The Rolling Stones reinvented rock music. They didn’t do it alone, but they stood on the crest of a wave of cultural change that swept across Western countries during the 1960s. Vantage spoke to the band when they returned to Shanghai to play their second show in the city.
by Ashley Greenwood (originally published in February 2014)
It was during the mid-1960s ‘British Invasion’ of the US, at a time when traditional values were being challenged and changed by the baby-boomer generation; The Beatles had already risen to fame with a clean and respectable image, so the Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, promoted the group as an antithesis to that. Appearing in public wearing everyday clothes and posing unsmiling on the cover of their first album, the media lapped up their “bad boy” image and provocative headlines followed; “Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?” asked the North American media upon their first tour.
“If you have a real love of your music, and need to pass it through to other people, you can just hang in forever.” – Richards
The Rolling Stones drummer, Charlie Watts, told Vantage “I’ve never thought about rock music. I mean the only time I’ve thought about rock music was through the drummers really, and obviously some of the great singer songwriters.”
The band came together when childhood friends Keith Richards and Mick Jagger bumped into each other while waiting for a train and rekindled their friendship through a mutual interest in rock pioneer Chuck Berry and blues singer Muddy Waters. The band later took their name from the Muddy Water’s song ‘Rollin’ Stone’, and began performing the songs of these American stars. Charlie Watts explains, “Rock and roll to me is Chuck Berry and Little Richard. I never thought English white beat groups, of which we could be called one, were rock and roll to be honest with you. Rock and roll is Bill Haley and His Comets. But that’s looking at it from someone who came through that. It’s what it is. Rock and roll now, I mean I don’t really see it really. But I never have”.
The Rolling Stones started out performing and releasing cover songs from their influences, and soon had their first number one, a cover of Bobby and Shirley Womack’s “It’s All Over Now”. However, Oldham saw no longevity for a covers act and encouraged the band to write their own songs. In 1965 the first Jagger/Richards composition “The Last Time” reached number one in the UK.
Fifty years and 29 studio albums later and the band is still touring, with a performance in Shanghai this March. There are few bands that have lasted so long, except perhaps the Beach Boys, who we spoke to when they played in Shanghai last year. It used to be that Shanghai could only entice faded, second rate bands to perform here, but those days are long over now, with the city seeing performers at their peak proudly billed at impressive venues. One of the most exciting headline acts this city will see this year is undoubtedly The Rolling Stones.
The Rolling Stones have always retained their unique sound, rooted in blues and rock, but they have embraced new styles of music that emerged during their career, even flirting with disco on songs like ‘Miss You’. Ronnie Wood tells us “Stemming from a blues root, we play everything from Marley to Mozart. We are very strongly influenced by blues, rock and roll, reggae, even classical music.”
So after half a century together, when the band have travelled the world, made their fortunes, and their mark in the history books, what keeps the Rolling Stones touring? We asked Ronnie Wood what he still wants to achieve: “I want to do some more music, more diversity, we’re always learning. We’re just looking forward to getting this tour finished first. In this leg of the tour, we’re coming to the Far East and then down through Singapore and Australia and New Zealand and then we have a short break and then hopefully we’ll do Europe and South America.”
Wood’s passion and devotion to his craft is echoed by bandmate Keith Richards. Considered one of the best guitarists ever, with a collection of over 3000 of them, Richards has created some of the greatest riffs in rock music. Despite his septuagenarian status, Richards has more youthful enthusiasm than someone half his age, proudly announcing that the whole band is in tiptop form for the colossal world tour. We asked Richards what advice would he pass on to the young people and fledgling bands in China: “If they really want to do it, you just hang in there. I guess really it’s the reason that you do it. If it’s just to be famous, you’ll be famous for a while but then hang them up. If you have a real love of your music, and need to pass it through to other people you can just hang in forever. It’s really a matter of perseverance.”
This really seems to be the key to the Rolling Stones success – hard work. So what would they be doing if they hadn’t become the preeminent rock and roll stars of the twentieth century? “I’d be painting, I’m always painting,” says Ronnie Wood.