By Ian McPherson (All rights reserved, 2000.)
1968: Back to the Roots
Mick's Just an Okie from Muskogee
Change and Continuity
Black and Black
The Weight of a Legacy?
Despite their fondness for American blues and R&B, from the start the Stones were never "purists" and they performed material by contemporary pop artists in their repertoire - albeit for the most part black: Motown artists (Marvin Gaye) and other black pop (Sam Cooke, the Drifters) and soul artists (Solomon Burke, Don Covay, Bobby Womack, Otis Redding).
And as the Stones became
international superstars and started writing the bulk of their own material,
their songs and recordings (c. 1965-1967) belied more and more the influence
of contemporary white pop
artists - the Stones' rivals in other words -, such as the Beatles, Bob
Dylan, the Kinks, the Beach Boys, etc., as during this period pop music
became more and more articulate and sophisticated in terms of its lyrical
content, musical characteristics and recording techniques.
Bobby Womack, Woody & Keith, 1985
Some would say the Stones
were in this manner "compromising" their roots and original style - but
such a narrow perception forgets that the Stones' "style" had always been
flexible enough to include many blues, R&B and rock and roll subgenres,
while still maintaining musical elements that for the most part always
grounded them in a blues/R&B context.
Symbols of the English R&B movement... the Stones had it both ways... It is sometimes argued that such modulations of sensibility belie the group's integrity; in fact, however, the Stones' willingness to "exploit" and "compromise" their own bohemian proclivities meant only that they assumed a pop aesthetic. Most artists believe they ought to be rich-and-famous on their own very idiosyncratic terms - the Stones happened to be right.
What was about to happen was an unprecedented contradiction in terms, mass bohemianism, and this is where the idea of pop became key... Their pop sensibility led (the Stones) to a decidedly nonslumming bohemianism - more unpretentious and déclassé than the widespread bohemianism of the 1920s. This was the gift of mass culture, compulsory education (especially English art-school routing) and consumer capitalism to five young men who comprised a social sample that would have been most unlikely, statistically, to group around the arts 40 years before.
More profoundly, this view of the Stones as "compromising" an imaginary purity of musical style, disregards a tremendously important facet of the Stones' approach towards the blues and R&B itself - since the very beginning - which has been observed by certain very perceptive critics. And that is that, no matter how sincere the Stones were in their appreciation of blues and R&B, they were also - Jagger probably most particularly since he was the singer and did not possess the voice of a black, never mind American, singer - very aware of their innate distance from the experience and talents of those black American artists. The irony which frequently graces Stones' performances and recordings, particularly in Mick's singing, has been attributed - rightly or wrongly - to this consciousness on Mick's part of his difference from these singers. Whether the irony often gracing Mick's vocals (an exaggerated Southern drawl, etc.) is simply a reflection of aspects of his personality is possible, but it also probable that it reflects this other notion.
Which, however, and this
is perhaps the most important thing to remember, has never seemed to obliterate
(to these ears, anyway) the sincerity of the Stones' appreciation of their
musical influences - the irony does not come off as a disparagement, but
more as an additional, enriching dimension of the music. So that the Stones'
music can be both fully-engaging, reaching the ecstatic emotional heights
of the best blues and R&B, while also engaging a certain distance in
the mind. This duality, I feel, has continued to characterize the Stones'
music until the present.
To put it in artistic terms, the early Stones were suffering from the anxiety of influence. They had lost themselves in the blues. Their precursors were the likes of Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Jimmy Reed, so naturally they felt intimidated. How could they ever play like that? They weren't black - they weren't even American! As artists usually do, they dealt with their anxiety of influence by creating an ironic distance between themselves and their precursors. Thus, their anxiety of influence from the American blues masters is the source of the irony and ambiguity which has characterized their music for so long.
Jagger's petulance offends some people, who wonder how this whiner - a perpetual adolescent at best - can pretend to mean the adult words he sings. But that ignores the self-confidence that coexists with the petulance - Jagger's very grown-up assurance not
It was their distance from black American music and culture that had permitted the Stones to develop a radically new form of rock in the first place. Distance induces fantasies...
