Sunday, July 1, 2012

50 Years of Rolling Stones

I'll bet that when they got together and played their first gigs that the Stones never guessed that they would still be playing 50 years later. So their 50th Anniversary Tour will be next year instead of this one. Doesn't matter nobody else even comes close.

Why? Because they are a blues based band and blues is one strain of music that never goes out of style. Waves of popularity come and go along with the ebb and flow of certain popular musicians, but there is a simple reason why. It has always stayed close to its roots.

When they began their careers, they had a reputation as being bad boys. Their music always had sex appeal, their reputations as hard partiers is legendary. Their riffs and licks come straight out of the down and dirty blues. Their ability to crank out music that people find impossible not to dance to has spanned generations. They were never considered good looking, but their careers have flourished while other pretty boys came and went and are long forgotten.

What is it about the blues? Consider B.B. King. How old is he now? But the music he plays now is the same kind of music he played 50 years ago. Buddy Guy's new recordings sound just as good as recordings from years ago, and it is still in the same style. Koko Taylor sang the same kind of blues her entire career. So did Muddy Waters.

The evidence is right there in the roots. When the Stones came to America on their first tour, they were excited about getting the chance to visit the recording studios where Muddy and other blues and R&B greats recorded. Funny thing is is that at that time, American teenagers were so tuned into pop music that they were puzzled about who Muddy was and why the Stones wanted to meet him. Of course, the fact that the Stones recorded old blues tunes helped bring new attention and cash flow to blues music and blues musicians.

Martin Scorsese made a fabulous series on the blues for PBS called The Blues: A Musical Journey. It is definitely worth watching. I loved the entire series. Netflix has it.

See, the thing about blues musicians is that there are certain traditions to their forms which have worked very well and will continue to work for as long as men and women continue to have relationships, and for as long as men and women enjoy going out for dancing and drinking.

You don't find blues musicians hopping on whatever fashion bandwagon happens to be rolling by. That's why there is a long sustain in the careers of blues musicians. Some pop musicians face that painful question of whether to keep touring or hang it up because they had one big hit way back when and they have not scored another big hit since and the question is how long will people keep buying tickets to hear them.

Not true with the blues. I heard Buddy Guy years ago, and if you hear him now, you still got someone who can play with a lot of visceral appeal with a performance honed to a fine edge. Yet, you cannot name a pop hit single of his, because he never had any. His career was built on a body of work, so he never had a big up and down. Old blues players never ask themselves if people still want to hear this. They know they do.

So the Stones followed a more of a typical blues trajectory. Their popularity is not based on just one hit or a handful of hits. Sure they have had huge pop hits and experimented with various style twists, but underneath it all, still throbbed the old, insistent, funky blues. Strip down their R&B styles to the core and you still have blues. Strip down their dance numbers and you come back to blues.

That's the secret to their success. They kept on practicing until they got great and it never occurred to them to not get on stage any more. Maybe one of these days they will retire, but I have a feeling that they will continue to outlive their contemporaries and outperform them as well. All their inspirations did it this way. Muddy played till he died.

The very thought of the Stones being on a 50th Anniversary tour just sort of boggled my mind.

But then, keep it in perspective. Ray Bradbury wrote until he died at 91. People who do what they love keep going. There are many other examples. Who else would you name?

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