Skip to main content

Why we still love the Stones

By David Browne, Special to CNN
July 12, 2012 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
The young band pose for a portrait in a boat, 1964. From left to right are: Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones, Keith Richards and Bill Wyman. Bassist Wyman joined the Stones in 1962 before leaving in 1993. The young band pose for a portrait in a boat, 1964. From left to right are: Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones, Keith Richards and Bill Wyman. Bassist Wyman joined the Stones in 1962 before leaving in 1993.
HIDE CAPTION
50 years of the Rolling Stones
50 years of the Rolling Stones
50 years of the Rolling Stones
50 years of the Rolling Stones
50 years of the Rolling Stones
50 years of the Rolling Stones
50 years of the Rolling Stones
50 years of the Rolling Stones
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Browne: Rolling Stones haven't had top hit in 20 years, yet they are enduring presence
  • He says the band has been willing to shape-shift to compete in pop marketplace
  • He says Jagger, Richards great songwriting team with tense, compelling personal dynamic
  • Browne: In Stones' era, rock propelled culture; they don't make stars like that now

Editor's note: David Browne is the author of "Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970" (Da Capo), now out in paperback.

(CNN) -- Was 1962 the year classic, post-'50s rock was hatched? Let's make that case. Fifty years ago, the Beatles recorded their first session at London's EMI (later Abbey Road) studios, cutting an early version of "Love Me Do," and Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys released their first albums. And it was exactly 50 years ago that the first incarnation of the Rolling Stones -- Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones, along with pianist Ian Stewart, bassist Dick Taylor and drummer Tony Chapman -- played their first concert, at London's Marquee Club. The band was still so embryonic that they called themselves the Rollin' Stones.

Of course, being reminded that the Stones have been around for five decades is almost unnecessary. The band hasn't had a Top 10 hit in over 20 years, but whether we want it to or not, it never seems to have gone away. From Keith Richards' garrulous best-selling 2010 memoir, to Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger," to Jagger himself hosting "Saturday Night Live" this year, the culture always seems to circle around to the Stones just when you'd think we'd all had enough of them.

Part of that is intentional: To some degree, the Stones have always been driven to be competitive in the pop marketplace. "Absolutely," Richards told me in an interview in 1997. "It gets in the blood, man. Arrogant, elitist sons of bitches that we are, we still think we're getting better." But part of their eternal appeal is out of their hands, too. Why do we still care about the Stones after a mind-boggling 50 years? A few possible reasons:

Their songs and catalog. As obvious as it is to say, it really is about the music. There's a reason pop church lady Susan Boyle could cover "Wild Horses" or that "Saturday Night Live" could send off Kristen Wiig with "Ruby Tuesday" and "She's a Rainbow": The best Stones songs, meaning ones written before roughly 1980, are eternal and built on impeccable melodies.

David Browne
David Browne

For all their bad-boy images, Jagger and Richards seem, in retrospect, like one of the last of the great songwriting teams -- Lerner and Loewe, or Bacharach and David, with more groupies and pharmaceuticals. Even work that seemed lesser at the time -- 1973's beautiful stupor, "Goats Head Soup," for instance -- holds up better than you'd expect. The way the Stones continually paid homage to black music -- from covering Muddy Waters and Solomon Burke to a disco-era hit like "Miss You" -- also gave them a broader fan base than many of their peers.

The Mick and Keith dynamic. Little in old or new rock comes close to the testy yin-yang relationship between the band's two founding members and longtime Rock 'Em Sock 'Em duo. Over the years, they've publicly sniped at each other, culminating in Richards' dishy depictions of Jagger as a preening diva in his memoir, "Life."

See never-before-seen photos of the Stones

Never-seen pics of Rolling Stones in '72
Jagger gives Wiig 'SNL' send-off

Those comments -- and the way much of the media used Richards' words to pile on Jagger themselves -- missed the point, though. What always made the Stones so magnificent was the way Richards' crusty musical conservatism was balanced by Jagger's pop-chart-driven opportunism, and vice versa. They need each other, and in so doing, they've become their own endlessly watchable rock 'n' roll reality show.

Stones as metaphor. The Stones embody a time when rock 'n' roll wasn't just "outlaw" culture; it propelled the culture. That's no longer the case, as a recent conversation with a teenage music fan confirmed to me. An avid pop lover, she doesn't listen to any "rock" (that is, music made by men or women who play guitars). For her, EDM -- which used to be called techno or electronica -- is the new rock; Its big beats, drug allusions, and the way its bombastic thump offends anyone over 40 (or anyone who prefers traditional verse-chorus pop songs) make it the modern-day version of rock.

Factor in pop, hip-hop, and country, all major genres these days, and you can see how rock is now one small slice of the cultural pie. For many, the Stones are a vivid, last-gasp reminder of a time when rock -- and white males -- dominated the landscape.

They don't make rock stars like that anymore. With a few glorious exceptions, like Jack White, many of today's major rock bands are charisma-challenged or nondescript. Onstage, they're uptight. almost asexual. Contrast that with the sight of Jagger at least year's Grammy Awards, working the stage in best rock-preacher mode and singing Solomon Burke R&B classics in a green suit. The performance should have been hokey, but it was shockingly spellbinding after all these years.

Maroon 5's Adam Levine can't move like that, either.

Rolling Stones celebrate 50 years of raucous rock'n'roll

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Browne.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT