Back in 2002 I managed to get a couple tickets to see the Rolling Stones in Columbus, Ohio. My son Nick was only 12, but he liked some of my music, and played drums, so I treated him to his first rock concert – something to tell his grandkids, right? The Stones played like 20-year-olds, and we had a blast. But afterwards it was sad to think the Stones would soon be retiring from the stage.
OK, I’ve never been good at predictions.
This Friday, June 7, 2013 will be the 50th anniversary of the release of the Rolling Stones’ first single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On.” It defies belief that three of the original five Stones – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Charlie Watts – are still together and performing.
The Stones have changed a lot since the days of rabbit-ear TV antennas. They’ve dabbled in almost as many different musical styles – psychedelia, country, reggae, even disco – as Keith’s dabbled in drugs. But the one constant has been their love of American blues and R&B.
They formed in London in 1962 and took their name from the song “Rollin’ Stone” by legendary bluesman Muddy Waters. Before long they became the hottest band in London. Small Faces/Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan offers an eyewitness description of their frenetic club performances at the Crawdaddy Club in May ’63 (from his book ALL THE RAGE):
Brian Jones and Keith Richards sat on stools either side of Mick Jagger, who’d wail over our heads while Keith spat out licks, weaving in and out of Brian’s slide guitar lines…They would build to an ear-splitting intensity, soar for a while, come down to a groove, and then churn up to the climax at the end, which drove everyone even crazier…Every night I’d see members of other bands hogging the front of the stage like me, making mental notes.
Chuck Berry was probably the biggest influence on Keith Richards’ stripped-down guitar style, which might be why they covered him for their first recording. “Come On” wasn’t one of Berry’s more familiar tunes, and he’d recorded it only two years before the Stones. But the song’s anonymity worked in their favor, since a lot of people assumed it was a Stones original. For the B-side, they chose Willie Dixon’s “I Want to Be Loved.” The single reached No. 21 on the UK singles charts. But they refused to play “Come On” live because they felt it wasn’t “black” enough!
In his autobiography, LIFE, Richards talks about the song:
I quite cold-bloodedly saw this song as just a way to get in. To get into the studio and to come up with something very commercial. It’s very different from Chuck Berry’s version; it’s very Beatle-ized, in fact.
Unlike many bands who experience a “sophomore slump,” the Stones moved only higher up the charts after “Come On.” Their second single was a cover of Lennon-McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man” and went to No. 12. Their third single, Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” went to No. 3. A year later they hit No. 1 with a cover of Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now,” recorded in Chicago at Muddy Waters’ old studio, Chess.
Their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, eventually made the pivotal decision to promote them as the ugly, bad-boy alternative to the Beatles, dispensing with the matching suits and encouraging them to look and act surly. And while the “Glimmer Twins” took longer to develop as a songwriting unit than Lennon-McCartney, soon the bulk of album and singles material was self-penned. With Mick as lyricist and Keith as musical director, the road to rock greatness was paved with gold. Other than Elvis, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and maybe Berry, I can’t think of musicians more integral to rock history than the Rolling Stones.
Unfortunately, there’s no video footage of the Stones in their early club days. But I highly recommend the DVD “The T.A.M.I. Show,” a variety concert that was filmed during the Stones’ first U.S. tour, only a year after “Come On.” Mick had already honed his trademark stage mannerisms, and the band performs six songs, including the great “Time Is on My Side” (“The T.A.M.I. Show” is special for a lot of other reasons, but I won’t spoil it).
Till then, make sure you crank it up this weekend in honor of the Rolling Stones. Like the man said: “It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, but I like it!”