The Rolling Stones have always been a band that relied heavily on visual elements, so it is fitting that as part of their 50th anniversary celebration they have released The Rolling Stones 50, a lavish 350-page coffee table book that offers a photographic history not only of the Stones, but of rock n roll and popular culture.
The book is credited to the four remaining full-time members of the Rolling Stones – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood – and does feature some insightful commentary from each. But the real emphasis of the book is on charting the evolution of the Stones through pictures. Before the introduction, The Rolling Stones 50 sets the tone with three successive two-page group photos – one of five young lads from the mid-60s (although original bassist Bill Wyman and original lead guitarist Brian Jones already show signs of age), one of five middle-aged men from the 1989 Steel Wheels tour (with drummer Charlie Watts looking sad and old), and a recent shot of four old men (Wyman left the band in 1991 and Watts still looks the oldest and saddest).
What follows is a detailed, chronological photographic record of the entire Rolling Stones career, starting with two photos from the first official Rolling Stones gig at the Marquee Club in London on July 12, 1962. Both pictures, one of Keith Richards and one of Brian Jones, are taken from side angles behind the performers in grainy black-and-white, appropriately giving an obscured view of this mythic event whose details have become shrouded over the years.
The photos largely focus on live performances, starting with shots of smiling band members in neat and often matching shirts, ties and jackets. By the later ‘60s, the outfits become much more individual and outrageous, the smiles turn to sneers and the venues become larger. It is also interesting to see how crucial live TV performances were even for a band of the Stones’ caliber throughout the 1960s. A couple of behind-the-scenes pictures from TV appearances show Mick Jagger with arms folded patiently taking criticism from producers and managers in a way that he surely would not have later in his career.
The disastrous free Altamont Speedway concert in December 1969 that left a fan beaten to death by Hells Angels security guards is touched upon with several pictures that indicate the restless, overflowing crowd. Commentary from Charlie Watts and Keith Richads suggests the band knew the show had turned ugly but did not realize how ugly till later – “We were used to hairy escapes,” Richards states. “This one was just on a bigger scale in a place we didn’t know.” He goes on to say “It didn’t really feel like the end of an era. The Sixties didn’t become the Sixties till later on.”
Photos from the 1970s show both the stage sets and band outfits getting bigger and more outlandish as rock n roll in general entered its arena glam phase. This is the period where Jagger in particular turned away from projecting a sinister image into being a camp figure. The mid-1970s also marks the arrival of lead guitarist Ronnie Wood with his frilled cowboy shirts and giant spiky hairdo, who admits he had been scheming to get into the band for years.
The 1980s were bookmarked with two stadium tours featuring massive, colorful sets – 1981’s “Still Life” tour and 1989’s “Steel Wheels” tour, and several wide-angle shots effectively capture just how immense the experience of a Rolling Stones concert had become. By the 1990s and 2000s, the Stones had grown into the elder statesmen of rock, and despite visible aging in the appearance of the band live action shots show them all still playing their hearts out on bigger and bigger stages.
Commenting on an overhead view of the giant stage shaped like the Rolling Stones tongue logo that the band used during its 2006 Super Bowl performance, Charlie Watts says “it’s what we miss when we’re playing on stage. We’re stuck in the eye of the storm.” This harkens back to an earlier Charlie-eye view of a Stones performance from the late 60s that basically shows a rear view of Keith Richards and giant glares of light completely obscuring anything else going on.
The visual narrative of wide-eyed young kids playing in small clubs becoming seasoned men playing in football stadiums sums up the trajectory of rock n roll as a whole. The wry, sarcastic commentary from band members will sound familiar to anyone who has heard or read interviews with them before. The story of the Stones is well-documented, but “The Rolling Stones 50” still manages to provide some fresh insights and is a worthy document of one of the most important bands in rock.