By the end of the 1960s,
after having followed the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Who et al.
in a process of progressive experimentation leading towards the foundation
of psychedelic rock, culminating in the ambitious but only half-successful
Satanic Majesties Request (1967), the Stones backed away from this
development and began - at the same time as they retained a lyrical AND
musical sophistication - exploring the original sources of rock and roll
and R&B. Not so much reverting back to their "original" and more primitive
R&B style, but exploring the even older and more basic sources (so-called
music) behind rock and roll and popular music - again always primarily
American, and more particularly the South - and incorporating their textures
and nuances into the Stones' distinctive music: acoustic blues of the 20s
and 30s from the Mississippi Delta and the Piedmont Valley, country music
of the 30s to 60s (traditional country music, honky tonk, Bakersfield country),
gospel, soul, and eventually reggae as well.
I think that everybody knew that we had to get back to our roots, you know, and start over. That's why we got Jimmy Miller as a producer and came out with Beggars Banquet and those kinds of albums after, which was reverting back and getting more guts - which is what the Stones are all about.
One could argue that, since
Banquet (1968), this has been the "formula" employed by the Stones
ever since, up to the present. They are a rock and roll/pop band, with
a strong R&B base, that incorporates the various roots music styles
into a contemporary and distinctive sound. Many would also argue that
the roots aspect of the Stones' music is most attributable to the presence
and influence of Keith Richards within the band. While Mick seems to always
have his ear connected to the contemporary scene, the past, and its more
primitive, less-commercial musical forms, seem to have a strong pull on
Keith's imagination and creativity.
Keith's compass had always been magnetically aligned to the roots, the mother lode of rock: blues, C&W (country-and-western), gospel and R&B, building his monster sound out of simple, often spare patterns, while psychedelic music was trying to cut itself off from the sources and create a totally new source.
While much has been written about the Stones and their connection to black blues and R&B, the impact of country music on the Stones' music has also been significant since 1968. Which some would perhaps see as contradictory given the Stones' devotion to black musical forms, but not when one appreciates that blues and country are both roots music genres that were both born from the same geographical area - the American south (from the Appalachians to Texas) - and grew not apart, but together and influenced one another. For example, the great Jimmie Rodgers (whose sound the Stones evoked on Country Honk) was the first true country star in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but his music has many similarities with the acoustic blues that was then being created simultaneously by black artists and is truly best understood as a mixture of both evolving genres.
The mixture of country and acoustic blues influences which graces Beggars Banquet and subsequent albums therefore feels purely natural and seemless.
Again, the influence here
is probably Keith's more than any other member of the Stones. Though he
had jumped on the blues "purist" bandwagon when the Stones formed in 1962,
as a child and a teen he had always appreciated country music: Johnny Cash,
the country stylings of the early Elvis and the Everly Brothers.
Keith used to play country-and-western music beautifully, just like Johnny Cash. He'd sit on his own for hours listening to country-and-western records and then play it. We'd sit for hours in the kitchen and he'd play for me.
(Dick Taylor) was the first cat I played with. We were playing a bit of blues, Chuck Berry stuff on acoustic guitars... There was another cat at art school called Michael Ross. He decided to form a country-and-western band, Sanford Clark songs and a few Johnny Cash songs, Blue Moon of Kentucky. The first time I got onstage and played was with this C&W band.
As much as Keith had always
appreciated the beauty of country music, however, the influence of the
legendary Gram Parsons was also significant in the Stones starting to chart
this territory. Parsons came into Keith's life in 1968, around the same
time that Keith was discovering open tunings and a new appreciation for
the guitar. Now revered as the father of country rock, Florida-born Parsons
formed the International Submarine Band in the mid-60s, then joined the
Byrds and was responsible for the group's country-rock classic Sweetheart
of the Rodeo in 1968. Parsons would subsequently form the country-rock
band the Flying Burrito Brothers before making a few solo albums and dying
death in 1973. Accompanying the Stones on some of their tours during that era, some of the most significant time he spent with the band was during their recording of Exile on Main Street in 1971, living in Keith's home in the south of France.
and Gram Parsons, 1971
These are songs that Gram (Parsons) taught me. There's a few cuts by George Jones that were written by Dallas Frazier. Say It's Not You, Apartment No. 9. Sing Me Back Home by Merle Haggard. Six Days on the Road. And a couple of Jerry Lee's things. She Still Comes Around to See What's Left of Me. (Laughs) I used to spend days at the piano with Gram, you know, just singing. I did more singing with Gram than I've done with the Stones. He taught me all the Everly Brothers stuff and the cross harmonies and shit like that. We lived together when we cut Exile on Main Street. He was living with us then for 2 or 3 months.
