Michael Watts

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 884

[In] their early recorded period between 1963 and '66 [the Stones] looked to Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, who had fierce, raucous styles, and then increasingly to the more polished, urban soul sounds of Tamla Motown (Marvin Gaye) and Stax (Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding)….

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The basis of their music, therefore, was strongly blues and black rock and roll, with Jagger and Keith Richard originally inclining towards Diddley and Berry….

The blues, which heavily relied on implicit sexual themes, was well-suited to the Stones … because they were able to emphasise sex as a weapon in a deliberate stance of anti-authoritarianism….

The fortunes of the Stones were closely tied in with a need among young audiences in the Sixties for ever more extreme symbols of their liberation from parental control and rejection of authority, and therefore they functioned as a kind of reaction against what the Beatles had come to represent: a cultural yardstick and an establishment within pop music itself.

Together, however, they effected a potent assault on traditional values, both in social style (fashions and behaviour) and music (a new honesty, relatively uncompromised by the bland sentimentality doled out by Tin Pan Alley)….

In their songs, the Stones implanted [the idea of rejecting society] in several ways, the principal of which was a sexual theme, generally handled with much more explicitness by them than the Negro bluesmen.

Invariably they assumed an anti-feminist attitude, or at least, if it wasn't a conscious aim, an air of male superiority that in more sexually enlightened times could only be described as chauvinist.

"Back Street Girl," "Stupid Girl" and "Under My Thumb" all imposed an image of brutalised womanhood, as the titles suggest, and "Stray Cat Blues" and "Starfucker" home in even closer with exposé of the groupie lifestyle.

In these songs the narrator appears as Super-Stud, bent on inflicting sexual violence, a theme that reached its particular apogee on "Midnight Rambler," where he's represented almost as a psychotic rapist replete with sinister, if clever, allusions to the Boston Strangler.

In fact, the Stones' eroticism is shot through with cruelty and sadism, and both precedes and out-guns such usage by Alice Cooper.

Alice lacks the subtlety and instinct for detail that the Stones work into "Brown Sugar," for example which is not merely a sexual phantasy but a masturbatory daydream of white boy possessing and degrading black girl ("drums beatin' cold / English blood runs hot").

Ostensibly a story about the old slave trade, its ambivalence is undeniably exciting all the more, perhaps, because it strongly hints at the taboo of sex and racism ("Scared old slaver know it's doin' alright / hear him whip the women just around midnight").

The Stones have further supported their stylistic rebellion by an unequivocal espousal of drugs—not as means of heightening consciousness for self-improval as the acid rock bands of the West Coast would have it, but as a way of expressing their extreme stance, of going out on a limb.

Acid was never their drug, as the meanderings of "Satanic Majesties" testified; theirs is a smack and coke consciousness, behind which lies the bravado of pushing the boat out as far as it will go….

A third element of their writing has been the constant introduction of an idea of Satanism/decadence, with Jagger as anti-Christ….

Their decadence—a considerably inflated word—has substance, however, not only in their thematic choices, but in the sexual confusion surrounding Jagger. Despite his androgynous trappings, Brian Jones was felt to be never less than hetero-sexual, whereas Jagger promoted an air of sexual ambivalence long before [David] Bowie made it fashionable as fag chic….

Fourthly, there are the aspects of politics and social commentary. The Stones, once they had moved out of their essentially R and B period into hard rock (around '65), showed the influence of Dylan in their writing, not in terms of lyric images but as an expression of similar feelings of anger about what they considered to be injustices in society.

Dylan, however, wrote protest songs; the Stones were never motified by impulses as generous as the protest singers to be called liberal….

[The] Stones wouldn't lift a finger [to fight]. They are too knowing, too nihilistic. They were involved only because they couldn't ignore what surrounded them….

[Both] "Sticky Fingers" and "Let It Bleed" had marked an interesting departure for the Stones. "Dead Flowers" and "Wild Horses" on the former were country ballads, and they'd been even more overtly country with "Honky Tonk Blues" and "Country Honk" (a Hank Williams imitation) on the latter album.

This interest in country was largely prompted by Keith Richard…. It was hardly an unexpected departure, anyhow, since in the early Seventies there was a strong movement in pop towards the rural idiom.

It was important because Richard was the Stones' motor, the guy, after all, who had written the riff for "Satisfaction," the definitive Stones' song as a truculent slogan of the permissive society. It's true to say that without Jagger the Rolling Stones would fall to pieces, but without Richard there would be no music as recognisably Stones….

[He's] rooted in the tradition of Southern funk, with overlays in his playing of gospel and country blues.

Michael Watts, "Rolling Stones: Society's Sexual Rejects," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), April 6, 1974, p. 23.

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