The Rolling Stones - Biography
Written and edited by Frankie Delmane
People who only know The Rolling Stones as the biggest touring act on the planet, will not recall the day when the English group was considered a public menace. At the height of their 1960s fame, the British music publication Melody Maker asked in a belligerent headline, “WOULD YOU WANT YOUR DAUGHTER TO GO WITH A ROLLING STONE?” Many would have answered with an emphatic “no.” But the group – described by one observer in their heyday as resembling “five unfolding switchblades” – has survived public pillorying, rampant drug abuse, multiple arrests, the expulsion and subsequent death of one of their co-founding members, a sensational murder at a huge high-profile concert, and various attendant scandals to reign as a musical institution in the 21st century.
The band’s co-founders, vocalist Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards, were born five months apart in 1943 in the same hospital, in the London suburb of Dartford, Kent. They met in grammar school, but drifted apart. Both groped their academic way towards professional careers in the city – Jagger in economics, Richards (by default) in art; both also independently developed a fanatical love of American R&B, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll. In 1961, the pair fatefully ran into each other at their hometown train station; Richards was amazed to find that Jagger was toting copies of then hard-to-procure American albums by Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. The die was cast.
The third key original member of the Stones, Brian Jones, was born in 1942 in the Midlands town of Cheltenham. An asthmatic, rebellious youth, he was schooled in piano and clarinet, but possessed a natural facility on virtually any instrument he touched. By the age of 17, the budding rakehell had already fathered the first of several illegitimate children, and was regularly haunting the London clubs with his guitar.
The future members of The Stones came together amid the ferment of London’s early-‘60s blues club scene. The style was an outgrowth of England’s ‘50s trad jazz and skiffle music – loving but stiff attempts to recreate American hot jazz and folk music, respectively. Such trad-schooled players as guitarist Alexis Korner and harmonica player Cyril Davies supported club nights where young musicians – including the future Stones, Graham Bond, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Long John Baldry, Paul Jones, and Dick Heckstall-Smith, among others – learned the music and earned their stripes.
After relocating to London, Jones, whose guitar work was by then heavily influenced by American slide player Elmore James, began working with pianist Ian “Stu” Stewart in mid-1962. By that time, Jagger and Richards were rehearsing their own group, which initially included another Dartford school chum, guitarist Dick Taylor (soon to join the Pretty Things). Jagger and Richards joined Jones, who had impressed them at a gig with Korner’s band that they had witnessed that spring, and Stewart. By that summer, the embryonic Rollin’ Stones – who had drawn their name from the lyric of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” -- had taken over Korner’s gig at London’s Marquee, featuring a repertoire of American blues and R&B.
The band’s shifting rhythm section was solidified with the addition of two key players. Journeyman bassist Bill Wyman (né William Perks), the group’s eldest member at age 26, was brought on in December 1962 after a journeyman stint with various London bands; his ownership of a powerful Vox amplifier was viewed as a big plus. Former Blues Incorporated drummer Charlie Watts, a rock-solid jazz-schooled skinman whose playing had always impressed The Stones, came on board in January 1963.
That spring, the group’s raucous, near-riotous performances at London clubs like the Ealing and the Crawdaddy and in provincial venues began to attract attention. In April, a journalist’s tip led Andrew Loog Oldham – recently with Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s NEMS organization – to approach the group about managing them. Once on board, Oldham immediately expelled pudgy, bulldog-faced keyboardist Stewart from the lineup; the loyal ex-bandmate would stay on with The Stones as road manager and studio keyboardist (and, usually hidden on stage, as touring pianist) until his death from a heart attack in 1985.
In his illustrated history Rolling With the Stones, Wyman says of Oldham, “He set us up to be the opposite of the loveable Beatles and we became the first pop group people loved to hate.”
Quickly signed to Decca Records by Dick Rowe, the A&R man who had turned down the Beatles, The Rolling Stones released their first single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On,” in June 1963. Their scruffy, shaggy, casually attired appearance and punk attitude – in marked contrast to the uniformed look and on-stage politesse of their contemporaries -- just as rapidly marked them as the anti-Beatles; ironically, the quickly-penned John Lennon-Paul McCartney number “I Wanna Be Your Man” became their second British single, reaching No. 12.