As with the blues, though,
the Stones adapted country to their own style, refining and broadening
their music rather than recreating themselves as such. Though some of their
country-influenced songs have been played fairly straight (Wild Horses,
and Frayed, Blinded By Love), others have been treated with the same
irony as some of their blues performances (Dear Doctor,
Flowers, Faraway Eyes). With the irony, again, not taking away
from the emotion of the music, but adding another dimension.
Like Dylan, (the Stones) appreciated the fine guitar work as well as the naïve surrealism of the metaphors of country and western music. They had the musical talent, and they turned the surrealism into a slyness and self-consciousness which country music had always lacked, and whose absence had often constituted a major attraction of the music. The Stones' decadence has various meanings, and one of them is that what they admire, they subvert.
In terms of the Stones' adaptations of country music, part of the appeal is Mick, throughout his career, has used and interpreted various types of Southern accents in his vocal style. As often as Keith's love of country is mentioned, it should not be forgotten that Mick has also always had a tremendous fondness for country music. Not too long ago, an interviewer brought to Keith's attention a "Bakersfield" influence in Mick's singing, referring to the honky tonk revival of the early to mid 1960s, based in Bakersfield, California (mentioned, probably not coincidentally, in the Stones' Far Away Eyes), around the music of artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.
Yeah! It's funny. I don't know why. (Mick) likes Merle Haggard... It's not Nashville. You're right - it's Bakersfield. I know he listens to - and used to - a lot of Merle Haggard.
I'm very country-influenced, from quite young. Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, George Jones, so on. I heard those people, really, before I heard blues. Even Jim Reeves. Everly Brothers, and so on. Those kind of pop-country performers are very popular in England. Used to come along and play a lot on TV and their records would be around... I have all kinds of accents, you know, for different songs. I have a different accent for Far Away Eyes than I do for Love Is Strong.
Mick likes country, like Far Away Eyes, Memory Motel. He's quite happy to play piano on those kinds of things, and he did on the record.
Although I dig them I don't think they're anything more than what they are, which is incredible, delicious and wonderful rock and roll... The Rolling Stones should always be a nonprogressive group. I don't think that the Rolling Stones should be concerned with what they're doing in pop. That's what I dig about them.
As Townshend says, "progressing"
is not what the Stones are about. Like the blues, like rock and roll, like
most primitive music genres, there are strong formal limitations imposed
on their music, within which they have kept refining themselves. Proof
of their immense talent is that, within these limits, they have been able
to keep being a creative, vital and extremely successful band for all these
decades - adding new styles and textures while maintaining a strong musical
identity, adapting these influences to their distinctive style. They are
always changing and evolving, but they are also always recognizable. This
tightrope between continuity and change is one of the distinctive hallmarks
of their music.
Well, I think (their ongoing success) is great. I'm really sort of very pleased for them. Listening to it over the years, you know, what they're doing now, it all follows a line which is very logical.
The Stones ha(ve) what we may call a permeable sensibility. They are comparable only to Dylan in the way their music plays itself off against other people's music in remarkably creative, and remarkably diverse, ways.
The history of the Rolling Stones after the bluesy synthamesc-spiked Let It Bleed is the history of another band or a series of other bands, infecting, augmenting, adapting and adopting the styles of their contemporaries. As they absorbed trends from reggae, disco
We're not THAT band anymore, anyway. We're a bunch of different bands. English reviewers seem to have this weird idea of the Rolling Stones as being this band and we've never been THAT band, but they imagine we are. We can do THAT band if we wanna... I don't see why we can't make a record that doesn't sound like the Rolling Stones. We're not a brand, like HP Sauce or something.
