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Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013

The Stones at 50

Looking back in words and pictures

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Despite all the pictures and memorabilia, The Rolling Stones 50 (Hyperion) is not to be mistaken for a coffee table book. It has incisive commentary by its authors—Messrs. Jagger, Richards, Watts and Wood—and demonstrates through remarkable photography the extensive history of the longest-running, famous rock ‘n’ roll band in the history of popular music.

What will most interest admirers of The Stones’ canon and historians of rock music are the early pictures of a hard-working blues band. “At the time I said, ‘I hope they don’t think we’re a rock ‘n’ roll outfit.’ We weren’t back then.  We mostly played the blues.” This comment from Mick Jagger appears under an early photo of the Stones playing a London club gig. We find many photographs—some never before seen—of the early Stones hard at work at interpreting blues songs that originated in America. Nothing tells this story as well as archive photographs, including the very first one, a May 4, 1963 publicity shot. Taken at the Thames Embankment in London, we have Jagger along with Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones and Charlie Watts in transition from counterculture blues to mainstream rock culture. About this photo, Watts notes, “This photography was a good deal more creative than the average shots that were taken of groups or singers back in the early ’60s. Most photographers wanted groups to jump off walls or into the air, which is not really us.”

One need only think of all those first publicity snaps of The Beatles to understand Watts’ comment. The look and feel of the Stones’ early images, and the rather pensive and insightful comments by living and participating band members, are demonstrative of the band’s unwillingness to be a pop group. When they become one, the commentaries become more ironic and playful.

Beginning with 1966, we see and hear how odd and unusual it was to transition from authenticity to glamour, from blues to rock. By the time we reach 1970 we see that, while the clothing and the music has changed, there is still a lasting devotion to what can only be termed a work ethic. Regarding 1970, Richards remarks: “We didn’t play enough large venues to make the thing work and we had too many days off compared with the way we used to do things.”

“The thing” certainly works even when uniformity sets in from 1970 through the final photo from 2006, taken from the Martin Scorsese film Shine A Light in which Buddy Guy plays with The Stones on a Muddy Waters song. “I just decided to give Buddy one of my guitars on stage. It was actually my favorite one. I just thought, ‘This is my respect to Buddy and to Muddy…who turned me on.’”  With that closing sincerity Richards honors the origins of the band. Despite all the huge stages and garish but also satiric concert settings, The Rolling Stones are all about transferring traditional American oral music to the U.K. and then onto a world platform, with origins somehow intact.
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