The Rolling Stones have been a working band, with a few personnel changes, for more than 60 years, and have been a visible and active part of popular culture for nearly all that time. There have been a few dull moments, perhaps, but it’s hard to think of another rock’n’roll band or musician, aside from Bob Dylan, that has enjoyed such a long, sustained stretch of popularity and relevance. The Stones may not have the hip currency now the band had in the past—who does?—but a Stones tour is still a big, stadium-filling event.
The band’s legacy is huge, and complex. It embodies a number of 1960s ideals, such as sexual freedom and civil rights, but the band’s cynicism has often undercut those ideals and reminded us that even our best intentions can be colored by pride, self-righteousness, and even boredom. Approaching a review of a band with such a long, complicated history and extensive discography is daunting.
The origin story of the Rolling Stones has been told many times, and a lot of mythology has grown up around it, but it provides some context. Michael Philip Jagger was born in July 1943 in Dartford, Kent, a town 18 miles southeast of London. He came from a middle-class family and attended the local elementary school, where he met Keith Richards in 1950. Richards was a few months younger, and also born and raised in Dartford. In 1954, Jagger’s family moved a few miles away to Wilmington, Kent, and it would be seven years before he and Richards reconnected.
When Jagger and Richards met again in 1961, Jagger was an undergraduate student at the London School of Economics. Richards was at Sidcup Art College, in southeast London, after being tossed out of Dartford Technical High School for truancy. Richards ran into Jagger at the train station in Dartford and noticed he was carrying LPs by Chuck Berry and Little Walter. The two struck up a conversation about their mutual interest in blues and rock’n’roll. Both were friends with guitarist Dick Taylor, who also attended Sidcup College, and Jagger had already been singing in a band with Taylor.
Richards’s grandfather, Theodore “Gus” Dupree, was a musician, and had taught him some basics on the guitar. By the time Jagger and Richards became reacquainted, Richards had learned some guitar parts played by two of his favorites, Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore. Moore’s solo on Elvis Presley’s “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” is still one of Richards’s favorites. Jagger, Richards, and Taylor began meeting at Jagger’s house to work on music together. They were soon joined by guitarist Bob Beckwith and drummer Alan Etherington, who were also blues enthusiasts, and rehearsals began in earnest at Taylor’s house.
The quintet called itself the Blues Boys and at first were music purists, mainly at Taylor’s insistence. They were still just rehearsing when they saw an ad in Jazz News, a paper published in London’s Soho district. Alexis Korner, a local musician, was opening a blues club in Ealing, a west London suburb.
Alexis Korner, born in 1928, was one of the fathers of the British blues movement. He brought many American blues musicians over to England to perform, and he appeared on several skiffle recordings. In 1961 he started a band, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, which was at first a rotating group of musicians who shared a love of the blues. Many British musicians who would become famous by the end of the decade passed through Blues Incorporated, including Jack Bruce, John Mayall (another elder statesman of British blues), Ginger Baker, Long John Baldrey, and Jimmy Page. The list could go on.
Korner was featuring local musicians at his Ealing Jazz Club, and when the Blues Boys saw his ad, they were excited and a little surprised. As Philip Norman wrote in Symphony for the Devil: The Rolling Stones Story (1984): “It still had not occurred [to them] that anyone else in Britain shared their musical fixation.” Soon, the Blues Boys began visiting the club to “investigate the extraordinary possibility that other people were playing the blues, to an audience, for money.”
Blues Incorporated headlined at the club, but Korner was generous with other musicians and encouraged them to join him onstage. Jagger—now known as Mick to his friends—sang nervously for the first time at one of those Ealing shows. He was dressed like a college student, but was notable for “the way he threw his hair around,” Korner told Norman. “He only had a short haircut, like everybody else’s. But, for a kid in a cardigan, that was moving quite excessively.”
Other musicians were part of Korner’s growing circle at Ealing, including Brian Jones. Lewis Brian Hopkin Jones was born in February 1942 in Cheltenham, a town about two hours west of London. His father was an aeronautical engineer but also gave piano lessons, and his mother played keyboards and sang in the church choir. Jones was a gifted student who did well at school with little effort. It’s possible that his easy intelligence led to boredom and caused him to misbehave. Whatever the reasons, he was often in trouble and was suspended twice.
Jones started playing saxophone when he was 15. When he was 16, he left school and headed for Europe after getting a girl pregnant. He returned to England after traveling for a while, and by the time he was 20 had fathered three children with three different women, one of whom was married. He was playing blues guitar by this time and calling himself Elmo Lewis, in tribute to one of his heroes, blues singer and slide-guitar master Elmore James.
In a 1971 interview with Rolling Stone, Richards told Robert Greenfield that he and Jagger first heard Jones play during one of their visits to Korner’s club: “Suddenly, it’s Elmore James, this cat, man. And it’s Brian.” Jagger and Richards got to know Jones and introduced him to the music of Jimmy Reed and Chuck Berry. He, in turn, introduced them to Ian Stewart, a pianist who had answered a want-ad Jones had placed in Jazz News.
Stewart was born in Scotland in 1938, and was working as a shipping clerk when he responded to Jones’s ad. He played boogie-woogie and blues piano. “He blew my head off too, when he started to play,” Richards told Greenfield. “I never heard a white piano like that before. Real Albert Ammons stuff. This is all ’62.” Jones brought Jagger, Richards, and Taylor into the group. Beckwith and Etherington had faded from the picture by that time.
With the addition of drummer Tony Chapman, the band became a six-piece. Jagger, Richards, and Jones were sharing an apartment in London and survived a tough winter in 1962 as things started to come together for them as musicians. Jones was trying to get the group a booking over the phone when the club owner asked him what they were called. A copy of The Best of Muddy Waters was nearby, and Jones remembered that the first track of the LP was “Rollin’ Stone.” He told the club owner: “We’re the Rollin’ Stones.”
As with many stories about the Stones, especially the early days, that tale varies. In Life, Richards’s 2010 autobiography, he remembers that Stewart was making the call and that he, Jones, and Jagger saw the album and called out “The Rolling Stones.” Whatever the particulars, the Muddy Waters song—which is actually track 5 on side 1 of the LP—was the source for the name, and for a while the band was billed as The Rollin’ Stones. The group played whatever gigs came its way, and Jagger, Richards, and Jones honed their skills as players and singers of blues and rock’n’roll. Jones learned how to play blues harmonica and taught Jagger some basics.
How the final lineup came to be also varies a bit in everyone’s memories, but when Taylor left the band to return to his studies at art school (he would later co-lead and play guitar for the Pretty Things), Chapman told his friend Bill Wyman to audition for the Stones. Born William George Perks in October 1936, Wyman had served in the Royal Air Force, married, and was a bank clerk by the time he met the Stones in late 1962. He had played piano when he was a kid, picked up the guitar, and then moved on to bass. He was playing regularly under the name Bill Wyman—he took the last name from one of his friends in the service—and when he came to audition for the Stones, his spare Vox amp, good-quality bass guitar, and experience in various bands were factors in his favor.
