Chapter One


Saturday 5 March 2016

Translucent, triumphant, the pale-eyed bride wears the icy blue of a Disney Frozen princess. The Dress, an £8,000 silk and tulle Vivienne Westwood confection, is draped, layered and looped around her statuesque six-foot form. On the arm of her son who is giving her away, she glides the length of the marbled nave in flat Roger Vivier silver pumps, chosen to avoid towering over her shorter husband (she generally favours Manolo Blahnik heels). Her head nods like a sprung toy dog’s on a parcel shelf. Her yellow hair hangs loose beneath a handkerchief of net. Never partial to professional make-up artists, she has painted her face herself. She smiles broadly, laughter lines crinkling, matte cranberry mouth framing the slightly crossed front teeth that she couldn’t be bothered to fix. Clutching a white beribboned posy, she floats so closely past me that I smell her toothpaste. Her engagement ring dazzles. A little large on her finger, the huge stone, a cool £2.8 million worth of twenty-carat marquise-cut diamond, has slipped to one side.1

This is not a wedding, as such. The marriage itself took place yesterday at Spencer House,2 followed by a fashionable lunch at Scott’s of Mayfair. They have gathered here today to witness the blessing of the union of previously thrice-wed media mogul Rupert Murdoch,3 eighty-four, and reformed rock chick Jerry Faye Hall, a quarter of a century his junior. Though the full-lipped, fox-eyed features of love of her life Mick Jagger are everywhere you look, thanks to the presence of their four children, there is predictably no sign of the rocker himself. Delicious, then, the swishy arrival of his first wife Bianca, whom he left for the leggy Texan supermodel celebrating marriage today. Their differences long buried, Mick’s glamorous exes are devoted friends.

Who else have we got? A hundred or so guests, including Cabinet minister Michael Gove and his columnist wife Sarah Vine; celebrity snapper David Bailey, who has come as a tramp, in trainers, plaid donkey jacket and knitted beanie hat, and who will be photographing the clan in due course; Rebekah Brooks, controversial Leveson Inquiry figure, infamous former editor of the News of the World and the Sun, now CEO of Murdoch’s British newspapers, who is matronly on the arm of her husband Charlie; Sir Michael Caine and his exquisite wife Shakira, the Lord Lloyd Webber and Lady Madeleine, Bob Geldof and Jeanne Marine, unmade-bed artist Tracey Emin and playwright Tom Stoppard. There is also Karis Hunt Jagger, Mick’s daughter with actress Marsha Hunt, paternity of whom he denied before giving in and coughing up, as economically as possible. She is a picture.

Bridesmaids? A frock of them. Come in The Daughters, in hues of blue. Dear Prudence, Murdoch’s first-born, is elegant in teal. His second daughter Elisabeth blooms in bluebell. Mick’s third daughter Lizzy, his first with Jerry, is sweetly wrapped in lazuline. Her sister Georgia May rocks delphinium. Flower girls Chloe and Grace, Rupert’s offspring with his latest ex Wendi Deng, are coy in little-boy blue.

St Bride’s Church is our location. The one with the wedding-cake spire at the Ludgate Circus end of Fleet Street, which has been a familiar landmark on London’s skyline since 1703. It remains the spiritual home of the British media, despite the newspaper industry’s exodus thirty years ago. I remember it well. I was stationed on the Street of Shame at the time, as a music and showbusiness journalist for the Daily Mail. It was Rupert Murdoch, the octogenarian groom at the altar today, who was responsible for the devastation. Damned if he was going to be held to ransom by print unions past their sell-by date and galvanised by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s stance against unions in general, he sacked 6,000 striking print workers, offloaded hundreds of journalists who refused to embrace his new technology, and moved his papers – the Sun, The Times, The Sunday Times and the now-defunct News of the World – to Docklands. Barbed-wired Fortress Wapping became the epicentre of hellish dispute, and 1986 concluded in mass demonstrations, bloody riots, the violent death of a teenage labourer and crushing defeat for the unions. Within two years, most of the nationals had followed suit, relocating to more accommodating postcodes and switching to computerised technology.

For nearly three hundred years, the Street had been the mecca of hacks and scribes. Pre-rolling TV news, pre-internet and social media, ninety per cent of information reached the public via newspapers. Thanks to the Murdoch revolution our vibrant village, the crucible of the childhood dreams of we who had grown up longing to be journalists, was decimated.

