From the cover of Cambridge Companion to The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones Go to College

The Cambridge Companion to the Rolling Stones, the first book of academic essays about the band, considers not only what the band accomplished but why, 60 years since they formed, the Rolling Stones still matter.

The Cambridge Companion to the Rolling Stones
Victor Coelho and John Covach, editors
Cambridge University Press
September 2019

There are enough books about the Rolling Stones to constitute an entire publishing category: Stonesology. The first entry was Our Own Story by the Rolling Stones, a 1965 rush job “by” the band “as told to” British journalist Pete Goodman; the latest include Sympathy for the Drummer, Mike Edison’s homage to drummer Charlie Watts, and another 2019 release that purports to tell All That’s Left to Know About the Bad Boys of Rock.

The half-century-plus between the earliest and the latest entries has yielded several hundred titles—chronicles of their early days; accounts of their many tours, especially 1969’s, with the Altamont fiasco the inevitable dénouement; memoirs by former band associates, friends, drug dealers, ex-wives, and girlfriends; unauthorized biographies of Mick Jagger; expensive coffee table photo collections; interview compilations; song-by-song breakdowns of their recorded output; guides to the instruments they’ve played; a comic book biography; and even fiction, such as a novel based on the Keith Richards-Anita Pallenberg-Brian Jones romantic triangle, and another I hope to get around to someday, in which Mick Jagger, England’s greatest zombie hunter, pursues the Beatles, with the Fab Four as undead brain eaters.

Stonesology also includes books by the Stones themselves—a 50th anniversary career retrospective; four by ex-bassist Bill Wyman; three by guitarist Ron Wood; and Keith Richards’ best-selling, Jagger-baiting memoir, Life. It’s said that Jagger will never write his memoirs, given his much-noted aversion to revisiting the past. But who knows? He can’t perform forever and, after so many decades in the public eye, he’s likely to want — or need — some way to keep our attention.

The literature on the Stones, however, has not included much academic writing, a gap The Cambridge Companion to the Rolling Stones aims to fill. Edited by two university professors who are ardent fans of the band, Victor Coelho of Boston University and John Covach of the University of Rochester, the slim volume (222 pages including bibliography and two indexes) comprises 11 essays by nine contributors, all but two of them academics. Only one is a woman.

In their preface, the editors write that the book is “intended to stimulate fresh thinking about the group as they vault well over the mid-century of their career.” The focus is mostly musicological, with some sociological and broader cultural commentary. The writing is at times highly technical and can suffer from the worst tendencies of academic prose. Nonspecialist readers may find some pieces to be heavy going—”The only disruption of the tonic-subdominant oscillation is the text-book ‘middle-eight’ bridge shifting to VI”—but the detailed analyses, at their best, demonstrate Stones’ greatness in musical terms.

This is the book’s greatest strength, its focus on the band’s sound, which, as the editors observe, is an often-neglected topic in discussions of their recordings and live performances. As someone who thought the best parts of Keith Richards’ Life were his discussions of guitar technique and the mechanics of songwriting, I found the music qua music approach refreshing and welcome.

The essays cover the albums and singles the band made during their first decade; the contributions of guitarists Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, and Ron Wood, as well as their sidemen— saxophonist Bobby Keys and keyboardists Ian Stewart, Nicky Hopkins, and Billy Preston; the band’s brief flirtation with psychedelia and the deeper and longer-lasting involvement with country music; how Brian Jones’ recordings of the Master Musicians of Joujouka anticipated world music; the Stones’ ventures into film; how the four classic albums, Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street constitute the band’s “master narrative”; their innovative use of studio technology; and the Stones in “a disco-punk world”. The book concludes with a look at the band’s “second life” after 1989, when they became a touring juggernaut, and a first-person “postlude” about Stones fandom.

The opening essay, John Covach‘s “The Rolling Stones: Albums and Singles, 1963-74” is not an auspicious beginning; a superficial chronology of their first decade, it covers (over) familiar territory while missing what was so great and original (besides the music itself) about mid-’60s releases like “Mother’s Little Helper”, “Play with Fire”, and “19th Nervous Breakdown”: their pointed, satirical portraits of a society, England’s, in transition from the austere postwar years to a new era of greater personal freedom, hedonism, and drug use.