The Stones had been eyeing up Charlie Watts for the drum slot for a while. He finally agreed to join them, but only after the band was established and working regularly. “Charlie said I’d love any gigs I can get,” Richards told Greenfield, “but I need money if I’m going to hump those drums on the Tube.” Watts was born in Bloomsbury, in London’s West End, in June 1941. He started playing drums when he was 14. He studied graphic design at west London’s Harrow Art School and was working for an advertising agency when the Stones saw him playing with Korner’s Blues Incorporated—one of several groups he was gigging with at the time.
Watts’s passion was jazz, and it would remain so for the rest of his life. Soon after the Stones started recording, he wrote and illustrated Ode to a High Flying Bird, a cartoon tribute to Charlie Parker. However, Watts took up blues and R&B because he saw a financial future in the genres. When he joined the Rollin’ Stones in January 1963, roughly a month after Wyman, the band was complete.
By this time, the Rollin’ Stones were starting to play onstage more often, including gigs at the Marquee, a well-known jazz and R&B club in central London. Korner’s group had been booked for a show at the Marquee that conflicted with an appearance on BBC Radio and he suggested the Stones as a substitute for the club date. Other gigs ensued and soon the group developed a following.
In February 1963, the Rollin’ Stones began a residency at the Crawdaddy Club, which was owned by Georgio Gomelsky. Born in the Soviet Union and raised in Switzerland, Gomelsky came to England in the late 1950s to make a film about the growing UK jazz scene and had established the Crawdaddy Club shortly before the Stones started appearing there. The band’s first shows were sparsely attended, but Gomelsky was a savvy promoter and the group’s growing confidence started to draw crowds. Gomelsky began booking the Stones for shows at other venues and attracting the attention of the musical press. Soon Melody Maker and New Musical Express were writing about the band.
In March, the Stones had a recording session with Glyn Johns, who was a friend of Stewart’s. They recorded four tracks, including Chuck Berry’s “Come On.” In April, Andrew Loog Oldham came to see the band at one of its shows. He was about the same age as most of the band members and had established himself as a publicist, working for, among others, Brian Epstein, who managed the Beatles. Oldham was a tireless self-promoter and proposed becoming the band’s manager. His outsized personality and confidence convinced the Stones, and he took over from Gomelsky.
Oldham was smart enough to know he’d need someone with show-business experience to help him fulfill his promises to the Rollin’ Stones, so he enlisted the services of Eric Easton, who was well established in London as a talent spotter and manager. Easton had some reservations about Jagger as a singer but was otherwise impressed with the group. Oldham insisted that Jagger stay, but he did make a few changes to the band that he felt would help it on the road to success. He dropped the apostrophe in the name, and the band became The Rolling Stones. He also said Stewart was too old and unattractive to be a member of the band, and told Richards to call himself “Keith Richard.” (Richards reverted to his original name in 1978.)
Stewart was so committed to the success of the Stones that he agreed to stop appearing live with the band, even though it had been his connection with Johns that allowed the band to record the demo. He would be the band’s road manager until his death in 1985 and would also play piano on many of their sessions. He was, incidentally, a few years younger than Wyman.
In May 1963, just a month after signing a contract with Oldham and Easton, the Rolling Stones had a record deal with Decca Records. As with so many parts of the band’s history, there are different versions of the story. Three sources I read, including Norman’s bio of the group and Wyman’s 1997 memoir, Stone Alone, say that George Harrison told Dick Rowe of Decca about the Stones. Rowe had taken a pass on the Beatles a little more than a year earlier and was regretting that decision, to put it mildly. After seeing the Rolling Stones play live, Rowe got in touch with Easton, who he knew from Easton’s work with other artists.
In other versions of the story, Oldham boldly approached Rowe and convinced him to sign the Stones, but the Harrison connection is the most likely. Decca immediately brought the band into the studio at Olympic Sound in London to make a record. The group’s first single was the Berry cover, “Come On,” backed with “I Want to Be Loved,” a blues song by Willie Dixon. The band wasn’t happy with the results, but the single reached the UK charts at number 21 and got the Stones a shot at television. The band appeared on Thank Your Lucky Stars, a British pop-music show, in July 1963.
Even though the band members were wearing matching suits on Thank Your Lucky Stars (a requirement of the show’s producers), the consensus among viewers was that they were scruffy. That reaction gave Oldham a brainstorm: The Rolling Stones would stand in stark contrast to the Beatles, who were beginning to be accepted as fine young men after some initial resistance. The Stones would be rock’n’roll outlaws.
According to Jagger, Oldham brought John Lennon and Paul McCartney to a Stones rehearsal at some point. “They said they had this tune, they were really hustlers then,” Jagger told an interviewer in 1968. “I mean, the way they used to hustle tunes was great.” Lennon and McCartney pitched “I Wanna Be Your Man” to the Stones, who recorded it in October 1963. Decca released it as a single the following month, and it went to number 12 on the UK charts.
In January 1964, the Stones released a four-song EP. The band’s following had grown as a result of the popularity of “I Wanna Be Your Man” and a tour of the UK as support for American rock acts. The Rolling Stones EP was all covers. “Bye Bye Johnny” was a Chuck Berry tune; “Money” was a Barrett Strong hit that the Beatles had covered on With the Beatles, the group’s second album; “You Better Move On” was a song by Arthur Alexander; and “Poison Ivy” was a Leiber/Stoller tune that was a big hit for the Coasters. The Stones’ popularity had grown enough that the EP hit number 1 in the UK.
The Rolling Stones presented a band that had good taste in material, and a sufficiently unique sound to make the versions of the four tunes on the EP worth hearing. Oldham realized, however, that original songs were needed if the Stones—and Oldham himself—were going to make any real money. Songwriting skills didn’t appear immediately, however, and the next Stones single was a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”
Holly’s version of the tune showed his appreciation for Bo Diddley, but the Stones pushed that connection even further. The guitars emphasize the Bo Diddley beat, with Watts’s drums helping it along. Jones’s bluesy harp-playing locks in the track even more strongly to the Diddley / Chess Records groove. Wyman quotes Oldham’s belief that the Stones’ arrangement of “Not Fade Away” was “the beginning of the shaping of them as songwriters.” The single was released in the UK in February 1964 and hit number 3. London Records, one of Decca’s US labels, released it the following month in the States, backed with “I Wanna Be Your Man,” and it reached 48 in the US charts.
