The Rolling Stones’ Greatest Moments

stones50The birth of the Mick’n’Keef songwriting partnership

“1960 was pretty boring and 1961 was boring,” Keith Richards told NME’s Brendon Fitzgerald, casting an eye back over the Sixties in a 1995 interview. “1962 I started playing with the Stones and things started to get interesting…”

By the time The Stones released their debut LP, 50 years ago in April 1964, things were getting very interesting indeed. Their manager in those early years was dynamic impresario Andrew Loog Oldham, and he says now that the record represented everything the band had been working towards. “I think the fact that the band had been able to make an album at all was a wonderful surprise,” he says.

“Your recording career went in increments: First the singles, then the EPs, then if it was all going well you were allowed to do an album. It was a highpoint for The Stones – we did not know what a marketing tool was in those days. Recording an album was just a wonderful validation of the work they’d put into being The Rolling Stones.”

That debut self-titled album, which was recorded at London’s Regent Sound Studios over five days in January and February 1964, was mainly made up of covers of songs by American R’n’B and blues artists like Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon and rock’n’roll pioneer Chuck Berry. It was Oldham who encouraged the band to start writing their own material, locking Jagger and Richards in a kitchen until they came up with something original. “The R’n’B barrel of songs was getting lighter every day,” Oldham explains. “I had thought about the band trying James Ray’s ‘If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody’, then somebody told me Freddie & The Dreamers had just done it. I knew they had to write and I was lucky that Mick and Keith went for it. A group that doesn’t write is like a plane without a parachute.”

Further encouragement to start writing for themselves had come in 1963, when Oldham had made use of his former role as The Beatles’ publicist to arrange for Lennon and McCartney to give The Stones a song they’d just written. “I bumped into John and Paul getting out of a cab outside Leicester Square tube station,” he explains. “They were slightly tipsy, therefore more clairvoyant than usual. “Andy, what’s wrong?” said John. He and Paul could call me Andy as I had until recently done their London PR. I told them we had nothing to record for our second single and that the Stones were rehearsing half a block away at Ken Colyer’s jazz club. “We’ve got a song,” they said in unison. They always had songs. They may have said the song was nearly finished, they forgot to mention that they’d recorded it 10 days before with Ringo singing. The song was ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’. They came and played it to the Stones. The moment I heard Brian play the bottle neck guitar I knew we had something good. I was so amazed I left for Paris to buy a pair of boots. The Stones recorded it with Eric Easton, my partner at the time.”

In the end the album contained a trio of original songs. Jagger and Richards contributed ‘Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)’ while two songs ‘Little By Little’ and ‘Now I’ve Got a Witness (Like Uncle Phil and Uncle Gene)’ were credited to Nanker Phelge, a pseudonym the band used for group compositions. The Phil and Gene referred to in the title were Phil Spector and Gene Pitney, who had been in the studio when they were recorded. Spector helped Jagger write ‘Little By Little’, and even ended up playing maracas on it.

The album was a huge hit, becoming one of the year’s biggest selling records in the UK and staying at number one for 12 weeks. However, NME interviews the time paint a picture of a modest, self-effacing group. In May 1964, Mick Jagger described the album simply as “the kind of stuff we like playing. I think the real R’n’B fans will know what we’re doing on it.” Keith Richards added: “I like it really, you know, I think it is good. It is something we have always wanted to do, to record these numbers.”

In later bootleg recordings, collected on ‘Voodoo Brew Two’, Richards describes how innocent he was in those early years. He says that when he first learned the blues standard ‘Cocaine’, he didn’t even know what the substance was, and had certainly never taken it. Looking back, Oldham says this was as much about the band’s work ethic as anything else. “It’s not just that we were innocent, we were very, very busy trying to get ahead,” he points out. “I’ve read so much revisionist crap about who took what when. It was not a competition. The first drug was the work.”

‘Sticky Fingers’ and decamping to France for the ‘Exile…’ sessions

With all the myths and legends that shroud The Rolling Stones like thick plumes of cigarette smoke, maybe the story that gets forgotten most is just how hard they worked. In 1969, finishing a brief American tour and with ‘Let It Bleed’ already done and dusted but not due for release until December 5, the band were already itching to start recording again. On December 2 they paid a brief impromptu visit to a new recording studio they’d heard stories about. Muscle Shoals Sound in Alabama had been started up by a renegade group of house musicians from the nearby FAME studio, which was then a soul hit factory. Writer Stanley Booth was touring with the band at the time. “I’d never seen any band work as hard as the Rolling Stones,” he says. “They really inspired me to work harder as an artist. At Muscle Shoals they cut three tracks: ‘Wild Horses’, ‘You Gotta Move’ and ‘Brown Sugar’ and they played for three days straight. At the end of the session Charlie went back to the drum-set and started playing again. Keith said, “Look at that! That’s a rock’n’roller”.”

Those three tracks would all make their way onto ‘Sticky Fingers’, with further recording sessions following at London’s Olympic studios and in the band’s Mighty Mobile studios which they had taken to Stargroves, Mick Jagger’s Hampshire estate. In April 1971 Jagger sat down with NME for a track-by-track run through of their upcoming album, which we said “gets back a bit to the roots that made The Stones.” He called ‘Wild Horses’ “my favourite ballad” and joked that ‘Bitch’ is “our tribute to all dog lovers.” Later that year, Keith Richards told NME: “When I first heard the completed album I was amazed how together it was. It took a long time to get it finished, but it hangs together very well. It still feels like the old Stones. All told, I think its one of our best.”

‘Sticky Fingers’ was the first record not to feature any contribution from Brian Jones, and Richards would say later that Mick Taylor’s increased presence in the band changed the way he wrote. “Some of the ‘Sticky Fingers’ compositions were rooted in the fact I knew Taylor was going to pull something great,” he wrote in his autobiography ‘Life’.