Those who remember what happened may be forgiven for wondering how Murdoch has the nerve to show his face in this holy place, known variously as the ‘journalists’ church’, the ‘cathedral of Fleet Street’ and the ‘parish church of journalism’. Some regard as ‘a bit rich’ his return to solicit the blessing of the street he destroyed. Others describe it as a ‘laundering’, a whitewashing of history, a bare-faced quest for absolution of his ‘crimes’. The cynics weigh in with retorts that Murdoch has always been in the habit of thumbing his nose, so why would he stop now? ‘This is comparable,’ quips one, ‘to Dracula getting married in a blood bank.’

Hours ahead of the service, security guards patrol the boundaries with sniffer dogs. Anti-News Corp protesters displaying offensive banners at the first-floor windows of a building opposite the church’s North Door are thwarted when that entrance is closed and locked. The wedding party is re-directed via a side street, and enters the church through another entrance. Ladies and gentlemen, will you please stand.

It occurred to me at the time, and I still believe, that the conquest that day was not Rupert Murdoch’s, but Jerry’s, revenge being the dish best eaten cold. When she left Roxy Music star Bryan Ferry for Jagger in 1977, she did so for love. She gave the Stone four children and twenty-two years of her life. With a callousness bordering on reptilian, he cheated and lied his way through their relationship, taking women, dozens of them, and even the odd man, whenever and wherever he wanted, without sparing a thought for her indoors. Jerry, humiliated, hit back. Her brief 1982 affair with filthy-rich royal horse breeder Robert Sangster, the personal pal of Frank Sinatra whom she declared could have bought Mick out ‘ten times over’, gave the rocker a sip of his own serum. The boot was now on the other one. Mick, predictably, fought to win her back. ‘It was the only time he ever picked me up from the airport,’ she lamented, after the pair reunited.

They tied the knot in Bali in 1990 and lasted another nine years. When it emerged that he had fathered yet another child with yet another paramour – Lucas Morad Jagger with Brazilian model Luciana Gimenez Morad – only seventeen months after his apparent wife had given birth to their youngest child Gabriel, that was it. Jerry filed for divorce, suing reasonably for personal maintenance, child support and a share of his assets, only to discover to her horror that she had never been married in the first place.

Legendarily parsimonious, Jagger battled his way through court. His precious bank balance won. Their ‘marriage’, conducted in a Hindu ceremony, was found not to be legally binding in either Indonesia or Great Britain, and was declared null and void. So what were those beautiful wedding photos about, Mick? He seized on the verdict and screwed Jerry’s settlement into the ground. Respect for seaweed-tongued, insouciant Jagger receded, even among diehard Stones fans for whom he walks on waves. The world had come a long way (with still a long way to go) since the heady days of rock’n’roll madness, when women were disposable and good only for one thing, when his rootless, macho, predatory lifestyle was a thing to which to aspire, at least according to the kind of hopeless, subcultural males who would one day acquire the epithet ‘incels’.

Of all the debauched, shameful and selfish behaviour Mick had displayed down the years, this took the chocolate chip. The woman wore his rings, third finger left. She had birthed him a brood. His dismissal of Jerry caused catastrophic fall-out; their four cherished children were now branded illegitimate, and by their own father.

He lurks, the karma chameleon, red, gold and green. Creeping behind stone pillars and sliding under pews, he emits an insidious essence. Invisible to the naked eye he skulks, the undetected life and soul. He barely stirs during the quiet contemplation of readings from 1 Corinthians and from the ancient Chinese text the Tao Te Ching, delivered by Rupert’s son James and Jerry’s son Gabriel. He agitates to the hymns – ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘Jerusalem’, the soaring sounds of William Walton’s ‘Set Me as a Seal Upon Thine Heart’, swishing his tail. He pauses, lies still, waits patiently. In another life, pleased to meet you, he was a man of wealth and taste. As we sow, so must we reap. The last laugh is Jerry’s. Look at her now, sticking it to the Stone. Not only for herself but for every Stones woman chewed and spat out without a backward glance. This is Jerry getting her own back, even if revenge is the last thing on her mind. He is here for her. Hope you guess his name.