In January and February of 1964, the Stones recorded the band’s first full album during five sessions at Regent Studios, which Oldham favored because it was cheap. Oldham and Easton produced the album, and Phil Spector, one of Oldham’s heroes, contributed percussion on “Little by Little,” which Spector cowrote with the band. Singer Gene Pitney played piano on the track, and Allan Clarke and Graham Nash of the Hollies sang background vocals. Decca released The Rolling Stones in April 1964, and London Records released England’s Newest Hit Makers: The Rolling Stones in the States the following month.
England’s Newest Hit Makers established a pattern that would remain with US versions of the Stones’ LPs until Their Satanic Majesties Request in 1967. In the UK, long players did not include tunes that had already been released on singles or EPs. American rock’n’roll LPs were always driven by the popularity of singles, and EPs never caught on in the States. British bands saw their LPs, EPs, and singles used to construct different song lineups for album releases in the US. The Beatles’ original “butcher cover” artwork for Yesterday and Today was a protest against that practice.
Oldham wasn’t yet confident in Jagger and Richards as songwriters, so the LP only included one song by the duo: “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)”—shortened to “Tell Me” on the US release. Two tracks written by the full band were credited to the pseudonym Nanker Phelge. The remaining nine songs were covers of blues and soul favorites, plus the group’s take on two Chuck Berry recordings—one of them, his arrangement of Bobby Troup’s “Route 66.” Oldham may have been lukewarm about “Tell Me,” but when London released it as a single in the US in June, it went to number 24—the Stones’ first US top-40 hit.
The cover art for the UK release was Oldham’s idea. It featured a photo of the band in three-quarter view, partially in shadow, with no band name or other details (aside from the catalog number) on the cover. It was even more daring than the cover art for With the Beatles, which only listed the title on the cover. The Rolling Stones spent 12 weeks at number 1 in the UK.
The Rolling Stones is a remarkably strong debut, even though most of the tracks are covers. Other English bands had covered American rock and soul material effectively, but with a hint of reverence that often led to affectionate but sometimes mannered covers. The Stones made the tunes their own while still showing a profound ability to stay close to the spirit of the originals. Richards had deeply absorbed Berry’s guitar style and the rest of the group were very comfortable with the Chess Records sound. As a result, “Route 66” and “Carol,” the other Berry track, flow with a relaxed ease that other English groups—even the Beatles—couldn’t match. The Stones were respectful of the material but not intimidated by it.
The Stones’ version of “I Just Want to Make Love to You” isn’t going to displace Muddy Waters’s masterpiece, but it’s a valid and exciting interpretation of the song. The band’s take on Bo Diddley’s “Mona (I Need You Baby)” shows that its mastery of Diddley’s style went even deeper than the Stones’ first single suggested. “Can I Get a Witness” is a very good approximation of the Motown sound, in no small part because of Stewart’s piano, and “Walking the Dog” is a pretty good pass at Stax/Volt.
Jagger was not yet singing with enough confidence to deliver the power the band needed, but the rest of the group are on top of every style the Stones aimed for. Watts and Wyman are understated and elegant, and Richards and Jones seem to have learned every nuance of every note from the records they were recreating in their own style. Jones’s slide guitar on “I’m a King Bee,” a Slim Harpo tune, is spine-tingling, and is matched in intensity by Jagger’s blues harp on the track. “Tell Me” will never be considered a Stones masterpiece, but it was a very strong first attempt that owed more to Southern soul than to the blues.
When the Stones began their first tour of the US in June 1964, London Records had only just released the band’s first LP, and “Not Fade Away” had only been a modest hit in the singles chart. Wyman described the tour in his 2002 book Rolling with the Stones as “a disaster.” The group was especially disappointed about its appearance on The Hollywood Palace, a television variety show hosted by singer Dean Martin. He was dismissive when he introduced the Stones, and continued to mock the band after its performance of “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” Somewhat predictably, he made snide remarks about the band members’ hair and included the Beatles in his dismissal of the new music.
As the show went to commercial, Martin implored the viewers to return. “You don’t want to leave me alone with the Rolling Stones,” he said in mock horror. He aimed a few more comments at the group during the rest of the show. The Stones were insulted, but Oldham, who was still back in England and only heard about the incident from the band, must have been gleeful at the reinforcement of the Stones’ “outlaw” status. The trip to the US did have a high point: the group spent two days at Chess Studios in Chicago, where they recorded songs that would appear on the UK EP Five by Five and the US long player 12 × 5. The sessions also yielded the band’s next hit, “It’s All Over Now.”
By the time London Records released 12 × 5 in October 1964, “It’s All Over Now” had given the Rolling Stones their second top-40 single in the US, just two weeks after it had been recorded. The single peaked at number 26 in the US, but went to number 1 in the UK—the first Rolling Stones single to reach that position. The Stones had heard the Bobby Womack song (cowritten by his sister-in-law) while visiting New York DJ Murray “the K” Kaufman. Womack’s group, The Valentinos, had just released the single a few weeks earlier when the Stones recorded the tune.
The Stones’ version of the song is fuller, faster, and more rocking than Womack’s. The English group hadn’t yet had a big hit with a song of its own, but the Stones’ ability to arrange and bend a song to their own needs was taking it on the road to songwriting. Richards’s arpeggios drive the arrangement and Jones answers them with his cutting 12-string rhythm guitar. Jagger is now fully confident and snarling in his vocal delivery, and Wyman’s bass line is fluid and firm alongside Watts’s hard-ringing snare drum. In his memoir, Richards deprecates his solo, but it’s a grand blast of rock’n’roll anarchy—sloppy, in contrast to the cool precision of the rest of the song, but passionate and full of electricity.
Over the years, a story has developed that Jagger changed the line “playing her high-class game” so it sounded like “playing her half-assed game.” It can certainly sound as if that’s what he sang, but the single’s chart positions in the US and UK didn’t seem to be affected.
12 × 5 includes the five tracks that Decca had released on the UK EP, plus “It’s All Over Now” and tunes that would show up on later Stones albums in the UK. The Stones’ version of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” is as sleek and energetic as the original. The album preceded the UK release of The Rolling Stones No. 2 (which includes tunes that first appeared on 12 × 5) by three months. Both albums featured new Jagger/Richards tunes that showed some growth but not quite the songwriting mastery they would soon achieve.
The Rolling Stones returned to the US in October 1964 for a second tour. The band’s appearance at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was filmed as part of T.A.M.I. Show, a 1964 film featuring a number of rock and soul acts. In the film, they follow James Brown, although it’s not certain that the performances in the film are presented in order of appearance. Brown is astonishing, but the Stones are very, very good, and in no way fall short. The Stones also performed on the October 25 broadcast of The Ed Sullivan Show.
