The group takes its name from Muddy Waters’ Rolling Stone Blues (nlp28040). Their initial direction is taken from a broad spectrum of American Negro popular music, including both rhythm-and-blues, from Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf to Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Rufus Thomas, and soul music from Ray Charles to Tamla Motown. The only white group included in their initial influences was The Crickets, a group that was closer to rhythm-and-blues than most other white groups in the ’fifties. Thus, though they arose on the crest of the R & B boom of the early ’sixties, they were never completely identified with blues purism. Mick Jagger did not try to introduce Negro mannerisms into his singing, nor did the group as a whole ever attempt an exact reproduction of the classical rhythm-and-blues
Some of their earlier work’the Chuck Berry numbers, for instance’is pleasant, but unremarkable. Some is downright bad when looked at in relation to the original. Thus, I Just Want to Make Love to You is frantic and has none of the power and dignity of the original, while the Bo Diddley-style number on the same record is over-adorned and generally in complete contradiction to the simplicity and relaxation of the latter artist’s music. Other early pieces, however, are perhaps the most important work in this idiom ever recorded in Britain; good examples are their versions of Howling Wolf’s Little Red Rooster and Slim Harpo’s King Bee. Because no attempt is made to reproduce the specific mannerisms, these works are effective translations rather than replications of something essentially foreign. In these pieces, the erotic narcissism becomes a possibility in English life, rather than remaining something that one reads about in Paul Oliver or listens to on Chess Records. Other attempts at this kind of music have failed precisely because they have stuck too close to the letter of the original. On The Who’s I’m a Man, for example, though the instrumental work with its use of electronic effects is far ahead of any of The Stones’, Roger Daltrey’s vocal is tense, lifeless and ultimately rather juvenile, so that ‘When I get you in bed, darling, gonna make love all the time’ becomes one of the most ridiculous lines in pop music.
The Stones’ greatest early achievements occurred when they moved close to soul music, where the singer’s role is a more dynamic one of improvising so as to increase and decrease the level of excitement by means of dynamic variation, fragmenting and rebuilding the vocal line, and other means. (Of course, this process is spontaneous, depending largely upon momentary response to the audience, and the rest of the group, and any analysis of it sounds stilted.) Very early on, Mick Jagger developed this style to a degree of excellence which is rarely found, so that he has become the greatest artist ever to come out of British popular music. His style is rhythmically fluid and graceful as well as forceful—natural and neither histrionic nor mannered. The best recorded examples of Jagger’s talent displayed to the full are Everybody Needs Somebody To Love and Going Home. On the last-named track he constructs some particularly striking melodic and rhythmic shapes; listen, for instance, to ‘it won’t be long . . . it won’t be a long long time till I see my baby’. Even in less discursive numbers, it is Jagger’s performance that is responsible for most of the impact. In this respect, Jagger’s music is better than that of many of the Negro artists The Stones have admired. The late Otis Redding’s version of Satisfaction is frantic and very stylized compared with The Stones’ original. Wilson Pickett, whose Midnight Hour Jagger claimed as the best record of 1965, is a far more limited and mechanical performer. In fact, The Stones have become something of an influence on the traditions that first influenced them. American soul groups play and record Stones’ compositions, and, though there is no recorded evidence of this, it is probable that their influence extends down into the American rhythm-and-blues circuits.
More recently, they have moved away from these sources towards the centre of contemporary pop. Here, they have never been major innovators on a technical level, even in the restricted sense of the term that is applicable in this kind of music. They have moved forward at least one lp behind The Beatles, incorporating their influence and others, such as the dixieland and vaudeville elements discernible in Between the Buttons, into a style that has remained basically simple. Their instrumental resources are being continually widened but, though they have dropped most of the specific trappings of soul and rhythm-and-blues, they retain the essential spirit of these influences by relying on strong, simple rhythms and conventional chord patterns and metre. Thus, they also preserve the most basic function of popular music—to provide music for dancing—and there is probably no other contemporary group that does this so well. These features of their style do not limit their musical impact in any way. The simple instrumental approach provides exactly the right backing for the lyric. (Occasionally, the ‘backing’ is so loud that it obscures the lyric, but this is no more a fault than it is when Art Blakey occasionally obscures his front line with his drumming.)
As they have developed, they have included more original material in their recordings, and the last three albums have been made up exclusively of their own work. Compositions are usually credited to both Jagger and Richard, and there seems to be no way of finding out who has the major responsibility in this area; however, they are certainly lyrics of considerable force and originality. Their first function is to increase the realism of the music. The Stones’ music is now very much related to social life in the 1960’s, and even specifically to London life. Though their music certainly has general reference, it seems probable that their full impact can only be realized by someone who has experience of the metropolitan environment. For instance, consider the archetypal girl who is described first in Playing With Fire, and subsequently in 19th Nervous Breakdown and elsewhere—rich, spoiled, confused, weak, using drugs, etc. Anyone who has been around Chelsea and Kensington can put at least one name to this character; probably she does not mean so much to anyone else. Jagger’s voice, as well, betrays London and Home Counties origins, so that sometimes the music seems to relate to London Music-Hall, with its jeering and derisive overtones, as well as to the sources previously discussed. Where, for instance, does the exclamation ‘oi’ at the end of Mother’s Little Helper come from?