When Rupert Murdoch acquired the News of the World in 1969, he inherited a feud between the scandal- and crime-touting rag and the Rolling Stones that had been raging unabated for years. Colluding with corrupt police officers, the title’s hacks targeted the drug-swilling group as architects of degeneracy and scourges of society, whose influence over impressionable youth must be eradicated. The newspaper was prurient and hypocritical, pouring disapproval and disbelief over their law-breaking ‘antics’ and ‘debauched’, ‘depraved’ behaviour while dedicating seventy-two-point headlines and endless column inches to Stones coverage. Titillation and condemnation went hand in hand. An undercover reporter scooped Brian Jones using illegal substances in a club, but mistook him for Mick Jagger (accidentally on purpose?) in his published exposé. Jagger sued. The infamous ensuing drugs bust at Redlands, the West Wittering (West Sussex) home of guitarist Keith Richards, during which Jagger’s fur rug-clad girlfriend Marianne Faithfull was alleged to have been found serving confectionery from an unusual receptacle was, as it were, tit for tat. When the News of the World folded in 2011 as a result of the phone-hacking scandal,4 at a cost of more than two hundred jobs, Mick must have raised a cup to good riddance. Little could he have known that his old adversary would return to haunt him in the form of former proprietor Murdoch, the ghost of arrests and porridge past, who would not only serve as a funnel for the re-splashing of gloriously scurrilous old Stones editorials but who would yank him down a peg or two in the most public of ways, by taking his beautiful woman scorned as his own wife. Taunting Jagger with the very commitment he himself had resisted made Murdoch the victor and a mockery of the loser. Money talks. In Jagger’s world, it’s the only voice worth hearing. Rupert’s net worth is estimated at around $20 billion. Mick curls up at night with a mere $500 million. Take that.

I had anticipated Jerry’s wedding as a Stones-free zone. Sure enough, no Charlie and Shirley, no Ronnie and Sally, no Keith and Patti, no Ronnie’s pretty, bubbly ex-wife Jo. But there can be no barring the doors to phantoms. Here they stand, a collective link to a less than blissful past that Jerry has mostly contrived to leave behind. I had managed to miss their arrival, and spot them just as the last guests make to leave: a better-days blonde in blue floral dress, green shoes and black coat with deep fur collar, on the arm of an elderly male in inky suit, grey V-necked sweater and open-necked shirt. Not very wedding-y. They pause for the waiting press photographers and exchange a few mind-how-you-gos. The old man blinks behind black-rimmed specs. He is paunchy and jowly. He seems both vague and vaguely familiar. His sparse grey hair and moustache could use a trim. I know him from somewhere. Our eyes meet under the arch, and we recognise each other. More than thirty years earlier, when I was a young television presenter and tabloid newspaper columnist, I became embroiled by default in a scandal that shocked the world. It rendered this man an alleged paedophile. The suspicion has stuck like stench. It led eventually, whatever they say, to his resignation from the Rolling Stones.

Bill Wyman was once the band’s bassist. The better-days blonde is his wife Suzanne. The former object of his affections was a schoolgirl, Mandy Smith. They began dating when she was thirteen years old. I was there the night they met, at an awards event at London’s Lyceum ballroom. I spent the evening with Bill and Midge Ure of Ultravox, with whom I had worked at Chrysalis Records. Unbeknown to me at the time, I was used as a clueless cover-up, drawn into Bill’s mixed-age friendship circle assembled to conceal his and Mandy’s burgeoning relationship. They began sleeping together, she said, when she was only fourteen. They married four years later.

I am invited to spend the afternoon at Spencer House, where the marital celebrations continue. Fuelled by crates of Moraga Bel Air wine from Rupert’s own Californian vineyard, they have, by all accounts, a fine old time. I leave them to it. I repair instead with dear friends and fellow guildsmen to Two Brydges,5 a small members’ club in WC2. Our modest lunch and conversation restore perspective. The day is ended. Darkness falls.

Jerry’s association with the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world was finally over. Although it can never be fully said and done, can it, when one’s name has for so long been linked to a rock superstar’s and when one shares children and grandchildren with the man, causing the rest of your lives, whether you like it or not, to overlap. Even when stretched to the max, bio-elastic never breaks. Long fascinated by the Stones’ influence and culture, I found myself looking back over their lives as their sixtieth anniversary approached. I had not been around to witness their genesis, which prompted me to venture back … to the first-ever gig at the Marquee Jazz Club on London’s Oxford Street, on 12 July 1962. Mick Jagger sang lead vocals, Brian Jones and Keith Richard played guitar, Ian Stewart was the pianist and Dick Taylor was on bass. The drummer? They are still arguing about that. While some insist that Tony Chapman wielded the sticks, Keith was adamant in his 2010 autobiography Life that his friend and future Kink Mick Avory did so: ‘not Tony Chapman, as history has mysteriously handed it down.’

