The Rolling Stones - Biography

The Rolling StonesThe Rolling Stones are a British rock and roll band who rose to prominence during the mid-1960s. The Rolling Stones were original in weaving together various strands of American composition into a new form of popular music. Early in their career they played covers of blues, rhythm and blues, country, and rock and roll music. Their first recordings were covers of Chuck Berry, Robert Johnson, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Muddy Waters, and Hank Williams songs, among others. Although founding members Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are regarded as one of the greatest songwriting teams in the history of popular music, the band never stopped being inspired by other genres. Reggae, Punk, and Dance have leaked into their recordings.

Guitarist (and original frontman) Brian Jones, although popular and charismatic, was forced out of the band in 1969 and died an enigmatic death later that year, presumed accidental at the time, although accusations have surfaced that he was murdered. Jagger and Richards took over songwriting and performance leadership. Jones had favored sticking close to the blues base, although he had also experimented with the sitar, but Jagger and Richards broadened their approach.

Early history: 1961-1967

The band came into being in 1961 when former school friends Jagger and Richards met Jones, who named the band after a Muddy Waters song; at least two other bands (and one circus tumbling act) are believed to have called themselves The Rolling Stones before the Jagger/Richards/Jones band was formed. The original lineup included Jagger (vocals), Jones (guitar), Richards (guitar), Ian Stewart (piano), Charlie Watts (drums) and Dick Taylor (bass). Taylor left shortly after to form The Pretty Things, and was replaced by Bill Wyman. By the time of their first album release Stewart was, at their manager's insistence, "officially" not part of the band, though he continued to record and perform with them. United by their shared interest in rhythm and blues music, the group rehearsed extensively, playing in public only occasionally at Crawdaddy Club in London, where Alexis Korner's blues band was resident. At first, Jones, a guitarist who also toyed with numerous other instruments, was their creative leader. The band rapidly gained a reputation in London for their frantic, highly energetic covers of the rhythm and blues songs of their idols and, through manager Andrew Loog Oldham, were signed to Decca Records (who had passed when offered The Beatles). At this time their music was fairly primitive: Richards had learned much of his guitar playing from the recordings of Chuck Berry, and had not yet developed a style of his own, and Jagger was not as in control of the idioms as he would soon become. By this time, however, the rhythmic interplay between Watts and Richards was clearly the heart of their music.

The choice of material on their first record, a self-titled EP, reflected their live shows. Similarly, the album The Rolling Stones (England's Newest Hitmakers) which appeared in April 1964 featured versions of such classics as "Route 66" (originally recorded by Nat King Cole), "Mona" (Bo Diddley) and "Carol" (Chuck Berry). The performances were pivotal in introducing a generation of white British youth to rhythm and blues music, and helped to fuel the "British Invasion". More importantly perhaps, while The Beatles were still suited, clean-cut boys with mop-top haircuts, The Stones cultivated the opposite image: decidedly unkempt, and posing for publicity photographs like a gang sulking at cameras because they were afraid of showing bad dentistry if they smiled. This made many girls go crazy for their bad boy image, and soon made them a teen idol group. The follow-up album, The Rolling Stones #2 (Now in the U.S), was also composed mainly of cover tunes, only now augmented by a couple of songs written by the fledgling partnership of Jagger and Richards having been locked in a room by their manager who refused to let them out until they had produced something they could release that was self-written. Encouraged by Oldham, the band toured Europe and America continuously in their support, playing to packed crowds of screaming teenagers in scenes reminiscent of the height of Beatlemania. While on tour they took time to visit important locations in the history of the music that inspired them, recording the EP Five By Five at the studios of Chess Records in Chicago.