“Heart of Stone,” released as a single in the US in December 1964, reached number 19 and brought Jagger and Richards closer to songwriting greatness. In early 1965, “The Last Time” hit number 1 in the UK singles chart—the band’s third record to do so—and number 9 in the US. What had been hinted at in earlier Jagger/Richards songs had finally been achieved—they had written something that stood with the great rock’n’roll songs of all time. The killer, ear-grabbing guitar riff that sits at the center of the single was Jones’s contribution.
London Records released The Rolling Stones, Now! in February 1965. The album consists of tracks previously released in the UK on The Rolling Stones No. 2, along with “Heart of Stone” and its flip side, “What a Shame.” As I noted before, the US releases of early Stones LPs, like early Beatles albums, differ significantly from the UK releases, so a deep dive into each version isn’t practical. However, The Rolling Stones, Now! is an excellent record, consisting of four Jagger/Richards tunes and an impressive lineup of cover versions that offered definitive proof that no band on either side of the Atlantic matched the Stones’ grasp of blues, rock’n’roll, and soul.
One night, as the summer of 1965 approached, a riff came to Richards in a dream. He woke up with it playing inside his head, recorded it on a cassette player, and went back to sleep. He passed the cassette along to Jagger, who penned lyrics to it. A few days later, in mid-May, the Rolling Stones recorded “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” at RCA Studios in Hollywood. Richards played the riff using a Maestro Fuzz-Tone, intending the overdriven sound to be used as a guide for a horn arrangement that would be dubbed later. The rest of the band, Oldham, and recording engineer David Hassinger overruled him and the guitar riff stayed.
Good thing. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” hit number 1 in the US soon after its release in June and was a smash worldwide. Some radio stations were reluctant to play the record because of the song’s controversial themes of sexual frustration and the perils of consumerism, but teens responded to it. Jagger told an interviewer: “It was the song that really made the Rolling Stones, changed us from just another band into a huge, monster band.”
At that point, Oldham and the group had achieved a mastery of the recording studio that enabled them to bring their ideas to complete fruition on tape. Wyman’s bass line for “Satisfaction,” played alongside Richards’s riff, is as memorable and attention-grabbing as the iconic guitar line. Jagger’s use of drama and dynamics to bring the song’s message across is masterly, and Watts’s firm, steady hand keeps the song centered while moving it forward. Jones adds electric and acoustic rhythm guitar and keyboards to fill out the sound, and Stewart plays additional keys. Jack Nitzsche sat in on the session, adding a tambourine that plays a key sonic and rhythmic role in the song.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in helping to define the ’60s. It shows the influence of Southern soul, but the fuzz guitar is very much British Invasion rock. Jagger’s lyrics were maturing, both in their themes and in the ways he expressed them: “When I’m watching my TV / And a man comes on and tells me / How white my shirts can be / Well he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke / The same cigarettes as me.”
The month after the Stones released the single, Otis Redding would record a version that included the horns Richards envisioned. London Records released the Stones’ fourth US album, Out of Our Heads, near the end of June and it included “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Decca released a UK album (the group’s third) of the same title with a different song lineup about two months later. Both are fine records, but the US version should be in every serious rock’n’roll collection.
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “The Last Time” were omitted from the UK version. The US release also includes “Play with Fire,” credited to the whole band as composers but performed just by Jagger and Richards, with some small assistance from Nitzsche and Phil Spector. Out of Our Heads has some credible versions of Motown and Stax tunes; the group’s takes on “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” made famous by Otis Redding, and “Cry to Me,” a hit for Solomon Burke, won’t supplant the originals, but are entirely valid on their own.
In August 1965, Allen Klein took over management of the Rolling Stones. Oldham had been clashing with Easton and blaming some management errors on him. The decision to hire Klein was initially viewed as a positive development, but in time the group would regret it. Oldham continued in his role as advisor and producer.
Two more singles extended the Stones’ hot streak in the US to close out 1965. “Get Off of My Cloud” was number 1 in the UK and US, but “As Tears Go By” wasn’t released as a single in the UK. Singer Marianne Faithfull had already charted with the ballad, which Oldham had encouraged Jagger and Richards to write, six months earlier. “19th Nervous Breakdown” took the Stones into 1966 with a worldwide hit, with Richards’s fuzz guitar leading into the chorus. Jagger and Richards were challenging the Beatles, both for chart position and for songwriting dominance.
In May, the Stones took what seemed at first like a left turn. “Paint It Black” uses a sitar, which the Beatles had woven into some songs they had recently recorded, and the song employs a combination of Middle Eastern and Eastern European melodies. While it was easy to compare it to the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” the Stones tune is tougher and more rhythmically insistent.
In the months to come, the Doors and, especially, the Velvet Underground would take rock music to some dark places, but Jagger preceded them when he sang “no colors anymore, I want them to turn black” and “I wanna see the sun blotted out of the sky.” Neither of those bands created anything to match the moment of tension and release in the fourth verse of “Paint It Black.” Jagger sings two lines accompanied only by acoustic guitar and sitar, and Watts brings the rest of the band back in to close the verse with a series of hard-hitting drum shots. Few moments in rock’n’roll history are more exhilarating.
Decca Records had released Aftermath in April, and London Records released it in the States in late June, after the success of “Paint It Black.” The US version opens with the single and includes ten tracks from the UK version of the album. It omits four others. Both releases are composed solely of Jagger/Richards song—a first for the band—and both are full-on masterpieces. If I had to choose, I’d say the UK release is the one to have, but, as with the US and UK versions of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, both have their merits. “Paint It Black” sets a tone on the US album that carries through to the remaining tracks.
Aftermath presents the Stones as a versatile band that can play in any style it wants. “Lady Jane” was baroque pop, while “Doncha Bother Me” keeps the band firmly rooted in the blues. Another blues song, “Goin’ Home,” is nearly 12 minutes long, but doesn’t lose steam or become self-indulgent. “Under My Thumb” is a great song that, somehow, never got released as a single in the US or UK, although it charted in other countries. Its lyrics are darkly sexist, a trait it shares with two other songs on the album, “Stupid Girl” and “Out of Time.”
Jones made key contributions to almost every song. “Lady Jane” is unimaginable without the dulcimer and harpsichord Jones plays on the track, and the marimba on “Under My Thumb” is the first thing that catches your ear during the song’s intro. His marimba and vibes on “Out of Time” play a similar role in pulling the arrangement together. His harmonica is essential to setting the effective C&W feel for “High and Dry,” and his dulcimer on “I Am Waiting” gives the song a strong jolt of folk-rock charm. Both songs are among the Stones’ best lesser-known tracks. Aftermath contains other strong entries, including “Flight 505,” which has a terrific piano intro by Stewart, and “Think,” which undermines its folk-rock leanings with a cutting fuzz-guitar line from Richards.
“Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” made the charts in September and would show up later in compilations. The Stones entered 1967 with “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” It reached number 3 in the UK, but its suggestive lyrics limited airplay in the US and it stalled at 55. When the group appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, they were instructed to sing “Let’s spend some time together” or they would have to choose another song. They did as instructed but rolled their eyes during the performance, to Sullivan’s consternation.
“Ruby Tuesday” was the flip side of the single, and that song made number 1 in the States. Both tracks are included on the US version of Between the Buttons, released shortly after the single. The UK release of the album omits the hit singles but includes two other tracks that were cut from the US version. From then on, however, Rolling Stones LP releases in the UK and US would match.
Between the Buttons continues the Stones’ (or, more likely, Oldham’s) fascination with folk rock and lush pop on “Yesterday’s Papers,” “Back Street Girl,” and “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?” A strong experimental streak shows in some of the studio effects used during the recording of the album. Much of it absolutely rocks, though. “Connection” is carried along by Richards’s tingling guitar and Watts’s pounding drums, “Please Go Home” might as well have included a cowriting credit to Bo Diddley, and “Miss Amanda Jones” is a Chuck Berry–style stomper.
“Cool, Calm and Collected” and “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” nod in the direction of the English music-hall tradition, and every song has instrumental touches from Jones that help deepen their impact. The vibes on “Yesterday’s Papers” are a key element in the arrangement, and Jones played the multitracked horns on “Something Happened to Me Yesterday.” Jagger has often been dismissive of the album, but it’s among the group’s best, showing the influence of several trends in mid-1960s pop music without leaving the blues and rock’n’roll behind.
In February, police raided a party at Richards’s house and later charged him, Jagger, and art dealer Robert Fraser with various drug offenses. Jones’s house was also raided, and he was charged with possession of marijuana. Court trials followed, and in time the original sentences were reversed or modified. Jones’s drug use had been increasing, especially as the group’s popularity grew and his influence on its direction faded. Oldham directed the recording sessions and encouraged the group to try different things, and Jagger and Richards became the faces of the group as they became its primary songwriters.
The Stones began recording their next album around the time of the drug arrests. Oldham was around to help with the two-sided single, “We Love You” and “Dandelion,” released in August of 1967 in the UK and the following month in the US. In Symphony for the Devil, Norman is disparaging about “We Love You.” He calls it a “feeble attempt” to mimic the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.”
Norman’s appraisal is astonishingly tin-eared. To begin with, the song was a sincere note of affection from the group to the fans and other musicians who had supported them during their legal ordeals. It is also sonically and melodically different from what Norman describes as the Beatles’s “summer anthem.” The sound effects that open the track, along with the descending piano riff, played by Nicky Hopkins, have a much more ominous tone. The Stones had clearly absorbed some of the studio tricks that psychedelic bands were using at the time, but took those elements and created something unique.
“Dandelion” is also a great slice of baroque-pop psychedelia. Again, it doesn’t owe anything to the Beatles, although both Lennon and McCartney provided backing vocals for the song. Jones’s Mellotron gives the track a strange, otherworldly quality, and the backing vocals also have a distant, ethereal tone. Oldham may have pushed the group in the direction of 1967’s Summer of Love, but the Stones were going there on their own terms.
Oldham was not around to help with Their Satanic Majesties Request, which Decca and London released in December 1967. The Stones had been feeling neglected by Oldham, especially by his handling of publicity during and after the drug busts. Oldham was having his own issues with drugs and was heavily involved with Immediate Records, a new label he was starting. The group began recording Their Satanic Majesties Request in February and completed it in October, handling the production themselves.
Recording was chaotic, in part because three of the band’s members were often tied up in court. In Stone Alone, Wyman recalls: “Every day at the studio it was a lottery as to who would turn up and what—if any—positive contribution they would make when they did.” Various hangers-on were also in the studio, according to Wyman, and the confusion helped lead to Oldham’s departure. He was able to assist with “We Love You” and “Dandelion,” but most of the recording of the album lacked organization.
Despite those problems, Their Satanic Majesties Request is much better than its reputation suggests, although not on a par with what the Stones had been doing since Out of Our Heads. “She’s a Rainbow” and “2000 Light Years from Home” are two of the great songs of the psychedelic era. “Citadel” and “The Lantern” are both fierce rockers built around Richards’s snarling guitar. Wyman’s “In Another Land” is an enjoyable bit of British eccentricity and very trippy—ironic, given that Wyman was not using drugs.
On the other hand, “Sing This All Together” is a bland opening for the album, and it doesn’t get any better when it is reprised as “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” and strung out for nearly eight minutes. The use of musique concrète on the track anticipates the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” by six months. Like the Beatles track, it doesn’t bear repeat play. “On with the Show” closes Their Satanic Majesties Request with an overt Beatles parody and it doesn’t feel affectionate. The album has some fine moments, alongside others that don’t come off. It’s a notable artifact of 1967, a cynical swipe at the positivity of the Summer of Love. The Stones embraced some of what was going on in music at the time, only to promptly shrug it off.
Indeed, when they went back into the studio in March 1968, they returned to the blues-based rock’n’roll they did best. Bootleg versions of music Bob Dylan had been recording with the Band—released later on The Basement Tapes—had been circulating, and the Band released Music from Big Pink while the Stones were working in the studio. The spareness of both recordings pushed many bands back toward their roots.
The Rolling Stones began working with Jimmy Miller, who had produced the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, and other bands. In their memoirs, Richards and Wyman both say Jagger brought Miller in to work with the Stones. Both also credit Miller with, as Richards wrote, “this new second wind. And it just became more and more fun.”
The first official release of this collaboration was “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” a single that appeared in shops in in the late spring of 1968. Miller was a drummer, and the song puts Watts firmly at the center of the music, where he belongs. Richards’s distinctive guitar sound is the result of alternate tunings and feeding acoustic guitars through a small Philips cassette player to the point of distortion. Richards also provides the melodic and rhythmically firm bass line. The ringing guitar arpeggios in the chorus, bridge, and close owe a bit to folk rock, but the song is hard-hitting and relentless.
Jones played rhythm guitar on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” but for much of the work on what would become Beggars Banquet, he was too drunk or drug-addled to participate in sessions. He had also grown even more distant from the rest of the band after his girlfriend, the model and actress Anita Pallenberg, left him for Richards. Jones had been physically abusive to Pallenberg; an unfortunate pattern in all his relationships with women.
For Beggars Banquet, which was released in December 1968, the Stones took what they had learned from blues, country music, and rock’n’roll and created what would be the first in a series of triumphs. “Sympathy for the Devil” opens the album with Latin percussion from Watts and others. (Jones is listed as the acoustic guitarist but is not audible on the recording.) Jagger lets out a couple of demonic screams, and Hopkins provides the piano as Jagger starts to sing the verses.
