on the prestigious UK television pop programme Thank Your Lucky Stars and the band was featured sporting matching hounds-tooth jackets with velvet collars. This was to be one of Oldham’s few concessions to propriety for he would soon be pushing the boys as unregenerate rebels. Unfortunately, pianist Ian Stewart was not deemed sufficiently pop star-like for Oldham’s purpose and was unceremoniously removed from the line-up, although he remained road manager and occasional pianist.

After supporting the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Gene Vincent and Bo Diddley on a Don Arden UK package tour, the Rolling Stones released their second single, a gift from John Lennon and Paul McCartney entitled ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’. The disc fared better than its predecessor climbing into the Top 10 in January 1964. That same month the band enjoyed their first bill-topping tour supported by the Ronettes. The early months of 1964 saw the Rolling Stones catapulted to fame amid outrage and controversy about the surliness of their demeanour and the length of their hair. This was still a world in which the older members of the community were barely coming to terms with the Beatles neatly-groomed mop tops. While newspapers asked ‘Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?’, the quintet engaged in a flurry of recording activity which saw the release of an EP and an album both titled The Rolling Stones. The discs consisted almost exclusively of extraneous material and captured the band at their most derivative stage. Already, however, there were strong signs of an ability to combine different styles. The third single, ‘Not Fade Away’, saw them fuse Buddy Holly’s quaint original with a chunky Bo Diddley beat that highlighted Jagger’s vocal to considerable effect. The presence of Phil Spector and Gene Pitney at these sessions underlined how hip the Rolling Stones had already become in the music business after such a short time. With the momentum increasing by the month, Oldham characteristically over-reached himself by organizing a US tour which proved premature and disappointing.

After returning to the UK, the band released a decisive cover version of the Valentinos’ ‘It’s All Over Now’, which gave them their first number 1. A bestselling EP, Five By Five, cemented their growing reputation, while a national tour escalated into a series of near riots with scenes of hysteria wherever they played. There was an ugly strain to the Rolling Stones’ appeal which easily translated into violence. At the Winter Gardens Blackpool the band hosted the most astonishing rock riot yet witnessed on British soil. Frenzied fans displayed their feelings by smashing chandeliers and demolishing a Steinway grand piano. By the end of the evening over 50 people were escorted to hospital for treatment. Other concerts were terminated within minutes of the band appearing on-stage and the hysteria continued throughout Europe. A return to the USA saw them disrupt the stagey Ed Sullivan Show prompting the presenter to ban rock ‘n’ roll groups in temporary retaliation. In spite of all the chaos at home and abroad, America remained resistant to their appeal, although that situation would change dramatically in the New Year. In November 1964, ‘Little Red Rooster’ was released and entered the New Musical Express chart at number 1, a feat more usually associated with the Beatles and, previously, Elvis Presley.

The Rolling Stones now had a formidable fan base and their records were becoming more accomplished and ambitious with each successive release. Jagger’s accentuated phrasing and posturing stage persona made ‘Little Red Rooster’ sound surprisingly fresh while Brian Jones’ use of slide guitar was imperative to the single’s success. Up until this point, the band had recorded cover versions as a-sides, but manager Andrew Oldham was determined that Jagger and Richard (he had recently dropped the ‘s’ from his name, a conceit he kept up until the late 70s) should emulate the example of Lennon and McCartney and locked them in a room until they emerged with satisfactory material. Their early efforts, ‘It Should Have Been You’ and ‘Will You Be My Lover Tonight?’ (both recorded by the late George Bean) were bland, but Gene Pitney scored a hit with the emphatic ‘That Girl Belongs To Yesterday’ and Jagger’s girlfriend Marianne Faithfull became a teenage recording star with the moving ‘As Tears Go By’. With Jagger and Richard emerging as songwriters, the band’s de facto leader Brian Jones was increasingly pushed to the sidelines as a creative force, although he remained a firm fan favourite.

1965 proved the year of the Rolling Stones’ international breakthrough and three extraordinary self-penned number 1 singles. ‘The Last Time’ saw them emerge with their own distinctive rhythmic style and underlined an ability to fuse R&B and pop in an enticing fashion. America finally succumbed to their spell with ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, a quintessential pop lyric with the still youthful Jagger sounding like a jaundiced roué. Released in the UK during the ‘summer of protest songs’, the single encapsulated the restless weariness of a band already old before its time. The distinctive riff, which Keith Richard invented with almost casual dismissal, became one of the most famous hook lines in the entire glossary of pop and was picked up and imitated by a generation of garage bands thereafter. The 1965 trilogy of hits was completed with the engagingly surreal ‘Get Off Of My Cloud’ in which Jagger’s surly persona seemed at its most pronounced to date. As well as the number 1 hits of 1965, there was also a celebrated live EP, Got LIVE If You Want It! (released with extra tracks as an official album in the USA), which reached the Top 10 and, The Rolling Stones No. 2 that continued the innovative idea of not including the band’s name on the front of the sleeve. There was also some well documented bad boy controversy when Jagger, Jones and Wyman were arrested and charged with urinating on the wall of an East London petrol station. Such scandalous behaviour merely reinforced the public’s already ingrained view of the Rolling Stones as juvenile degenerates.

With the notorious Allen Klein replacing Eric Easton as Oldham’s co-manager, the Rolling Stones consolidated their success by renegotiating their Decca contract. Their single output in the USA simultaneously increased with the release of a couple of tracks unavailable in single form in the UK. The sardonic put-down of suburban Valium abuse, ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ and the Elizabethan-styled ‘Lady Jane’, complete with atmospheric dulcimer, displayed their contrasting styles to considerable effect. Both these songs were included on their fourth album, Aftermath. A breakthrough work in a crucial year (1966), the recording revealed the Rolling Stones as accomplished rockers and balladeers, while their writing potential was emphasized by Chris Farlowe’s chart-topping cover of ‘Out Of Time’. There were also signs of the band’s inveterate misogyny particularly on the cocky ‘Under My Thumb’ and the acerbic ‘Stupid Girl’.

Back in the singles chart, the band’s triumphant run continued with the startlingly chaotic ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ in which frustration, impatience and chauvinism were brilliantly mixed with scale-sliding descending guitar lines. ‘Paint It, Black’ was even stronger, a raga-influenced piece with a lyric so doom-laden and defeatist in its imagery that it is a wonder that the angry performance sounded so passionate and urgent. The Rolling Stones’ nihilism reached its peak on the extraordinary ‘Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In The Shadow?’, a scabrous-sounding solicitation taken at breathtaking pace with Jagger spitting out a diatribe of barely coherent abuse. It was probably the band’s most adventurous production to date, but its acerbic sound, lengthy title and obscure theme contributed to rob the song of sufficient commercial potential to continue the chart-topping run. Ever outrageous, the band promoted the record with a photo session in which they appeared in drag, thereby adding a clever, sexual ambivalence to their already iconoclastic public image.

1967 saw the Rolling Stones’ anti-climactic escapades confront an establishment crackdown. The year began with an accomplished double a-sided single, ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’/‘Ruby Tuesday’ which, like the Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’/‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, narrowly failed to reach number 1 in their home country. The accompanying album, Between The Buttons, trod water and also represented Oldham’s final production. Increasingly alienated by the band’s bohemianism, he would move further away from them in the ensuing months and surrender the management reins to his partner Klein later in the year. On 12 February, Jagger and Richard were arrested at the latter’s West Wittering home ‘Redlands’ and charged with drugs offences. Three months later, increasingly unstable Brian Jones was raided and charged with similar offences.

The Jagger/Richard trial in June was a cause célèbre which culminated in the notorious duo receiving heavy fines and a salutary prison sentence. Judicial outrage was tempered by public clemency, most effectively voiced by The Times ’ editor William Rees-Mogg who, borrowing a phrase from Pope, offered an eloquent plea in their defence under the leader title, ‘Who Breaks A Butterfly On A Wheel?’ Another unexpected ally was rival act the Who, who rallied to the Rolling Stones’ cause by releasing a single coupling ‘Under My Thumb’ and ‘The Last Time’. The sentences were duly quashed on appeal in July, with Jagger receiving a conditional discharge for possession of amphetamines. Three months later, Brian Jones tasted judicial wrath with a nine-month sentence and suffered a nervous breakdown before seeing his imprisonment rescinded at the end of the year.

The flurry of drug busts, court cases, appeals and constant media attention had a marked effect on the Rolling Stones’ recording career which was severely curtailed. During their summer of impending imprisonment, they released the fey ‘We Love You’, complete with slamming prison cell doors in the background. It was a weak, flaccid statement rather than a rebellious rallying cry. The image of the cultural anarchists cowering in defeat was not particularly palatable to their fans and even with all the publicity, the single barely scraped into the Top 10. The eventful year ended with the band’s apparent answer to Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band - the extravagantly-titled Their Satanic Majesties Request. Beneath the exotic 3-D cover was an album of psychedelic/cosmic experimentation bereft of the R&B grit that had previously been synonymous with the Rolling Stones sound. Although the album had some strong moments, it had the same inexplicably placid inertia of ‘We Love You’, minus notable melodies or a convincing direction. The overall impression conveyed was that in trying to compete with the Beatles’ experimentation, the Rolling Stones had somehow lost the plot. Their drug use had channelled them into laudable experimentation but simultaneously left them open to accusations of having ‘gone soft’.

The revitalization of the Rolling Stones was demonstrated in the early summer of 1968 with ‘Jumping Jack Flash’, a single that rivalled the best of their previous output. The succeeding album, Beggars Banquet, produced by Jimmy Miller, was also a return to strength and included the socio-political ‘Street Fighting Man’ and the brilliantly macabre ‘Sympathy For The Devil’, in which Jagger’s seductive vocal was backed by hypnotic Afro-rhythms and dervish yelps. However, while the band was re-establishing itself, Brian Jones was falling deeper into drug abuse. A conviction in late 1968 prompted doubts about his availability for US tours and in the succeeding months he contributed less and less to recordings, and became increasingly jealous of Jagger’s leading role in the band. Richard’s wooing and impregnation of Jones’ girlfriend Anita Pallenberg merely increased the tension. Matters reached a crisis point in June 1969 when Jones officially left the band. The following month he was found dead in the swimming pool of the Sussex house that had once belonged to writer A.A. Milne. The official and much disputed verdict was ‘death by misadventure’. A free concert at London’s Hyde Park two days after his death was attended by a crowd of 250, 000 and became a symbolic wake for the tragic youth. Jagger released thousands of butterfly’s and narrated a poem by Shelley for Jones. Three days later, Jagger’s former love Marianne Faithfull attempted suicide. This was truly the end of the first era of the Rolling Stones.

The band played out the last months of the 60s with a mixture of vinyl triumph and further tragedy. The sublime ‘Honky Tonk Women’ kept them at number 1 for most of the summer and few would have guessed that this was to be their last UK chart topper. The new album, Let It Bleed (a parody of the Beatles’ Let It Be) was an exceptional work spearheaded by ‘Gimmie Shelter’ (later titled ‘Gimme Shelter’) and revealing strong country influences (‘Country Honk’), startling orchestration (‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’), and menacing blues (‘Midnight Rambler’). It was a promising debut from John Mayall’s former guitarist Mick Taylor (b. Michael Kevin Taylor, 17 January 1948, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, England) who had replaced Jones only a matter of weeks before his death. Even while Let It Bleed was heading for the top of the album charts, however, the Rolling Stones were singing out the 60s to the backdrop of a Hells Angels’ killing of a black man at the Altamont Festival in California. The tragedy was captured on film in the grisly Gimme Shelter movie released the following year.

After the events of 1969, it was not surprising that the band had a relatively quiet 1970. Jagger’s contrasting thespian outings reached the screen in the form of Performance and Ned Kelly, while Jean-Luc Goddard’s tedious portrait of the band in the studio was delivered on One Plus One. For a band who had once claimed to make more challenging and gripping films than the Beatles and yet combine artistic credibility with mass appeal, it all seemed a long time coming.

