What Makes the Rolling Stones the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World

The phrase keeps coming back to haunt them, but here's why they live up to it.

The Rolling Stones in Concert at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia on June 12, 1978.
Tom Hill/WireImage
December 10, 1981

The World's Greatest Rock & Roll Band. That phrase keeps coming back to haunt the Rolling Stones. Reviewers wield it like a rusty razor when the Stones are sloppy and dispirited, as they were at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia in 1978. That was one of their worst shows. At JFK Stadium this past September, for the first show of their current tour, the Stones were sloppy and spirited, and that made a difference. But the phrase still seemed overblown, inappropriate. Keith Richards laughed it off in his recent Rolling Stone interview, suggesting that "on any given night, it's a different band that's the greatest rock & roll band in the world." That makes sense. And on October 26th, at the 3,933-seat Fox Theatre in Atlanta, there was no question about it: The World's Greatest Rock & Roll Band was the Rolling Stones.

Okay, what makes them the greatest? It isn't consistency. Scores of bands can knock off the same letter-perfect set night after night, every note and nuance frozen firmly in place, right down to the guitar player's grimaces. In fact, the Stones may be the only band on the stadium circuit that's loose enough to make mistakes, the only band that isn't afraid to start a number without having the vaguest idea who's going to take a solo. When was the last time you saw a guitar player yell, "I've got it" and plunge into a solo, only to realize that the other guitar player was soloing, too? It could only happen in your neighborhood bar or at a Rolling Stones concert. And if it doesn't happen at least once or twice, you aren't at a rock & roll concert.

To play rock & roll, you need a rhythm section, and the Stones are the great rock & roll rhythm section of our time. Everything Keith Richards plays, from the simplest handful of notes to the most monolithic riff, pushes the music forward. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts catch Keith's momentum and swing with it. Watts brings his ear for jazz to the Stones; like a first-class jazz drummer, he provides lift without ever overplaying. Wyman meshes so tightly into the grooves that much of the time you don't even hear him; if he dropped out, however, you'd notice right away. Ron Wood can be a ferocious rhythm player too, and let's not leave out Mick Jagger, whose sure sense of time enables him to punch out phrases and repeat little vocal riffs like an instrumentalist.

Sure, there are other factors. Jagger and Richards have been rock's most challenging and elemental songwriting team for years, Mick's a master of stagecraft, and so on. But the Stones are special primarily because they understand that a great rock & roll band never takes too much for granted. A great rock & roll band gets the feel of an audience and then goes for the audience's throat. A great rock & roll band plays the right songs and the right solos in the right tempo at the right time. A great rock & roll band rocks out. At the Fox, the Stones rocked so hard, they jerked you up out of your seat and kept you dancing for two hours, and made you like it. Only rock & roll? You could've fooled me.

The curtains parted at 10:35 to reveal Keith Richards, looking muscular and fit, banging out the opening chords to "Under My Thumb" from the very edge of the stage. You could tell it was going to be one of those nights the minute Jagger started singing, because he was singing – finding new notes, rearranging the melody to suit the mood of the moment, hitting those notes right on the head and enunciating, in case you missed the words the first few hundred times around. Richards, who has been known to let an hour go by before he feels his way into the evening's first guitar solo, stepped right out and played a blistering break that was entirely chordal, an extension of his definitive rhythm playing.

"When the Whip Comes Down" followed. Ron Wood can be a spotty soloist, but at the Fox, he could do no wrong; his improvisation on "Whip" was incisive and barbed. Jagger again reached for notes that weren't there before, and hit them all. He built up enough confidence to make alterations that were even more dramatic in the melody to "Let's Spend the Night Together," and then Keith came in on harmony vocals, shouting so lustily, Mick had to redouble his efforts. "So that's why Mick's singing so much better," I scrawled in my notebook. "With Keith Richards yowling behind him, it's sink or swim."

Richards' revitalization has had an astonishing effect on the Stones. His guitar riffs are the frames on which the songs hang; they are also the core of the band's onstage momentum. The other players have always looked to him for cues, and he's always come through, even when he was obviously in another world. But the man's style used to have more to do with pulling the irons out of the fire than it did with burning up the kindling. In Atlanta, Richards was calling the shots, and he didn't care who knew it. He was all over the stage, telegraphing every rhythmic nuance with expressive body English, goading Wood into one spectacular solo after another, encouraging Watts and Wyman to pour it on and, yes, giving Jagger a run for his money.

His hand is evident in several new arrangements, too. "Shattered" wasn't much more than a droning riff tune on the '78 tour. In Atlanta, Richards and Wood unveiled a lovely, chiming, two-guitar break that sounded like pure Stax-Volt soul, with Keith chopping like the Memphis Horns and Ronnie nailing down sharp, edgy lead lines like Steve Cropper. The new break somehow made the rest of the tune coalesce around it. Suddenly, "Shattered" was a real song.

For "Neighbours", the Stones brought out tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts, a Los Angeles veteran whose years as a recording-studio denizen haven't dulled his fire. He isn't Sonny Rollins, but he plays clipped, percussive Junior Walker-style figures with a swaggering sound and utter authority; he's just right for the Stones. "Black Limousine" followed, careening furiously like a South Side blues band in a Rocket 88. It was so hot that, by the next tune, "Imagination," everyone got a little carried away; Wood and Richards were soloing at the same time, and it was a little chaotic. But nobody minded. In fact, everyone onstage was grinning from ear to ear.

Jagger announced that the next number was going to be "a bit like the Stray Cats," the solid rockabilly band that opened the concert. It was Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock," and it gave Wyman and Watts the chance to lay down a wonderfully idiomatic, in-the-pocket walking shuffle. Charlie, who'd been slouched behind his drums, playing impeccably, suddenly sat bolt upright and played like a man whose life was on the line. He propelled the band out of each of the song's stop-time breaks with kick figures so kinetic, they had half the audience jumping up and down along with them.

At first, "Let Me Go," from Emotional Rescue, was a letdown, but Richards wouldn't let it die. He turned to Watts and began jerking in time to the rhythm. Charlie sat bolt upright again, the music shifted gears, and Keith took a stunning solo.

"Time Is on My Side" doesn't always work in concert, but it did in Atlanta. The band fought the inevitable tendency to play oldies faster and faster by taking it at a deliberately slow clip, and Jagger turned in a vocal that was the essence of soulful understatement. Some folks think the man mugs and grimaces and cheerleads too much, and if you go to Stones concerts primarily to watch him, maybe he does; some of his gestures seemed exaggerated in the relatively intimate confines of the Fox. But the folks who think they're supposed to keep watching Jagger don't always listen to him. Being a great rock & roll singer means getting the feeling right, and "Time Is on My Side" was right as could be. Keith's vocal backing was a high, lonesome Appalachian baying, and his guitar solo said more with three or four notes than most rock guitarists say in half-hour workouts.

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