Rolling Stones celebrate 50 years of raucous rock’n’roll

The following is an extract from “50 Years: The Rolling Stones - Views from the inside, views from the outside” by Hanspeter Künzler, a London-based journalist and broadcaster. The ebook, published to coincide with the anniversary of the band’s debut on July 12, 1962 is available on Amazon and iTunes.

Story highlights

July 12 marks 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones' first concert

Band was formed by Brian Jones, who placed advert for singer and band members

One record company expressed interest but felt band was doomed "with that singer"

London CNN  — 

At the beginning of 1962, Britain barely figured as an influence on the rest of the world of popular music. By the end of the year the fuse was lit for an unprecedented explosion of creativity that would turn the entire music business upside down. At this stage, “pop music” - especially “pop music” in the shape of rock’n’roll - was still regarded as a second-rate and largely disposable noise, even within the entertainment industry itself. That year, a bunch of spotty blues, and rhythm & blues fans from Liverpool and London would set in motion a process of change that transformed this perception dramatically and swiftly. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones would create a new, artistic language uniquely suited to reflect the concerns, hopes, and fears of their generation.

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In October 1961, nineteen-year-old father of three, Lewis Brian Hopkin-Jones (born 28 February 1942), and a fellow blues enthusiast, Dick Hattrell, attended a concert by Chris Barber’s Jazz Band in their sleepy, conservative hometown, Cheltenham. During the interval, one of the members of Barber’s band - the guitarist Alexis Korner - gave his own blues performance. Such was the purist attitude amongst the small community of blues cognoscenti in Britain, that Korner and his previous outfit had been sacked from their regular gig at the London Blues and Barrelhouse Club when they dared to introduce electric amplification. According to Barber, ever the supporter of fresh ideas (Bill Wyman calls him “virtually a founding father” of the British rock scene), Korner was the only British blues player who was amplifying his guitar at the time. Brian Jones was blown away by what he saw. Already known around town as a bit of a lad and a talented guitarist, he had no trouble being admitted backstage to speak to Korner and exchange telephone numbers. Two months later, Brian descended on the Korners in London, staying several days and spending most of his time perusing the older man’s record collection. Discovering, amongst others, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson, he purchased an electric guitar as soon as he was back in Cheltenham and began to practise with an obsession matched only by his pursuit of female companionship. Indeed, the influence he would later exert over the nascent Rolling Stones might not just have been in terms of music, but also in terms of attitude and lifestyle.

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Brian Jones’s father, Lewis, was an aeronautical engineer and his mother, Louisa, a piano teacher. He grew up in the quiet environment of a comfortably well-off family, whose attitudes had been shaped by memories of the War itself and the uncertainty of the post-War austerity years. He was clever, sporty and popular in school. Aged fifteen, he joined a skiffle band, playing washboard. He liked trad jazz – aka Dixieland, the dominant style of dance music in Britain at the time – until he discovered the saxophonist Charlie Parker. And then, Brian Jones went off the rails in spectacular fashion. Discipline became an anathema to him. Refusing to go to university, he was sacked from a long series of jobs, usually for helping himself to the contents of the till. Friends and acquaintances despaired of him, so wantonly did he abuse their generosity. He even featured in the national press as an example for the wayward and amoral ways of modern youth, when one of his underage lovers became pregnant. If Brian Jones cared, he certainly didn’t show it, and he most definitely didn’t change his ways. According to perspective he was a damned nuisance, a peril to society, or a charming, modern-day libertine.

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On the morning of 17 October 1961, eighteen-year-old Mick Jagger (born 26 July 1943) was waiting on the platform of Dartford railway station for the train to take him the 16 miles into central London, where he was a mediocre student at the highly respected London School of Economics. He was clutching a Chuck Berry album, Rockin’ at the Hops, and The Best of Muddy Waters under his arm. Shortly afterwards, seventeen- year-old Keith Richards (born 18 December 1943) arrived on the same platform on his way to Sidcup Art College. The two young men recognised each other from primary school. Studying the records on the train, Richards became even more envious of Jagger when he heard that he had actually seen Buddy Holly live in concert.

