Rolling Stones: It's only rock'n'roll, but it could be a lot better

The Stones have become their own tribute band, and the reverence with which they are treated is more about nostalgia than music. Time to change the record


The average middle-aged man, asked to pronounce on the nation's attitude to popular music, would probably maintain that rather too much attention is paid to inane r&b of the "Booty Call by Missy Blackeyes (feat. Terminal Man)" kind. On current evidence, that middle-aged man would be wrong, for the media landscape of the past few days has been engulfed in a tidal wave of 1970s and 1980s rock nostalgia.

The Rolling Stones, having played to 150,000 enraptured fans at Glastonbury, moved on to an equally enthusiastic audience at Hyde Park. Not content with lavish encomia to Mick, Keef and the boys, one Sunday newspaper devoted an entire features spread to a piece by a former England cricketer who admitted to seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert no fewer than 85 times, and an interview with the former Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson, now sadly dying of pancreatic cancer.

The process by which bygone rock music became a part of the UK heritage industry is a long, and from the angle of the social historian, exceptionally interesting voyage of discovery. Until as recently as the late 1970s, rock was still essentially beyond the upper-cultural pale and a kind of cordon sanitaire was in place to keep very much serious mention of it out of the newspapers. I am just about old enough to remember the considerable fuss in August 1977 when The Times' obituaries page chose to lead with a tribute to Elvis Presley rather than a distinguished churchman who died the same day. This, commentators maintained, was a flagrant dereliction of cultural duty: blue suede shoes were of no account when set against the achievements of Archdeacon Chasuble.

Come the 1980s, on the other hand, newspapers had discovered the existence of the youth market, if only because their staff were now recruited from the generation that listened, or had listened, to this racket. Moreover, in the cadre of youngish journalists such as Charles Shaar Murray and Jon Savage who made their reputations in the 1970s music press, they had a ready-made talent pool to draw on. Hence, a quarter of a century later, the unutterably bizarre spectacle – bizarre, that is, to anyone who remembers the paper from its Thatcher-era heyday – of The Sunday Telegraph pronouncing sober judgement on the merits of Dr Feelgood's immortal 1975 album Down by the Jetty.

In case this sounds like the worst kind of cultural snobbery, I should say that I still possess an original vinyl copy of Down by the Jetty and would continue to play it were our record player not short of a working stylus. But it is worth asking, amid these constant invocations of the godlike genius of Mick and Keef, and Bruce and Wilko, and all the other old gentlemen whose autumn tour ads clog up the pages of the music press, just exactly what is being celebrated here and why. I watched that part of the Stones' performance at Glastonbury which the BBC was allowed to broadcast and it seemed fairly clear that we were in the presence not of Dionysiac myth, or even the last over-amplified shreds of some infinitely ancient revolt into style, but of a band who have effectively become their own tribute act, who last made a decent album in 1978 (Some Girls), or possibly even 1972 (Exile on Main Street), hollering songs that are not, when you stop to think about it, actually about anything.

What, to particularise, are Sir Mick's lyrical fixations? Well, er, the laydeez, and the odd bit of Satanic posturing, not to mention some heavens-what-an-old-rogue-am-I midnight rambling in search of, well, presumably the ladeez again. They don't do underage-sex "Stray Cat Blues" any more – a gesture to the moral tenor of the times for which I gather we are all supposed to be jolly grateful – and may even have dropped "Under My Thumb", that paean to sexual equality, from the set-list. It is not that the Stones are morally deplorable – for when was rock and roll supposed to edify or uplift? – merely that what remains is pretty questionable as art. Most of the Beatles' finest songs were narratives – think of the lyrics to "She Loves You" - whereas Sir Mick, even now, is still whooping about those Puerto Rican girls who're just dyin' to meet ya.

Naturally, there are some distinctions to be made. The sexagenarian in the Hyde Park throng is not in the least concerned with "relevance". He, or she (but predominantly he, I should say) is merely recalling the first chunky chords of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" issuing out of a transistor radio in 1968, or remembering teenage rebellions sparked off by a man whom the late Sir William Rees-Mogg, having interviewed him for World In Action, defined as "a right-wing libertarian – straight John Stuart Mill". Similarly, one can see exactly why several generations of American rock fans have bought shares in Springsteen Enterprises, for his best music taps into a much-mythologised vein of 20th-century stateside life that runs all the way back to Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (and significantly, Springsteen's album The Ghost of Tom Joad name-checks Steinbeck's vagrant, dispossessed hero). On the other hand, if we are going to make such a substantial emotional investment in bygone rock'n'roll – a process which, necessarily, involves large amounts of mythological baggage being brought along for the ride – then it would be good if that music had at least some faint connection to the world we inhabit.

This month's issue of Mojo carries an interview with Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, a band only three-fifths as hoary as the Stones but plainly intending to be around for a good few years yet. Literate and intelligent, Mr Tennant reveals, among other things, his love of Evelyn Waugh and the stimulus offered by David Lodge's novel Nice Work for a song called "Love is a Bourgeois Concept". The point about the Pet Shop Boys, close inspection of lyrics reveals, is that they combine gargantuan sales with the faint, and sometimes not-so-faint, hint of subversion.

Oddly enough, this music fan would prefer to see Neil Tennant and collaborator Chris Lowe emblazoned all over the newspapers, rather than Mick and Keef, rock's undead, winched up gibbering from the vault. It's only rock'n'roll, and I'm sick to death of it. Or rather, I can tolerate the music while deeply resenting some of the altogether bogus cultural uses to which it now gets put.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Operational Risk Manager - Asset Management

£60,000 - £80,000: Saxton Leigh: Our client is an leading Asset Manager based...

Year 5/6 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Permanent Year 6 TeacherThe job:This...

KS1 & KS2 Teachers

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: KS1+KS2 Teachers required ASAP for l...

Year 2 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Year 2 Teacher The position is to wo...

Day In a Page


In Sickness and in Health: Waking up to my 4am witching hour of worry

Rebecca Armstrong
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past