It was 1982. A party in Hull, given by one of my university lecturers. They all seemed ancient to me, yet must have been in their thirties. I liked them, but they were clearly hippies, with their still-long hair, and their still-flared trousers, their waistcoats, their collarless shirts.
They stood awkwardly at the side of the dance floor, when suddenly on came the Rolling Stones and they jerked into life. Strutting, thrusting a hip, one arm raised with a pointing finger, “HEY!” they sang, “YOU! Get offa my cloud!” They seemed energised and ecstatic, and we rolled our eyes, and thought they were ridiculous, feeling superior in the way that only the very young can feel superior. “How can you dance to this?” I thought, and waited for Soft Cell to come on.
I genuinely thought I didn’t like the Stones. It wasn’t really them, it was me. I was the wrong age, and having been wedded in my teens to the notion of 1976 being Musical Year Zero, I was primed to dislike or even disapprove of them, along with – thanks to Joe Strummer – Elvis and the Beatles.
Years later, some time in the Nineties, I caught the last number of their set at a stadium in Denver, Colorado. We were on tour in the US, and our sound engineer knew their sound engineer and had got us passes, but due to the timing of our own gig we didn’t arrive till theirs was almost over. I remember hurrying through the barriers, rushing down gangways, trying to push our way into our row as they started up their final song, and it was of course “Start Me Up”. That opening guitar riff blasted at me, sounding like gears grinding into action, sounding utterly perfect, and familiar, and for a moment I was taken by surprise at how excited I felt. And then it was over.
[See also: The darker side of Bob Dylan]
I carried on not thinking much about the Stones. Yeah, sure, there were bits I liked. I’d always enjoyed “Miss You” on the dance floor, and I thought their flirtation with disco seemed to suit them. “Emotional Rescue” was great, and “Fool To Cry” was lovely. Oh, and “Wild Horses” too, and “Beast of Burden”. “Tumbling Dice”, yes, that was a great song, and the opening of “Gimme Shelter”, which has long been Ben’s ringtone; and “Moonlight Mile”, of course, and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, and oh for God’s sake, who on earth was I kidding? As the years went by it began to dawn on me that I didn’t just like the Rolling Stones, I loved them.
Anyway, the reason they are in my mind right now is because Ben and I have been watching the Apple TV series 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything. The eight episodes are packed with footage ranging far and wide, from UK skinheads to US soldiers in Vietnam, and snippets of performance from Marc Bolan and Tina Turner, Alice Cooper and Sly Stone, Carole King and Gil Scott-Heron.
The episode about Exile on Main Street features familiar scenes from Villa Nellcôte in the south of France, where the band holed up for the protracted recording of the album. But however much you know about the period, it’s impossible not to be struck by the atmosphere of sheer sleaze. Photos of Keith Richards show him comatose, having just shot up. The doors of the villa were left open, shutters blowing in the breeze, local criminals climbing in and helping themselves to Keith’s guitars, while everyone lay around too stoned to notice, or care.
And yet, in photographs of Mick Jagger, he always seems to be just off to the side of all the chaos, going so far but no further, hanging on to some vestige of self-possession. As one of the songs played, I noticed afresh what a great singer he is, how, for all the imitative qualities of his singing, he genuinely sounds like no one else; the sheer energy and drama he brings to every song – no, every line. Every word.
The episode ends with them fleeing France just before being arrested for heroin possession. Once again they have got away with it by the skin of their teeth, as they get away with everything: the bad behaviour, the unforgivable lyrics, all of it. You can hate them for the very same things that make you love them. I know, I’ve done both.