Whoever it was, the fledgling group bagged the gig when Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated – the club’s Thursday night regulars fronted by Jagger, who would turn nineteen a fortnight hence – were asked to perform for a BBC live broadcast. Mick wasn’t included in the airing, so Brian persuaded the Marquee’s owner Harold Pendleton to let their new group stand in. They borrowed cash from Jagger’s father to rent equipment for the night. When Brian phoned local listings paper Jazz News to advertise the occasion, so the legend goes, the copy taker asked for the name of the band. They didn’t have one. Anxious Jones’s eyes fell to a pile of records lying on the floor, and to the title of the first track on The Best of Muddy Waters: ‘Rollin’ Stone’.

Which twinkles, like a fable. Nobody cares whether or not the story is true. They spent the summer gigging around the capital’s clubs and dives. Mick, Keith and Brian soon moved in together. Their new home was a squalid, unfurnished second-floor flat at 102 Edith Grove, Fulham, two beds between three. Filthy crockery and cutlery were flung from the kitchen window rather than washed up. Drummer Charlie Watts soon joined them, and Bill Wyman was hired. The classic line-up, set in Stones.

Sixty years later and three founders down, they are still at it. No group attracts greater legend, not even the Beatles. With the exception of the Who, who are now reduced to two original members, no other rock act has lasted that long. The Stones are veterans of more than two thousand concerts and counting, and are one of the most popular live acts in entertainment history. Their 2005–07 A Bigger Bang tour was then the highest-grossing tour of all time. Their 18 February 2006 free one-nighter on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach, experienced by more than two million people on the sand and in the surrounding streets, broke records as the largest rock concert ever staged.

They are also songwriting and recording superstars, with estimated sales of more than 240 million units. They have won three Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award. They have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1982) and the UK Music Hall of Fame (2004). They came tenth on the US Billboard Hot 100 All-Time Top Artists Chart in 2008. Eleven years later, they made it to second place on Billboard magazine’s Greatest Artists of All Time list, reflecting American chart success, behind the Beatles and ahead of Elton John, Mariah Carey, Madonna, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Taylor Swift and Stevie Wonder. By the Greatest Artists of All Time reckoning of Rolling Stone magazine, they rank fourth behind the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley, eclipsing Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Little Richard and Aretha Franklin.

In September 2020, they broke the UK’s Official Charts record when they beat twenty-one-year-old singer-songwriter Declan McKenna to No. 1 with Goats Head Soup. It was that album’s second seizing of the sweet spot, having debuted at the top on its original release in 1973. It set the Stones a new record, making them the first band in official chart history to score a No. 1 album in six different decades. They now have thirteen No. 1 albums, including the reissues of Exile on Main St, considered by many to be their finest, and Goats Head Soup, thus equalling the record of Elvis Presley and Robbie Williams. Only the Beatles achieved more No. 1 albums in the UK. They have 18 million followers on Facebook and 3.5 million on Twitter. One of the most streamed acts on Spotify, they net close to 20 million monthly listens. Nearly 2 million subscribers follow their YouTube channel, with more than 650 million views. Although the global pandemic pressed pause on the American leg of No Filter, their latest tour, and despite the sad but not unexpected death of eighty-year-old Charlie Watts, business resumed during autumn 2021 when the band hopped back on the road. They started hinting at a new album, their first since 2016’s Blue & Lonesome, which was in turn their first for eleven years.

With a combined age of 232, the band’s core line-up – Mick, ‘Keef’ and ‘the new boy’ Ronnie, who took over from Brian Jones’s replacement Mick Taylor in 1975 – continue to wield vast influence. This despite the rise of cancel culture, regarded by many as an important tool of social justice but by others as a senseless form of social media mob rule. In October 2021, faced with a barrage of hostility (not for the first time) for their song ‘Brown Sugar’ – which critics claim is ‘gross, sexist and sickeningly insulting towards black women’, with lyrics described as ‘some of the most stunningly crude and offensive that have ever been written’ – the band backed down, deleting it from the set list of their resumed tour. Their second most frequently performed song behind ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ was placed on hold. ‘I don’t know,’ pondered Keith Richards. ‘I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is. Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they’re trying to bury it … At the moment, I don’t want to get into conflicts with all of this shit, but I’m hoping that we’ll be able to resurrect the babe in her glory somewhere along the track.’

