Today in London’s Somerset House, the Rolling Stones gathered for a preview of a retrospective photo exhibit of their career which will open to the public on Friday.
Fifty years ago tonight, at the Marqueé Club on Oxford Street, Brian Jones and Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones (bassist Dick Taylor, pianist Ian Stewart and drummer Mick Avory) took to the stage. A year later the final band coalesced with Jones, Jagger, pianist Ian Stewart, guitarist Keith Richard, bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts. They had a blues-oriented, hard rock sound that was worlds away from the soft-popish sound of the Beatles, who hit America at virtually the same time, the spring of 1964. And the world divided into two camps, those who wanted to hold hands and those who wanted to spend the night together.
Okay, that’s kind of simplistic, but after fifty years, that’s about how I remember it. It doesn’t help that I may have been the only 16-year-old girl in America with a crush on Charlie Watts.
There is something about that time that needs to be explained, something that fed the hysteria over the Beatles and the Stones. Their first records hit America in the late winter and early spring of 1964. On November 22, 1963, my generation had our world shredded by the assassination of John Kennedy. There had been nothing in our experiences for months that had no connection to the Kennedys, no music, no television, that wasn’t part of the world before the world crashed. The closest we came was a minor influx of British bands. And then the full blown British invasion hit. It was outside our world, but connected to us. The Beatles were scandalous to our parents, even though in retrospection they were very tame in the beginning. The Stones sent our parents into apoplexy. They made Elvis’ pelvis look sedate. Mick Jagger was lean, mean, foreign and dangerous. Just the antidote we needed to our collective malaise of that awful winter of ‘63-64. John and Paul, even George, were attractive, handsome even. Mick and the boys were damned near pug ugly. Though they were all thoroughly middle class, and Mick was a London School of Economics student, they looked like bad boys.
As for Charlie, he was the quiet one. A highly accomplished drummer, like all great drummers Charlie Watts was the soul of the group, but the least noticed. And over time he led the quietest life, never involved in the scandals that plagued the other band members, and the founder of his own orchestra. Charlie is often thought of as the oldest member of the Stones, in part because his other life involves a pre-rock big band-style dance orchestra.
Ian Stewart was removed from the front lines, becoming the shadow “sixth Stone” and performing with them on tour and on their recordings until his death in 1985. Brian Jones developed a serious drug problem and was asked to leave the group in June 1969. He drown in a pool at his home a month later. Mick Taylor took Jones’ place, but resigned in 1974 to pursue a solo career. Guitarist-bassist Ronnie Wood came and went with the band through the 1980s, and finally became a full member in 1990.
I never actually sat down and read a biography of Jagger or the Stones, but several other rock bios touched on a remarkable thing about Mick. A lot of rock musicians of his age mistook the personal and cultural causes of drug use in famous black American blues musicians for an artistic inspiration. That was a large part of why they ignored the dangers and let the drugs destroy them. But even though Mick used the same drugs, he was somehow strangely immune to the addictive properties of those drugs. Observers of the scene, survivors of it, marvel at his constitution, at how the drugs never harmed him. I forget which one suggested that when Mick dies, he should donate his body to science to dissect and find out just what it was in his genetic make-up that was responsible for that phenomenon.
Jagger brought something else to the Stones that no other band had then or since – that time at the London School of Economics. Jagger made them rich. He kept them from making stupid money mistakes and trusting the wrong people. The members don’t just make music together, they are a business. Ronnie played with them for ten years before he was admitted to the company.
The Stones, whose stadium shows are legendary, are preparing for a new tour. They have had splits and fights and always manage to make up in the end. There really may be something to the simple little song first written in 1973, but not released until 1981 – “I’m not waiting on a lady. I’m just waiting on a friend.”
Mick will be 69 on July 26, Keith will be 69 on December 18, Bill Wyman will be 76 on October 24, Ronnie Wood turned 65 on June 1 and Charlie turned 71 on June 2.
Happy anniversary, guys. It may just be rock and roll, but you made so many of us like it.