Mar 23, 2017
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Rolling Stones: Rip-Offs, Revivalists or Geniuses?
by Doniphan Blair (text/photos)
TALK ABOUT CORPORATE ROCK, that contradiction-in-terms, and The Rolling Stones come to mind.
Still touring, 55 years and 30 studio albums later, often with twenty tractor trailers of stages, backdrops and equipment, the around-75-year-old members of the Rolling Stones may appear to the casual observer to be the ultimate appropriators and rip-offs. The very face of the corporate culture machine, which cannibalized the blues and turned its deep, delirious roots into a cash machine colossus of little redeeming value, is none other than Mick Jagger and his pouty lips.
In point of fact, by the '60s, the blues had been pushed aside by black fans and other frequenters of road houses, dive bars and spooky crossroads across the South and Chicago. With the advent of affordable turntables, the newly mass-culturized masses turned from live music to recordings of rhythm and blues and Motown as well as jazz, for the more intellectual—although that too was obliterated by the infamous "British Invasion" of the mid '60s.
Among white musicologists, like Alan Lomax, who also played guitar but went on to become the folklorist for the Library of Congress, and white college kids, who didn't transgress enough in their youth, the yearning for raw authenticity remained—first and foremost, as a matter of fact, in the aforementioned England, starting in the late '50s.
Eric Clapton is considered the earliest British explorer of the blues but close seconds were his band mates in The Yardbirds, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, as well as John Mayall and host of others, notably Brian Jones, founder of The Rolling Stones.
It was "[t]hanks to The Rolling Stones, they introduced me to the white kids in the United States," noted blues legend Muddy Waters, in one of the many well-made, if too short and quick-cut, films which are part of the extensive Rolling Stones gallery show, '
', currently on display in New York City.
The Stones also played with and got to know Muddy, starting with their first trip to Chicago and continuing until his passing, see them do "
Baby Please Don't Go
", or "
Hoochie Coochie Man
" live at the Checkerboard Lounge, 1981.
British blues had a heady effect. It helped foster a full-on blues revival, led by B.B. and the other Kings (Albert and Freddie), and bringing Lightning Hopkins, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, as well as Mr. Waters and others, to audiences world-wide. Later came the modern, white-boy maestros, Stevie Ray Vaughn and George Thorogood, "The Blues Brothers" movie (1980) and the House of Blues club chain, which started in 1992 and has ten locations nation-wide.
As "Exhibitionism" meticulously documents, the band started when Brian placed the 1962 ad that recruited Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and a base player and drummer—soon replaced by Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. Within weeks, they were playing their first gig as The Rollin' Stones. (By the way, "Like a Rolling Stone", Bob Dylan's breakout hit [went to #2] and rejection of folk for rock, came immediately after he returned from his reverse invasion of England in 1965).
Within a year The Stones were getting airplay, with a Chuck Berry cover, "Come On", released in June 1963 (went to # 21 in England) and packing the clubs, partially due to the style developed by their visionary 19 year-old manager, Andrew Loog Oldham: raunchy misfits in contrast to the choir boy and romantic Beatles. In the process, they sacked pianist Ian Stewart, who was ten years older and didn't look the part, although he continued to road-manage and play.
While Brian Jones was the mastermind, he apparently turned into a typical rock star prick, an elitist who paid himself a few quid more than his band mates and waxed insufferable, especially after Keith took his girlfriend, the thrilling and gorgeous Italian actress Anita Pallenberg—probably following Mick, who played opposite her in that great film about a rock star prick, Nicholas Roeg's first outing, "Performance" (1970).
Jones also developed a serious drink, smoke and pills habit. In 1969, he was kicked out of the band and, a month later, drowned in his own pool, a tragic, if inadvertent, suicide, with accusations of foul play apparently invented. Two days later, The Stones did an already-planned free concert in London, to intro their new guitarist Mick Taylor, where they released thousands of butterflies, read a Shelley poem and dedicated the proceedings to Jones.
Immediately after the show, however, Mick split for Australia, to star in his next film, "Ned Kelly", and missed the funeral. He also dismissed the split with Jones, noting that rock star cat fights can be brutal and that Jones should have expected it when he started dishing it out.