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Two years earlier, Keith had received his first guitar as a gift from his mother. He was the only child of Bert, a factory worker, and Doris, whose mother had been the mayor of the Municipal Borough of Walthamstow (which is now part of the London Borough of Waltham Forest). Keith was a loner who was often bullied and the older he got, the more difficult he found it to accept the teachers’ authoritarian rule. Music ran on his mother’s side of the family; his grandfather had toured Britain with a big band, Gus Dupree and his Boys. Bert, on the other hand, was not keen on his son’s growing interest in the guitar, especially after he was expelled from school for a variety of misdemeanors. As in school, two different worlds came up against each other in the family. “My parents were brought up in the Depression, when if you got something, you just kept it and you held it and that was it.” Richards wrote in his autobiography. “Bert was the most unambitious man in the world. Meanwhile, I was a kid and I didn’t even know what ambition meant. I just felt the constraints. The society and everything I was growing up in was just too small for me.” By the time Richards arrived at art college – it was the inspired idea of an art teacher to send him there – he was deeply engrossed in music. Having started with Little Richard and Elvis, he had moved on via Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Marty Wilde and the like, to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Lightnin’ Hopkins. British art colleges, then as now, have always been a fertile breeding ground for musical ideas. It was the one side of his education Keith relished.

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Michael Philip Jagger was the son of Joe Jagger, a physical education instructor at a teacher training college, and Eva, a hairdresser who had grown up in Australia. Everyone called him Mike until some way into his studies at the LSE when, in a sudden change of style, he swapped his grey suit for sharp beatnik attire and insisted on being called the rather more working class-sounding “Mick”. His life was comfortable. He excelled at cricket, but music was his main interest. A constant flow of friends came and went at the Jaggers’ house to listen to skiffle, blues and rock’n’roll records with Mick and his brother Chris, and to attempt playing the songs themselves. In July 1961, Mick passed his A-level exams with respectable results and won a scholarship to the LSE, where he started after the summer break.

Britain after World War 2 was a dour place. When the author J.G. Ballard - who had spent several teenage years under the most horrendous conditions in an internment camp in Shanghai -returned to the UK, he observed that looking at the people around him, it was impossible to believe that they had won the war: “They behaved like a defeated population.” Well into the 1950s, food rationing deprived British kitchens of a great many ingredients that would have brought actual pleasure to the plate, especially sugar, dairy products and meat (British cheese production only began to recover from the blow in the late 1970s). On a political level, the government’s disastrous handling of the Suez crisis in 1956, severely damaged Britain’s standing as a world power. This required a serious and ego-denting re-evaluation of the country’s historical as well as present-day role at the head of a colonial empire. The Conservative Prime Minister Anthony Eden had to resign as a consequence of his handling of the situation. Like many other Members of Parliament, he came from an old, rich, landed gentry family. His failure badly undermined the credibility of the upper class that was dominating not just politics in Britain, but many other aspects of public life as well, including the media. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), formed in 1957, was perhaps the most important movement to give dissenting voices a new focus. A group of writers from literature and theatre, dubbed “Angry Young Men”, expressed a growing sense of revolt against the old order. The group included John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Arnold Wesker and Harold Pinter, amongst others. In Soho, London’s red light and party quarter, a bohemian and often gay crowd of painters, writers and musicians – amongst them Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Daniel Farson and Colin MacInnes – delighted in scandalising conventional mores with their hedonistic antics.

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Music, too, offered a popular platform for protest. The folk scene around the socialist poet and songwriter Ewan MacColl, in particular, was a hive of political activity. And then there were the Teddy Boys. For the first time, British teenagers followed the example of US teenagers and banded together, forging their own group identity with the aid of clothes, music and a hearty desire to rile everyone else. The Teds were the first British rock’n’roll fans.

