A Scholarly Approach To The Rolling Stones

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Rolling Stones on June 14, 1969, after the death of founder member Brian Jones. Left to right: drummer Charlie Watts, guitarist Mick Taylor, vocalist Mick Jagger, guitarist Keith Richards and bass player Bill Wyman. (Len Trievnor/Express/Getty Images)
Rolling Stones on June 14, 1969, after the death of founder member Brian Jones. Left to right: drummer Charlie Watts, guitarist Mick Taylor, vocalist Mick Jagger, guitarist Keith Richards and bass player Bill Wyman. (Len Trievnor/Express/Getty Images)

The Rolling Stones are still touring more than 50 years after the band got together in England in the 1960s.

There are shelves of books about the band, but a new book, "The Cambridge Companion to the Rolling Stones," takes an academic look at their music and their legacy.

Victor Coelho, one of the editors of the new book who is also a professor of music at Boston University, says the book takes a broad look at the role of The Stones in music history.

“There are so many autobiographies by The Stones that give us firsthand accounts, the deep musical knowledge, the long influences that stretch back into the [Mississippi] Delta, into country music, into American vernacular idioms, as well as their presence in film, their huge cultural impact,” he says.

“And it was a time to look back at The Stones' career as a vital part of music history,” Coelho says. “Not just in popular music history, but in music history itself.”

Coelho says that during their long career, The Rolling Stones managed to adapt and anticipate new musical trends while remaining true to their rock ‘n roll and blues roots.

“The book was always positioned as a way to understand how The Stones adapt to styles, and when they adapt, they still remain true to the fundamental influences,” he says. “And that all comes full circle in their last album, ‘Blue & Lonesome,’ which is really a bunch of songs that are back to their blues days.”

Boston University Professor of Music Victor Coelho. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Boston University professor of music Victor Coelho. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Interview Highlights 

On the sound of The Rolling Stones from 1968 to 1972

“I called those the exilic years, the years where they almost make themselves a self-imposed exiles, like very famous exiles in the history of culture, whether it's Dante or [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn or the devil, the first exile. It's a turn away from England. I mean, their first period, I always see these three periods as being England, in London especially, and then America was the big opening up in 1968. And then the last period is this revival, post 1989, which I called ‘second life,’ in which they curate their own history almost as a performing museum.

“But this period is when they begin to turn towards America and turn towards the deep musical traditions of America. They've left their confrontation of aristocratic England and those challenges of class behind that are all about ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and a number of different songs of that period. And now they turn towards America and they move deeper and deeper into American vernacular styles influenced by Gram Parsons and Ry Cooder and some great American players. And they start to pick up dialects and their dialects are dialects of Mississippi and of Bakersfield, California, and of country and western, of new guitar styles. And these dialects start to infiltrate their music. It makes their music neither old nor new. It seems to balance both sides.”

On the significance of the song “Gimme Shelter” 

“Every time I hear it, I hear something different. But there's one fundamental thing I hear and that is the beginning of this album, which is quite dark. The darkness is very much 1969, the same year as the moon shot. It's also the same year as Woodstock. But 1969 ends up being a year that has one of what some people have called the Pearl Harbor of Woodstock, and that was The Stones concert at Altamont, in which one of the concertgoers died, stabbed by a Hell's Angel. And the song anticipates this so amazingly with this sort of howling in the background, the minor key opening, the descending progression that continues throughout the whole song. And then the climax of the words, 'Rape, murder. It's just a shot away.' So The Stones set up this song as a way to narrate '69. And 1969 is not about really Woodstock. It's still about Vietnam. It's still about violence in the streets. It's still about protest. And it's still about a darkness that envelops most of America. Woodstock is more a memory from later. This is the reality.”

On how he learned so much about The Stones and what they taught him about music

“I'm a player and so I'm a musicologist, so for me, I was not that interested in who The Stones were going out with and what clubs they went and things like that. I was always interested in the music and that was first and foremost. And when I teach my Rolling Stones class, I teach from behind a guitar. It's always about music and it's always about influences.

“The Stones were, for me, the place that led me to other styles. They were the ones that guided me. … I did not come to the Chicago blues revival like they did. I had to be led to it. So they're also the ones who led me to Robert Johnson, and they led me to country music. And so it was through them that I began to listen to Merle Haggard. It was through them I started to think about Nashville and all these different tunings. They're the ones who led me to all these different styles. They led me to French new wave cinema. They led me to Bulgakov’s ‘Master and Margarita’ and to read that. So they led me to other groups as well and they led me to reggae. I just willingly followed and I let them just lead me onto their musical traditions.”

On what it’s like to see The Rolling Stones perform today

“I mean, it's always the same because they still have that sound. And again, it's the sound of The Stones, which is the most important thing. They look like great bluesmen, you know, that's what they look like and that's who they should be looking like. Rock is an interesting genre or style because it's completely gone beyond the fact that it's a youthful pastime. Rock is a style of music history. And I see The Stones at their age, just like I would see a conductor at the age of 75.”