When the album came out in May 1971 it was a smash. It spent four weeks at number one before returning for another week in mid-June. Legendary rock writer Lester Bangs picked it as his album of the year, saying he’d played it more than any other record. At this point, The Stones were the biggest band in the world – albeit by default because their biggest rival for that title had just split. As NME’s Ritchie Yorke wrote in June 1971: “With the passing away of The Beatles and the lack of critical acceptance of such hugely successful bands as Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk, it could well be that the Stones are the top group in the world at present.”

It’s a mark again of just how hard The Stones worked and how prolific they were during the late Sixties that the 16-month gap between ‘Sticky Fingers’ and its follow-up ‘Exile On Main Street’ was described by NME at the time as “what seems like an eternity”. The 1972 record, which had initially had a working title of ‘Tropical Diseases’, was written and recorded when the band had decamped to Richards’ former Nazi villa Nellcôte, in the south of France.

Mick Jagger told NME’s Roy Carr at the time: “We recorded the album in this disgusting basement which looked like a prison. The humidity was incredible. I couldn’t stand it. As soon as I opened my mouth to sing my voice was gone. It was so humid that all the guitars were out of tune. By the time we managed to tune up to start one number, they were out of tune by the time we got to the end.”

Richards added in NME in April 1972: “Making this album was a much more relaxed affair than usual. Not being done in a proper studio, it was a question of who ever was around just picking up the appropriate instruments and laying down the tracks.”

Later Richards would remember it as arguably the most productive period of his and Jagger’s working relationship. They would force themselves to produce one or two songs a day, and the guitarist says that pressure spurred them to create. “You’d be surprised when you’re right on the ball and you’ve got to do something and everybody’s looking at you going, OK, what’s going to happen?” he wrote in ‘Life’. “You put yourself up there on the firing line – give me and blindfold and a last cigarette and let’s go. And you’d be surprised how much comes out of you before you die.”

Glastonbury & Hyde Park 2013

“Sorry to keep you all hanging around but the waiting is over,” announced Keith Richards with a pirate’s grin in 2012. After months of speculation, the greatest rock’n’roll band in history were returning to action. “I’ve always said the best place for rock and roll is on the stage,” he added, “and the same is true for the Stones.”

Half a century since their first gig at the Marquee Club on Oxford Street, on 12 July 1962, rumours had been running back and forth all year that the band would dust off their guitars to mark their 50th anniversary. They’d been on hiatus since wrapping up a two-year world tour in support of ‘A Bigger Bang’ in 2007. So it was: in October they released their first original single in six years, ‘Doom and Gloom’, and announced two shows at London’s O2 Arena and then a further pair in New York and New Jersey.

The shows gave the band a chance to bury some very old hatchets, with former members Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor invited back as guests. Those four initial dates were seen as a toe in the water: after five decades together, unprecedented longevity for a rock’n’roll band, could The Stones still hack it on the world’s biggest stages? A further 18 date tour of the USA proved that there was still life in the old dogs.

By this point in their careers there was very little that they still had left to achieve, but surely the most egregious omission from their CV was that they’d never performed at Britain’s biggest festival. In 2013 the band finally announced that they’d be paying a long overdue visit to Worthy Farm. Keith Richards said he felt the band were “destined to play Glastonbury.” “I look upon it as the culmination of our British heritage,” he added. “It had to be done and it’s gonna be done.”

Their triumphant headline set drew right from the depths of their five decade legacy. They opened with 1968’s ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and closed the night with the oldest song on the setlist, 1965’s ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’. It was clear the band relished living up to the sense of occasion the festival provided, reworking the ‘Beggars Banquet’ track as ‘Glastonbury Girl’ and indulging in a spot of pyrotechnics, not least the mechanical phoenix perched on top of the Pyramid Stage that lurched into life as the band played ‘Sympathy For The Devil’.

They rounded off their 50th anniversary tour by returning to Hyde Park for a pair of shows. If Glastonbury was about proving themselves on a new stage, Hyde Park was a return to a former stomping ground that was inevitably tinged with nostalgia. Their set was designed to evoke memories of their show in 1969, when Mick Taylor had made his debut and the band had set off on the run of releases which cemented their legend. Mick Jagger played up the significance, pulling on a white top designed to look like the one he’d worn then, and claiming it was: “Just something I found in the back,” adding: “I just wanted to go back to my closet and see whether it still fitted.”

Even after the triumphs of Glastonbury and Hyde Park, the show stays on the road. As they wrapped up their 2013 tour, they announced dates which will take them across Asia, Europe and Australia this year. There’s no rest for the wicked.

“I can rest on my laurels,” Keith wrote towards the conclusion of his memoir ‘Life’, “I’ve stirred up enough crap in my time and I’ll live with it and see how somebody else deals with it.  But then there’s that word “retiring.” I can’t retire until I croak. There’s carping about us being old men. The fact is, I’ve always said, if we were black and our name was Count Basie or Duke Ellington, everybody would be going yeah, yeah, yeah. White rock and rollers apparently are not supposed to do this at our age. But I’m not here just to make records and money. I’m here to say something and touch other people, sometimes in a cry of desperation: “Do you know this feeling?””

Looking back now, former manager Andrew Loog Oldham says that when he and the band were locked away in Regent Sound Studios recording that debut album they had no idea that people would still be talking about it in half a century’s time. “I didn’t think about it,” he explains. “Back then people didn’t live that long a lot of the time, unless they had good genes and money.”

As it turns out The Rolling Stones had one and soon got the other. They tried to tell us: “If you try sometimes you just might find / You get what you need.”

Originally published in NME, 10 May 2014.