Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#8)


Today it's time to check out #8. Check it out after the jump.

The Rolling Stones are the ultimate rock band. They’ve seen it all, done it all, been it all. They’ve proven their hedonist capabilities, inflicted outlaw blues with raw, British sensibility, touched on a wide assortment of genres while avoiding the clichés, done the usual extended phases with drugs rollingstones1and alcohol, managed to be a rowdy gang of bad boys but just cuddly enough to appeal to all demographics, and they’ve never stopped. There’s an old joke that suggests the second oldest profession in the world is to be a Rolling Stone, but though age and hard life have certainly caught up to them in appearance, there’s still fire, joy and energy in their performances today, and so long as that remains, why bother retiring?

It all started with boyhood pals Mick Jagger and Keith Richards sharing a fondness for blues records from the likes of Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed along with pioneering rock n’ roll acts like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. In 1962, they formed a band with local slide guitarist Brian Jones called the Rollin’ Stones (named after a Muddy Waters blues classic) and later incorporated Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts into their ensemble. They were mostly playing R&B tunes during those early gigs, and Jones was the dominant figure serving as guide. It wasn’t until Jagger and Richards discovered they made a good songwriting pair that power begin shifting towards them. But in those early years, they specialized in writing pop songs, including light little numbers they’d write for other artists. The fusion of their pop inclinations with their love for tough, rumbling blues defined the future of rock n’ roll after those first runs by pioneers in the late-50s.

rollingstones2Like most rock and R&B bands of those days, their first singles were featured versions and covers including a Chuck Berry reading, a Buddy Holly number, and “I Wanna Be Your Man,” a song written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And like that certain band containing those Lennon and McCartney kids, their early efforts have a quaint, shambolic charm to them, but mostly fade in the background when viewed today in knowing what was in their future. Though they were charting well in the UK, it wasn’t until their 1965 single “The Last Time,” their first #1 original composition, that everything started clicking—it revealed a maturing sound and amassing personality largely absent in their earliest numbers. The next single they’d release would be “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and then there was no stopping them.

Those two singles would be gathered for the American release of Out of Our Heads, but it was Aftermath the following year that solidified them as more than a solid singles and covers act. Comprised entirely of Jagger/Richards originals, the album also witnessed Jones branching out musically by playing a wide selection of instruments, including marimbas, harmonicas, dulcimer and sitar. More hit singles (including “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together”) and another strong album (Between the Buttons) followed, and the Stones were competing with the Beatles for international rock supremacy. But 1967 was a largely ugly time for the five-piece, with multiple drug busts and the misfire Their Satanic Majesties Request (the only mediocre Stones LP rollingstones3during their heyday), which was highly daring and experimental—and almost certainly encouraged by drug use—but simply couldn’t compete in a year overstuffed with great psychedelic and acid rock outings on both sides of the Atlantic.

The arrests took their toll on the group’s morale, which no doubt affected the way they were operating. When the Beatles started tripping out on serious psychedelia, the Stones decided to follow suit—whether an attempt to match John and Paul or just to keep relevant in a shifting musical landscape, the motivations remain transparent yet unclear. Unfortunately, that florid style wound up mostly flaccid in their hands, and they ditched it before long to return to their blues rock. Why they even bothered remains a mystery; if they were trying to match the Beatles, didn’t they realize that they worked best as an incongruent pair? A yin and yang kind of thing? The guy you bring home to mom and hope to settle down with someday vs. the guy you sneak off with to have depraved public restroom sex? The reason people have been posing the question, “Beatles or Stones?” for more than forty years is because they offered different pleasures, not because they were racing neck-and-neck in the same track event.

And while that debate will forever rage, there’s no need to linger on it here. They may not have had the consistency of the Fab Four, but they certainly had the longevity. In fact, when the Beatles were bowing out, the Stones still had some of their best records ahead of them. Sticky Fingers is a classic long player for more than just a zipper—though that zipper was pretty damn cool—and they rollingstones4had twenty-two more US Top 40 hits in them from the 70s on. And with drug problems, legal difficulties, and financial headaches hanging over them like a black cloud, they scurried off to France in 1971 and finished writing and recording one of rock’s great double LPs, Exile on Main St., widely considered by many today to be their best album (I’d put it about neck-and-neck with Let It Bleed and flip a coin for supremacy).

