Picture the scene, ladies and gentlemen. It is a balmy early spring evening in Leicester Square. Here, before the opulent, steel-and-glass cinema vestibule, rife with tuxedoed security hulks and popping cameras, a fleet of limos deposits four elderly gentlemen and their entourages on to the red-carpeted pavement. The crowd – hundreds strong – brays and surges. The four heads bob modestly in return. What do we have here? A double-brace of Hollywood grandfathers? A string quartet? No, man, this – Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ron – is the Stones. Forty-six years into a chaotic and scabrous career, still going strong, still – their discards and early career cronies dead, superannuated or otherwise disposed of – intending to be around for a very long time.
Shine a Light, the Scorsese film of two Big Apple concert performances from 2006, is previewing across the UK. The accompanying live album hits the stores tomorrow. The nation's music press and, modern media-land being what it is these days, most of the quality papers, are agog. All this, as the young Martin Amis – himself an erstwhile Stones fan (see his account of a 1976 Earls Court show in Visiting Mrs Nabokov and Other Excursions) – might have said, is quite something. How did it happen? What are its symbolic properties? What does it tell us about our national consciousness that we should be falling over ourselves to venerate an agglomeration of drunks, needle-chasers and career hedonists with a collective age of 254?
At a very basic level, it confirms our preference for past glory over present dynamism. Seen in the round, the Rolling Stones' career represents a triumph of longevity over talent. In strict Rough Guide to Rock terms, they were fundamentally a Sixties band, whose best work was done in the period 1964-71, and whose Exile on Main St double set from 1972 might just be taken as a final assault on rock's Parnassian south face. Compiling a brief list of memorable Stones songs whose lyrics I could remember, I ended up with "Satisfaction", "Jumping Jack Flash", "Brown Sugar" and "Gimme Shelter" – not one of them later than the era of Harold Wilson and Ted Heath.
What gave most of these early items their resonance, examination insists, is that they were about something, had some socio-cultural reference point that transcended the environment from which they sprang. You didn't need a sociology degree to deduce that "Satisfaction" had something to do with Sixties consumerism or "Mother's Little Helper" something to do with an anti-depressant habit. Even "Sympathy for the Devil", one of those great moral cock-snookings in which the boys seemed to specialise, has a historical grasp and a feline complicity that not one pop record in a thousand comes near to achieving. After that it all fell away into a strew of genre-tourism, egos, drugs, black girls wanting to fuck all night and reportage from the lifestyle of a group of people who seemed to have parted company with observable reality at about the time of England's 1966 World Cup victory.
But all this is by the way. The Stones, like the Beatles, were always more than a straightforwardly musical phenomenon, and, together with the Beatles, their impact on the 1960s, or rather on our perception of that much-misrepresented decade, can scarcely be exaggerated. Broadly speaking, as Sixties pop evolved from a riot of screaming girls into a vehicle for social comment and then again into a consciousness-warping sonic revolution, the Beatles were respectable and the Stones emphatically were not. The attitudes of my own parents – middle-class provincial surburbanites – exactly mirrored this divide. John, Paul, George and Ringo might be brash, overpaid Liverpudlians – Scouse accents grated hard in the South – but they seemed nice boys with an ear for a tune. Mick, Keith and co, on the other hand, were just juvenile delinquents.
This cultural separation, which lasted well beyond the Beatles' break-up in 1970, was astutely promoted by the Stones' original publicist, Andrew Loog Oldham, the man responsible for that definitive Daily Mail headline: "Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?" The Beatles, according to one contemporary journalist, wanted to hold your hand; the Stones wanted to burn your town. In fact, this distinction was horribly bogus. However constrained by the matching-suit-wearing, female-fan-beguiling persona devised for them by their manager, Brian Epstein, the Beatles were always a far more aggressive proposition than their south of England rivals. Next to the John Lennon of, say, "I'm a Loser", Mick and Keith looked like Max Beerbohm and Aubrey Beardsley out on one of their Saturday-night jaunts to the Café Royal.
At the same time, Beatles comparisons, injurious though they might have been in 1966, paid gargantuan long-term dividends. When, in 1967, Her Majesty's constabulary, in league with one or two mass-market newspapers, began a more or less deliberate crackdown on symbols of juvenile excess, the Beatles remained sacrosanct. When the News of the World alerted Scotland Yard to the celebrated "orgy" at Keith Richards's country pile in Sussex, from which Marianne Faithfull was eventually removed clad only in a fur coat, the local force tactfully stayed their search warrants until George Harrison was safely off the premises. No one wanted one of the Fab Four in the dock. It was left to Jagger to stand trial for possession of a handful of pep pills and Richards for allowing his house to be used for drug-taking, their sentences later quashed after a public outcry instigated by the editor of The Times.
As to what this might amount to, in terms of its relationship with the history of English decadent art, we are back to the ancient, Wilde-sanctioned pastime of "feasting with panthers", the spectacle of the creative artist failing to remember that art has its responsibilities as well as its antic imaginings. It was George Orwell, shaking his head over the Auden line about "necessary murder", who remarked that here was someone playing with fire who didn't realise that fire was hot. The same is true of the Stones' 1967-and-after Satanic street-fighting phase, whose indirect consequences became sharply apparent during their set at the 1969 Altamont festival when, in the absence of any security save an orc-platoon of Hell's Angels, a young black man was stabbed to death in front of the stage. The most searing moment in Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers' film of the event, comes when Jagger is shown the murder footage in slo-mo. Whey-faced, features dissolving, he tells the editor to stop, darkly aware that the beast he had helped to create was lumbering straight at him.
Meanwhile, the Stones legend waxed and prospered. As a teenager I used to read about their exploits in that bible of the self-respecting Seventies pop kid, the New Musical Express. I didn't like the Stones, for the reasons hazarded above, but I was deeply fascinated by them, not least by the accounts of journalists such as Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent who had spent time with them, been on tour with them and watched their drug buddies and foxy attendants cluster and seethe. Kent, in particular, left an extraordinary account of Richards virtually dying in front of him – grey-visaged and comatose but trusting (as at any time over the past 40 years) to his iron constitution to see him through.
None of this, it should immediately be said, cancels out the allure of the Stones' music. The fact that Keith Richards has, in his time, ingested pharmaceuticals whose worth could probably reinflate an African economy no more invalidates "Satisfaction" than the second-best bed bequeathed by Shakespeare to his widow invalidates Hamlet. Ask what the Stones' legacy is to the musical movement they helped to create, let alone the wider landscape beyond, and the answer is the two words rebel chic: that endless procession of black-jacketed, sneering, four-to-five pieces with their songs about chicks and dope and fast cars and dissing the pigs and not getting no respect and dope and chicks. Rebel chic. It gave us everyone from the New York Dolls to Guns N' Roses and Pete Doherty, numberless corpses, countless blighted lives and, it should also be said, not a little genuinely fine music.
Where does this leave Sir Mick (Sir Mick! The idea that a voluntary worker in the NHS rates an MBE whereas old rubber-lips walks off with a knighthood!), Keith, Charlie and Ron, standing proudly on the red carpet as their career staggers on into its 47th year? Musically, as a colleague of mine recently pronounced, they have had the misfortune to turn into their own tribute band. Status-wise, they occupy one of those curious promontories so regularly granted to gnarled veterans of the British entertainment industry where mockery and celebration defy disentangling.
As for why the fans continue to flock, part of it is due to what Thom Gunn called the "revolt into style" – that elemental process whereby anything vaguely threatening is instantly corralled and anaesthetised by commerce. Another part of it is down to the enormous personal investment that so many of the sprightly middle-aged have made in this sexagenarian high-wire act, a little part of youth carried on in the world of pension schemes and four weeks' annual holiday and impossible to discard.
But by far the greatest part has to do with our continuing obsession with the 1960s, that charged and problematic decade with whose moral evasions and material legacies we are only now, 40 years later, beginning to get to grips.