When the film Blackboard Jungle (featuring the music of Bill Haley & His Comets) reached London in 1956, a whole year after its release in the United States, riots broke out in the cinemas. The young Mick Jagger saw the film six times in Dartford. When the next rock’n’roll film, Rock Around the Clock, appeared another year later, Dartford Council promptly banned it - so successful was this raucous import from America in offending regular British sensibilities. The Teds, meanwhile, had already found their own way of getting up the noses of the middle and upper classes. They had appropriated the Edwardian clothing style that was extremely popular amongst the foppish and rich male students from private schools, joyously exaggerated its most obvious features (tapered trousers, drape jackets, brocade waistcoats, brothel creepers) and combined it with the greasy quiff of the archetypal American rock’n’roller. A certain degree of gratuitous violence was part of the required behaviour. In the context of Britain’s first race riots in London’s Notting Hill area in 1958, Teds were implicated as ringleaders in attacks against a mostly West Indian populace, an ugly harbinger of things to come. In Liverpool, the police were therefore happy to tolerate the not so legal Casbah Coffee Club, which Mona Best, mother of original Beatles drummer Pete, had opened up in the basement of the vast family house. Thanks to a bunch of teenagers called The Quarrymen, as well as skiffle and Coca-Cola (then a total novelty in North West England), the Teds were bored no longer – and whilst they were at the Casbah, there was no fighting in the streets.

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Skiffle was the catalyst for young British musicians to develop their own style. Originating in the American South in the first decades of the century, skiffle was a mixture of jazz and various folk traditions, deriving its idiosyncratic sound from a ramshackle combination of guitars and banjos with often- improvised instruments, including kazoo, tea-chest bass, washboard, spoons and singing saw. Driven by a desire for a more immediate and raw form of expression, British Jazz musicians in the 1950s had moved away from the big band sound (the sound of the establishment) towards the much less composed, urgent and traditional New Orleans Jazz. Lonnie Donegan had been a guitar and banjo player with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band. Barber, as he would do several years later with Alexis Korner, gave Donegan his own spot during the intermission of his concerts. Donegan’s enthusiastic renditions of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly songs proved to be so popular that he was offered a recording contract. Starting with “Rock Island Line” – a top 10 hit in 1955 – and ending with “Pick a Bale of Cotton” in 1962, Donegan delivered hit after hit. No matter that the style and often the lyrics were not, strictly speaking, British: skiffle was a punkish and inspirational declaration of musical independence by dint of being almost unheard of, or forgotten, everywhere else in the world. Whilst British attempts at creating rock’n’roll stars along the lines of Elvis enjoyed only modest success, the spirit of skiffle infused many teenagers in Britain with the desire to make a music that was not copied, but their own. Or - in the case of the future members of the Rolling Stones - borrow someone else’s style and take it somewhere new. This nascent spirit of freedom and the desire to overturn the rule of conformity, which many of their parents still so fervently believed in, received two massive boosts at the very beginning of the 1960s. First, in November 1960, compulsory National (army) Service was abolished (“The Rolling Stones would soon be cited as the single reason why it should be brought back,” quips Keith Richards). Second, in December 1961, the contraceptive pill became freely available in Britain.

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Just how little notice the rest of the world took of British musical endeavours is illustrated by the fact that on 26 May 1962, “Stranger on the Shore” (by the bowler-hatted clarinettist, Acker Bilk) became the first British recording ever to reach the top of the US Billboard charts. In the meantime, Keith Richards had joined a band with Mick Jagger, a guitar player called Bob Beckwith, and their mutual friend Dick Taylor (who would later form the fabulously underrated Pretty Things). Elsewhere, in West London, Alexis Korner was taking over Sunday nights at the Ealing (trad) Jazz Club. His band, Blues Incorporated, included Charlie Watts on drums and Ian Stewart on piano. They were too loud for the purist blues fans, too rock’n’roll for jazz fans, too jazzy for rock’n’roll fans and much, much too wild for pop fans. Brian Jones and Dick Hattrell read an advert for the gig in the New Musical Express and hitchhiked to London for the opening night on 17 March 1962. A week later, Brian Jones took to the stage himself as a guest of Blues Incorporated, calling himself Elmo Lewis. The following week he did the same. On 7 April 1962, following his rendition of Elmore James’s “Dust My Broom”, he was congratulated personally for his slide guitar style by Mick Jagger, who had travelled to Ealing with Keith Richards and Dick Taylor. As far as anyone knew, no one else in Britain played slide guitar at the time.