‘We’ve played “Brown Sugar” every night since 1970,’ commented Jagger, in defence of the band’s 1971 No. 1 hit. ‘Sometimes you think, “We’ll take that one out for now and see how it goes.” We might put it back in.’ Will they?

Piers Morgan demanded its reinstatement. The ubiquitous journalist and television presenter, who is now a global star and who was once my editor, branded the Stones ‘cowards’ for caving in to the ‘woke bullies’ and dropping the song, which includes references to a Gold Coast slave ship and a slave owner whipping women. ‘There is nothing racist about “Brown Sugar”,’ raged Morgan, pointing out that the song defends and supports black women, and that it does not make light of slavery. Calling out rap songs featuring lyrics that are deeply offensive to females, he warned: ‘The woke-filled narrative will now be that the song IS racist, so the Stones are therefore racist, and they’ve abandoned performing it because they accept these assertions. What utter nonsense.’

‘I’ll tell you how racist the Rolling Stones are,’ says Bernard Fowler, the acclaimed recording artist and backing vocalist who has worked with a string of A-list artists throughout his long career, and who has served the Stones devotedly on stage and in the studio for around thirty-five years. ‘I’m a black man from the Queensbridge Projects [New York, named after the Queensboro Bridge which sits just north of the site, once described as ‘literally hell on earth’]. Death, the Devil and drugs were all over Queensbridge. I wanted to be a professional basketball player so I could get the hell out. Instead, I found music.

‘Mick? I love him. There’s only one Mick Jagger, and he’s a freak of nature. He has a lot more time to rock before he gets to quit. As long as he has a voice and can still perform the way he does, he should do it. He’s out-performing people a third of his age. Who else can do that? He’s a consummate pro, and it’s an amazing thing to see. Are we friends? Oh, yeah. I would say so. I would hope so. I’ve spent my life with these guys. They are like family to me. I’ve watched their children grow, and I love them all.

‘We were on a tour, might have been the Voodoo Lounge or the Urban Jungle, and we were in Austria. Before the gig, I went to do a little shopping. I walked a few blocks, went into a store, and noticed a guy standing outside. I was heading back out of the store to go to the hotel when I noticed that the guy was walking behind me. All of a sudden he starts yelling. I don’t speak German, so no idea, right? He’s looking at me. Oh boy, I’m thinking, here we go, he’s a crazy. I’m from New York, I’m ready to confront him, but I’m thinking, probably not a good idea. The lady behind the counter in the store has a funny look on her face. “I’m so sorry,” she says sadly, “I can’t repeat what he’s saying.”’

Over at the venue late that afternoon, Bernard borrowed a little motor scooter and took himself off to meet some friends.

‘I’m inside the gate of the gig, I’m watching people walk by, and suddenly a guy sees me and starts yelling. A different guy. What the fuck? Two cops with submachine guns appear, and they speak to him. “This guy says that you stole his ticket,” says one of the cops. What? I show them my laminate to prove that I’m with the band. But instead of going the right way, they go the other way. They take me off to some trailer and hold me for forty-five minutes. I kid you not. Finally a guy comes in and just says to me, “You can go.” No explanation, no apology, nothing. I go backstage, I get dressed, I go visit Ronnie and then I go visit Keith. Keith and I sit down, we’re talking, we’re listening to some music, just chilling. “Brother B.,” says Keith pleasantly, “how was your day today?”

‘ “I had the weirdest fucking day today,” I told him. “I went shopping, I was detained at the gig …” He stops. This is who Keith is. He says, “What? They fucking did what? Where’s Tony Russell?” [Keith’s personal assistant since 1988, whom Bernard calls ‘Keith’s Man Friday’] “Fucking cops!” says Keith. “Go get JC!” [that’s Jim Callaghan, the head of our security]. “Bernard, don’t go nowhere!” Callaghan comes in. Keith tells him the story. “I want those two motherfuckers here!” yells Keith. He starts pacing. He has a certain way he walks when he’s pissed (off). JC comes back, he can’t find the cops. Keith is now hot.

