A touch of class

Royalty. Captains of Industry. Sloane Rangers. It's no surprise they flock to the Stones. The band has always aspired to be part of the establishment, as Giles Smith reports

The writer Philip Norman, in the Afterword to The Stones, his supreme biography of the self-styled Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World, homed in on the moment when the Stones seemed utterly out of their time, irredeemably irrelevant. It was at the American Live Aid show in 1985, when Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood tottered on to the Philadelphia stage, in traditional sozzled fashion and in the company of Bob Dylan.

Norman wrote: "The music was abysmal, but still worse the archaic Gauloises- and-Jack-Daniels reek of the musicians on that day dedicated to unselfishness and social conscience. To the young, clean-living Live Aid masses, the whole concept of Rolling Stones seemed ludicrous, if not faintly obscene. The two bespangled reprobates, and the husk of the great 20th-century poet with them, were all but laughed off the stage."

Jump forward 10 years, almost to the day, to Tuesday night this week. Out came the Rolling Stones once more: another world tour, another set of nights at Wembley Stadium, another series of outings for "Brown Sugar". They were not laughed off stage at all, but cheered to Wembley's rafters.

The usual jokes have been heard this week: rock'n'roll grandads, Zimmer frame rockers, don't trip over your pension book. These gags were perhaps amusing the first few hundred times, but it's probably fair to say they aren't quite what they used to be; they look a little tired - more tired, certainly, than the Stones, who still variously zip and charge and stagger about the stage with as much vim as they ever did. Ludicrous? Faintly obscene? Perhaps.

But still at it, watched and encouraged by the post-Live Aid masses who might once have contemplated consigning them to history. It is a feature of the pop world's democracy that no band remains successful simply because it wishes to. The Rolling Stones are back, first and foremost, because there is a popular demand for their return.

The list of guests spotted in various celebrity corrals at the first London show on Tuesday night makes revealing reading. There was Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence, obviously. Slightly less predictably, there was Tom Stoppard and Richard Wilson (TV's Victor Meldrew). There was also Camilla Parker-Bowles, the woman alleged to have the ear - at least - of the Prince of Wales. Actors, writers, members of the aristocracy - there's no limit, really, to the kinds of people you might see at a Stones concert in 1995. And many of them will be there with their children in mind if not in person.

When the Stones fly in and their juggernauts unpack, various arguments are heard against the carnival that ensues. For instance, didn't this band used to be the agents of a music designed to be socially divisive, lawless and dangerously sexed? What have Wembley Stadium and Volkswagen sponsorships and merchandising franchises and family entertainment got to do with Keith Richards, "the human riff"? Where is the danger, the rebellion, the voodoo that launched a thousand terrified editorials? The Stones have, it is routinely said, become the thing they were born in reaction against - a gigantic, brightly-lit, multi-million-dollar contradiction in terms.

But as they return, time and again, these arguments seem to have less of a grip. Merely for its feat of survival, the band seems to generate respect. One is not referring specifically here to Keith Richards' successful battle with the heroin addiction that wreaked havoc upon his teeth, though this is impressive in its own way. More importantly, time and fashion and the arguments of those ranged against them seem incapable of blowing them away.

The band has threatened to self-destruct on numerous occasions, and this would perhaps be the only route to their elimination. Bill Wyman, the stock-still bassist, quit a couple of years back to curate his collection of Rolling Stones memorabilia and to put his memoirs in order. And there have been entire years during which Jagger (who is, as men in particular are fond of repeating, "the personification of sex") and Richards (the genuine rock'n'roll animal, bandana'd, trashed, and yet never less than a gentleman) have communicated with each other only in an exchange of personal slights dished out to the tabloid press. Their longevity is frequently attributed to the steadying influence of the drummer and famously reluctant rock star Charlie Watts. "Charlie's good tonight, i'n'ee?" Jagger declared on the live album Get Yer Ya Yas Out. Charlie has, in fact, been good pretty much every night for nearly 32 years.

There is actually very little that is contradictory about the Stones performing for toffs and their tots, for royalty and captains of industry and then inviting them all backstage afterwards. The Stones were always rampant social climbers, intent from the word go on leaping like goats up the social mountain. The "man of wealth and taste" to whom Jagger introduced us in "Sympathy for the Devil" was not satirically conceived. This was straightforward aspiration.

The fruits of success in the rock business are unconscionable quantities of money and infinitely malleable free time - the pleasures of the aristocrat, in other words. The history of rock is scattered with examples of lower middle-class white boys trying to pull themselves clear of suburban boredom. The rebel forces may well have stormed the enemy's camp: but not with a view to burning it to the ground - rather because they quite fancied the tents. The Stones have pulled off in style this occupation of the enemy terrain.

And so we have Charlie Watts, a collector of antique silver, American Civil War weaponry and horses. And so we have (or had) Bill Wyman, now a restaurateur who for a while counted as his friend and next-door neighbour in the south of France, the painter Marc Chagall, and who is a member of the Royal Horticultural Society. Jagger's restless jet-setting is well- documented. Read one way, the saga of the Rolling Stones is the tale of Mick Jagger's eternal quest for the one thing he can't buy - class.

Yet the band is still at heart an act of defiance. It once appeared they liked to defy social convention; now they are defying the physical constraints that age normally places upon rock musicians. As the band becomes more craggy of face, it only approximates ever more closely to its original inspirations - American bluesmen, many of them not simply old at the time the Stones developed a fascination for them, but actually dead. And no rock band has ever been as old as the Rolling Stones. They are the survivors and, in this sense at least, you could argue that they are still at the cutting edge, pushing back the boundaries of what is possible in rock: they are determined to be still doing it when everyone else is too tired, too old or simply dead.

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