The Stones, Part 2: A Product of the Time

Few bands generated a multi-album hot streak the way the Stones did. Six albums, from Beggars Banquet through to It’s Only Rock N’ Roll, 1968 to 1974, and they didn’t falter. Some critics omit the latter, but from my perspective, there was no drop in quality. They then promptly lost the script on Black and Blue, got it back for Some Girls, and then lost it again, with the exception of the odd song here and there. By the early 80s, they were a nostalgia act.

The mainstream rock press gave the Stones a lot of shit for becoming slick, processed, corporate, and just too rich starting in the 70s. Lester Bangs, in particular, seemed to have a hate on for them starting with Goats Head Soup. I can’t totally disagree with the the aforementioned labels – by then they just weren’t dangerous anymore. Yes, Keith Richards had a legendary smack habit by then, but so what? That was true of lots of his contemporaries. And it bears mentioning that the Stones’ decade long great streak from 1968 to 1978 (excepting Black and Blue) covered his smacked-out years; it’s hard to imagine anybody crafting a riff as edgy, sloppy, slutty even, and yet utterly hypnotic, as the one he pulled out for “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” from Sticky Fingers without being on heroin.  But I’m getting off topic in my hagiographic haze. Give me a sec.

Anyway, how much blame for the Stones’ descent into relative safe-ness and status as an institution rather than a rock band can really be laid at their feet?  The world was heading that way in the 70s, the “Me Decade”.  And musically, that progression was inevitable. If the 60s were about breaking out of the cage, culturally and musically speaking, the 70s were about smashing the cage to bits and running away from it in all directions. Music fragmented, and the dangerous, stick-it-to-the-man mantle was handed over to the early- and mid-70s heavy metal bands and later (briefly) to the punks. The Stones couldn’t really have stayed dangerous or edgy if they’d tried – even if they’d completely changed their sound in an attempt to stay current and rebellious, what self-respecting 20-year-old wants to take lessons in rebellion from guys who are pushing 40?

So, the above is an explanation as to why my exploration of the Stones stopped after 1983’s Undercover: frankly, their albums after that don’t really add anything to their story. I wasn’t inclined to listen to 1986’s Dirty Work since I understand it was crap, and in any event it underscored Jagger and Richards’ three year estrangement, in combination with Jagger’s solo career and his godawful (yet strangely watchable in its badness) music video with David Bowie. It’s not to say that the Stones couldn’t still rock after Some Girls; they simply stopped evolving and growing in the early 80s and settled into their role as rock’s elder statesmen.

So, to sum up: through this journey, I’ve gained a much greater appreciation of the Rolling Stones as musicians and as a band, and of their place in rock history. Watching them transition from covering blues standards, to starting to write their own material, to actually doing it really bloody well, is fascinating. There’s no denying that their legacy is an impressive one.

But gawd, the disco/falsetto shit…..

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