‘It’s an outdoor show, you’ve got the mayor there, you’ve got the governor, all the dignitaries. The show is supposed to have gotten started, but it gets held up. “I want their balls here!” Keith is demanding, raging like an animal. “I want the chief of police!”

‘Half an hour goes by. An hour and a half. Almost two hours. I’m in my dressing room, lying low. Mick’s getting an earful, and he comes to talk to me, wanting to know from me what happened. I say, “Mick, Keith only asked me how my day was. How was I to know he was gonna go and do this?”

‘Tony Russell comes in. I walk outside with him, to find that Keith has the head of police, the deputy head, the mayor, the promoter of the gig, all standing in a line, like a firing squad. “You motherfuckers detain him because he’s black?” Keith is screaming. “Those two fucking cops, where are they?” And then he said to them all, pointing at me, “Apologise! You’re gonna fucking apologise to him. Right. Now!” And every one of them did.

‘That’s a stand-up cat. I will never forget it. When Keith Richards calls me, I answer. When he calls from wherever he is, maybe London or LA, and goes, “Bernard, where are you?” I go, “I’m in New York, I’m in the studio, I’m coming!”’

Mick and Keith were born in the Livingstone community hospital in Dartford, Kent, twenty minutes along the A2 from my own home town. They landed in July and December 1943 respectively. They attended the same primary school, then went their separate ways. In 1960, while former choirboy and Boy Scout Keith was a student at Sidcup Art College, bookworm Mick was an undergraduate at the London School of Economics. They bumped into each other again on a Dartford station platform and discovered mutual interest in R&B and the blues. Inspired by blues pioneers – Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson – who influenced Keith’s guitar licks and Mick’s vocals, both proceeded to move in and out of the ever-changing line-ups that underpinned London’s embryonic blues scene. The first incarnation of the Stones coagulated under the wing of Alexis Korner and his Blues Incorporated, pioneers with a regular gig at Ealing Blues Club. An occasional sitter-in with that band was Cheltenham-born guitarist Brian Jones. By early 1962, Jagger was a regular singer with Korner’s men, while also rehearsing with Jones, Richard and other like-minded musicians such as pianist Ian Stewart. The aforementioned Marquee gig was billed as ‘Brian Jones and Mick Jagger and the Rollin’ Stones’. The classic line-up was not cemented until the following year, when Charlie left Blues Incorporated, and bassist Bill Wyman joined too.

The turning point was a residency at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond. Their reputation spread quickly by word of mouth, drawing the band to the attention of teenage former Beatles PR assistant Andrew Loog Oldham. He became their original manager and negotiated their first contract at Decca, the label infamous for having turned down the Beatles. Their debut release, in June 1963, was a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Come On’. While it was not a major hit, the public’s appetite was whetted. As was the media’s. Wily Oldham flogged his upstarts as a dangerous antidote to the lovable mop-top Beatles, and terrified the life out of parents of schoolgirl daughters all over this land. The Stones rapidly became the cult heroes of Britain’s frustrated youth. Their first, eponymous album the following year, which consisted of R&B covers, topped the UK charts in April 1964. By June they were on their debut US tour and celebrating their first UK No. 1, their version of Bobby Womack’s ‘It’s All Over Now’.

Thus did these white working-class and middle-class British kids, who set out to play the music of black African Americans, warm to their theme, gathering momentum. They developed an edgy, distinctive rock-pop style that maintained strong blues undertones while celebrating the diversions of women, sex and drugs. Did they address the issues of the day? Were politics and social awareness reflected in their lyrics? Not really. Most references of that nature were abstract. They cobbled shreds of ideas, smoking and distorting themes into motifs with memorable riffs. There was never a set formula. Going out on a limb, they struck gold. From 1965 onwards, all singles were officially Jagger/Richard compositions. ‘The Last Time’ made the American Top 10 and paved the way for their first No. 1 on both sides of the pond, ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’. By the end of the decade, the band had become an international attraction, second only to their Liverpudlian arch-rivals in popularity and cultural importance. They also achieved an impressive double whammy, giving America back its own music while reinventing themselves as the outlaws of rock’n’roll.

