Fifty years after their first live shows in a London club, the Rolling Stones returned to that city Sunday night to play a triumphant concert that had critics smiling and fans swooning. It was a reunion night, with former bassist Bill Wyman and guitar hero Mick Taylor joining the band for several songs. The Stones' performance and the reaction to it are just more proof that, for all their ups and downs – Beggars Banquet and Dirty Work – there is something undeniably powerful about the durability of this pioneering rock ’n’ roll band.
To have been there in 1962, when Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones first started playing live together (Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts were to join the band a little later), would have been to live through a period of such tremendous change that it makes the recent rise of the smartphone and social media as primary cultural drivers seem almost banal in comparison. The band arrived on a cresting wave of youth-driven foment that they and The Beatles both rode and seemed to propel at the same time. As Philip Norman’s new biography of Jagger, Mick Jagger, and Richards’ bestselling memoir, Life, both make clear, music, fashion, recreational drug use, politics and popular culture seemed to change minute by minute, leaving the old guard gasping and grasping to understand. For better and worse, these mere children remade the world in their image.
The Stones went on to build a brilliant catalogue of songs, at the peak of which, as one writer once put it, they were “effortlessly innovative,” finding new sounds and new power on each succeeding album. In mid-life, they disappeared into mediocrity and then came back to become one of the biggest touring acts in the history, a sort of tribute band to themselves that raked in money.
Along the way, Jagger and Richards reset the boundaries of rock excess; it has been a long time, for instance, since the band was first accused of over-charging for concert tickets, as they have been for their 50th anniversary shows. And as it was in the 1960s, their very ages – Jagger is 69 and Richards, 68 – remain two defiant fingers raised to mainstream ideas about which demographic group the world should be paying attention to.
But then, isn’t that the point? And hasn’t it always been? Sure, you can say they’re too old, that they’ve been around too long, that they charge too much for concert tickets. But we’re not going to start knocking them for their excesses now, are we?