Words by: Kiera Eardley Art by: Naiya Sornratanachai
“…as heads is tails / just call me Lucifer / ’cause I’m in need of some restraint”‘Sympathy for the Devil’ (1968), The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones have courted controversy for their entire 60-year career. The British rock & roll band was marketed as the anti-establishment antidote to the saccharine Beatles — and they didn’t shy away from living up to that bad-boy image.
In 1967, lead singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards were sensationally arrested for drug possession at Richards’ home in Sussex (while tripping on acid, no less) but spent just one night in jail before public pressure demanded their release. The band’s founder, Brian Jones, left the group in June 1969 and was found dead at the bottom of a swimming pool just one month later. Supporting singer Merry Clayton was recruited for female vocals on ‘Gimme Shelter’ while heavily pregnant in 1969; she was called into the studio in the middle of the night, recorded the song, and later that morning miscarried due to the exertion of the performance. And perhaps most infamously, The Rolling Stones ended their 1969 tour in a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, which drew a crowd of 300,000 people and was serviced by none other than the Hells Angels as security guards (yeah, the motorcycle gang! Great idea, Mick). Four people died at that show, including one man who stormed the stage with a revolver during the Stones’ performance and was consequently stabbed to death by one of the Hells Angels. Like I said, controversy followed the band from the beginning.
These transgressions made waves back in the ’60s and ’70s, and they probably still would today. But cultural standards — the blurry guidelines that define what we accept, and what we don’t — have changed a lot over time. In 2022 compared to 1962, we’re generally a more accepting, inclusive and secular society. Right? The Rolling Stones are the perfect barometer to see if and how our standards have evolved, for better or worse, because what other popular band has existed across six decades? (Don’t fact-check me on that. Just take my word for it.)
Religion and religious values are the most interesting areas to begin measuring cultural progress when it comes to The Rolling Stones. With their bad-boy image, conservative audiences were quick to call the group rule-breaking and even satanic — a label they poked fun at with their 1967 album, Their Satanic Majesties Request. Famously, the politically charged 1968 song ‘Street Fighting Man’ featured lyrics such as “the time is right for fighting in the streets”, and was banned across radio stations in the US for fear of inciting violence at anti-Vietnam War protests. Conservatives also, obviously, found the band’s drug habits an unacceptable advertisement for behaviour in young people. Their seminal album Exile on Main St. (1972) was largely recorded during a drug-fuelled stint in the French villa where the band was living as tax exiles, and Keith Richards was at the height of a decade-long heroin addiction. With the legalisation of marijuana and pill-testing becoming more common nowadays, our attitude towards recreational drugs has definitely softened over the years, and now we don’t bat an eye at the likes of The Weeknd releasing songs about Class A drug use.
But back in the 20th century, the Stones were labelled ‘devil-worshippers’ after the release of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ in 1968 — which Jagger wrote and performed from the point of view of the Devil himself. In it, he boasts about his role in various man-made atrocities throughout history: the death of Jesus Christ, world wars and the Holocaust, the Russian Revolution, and the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers. The song spans six minutes and is a rollicking, faithless condemnation of humanity and religion — the narrator attributes war to the belief in gods “made” by monarchs, and calls “all the sinners saints” — and to this day is often performed on-stage with Jagger in a flamboyant feathered cape to look like the Devil. Looking back, the band now laughs at the suggestion that they were satanic in any capacity.
The other taboo associated with the band is, of course, sex. The Stones found themselves the objects of teenage-girl desire to a level rivalling the Beatles, and their song lyrics certainly played into this fanaticism. 1967’s ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ was blatantly sexual for the time, with Jagger crooning “I’ll satisfy your every need… and now I know you will satisfy me”. Most radio stations in the US opted to snub it for its B-side track, ‘Ruby Tuesday’, to avoid complaints from conservative listeners. What’s more, the cover art for the album Sticky Fingers was met with gasps of horror from ‘proper’ society upon its release in 1971; it featured a (very) close-up shot of a man’s crotch wearing (very) tight jeans. Given I grew up singing along to Rihanna’s ‘S&M’, it’s clear that we’re definitely not as much of a pearl-clutching society anymore. But there are still conservative sex-phobes (à la Ben Shapiro losing his mind over the unknowable concept of an IRL WAP) who make the gap between now and the ’60s seem a lot smaller than it actually is.
Perhaps as a result of all the progress we’ve made in what we’ll accept from our favourite artists, there are some aspects of the Stones’ past which seem in distinctly bad taste in 2022. 1968’s catchy ‘Stray Cat Blues’ includes the squirm-inducing anti-#MeToo lyrics, “I can see that you’re 15 years old / no, I don’t want your ID”. This takes on a special level of ‘ick’ when you consider that former Stones bassist Bill Wyman married an 18-year-old when he was 49 (and they had been together since she was just 14). Early hit ‘Under My Thumb’ is, by today’s standards, a celebration of a woman being domesticated by her partner (“she’s the sweetest pet in the world”). And most recently, the band has removed ‘Brown Sugar’ — one of their most successful songs — from its performance schedule, due to lyrics which Jagger himself admits wouldn’t fly in today’s climate. It covers everything from slavery to violence and interracial relationship, and many struggle to get past its opening lines: “Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields / sold in the market down in New Orleans / scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright / hear him whip the women just around midnight”.
As hard as these things are to stomach, the Stones are the first to admit that times have changed; “I would never write that song today,” says Jagger of ‘Brown Sugar’. And maybe that’s the reason The Rolling Stones have endured the test of time — they can adapt, admit their faults, and retain their mantle as the greatest rock & roll band in the world.