Sixty years of The Rolling Stones: How the British band has braved substance abuse and bandmate feuds over decades

Why The Rolling Stones have had the longevity that they have enjoyed is because they are one of the greatest examples of what teamwork can actually produce.

Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri January 16, 2022 09:10:26 IST
Sixty years of The Rolling Stones: How the British band has braved substance abuse and bandmate feuds over decades

The Rolling Stones

In #TheMusicThatMadeUs, senior journalist Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri chronicles the impact that musicians and their art have on our lives, how they mould the industry by rewriting its rules and how they shape us into the people we become: their greatest legacies.

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The jokes about Keith Richards’ seeming immortality notwithstanding, what is the secret of The Rolling Stones’ fame in perpetuum? 

In 2022, the British band will complete 60 years of rocking our world. Six decades is no mean feat for any band; least of all one that has been riddled with stories of drunken brawls, substance and alcohol abuse, and feuds amidst bandmates. But in six decades, The Rolling Stones have managed to show musicians half their age what it takes to be that all-consuming presence on stage. 

Sixty years of The Rolling Stones How the British band has braved substance abuse and bandmate feuds over decades

Their No Filter tour, which was originally scheduled for 2020, was pushed to last year owing to the COVID-19 pandemic bringing the live entertainment industry the world over to a grinding halt. The year 2021 was no different as it turned out, but it did give the live events scene an impetus with vaccination and real-time PCR tests becoming the norm. Still, it was not all song and dance, as bands gingerly started performing in bubbles and touring less extensively. 

No Filter Tour was originally planned without factoring their legendary drummer Charlie Watts, who was battling medical complications. In 2021, Watts passed away, and the band took a few months to grapple with the loss before finishing the year on a resounding note. The Stones' tour was the highest grossing of 2021. The group grossed a massive $115.5 million, selling 516,624 total tickets for 12 shows across 11 cities. This, at a time, when the notion of “classic rock is dead” is deeply entrenched in the millennial mindset.

How does one explain the genius of a band fronted by a man with extraordinary energy but limiting vocal chords? Their own peers have conflicting opinions about the band with Paul McCartney recently going on record about finding them unremarkable while The Who’s Roger Daltrey did not mince words in calling them a mediocre pub band. But mediocrity cannot get one THIS far.

Sixty years of The Rolling Stones How the British band has braved substance abuse and bandmate feuds over decades

McCartney may have derided them recently for being a blues cover band, but truth be told, The Rolling Stones have seldom returned to their blues roots, preferring instead to scale newer sonic frontiers while still keeping their unique brand of rock at the core. One of the major bands along with The Beatles to helm the British Invasion of America, The Rolling Stones stood out against their squeaky-clean suited contemporaries with questionable haircuts. Working the quintessential rockstar vibe with unkempt hair and envious stage presence, The Rolling Stones were the perfect antithesis in the early '60s that made music grittier, heavier, and more suited to a hard rock sound. 

Fronted by Mick Jagger, the band, at its most popular, comprised multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones and then Ronnie Wood, guitarist Keith Richards, bassist Bill Wyman, and drummer Watts. This band has had an estimated record sales of 200 million makes them one of the best-selling music artists of all time. Having won three Grammy Awards and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, they were also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, and have, over the past few decades, topped several lists of greatest bands of all time.

Sixty years of The Rolling Stones How the British band has braved substance abuse and bandmate feuds over decades

From essentially being a blues cover band to riding high on '60s stoner rock, adopting the heavier and chunkier sound of the '70s that straddled hard rock and disco on opposite ends, to cruising on the New Wave sound that typified the '80s, The Rolling Stones have redefined themselves over the first three or four decades of their career, before returning to their comfort zone of '60s-'70s rock that delves deep into the various subgenres and rich sub-cultures of rock and roll itself. In fact, their 2016 album Blue & Lonesome brought them as close to their blues roots as they had been in decades.

If we were to be most objective, Jagger is a great frontman who manages to lead the charge, and inspire a crowd like few can, but he is not the most talented man in the band.

Why The Rolling Stones have had the longevity that they have enjoyed is because they are one of the greatest examples of what teamwork can actually produce. 

Unlike a lot of frontman-helmed rock bands of the '60s that are often derailed by the ego clashes between the singer and the guitarist, The Stones have been incredibly tight as a unit despite the Jagger-Richards feuds. And they have proven time and again how creativity and business sense need not be mutually exclusive. Of course, Jagger is a London School of Economics alumnus, but it is the band’s astute self-awareness and ability to translate their individual strengths to a greater cause on stage that has helped them stand the test of time. After the changing dynamics between Jagger and Richards, with a heady dose of heroin addiction thrown into the mix, age sobered things up and calmed the tension. The band’s openness to having many sessions musicians during studio recordings also gave their sound an evolving attitude despite them pivoting back to their rock identity.

In their 60-year career, the band has been on 48 different tours of differing lengths, making them one of the most commercially viable acts to perform live in front of stadium-sized audiences. What sets them apart is the incredible energy they bring to every single show. They are septuagenarians but that does not stop Jagger from jumping and hurtling himself across the stage. From the time they get on stage until curtain call, The Rolling Stones take their audiences on a musical rollercoaster that span their most energetic classics like '(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,' 'Jumpin’ Jack Flash,' 'Sympathy for the Devil,' and 'Start Me Up' among others to their most poignant ones like 'Angie,' 'Wild Horses,' and 'Beast of Burden.'

Sixty years on, time is truly on their side.

Sixty years of The Rolling Stones How the British band has braved substance abuse and bandmate feuds over decades

Senior journalist Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri has spent a good part of two decades chronicling the arts, culture and lifestyles.

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