Back at home these early years of success represented a rare period of stability in the personal relationship between the band members. Jagger, Richards and Jones were sharing a house and Jones had begun to see Anita Pallenberg, an actress and model who introduced them to the circle of society in which she moved: a group of young artists, musicians and filmmakers. Prompted by Oldham, who possessed sufficient business acumen to see where money was to be made, Jagger and Richards became more prolific songwriters and 1965's Out Of Our Heads contained much self-penned material, including the classic "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," and saw the dynamic of the band begin to change, with Jagger and Richards starting to emerge as the perceived leaders of the band. Jones, not unaware of his reduced importance, retreated into drug abuse, alienating both Richards and Pallenberg, who began a liaison that would last over ten years. During this period Pallenberg's opinions about the music, as one of the few people the band trusted, should not be underestimated. With the main songwriters maintaining their rate of production, Aftermath (1966) continued the progression, consisting entirely of Jagger/Richards compositions including "Mother's Little Helper," about pill abuse, and the misogynistic "Under My Thumb," whereas on Between The Buttons (1967) they wore the influences of their many contemporaries, including The Who and The Kinks.

Sex, drugs, death, and rock & roll: 1967-1971

By now the band had become almost synonymous with part of the rebellious spirit of the 1960s, and in particular a more relaxed attitude towards drug use. As a reaction the police obtained warrants to search Richards' country home, Redlands. The February 1967 raid, now legendary in the band's mythology, occurred during one of the regular parties, where police discovered a moderate quantity of cannabis. The raid also served as a source of apocryphal stories, mainly concerning the appearance and demeanor of their friend Marianne Faithfull, which only served to augment their reputation for debauchery. Richards was charged and a few months later stood trial for allowing drug use in his home. Jagger was charged with possessing amphetamine tablets without a prescription. Amidst intense press interest they were convicted. Richards was sentenced to a year's imprisonment, Jagger to four months, prompting The Times newspaper to run an editorial criticising the verdict. Beneath the title "Who Breaks A Butterfly On A Wheel" editor William Rees-Mogg wrote:

"If we are going to make any case a symbol of the conflict between the sound traditional values of Britain and the new hedonism, then we must be sure that the sound traditional values include those of tolerance and equity."

During the furor, Decca shrewdly released Flowers in the United States. Despite being a quickly cobbled-together collection of hits and studio outtakes, it was nevertheless a hit.

With Richards and Jagger out on bail within a day, and shortly to be acquitted on appeal, work commenced on a new "psychedelic" album, which Jagger envisioned as the group's response to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper. The record, which would eventually be released as Their Satanic Majesties' Request, received lukewarm reviews —the songs and arrangements did not lend themselves to their natural style and the increasingly-strung-out Jones contributed little—but, despite Richards later pronouncing it "crap", still produced a small number of songs which showcased the improving songwriting of Jagger and Richards. Within the band the dynamic was changing with the two principal writers steadily assuming power from the former leader, Jones.

After the excesses of Satanic Majesties, and with personal relations between Jones and Richards increasingly frayed, the band returned to the black music that had originally inspired them on 1968's Beggars Banquet. Despite the tension, and aided by an excellent sound from an up-and-coming producer named Jimmy Miller, Jagger and Richards produced some of their most memorable work —including the distorted acoustic guitar-driven "Street Fighting Man" and the anthemic "Sympathy for the Devil"—and the Stones entered the phase that would see them billed as "The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band". The songs themselves were firmly rooted in the blues, but tempered by the changes that occurred in 1960s music and assimilating the imagery of Dylan and the emergent heavy rock of Cream and Jimi Hendrix. In contrast to its predecessor, however, it was a clear rejection of the hippie ethos, replacing the platitudes of "free love" with a layer of sleaze. Two other events contributed to the change in The Stones' sound. Firstly, Richards played extensively with Ry Cooder, and was taught his open-G guitar tuning (as used by John Lee Hooker), later admitting "I took Ry Cooder for all I could get." Secondly, both Jagger and Richards befriended Gram Parsons, who helped educate them about the country music with which he had grown up. Music was not all the Stones and the independently wealthy Parsons had in common: "We liked drugs," Richards said later, "and we liked the finest quality."

