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Still rocking at 50
At the 2003 Rolling Stones concert in Bangalore - "Sorry we're about 40 years late, " front man Mick Jagger announced as the band took the stage later - a nervous looking, middle-aged woman stood next to me in front of the stage as soul music played over the PA and roadies peered into the heaving crowd from gaps in the stage scaffolding. "I can't wait to see them, " she whispered, clasping her clammy hands together on a sticky afternoon, "I have waited for soooo long".
Why do we continue to love a band of four geriatric rockers - aggregate age 271 years, leaving aside 138 years for Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor who quit - a good half a century after they started out in the grubby clubs of London? How do the Rolling Stones still have vice grip on our affections? How does a band which began around the same time as The Beatles survive a founding member's shocking death (Brian Jones) and cancer (Charlie Watts), numerous drug busts, indifferent albums, departures of its two best musicians (the ferociously talented Mick Taylor, the best lead guitarist that the Stones ever had, and the underrated bassist Bill Wyman), nasty run-ins with the law and fast-changing popular musical tastes?
In his new book to mark the band's 50th anniversary, Christopher Sandford - author of a bunch of breezy rock biographies, including a fine one of Keith Richards - writes that a combination of "music, history and marketing" has turned the Stones into an institution and one of the world's most enduring brands. Sanford's book is a racy romp through five eventful decades. He regurgitates a lot that fans already know. But he also takes stock of why they continue to fill stadiums around the world.
The Stones, writes Sandford, actually live in a time warp. They stage spectacular stadium concerts with sexy accoutrements - inflatable dolls, gigantic plasma screens, cherry pickers, B-stages which plonk them right in the middle of the audiences, stunning pyrotechnics. Togged out in Day-Glo T-shirts, they energetically run through twohour-long song lists of fraying classics night after night. The sound is muddier, but still vital. Like their blues idols, the Stones are the last of a generation of great road musicians.
They are not men behaving badly any longer, but their stories of debauchery are legendary. "Like it or not, " Sandford writes, "there's a vicarious buzz in seeing these old codgers behaving badly. " The Stones now hold the exalted position of the "officially tolerated moral slobs of the middle class".
We also need the Stones, Sandford writes, because they are a living reminder that "one of rock music's initial functions was to act as an emotional pickme up for a weary public". "We want to be entertained by stories about them swaggering around crashing their cars and snorting drugs off the enormous bare breasts of their groupies. What a sad lot most of today's stars are by comparison. " It's difficult to disagree: the Stones are still more interesting - and cool - than today's flaky, ephemeral, PR-fueled music stars, churning out unoriginal and unexciting drivel.
So Stones is now a heritage monument, visited by millions of fans whenever the gates open to public. "You visit them as you might a once magnificent stately house, still historically vital whatever its current state of ruin, " writes Sandford. They have been unflattering called the Strolling Bones, and one of their tours, Steel Wheels, in the late 1980s, was mocked as the Steel Wheelchair tour. Nearly two decades later - between 2005 and 2007 to be precise - they played a mind boggling 147 concerts to packed arenas around the world, and made $560million. Now how cool is that?
If the Stones rustle up a last hurrah - a 50th anniversary series of concerts this year or the next - and finally call it quits, they will remain a piece of valued antique. On some nights, they still bring back the feral menace of their glory days. Their last masterful album was Some Girls (1978) and their last great riff was Start Me Up (1980). But, with a mind-boggling 400+ songbook - more than any band in the history of popular music - the Stones will never really fade away. This is an incredible feat when you consider the fact that for most part of the last 50 years, the calculating Jagger and the wayward Richards have bickered with periodic rapprochements spurred by the lure of returning to the road, earning millions, and the promise of the elusive great song. Jagger shouldn't be possibly singing Street Fighting Man any longer and Richards now sounds best singing You Got The Silver, and laying the chords down for the ballads. Ronnie Wood remains a decrepit sideshow attraction. Charlie Watts perseveres as the most undemonstrative rhythm engine in the world. "Why should we stop it? it's fun, " says Richard. Maybe the time has now come to bow out with a last grimy gem.
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