On 2 May 1962, the trade magazine Jazz News published Brian Jones’s advertisement for musicians to form his own rhythm and blues band. Ian Stewart was amongst the first to show an interest. Stewart (18 July 1938 – 12 December 1985) had been born in Scotland, but grew up in comfortable surroundings in Sutton, Surrey. Holding down a job as a clerk by day, his life was devoted to music at night. A jazz and blues fan from a very early age, he had become one of the best boogie-woogie pianists around. Stewart was deeply impressed by Brian Jones’s “deadly serious” attitude, and the fact that he wanted to play the songs of Jimmy Reed, an artist Stewart had never heard of. Meanwhile, Mick Jagger was announced as a new member of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. The arrangement didn’t last long. In June, Jagger threw in his lot with Brian’s embryonic band on the condition that his pal Keith Richards was also in. For good measure, Dick Taylor came along for the ride, too.

The popularity of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated had swiftly grown to the point where they were invited to perform for a BBC live broadcast. The date was 12 July, a Thursday, and it clashed with their regular session at the Marquee Jazz Club, which was then at 165 Oxford Street. Brian Jones was invited to step into the breach with whatever outfit he chose to bring along. Whilst on the telephone to Jazz News to convey the information, he was asked to provide a name for the group. He said the first thing that sprang to mind: The Rollin’ Stones. It was the title of the first song on the album that was lying on the floor, The Best of Muddy Waters. The band’s line-up on that historic night at the Marquee consisted of Mick Jagger (vocals), Keith Richards and Elmo Lewis (guitars), Dick Taylor (bass), Ian Stewart (piano) and Mick Avory (later with the Kinks, drums). It is not clear why Tony Chapman, their regular drummer, was not playing with them that night.

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Keith Richards’s time at art college came to a close. He decided that music was his future. In August, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Brian’s partner Pat, and their baby moved into a flat at 102 Edith Grove in Chelsea. Chelsea was one of those London areas where the rich, the poor and the arty lived next door to each other. Here, they were all feeding on a decidedly bohemian influence from the Chelsea School of Art. Life at Edith Grove was notoriously – and not always hilariously – riotous. As the number of gigs steadily increased (one in August, four each in September and October, six in November and seven in December), life centred on music, stealing food and playing practical jokes on each other. Viewed from the perspective of the hit parade, their music was radically uncommercial and underground. Viewed from the perspective of the purist blues crowd, however, anything even vaguely slipping in the direction of Chuck Berry and rock’n’roll was regarded as a sell-out. Nevertheless, the number of electric groups started (mostly) by ex-members of Blues Incorporated mushroomed, and so did the number of fans. In September, Dick Taylor left the Stones to concentrate on his art. The remaining five Stones recorded three songs and sent the tape to various record companies. One, Decca Records, expressed an interest but felt the band was doomed to failure “with that singer”.

It is unlikely that the Rollin’ Stones registered the fact that on 16 August, the Beatles replaced Pete Best with Ringo Starr and became properly the Beatles. They probably did become aware of this new band from Liverpool a couple of months later, when The Beatles landed a minor hit with their debut single, “Love Me Do”. Steeped in the blues, it is unlikely they would have paid much attention to this chirpy slice of beat pop from “up North”. Instead, they were in search of a replacement for Dick Taylor, and Tony Chapman brought in Bill Wyman with whom he had shared a band in South London. Wyman was not an immediate success with the others. He had cut his musical teeth in dance bands and only switched from guitar to bass in August 1961, after being impressed by the bassist in the Barron Knights. Therefore, it was no surprise that he knew none of the names of the artists that the surly and uncommunicative Stones tested him with, apart from Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. Instead, he liked the Coasters, Eddie Cochran and Jerry Lee Lewis. Despite this, he acquitted himself reasonably well during the audition and, for the time being, he was in.

“Rhythm and blues was a very important distinction in the ’60s,” writes Keith Richards. “Either you were blues and jazz, or you were rock and roll, but rock and roll had died and gone pop… Rhythm and blues was a term we pounced on because it meant really powerful blues jump bands from Chicago. It broke through the barriers. We used to soften the blow for the purists who liked our music but didn’t want to approve of it, by saying it’s not rock and roll, its rhythm and blues. Totally pointless categorisation of something that is the same s**t…”

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Hanspeter Künzler.