After concluding their Decca contract with a bootleg-deterring live album, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, the Rolling Stones established their own self-titled label. The first release was a three-track single, ‘Brown Sugar’/‘Bitch’/‘Let It Rock’, which contained some of their best work, but narrowly failed to reach number 1 in the UK. The lead track contained a quintessential Rolling Stones riff: insistent, undemonstrative and stunning, with the emphatic brass work of Bobby Keyes embellishing Jagger’s vocal power. The new album, Sticky Fingers was as consistent as it was accomplished, encompassing the bluesy ‘You Gotta Move’, the thrilling ‘Moonlight Mile’, the wistful ‘Wild Horses’ and the chilling ‘Sister Morphine’, one the most despairing drug songs ever written. The entire album was permeated by images of sex and death, yet the tone of the work was neither self-indulgent nor maudlin. The band’s playful fascination with sex was further demonstrated on the elaborately designed Andy Warhol sleeve which featured a waist-view shot of a figure clad in denim, with a real zip fastener which opened to display the lips and tongue motif that was shortly to become their corporate image. Within a year of Sticky Fingers, the Rolling Stones returned with a double album, Exile On Main St. With Richard firmly in control, the band rocked-out on a series of quick-fire songs. The album was severely criticized at the time of its release for its uneven quality but was subsequently re-evaluated favourably, particularly in contrast to their later work.

The Rolling Stones’ soporific slide into the 70s mainstream probably began during 1973 when their jet-setting was threatening to upstage their musical endeavours. Jagger’s marriage and Richard’s confrontations with the law took centre stage while increasingly average albums came and went. Goat’s Head Soup was decidedly patchy but offered some strong moments and brought a deserved US number 1 with the imploring ‘Angie’. 1974’s ‘It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll’ proved a better song title than a single, while the undistinguished album of the same name saw the band reverting to Tamla/ Motown Records for the Temptations’ ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’. The departure of Mick Taylor at the end of 1974 was followed by a protracted period in which the band sought a suitable replacement. By the time of their next release, Black And Blue, former Faces guitarist Ron Wood (b. Ronald David Wood, 1 June 1947, Hillingdon, Middlesex, England) was confirmed as Taylor’s successor. The album showed the band seeking a possible new direction playing variants on white reggae, but the results were less than impressive.

By the second half of the 70s the gaps in the Rolling Stones’ recording and touring schedules were becoming wider. The days when they specially recorded for the singles market were long past and considerable impetus had been lost. Even big rallying points, such as the celebrated concert at Knebworth in 1976, lacked a major album to promote the show and served mainly as a greatest hits package. By 1977, the British music press had taken punk to its heart and the Rolling Stones were dismissed as champagne-swilling old men, who had completely lost touch with their audience. The Clash effectively summed up the mood of the time with their slogan ‘No Elvis, Beatles, Stones’ in ‘1977’. Against the odds, the band responded to the challenge of their younger critics with a comeback album of remarkable power. Some Girls was their most consistent work in years, with some exceptional high-energy workouts, not least the breathtaking ‘Shattered’. The disco groove of ‘Miss You’ brought them another US number 1 and showed that they could invigorate their repertoire with new ideas that worked. Jagger’s wonderful pastiche of an American preacher on the mock country ‘Far Away Eyes’ was another unexpected highlight. There was even an attendant controversy thanks to some multi-racist chauvinism on the title track, not to mention ‘When The Whip Comes Down’ and ‘Beast Of Burden’. Even the cover jacket had to be re-shot because it featured unauthorized photos of the famous, most notably actresses Lucille Ball, Farrah Fawcett and Raquel Welch. To conclude a remarkable year, Keith Richard escaped what seemed an almost certain jail sentence in Toronto for drugs offences and was merely fined and ordered to play a couple of charity concerts. As if in celebration of his release and reconciliation with his father, he reverted to his original family name Richards.

In the wake of Richards’ reformation and Jagger’s much-publicized and extremely expensive divorce from his model wife Bianca, the Rolling Stones reconvened in 1980 forEmotional Rescue, a rather lightweight album dominated by Jagger’s falsetto and over-use of disco rhythms. Nevertheless, the album gave the band their first UK number 1 since 1973 and the title track was a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Early the following year a major US tour (highlights of which were included on Still Life) garnered enthusiastic reviews, while a host of repackaged albums reinforced the band’s legacy. 1981’s Tattoo You was essentially a crop of old outtakes but the material was anything but stale. On the contrary, the album was surprisingly strong and the concomitant single ‘Start Me Up’ was a reminder of the Rolling Stones at their 60s best, a time when they were capable of producing classic singles at will. One of the Rolling Stones’ cleverest devices throughout the 80s was their ability to compensate for average work by occasional flashes of excellence. The workmanlike Undercover (1983), for example, not only boasted a brilliantly menacing title track (‘Undercover Of The Night’) but one of the best promotional videos of the period. While critics continually questioned the band’s relevance, the Rolling Stones were still releasing worthwhile work, albeit in smaller doses.

