The Rolling Stones: What’s the fascination with rock music’s royalty?

Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts in 2008. (PA)
Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts in 2008. (PA)
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Fresh from their historic gig in Cuba and the launch of an exhibition charting their story, Chris Bond asks what it is that people still find so fascinating about The Rolling Stones?

In 1982, on the eve of The Rolling Stones’ famous gig in Roundhay Park, the Yorkshire Evening Post ran a preview piece with the headline: ‘Could this be the last time?’

The Rolling Stones in their early days back in 1964. (PA).

The Rolling Stones in their early days back in 1964. (PA).

Back then the band members were approaching the onset of middle age, which was deemed prehistoric in the rock world at the time. Yet here they are 34 years later still making headlines and filling stadiums all over the world.

Last month The Stones played in front of tens of thousands of adoring fans when the veteran rockers became the first western band to play a free open-air concert in the Cuban capital Havana.

They were back on the front page of newspapers again this week with the launch, at the Saatchi Gallery, of Exhibitionism, which features more than 500 items charting the band’s 50 year history, from never before seen dressing room and backstage paraphernalia to rare instruments, famous costumes and personal diaries.

While some have unkindly suggested that Mick Jagger is a bit of a museum piece himself, the band are still arguably the biggest box office rock act still going today.

What perhaps makes this all the more surprising is they’ve not had a bona fide hit single since Start Me Up way back in 1981.

So why are they still so feted? One of the reasons is their humble beginnings - going from a London blues band in the early 1960s into counter cultural icons - and the fact that more than 50 years later when many of their peers have joined the great gig in the sky, they’re still playing.

Yorkshire-based music journalist Dave Simpson says the band has a unique place in the pantheon of rock music. “I think part of the fascination is they’re seen as these old warriors who’ve carved their names into the granite of rock. They recorded some of the greatest albums and singles of the 1960s and 70s and they’re synonymous with the rebelliousness of rock. So even though they’re far removed from that today they’ve managed to maintain an air of mystique.”

Another reason for their enduring popularity is the music, with arguably only The Beatles possessing a better back catalogue of songs. There’s also the simple fact that The Stones are still playing together, unlike The Beatles, or Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. “The simple fact that The Beatles aren’t together does clear the field for them,” says Simpson.

He believes that as long as the band’s key members, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, still have the desire and ability to perform then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t continue. “They lost Brian Jones when he died and they recovered, and when Bill Wyman left they recovered effortlessly. So unless something dramatic happens to Mick or Keith then there’s no reason why they can’t go on and on, like their old Blues heroes who played till they dropped.”

Simpson believes many fans who go and watch the band now do so just to be able to say they’ve seen them live. “It’s over 30 years since they had a massive hit but their new albums still get good reviews, so it’s not like they’re making bad records. But people who go and watch them don’t want to hear the new songs, they want to hear Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Satisfaction and to be fair to the band they give the crowd what they want.”

He says The Rolling Stones are still pioneers, but in a different way. “They’ve become more grizzled and although they aren’t breaking new ground musically they are in other ways. There’s no other rock band still doing what they’re doing at their age so they’re entering new ground.

“They charted the course for other giant rock bands to follow and even though there’s been big commercial rock acts since, there’s no one quite like them.”

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