Drugs were, however, making Jones increasingly unreliable; he was either absent from recording sessions by choice, or locked out of them. After his minimal contribution to Beggar's Banquet he found himself forced out in May 1969, replaced by the young, jazz-influenced guitarist, Mick Taylor, then of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Within two months, and a matter of days before the new-look band were due to play a free concert in London's Hyde Park, Jones was found dead in his swimming pool. His cause of death remains a mystery to this day (all of the reports collected from the many people there at the time contradicted each other), but drowning seems to be the most feasible. Despite this, the concert went ahead, with an audience of hundreds of thousands of fans, with Jagger reading from Shelley's "Adonais" and releasing a flock of butterflies by way of tribute to the late guitarist. The band's performance, under-rehearsed and suffering from the remaining members narcotic intake, was somewhat shambolic. Shortly after, the band released their highly successful single, "Honky Tonk Women," recorded without Jones but too early for Taylor to contribute. Their studio work was another matter. Let It Bleed (1969) followed a short time later and was rapidly hailed as another classic, featuring the slow and brooding "Gimme Shelter," "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (featuring a boys choir) and a further nod to their roots with a cover of Robert Johnson's "Love In Vain". Immediately, the band set off on another US tour, characterised by the hedonism that their position in rock's aristocracy afforded them.

In an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of Hyde Park, and as a reaction to the Woodstock festival, the tour culminated in a free concert given at Altamont, a disused racetrack located about 40 miles east of San Francisco. Poorly organised, and with on-site security provided by the Hells Angels (at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead), the concert was a disaster, featuring running battles between fans and security which reached a head when Meredith Hunter, a young black fan who had unwisely brought a pistol (and a white girlfriend) to the show, was stabbed and beaten to death by the Angels during the band's performance of "Under My Thumb". (The concert would be documented in Albert and David Maysles' film Gimme Shelter). A recurring, morbid urban legend states that "Sympathy for the Devil" was playing during the killing, though this is not the case. This was originally reported in Rolling Stone magazine, considered by some to be the "journal of record" for 1960s music. The aptness of this legend has ensured that no amount of subsequent corrections (in that publication and elsewhere) has been able to correct this impression. In fact, the murder occurred during "Under My Thumb".

The murder, coming so soon after the death of Jones, had a harrowing effect on Richards, and his reaction to the events was to increase his usage of heroin. He would spend the best part of next decade as an addict, taking occasional cures in private clinics but always returning to the drug, and each subsequent tour would become a logistical nightmare to ensure a regular supply in the face of trouble from the police and customs officers. Richards has always maintained that the one facet of his life that was unaffected was his live performance. (Concert tapes, including the time in 1976 when he fell asleep on stage, do not bear this out.) Sticky Fingers (1971), the band's first record under their own Rolling Stones Records label, continued where Let It Bleed had left off, featuring the rocking "Brown Sugar" (another big hit), the country-styled "Wild Horses" (which caused a disagreement between Parsons and Jagger over songwriting credits. The moody "Moonlight Mile" (featuring Paul Buckmaster's evocative string arrangement), and a version of Faithfull's "Sister Morphine," about her own ambiguous relationship with heroin. Mick Taylor collaborated heavily on this album with Jagger, most probably because Richards could not contribute as constructively as usual due to his drug problems, and the sprawling "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" attests to Taylor's influence. However, all the songs were credited as usual to 'Jagger/Richards' which certainly frustrated Taylor.

Letting it bleed: 1972-1981

As Richards removed himself from society, Jagger began to move in more elevated social circles. He married the pregnant Nicaraguan model Bianca Peacuterez Mora Maciacuteas, and the couple's jet-set lifestyle put further distance between himself and Jagger. Pressured by the UK Inland Revenue service about several years of unpaid income tax, the band left for the South of France, where Richards rented a chateau and sublet rooms to the band members and assorted hangers-on. Using the recently completed mobile studio, they set about recording the double album Exile on Main Street (1972) in the basement of their new home. Dismissed by some on its release as sprawling and self-indulgent, the record is now considered among the band's greatest. The film Cocksucker Blues (never officially released) documents the subsequent tour.