Through 1964, the band’s early 45s and albums leaned heavily on classic American R&B, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll – all much beloved by Brian Jones, then still the putative bandleader. But, under Oldham’s lash, Jagger and Richards began to gain their footing as writers, authoring such pungent, rocking singles as “Tell Me,” “Heart of Stone,” and “The Last Time.” They made their first bumpy American tour in the summer of 1964; sessions at Chess Records’ historic Chicago studio yielded the No. 1 U.K. hit “It’s All Over Now” and the No. 6 U.S. hit “Time is On My Side.” At home, they were capable of igniting a crowd: In July 1964, a full-blown riot ensued after Richards kicked a spitting spectator in the head in Blackpool.
In 1964 and 1965, The Stones returned again, and yet again, to America, solidifying their rep as rock’s bad boys on the road and hitting the U.S. studios. A May 1965 session at RCA Studios in Hollywood resulted in their breakthrough single: the Jagger-Richards original “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” a sullen declaration of discontent driven by an insistent, fuzzed-out guitar riff. The song became the first Stones single to reach No. 1 in both the U.S. and the U.K.; it was ubiquitous that summer, and it launched a thousand imitative garage bands. It also may have ended any claim Jones – whose leonine charisma still rivaled that of his pouting, gyrating lead singer – may have had to ownership of the group. Out of Our Heads (1965), the album that contained the single, also reached No. 1; it remained on the U.S. charts for a staggering 66 weeks.
During 1965-67, The Stones broke into chart primacy with a run of tough, mocking, threatening singles: “Get Off My Cloud,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” the nihilistic “Paint It, Black” (with Jones on self-taught sitar), “Mother’s Little Helper,” “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows” (promoted with photos of the band in full drag) – top 10 hits all. They also released the ambitious albums Aftermath (1966) and Between the Buttons (1967).
But there was trouble in paradise. In February 1967, Jagger and Richards were busted for drug possession after a police raid of Richards’ home; their conviction was overturned on appeal after a London Times editorial excoriated the verdict. In March, a developing romantic triangle involving Jones, his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, and Richards resolved itself when the actress left Jones for Richards. An increasingly drug-addled Jones was arrested after a June raid that uncovered hashish and cocaine; he checked himself into a nursing home. In the fall, the band split with producer-manager Oldham and aligned with hard-nosed American manager-accountant Allen Klein. Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967), The Stones’ psychedelicized response to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was greeted with largely negative reviews.
The Stones rebounded with the furious single “Jumping Jack Flash” and the back-to-basics album Beggars Banquet (1968); French director Jean-Luc Godard immortalized the making of the album in his film Sympathy For the Devil. However, Jones was by now almost completely marginalized in the band. Though he managed to escape his earlier drug arrest with a fine, he was again busted for drug possession. He was scarcely functioning by the time the group taped their all-star Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus film in December, and contributed little to sessions for a new Stones album.
In June 1969, Jagger, Richards, and Watts went to Jones’ home and informed him that he was being dismissed from the group. The Stones had already recruited Mick Taylor, the young hotshot lead guitarist of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, as his replacement. On July 3, Jones was found lifeless in his swimming pool; a coroner ruled his drowning was accidental. An already-scheduled free July 5 concert in London’s Hyde Park served as a memorial for the band’s troubled onetime leader.
Prefaced by the raunchy “Honky Tonk Women,” which marked Taylor’s bow with the band, The Stones’ ’69 American tour was a triumphant return to packed arenas. But it had an awful denouement: On Nov. 30, in an attempt to one-up the summer’s massive Woodstock Festival, the band played a hurriedly organized free concert at Altamont Speedway outside San Francisco. A crowd estimated by some at 500,000 surrounded a low, jerry-rigged stage, which was protected by members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, ill-advisedly hired as security. As The Stones performed, black teenager Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by the Angels after he brandished a revolver. The entire debacle, including the murder, was filmed by directors Albert and David Maysles for their 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter. The band’s subsequent album Let It Bleed (1969), featuring such fearful, violent songs as the title track, “Gimme Shelter,” and “Midnight Rambler,” was viewed by many as a dread-filled reflection of the event.