Jagger presents a picture of the devil as suave and convincing, and recounts the evil incidents in history that he had a hand in. The Russian Revolution, the rise of Nazism, religious wars, Christ’s crucifixion, and other atrocities make their appearance during the song. Jagger reminds us of our culpability in these actions (“I shouted out / ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ / When after all / It was you and me”). Satan may have tempted, but we gave in.
Jagger often downplays his skills as a lyricist. During a 1968 interview for Rolling Stone, Jonathan Cott told him: “Your lyrics . . . are really good.” Jagger responded, “Oh, they’re not. They’re crap.” The vividness, layers of meaning, and elegance in sound and structure of the lyrics for “Sympathy for the Devil” undercut Jagger’s diffidence about lyric writing.
I could go on for paragraphs about Richards’s solo, which is precise, carefully developed, and both brutal and beautiful. He uses overtones and distortion to create a cutting sound, and he doesn’t resort to flash. The solo is a disturbing counterpart to the imagery in Jagger’s lyrics. It’s like a scab being torn off a wound.
Two softer songs follow “Sympathy for the Devil.” Jones contributes an achingly effective slide guitar to “No Expectations.” The band does a parody of C&W music on “Dear Doctor,” but pays tribute while pointing out some of the genre’s clichés. “Parachute Woman” and “Stray Cat Blues” are the Rolling Stones at their meanest as blues musicians. Both tracks are gritty and heavy with overdriven tube-amp dirtiness. The lyrics to “Stray Cat Blues” are about an adult’s attraction to a teenage girl—is Jagger expressing his true feelings, or just calling out evil again? When he sings “It ain’t no hanging matter / It ain’t no capital crime,” I can see the devil whispering in his ear.
Jagger and Richards wrote “Street Fighting Man” in response to rising political tensions in 1968, especially the student demonstrations in France and the anti-war activities in America. Richards again fed his acoustic guitar through a Philips cassette player to create the unique guitar sound, and Jones’s sitar adds to the song’s tense feel. Jagger seems to be thrilled by the demonstrations, but ambivalent about the idea of revolutions. Richards told Greenfield in his 1971 interview: “It really is ambiguous as a song.”
Based on a Robert Wilkins gospel-blues song, “Prodigal Son” helps bring some spirituality and old-time acoustic blues back to the band’s repertoire. The Watts Street Gospel Choir gives an exciting spiritual fervor to “Salt of the Earth,” which is a tribute to the working class. Richards sings the first verse of the song. His open-tuned acoustic guitar carries the tune along, and Jagger picks up the message on the second verse. Jagger acknowledges in the song that he is not himself working class, but his support feels sincere.
The same month the album was released, the Stones filmed The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, along with a number of other bands. Jones was so high and drunk that multiple takes were required for the Stones’ portion of the show. The rest of the band were so dissatisfied with the results that they withheld the show’s release until 1996, when it appeared on DVD. The Who’s performance of “A Quick One” showed up in the 1979 documentary The Kids Are Alright.
In June 1969, Jagger, Richards, and Watts told Jones that he was fired. His unreliability and erratic behavior had become more than the group could handle, and it didn’t help that a second drug arrest kept him from being able to tour the US. Jagger and Richards had settled their court cases, although they didn’t stop using drugs. On July 3, 1969, Jones drowned in the swimming pool on his estate. In a 1995 interview for Rolling Stone, Jagger would express regret that he and the rest of the band hadn’t been more sensitive to Jones’s problems.
The Rolling Stones hired Mick Taylor to replace Jones. Taylor was born in 1949 in Welwyn Garden City, a town about 20 miles from London. He had appeared on several John Mayall records, and both Mayall and Stewart had recommended him to the Stones. He played some fills on “Honky Tonk Women,” a single the band released just days after Jones died.
Richards had started using an open-G tuning he had picked up from guitarist Ry Cooder, who played on tracks the Stones were working on during the previous months. Richards modified the tuning by removing the low E string and tuning the remaining strings to an open G chord. “Honky Tonk Women” and many of the best-known Stones tunes since then feature that tuning, which Richards still uses.
“Honky Tonk Women” opens with Miller playing cowbell, followed by a snare shot from Watts to bring in Richards’s funky open-chord progression. Richards’s note bends and pull-offs blend the blues and country music, and the backing vocals by Richards and singer Madeline Bell add a hint of Southern soul to the song. A horn arrangement brings home the soul connection, but the song defies categorization. It originated as a pure country track: “Country Honk,” that would appear on Let It Bleed, released in November 1969.
Let It Bleed was more stripped-down than Beggars Banquet, but stayed true to the Stones’ roots in blues, country, and rock’n’roll. “Gimme Shelter” brings the album in with a softly played chord progression by Richards. He begins to solo over the chords, accompanied by Miller on güiro and Watts on drums. Hopkins’s piano fills in behind him, and two hard strikes on the snare from Watts signal a shift in dynamics. Those snare hits are the sound of the apocalypse, and Jagger begins to sing about war and tribulation.
Merry Clayton’s harmony vocals add a frightening undercurrent to the song, as she seems to be straining for the high notes. She has a feature after Richards’s second guitar solo, and her voice breaks at one point, to devastating effect. Jagger’s blues harp and Hopkins’s barrelhouse piano underscore the blues pedigree of the song.
Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” is country blues, with a C&W touch. Richards plays an understated backing on acoustic guitar and electric slide guitar in support of Jagger’s vocals, which are notable for their respectful but passionate reading of Johnson’s lyrics. “Live with Me” is hard, funky rock and a demonstration, if one were needed, that Watts’s kick drum is the heartbeat of the Stones. The track marks the first appearance of Bobby Keys on a Stones record. Keys would be a feature of the band’s recordings and tours for the next seven years.
The title track is notable for its loose playing and Jagger’s broad Southern accent on the opening lines. Stewart’s C&W-style piano on the song is a high point of the album, mingling with Richards’s slide guitar. “Midnight Rambler” is a frightening blues track about the Boston Strangler, with several time signature and mood changes. “You Got the Silver” is an affecting vocal feature for Richards and includes Jones on autoharp, one of two small, final contributions he made to a Stones LP. “Monkey Man” is both indefinable and disturbing.
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was the B-side of “Honky Tonk Women,” but the album version begins with the London Bach Choir singing the opening verse and chorus. Jagger then repeats the first verse, accompanied by Richards on acoustic guitar. More instruments enter as the song moves along, shifting in volume and intensity until its completion at the seven-and-a-half-minute mark. The lyrics express some disillusionment as the ’60s close and the decade’s ideals give way to cynicism, but the chorus is hopeful, or perhaps just resigned to reality.
