100 Greatest Artists

4

The Rolling Stones

Illustration by Rob Day

By Steven Van Zandt 

The Rolling Stones are my life. If it wasn't for them, I would have been a Soprano for real. I first saw the Stones on TV, on The Hollywood Palace in 1964. In '64, the Beatles were perfect: the hair, the harmonies, the suits. They bowed together. Their music was extraordinarily sophisticated. The whole thing was exciting and alien but very distant in its perfection. The Stones were alien and exciting, too. But with the Stones, the message was, "Maybe you can do this." The hair was sloppier. The harmonies were a bit off. And I don't remember them smiling at all. They had the R&B traditionalist's attitude: "We are not in show business. We are not pop music." And the sex in Mick Jagger's voice was adult. This wasn't pop sex — holding hands, playing spin the bottle. This was the real thing. Jagger had that conversational quality that came from R&B singers and bluesmen, that sort of half-singing, not quite holding notes. The acceptance of Jagger's voice on pop radio was a turning point in rock & roll. He broke open the door for everyone else. Suddenly, Eric Burdon and Van Morrison weren't so weird — even Bob Dylan.

It was completely unique: a white performer doing it in a black way. Elvis Presley did it. But the next guy was Jagger. There were no other white boys doing this. White singers stood there and sang, like the Beatles. The thing we associate with black performers goes back to the church — letting the spirit physically move you, letting go of social restraints, any form of embarrassment or humiliation. Not being in control: That's what Mick Jagger was communicating.

In the beginning, it was Brian Jones' band. He named them. He managed them — got the gigs and wrote to the paper when they got bad reviews. The attitude and aggressiveness — they first came from him. And the tradition came from him. He was using the blues pseudonym Elmo Lewis and playing bottleneck guitar. Then, on albums like Aftermath, he was playing all of these other instruments: dulcimer, harpsichord, sitar. He was so inventive and important. If anybody gets left out of the Stones' story, he's the one.

But Keith Richards has been taken for granted too, relegated historically to permanent rhythm guitar. But his solos were great: "Sympathy for the Devil," "It's All Over Now." And there are the riffs: "Satisfaction," of course, and "The Last Time," which the Stones themselves considered the first serious song they wrote. "Honky Tonk Women" is just one chord. Then he started the tunings: the G tuning and the five-string version of the G tuning. There are chord patterns that relate to his tunings — the "Gimme Shelter" effect, let's call it — where you add a suspended note, and it becomes more melodic and rhythmic at the same time. I play rhythm guitar with the E Street Band in Keith's style all the time. Anybody who plays rock & roll guitar does.

Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, more than any other rock & roll rhythm section, to this day, knew how to swing. It's so much a thing of the past now, but in those days rock & roll was something you danced to. You can just picture how much fun it was to be at the Station Hotel in London in 1963: the crowd going crazy, the Stones going crazy, like they were in a South Side Chicago blues club. You can picture it in the music.

There are generations of young people now who only know the Stones iconically. So I'd send them to the first four albums, the American versions: England's Newest Hitmakers, 12x5, Now! and Out of Our Heads. The next lesson is the second great era: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. They make up the greatest run of albums in history — and all done in three and a half years.

In a lot of ways, the Stones are playing better now than they were in the Sixties. They were quite sloppy in the early days — which I enjoy. Technically, they're better than they've ever been. The trouble is, their power comes from their first 12 albums. There have been a few great songs since '72, but only a handful. If they were making great records and playing live the way they are now, my God, how amazing would that be?

But live, they're still able to communicate that original power. You can learn a lot from the Stones still: Write good songs, stay in shape and dig deep down for that passion every night. You should live so long, a tenth as long, and be as good as Mick Jagger. It's amazing Keith is still alive. There are a few people who have this constitution of invulnerability, although you shouldn't learn that. Let's be honest: Excessive drug use hurts songwriting. The good side is, he's still on the road, rockin', almost 50 years later. You can't hold most bands together for four years, let alone 50.

They show that if you stick to your guns, and don't compromise with what's trendy, you're gonna go a long fucking way.

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