It would also be one of the last on which the band still functioned as a unit. By the time Exile on Main Street had been completed Jagger had made the other band members aware that he was more interested in the celebrity lifestyle than working on its follow-up, and increasingly their records were made piecemeal, with tracks and parts laid down as, and when, the band —Jagger and Richards in particular—could get together and remain amicable sufficiently long enough to do so. When it finally arrived, Goats Head Soup (1973) was disappointing, with the Stones' unique sound diluted by the influence of glam rock and memorable largely for the hit single "Angie," popularly believed to be about David Bowie's new wife, but in reality another of Richards' odes to Pallenberg. The making of the record was not helped by another legal battle over drugs, this one dating back to their stay in France. But the tour of Europe in fall 1973 showed the Rolling Stones in top form, particularly Taylor, who played extensive solos on songs like Midnight Rambler and You Can't Always Get What You Want in an exciting interplay with Richards on rhythm guitar. A live recording made in Brussels on 17 October was intended for an official release, but due to legal problems it appeared only on bootlegs (Nasty Music and Brussels Affair). Many fans and critics regard these recordings as the best Rolling Stones concert recordings ever.

By the time they came to Munich to record 1974's It's Only Rock'N'Roll, however, there were even more problems. Regular producer Jimmy Miller was not asked to participate in the sessions because of his increasing unreliability, due to drug use. Critics generally wrote the album off as uninspired from a band perceived as stagnating, but both album and single were huge hits, even without the customary tour to promote them. Intra-band strife continued. Taylor's intricate lead style and shy persona never quite matched Richards' outspoken image and basic, Chuck Berry-inspired rhythm work. By the time of It's Only Rock'N'Roll Richards was reportedly berating Taylor during recording sessions, and Taylor contributed little to the album. Irked by perceived mistreatment, and a small share of the band's royalties, Taylor announced he was leaving the band shortly before sessions commenced for the next album, Black and Blue (1976). The band used the album's recording sessions (again in Munich) to audition possible replacements. Guitarists stylistically far-flung as Humble Pie lead Peter Frampton and ex-Yardbirds impressario Jeff Beck were auditioned. American session players Wayne Perkins and Harvey Mandel appeared on much of the album, but the band settled on Ron Wood, a long time friend of Richards' and guitarist with The Faces, whose singer Rod Stewart had recently gone solo. Wood had already contributed to It's Only Rock'N'Roll, but his first public act with the band would be the 1975 United States tour. The shows featured a new format for the Stones with their usual act replaced by increasingly theatrical stage props and gimmicks, including a giant inflatable phallus and a cherry picker on which Jagger would soar out over the audience. This represented a further breakdown in Jagger and Richards' relationship —the pragmatic Richards considering it entirely superfluous and distracting from the music. Again, Jagger was, if nothing else, shrewdly interpreting market trends —the mid-1970s were the era of flashy stage acts such as Queen and Elton John, and the band's tours were to become even more expensive and elaborate in the years to come.

Although The Rolling Stones remained hugely popular through the 1970s, music critics had grown increasingly dismissive of the band's output. Keith Richards would have more serious concerns in 1977: Despite having spent much of the previous year undergoing a series of drug therapies to help withdraw from heroin, including (allegedly) having his blood filtered, Richards and Pallenberg were arrested in a Toronto hotel room and charged with possession of heroin. The case would drag on for a year, with Richards eventually receiving a suspended sentence and ordered to play a concert for a local charity. This motivated a final, concerted attempt to end his drug habit, which proved largely successful. It also coincided with the end of his relationship with Pallenberg, which had become increasingly strained since the tragic death of their third child (an infant son named Tara). While Richards was settling his legal and personal problems, Jagger continued his jet-set lifestyle. He was a regular at New York's Studio 54 disco club, often in the company of model Jerry Hall. His marriage would end in 1977. By this time punk rock had become highly influential in pop circles, and the Stones were increasingly criticized as being decadent, ageing millionaires, with their music considered by many to be either stagnant or irrelevant. The Clash vocalist Joe Strummer even went so far as to declare "No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones in 1977."