The Rolling Stones began a US tour just before Let It Bleed was released. The tour began on November 7, 1969, and lasted until December 6. A 1970 live album resulted, composed mostly of performances at Madison Square Garden: Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! The album included songs from recent albums and two Chuck Berry songs, and it’s the Stones live album to own. The band was billing itself as “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World” and Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! is the proof.
I’ve talked to many friends whose judgment I trust, and they’ve told me that the Stones shows they’ve seen are among the best concerts they’ve attended. Aside from Get Yer Ya-Ya’s, the band has been unable to capture that fact on tape. Other Rolling Stones live releases are perfunctory (Flashpoint, 1991; No Security, 1998) or execrable (Got Live if You Want It!, 1966; Love You Live, 1977; Still Life, 1982). Brussels Affair (Live 1973), an official 2011 “bootleg” release of a 1973 show, helps make the argument that the Mick Taylor lineup (as featured on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!) was the Stones’ strongest live ensemble.
At the end of the 1969 US tour, the Stones decided to play at a free concert near San Francisco. The sequence of events is hard to follow, but Gimme Shelter, the documentary film of the tour by Albert and David Maysles, shows reasonably well how things unfolded. The Grateful Dead had suggested that the Hells Angels provide security for the show, and as the Angels and the audience got higher, things got nasty. A Hells Angel punched Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane—one of several bands appearing that day—in the face and knocked him unconscious. During the Stones’ performance of “Under My Thumb” (not, as is often reported, “Sympathy for the Devil”), a Hells Angel stabbed and killed an 18-year-old African American man, Meredith Hunter.
The Maysles Brothers captured that moment on film, as well as the various bad calls that had led to the concert being staged at the Altamont Speedway. The mistakes that made the show a disaster were likely due to naivety and lack of experience on the part of the organizers, but in the end, the combination of a lot of young musicians with too much money and influence and too few people advising them not to do something so ill-conceived was the culprit.
The Stones had wanted out of the contracts with Decca Records and Allen Klein for some time. In 1970, the band established its own label, Rolling Stones Records, which would be distributed in the US by Atlantic Records, and in the UK by WEA. Allen Klein retained ownership of the recordings from the Decca era. An indication of the band’s new freedom was the cover for their next album, Sticky Fingers, which featured Andy Warhol’s black-and-white photo of a man’s crotch in tight jeans. Decca had rejected the original cover for Beggars Banquet—a photograph of a public toilet with graffiti on the wall behind it—as tasteless.
Recording for Sticky Fingers had begun in December 1969 at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. The Stones went back to the blues well for “You Gotta Move,” a Fred McDowell / Gary Davis song. Richards plays a simple but effective backing on acoustic slide guitar, and Taylor’s electric slide solos are shivering and frightening. Watts’s simple bass drum and hi-hat accompaniment gives the track a funereal tone.
“Brown Sugar” is built around an unforgettable chord progression—Richards’s open G at work again—a simple but potent riff from Taylor, and castanets by Jagger, which somehow add a decadent touch. The lyrics of the song are even more controversial now than they were in 1971, when Sticky Fingers was released. It rocks, and its deep groove gets you moving, which may make those who find it objectionable miss the fact that it is about the horrors of colonialism, slavery, and the sexual exploitation of Black women by powerful White men. The Stones stopped performing “Brown Sugar” in 2019 because of criticism of the song.
Jagger is the rhythm guitarist on “Sway,” his first credited appearance on the instrument. Taylor plays an astonishing slide-guitar solo midway and an equally impressive single-note solo as the song closes. Paul Buckmaster’s elegant string arrangement provides a contrast to the dirty, overdriven guitars. “I Got the Blues” is an impressive take on Southern soul, aided by Keys on sax and Jim Price on trumpet. “Sister Morphine” features spine-tingling slide guitar from Ry Cooder, and “Dead Flowers” continues the band’s flirtation with country music, with Jagger again not quite playing it straight. Many critics still dismiss “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” but burning solos from Keys and Taylor make it a fan favorite.
Two of the Stones’ most beautiful and affecting songs are on Sticky Fingers. “Wild Horses” is about life on the road and leaving loved ones behind. Singer Gram Parsons, who was hanging out with the band and would record his own version of the song, had some influence on its final form. Richards plays a simple 12-string acoustic guitar backing and Taylor adds fills behind one of Jagger’s most emotionally straightforward vocals. Jim Dickinson’s piano brings a Nashville touch to the song.
“Moonlight Mile” uses a vaguely Asian-sounding melody, played by Taylor against Jagger’s softly strummed acoustic guitar. The song’s exotic character is enhanced by a subtle but powerful string arrangement and Price’s light touch on piano. Again, the subject is life on the road, including its excesses, and Jagger lets his guard down to deliver a sensitive and unaffected vocal performance.
Some sessions for the next album had been recorded by the time the band moved to France to avoid tax problems in England. Jagger was living in Paris with his new wife, Bianca (Blanca Pérez-Mora Macías), and Richards was renting a mansion in the south of France. The mansion, Villa Nellcôte, did not have an easy way to set up a recording studio, so the group used rooms in the damp basement. Taylor thinks the sound quality of Exile on Main St (1972) was a result of the conditions of that basement. The recording equipment itself was in the Stones’ mobile recording studio, which was parked outside.
Recording was haphazard because Jagger, Wyman, and Watts were not living nearby, and because Richards had developed a daily heroin habit. He pulled others into his drug orbit, including Jimmy Miller, Keys, Taylor, and recording engineer Andy Johns. Jagger, Wyman, and Watts were not as far into drug use, and Richards’s haphazard way of working—late at night, nodding off during sessions—created tension.
The surprise is that Exile continued the Rolling Stones’ run of masterpieces that began with Beggars Banquet, although it did not receive warm notices when it was released in May 1972. The recording is thick and dark, and Jagger’s vocals are even more indecipherable than usual. However, it rocks unrelentingly. Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down” is played on distorted guitars and carried along by Jagger’s hot blues harp. “Shake Your Hips” owes plenty to Slim Harpo’s original, but it’s even steamier.
“Tumbling Dice” was the album’s hit and its most carefully produced track. Richards’s alternate tunings are the heart of the track, and a series of riffs he and Taylor play in tandem grow in power and complexity as the song rolls along. A chorus of singers gives the song a gospel vibe, and it stands confidently with the group’s best singles. Gospel music also shows its influence on “Loving Cup” and “I Just Want to See His Face,” and on the group’s finest Southern-soul track, “Let It Loose.”
“Rocks Off,” “Rip This Joint,” and “All Down the Line” are hard-charging rock’n’roll, while “Sweet Virginia” and “Torn and Frayed” carry on the group’s romance with country music. I could do without “Turd on the Run,” a throwaway that isn’t helped by its title. But “Ventilator Blues” is the Stones at their meanest and most uncompromising. Richards has one of his finest vocal features on “Happy,” which should have charted higher when it was released as a single.