The ‘60s were over – and many saw Altamont as that idealistic yet permissive decade’s appalling climax – but The Stones were on a true creative roll. Sticky Fingers (1971), their first album on their own custom label, went to No. 1 in the U.S., and contained the classic singles “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses.” Heroin-soaked sessions at Richards’ villa in the south of France produced Exile On Main St (1972), a murky, unsettling two-LP set that many consider the band’s finest work. The Stones’ ’72 American tour, which attracted such celebrities as Truman Capote and Princess Lee Radziwill, is recalled as a pinnacle of rock decadence; photographer Robert Frank’s film Cocksucker Blues, which captured backstage excesses of drugs, sex, and destruction, was suppressed by the band, and has been since released in limited form on DVD.
The Stones' commercial fortunes continued with the drug drenched Goats Head Soup (1973) and road life reveal of It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (1974), both reaching No. 1 in the U.S., Mick Taylor quit the band. His replacement was Ron Wood, a veteran of the Jeff Beck Group and the Faces. A perfect on- and off-stage foil for Richards, “Woody” debuted with The Stones on their 1975 U.S. tour and on the album funk infused Black and Blue (1976).
The Stones’ future was threatened in 1977, when Richards was busted in Toronto for heroin possession with intent to traffic. The charge carries a life sentence in Canada. The guitarist, who swiftly underwent drug rehabilitation treatment, was ultimately sentenced to perform a charity benefit concert.
The 1978 45 “Miss You” – The Stones’ last No. 1 single – was the group’s successful attempt to reconcile their brand of hard-edged rock with that period's vital disco craze. It prefaced Some Girls (1978), a strong and consistent LP, followed by the equally succesful Tattoo You (1981), followed by an enormous world tour, from which the live LP Still Life (1982) was born. A subsequent live film, directed by Hal Ashby, titled Let's Spend The Night Together, was released to theaters in 1983.
The 1983 release of Undercover, the band's 19th studio LP, showed The Rolling Stones to be master craftsmen at the art of being The Rolling Stones, producing the throbbing, shockadelic dance cut "Undercover Of The Night," in addition to other satisfying rockers such as the camp thrust of "She Was Hot," the storied brutality in "Too Tough," Keith's romantic rocker "Wanna Hold You," Jagger's homoerotic "All The Way Down," the cocaine come down reggae of "Feel On Baby," and the nightmare that is "Too Much Blood," a portrait of a band who knows how to play to the cheap seats as much the balcony. Though critically slammed at the time, it became a huge hit for the band, eventually reaching new levels of appreciation not known in it's day.
Ditto for 1986's Dirty Work, an LP that had an initially sour reaction by critics and fans alike, the LP's garish cover of the band dressed in trendy clothes of the era possibly the culprit, rather than the material included. Regardless, the perception was that The Stones may be washed up, as Jagger went into a solo career, creating a rift between himself and Richards. Jagger released two solo records- She's The Boss (1985) and Primitive Cool (1987.) Richards followed with his own solo excursion, Talk Is Cheap (1988), before regrouping and reconciling with Jagger, to produce Steel Wheels (1989), which proved a firm commercial comeback for The Rolling Stones.
Since then The Rolling Stones have released only three studio albums; Voodoo Lounge (1994) – the group’s first album without Bill Wyman (who retired in 1991), full of classic rock readymades such as "Sparks Will Fly," " Love Is Strong," and "You Got Me Rocking," alongside lovely rock ballads like "Blinded By Rainbows," "The Worst," "Sweethearts Together," and "Out Of Tears," the pop push of Bridges To Babylon (1996) and the stripped to basics nastiness of A Bigger Bang (2005), the band proving they still have some of that old world magic to share. Jagger has continued his solo career, his third release Wandering Spirit (1993) considered by many a fan one of the great, classic rock albums of the 1990s. It was followed by Goddess In The Doorway (2001). Richards released a second solo record, titled Main Offender (1992).
The band’s career has assumed a familiar rhythm: a top-10, platinum studio album, succeeded by a world tour, with a live album (nine in all over the course of their career) or a greatest hits package (eight since 1966) interspersed to tweak the marketplace when the band is idle. The tumult that dogged them in their heyday subsided long ago; these days, the once-debauched, seemingly indestructible sexagenarian Keith Richards makes headlines by falling out of a tree. When The Rolling Stones hit the road, crowds of faithful fans, in awe of the legend, continue to flock to stadiums in sold-out numbers, to take what may be one last look at the group many still refer to, without much dispute, as “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.”