The Rolling Stones do not exist

Art & Music No. 34 – Summer 2016

It is 1965 and the world is still in black and white. The Rolling Stones have made the arduous trip north to mime ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ in a church in Manchester. Resplendent in the perfect mod button-down collar checked shirt, Mick Jagger sashays down a catwalk through a gathering of The Kids. He twitches with electricity almost as if the future ‘Jagger’ is attempting to burst forth from within the frame of this callow youth and stares down the camera lens into the loins of the teenagers at home. 22 years old and filled with unfathomable beauty, danger, sex and nonchalance dripping from every pore, Mick means it. Mick is it.

Until recently, I could have spent an age describing every detail of this performance, which I had seen on some kind of ‘I love the ’60s’ BBC4 documentary at least a couple of times. The reason I remember it so well is that it seemed to me to encapsulate everything iconic about the Stones. It takes some searching but, eventually, I find the clip on YouTube and watch it again. I have the wrong song… it’s ‘The Last Time’. Mick’s got a white shirt on. There’s no catwalk, just the usual stage. The performance is pretty great but it’s definitely not the performance I remember, even if it’s the very one I saw.

I’m now faced with the thought that The Rolling Stones are in fact made from a tissue of repeated anecdotes, a mess of unsubstantiated myths and bare-faced lies. Can the truth be that The Rolling Stones narrative simply occupies a place in my consciousness reserved for myths, alongside Aesop’s Fables, stories from the Bible or my granddad’s tales of World War II? Is the real truth actually in the way the legend, and the way it affects those who hold it dear? Is every version of the Stones in fact a personal construct, a museum of the mind randomly curated over years of pop culture consumption?

Watching this shaky black and white film again, what strikes me most (aside from George Best dancing in the crowd and getting his own on-screen caption) is that Mick doesn’t miss a single camera cue for the whole three and a half minutes. Even then he was the consummate professional, effectively demonstrating how he will sustain this pop band for the next half century. It prompts me to seek out another piece of footage that is dragged up again and again, a mid-’60s interview with Mick, in which he says he’s amazed that the band have managed to stretch this out for the last couple of years but thinks they are pretty well set up for at least another one. It turns out that this is the very first television interview he has ever done and it is Michael Parkinson asking the questions. This well-spoken young Kentish man seems exactly the kind of sensible gent that you would let your daughter marry.

Together these two cuts of film for me embody the dichotomy at the heart of The Rolling Stones. Are they piratical outlaws, swaggering abroad, on the run from the law, sticking it to the man by taking drugs and avoiding paying taxes, living a life of libertine freedom and leaving a trail of satisfied lovers in their wake? Or are they astute businessmen mounting the most lucrative tour of all time, until their next one, with a half century of career behind them.

Back in 1965, Charlie Watts could not look less interested as he kept time for this rabble. He does not even like rock’n’roll, he’s a jazzer; this pop nonsense is beneath him and it has been beneath him for fifty years. It is such a great twist – the drummer in the most successful band of all time is not really that bothered about being in it. As great twists go, though, this one really does not stand up to any kind of scrutiny. I cannot even bring myself to consider how ludicrous a notion it is to spend your entire life doing something you do not like even when you no longer have to. It is also diametrically opposed to my favourite Charlie story, the one that ends …. and he puts his suit on. Goes down there, knocks on his door and then knocks him out. “You’re my singer!”

I genuinely do not really care which Charlie is currently walking around, fully suited and booted at all times, and it doesn’t matter that after this black and white period Mick slowly creates a pantomime armour around himself, making it possible for the Bobby Davro’s of this world to impersonate him all too easily. I’ve chosen my version of the Stones and they are visually frozen for all time on that stage in Manchester.

Then I take another look at that grainy YouTube footage.

The rhythm guitarist strumming away in 1965 is Brian Jones, sporting the most perfect of pop star coif’s but I realise that he does not actually play in my Rolling Stones. Mick Taylor takes up that position. Taylor’s melodic playing is all over the records that really matter to me: Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street, but he is nowhere to be seen in 1965 miming for that Top of The Pops audience – and in many ways neither is the lead guitarist.

Keith Richards. Keef. One half of the Glimmer Twins. The finest practitioner of the ancient art of guitar weaving. Keith is apparently the true soul of the band, the outlaw spirit on the margins of society, the keeper of the blues flame that burns at their heart. He really is that guitar-slinging pirate that we want him to be. Keith is not impersonated for laughs by middle aged comedians, he is the archetype by which any rock’n’roller is judged. It takes Keith a while to grow into this towering figure of grizzled musicianship, though, with his arthritic hands permanently fixed in A minor. In 1965, he is a relatively fresh-faced youth grinning across the stage at his mates in barely concealed glee at the bizarre situation they find themselves in. Yet, for me, this is not the same Keith who is permanently ensconced in the basement of a chateau in the south of France, pouring filthy blues out of his fingers through a blood-stained Telecaster that he used to knock an interloper off his stage, but which still stayed in tune. After all, the cat could have had a knife.

My Rolling Stones are a composite. They’re in black and white; Mick is a guileless sex symbol; Charlie is sharp and disdainful (Charlie is my darling); Mick Taylor is floating around at the back, out of sight, and Keith is in his ’70s pomp, festooned with scarves and dagger earrings. This is a band that does not exist for anyone else but me.

(originally published in ‘The Saatchi Gallery Magazine Art & Music, issue 34 – Summer 2016)