Rolling Stones: The Illustrated Biography is a coffee table book containing 200 photos from the archives of British tabloid The Daily Mail, spanning the band’s career from the release of their first UK single in 1963 through the 2005-07 “Bigger Bang” tour. Originally released in 2009, this edition is a 2011 rerelease including updated photos and a chronology ending with the October 2010 release of the Keith Richards autobiography Life.
While most of the photos, which include candid shots of individual band members as well as photos of the group doing what it does best, feature accompanying text, in large part they tell the story of the Rolling Stones without any additional description. One aspect of the band which quickly becomes clear is that although they were trendsetters, the Stones did also follow the fashions of their times.
The earliest photos are of fresh-faced young men in suits and ties, with slightly shaggy hair going no further than the nape of the neck. By the mid-60s, the hair is shoulder-length and the outfits resemble those of a 19th-century dandy. Although they always set their own musical path, fashion-wise the Stones proceeded to embrace looks including hippie, glam, disco, the athletic clothing which came in vogue in the early 80s, and what might be termed an “arena rock” aesthetic they adopted in the mid-80s and have continued to this day.
In addition to representing the general path of the band as a whole, the Illustrated Biography also gives insight into how each individual member progressed and matured (or didn’t) over the years. From his earliest photos, Mick Jagger carries the perpetual smirk of someone who knows he is destined for greatness and then becomes bored when he achieves it. Even in his early 20s, Brian Jones always looked haggard and haunted, as if he knew his life would be dark and short. Bill Wyman invariably is next to a tall, beautiful woman, Charlie Watts is always serious and nattily dressed, Mick Taylor spends his brief tenure with dazed wonderment at his surroundings, and Ronnie Wood never stops smiling and is often pouring or holding a drink.
Visually, Keith Richards goes through the most dramatic and interesting changes over the decades. Although he is famous for the wasted, skeletal appearance he has developed and perfected since the early 1980s, Richards looks surprisingly normal in the early photos, and was even considered the “good looking one” in the beginning. Even when everyone was wearing suits and ties, however, he had the messiest and longest hair, foreshadowing the rebellion to come.
By the late 60s, Richards’ face was already beginning to get drawn and thin from heavy drug usage, with the obvious damage worsening through the 1970s. By the time of the Rolling Stones 1981 North American tour, Richards’ entire body had begun to be reshaped from his addictions.
In addition, the history of interband relations can be clearly traced through body language, particularly in the many photos where Jagger and Richards are posing next to each other. In the early days their genuine friendship is clear, with both men usually smiling broadly and standing shoulder-to-shoulder, often with their arms around each other. Gradually the smiles started fading and the personal distance increased, and by the mid-80s any Jagger-Richards photo shows two unsmiling men obviously trying to get as far away from each other as they can while staying in the frame.
The Rolling Stones are one of the most photographed and documented bands in history, and while The Illustrated Biography provides many interesting looks into each phase of their long career, there is nothing that makes it an essential read. By far, there are more photos of Jagger than any other band member, although considering how he crossed over from rock star to pop culture icon, this is probably inevitable. A Stones fan looking for something to put on display could do worse than The Illustrated Biography, but if you are already familiar with their story, it reconfirms what you know, rather than offering a lot of fresh insight.