It’s fitting, that on their 50th Anniversary we take a look back over The Rolling Stones' monumental career, and see how they survived where others didn’t. The collection on display at Paddington’s Blender gallery does a great job, looking back at this apparently immortal band. Their earliest days, as clean-cut boys, are a familiar vision: on TV sets, under stage lights, in matching suits. 50 years on, this aesthetic looks almost comical compared to the wild, lascivious creatures they’d later become.
There’s a reason you don’t see a lot of 50th anniversaries, let alone bands celebrating their half-century. It’s a broadly understood principle that being in a band is like a four (or so)-way marriage, with plenty of stresses and temptations to fracture even the tightest bond. The Beatles broke up under acrimonious circumstances; the Who and Led Zeppelin called it quits when the drummer died. Though there’ve been plenty of tragedies, tensions and bad 80s reggae albums in the history of the Rolling Stones, they’ve survived with panache.
A couple of years on, and they’ve started to loosen up – gone are the dapper outfits, replaced by tougher gear. The Keith Richards we know and love starts to emerge here, a rough-looking scamp with a wicked smirk. Mick, too, has found his swagger, and between Mick’s hips and Keith’s vagabond air, they’re catnip to photographers. This era, stretching from the mid-sixties into the late seventies, are the most exhaustively documented.
Freed from the rigidity of television, the pictures start to capture more candid moments; there are plenty of on-stage shots, with Mick and Keith in full flight, but those are the sort of images that even the most half-hearted Stones fan knows by now. The more compelling are the quiet moments. Keith posing in imitation of a Bo Diddley posted behind him was my favourite – grinning at the camera, both playful and adoring regarding a man he idolised.
The bulk of the photos are of Mick and Keith, and for good reason –the Stones’ mythology is built on that pair, with everyone else reduced to a bit part. Charlie Watt gets a photo or two, same as Brian Jones; Ronnie Wood appears once or so, and everyone else might as well be invisible. Equally invisible is anything after 1980 or so, and with good cause – everyone, including the Stones, would like to believe that much happened after Tattoo You.
A nice little bonus room features photos of Stones’ contemporaries – Blondie, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Doors, and more. The giant photo of the Beatles in the back of a taxi is delightful, as is the snap of David Bowie and Mick Ronson in the dining car of a train. Storm Thorgerson’s full image from the cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here is another treasure.
The focus, though, and deservedly so, is the Glimmer Twins. You can actually see Jagger get more and more cynical, as Keith becomes more and more roguish and weather-beaten over five decades. It’s a weird marriage, sure, but it’s survived just about everything that life can throw at it, which is a feat worth celebrating. Plus, they wrote "Gimme Shelter".