The Stones were surrounded by an almost permanent aura of publicity and notoriety. ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ was censored by American television’s Ed Sullivan Show. Jagger, Richard and Jones were all busted for drugs. Mick’s relationship with aristocratic convent schoolgirl Marianne Faithfull stoked the gossip columns. Detractors from Bournemouth to Wagga Wagga denounced the group as corruptors of youth, destroyers of moral values and as messengers of the Devil. The end of the sixties delivered both the sacking and drowning of father-of-at-least-five Brian Jones, who gasped his last in the pool of his East Sussex home, Cotchford Farm. It was the first major death of the 1960s rock movement. Within two years, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin had followed suit, their deaths all drug-related. All, including Jones, were the same age, giving rise to the conspiracy theory of ‘The Twenty-Seven Club’. The Stones played at a free Hyde Park concert on 5 July 1969, dedicating the pre-planned performance to their tragic late bandmate.

Musically, apart from their 1967 flirtation with psychedelia in Their Satanic Majesties Request album and ‘We Love You’ single, the band were on a recognisable trajectory. Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed were both classic rock albums, regarded by loftier critics as the Stones’ finest hour. Their creative peak of 1968–72 saw the distillation of their blues, rock’n’roll, R&B and country influences into the dark, decadent, sexy noise that we came to know as the definitive, ironic Rolling Stones’ sound. Mick’s dynamic stage presence and Keith’s fledgling pirate vibes made for an unrivalled double act. As irresistible rock gods they became an institution during the 1970s, living the profligate, self-indulgent high life of jet-setting tax exiles, setting new records for huge sell-out gigs, and perfecting the rock’n’roll cliché of their own invention.

In 1974, Mick Taylor quit and was replaced by the Faces’ Ron Wood. There ensued a comprehensive toning-down of their earlier wild image, as befitting rebels slip-sliding into their thirties – which in those days was the onset of ‘middle age’ – when they bequeathed their ‘two fingers to the world’ stance to punk pretenders such as the Sex Pistols. But they didn’t go resting on laurels. They continued to pump out worthwhile albums and a couple of classics. They maintained the standard they had set for themselves with the likes of ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘It’s Only Rock ’n Roll’. Thousands of teenagers around the world started bands because of them. Although most never made it beyond the garage door, they shook up entire neighbourhoods and boosted the musical landscape. The Stones, as ever, were responsible for chaos, chance and change.

Most who cared assumed that the band would coast comfortably into the 1980s and start thinking about chucking in the towel. Most were wrong. 1981 was the year of the American tour that broke all box-office records, while their album Tattoo You reached No. 1 in the UK and also went all the way in the USA. Still Life, the live album of that tour, was almost equally successful the following year. For their twentieth anniversary, they transported that American show to Europe, and signed a new four-album record deal for $50 million with CBS Records, the then-biggest recording deal in history.

The mid-1980s was the era of the notorious Jagger-Richards rift. Mick had hitched his own deal to the Stones’ CBS contract, and was keen to concentrate on solo work. Keith’s nose was out of joint. Hence, the Stones did not perform as a band at Live Aid in 1985. Mick recorded a track and video with David Bowie instead, a cover of ‘Dancing in the Street’ that topped the UK chart and made No. 7 in the US. Keith and Ronnie backed Bob Dylan in Philadelphia. It was awful. Jack Nicholson must later have rued the moment he introduced the ‘transcendent’ Dylan to 1.9 billion people across the globe. Ronnie and Keith strolled on late armed with acoustic guitars, looking smacked up. Out of tune and out of time, they never really got into the received magic of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. It’s the way it goes, sometimes. Maybe they should have rehearsed. Charlie suffered a massive mid-life crisis, became a heroin addict and almost lost everything, including his wife Shirley. He got a grip and got back on track. Bill threw away his credibility (and should perhaps have been relieved of his liberty) when he became sexually involved with a child. The band’s twenty-fifth anniversary came and went with little more than a documentary to show for it.

Things took a turn for the better by the end of the decade. The Steel Wheels album resurrected the Stones of old. The Urban Jungle tour, their first outing for seven years, proved their biggest to date. It was also Wyman’s last. He left the band before the serious money kicked in, wrote his long-threatened autobiography, and reinvented himself with his touring Rhythm Kings.

The Stones’ next milestone was the Voodoo Lounge album of 1994, and the ensuing tour of the same name: again, the highest-grossing ever at that time. In November that year, they became the first mainstream act to broadcast a concert over the internet. They bowed out of the nineties with their Bridges to Babylon album. Their subsequent global excursion left them in no doubt that they were still an international attraction. Touring continued throughout the 2000s.

