Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Rolling Stones.
Here begins the rock star mythology, the swaggering outlaw living on the edges of society while giving two fingers to The Man, exploring the dark and dangerous corners for sins both known and unknown, living and loving to the verge of expiration. The ultimate in cool under the white-hot lights.
What began as a little blues and R&B combo playing sweaty little clubs in London became the longest-running rock band in history, a 50-year enterprise that has survived subtractions and additions, overdoses and arrests, sex, drinking, drugs, and even murder.
Surprisingly, only one official member of the group has died (that would be Brian Jones). If you had asked your average music fan in the late 60s how many Rolling Stones would live to see the 21st century, the answer would have been, “Maybe two.” But, although a few have chosen to leave the fold over the decades, almost everybody made it through. In the eye of the crossfire hurricane, only three of the founding members remain on the stage: Mick and Keith—The Glimmer Twins—and the beating heart of The Stones, drummer Charlie Watts.
In the early days, The Rolling Stones cannily presented themselves as the anti-Beatles, the sneering villains to the Moptops’ cheery enthusiasm, the boys who would spill tea on your carpet, filthy up your sofa, and corrupt your daughter. (Or corrupt your carpet, spill tea on your sofa, and filthy up your daughter, because — according to the press — they were brutish animals, capable of anything, like A Clockwork Orange come to life.) In fact, Mick Jagger attended the London School of Economics and Charlie Watts worked in advertising after graduating from art college. But lowlifes sell more records than poncey university toffs.
Manager Andrew Oldham also convinced the boys early on that they needed to write their own songs, shrewdly recognizing this as the path to longevity (and piles of cash). After The Stones released a debut album of covers, Oldham locked Mick and Keith in a room and told them he’d let them out when they’d written a song. The tactic worked. Less than a year later they’d written multiple #1 hits and eventually had to move away from the UK due to their insane piles of cash and the insane tax rates so levied upon said piles.
The 70s saw continued success for the band but the ups were now tempered with downs. Excessive drug use, legal wranglings, and occasional musical mediocrity marred the proceedings. The boys bounced back only to have the 80s nearly destroy them through a classic combination of “musical differences” and “familiarity breeds contempt.” But The Stones recovered and kept on rolling (insert wheelchair joke here — those jokes began in earnest around 1989), celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2012.
So raise your glass to the good and the evil. Here’s the least you need to know:
The Rolling Stones Singles Collection: The London Years (1963-1971) The 60s albums are somewhat inconsistent and the differing UK and US versions get confusing, so this 3-disc set serves as an excellent distillation, containing the best of their early blues and R&B work, their biggest commercial hits, their psychedelic dabblings, and the first flowering of their classic works. Check: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction & Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Beggars Banquet (1968) The Stones abandon psychedelia and pop, reinventing themselves as stripped-down, funky, acoustic rock bluesmen. Also, they may have gone down to the crossroads and made some kind of deal with the devil because this album sounds like nothing before it. Check: Sympathy For The Devil & Street Fighting Man
Let It Bleed (1969) Darkly powerful, claustrophobic, and self-assured. The electric flip side to their previous album. A down and dirty declaration of war. Check: Gimme Shelter & Midnight Rambler
Sticky Fingers (1971) The quintessential Stones album in terms of sounding “Stonesy.” Other bands have spent entire careers trying to sound like this record. Check: Wild Horses & Can’t You Hear Me Knocking
Exile On Main Street (1972) A sprawling, grimy, glorious mess of a double album. Recorded in a basement in France. Check: Tumbling Dice & Sweet Virginia
After the Core Four listed above, you can work your way through the 60s or jump to the late 70s/early 80s for Some Girls and Tattoo You.