Alan Beckett’s assessment of the Stones must be unequivocally welcomed. It represents the first serious critical account of the group to be written. The current maudlin patronage of pop music by Sunday newspapers and literary weeklies makes it all the more important to establish a genuine canon and the concepts necessary to underpin it. A politique des auteurs is required. Alan Beckett’s critique of the Stones, following his prolegomenon to pop music (nlr 39), is a pioneering start.
His analysis, however, calls for some comment. He unerringly isolates the distinctive circle of themes which form the effective ambit of the Stones’ music. The account of the key songs which enact them is in many respects a model. It is this approach which may, however, be
My own view is that this terminology contradicts to some extent the intention of Beckett’s analysis, and involuntarily buffers the explosive potential of the Stones’ music. Some retranslation of the concepts used by Beckett may be necessary to capture the exact nature of their achievement. Let us take ‘narcissism and arrogance’ first. Beckett uses the odd phrase ‘in heterosexual relationships’ to complete this. The implication seems to be that it might equally well be in a homosexual relationship, but contingently is not. But this confuses the essential issue. Under my Thumb, Stupid Girl, Back Street Girl or Yesterday’s Papers are about sexual exploitation, not narcissism. The one is a permanent, structural feature of our society, the other a random psychological stance of the individual. The enormous merit—and audacity—of the Stones is to have repeatedly and consistently defied what is a central taboo of the social system: mention of sexual inequality. They have done so in the most radical and unacceptable way possible: by celebrating it. The light this black beam throws on the society is too bright for it. Nakedly proclaimed, inequality is de facto denounced. The ‘unmitigated triumph’ of these records is their rejection of the spurious world of monadic personal relationships. They are concerned with the oppressive matrix that is their general truth.
The same is true of the second main theme articulated by the Stones—mental illness. Again, this is a tabooed topic, as a normal social experience. Elementary reflection confirms that it is so, yet polite convention relegates it to the realm of the particular and abnormal. Beckett surely misrepresents the insistence on this by identifying it merely with the image of an ‘archetypal girl—rich, spoiled, confused, weak, using drugs’ from Chelsea or Kensington. Not only is the moralism of these epithets dubious; the Stones’ subject-matter is clearly far wider. Mother’s Little Helper, for example, is not about a rich girl, but an average housewife of middle-age. Paint it Black, another of this cycle, is about the confident male himself. Mental collapse is not an exceptional breakdown: it is a prevalent condition, part of the ordinary routine of living under advanced capitalism. The third important theme, this time not emphasized by Beckett, is eroticism. Once again, this is tabooed territory. The two antipodal classics here are, of course, Satisfaction and Going Home—precise musical notations of grinding physical blockage and jubilant physical release. The unity of lyric, melody and instrumentation has never been surpassed. These songs are uniquely brutal and truthful, broaching realities which are constantly denied or diluted in the enervating mists of traditional pop music.
If this account is reliable, it is incorrect to say that the Stones are ‘not major innovators’. Perhaps a polarization Stones-Beatles such as Adorno constructed between Schoenberg and Stravinsky (evoked by
A final comment. The reason why an appraisal of the group has some importance is this. Britain today is a society stifling for lack of any art that expresses the experience of living in it. Our theatre is a quaint anachronism, our novel is dead, and our cinema a mere obituary of it. Perhaps the only art form which has an authentic expressive vitality in England is pop music. It at least reflects back to us the immediate constituents of experience, even when it does not illuminate them. It is no accident that it is the one product of contemporary British culture which has any international currency. For how long?