If that first decade of the Stones isn’t enough, you could always cherrypick choice moments from the next four. Most of those choice moments don’t come from albums or singles—though there were a couple of fair full-length efforts and a handful of winners in the latter category—but rather the institution and the delivery. The Beatles (last mention, promise) stopped touring long before their split, but the Stones, despite stretches of downtime and multiple solo outings, never completely stopped. If they had, there would have been no point in lifting an eyebrow when discs like Steel Wheels and Bridges to Babylon arrived in stores. But because of goodwill and the promise that “the greatest rock n’ roll band in the world” was performing again, millions of them flew off the shelves. How many “farewell tours” have the Stones done now? It’s like the saga of Brett Favre playing Hamlet, only with more consistent results and less penis pics.

The fact that the scandalous “prospect” of such a pic back in the day made people go crazy for that vinyl in denim (and that people believed it was possible) was that extra push that the Stones brought to the table. All but the rangiest of garage rockers when the Stones first came out were clean-cut “nice” guys using harmonies and crisp sounds to sing about aw shucks puppy love and good times. The Stones looked more “normal,” in that they had a tousled, beaten-up appearance, rollingstones5scowled a lot more than they smiled, sang and performed au natural (aka, kinda sloppy). Yeah, they were a far cry from the Stooges and Sid Vicious, but at the time, they had that same sort of primal, scuzzy fire underneath their demi-professional nature. They were darker and scarier than the norm right off the bat; listen to their covers of Willie Dixon and Marvin Gaye tunes on their first album (not to mention their own “Tell Me” from the same collection) and you’re left a little shocked that people in 1964 weren’t getting more outraged. There were meaner, nastier, harder, rougher songs circulating during the 60s, but no group combined all those evil tendencies so perfectly while retaining universal appeal.

All of rock’s bad boys to follow the Stones owe something to Mick Jagger. He was the showman, and while he found stage moves to incorporate into his routine, they never seemed rehearsed—the music blasting around him just grants pure urge. No rhythm guitarist plays without referencing Keith Richards. That fuzzbox of his started a revolution on “Satisfaction” and his single-chord riffs (hello, “Honky Tonk Women”) are electrifying enough to make you overlook how important tuning and tone was in his development. Brian Jones got restless with playing guitar—and that slide technique of his was the main reason that Jagger and Richards recruited him to be the ersatz leader in the first place—but proved to be one of the era’s great multi-instrumentalists. Had he not died so early (becoming a member of the infamous 27 Club) it’s easy to sometimes forget precisely how important and amazing he was. Albums like Aftermath and rollingstones6Beggars Banquet probably wouldn’t have been half as great without Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman on them—they fulfilled the R&B beat aspect beautifully, but the accents sway and give the music the nasty strut that Jagger needed to pull off his rooster moves.

Years ago, I considered the Stones to be the ultimate singles band. Most of their hits were excellent, but what few full-lengths I had gleaned left little impression beyond the familiar tunes. Needless to say, I was wrong and absorption made me reconsider. Though many of their best tunes are still the ones we’ve worn out, memorized, been turned out, been mesmerized, they have plenty of deep album cuts worth hearing. Concert favs like “Before They Make Me Run” and “Midnight Rambler,” tough bluesy enterprises like “Stray Cat Blues,” their cover of Wilson Pickett’s “If You Need Me,” the simmering burn of “Play With Fire,” all the country acoustic twang and piano players on side two of Exile, “She Smiles Sweetly,” “100 Years Ago,” “Sister Morphine,” many more. It doesn’t matter that they became spottier as the 70s rolled on and had a handful of appealing tunes at best during the last thirty years or so. They left more than enough timeless material at their peak to last long, long after they finally decide to hang it up once and for all. No need to make room in the archives yet, though—they’re still at it, and so long as the Stones are still dusting themselves off and prowling the road, no one’s safe but everyone’s entertained. 

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Play With Fire
19th Nervous Breakdown
Paint It Black
Under My Thumb
Let’s Spend the Night Together
Ruby Tuesday
She’s a Rainbow
Sympathy for the Devil
Street Fighting Man
Stray Cat Blues
Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Honky Tonk Women
Brown Sugar
Sister Morphine
Rocks Off
Loving Cup
Tumbling Dice
100 Years Ago
Miss You
…and the album Let It Bleed

Also endorsed: The Animals, the Monks, the Chocolate Watchband

[Intro & Runners Up] [100-91] [90-81] [80-71] [70-61] [60-51]
[50-46] [45-41] [40-36] [35-31] [30-26] [25-21]
[20] [19] [18] [17] [16] [15] [14] [13] [12] [11]
[10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1]


Matt Medlock


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