The Rolling Stones are constantly changing but beneath the changes they remain the most formal of rock bands. Their successive releases have been continuous extensions of their approach, not radical redefinitions, as has so often been the case with the Beatles. The Stones are constantly being reborn, but somehow the baby always looks like its parents.
The Stones' music has sniffed at every trend from psychedelia to disco, yet it's gone nowhere slowly; it's still basically the same warped Chicago blues they started with...
The Stones can get away with whatever they want. They're universals. They're Gods, they ain't even mortals anymore. They're whites makin' black music. Everybody black digs the Stones. Everybody white. And they even got the Chinese and the Mexicans, too. Do ya understand what I'm talkin' about?
Disparaging the Stones has been a habit of some rock critics (but most often not the most sophisticated and knowledgeable) and a fair share of rock fans since maybe the early 1970s. I laugh (and cringe) whenever I hear some guy (for some reason, they're usually guys!) say, "The Stones should have stopped in 1974" or something of that sort - meaning that after they that they "went disco" and stopped making "classic rock". While I don't have anything as such against white rock (Led Zeppelin, the Doors, etc. etc.), I find that these so-called rock fans, on top of expressing some sort of strange prejudice against black music, miss the entire point about the Stones' music.
When the Stones started adding
styles such as funk, disco and reggae into their music in the mid-1970s
(people usually think straight away of songs like Hot Stuff, Miss
You, Emotional Rescue, but there are less obvious examples also),
they were not changing in any fundamental way - they were only doing
what they had always done. Their music has always been steeped into black musical culture, starting from classic blues and R&B from the 1950s, but then always also exploring the music of their black contemporaries - starting in 1964-65 with Motown and soul music (Redding, Covay, Burke, etc.). And Stones music - UNLIKE a lot of white rock - has almost always been DANCEABLE - even at its raunchiest, from Around and Around to Street Fighting Man to Brown Sugar.
With Billy Preston & Ollie Brown, 1976
That the Stones' music has
incorporated these styles in the 1970s - and continued to do so in the
80s and 90, for example with occasional influences of rap/hip hop (Too
Much Blood, Anybody Seen My Baby?) - has only demonstrated fervently
how the Stones have always remained basically an R&B band. As Keith
says of Charlie, the same could be said of the Stones: whereas most white
rock thunders along, the Stones swing, and they always have.
(Jagger's stage movements') roots, of course, are in the music of the black South - and, with the exception of Elvis Presley, he has done more than anyone else to liberate it from the "race record" category of limited pressings on obscure labels distributed solely in the black ghettos of America... Keith creates the music to which Mick moves, and while the heaviest impact of the group is undeniably audiovisual, the sound alone has made the Stones the only white band played in a number of otherwise exclusively "black music" disc-jockey programs around the country.
Of the twenty-odd records in the room, several Stones albums are the only white music in an Al Green, Stevie Wonder and Jimmy Cliff collection.
I don't consider myself the best rock star and I never have. There are a lot of people who are good, and since I'm not really interested in white rock and roll I never go and see them.
I only really listen to black music these days. I ain't too interested in white bands who rip off white bands who ripped off black bands.
I mean, I've never really liked what goes for white rock and roll, you know. Never ever, come to that. Speaking as one white person to another (smirk)... no, I just can't dance to it. I find it very, very difficult to dance to white people playing 'cause they get all the, uh,
Go fuck all that lot. Silly. I hate their music. I much prefer classical music to some of that shit. Barry Manilow, Andy Gibb. I'm not interested in that. I mean, I don't even really like white music anyway, you know what I mean, I don't want to split hairs. Never been my inspiration. Not even Elvis, you know, was particularly inspirational. I know he wasn't really white, but even Elvis was not an inspiration to me.
Such is the tremendous legacy of their history and music that, like a lot of artists, the Stones' more recent material is often given less attention and credit than the music they created in the 1960s and early 70s. Yet this is unfair, because unlike Dylan, McCartney and most other artists/groups having started in the 60s, the Stones have always remained a vital, creative band since these times. Their two studio albums of the 90s, particularly, prove how masterful and innovative they still are at their craft. Partly because of talent, partly through a habit of working hard and because of a strong willingness to keep being interesting.
