Personalities | Introducing The Rolling Stones
I’m having lunch in a Chelsea restaurant with a sprightly gent of 60-plus. His wits are quick and he’s a fabulous source of softly spoken gossip. He reflects a moment on one especially key evening in his life, early in 1963. ‘If you’re not sure who rock’n’roll belongs to,’ says Andrew Loog Oldham, ‘then it surely isn’t you.’
When Oldham was 19 and London’s sharpest young hustler, he clapped eyes on The Rolling Stones at a backroom blues gig in a suburban boozer. And that night he glimpsed a band who – with a little help and a lot of hype – really might claim rock’n’roll as their own. He was, of course, proved right beyond his wildest calculations. Within six years they were playing to vast, awe-struck multitudes and being billed – without the least fear of contradiction – as ‘the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world’.
The Rolling Stones are the irreducible essence of rock music, and their astonishing story has not yet finished. Oldham’s first sighting was the start of his managerial career with the Stones and effectively the night they achieved lift-off. In four years they rose, and for the past 40 years they’ve declined to fall. During their journey they’ve been almost everything that rock’n’roll has represented, from bratty rebellion to corporate respectability. They were never meant to last this long, but as Keith Richards once revealed: ‘I have still not discovered all the myriad possibilities of “Midnight Rambler” or “Satisfaction” … I could play “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” all night if my hand would bear it.’
They took rock music, and the culture it inspired into being, to unexplored extremes. Some have gone further since: among The Sex Pistols, Kiss, Mötley Crüe and the rest there are bands who have caused more scandals, looked more shocking, taken more drugs, despoiled more virgins or whatever. But the Stones did so many of these things first, or so memorably, or with such inimitable panache, that the others were merely tracing their footsteps. Except, of course, that most who tried following in the Stones’ footprints got lost along the way, to end up in the abyss of oblivion or self-destruction – which the Stones, so cannily, never did. With one exception, they wound up rich and settled, in some cases happily married, in Jagger’s case a knight of the realm, and in Keith’s a walking defiance of medical science.
Thanks to their fallen star, hell’s cherub Brian Jones, the Stones became symbols of crash-and-burn mortality but also of survival against the odds. Thus they embody both sides of the rock’n’roll myth. In the shadowy demise of Jones, in the shuddering menace of their darkest songs and in the disaster of Altamont, The Rolling Stones can encompass death and apocalypse – and yet, as everyone of us who loves their music can testify, they are a supremely life-affirming experience.
At Altamont they broke the unspoken contract that rock stars have always had with their audience...
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