So in a blast of publicity the Rolling Stones have turned 50 and celebrated it with a London concert where tickets ranged from £96 to £1000. Call it nostalgia, call it entertainment if you like. But don’t call it rock’n’roll.
There can still be magic in those three little words. They conjure up excitement, they conjure up youth and above all they conjure up rebellion. As soon as white American teenagers discovered this black music, mostly courtesy of Elvis, it was dangerous. It made them think unclean thoughts and disobey their parents, to slip outside the straitjacket norms of society. It was ungodly an un-American. It was brilliant.
The British bands who fed the music back to America and to the rest of the world were inspired by black music. It touched something in them and acted as a catalyst and for a few heady years they could go exactly where their imaginations took them. The Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, the Pretty Things and, yes, the Stones, made the ‘60s a decade of excitement and musical discovery, and by its end, a long way from the rock that had inspired it. By 1970 it had mostly gone from the gut to the brain, dissected and intellectualised (ironically, the one band that had returned to rock was the Stones). We should perhaps be glad that the Beatles called it quits with such a majestic canon of work. If they hadn’t, their legend would inevitably have become tarnished. By 1972 all those bands had run out of anything relevant to say.
Fast forward to 1976 and punk. Once again it was those kids doing it for themselves, being shocking and contemptuous of society’s mores. And why not? Society had nothing for them, the new boss was pretty much the same as the old boss, and kicking against the pricks is the way life should be for the young. The original musical influences of rock might not have been there, but the spirit certainly was, just as it was in ’88, when the second summer of love brought in dance beats, E and raves, things beyond the ken and acceptance of the establishment. Hip-hop, grime, they all tell the story of the fight – at least until they’re co-opted. In many ways punk died as soon as the clothes appeared in High Street shop windows. At that point it was, quite literally, window dressing.
Our pop icons – and how many have made the grim slide from rock to pop status – have become the establishment, with titles, estates, riches and people more than eager to do their bidding. And in that state, isolated and feted, they lost all relevance. It’s a tale told over and over again. Few avoid it. My generation, the baby boomers (I’m at the tail end) want to keep connected, to stay hip. We listen to new music, we want something to excite us. And while that may be the way we’ve been conditioned it’s probably wrong. What we should be looking for is some new music that climbs up from the streets, out of the underground, that we can’t make sense of that we hate and that our kids absolutely love and want to play. Because only in that will they have their rebellion and their voice, the chance to give us the bird as we gave it to our parents. They deserve that. They need music that speaks to and for them, something not spoon fed on watered-down reality TV shows. Something that makes them want to trash things. Things like us and what we believe in.
The Stones might be a pleasant night out for the well-heeled with large disposable incomes. But it ain’t rock’n’roll. You can say something relevant and interesting as you grow older (Chumbawamba did it for 30 years, although they then stopped and the mighty Mekons keep going) but you can’t be a great rock’n’roll band. For that you have to be hungry, you need something to prove, something to blast and burn down. The best you can be is a well-oiled novelty and nostalgia act, a brand. It’s showbusiness, with the emphasis on the business. Just don’t call it rock’n’roll.