Although Brian wrote/co-wrote much of the first five albums, the eventual heart of the Stones—Mick writing lyrics and belting out great vocals and Keith composing the music and doing the same on electric guitar, was far older than the band—they knew each other from grade school!
According to a letter to an aunt, Keith got re-acquainted with Mick at a train station in 1961. “You know I was keen on Chuck Berry and I thought I was the only fan for miles,” he wrote. “But one mornin’ on Dartford Station…I was holding one of Chuck’s records when a guy I knew at primary school... came up to me.” Keith also extolled Mick as the best rhythm and blues singer that side of the Atlantic.
Although Mick's recollection, that they were both carrying the same Chuck Berry record, is probably apocryphal, they were soon trading disks, joining with Brian and moving into a low-rent Chelsea flat, which eventually included Charlie, who was a little older and started as a jazz drummer. An absolute pig-sty, its two rooms have been recreated in loving detail, replete with a sink full of rancid dishes, in the "Exhibitionism" show, which was lead-designed by Ileen Gallager, who often curates shows about musicians.
"Exhibitionism", located in Manhattan's now very chi-chi West Village, right down the block from the new Whitney Museum, albeit in a tarted-up garage, doesn't look that promising from the outside, especially at $32 a pop, which compelled my museum-going companion to turn tail and flee, lest his wife discover he was indulging such obscene expenditures.
Nevertheless, right from the start, the artifacts, images and sounds are electrifying.
In the very first room, a dynamic wall of different-sized video screens blasting color and music seizes your day (see image above). Joining up to form a telling closeup or animation bit or splintering into multiple storylines, the complex computerized edit parallels the opening montage of "J.F.K." (1991, Oliver Stone) which condensed the '60s into six minutes—in this case, The Stones boiled down to four.
After that we're off to the races, albeit walking through rooms literally filled with garbage, the aforementioned rebuild of their first London flat, or dozens of fantastic guitars, which seem to be of interest only to a guitar geek, until you come upon Brian's custom-made dulcimer, an esoteric English-built guitar, or one painted by Keith.
The whole time the songs are pumping: "Gimmie Shelter" (1969), which critics consider their best; "Sympathy for the Devil" (1968), their astute philosophy piece (which makes sense of evil and, with the refrain "Hope you guess my name," exposes Satanism as all in the mind); "Brown Sugar" (1971), which earned them accusations of racism and sex abuse; "Tumbling Dice" (1971), where they actually reinvented a funky, acoustic blues sound (initially panned but now another top critical contender); or their first big hit and traditional show-closer, an homage to anti-materialism oddly enough: "I Can't get No Satisfaction" (1964), which Keith claims he composed in a dream.
As much as they may have ripped off black artists, whose careers often did come back to life post-British Invasion (though they definitively didn't get their full royalties), The Stones did develop a very original, primordial sound. And it stood the test of time, even as they re-invented themselves for each decade, starting with "Their Satanic Majesties Request" (1967), which aped The Beatles' mysticism and psychedelia of "Sergeant Pepper" and Jones ridiculed but a lot of fans loved—"19th Nervous Breakdown" anyone?
Sure some of these segues made them seem quite corporate and appropriationist, notably their jump into disco with "Black and Blue" and "Some Girls", both 1978, although the latter included the hard-hitting hits "Shattered" and "Beast of Burden". Moreover, they had already moved to New York, almost a decade earlier, where they hooked up with Andy Warhol, who did Marilyn Monroe-style lithographic portraits of them and designed the fantastic cover of "Sticky Fingers" (1971). When they realized that the head of the actual zipper, part of the jeans' crotch on the album cover, dented the vinyl, they simply shipped them zipped down—even sexier.
In fact, a lot of their album art was well-thought out and masterfully executed, a welcome reversal of their first three albums, which had just band photos and were titled "The Rolling Stones", "The Rolling Stones #2" and "The Rolling Stones Now".
Even more spectacular than the pop art of Warhol were the images for "Exile on Main Street" (1972) from photographer Robert Frank's acclaimed book "The Americans" (1958). Although steeped in Southern American culture, they cut the album in Southern France at the Villa Nellcôte, the mansion where they moved to beat British taxes, converting the basement into a studio by parking their famous recording truck outside and running in cables and setting up mics and drum isolation booths.