A three-year silence on record was broken by Dirty Work in 1986, which saw the band sign to CBS Records and team up with producer Steve Lillywhite. Surprisingly, it was not a band original that produced the expected offshoot single hit, but a cover version of Bob And Earl’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’. A major record label signing often coincides with a flurry of new work, but the Rolling Stones were clearly moving away from each other creatively and concentrating more and more on individual projects. Wyman had already tasted some chart success in 1983 with the biggest solo hit from a Rolling Stones’ member, ‘Je Suis Un Rock Star’ and it came as little surprise when Jagger issued his own solo album, She’s The Boss, in 1985. A much publicized-feud with Keith Richards led to speculation that the Rolling Stones story had come to an anti-climactic end, a view reinforced by the appearance of a second Jagger album, Primitive Cool, in 1987. When Richards himself released the first solo work of his career in 1988, the Rolling Stones’ obituary had virtually been written. As if to confound the obituarists, however, the Rolling Stones reconvened in 1989 and announced that they would be working on a new album and commencing a world tour. Later that year the hastily-recorded Steel Wheels appeared and the critical reception was generally good. ‘Mixed Emotions’ and ‘Rock And A Hard Place’ were radio hits, while ‘Continental Drift’ included contributions from the master musicians of Joujouka, previously immortalized on vinyl by the late Brian Jones.

After nearly 30 years in existence, the Rolling Stones began the 90s with the biggest grossing international tour of all time, and ended speculation about their future by reiterating their intention of playing on indefinitely. Wyman officially resigned in 1993, however, and was replaced by the highly experienced Darryl Jones (b. 11 December 1961, Chicago, Illinois, USA). Voodoo Lounge was one of their finest latter-day recordings, sounding both lyrically daring and musically fresh. They sounded charged up and raring to go for the 1995 USA tour. Monies taken at each gig could almost finance the national debt and confirmation (as if it were needed) that they were still the world’s greatest rock band, a title that is likely to stick.

Riding a crest after an extraordinarily active 1995, the band’s next release Stripped was a dynamic semi-plugged album. Fresh sounding and energetic acoustic versions of ‘Street Fighting Man’, ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Let It Bleed’ among others, emphasized just how great the Jagger/Richards songwriting team is. The year was marred however by some outspoken comments by Keith Richards on R.E.M. and Nirvana. These clumsy comments did not endear the grand old man of rock to a younger audience, which was all the more surprising as the Rolling Stones had appeared to be in touch with contemporary rock music. Citing R.E.M. as ‘wimpy cult stuff’ and Kurt Cobain as ‘some prissy little spoiled kid’ were, at best, ill-chosen words.

The 1997 studio album Bridges To Babylon was a particularly fresh-sounding release, with Charlie Watts anchoring the band’s sound like never before. His drumming was not only exceptional, but was mixed to the foreground, giving the record a much cleaner and funkier sound. Richards appeared much more in control in the studio and his own vocal contributions were emotionally strong. In addition to a major tour in 2002, the band issued four new tracks on the outstanding compilation album, 40 Licks. Their entire London/Decca catalogue was beautifully remastered and issued in replica digipacks during the same period. Yet another world tour was announced in 2005 to coincide with the release of a brand new studio album, A Bigger Bang. It was a remarkably fresh sounding record from a band that had now been making music for over 40 years. Three years later the Rolling Stones were back in the spotlight, with the release of Martin Scorsese’s superb concert film, Shine A Light, filmed over two nights at New York City’s Beacon Theater.

At the present time the Rolling Stones credibility has rarely been higher. No other rock band in the history of popular music has been able to continue to grow so old so well, and so disgracefully.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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