The sound of Exile on Main St has been vexing to many over the years. In a 2003 interview, Jagger told an interviewer that he had to finish the mixing himself: “At the time Jimmy Miller was not functioning properly.” Jagger said he would still like to remix Exile, but at this point the album’s overdone, constricted sound is part of its charm.
After such a brilliant four-album run, it is perhaps inevitable that a lull would occur with Goats Head Soup (1973). “Angie” is a moving and beautifully delivered ballad, and “Dancing with Mr. D.” has some of the Southern funk that made Exile so strong. “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” only went to number 15 as a single, but it’s a great mash-up of rock’n’roll and soul. But “Star Star” (aka “Starfucker”) feels like a cheap attempt at controversy, and Johnny Winter outdid the Stones on his recording of “Silver Train,” which almost made it into a good song.
The Rolling Stones dropped Miller as producer after Goats Head Soup when his continued drug use rendered him ineffective. Jagger and Richards produced It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll (1974), listing themselves on the credits as “The Glimmer Twins.” The album feels more energetic than Goats Head Soup, and when Jagger sings “I got one heart, and it hurts like hell” on “If You Can’t Rock Me,” he sounds like he means it—but is also amused by the fact. The title track, “It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll (but I Like It),” has held up over time because it feels like the Stones have decided to relax into their status as elder statesmen of rock (they were about 30 at the time).
“Fingerprint File” takes a successful run at funk, and “Time Waits for No One” features a brilliant solo from Taylor, but the synthesizer lines date the song. The album would be Taylor’s last for the Rolling Stones. The excesses of rock’n’roll life were wearing on him, and he felt he had been denied writing credits on some songs. The next Stones album, Black and Blue (1976), featured the work of several guitarists, including Wayne Perkins, Harvey Mandel, and Ronnie Wood. Perkins’s solo lights up “Hand of Fate,” and “Memory Motel” stands with the group’s best ballads. The varied guitarists give the album an unfocused feel, although “Melody,” which Jagger sings with Billy Preston, and a cover of “Cherry Oh Baby,“ a reggae hit by Eric Donaldson, are high points.
Richards was having legal trouble again, this time because of an arrest in Canada for heroin possession. There was a possibility that he would serve time, and he and Jagger thought their next album might be their last for a while. Richards ended up getting off easy, but the fact that Richards might do jail time probably gave the group a stronger sense of purpose during the sessions for Some Girls (1978), their strongest outing since Exile. The blues and disco of “Miss You” gets a lot of its fire from the harmonica-playing of Sugar Blue, but the whole album benefits from the way Richards and Wood, who passed the audition during Black and Blue, lock together.
“When the Whip Comes Down” and “Respectable” are tough rock’n’roll. “Beast of Burden” is easygoing and demonstrates how valuable Wood was in working with Richards to bring the group to a new level of rhythmic intensity. The stereotypical treatment of women—especially African American women—in the lyrics of the title track brought controversy, again, to the band. Jagger said he was making fun of those stereotypes and didn’t back down.
Emotional Rescue (1980) is sonically and stylistically similar to Some Girls, but at a slightly lower heat setting. The title song has a tongue-in-cheek attitude that makes it a fun listen, but “She’s So Cold” feels like a lesser band’s attempt to copy “Shattered,” from the earlier LP. Tattoo You (1981) is the last essential Stones LP. “Start Me Up” is built around the kind of unforgettable earworm riff that Richards can come up with in his sleep (literally, as an earlier anecdote in this article tells us). He insists it can’t be played in standard tuning, and must be played in his trademark five-string open G.
Tattoo You is composed of tracks the band had recorded previously, although they came into the studio in late 1980 and early 1981 to flesh them out. The tracks rock with conviction, and Jagger sounds fully committed. Richards and Wood fire off interlocking riffs throughout, and “Black Limousine” is a strong return to form on the blues. “Waiting on a Friend” brings the album to a subdued close, with a stunning sax solo from jazz great Sonny Rollins.
The Rolling Stones have continued to record, and while the returns have not been diminishing, it’s hard to argue you can’t do without, say, Undercover (1983), an album I’ve never warmed to. Dirty Work, which many critics and fans shrugged off, is a bracing LP that I like because it avoids predictability. The album also has an undercurrent of tension running through it, probably because the band members weren’t getting along.
Steel Wheels (1989), Voodoo Lounge (1994), Bridges to Babylon (1997), and A Bigger Bang (2005) are the work of a band that has settled in. All have their moments, and there are times when I enjoy the LPs, but they’re records that hardcore fans buy and only occasionally pull off the shelf. Blue & Lonesome (2016) is an entirely enjoyable collection of old blues tunes that inspired the Rolling Stones more than 60 years ago.
The Rolling Stones have released more compilations than original LPs, and several are worthwhile because they include non-LP singles. The 1966 US release of Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) brings together songs from 1964 and 1965, and the US version of Through the Past, Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2) in 1969 consists of tracks from 1966 to 1969. The British releases of those albums follow a different chronology and make less sense. Flowers (1967) is a gathering of tracks that were omitted from US versions of Stones LP up to that point, but has been to some extent superseded by More Hot Rocks (Big Hits & Fazed Cookies). This 1972 compilation includes several of the tracks on Flowers and more, including early singles and EP tracks that were not previously available in the US. You might as well buy both. Made in the Shade (1975) is a reasonable overview of the band’s early-1970s output.
Stewart died of a heart attack in 1985, and Wyman left the Rolling Stones in 1993 to pursue other interests. Watts died of cancer in 2021, at age 80. The band has continued touring, but without Watts there is no Rolling Stones. He was as important as Richards to the overall flow and feel of the band. When I listened to all the albums I’ve listed here, I realized that Wyman was an essential player, too. He and Watts did brilliant work that was exactly what the music needed, but they never called attention to themselves. Wyman’s bass on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Watts’s drums on “Paint It Black” and “Gimme Shelter” are key, indelible moments of 1960s culture.
With only Richards, Jagger, and Wood (the baby of the trio, at 76) still around, the Rolling Stones’ time will soon pass. The band’s time as a key recording act ended with Tattoo You. What made the Stones such a great rock’n’roll band was the ability to write unforgettable songs and to play them with unerring swing, grace, and power.
But the Stones also threw the ’60s ideals of freedom and equality back at us, asking if we were really committed to them. You can dance to “Brown Sugar,” but a sober reading of the lyrics connects colonialism and the exploitation of African Americans to the development of American culture, and especially its music—which inspired the Stones and made them rich.
The members of the Rolling Stones have been cynical at times, and spoiled in the manner that people who gain wealth and influence at a young age can be. They proudly named themselves the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world, but often proved that honorific to be true.
. . . Joseph Taylor