In 2002, they released their double greatest hits collection Forty Licks to commemorate their fortieth anniversary. It reached No. 2 in both the UK and US markets. Charlie battled throat cancer in 2004, and won. The A Bigger Bang album and tour accounted for 2005–06, and triumphed in Rio. Ronnie fell spectacularly off the wagon, dumped his wife Jo for Kazakhstani waitress Ekaterina Ivanova, and eventually went straight with theatre producer Sally Humphreys.

In 2012, the band marked their fiftieth anniversary. Album, tour, album, tour. The usual. Then the Stones came full circle. With their Blue & Lonesome album in December 2016, they returned to the songs that had originally inspired them. In April 2020, Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie performed from their respective homes as one of the headline acts on the Global Citizens One World: Together at Home on-screen concert in support of the World Health Organization and front-line healthcare workers.

When Jagger was knighted for services to popular music in 2002, the dissident became Establishment. The owner of châteaux, riverside mansions, beach dwellings, brownstones and penthouses, Sir Mick has access to virtually anyone in the world he wants to reach. Silkscreened by Warhol and photographed naked by Cecil Beaton (his bum, at least), he goes unnamed by Don McLean on ‘American Pie’ but is writ large in its lyrics as ‘Satan’. He was eulogised by Maroon 5 in ‘Moves Like Jagger’, and referenced in the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘The Time (Dirty Bit)’ and Kesha’s ‘Tik Tok’. Rumours generate around him wherever he goes. Who cares if they’re not true? A globally recognisable sex symbol, everyone over the age of fifty knows someone who knows someone who has slept with him: on a limo floor, in a Royal box, in the bathroom of a private jet. The Dionysian archetype of eternal youth has kept the legend of his virility alive. The father of eight, grandfather of five and great-grandfather of three is now swaggering towards his eightieth birthday. As is Keith, father of four, grandfather of five; while Ronnie, father of six including six-year-old twins by his third wife Sally, has just turned seventy-five. Makes you think.

Although … technically speaking, Mick has never been a great singer; although his strutting, swaggering, finger-pointing on-stage antics, at once ludicrous and cool, have often veered hilariously towards self-parody; and although the ensemble instrumental work can sometimes seem irritatingly sloppy, the Stones can still lay credible claim to the title ‘Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band in the World’. Their catalogue comprises some of the most thrilling music ever recorded. Not fade away, they blared defiantly, in the spirit of that song’s creator Buddy Holly. They meant it more than he did.

Perhaps their relevance is questionable in the twenty-first century. Perhaps this is the irrelevant in the room. When irate and worthy objectors mobilise to cancel Stones compositions, they might be missing the point. ‘Offensive’, ‘racist’, ‘sexist’ or otherwise, the band have in fact survived the steady post-rock’n’roll decline that serves up more and more artists delivering less and less music – real music, of the beating-heart, gets-under-your-skin-and-into-your-blood variety. They contributed songs that moved us, thrilled us, angered us and turned us on, providing a soundtrack to dance to and by which to live. They gave our existence meaning. An exaggeration? Isn’t that what music does? We listen, engage and respond collectively, to know that we are not alone. We circle back to the songs and stars of our adolescence, if only for a wistful swig of forgotten youth. We’ll never be young again. But music, sweet music, reminds us of what that was like. We may, at times, feel uneasy about it. Did they really show us, at the height of their fame, a version of life as it might best be lived? Or was it all a con? Did they merely deflect us from the futility of being here, peddling distraction from inevitable, pending doom?

In order to contextualise the legacy of the Rolling Stones, it is to their own Greek chorus that we must turn. To their families and friends, their women and children, their colleagues and acquaintances, people who crossed paths with them while going about their daily lives, who are so often disregarded but who are significant. Many were casualties of the Stone Age, their names all but erased by time. Though we live in an age of cancellation, there can be no cancellation of them. No negation of negligence, degradation or disgrace. No restoration of virginity or dignity. No resurrection for the abused, the abandoned, the addicted, the miscarried, the murdered, the suicides. These people lived, they breathed, and they were part of the story. Rewind.

What a drag it is, getting old … for others of their vintage, crabbing about like fossilised derelicts, inching ever closer towards the abyss. But not for these living, breathing reefs of ancient marvellousness, who defy gravity, fashion, political correctness and just about everything else. Elvis is dead. The Beatles are over. The Stones might be gathering moss, but on they roll.



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