Some years ago, Mick Jagger decided that it was time to write his autobiography. A deal was negotiated, and an impressive advance duly forked over. The project ran into difficulties almost immediately, when Jagger realised that he could actually remember very little (very little that was printable, anyway) of the minutiae of his career. He sought the aid of Stones bassist Bill Wyman, a prolific diarist and obsessive hoarder of Rolling Stones trivia, only to be rebuffed on the not unreasonable grounds that Wyman was at work on an autobiography of his own. The contract was cancelled, the advance returned and the project quietly forgotten.
Wyman's book, Stone Alone (a title it shares with one of his solo albums), was published in 1990, and was not entirely complimentary towards his bandmates It was followed, last year, by a second volume, a lavishly illustrated coffee-table tome entitled Rolling with the Stones. a few years after he he quit the band. Thirteen years on, the rest of the Stones finally hit back. Co-credited to Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood, According to The Rolling Stones (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £30) is a large, glossy, photo-rich burglar-killer of a book assembled, oral- history-style, from intensive interviews conducted with the principals last year, presented with sky-high production values and leavened with nostalgic tribute essays by various friends, fans and business associates. The "greatest rock'n'roll band in the world" now clearly has its collective eye fixed firmly on posterity. Who do they think they are? And how closely does that dovetail with who we think they are?
As Tony Blair might have put it, "the hand of history is on the shoulder" of his teenage idol's raffishly rocking combo. The Forty Licks title which straddles the Stones' current greatest-hits album and concurrent marathon world tour explicitly refers to the 40 years for which Jagger, Richards and Watts, the core of the band, have managed, against all odds, to keep the show on the road. This is an astonishing length of time for a rock'n'roll band - especially one with a colourful history of potentially life-threatening recreational activities - to maintain its key personnel, distinctive identity and mass popularity.
The Stones' almost supernatural longevity raises questions concerning the very nature of the rock'n'roll game. The great jazz and blues players can indeed go on until they drop: at 78, BB King, who cut his first record in 1949, is still out there touring the USA, and John Lee Hooker, who died in 2001 aged 83, spent the last Saturday night of his life on stage, rocking a San Francisco club with his timeless boogie. The Stones, particularly Keith Richards, consider themselves to be descendants of this same tradition, and don't accept that the lifelong performing licence granted by pundits to the likes of King and Hooker (or Miles Davis, or Louis Armstrong) should be denied to them just because they're white, British and shake their arses around massive stadium stages rather than funky little clubs and austere concert halls.
Nevertheless, rock, with all its attendant ideological baggage relating to hormonally-charged adolescent rebellion, is a very different matter from classic jazz and blues, in which "youth" and its attendant joys and travails have seldom been an issue. If a rock band's key players are all 60 years old (Charlie Watts turned the corner last year, while even Jagger and Richards' mischievous kid sidekick Ron Wood has attained the imposing age of 56) and the jumpin'-jack-flash lead singer has received the official imprimatur of anointment as a knight of the realm, doesn't that render the post-millennial incarnation of Rolling Stones merely a ghoulishly undead parody of the magnificent band they used to be? Isn't there something a little grotesque about the whole business? What a draaaaag it is growin' o-o-o-o-ld.
"The fact is," says Keith Richards, "that I am 60 years old and 20-year-old chicks are still throwing their panties at me! It's ludicrous, really." John Strasbaugh, author of the splendidly splenetic polemic Rock Til You Drop (Verso, £10), would certainly agree: he considers today's Stones to be "a Rolling Stones cover band 'Rolling Stones, Inc.', a corporation whose business was to mass-produce and mass-market Rolling Stones nostalgia products." A modern-day Stones gig, claims Strasbaugh, "[isn't] even a rock concert any more: it [is] a stadium spectacle, something more like a football game than rock." Even Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, the Stones' label for several years and one of the great impresarios of jazz, blues and rock, ends his essay by asserting that "The Rolling Stones are the longest-standing circus of all time."
According to The Rolling Stones provides the band with the chance to proffer their own version of the oft-told tale of how a spotty bunch of Home Counties blues geeks became first "the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world" and subsequently the planet's most successful travelling circus. What it manages to avoid, most of the time, is an indication of precisely what has been won and lost along the way.
John Lennon once remarked, scathingly and not altogether justly, that every- thing The Beatles did the Stones did six months later. Certainly, According to The Rolling Stones bears a startling resemblance - in concept, format and design - to The Beatles Anthology book published three years ago. However...
The Beatles' Boswells managed to get around the problem that one of the key players in The Beatles saga had been dead for almost two decades by mixing the contemporary material coaxed from Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr with extracts from vintage archive interviews, thereby permitting John Lennon to have his posthumous say. The Stones eschew this path, thereby muting not only the late Brian Jones but the very-much-alive Mick Taylor, their "other" guitarist between 1969 and 1974 and a man still not remotely gruntled about many matters arising from his stretch in the band. Some fairly hard things are said about the unfortunate Taylor - a wonderful musician but not the liveliest or most inspiring colleague in the world, according to The Rolling Stones - and it might have provided a certain amount of perspective to learn how he happens to remember his Stone Age. The decision to base the book entirely around how Jagger, Richards, Watts and Wood currently remember things also deprives us of the pleasure of reviewing, with benefit of hindsight, many of the things they said about their world, and each other, during less guarded times.
Back in 1978, with punk exploding all around them, the Stones had riposted to the young upstarts who denounced them as dinosaur sell-outs with a song called "Respectable", from their Some Girls album, in which Jagger bawled sarcastically, "We're so respecta-bowwwl!' But no matter how firmly the Stones nailed their colours to the outlaw mast back when they were young and wild (or even middle-aged and mildly badly behaved), these days the song has indeed come true. Scandal freaks hot for the low-down on drug-Hoover Keith and shag-monster Mick will be grievously disappointed. These are the reminiscences of genial granddads who have graduated from being threats to the survival of western civilisation to being more than "accepted in socie-tee". They are elderly millionaires, one with a knighthood, who represent a massive contribution to the economy of wherever it is that they pay taxes these days.
It is therefore quite understandable, though somewhat disappointing, that the book shies away from many of the more "controversial" aspects of the band's history. The "Summer of Love" of 1967 was more the "summer of busts" as far as the Stones were concerned, with Jagger, Richards and Jones being dragged in and out of courts and jails for much of the time after the notorious police drug raid on Redlands, Richards' country mansion. The nearest you'll find to an account of that traumatic event comes not from any of the Stones but in an essay by their friend, the art dealer Christopher Gibbs. From Keith himself there's little more than a passing reference to "the Redlands bust". It would be impossible to tell the story of the Stones whilst excising the chemical indulgences which laid waste to the band and its inner circle during the 1970s, but since old-time outlaw chic has been sidelined in favour of their current status as Beloved Entertainers, discussion of that particular topic is kept to the bare minimum.
Similarly, if you're anxious to get the real horse's-mouth skinny on the horrific debacle of their 1969 free concert in Altamont, California, where the Hells Angels who were supposed to be providing "security" terrorised audience and performers alike and stabbed a young black man to death, forget it. The only commentary included herein comes from the rarely-interviewed"silent Stone" Charlie Watts, who offers the acrid aperçu that "if Woodstock started it, we stopped it." Watts' acute and articulate observations are, incidentally, one of the book's major pleasant surprises: Jagger's scrupulous avoidance of anything which might be considered self-revelatory is the opposite. Richards, as ever, comes across as both the wittiest and the most candid of the bunch.
Another startling omission derives from the absence of any significant reference to the extraordinarily powerful and gifted women who have been denizens of Planet Stones over the years (despite Keith's description of the young "As Tears Go By"-vintage Marianne Faithfull as "this ex-nun with these enormous gazongas, bless her heart"). The presences of Anita Pallenberg, Bianca Jagger and Faithfull - indeed, references to any non-current Stones relationships - are insubstantial to the point of ghostliness.
Other historical lacunae: you wouldn't know, if this book was your only source of Stones information, that Jagger and Richards first met in junior school, or that the Stones scored their first Top Ten hit with "I Wanna Be Your Man," a song donated to them by celeb fans Lennon and McCartney. According to The Rolling Stones skips straight from their first, only moderately successful, single (a cover of Chuck Berry's "Come On") to their third (Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away", performed à la Bo Diddley).
Nevertheless, According to The Rolling Stones is an exceedingly handsome volume, and the band's reminiscences are entertaining, if not enlightening. The Stones have grabbed the opportunity to set their own agenda: this, after all, is how they want to be remembered, talking about their music, and each other rather than rehashing old gossip-column items or adding fuel to continued speculation about Richards' drug consumption and Jagger's sex life. Whether they are still, at their current advanced age, the "greatest rock'n'roll band in the world" is almost academic. Every night, somewhere in the world, a different band will wear that mantle, but the Stones have worn it on more nights than any other band extant. Even if their increasingly elaborate stadium spectaculars place more emphasis on Jagger the fitness fanatic and all-round showman rather than the ragged glory of Richards' still-unique guitar and the unmistakable whomp of Watts' drums, they do, after all, still represent the grand archetype of the whiteboy rock'n'roll band.
As Richards put it, "We had a whole new generation listening to our music. There are 12-year-old kids I used to play to who are now making hit records - bands like The Hives and The Strokes. On a musician's gravestone all you can have is 'He passed it on.' It's the best accolade you can get."
'According to The Rolling Stones' is published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson at £30; the UK leg of the band's tour begins at Twickenham Stadium on 23 August