What can a new 50-track compilation album possibly hope to add to the incredible story of the Rolling Stones? Not much, writes John Robinson, but it does reveal the ebb and flow of the band¿s many and varied influences.
Review: Rolling Stones compilation album
Fifty years into their career, it's impressive to discover that you can say pretty much the same about the new release by the Rolling Stones as you could the first one, or the 16th, or the 39th. Namely: "Have you heard the new single by The Rolling Stones? You should! It's really great!" And so it is: Doom and Gloom, much as Start Me Up was 30 years ago, is an attractive restatement of first principles, an aggressive rocker that finds Keith Richards' slashing riffs punctuating a stream of consciousness Mick Jagger narrative that darts from the Louisiana swamps, to a mention of oil "fracking" - all delivered in his classic leer. If this is the band at 50, bring on 60!
In the meantime, the golden anniversary of the Rolling Stones is to be celebrated across a number of platforms. There are (at present) four, instantly sold-out, scheduled gigs, in which former members like Bill Wyman (bass until 1989's Steel Wheels album) and Mick Taylor (lead guitarist from 1969-1974, which is to say on all the best Stones albums) will also make guest appearances. There is a new biographical film, Crossfire Hurricane, which provides a faithful narrative of the band's legend through the prism of its music. There is a handsome book, in which the band members comment on their photographic history (Mick: "I remember this car. Cost me £200 to fix."). And there is this, a 50-track compilation of 50 years of singles tracks, across three CDs, featuring on the cover what looks like the world's campest mountain gorilla. He's called Gregory, apparently.
If its title sounds as if it may have been suggested by Keith Richards ("Grrr!" is possibly as far as the man gets in the phrase "greatest hits" before dissolving into a piratical cackle), the compilation itself is a much more orderly affair. Of course there are omissions (have you heard Too Much Blood, from 1982?), and the fact that much of the very best Stones music is to be found on album tracks. Knowing that there's also the question of why a newcomer to the band would buy a compilation album like this one rather than, say, a classic album like Sticky Fingers. Still, the compilation serves the band thoroughly with the original versions of songs that have all at one time or another been singles, in territories across the world: from the very beginning, up to the present, and what human biology dictates must be, if not quite the end, then at least somewhere fairly near it.
While the two CD format of Forty Licks, the band's comp of 10 years ago, forced a contraction of their tale, GRRR! tells a story that feels more natural for being told in three acts, like a film. Disc one opens in 1962 with the cherubic band performing cover versions in suede loafers. It takes in their first compositions to reach number one (their 1965 breakthrough hits The Last Time; Satisfaction), and their inclusion in those compositions of both sex and increasingly, drugs. The disc closes at the time of the band's first moustaches, and their first significant arrests - a time when even the bad boys of rock 'n' roll still wore ties.
Disc two opens with the band burnt by their experiences with psychedelia (a period so deranged, they released a Bill Wyman song as a single - suffice to say you won't find that here). This was now a rock 'n' roll band again, and there were no more moustaches. The material on this disc is some of the band's very finest, covering the period when they retrenched themselves in rock 'n' roll (Jumpin' Jack Flash, Street Fighting Man and Honky Tonk Women are all here), but also recounted their adventures in newer, prettier milieus. No longer urinating in the petrol station forecourt, now the Stones were on the country estate. Later there is divorce, self-examination in five star hotel suites, and there are magnificent ballads (Angie; Fool To Cry).
The final disc, which might as well be called High Society, recounts the Rolling Stones fighting middle age in the MTV era. Mick Jagger begins playing the guitar, and the band makes a profusion of videos in which songs are accompanied (as was 2005's Streets Of Love) by a film treatment in which Jagger attempts a courtship of some kind of lingerie model. The Stones don't do as much in the singles marketplace these days (the last 25 years only merit nine songs, one of which is a cover version). The penultimate song is Doom And Gloom, and given its hard-rocking restatement of core values, you could possibly be forgiven that the sum musical experience of the last 50 years has been to deposit the Rolling Stones pretty much back where they started.
True enough, a lot has stayed the same with the Rolling Stones. But while the edifice is still standing, the interior of the complex has been remodelled countless times at the whim of the principals. In one corner: Mick Jagger, the magpie, the dilettante, the moderniser. In the other corner: Keith Richards, the conservative, representing the blues, the lifestyle and something called "the fine art of weaving", which we have come to learn is not actually practised on a loom, but between two chain-smoking guitarists.
History has so far been kinder to Richards's position than to Jagger's - at root, possibly because Jagger is frequently observed to care about the musical world outside the Rolling Stones, which is of course unthinkable. But if the band's decision to embrace reggae (1973 or thereabouts, finding expression in 1976's Hey Negrita) was largely down to Richards, it is Jagger who has urged the Rolling Stones to consider music beyond their normal horizons, and make the band an infinitely more interesting one. At times, it has brought them no joy at all. Their 1990s work with American beatmasters The Dust Brothers was apparently anathema to Richards; the countless single remixes by contemporary masters of the art are an entirely superfluous addition to the Stones canon, which mercifully do not detain us here. The same quest for modernity in the 1980s led Jagger to believe he might prosper as a solo artist, as David Bowie had done - a belief that almost killed the Rolling Stones.
Still, the international peregrinations of Jagger's social life, his ear for prevailing trends has brought the Stones to glam rock (It's Only Rock 'n' Roll), new wave (Respectable), disco (Miss You), even to hip-hop (Too Much Blood) - all of which have been transformed into Stones material via the intervention of Keith Richards. It has been a serious business. For Miss You, the magnificent opening track of the rejuvenated, fan base-pleasing Some Girls album, Bill Wyman, not a natural in such places, took to the nightclubs of New York: a Stone alone, gamely researching the correct disco bassline.
For the most productive periods of the band's career, what you can hear is something almost like an agricultural cycle, as new influences come and go: the flowering of a more exotic type of Rolling Stones music, then a tilling of the ground with some aggressive rock 'n' roll to prepare the ground for the future. At times (as it was when the guitar rock of Some Girls replaced the Clavinet funk and polished ballads of Black And Blue) it has seemed like the ebbing and flowing in and out of favour of one or other style. Really, though, the genius of the Rolling Stones is that the band can accommodate within its albums both the flower and the dirt. On a record like Sticky Fingers you'll hear both the outward-bound space jazz of Can't You Hear Me Knocking? but then you'll also hear something as raw and utterly basic as Bitch, a scorched-earth rock 'n' roll number that clears the ground so that the band can begin again.
A compilation like GRRR! (even one whose 80-track deluxe version includes a few album tracks) couldn't hope to fully illustrate the complexity and diversity of all the music that the Rolling Stones made in their 1970s peak. As adventurous as their singles have been - even Sympathy For The Devil was a German and Japanese single, eventually, which is why it's included here - they alone can't tell the full story. What it does do, however, is illustrate just how crucial to the Stones music are their apparent conflicts: ballad/rocker; glamour/grit; high society/low life. Essentially, Jagger/Richards. As such it offers a glimmer of hope - however misguided it may be - that a rock song like Doom And Gloom doesn't simply mark the end of the line or a full stop, but rather, in the current atmosphere of conciliation, something like a new beginning of the cycle.
John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and The Guardian Guide's rock critic. He lives in London.