When the Stones rocked up none of us thought they’d be around in five year’s time, let alone 50.
Mick Jagger famously said that he couldn’t imagine himself prancing around on stage singing Satisfaction at 30. At Glastonbury this Saturday he’ll be singing Satisfaction three weeks and six days short of his 70th birthday.
To his left, Keith Richards will unleash a riff he composed the year Winston Churchill died. Behind him in an open-neck sports shirt, Charlie Watts will be underpinning the sound with his drums. To his right will be new boy Ronnie Wood (he’s only been in the band for 38 years).
I was first captivated by the Rolling Stones in the 1960s; a journey that began with scrapbooks, singles on the Decca label and a distant view of them on stage at Hyde Park in 1969 eventually led to autographs, interviews and VIP seating.
My first encounter with Keith was in the 1970s at Ronnie Wood’s home in Richmond, south- west London. As I quizzed him for Rolling Stone magazine he pared his nails with a large dagger and took sips from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. He had a broken front tooth, the gait of a sailor and a habit of wobbling his head like a spring-necked dog on the back-seat shelf of a car.
Mick I first interviewed in the 1980s in Chelsea, where the band had an office. He was much more self-controlled than Keith, and it was impossible not to be mesmerised by his charm.
Central to the success of the Stones has been the relationship between these two men. United by a nonconformist streak and a love of blues, they’re nevertheless very different people. Mick is the Organisation Man; Keith the laid-back dude. Mick goes for six-mile runs; Keith falls out of coconut trees.
And yet the Jagger-Richards team wrote some of the era’s most compelling and infectious songs: Satisfaction, Paint It Black, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Honky Tonk Women, Gimme Shelter, Tumbling Dice, Brown Sugar. This catalogue set them up for life. Over half their current set is made of songs written between 1965–1972.
Keith explained the division of labour to me back then: “It’s a completely fluid thing. None of the songs are completely 50-50. I sometimes write a lyric. Mick sometimes writes music. In the early days there was a stricter division between words and music because back then Mick couldn’t play any instrument except a harmonic. Now he plays guitar very well. He plays piano nicely, and drums.”
Despite the band’s chemistry and talent however, the Rolling Stones only became news-worthy when advertising executive Andrew Loog Oldham became their manager and publicist. It was he who saw their potential as bad boys: the anti-Beatles. He exaggerated tales of their waywardness and made sue that any dirty washing was aired in public.
Oldham’s former business partner Tony Calder once told me: “In those days you couldn’t get pop stars on the front page of a national paper. It took a report of Mick urinating on the wall of a petrol station to do that, when actually it was Bill Wyman! Andrew and I sold that story. We got ten quid each for it.”
Today it’s hard to imagine the impact of Mick Jagger telling the Daily Mirror (in 1964): “If teenagers want to smoke, drink or swallow Purple Hearts and pills, the decision is theirs” or Keith’s filling in of a questionnaire: “Likes? Guitars, books and opium. Dislikes? Policemen.” The same year Radio Times described them as “the symbol of youth in revolt: anti-parent, anti- social and anti-barber”.
Even as their songwriting talent dwindled (they haven’t had a top ten single in the UK since 1981) their reputation as a live act increased. The stadiums got bigger, the lights brighter, the music louder and every new tour came with a sense of occasion. The band are fastidious in preparing for shows, even after all these years. “We love rehearsing because you hone things down and find different ways of doing things,” says Keith during a break on the sound stage in Burbank, California, where the band were preparing for their latest tour. “It’s a learning process every time. We go in and do maybe eight or nine hours a day just getting ourselves in shape, arguing about what key certain songs should be in. It’s great fun. Apart from the shows the rehearsals are one of the best times because you can always stop and have a smoke.”
To prepare for Glastonbury, Mick has studied DVDs of every main stage performance from the past four years. “Festivals are great to be at, but not always the easiest things to play. You’ve got to really work at that bit, but I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun. We’re looking forward to it and I’m thinking about the set list for the day and how we’re going to deal with it. You’ve got to try and make sure that first number really cooks… gets everyone confident. If it doesn’t, you’ve got to put it behind you. So that first number’s got to be something you’re super-confident with. It’s no good doing a slightly unknown number that the audience isn’t gonna deal with.”
Keith frequently mocks Mick as a man who wakes up every morning with a plan but it’s unlikely that Keith’s chilled-out approach to life would have kept the band
together for half a century. At its best, their clash of personalities ignited the spark of creativity. At its worst it threatened the band’s existence.
Keith has always been keen to remain true to the group’s roots in blues, rock ’n’ roll and R&B. Mick frequents clubs, gets excited by new music, picks new acts to duet with (Lady Gaga on Gimme Shelter in Newark, Katy Perry on Beast of Burden in Las Vegas) and wants to compete with whoever’s regarded as the latest Big Thing. “I like to be a bit more open-minded about things,” he says. “I think Keith sees the Rolling Stones as very much a conservative rock band. As he’s got older his ideas have become more conservative.”
Glastonbury will evoke memories among fans who grew up with their music and confirm their reputation for those too young to know. But Keith’s attitude will probably be much the same as it was when I first met him: “As long as you get a reaction then it’s cool. It’s when you get no reaction that you know something is wrong.”