There was a time, way back in the 1970s, when every time the Rolling Stones were introduced as “the greatest rock and roll band in the world,” there were howls of protest. The Beatles had never claimed to be just another rock and roll band so that was okay. But what about another great British band of the same vintage, The Who? What about Led Zeppelin whose records outsold the Stones everywhere in the world?
These days, nobody quibbles too much when the Stones are described as “the greatest”. Zeppelin never made it past the 1970s. The Who lost their edge. And the other pretenders came and went. Only the Stones, reunited after a bitter battle between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, are still rocking in the 21st century.
And yet, who knows exactly why they are the greatest rock and roll band in the world? Of course they have a certain historical importance. And they’ve written some great songs. But it’s been a while since the Stones have recorded anything memorable. Their albums don’t really sell that well. I’d be very surprised if more than a handful of Lounge readers could name a single Stones track released in the last 10 years.
I pondered the immortality of the Stones while watching Shine a Light, a new concert movie made by Martin Scorsese.
There are nearly as many Stones movies as there are Stones live albums but in many ways, Shine a Light is the best. Not only is Scorsese a brilliant director but the film takes the bold decision to strip the Stones of the stadium glitz and pyrotechnics that have marred so many of the other concert movies. As he did with the Band in his seminal 1970s movie The Last Waltz, Scorsese gives us the Stones without any frills. He chooses a show at a relatively intimate venue (New York’s Beacon theatre), uses a simple set and shoots the band from so close that you can almost run a motorcycle through the giant grooves on Mick Jagger’s face. Does Shine a Light answer the question of why the Stones are the greatest rock band of all time? Not really. It’s a great show but the Stones are not significantly better than say, The Who, when that band is in form. The music is okay but there are no displays of virtuosity and no great insights into the songs.
What Scorsese does answer, however, is the question of why the Stones remain such icons. The show is a benefit for the Clinton foundation and when the Great Philanderer strides on to the screen to shake hands with the band, you can’t help thinking: “not only is this man much taller than Mick Jagger, he is also younger!”
Scorsese suggests, through subtle use of archival footage and the odd remark captured on film, (Clinton tells the Stones, “lots of sixty year olds have been calling me for tickets”) that we venerate the Stones because they take us back to our formative years; they remind us of the times we had the most fun; their songs are the ones we broke up with our girlfriends to (I think Wild Horses pretty much said it all for me); and they root us to a past that has effortlessly extended into the present.
We don’t really care what the Stones are writing these days. We don’t buy their records unless they are greatest hits compilations or live albums. We love them for what they represent in our lives.
Does that make the Stones an oldies act? A travelling jukebox? It should. I love the music of the Beatles dearly and am often moved to tears by some of the old songs that Paul McCartney sings in concert these days. But McCartney, sadly enough, is an oldies act. The Stones on the other hand, don’t make us feel sad or merely nostalgic. They make us feel alive.
The real difference between the way McCartney has handled the Beatles legacy and the manner in which the Stones have remained relevant is the live concert. You go to a Stones show to see a performance. Of course the songs are a part of it. But mainly, it is the pure theatre and the incredible showmanship of the band on stage. If you can go to a Stones concert and never once want to get up and dance then you are either tone-deaf or too old.
As Shine a Light shows us, almost all of this is due to Mick Jagger. I know it is fashionable to refer to Keith Richards as the musical heart of the Stones. But if he is such a genius, how come he hasn’t written a good song in 20 years or more? Richards’ greatest achievement is that he is still alive. He was never a great guitarist and his two-song bit at Stones concerts is always the point in the show when everyone heads for the loo. But because he represents some triumph of survival, is proof that you can still live the rock and roll lifestyle and come out on top, his very endurance makes him an icon.
On stage though, Richard looks like an elderly ragman who has dressed up as Alice Cooper. The shows are powered along solely by Jagger’s energy. Jagger may have the face of a man of 60 but he has the body of a teenager. Such is his onstage charisma that you never once feel that you are watching a bunch of old farts out to squeeze every last penny from their back catalogue (though this may well be true...).
In 1972, John Lennon sneered “I think Mick is a joke with all that fag dancing.” And perhaps he is. Taken out of context, all that high camp pouting and ass-jiggling can seem ridiculous. But, within the context of the shows, it makes perfect sense.
Some years ago, when the Stones came to India, I saw both their shows, in Bangalore and Mumbai. It struck me then that the reason we still take the old material so seriously is because Jagger takes it seriously himself. He sings each song like he’s just released the record last week and puts so much effort into each performance that you can’t help being seduced by his charisma.
Each time we see him snarl “Please allow me to introduce myself”, we are reminded of when we first heard Sympathy For the Devil and are grateful that, after all these years, it still sounds as fresh and energized.
We may have all come a long way since that first hearing but seeing Jagger sing it, we know our youth is not over, that our memories have not stagnated and that for that one evening at least, we are as fresh, and as energized as we were in our prime.
So, they may not be the greatest rock band in the world. But the Stones are time travellers. And when he tells us that yesterday does matter, even if it’s gone, Jagger makes time stand still.
Shine a Light is scheduled to release in Mumbai and New Delhi in September.