In 1978 the band recorded Some Girls, their most focused and successful album in some time, despite the perceived misogyny of the title track. Jagger and Richards seemed to channel much of the personal turmoil surrounding them into renewed creative vitality. With the notable exception of the disco-influenced "Miss You," (a hit single and a live staple) most of the songs on the album were fast, basic guitar-driven rock and roll, and the album did much to quell the band's critics. Emotional Rescue (1980) was in a similar vein, but lacked the redeeming features of its predecessor. Tattoo You (1981), like the album before it, was composed mainly of unused songs from earlier recording outings (The ballad "Waiting on a Friend" dated back to the Goats Head Soup sessions). It also featured the single "Start Me Up," showing that Richards was still capable of writing guitar parts of the same calibre as ten years earlier. Tattoo You and the subsequent tour were major commercial successes.

Mixed emotions: 1981-1999

Throughout the early 1980s the Jagger/Richards partnership continued to falter, and their records would suffer because of it. 1983's Undercover was widely seen as Jagger's attempt to make the Rolling Stones' sound more compatible with current musical trends. The album's slick production and violent political and sexual content were coolly received by both critics and fans. To make matters worse, Ron Wood was now suffering from his own growing drug habit. In 1982 Jagger had signed a major solo deal with the band's new label, CBS Records. This move angered Richards, who saw it as a lack of commitment to the band. Indeed, Jagger was spending a great deal of time on his solo recordings, and most of the material on 1986's Dirty Work was authored solely by Keith Richards (indeed, many would put later speculate that, after years of making decisions in drug-addled Richards' place, Jagger resented Richards reasserting creative control. A speculation that originated with Richards himself). The album again sold poorly, and sales were probably hurt by Jagger's decision not to tour in support of the album.

To add to the band's woes in 1986, longtime collaborator and unofficial band member Ian Stewart died of a heart attack. The Rolling Stones' only live appearance during this time was a tribute to Stewart. However, a bright spot that year was when they were awarded a Grammy for lifetime achievement. But by this point Jagger and Richards had begun openly criticizing each other in the press, and many observers assumed the band had broken up. Sales of Jagger's solo records (She's the Boss (1985) and Primitive Cool (1987)) did not live up to expectations. Ironically, Richards' first solo record, Talk is Cheap (1988), which he had been reluctant to make because of his loyalty to The Stones, was well received by both fans and critics, prompting Jagger to shelve his own solo career and reform the group for 1989's Steel Wheels album and tour, widely heralded as a return to form. 1989 also saw Stones inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 1991 Bill Wyman left the band and had published Stone Alone, a frank autobiography. (He would go on to write a coffee table tome entitled "Rolling with the Stones" in 2002) After his departure, the band continued as a foursome. Watts was asked to choose a bass player, and he selected the respected session musician and Miles Davis sideman Darryl Jones, who played bass on Voodoo Lounge (1994) and Bridges to Babylon (1997) —both highly praised—and toured in support of both records.

The Stones' song "Start Me Up" was used by Microsoft to launch their Windows 95 operating system. Some critics noted that the group who epitomise the way that rock and roll commercialised earlier rhythm and blues by delivering it to a global audience provided the soundtrack for the corporation who did the same with software. (Critics of Windows also noted the song's lyric "You make a grown man cry.") The Rolling Stones had previously never licensed their music for commercial use. According to legend, Microsoft founder Bill Gates asked Jagger how much the rights to the song would cost; rather than refuse outright, Jagger replied with $13 million — a sum that he thought would be self-evidently outrageously high. Gates, however, immediately agreed to the amount.

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