50 Years of the Rolling Stones: the biographic tribute continues

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“Anything that is worth doing is worth overdoing” is Mick Jagger’s self-fulfilling prophesy author Christopher  Sandford uses to begin his biography of one of the world’s most successful and well known rock ‘n roll bands. It’s a book coming so soon off the back of Keith Richard’s Life (arguably the best musician’s autobiography ever written) that its very presence on the shelves of the music section is questionable. Only a no holds barred account revealing the depth and breadth of the Stones enduring legacy could pass trial. Sandford’s intelligent analysis of his subject and his entertaining ability to recount the fights, feuds, flings, groupies, marriages, breakups  and everything else that is the trail of carnage the Stones leave in their wake has to survive close scrutiny. Sandford doesn’t fail to deliver.

Having previously written separate biographies on both Mick and Keith, he is more than qualified to tackle the Stones as a whole. First meeting them at Keith’s English home in 1977 he has endeared himself as a reputable music journalist close enough to gain personal interviews and exclusive access- no mean feat considering the likes of Russell Brand (in his MTV days) had to jump through hoops to get an interview and even then, when it was finally granted, still had to wait a very long time before it went ahead.

“Keith Richards would probably be the one rock star ever to have nodded off on stage in front of 20,000 screaming fans, shortly after playing the solo on ‘Memory Hotel’ in Munich. The Stones then did a few desultory gigs in eastern Europe, before winding up in Vienna. Mick and Ron wrecked their hotel suite there. The management threatened to call the law and have everyone arrested, but became more cordial when Peter Rudge peeled off £5, 000 in crisp £50 notes to help defray the damages.” It’s entertaining incidents like these of wanton decadence and reckless destruction that you expect from the founders of rock’s golden age but it’s the insight into the Stones other adventures and exploits that’s of interest- sordid or not. 

The Rolling Stones- Fifty Years doesn’t just tell the story of the band. Sandford examines their scope well beyond the stage and into their private lives from the bedroom to the boardroom. The Stones financial worth is no secret but it’s easily lost amidst the success of their music.  He explores the business side of records and touring. Referring to the 1989 Voodoo Lounge “The tour opened on 1 August, with 55,000 spectators spending an average of $60 and $35 apiece of tickets and merchandising respectively, meaning that the $3 million stage paid for itself on its first night” and “In two separate bursts, spread over five years, the band had played 282 shows to some 8.5 million worldwide customers and grossed $665 million in the process” he reveals. Jagger’s (staggering) personal fortune is revealed, (Keith’s is estimated to be $290 million) and why the Stones never played Glastonbury- organizers failed to meet their ‘reduced’ £1 million fee.

Sandford skilfully paints a colourful picture of an evolving band dividing 468 pages into 10 fascinating chapters. As the Stones got older their audiences got younger, captivating generations across the globe and staying relevant with records and hits in every decade. Starting with their school boy aspirations at Dartford Grammar and humble beginnings (Mick Jagger and the Rollin’ Stones as they were originally named) to the multimillion dollar record deals, chart successes and worldwide acceptance at the highest levels including Sir Mick’s Knighthood, someone who despite a brief prison sentence never lost his sense of the establishment and Keith who never lost his resistance and rebellion towards it. At times, differences between band members were subtle and manageable but  other times their squabbles were every bit as loud as their onstage amplifiers. The Stones implosion in the suitably titled chapter ‘World War Three’ is utterly compelling. As are the notorious incidents now part of rock ‘n roll folklore like the notorious 1969 Altamont Speedway concert, where  the Hell’s Angels were hired as crowd security and a punter was stabbed to death amidst numerous brawls and bloody scuffles between the crowd and the bikies. Sandford details it all across the ages and across the seas.

While the Stones have endeared themselves around the globe they’ve adopted America as their home just as America has adopted them as their own. In fact if you didn’t know the Stones were English, it would be possible, what with their swagger, style and sound to actually believe they are American (along with a small handful of other English bands who could also pass off as American: Led Zeppelin,  the Cult, Def Leppard, Bush).  But none more so than the Stones who so well embody the traits of freedom and rebellion that has always endeared them to the US public. Without being overly sentimental Sandford details this outpouring of public affection at their many appearances including President Clinton’s invitation which featured in the Martin Scorsese documentary Shine A Light. Sandford recounts Keith’s role in Pirates of the Caribbean and (briefly) his appearance with Mick on an episode of The Simpsons, further highlighting their influence and relevance to popular culture. However the Stones don’t always have Presidents and Monarchs fawning over them.

Angry fans unable to get tickets sparked riots at Mexico City Stadium which spread across South America and even as far away as South Africa.  Such incidents had wider implications. “’I got some shit from the Chinese Government saying I couldn’t come’ said Keith Richards, never one for fine details. ‘Number one in the list is ‘cultural pollution’ and about number thirty is ‘Will cause traffic jams.’ And in between is a whole load of other crap.” Sandford reveals, highlighting Keith’s frustration while fusing the misaligned concept of rock n’ roll and international relations.

Yet incidents like these have been overcome. The longevity of the Rolling Stones has seen them experience and react to a whole range of social and political phenomena from the Alabama race riots and government upheaval in South America to the 9/11 terrorist attacks all impacting their business interests and personal emotions. From those first gigs in tiny bars in England to their most recent stadium fillers last year, Sandford takes you on your own personal tour of the bands fascinating history. At once gritty and unnerving, inspiring and informative, The Rolling Stones- Fifty Years is a captivating fly on the wall look into why the Rolling Stones have remained so quintessentially important. It is compulsory reading for all music enthusiasts.  Satisfaction guaranteed.


The Rolling Stones- Fifty Years by Christopher Sandford is out now through Simon and Schuster.