As their last strong but
also more experimental album, Bridges to Babylon (1997), demonstrates,
the Stones are concerned not only with maintaining a strong link to the
past and their identity, but also in keeping evolving and coming up with
surprises. Some would say that this marks a profound difference between
Mick and Keith. Keith the heart of the Stones, connected in a truly soulful
way with the roots of music and concerned only with strictly musical
while Mick, the "mind", is also conscious of image and of the Stones' relevancy
to the present, and in an also very authentic and creative way interested
in innovation and experimentation and continually proving himself to himself
as a songwriter and artist. This caracterization may be true only up to
a point, is my opinion, but there is probably at least an ounce of truth
I find it interesting that it's almost impossible not to be influenced by what's fashionable in music. Keith will tell you not in a million years. But whether it's coming through me, or through (co-producer) Don Was, or through Charlie, or through the air-conditioning, the Rolling Stones do get influenced by what's going on. It doesn't mean you have to be slavish to it.
When Jagger plays a major conceptual role in the planning of an album, he tends to be eclectic, even experimental; he doesn't want to be accused of doing the Same Old Thing. The resulting albums sometimes sound a bit scattered, uneven - Undercover, for example. But Richards has a deeply felt, single-minded vision of what the Stones should sound like: that sound is supercharged, guitar-band rock and roll with reggae, funk and soul seasonings, as heard on Dirty Work.
Rock isn't just for teenagers, you have to cover everybody without condescending and you
can do that in an album... The subject matter doesn't have to be tedious or boringly complicated, I don't mean that. But I wouldn't have done Primitive Cool or War Baby (songs on Mick's second solo album) before. The Stones have their own history and there are things perhaps they wouldn't attempt.
Woody and Prince, 1986
I think (the impact of us playing with other people more now) has to do with the fact that if you're just writing songs for the Rolling Stones, you kind of fall into your own little list of taboos: We're not going to repeat this. We're not going to do that again. But how long could we do that in a total vacuum without ever trying other things or getting feedback from other people? When you're working with other people, you stroke a lot of other areas you were unsure of going down before. You just kind of grow, you know? It's better than doing nothing, which was our big problem before.
In fact, it is perhaps this
tension between Mick and Keith, and in the Stones' music in general, that
is responsible for a lot of the strengths in their music. And in a way,
this is perhaps only a further continuation of the duality that has always
characterized the Stones' music: a tension between authenticity and irony,
between the head and the heart, between being innovative and keeping a
link to the roots, between the pull of the past and the call of the future.
Their latest creative "dilemma" seems to be how to celebrate their history
through their ongoing music, while also keeping reinventing and challenging
and surprising themselves and their fans.
If I want to record different kinds of songs or albums - whatever I want to do - I feel I have the right to be able to do that. And though I think the Rolling Stones is a wonderful band, it has its own style, its own history, both of which are very bounding factors. The history, style and the personnel - they're not really that changeable. Amenable to certain change, but after this time, perhaps not a lot of change...
I suppose (I consciously pursue a "Stones sound"). For a time you're aware of that. You're also aware that you're making a record once every 3 years, so you've got to do what you want in 11 or 12 songs, which doesn't give you a lot of room to maneuver. So you feel obliged to come up with certain material that is "Stones" material. I think we've been freed up a little bit from that in a way that we were freer in the earlier years. Back then we didn't care where a piece of music came from; if we liked it, we'd do it. Now we feel we can pull some more styles together. Mick and I don't feel like we have to follow our own self-imposed rules; if anything, the rule is not to follow the rules.
The Stones always have to look for the Stones in themselves. We're still going. People's idea of the Stones changes from when they first heard them; there's myriad ideas and concepts of what the Stones are to listeners, just depending on how long they've known us. We're constantly going forward as well, always looking for the Stones in the same way. Sometimes you screw it up, but most times it gives us some encouragement that we'll find it again. It's very much a focused band - a lot of direction and energy. You can't ask for more than that.