Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1327
Outrage. The very word. From their very first incarnation as a primitive, gloriously wild R&B group in the suburbs of London (such a delightful irony), the Stones have walked hand in hand with outrage; to the extent, some have claimed, with no little justification, that their contribution to the development of rock has had less to do with their musical achievements than the dizzy splendour of their defiance.
To be sure, the Stones' influence in shaping the course of popular music since their emergence in the early Sixties has not been as considerable as that of their contemporaries (and, as Michael Watts once suggested, alter ego), the Beatles. By nature, the Beatles were eclectic, and, with discrimination, assimilated musical styles and soon-to-be fashionable ideas which did much to establish them as pioneers of musical experimentation.
Conversely, the Stones have—with rare exceptions—been reluctant to create new, or at least novel, forms of musical expression. Those records which find the Stones furthest removed from the basic R&B patterns which initially inspired them ("Their Satanic Majesties Request" and parts of "Between The Buttons," for instance), are invariably their least successful.
Yet the Stones, in their singular determination to remain true to the origins of their musical and public style, have exerted a more profound influence over the behaviour and attitudes of successive generations than almost any other rock band. They have enduringly reflected the adolescent's will to achieve an independence from the Establishment….
The Stones celebrated drugs and sexual permissiveness and advocated a hedonistic lifestyle. They created for themselves an image of nihilistic hoodlums, seething with hate and distrust. They exaggerated the ferocity of their chauvinism in a series of brutal assertions of male superiority ("Stupid Girl," "Under My Thumb" "Back Street Girl" and "Yesterday's Papers"), and always emphasised their swashbuckling independence.
They made no overtures to the hip, liberal Establishment who desperately wanted to accommodate and understand their rebellion. They attacked, in their songs and through their sneering attitude, every conceivable traditional value and virtue. They had no time for love or sentiment or compassion.
Women were either subordinates or the subjects of erotic fantasies (as in the later "Brown Sugar" and "Midnight Rambler"), mercilessly disdained and despised ("Stray Cat Blues"), or treated as nothing more fanciful than good old-fashioned whores (in "Honky Tonk Woman").
They insisted that life could be more exciting and dangerous and crazy and mysterious without the constraints of society's outmoded ethical codes. And … what made them even more remarkable was the fact that they did not pretend that such an existence automatically ensured any kind of fulfilment.
But even the frustration of "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" is laced with a determination and a resolution to live for the moment, whatever the ultimate consequences. And Jagger, having defined the battlefield, was in no way content merely to defend his own position.
Without apology for his own lifestyle, he presented the Establishment with the ironic and incisive "Mother's Little Helper," which documented the pill-popping of contemporary housewives. It was a characteristically caustic social comment, but it would be too much to suggest that the Stones had a genuine social or political conscience.
"Satisfaction," "Get Off My Cloud," "19th Nervous Breakdown" and "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadows" … may have contained elements of social commentary, but they were provoked by something rather less generous than a concern for society.
No, it's never been the Stones' style to betray sentiment. Forever cool, hipster observers, they've chosen to remain contemptuously detached from the action. After the riots outside the American embassy in Grosvenor Square in 1968, for instance, Jagger's only response was "the violence gave me a buzz." And in "Street Fighting Man," the song provoked by that event, there are no political sympathies.
Instead, the Stones again celebrate the notion of the individual—the outlaw, if you like—who is not prepared to surrender his independence to further any cause if it is likely to divert his energies from the principal goal of self-satisfaction….
[The] Stones have always revealed a supreme ability to document and chronicle prevailing atmospheres and shifts of emphasis within society.
In the mid-Sixties they represented teenage defiance and discontent with a style so vivid they were taken to be a more dangerous threat to society than, in fact, they ever were. (p. 31)
It was … when Jagger selfconsciously attempted to express some kind of vague satanic philosophy, as he did with "Sympathy For The Devil," that he committed an artistic blunder of comic proportions. The Stones are always so much better at suggesting evil and menace rather than essaying it in anything but the most absurdly graphic terms (as they did in "Midnight Rambler").
Even so, those of a somewhat mystical inclination have interpreted the actual violence of Altamont—which was to have been a postscript to Woodstock until it erupted, with the intrusion of a battalion or so of Hell's Angels, into a murderous debacle—as being the only fitting climax to Jagger's glamorous attachment to evil and satanism….
"Sticky Fingers," which followed "Let It Bleed," was almost entirely free of the sense of terror and impending disaster that characterised its precursor. It marked, instead, a return on the part of the Stones to themes they had previously exploited in the Sixties, but reproduced here with a gloss and a clarity of sound initially uncharacteristic of the band.
For all its occasional chic, surrogate decadence, "Sticky Fingers" is a glorious album which proved conclusively that the Stones, as they approached their thirties, remained the unrivalled exponents of rock and roll dynamics….
The Stones, and particularly Jagger, one imagines, have recognised the basic implausibility of maintaining a reckless, buccaneering image as they settle into their thirties, and have sought to show maturity without sacrificing completely their former passion. "Goat's Head Soup," however, could offer only two cuts of any commendable power, "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)" and the sexual fire-works of "Star Star." There was nothing, though, to match "Bitch," "Sway," or the magnificent "Brown Sugar."
Similarly, "It's Only Rock 'N' Roll" was more interesting for those songs like "Time Waits For No One," which dealt explicitly with the problems of ageing, than classically-structured Stones rockers like "Dance Little Sister," "If You Can't Rock Me" and "Fingerprint File," even though this last track is one of the most powerful of the Stones' post-"Exile" essays in menace and paranoia….
"Exile On Main Street" … bears the undeniable imprint of Richard's personal and musical character.
After the clean, professional sound of "Sticky Fingers," the Stones regained much of their early ruggedness and inherent toughness. Richard's darker passions being much less theatrical than Jagger's, "Exile" is a more authentic, compelling insight into that particular underworld which has so consistently fascinated the Stones than the contrived and facile, if seductive, postures of "Sticky Fingers."…
The music veers from the thrilling, spindizzy rushes of "Rip This Joint" and the great "Rocks Off" and "Tumbling Dice," to the spinechilling tension of "Casino Boogie" and the claustrophobic intensity of "Ventilator Blues" ("feel like murder in the first degree") and "Stop Breaking Down," taking an affectionate glance back to Slim Harpo in a marvellous version of "Hip Shake," and Richard's infatuation with country music.
There's humour in "Loving Cup" and emotional gravity in "Shine A Light," which portrays the Stones at their most compassionate, thus succeeding "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and suggesting the mood of "Memory Motel" on "Black And Blue."
The resilience and authority of the album, brilliantly conveyed through "All Down The Line" and the penultimate "Soul Survivor," leads one to recognise the Stones' peculiar delinquent heroism. "Exile On Main Street" has the "cutting edge of all primitive awe," to borrow a phrase from Mailer—a fierce, proud defiance which celebrates life even in the most wretched and wasted of conditions. (p. 34)
Allan Jones, "The Rolling Stones Story," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), May 8, 1976, pp. 31, 34.