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

Share

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Digital Marketing,London

To £58k Contract 12 months: Charter Selection: Major household name charity se...

Key Account Manager, Medical

£35000 per annum, Benefits: Excellent commission structure + Car: Charter Sele...

Key Account Manager, Medical

£35000 per annum, Benefits: Excellent commission structure + Car: Charter Sele...

Account Management Strategy Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum + competitive: Real Staffing: Required skills:Previo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The daily catch-up: fathers looking after children, World Cup questions and Nostradamus

John Rentoul
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Phone and data laws to be passed in haste

Andrew Grice
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice