Born of the flower-power movement in San Francisco in the Sixties, by favouring lengthy interviews and articles, written and designed in a sober fashion, Rolling Stone created the first mass-market publication in which popular music was written about with "intelligence and respect". And as the music moved into the mainstream, the approach spread to include politics, sports, crime and "all other forms of American social behaviour, pathological or otherwise".
The first issue, on 9 November 1967, featured John Lennon on the cover and signalled the importance that photography would later assume. All 728 covers have now been gathered into a book, Rolling Stone: The Complete Covers 1967-1997.
Jann Wenner, founder and editor, said the first cover was a "wonderful revealing accident". "When I first started the magazine, I didn't understand the importance of a cover and all the things that a cover can do ... that one little photograph speaks volumes about the marriage of music and movies and politics that came to define Rolling Stone."
The first woman to shoot a cover was Linda Eastman, later McCartney, who photographed Eric Clapton in 1968. Two years later, a 20-year-old art student named Annie Leibovitz arrived at the office with her portfolio. She became the magazine's second - and most celebrated - photographer.
As her work matured, so the covers became a series of portraits celebrating the new aristocracy of rock and its evolution: Mick and Keith, Paul and Linda, Lennon and Ono, Bowie and Springsteen; the death of Elvis and the rise of Punk and then Madonna. They became works of art in themselves.
The magazine's journalism - particularly its set-piece interviews - thrived. And not just with rock'n'roll stars. In 1975, Rolling Stone had what Wenner has since described as the "scoop of the Seventies" - the Patti Hearst kidnapping. It had the story of her year on the run - her abduction, her travels, her conversion to "Tania" - and just as the magazine was about to go to press she was captured. That issue, "The Inside Story", made headlines around the world.
Some 23 years later, Rolling Stone has once again triumphed by capturing the rights to the new novel by Tom Wolfe. It is the author's first major opus since Bonfire of the Vanities and there has been an intense and secret bidding war.
But Rolling Stone won the day, largely because Wenner knows Wolfe of old. The magazine serialised Vanities in its entirety in 1987, and back in 1973 a series of articles by Wolfe about astronauts gave birth to his book The Right Stuff.
Wenner also launched the careers of Hunter S Thompson and Joe Eszterhas, writer of Basic Instinct and other Hollywood blockbusters.
Wenner said Thompson's first assignment was to write about his nearly successful attempt to be elected sheriff in Aspen, Colorado. "He first showed up in my office wearing a grey bubble wig, with a huge satchel full of God knows what and three six-packs in his other hand, and talked for an hour straight." Thompson's two-part drugs-fuelled odyssey, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, provided two of the magazines most memorable covers, drawn by Ralph Steadman. Covers by the British cartoonist would also illustrate Thompson's documentation of the fall of Richard Nixon. Both became books.
Today, as the book shows, the covers reflect mainstream global culture: typical is David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in embrace. But back when the magazine was at its hippest high, being on the cover of Rolling Stone became as much a part of the rock'n'roll experience as the double live album. As Peter Buck, of REM, said in 1991: "This is a day like I thought being a pop star would be like when I was a kid. You get in the limo, you go across town to do a photo session, you buy a shirt and then wear it right away and get photographed for the cover of Rolling Stone."
Rolling Stone: The Complete Covers 1967-1997; published by Abrams; pounds 25.
Caption: Cover version: The inaugural issue featuring John Lennon (top left); Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, in 1975; and Meryl Streep, also by Leibovitz, in 1981. Streep said of such celebrity: 'One day you're passing the news stand and there's your face on the cover of a magazine; a week later, you're on the subway and there's that cover, with your face, on the floor. Somebody's probably pissed on it'