Next up is Bill Janovitz, who provides informed and informative assessments of the contributions made by the Stones’ “guitar slingers and hired guns.” His writing is accessible and generally engaging (he does, however, rely too often on “torrid” as a descriptor) and he’s astute about what Jones, Taylor, and Wood brought to the band’s sound. Jones, he notes, was both a blues purist who excelled at slide guitar and harmonica and an innovator who expanded the band’s sonic palette with such instruments as the sitar, dulcimer, marimba, harpsichord, and koto.

Janovitz, noting that Mick Taylor contributed more than brilliant playing and arrangement ideas, raises the issue of authorship and songwriting credits. Jagger and Richards granted him a credit for one track on Exile, “Ventilator Blues”, but, as Janovitz writes, his strong feeling that his actual writing for the band was not being acknowledged was a main reason for his quitting in 1974.

Brita Renée Heimarck offers a smart discussion of Jones as a master of assemblage and a “sound artist”. Jones was self-destructive and he became increasingly nonfunctional as Jagger and Richards took over the band’s leadership. But the Glimmer Twins did treat him shabbily, as seen in their screwing him out of a songwriting credit for one of their most distinctive mid-’60s hits, “Ruby Tuesday”.

Jones came up with the music, which was born from his desire to “combine his interests in two genres at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum, Elizabethan lute music and Delta blues”. He and Keith Richards actually wrote the song but it ended up being credited to Jagger and Richards. Heimarck quotes a Stones accountant saying to Jones, “You write some of these songs and you give the name over as if Mick Jagger has done it. Do you understand, you’re giving ’em thousands of pounds!” Jagger, by the way, has since acknowledged that he had no hand in writing “Ruby Tuesday”.

Victor Coelho’s examination of the four great albums the Stones released between 1968 and 1972 is one of the book’s best essays. Those recordings constitute “the core identity of the group and the lasting, canonical repertory that has defined the Stones’ musical, historical, and cultural legacy.” One could argue that this assessment slights their earlier work—”Satisfaction”, “Paint it, Black”, “Ruby Tuesday”, and “19th Nervous Breakdown” are hardly minor-league—but it’s undeniable that the Big Four are consistently superior to the albums that came before.

Coelho is particularly good about Exile: he observes that although the 1972 double album breaks “no new ground stylistically, [it] frames for posterity the permanent identity of the Stones through the album’s themes of both poetic and living geographical exile. It is a summation of the musical diversity introduced by the previous albums in which the deep roots of their style are laid bare in the present. There is no old and there is no new in the musical vocabulary of Exile.”

Coelho’s explication of the albums’ themes, however, is a rare deep dive into the Stones’ lyric content. As much as I appreciate the Cambridge Companion’s focus on the Stones’ sound and its evolution over the years, I wish the book had confronted some of the more controversial material, especially “Brown Sugar”. To call the 1969 hit that for decades has been a staple of their shows “famously bawdy”, as Janovitz does, hardly constitutes a reckoning with the song, which for some is a guilty pleasure, for others, an outrage, and for some, both.

Jagger has said he’d (probably) never write anything like it now and that he had no idea what “he was on about” when he wrote it. But, for what it’s worth, I think that this is what he was getting at, whether he realized it or not: You love this song? You love our music? Well, this is where it comes from—slavery, torture, rape—the original encounter between white and black in the Americas.

Though long past their creative peak, the Stones are still very much with us, nearly 60 years after they came together as a blues and R&B cover band. They remain irresistible to the media; Jagger’s quick return to touring after heart surgery last year was treated as a major news story. (The “No Filter” tour was one of the band’s most lucrative and one of the ten highest-grossing tours to date.) Their most recent studio album, 2016’s Blue and Lonesome, was critically acclaimed and won the band a Grammy.

It’s looking increasingly likely that there will be a new album of original material in 2020, and, barring any serious health issues for the near-octogenarians Watts, Jagger, and Richards, another tour. The essays in the Cambridge Companion to the Rolling Stones at their best explain not only what the band accomplished but why they still matter.

RATING 7 / 10