On his favorite Rolling Stones song 

“It changes all the time, but right now, I'm starting to listen a lot to 'Street Fighting Man,' which is from ‘Beggars Banquet.’ And again, it's something about the sound of that recording. And I'm focusing a lot on sound these days because we've lost a lot of that dynamic of what sound is, because we all listen to music through headphones. We listen to music that is compressed in MP3 formats. The Stones' music just jumps off the record, you know? And when you put the needle on a vinyl, that sound comes off in a way that is impossible to duplicate with headphones. And 'Street Fighting Man' is one of those. The guitar sounds. In the studio, they placed a microphone on a tape recorder of Keith playing that riff, and so it comes out in a kind of third-generation format. There's nothing like it. And so that's what I'm still impressed by. I wish I could duplicate it."

Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

Book Excerpt: 'The Cambridge Companion to the Rolling Stones'

By Victor Coelho

Exile, America, and the Theater of the Rolling Stones, 1968-1972

The lyrics range from scriptural verses about Lucifer and the Prodigal Son to stories of beggars, sinners, prowlers, addicts, transients, outcasts, Black militants, groupies, and road-weary troubadours; the web of musical influences is spun with multi-colored threads of urban and rural blues, country, calypso, R&B, rock and roll, folk, gospel, and even the English choral tradition. The four albums released by the Rolling Stones between 1968 and 1972 – Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street – constitute for critics, fans, and historians the core identity of the group and the lasting, canonical repertory that has defined the Stones’ musical, historical, and cultural legacy. As Jack Hamilton has written in a recent study of the group, the band’s years from 1968 to Exile amount to “one of the great sustained creative peaks in all of popular music.” An insider’s perspective on the moment when the Rolling Stones were guaranteed a place of distinction in the history of music is offered by Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. As the group finally extricated itself from the management of Allen Klein and ABKCO in 1970, Wenner implored Mo Ostin of Warner Bros to sign the group without delay:

Dear Mo, The Rolling Stones contract with London/Decca is now up, or shortly about to be. They are not renewing. They are looking for a new label and company in the USA, but not their own label. They have two LP’s now in the can almost ready for release: Live in the USA [Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!], and the one they are [finishing] or have finished from Muscle Shoals [Sticky Fingers].

Mick Jagger is the one who will make the decision on who is their new label. It’s worth everything you’ve got to get this contract, even to lose money on it. The label that gets the Stones will be one of the winners in the 70’s.

Contact Mick directly in London at MAY 5856, 46A Maddox Street, W1. [followed by in red pen] NOW.

The critical reception of these albums, documented extensively in both published and video accounts since their release half a century ago, has only affirmed their historical relevance within the political and generational tensions of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Let It Bleed – “Gimme Shelter” in particular (both the song and the film) – has been immortalized as a live broadcast of the abrupt shift from utopian Woodstock ideals of July, 1969 to the crushing dystopian reality – the “Pearl Harbor to the Woodstock Nation” – of the Altamont tragedy only five months later. Sticky Fingers is seen as a poetic but dark chronicle of addiction, obsession, dependency, and refuge; and “Sympathy for the Devil,” from Beggars Banquet, is the ubiquitous point of reference for any discussion of the volatile activism, assassinations, and racial tensions in 1968 America, a country inextricably mired in the Vietnam War and its related protests.

(Courtesy of Cambridge University Press)
(Courtesy of Cambridge University Press)

Godard’s 1968 observational film One Plus One [Sympathy for the Devil] was remarkably prescient through its resolute focus on the slow evolution of “Sympathy for the Devil” as a metaphor for Marxist anarchy brewing in the streets, a premonition shared even by Jagger: “There’s no doubt there’s a cyclic change,” he says in a May, 1968 interview during the anti-Vietnam protests in Grosvenor Square in London, just prior to the student riots in Paris; “a VAST cyclic change on top of a lot of smaller ones. I can imagine America becoming just ablaze, just being ruined .. .” Finally, Exile on Main Street, while breaking no new ground stylistically, frames for posterity the permanent identity of the Stones through the album’s themes of both poetic and living geographical exile. It is a summation of the musical diversity introduced by the previous albums in which the deep roots of their style are laid bare in the present: There is no old and there is no new in the musical vocabulary of Exile. As Janovitz writes in his study of the album, “[Exile] seems to revel in self- imposed limitations. In fact, it sometimes sounds ancient. Other times it sounds completely current and modern. It sounds, at various points, underground and a little experimental, and at others, classic and even nostalgic.”

