When I was in the sixth grade of Iroquois Middle School in Irondequoit, N.Y., The Beatles broke up. There ensued a discussion of which rock group would replace them as kings of the hill. Everyone, especially the girls, insisted it would be the Monkees, then at the peak of their fame. I said it would be the Rolling Stones.
The Rolling Stones marketed themselves in their early years as the group of the dark side, which seems odd now considering how derivative their trappings were. For years they imitated the Beatles’s inessentials. The Beatles would record a song with strings; so would they. The Beatles went to India; they cut a single with sitars. The Beatles had a trippy album cover, so did they. It was embarrassing. Lead singer Mick Jagger fancied himself to be pansexual. But there is a photo of him sitting in some club booth next to David Bowie, an authentic no there there weirdo. Jagger looks baffled.
The one time they touched the third rail was at Altamont when the Hell’s Angels, who were providing security, killed a boisterous fan. WFB wrote about this at the end of Cruising Speed, after seeing Gimme Shelter, the movie about the event. Their music was a closed book to him, but he was interesting in the crime as a portent.
Yet the Rolling Stones marched on and on and on, not as Beatles wanna-bes or sympathizers with the devil, but as a roots-rock band avant la lettre: Chicago blues sped up, with an occasional dash of country. The Beatles, musically more inventive, were all over the place. The Rolling Stones stuck to the strike zone.
In their last decades they became their own tribute band; even strike zones can be confining. But in the last few years, they released one good album, Blue and Lonesome, a collection of lesser-known Chicago blues songs, some, their PR material claimed, recorded in one take. At the beginning of COVID they had their first number-one hit in ages with the fortuitously timed track, “Living In a Ghost Town.”
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards still survive, but drummer Charlie Watts was the Maytag washing machine of the group, always working, never broken. The obits said he studied the drumming of jazz bands, especially Duke Ellington’s. I am not percussion-savvy enough to tell that, but I am musically savvy enough — which is to say, sentient — to tell that he kept his bandmates always moving along. The first British invasion ended with the Battle of New Orleans. With Watts’s passing the second comes to a close. Dead at 80, R.I.P.