It’s the perfect name right? In 50BC, the Roman writer Publilius Syrus, a freed slave from Syria, wrote “Saxum volutum non obducitur musco”, or “a boulder that rolls is not covered with moss”. People have known this for a long time. When The Rolling Stones chose their name, they chose international significance and universal resonance.
Not, of course, that they did it on purpose. These were wild things from the fringes of London and the pleasant pastures of middle-class England. When these boys started chasing girls, smoking and listening to Muddy Waters, the last thing on their minds was pancontinental significance. They were after the action and, as lots of people know in lots of languages, tumbling boulders cannot be tamed, or stopped, or told what to do.
Sanibal Island, 1976. An outtake from the session for the record Black and Blue (Hiro/The Rolling Stones)
The story goes that it was Brian Jones who christened them. Brian took his inspiration from a record that was being played continuously in a Chelsea flat he shared with Mick and Keith, The Best of Muddy Waters. Track five on side one of this fine disc was a song that growled and wailed its way through a steamy confession about catfish and women and husbands who were away. It was called Rollin’ Stone, and the way Muddy sang it was the way the Devil might have sung it: slow, snaky and wicked.
Most of the Stones were actually born in the 1940s, another kind of decade altogether. The 1940s were full of war. Apart from Bill Wyman, the others were born during the London Blitz. And even if they didn’t remember it, its impact was in them: the destruction, the blackness. Keith once told an interviewer that whenever he hears a siren in a documentary about the war, his hair stands on end.
He was just a baby, but the darkness got in. All this seeped into their sound, and even today, when they tour the world as happy survivors, the thunder of the night-time bombing raids can still be heard in Keith’s guitar and in the darkly destructive brilliance of Mick’s lyrics: “I wanna see the sun, blotted out from the sky. I wanna see it painted, painted, painted, painted black.” Who in popular music had ever thought like that before?
From the famous photo session for the game-changing album Beggars Banquet, London, 1968 (Michael Joseph)
Out of time
Until the Stones appeared, British groups had sweet and innocuous names like Cliff Richard and The Shadows, or Joe Brown and The Bruvvers. Those nice boys from Liverpool, The Beatles, who had also turned up in London in the summer of 1962 to record their first single, Love Me Do, had a fun name. They wanted to “hold your hand”. The Rolling Stones wanted to hold a whole lot more than that. They wanted to spend the night together.
And they certainly knew how to dress for the occasion. Has there ever been a more alluring or irresistible musical presence than Michael Philip Jagger? When Mick Jagger strutted across Hyde Park in 1969 in that dress, and said goodbye to Brian in those unforgettably uncomfortable circumstances, he wasn’t just blurring the divide between yin and yang, between male and female. Mick was completing the instruction book on how a rock star should look.
Where The Beatles looked sweet in their matching suits and buttoned-up empire jackets, the Stones never pulled off the ‘we-all-look-the-same’ shtick. When Keith put on a suit, he messed it up, like a schoolboy messing up his uniform. Whatever they wore, they looked unruly, but always cool.
Denmark Street, Central London, 1964 (Terry O’Neill/Getty)
Look at the way each of them makes a tangible and unique contribution to the whole: the way the different pieces lock together to form a band. We’re used to it nowadays: the flamboyant lead singer who throws the moves; the stony bass-player who never shifts; the rhythm guitarist on the edge of chaos; the other guitarist who does the frilly bits. And then, right at the back, lurking in the shadows and keeping it solid the drummer who doesn’t say much. It’s the classic rock line-up, and the Stones created it.
Let your hair down
The big thing about The Rolling Stones when they appeared was their long hair. The divide between longhairs and shorthairs runs through English history like a Grand Canyon. Britain has only ever had one genuinely cultured monarch: Charles I, who wore pearl earrings, floppy white silks and long hair that fell to his shoulders in beautiful cascades. Mick and Brian, around the time of Their Satanic Majesties Request, adopted a kind of 1960s variation on it.
Charles’s followers, the Cavaliers, were notoriously glamorous. But the Roundheads, as they were called then, the puritan followers of Oliver Cromwell, loathed Charles I. They loathed his silk tunics, his satin doublets, his art, his wife. But most of all, they loathed his hair. When the Stones arrived on the doorstep of the 1960s, with their cuffs a-popping and their locks a-flouncing, that prejudice was still there. Long hair wasn’t just considered effeminate or impractical: it was dangerous.
Brian in mildly antagonistic mode at a press conference in Copenhagen, 1965 (Bent Rej)
How marvellous that they are still here for us. No rock band had ever grown old before. So how the hell do you do it? While all the others fell away – split up, gave up, died or went part-time – the Stones stayed on the job and saw it through, heroically. The tumbling boulders just keep tumbling – it’s what they do.
Adapted from an essay by Waldemar Januszczak in the new book The Rolling Stones, which will be published in December by TASCHEN.
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