These four releases are not the most popular-selling albums by the Stones, nor do the 57 songs they contain – out of an entire catalog of around 400 – amount to an unusually large concentration of material within any five-year period of their recording history; there is far more music recorded before 1968 and after 1972. But beginning with Beggars Banquet of 1968 we see a profound deepening of the vernacular dialects of rock and roll as the group traveled from metropole concerns of urban blues, Mod London, and the middle-class audiences of the Ed Sullivan show on to a new landscape of a vast America and its “distant” traditions of Delta Blues, rural country, and older texts. They infused these genres and their lyrical themes with the raw exilic qualities of distance and authenticity as metaphors for a contemporary culture they saw as revolutionary, disruptive, and teeming with racial and generational strife. Like exiles before them, they were stuck at the crossroads of participation and reflection. While the group recognized deep societal violence and struggle, it remained disengaged from the action at a critical, poetic distance, offering commentary, not combat. As Jon Landau wrote in Rolling Stone,

the most startling songs on the album are the ones that deal with the Stones’ environment: “Salt of the Earth,” “Street Fighting Man,” and “Sympathy for the Devil.” Each is characterized lyrically by a schizoid ambiguity. The Stones are cognizant of the explosions of youthful energy that are going on all around them. They recognize the violence inherent in these struggles. They see them as movements for fundamental change and are deeply sympathetic. Yet they are too cynical to really go along themselves.

Symbols of moral and political upheaval abound in the lyrics: a “man of wealth and taste,” Lucifer in “Sympathy for the Devil” cavorts among guests at a dinner party but kills both Kennedys; in “Stray Cat Blues” an underage daughter runs away and is raped, but the justification is that it’s “no capital crime”; there are marches in the streets; sinners are saints, cops are criminals. At the same time, the Stones’ voices are somewhere else: The lyrical and musical Impressionism of “No Expectations” and pentatonic Orientalism of “Moonlight Mile” are reflections, memories, and dreams, not actions; the “Street Fighting Man” is actually uncommitted to the struggle, and the Prodigal Son can’t make it on his own, even with his inheritance. So much talk, so little action. In many ways, the only songs offering unequivocal, unambiguous themes are the proletarian tributes “Factory Girl” and “Salt of the Earth.” In short, the albums beginning with Beggars and ending with Exile painted the authentic musical portrait of the Stones that established their most recognizable and durable image, even if it is often contradictory. For fans, every phase of the band since then is a variation on this basic master narrative.

What is this narrative? It might be defined as follows: an exilic and itinerant sense of being – one largely shaped by Keith Richards – derived from the migratory aspects of the blues, and a fearless, ever-deepening search for musical roots of all kinds; a tough, unyielding attitude – again, Richards – that was revolutionary but devoid of overt politics or constituency; a sharp intuition – shaped here mainly by Mick Jagger – about the largely uncharted and fluid sexual and gender boundaries of the day that played out metaphorically and physically in song lyrics, performance, and wardrobe; 10 a deep-seated subversion powered by their reverential identification with African-American and rural idioms; and, importantly, an obsession with the exiled, with Blackness, and culture at the margins, exposing “fantasies of low life and life below the stairs.” By the time of Exile on Main Street, the Stones, all but Bill Wyman not yet thirty years of age, themselves became the road-tested bluesmen whose deep oral and recorded repertories narrating travel, loss, hopes, lust, and judgment comprised the rich vocabulary of their period in exile.

The period from Beggars through Exile further coincides with important developments with the band that, in turn, initiated several future directions. 1969 witnessed the first major personnel change as a result of Brian Jones’ death in 1968 and the subsequent joining of Mick Taylor, ushering in a period when, musically, the group has never been stronger. Taylor, a young, skilled guitarist whose musical education was formed in the long blues corridors of the John Mayall Band, was a virtuoso bottleneck player, and provided the Stones with their first true “lead” guitarist, resulting in an expansion of their song forms, particularly in live performance, through sections of brilliant solos, distinct tone, and improvisation. 1969 also marks their critical return to touring, following a hiatus from the road of almost two and a half years that was dominated by fighting various drug busts – mainly the well-documented “Redlands Scandal”– and increasing financial distress.12 The aggregate problems of economic and legal persecution ultimately led to their move in 1971 to the South of France as vrai tax exiles. But these years also reveal a new songwriting process in which the system of recording songs for imminent album release is abandoned in favor of longer gestation periods and revision. Much of the material on the Beggars through Exile albums was, in fact, conceived simultaneously, the composition of many songs begun years before their eventual release – a chronology that is not present prior to Beggars. The earliest takes of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Sister Morphine,” released in 1969 and 1971, respectively, can already be found in May and November, 1968. Many songs that would appear on Sticky Fingers (1971) and Exile on Main Street (1972) have their origins already in 1969, including “Brown Sugar,” “You Gotta Move,” “Wild Horses,” “Dead Flowers,” “Loving Cup,” and “All Down the Line.” Similarly, the origins of “Stop Breaking Down,” “Sweet Virginia,” and “Hip Shake” are found in 1970, prior to the band’s move to France and two years before release. This chronology testifies to the musical affinities and common sessions between the four albums that form a distinctive and cohesive creative phase in the history of the Rolling Stones.

Excerpted from The Cambridge Companion to the Rolling Stones, edited by Victor Coelho and John Covach. Copyright © 2019 Cambridge University Press, published by Cambridge University Press, reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

This segment aired on October 24, 2019.

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Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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