Shepherd Fairy, the guy who designed the Obama Hope image, has called The Rolling Stones mouth-open, tongue-out image, designed by English graphic designer John Pasche in 1969, the greatest logo of rock and roll. And every cover, from "Their Satanic Majesties Request" (1967) on, involved extensive forethought and artistry.
To be sure, the covers and associated tours, sometimes seemed rather pompous and promo-oriented, starting with "Their Satanic Majesties Request" which featured a gaudy-colored hologram, and reaching its apogee in their "Bridges to Babylon" tour (1997-98), which brought in $275 million and featured an enormous bridge as a stage prop, second-in-income only to their "Voodoo Lounge" tour (1994–95).
While their graphics achieved high art, the films about them were even more spectacular. Robert Frank also shot the still-unreleased film, "Cocksucker Blues", which even the famously wild Stones felt compelled to pull due to hard drugs, nudity, sex and bad-boy behavior. While Frank admitted it was pretty out there, he said that what he left on the cutting room floor would have destroyed everyone. Next in notoriety is "Gimme Shelter", the 1970 Maysles brothers award-winning documentary about the free concert in Altamont, California, where the Hell's Angels killed a black man, The Stones kept on playing and the result symbolized the end of the '60s.
"Exhibitionism"'s short documentary about The Stones' filmography is excellent, especially with its inclusion of a couple of "Cocksucker Blues" scenes, notably Keith carrying a hotel television out to a balcony and tossing it down eight stories (no one was hurt).
Moreover, it is narrated by none other than New York's own Martin Scorcese, who admits a teenage obsession with The Stones and made his own movie about them, "Shine a Light" (2008). That short also covers other notable cinema achievements, like Jean Luc Godard's "Sympathy for the Devil" (1969), which consists of long takes of The Stones recording the titular song, the psychological unraveling of Brian Jones and Black Panthers in a junkyard, bearing arms and reading revolutionary tracts.
While Keith liked to shoot up his drugs in private, Mick was a publicity hound as well as a coke fiend, although both were amazingly disciplined, if you consider the social pressures. Of course, many excesses did occur, with Keith becoming the poster boy for junky rock star, while Mick frequented Manhattan's Studio 54 and was followed by paparazzi, exposing his every picadillo.
They were often persecuted by police who assumed (correctly) they would be carrying drugs, starting in England in 1967 and including numerous other arrests in the US and Australia, mostly for minimal stuff, like Keith's reckless driving charge in Arkansas, 1975 (eventually pardoned by governor Mike Huckabee).
Almost opposing archetypes, with Keith the working-class, stand-up bloke as he insists repeatedly in his otherwise fascinating autobiography, "Life" (2010), and Mick the more ambitious social climber and intellectual, who graduated from the London School of Economics and was knighted in 2003, they formed and remain quite the team.
After some tough times in the 80s, they found the formula they are still milking today, with "new guy" Ron Wood as second guitarist, staring in '76, and the black, Chicago-born bassist, 20 years their junior, Darryl Jones (since '93): classic rock, enormous spectacle, high art and occasional flashes of fantastic blues.
Indeed, they just released "Blue and Lonesome", an album of blues covers, recorded in just three days, with minimal overdubs. It has been called a masterpiece and "a monument to muscle memory. Solos are brief and tight, evoking the honed-punch effect of the original recordings. The running highlight throughout the album is the churning ensemble bond: the hot-plate jump of the guitars over the chasing rhythm", according to David Fricke of the not-coincidentally-named Rolling Stone Magazine (which started in San Francisco in 1967).
I finally saw The Stones in 2005 and, while almost unintelligible in the Oakland Coliseum nose-bleed seats, watching Keith do knee-slides at 65, or the four-and-a-half month older Mick strut his stuff indefatigably for almost two hours was well-worth the price of admission.
But if you can't do that, the next best thing—perhaps the best thing, aside from sitting down for a few days to inhale Keith's tell-all book—and he remembers a hell of a lot for someone so drug-addled (and what he doesn't remember, he brings in guest writers to recall), is the "Exhibitionism" show, which will undoubtedly tour forever and come to a garage near you.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Dec 12, 2016 - 03:06 PM