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.

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

I could go on, but I don't think anyone would be that interested in a list of song titles (most the same as the band's arena shows) and a series of notebook jottings that runs increasingly to rows of exclamation points and brilliant musicological analyses on the order of "great guitar solo," "rocks like crazy," "fuckin' A!" Some details, then. In "Waiting on a Friend," Charlie Watts found a new rhythmic direction, a kind of samba with rumba overtones, and inserted fills, using his snare and a choked cymbal, that splashed prettily over the chiming of the guitars. By the time the band rolled into "Let It Bleed," Keith and Ronnie were soloing at the same time and making it work, Keith playing twangy clumps of notes and Ronnie embroidering them. Keith started "You Can't Always Get What You Want" alone, and his playing, which was just two chords — I to IV and back again — was so utterly right, so spectacularly on the money, that the rest of the band let him play for a while. On the record, he plays his opening figure and then kicks the song in with one of those distilled-to-the-bone phrases of which he is the undisputed master. At the Fox, he got the same kick-in effect with half the notes, rendering a musical statement, which was already spare, practically Zen. Mick gave this greatest of Stones lyrics everything he had, and Ernie Watts got so inspired, he blew what must have been one of the most transcendent, heartfelt saxophone solos of his life.

By the time the Stones got to Keith's "Little T&A," the sixteenth song of the set, they were rocking harder than I'd ever heard them rock before. Was it meaningful? Did it have cultural resonances? Was it the rallying cry of a generation? If any of the people there had thought to ask these questions, they would have seemed singularly dumb. At this point, being at the Fox was like being at a Little Richard concert. It wasn't about cultural resonances, it was about stomping the joint down to the bricks. Of course, that has cultural resonances, but what's more fun, cultural resonances or great sex? The Stones were in the homestretch after "Little T&A," and every song was like great sex. There were miracles. Mick sang "Tumbling Dice" so clearly, you could understand the words. "All Down the Line" and "Hang Fire" hit with hurricane velocity. "Miss You" topped them. Maybe it used to be disco, but it isn't disco anymore. It's a relentless rocker, with Mick adding a third chugging guitar part and the steam building and building. "Miss You" as a rock & roll apotheosis? "Miss You" as the climax the band used to get out of "Street Fighting Man" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash"? If you'd told me, I wouldn't have believed it, but I was there and heard it.

Keith cranked up "Honky Tonk Women" with one hand, the other one dangling loose at his side, a look of satisfaction on his face. Again, the band let him play that gut-simple rhythm part for a while, and he might have played it all night if Ronnie hadn't bounced up to the lip of the stage and, er, pretended to stick something up Keith's nose. Well, it's in the lyrics, right? Bobby Keys came out to blow saxophone on "Brown Sugar," duplicating his solo from the original record, but it was a solo worth duplicating. On "Street Fighting Man," Mick's voice started to go, but the band was raging, and wherever that voice went, he found it again for the concluding "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

Ian Stewart and Atlanta-based pianist Chuck Leavell (of Allman Brothers and Sea Level fame) had been kicking each other off the piano bench all night, Ian MacLagan had been zapping Jerry Lee Lewis runs on electric piano, and the groove hadn't faltered. The show was that loose, and that tight. The Stones really are getting better and better. The only question that remained to be answered was whether the band would be able to pull off the same kind of performance in a huge arena.

A little more than a week after the Atlanta show, the Stones played the first of three concerts at the Brendan Byrne Arena, a futuristic new structure in New Jersey's Meadowlands sports complex that was designed for rock as well as for hockey and basketball. The show in Atlanta was all music — no fancy stagecraft, no theatrics. But the show in New Jersey was a show, with a fabulous hydraulic stage, a riser for the drums and amplifiers that revolved so everyone could get a good view, platforms that went up and down, dramatic lighting effects and so on. And it was spectacular, with Jagger running from one end of the stage to the other, riding around on the cherry-picker crane he unveiled at the tour's first outdoor dates and working every part of the crowd he could get close to.

The band's playing was even faster and more ferocious than in Atlanta. Richards' guitar intros sounded like sheet metal being sheared in two – and "Down the Road a Piece," in the spot that had been occupied by "Twenty Flight Rock" in Atlanta, rocked so hard it was almost over before it began.

The Byrne show was a powerhouse, and the staging was effective, though at times it got in the way of the music: The sound was muddy, the guitars weren't distinct and solos weren't always audible. Most of the people who saw the concert, however, thought the Stones were in peak form. But this wasn't Atlanta. Keith Richards once remarked that everything the band does, onstage and on records, begins with the five of them playing together in a small room. Atlanta was as close to that small room as any of us is likely to get.

This story is from the December 10th, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 358: December 10, 1981