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The Rolling Stones

When the Beatles ceased to exist in 1970, the title of “World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” fell with very little dispute to the Rolling Stones, who by then were in the middle of such a wondrous creative peak that they might have challenged the Fab Four for the title anyway. It’s a title the one-time “anti-Beatles” haven’t relinquished since. Not only have the Stones been the greatest rock band in the world for more than 30 years, but they have been a functioning rock ‘n’ roll unit for more than 40, the longest run in history.

Boyhood friends Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, along with guitarist Brian Jones and pianist Ian Stewart, formed the first version of the Rollin’ Stones in 1962, and with the crack rhythm section of Charlie Watts on drums and Bill Wyman on bass soon on board, were ripping it up in an eight-month residency at London’s Crawdaddy Club shortly thereafter. A young and ambitious Andrew Loog Oldham saw them there:

“I saw them April 23, 1963 and then I knew what I had been training for,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Colombia. “The main thing they had was passion, which has served them to this day,” Oldham continued. Oldham’s first act as manager was to demote the shambling Stewart from the band’s live act for not keeping with his image of a lean, mean and sexy Stones (Stewart was the band’s road manager and recorded with them until his death in 1985).

At the time the Rollin’ Stones (named for the Muddy Waters song, Oldham added the “g”) were a ragged R&B cover band, but their run at the Crawdaddy had generated much attention, and with the Beatles on their way up no one wanted to miss the next big thing. Oldham quickly got them signed to Decca Records, which was still smarting from having turned down the Beatles.

In June of '63 the Stones’ first single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On” went to No. 21 in the UK. The follow-up in November was a cover of the dreaded Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man,” which rose to UK No. 12. By February of '64, they reached the UK Top 10 with Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” which also cracked the Top 50 in the U.S. — the bad boys were on their way.

Yui Mok / AP
Despite their advancing age, Mick Jagger, left, and Keith Richards and their band, the Rolling Stones, are a better band live now than they were in the 1970s.

Oldham split with the band amid the insanity and media frenzy of drug busts in 1967, but he and the band generated some amazing music during the two years between the squirmingly lascivious “Satisfaction” — considered by many the greatest rock song ever — released in May 1965, and the hit-filled “Flowers” compilation, released in July '67. Included was the incredibly self-aware narcissism of “Get Off Of My Cloud,” chamber music gentility and vulnerability of “As Tears Go By,” bemused urban modernity of “19th Nervous Breakdown”; and the Stones’ first classic album, “Aftermath,” with the simultaneously mocking and empathetic drug song “Mother’s Little Helper,” deeply groovy and misogynistic “Under My Thumb” and “Out Of Time,” lovely “Lady Jane,” and exotic, roiling “Paint It Black.”

Then came the Stones classic late-'60s/early-'70s period between “Beggar’s Banquet” and “Exile On Main Street,” possibly the most productive run in rock history, when the Stones turned an unequaled alchemy of rock ‘n’ roll, blues and country into something dark, dangerous and enduringly deep.

The 1967 busts seemed to spur Jagger and Richards to another creative level, but Brian Jones appeared beaten and sinking fast. He was absent from the devilish, riff-rocking “Jumping Jack Flash” single. He barely worked on 1968’s exceptional, bluesy “Beggar’s Banquet” (seductive, percussive and stinging “Sympathy For the Devil,” guitar-pounding “Street Fighting Man,” slashing and sinful “Stray Cat Blues”), was out of the group by June '69, and dead at the bottom of his swimming pool less than a month later.

Young Mick Taylor joined as Jones’s replacement, and his hefty bluesy leads were the perfect foil for Richards’ open-tuned rhythm work, and the sound and imagery grew darker and harder still on “Let it Bleed” (the sex and death apocalypse “Gimme Shelter,” Robert Johnson’s anguished blues “Love In Vain,” mysterious “Monkey Man,” the druggy camaraderie of the title track, powerful and murderous "Midnight Rambler,” and the oblique, uplifting coda “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”).

The band’s dance with the devil bore bitter fruit when they put on a free concert at Altamont Speedway outside San Francisco on December 6, 1969 (just three months after Woodstock) where a fan was stabbed to death in view of the stage by Hell’s Angels (all the mounting bad juju was captured for posterity in the film “Gimme Shelter”).

“Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out” (1970), one of the most satisfying live rock albums ever, focused on their '68-'69 hits, including an extended, definitive “Midnight Rambler,” and showed how integral Mick Taylor had become to the Stones’ roaring live sound.

The band’s first release on their own Rolling Stones Records was the druggy, shambling, brilliant “Sticky Fingers” (1971), with the infamous working-zipper cover by Andy Warhol. Taylor again sparkled and the Jagger/Richards songwriting continued at the highest level: swaggering “Brown Sugar,” plaintive “Wild Horses,” jazzy grooving “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” horn-rocking “Bitch,” chilling “Sister Morphine” and countrified “Dead Flowers.”

The murky, dense, jumbled double album “Exile on Main Street” closed the era of Stones invincibility in 1972. A yeasty blend of all the band’s roots influences — blues, country, soul, gospel and rock — “Exile” yields fresh revelations more than 30 years later, and “Rocks Off,” “Rip This Joint,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Happy,” “All Down the Line” and “Shine a Light” are among the band’s best work.

The Stones have been a different band ever since: Mick Taylor left in 1974, replaced by the stalwart Ronnie Wood. They have released a couple great albums: “Some Girls” (1978), their rough response to the challenges of disco and punk (“Miss You,” “Some Girls,” “Respectable,” “Beast of Burden,” “Shattered”), and “Tattoo You” (1981, their top-charting album ever — nine weeks at No. 1) with standouts “Start Me Up,” “Hang Fire” and “Waiting On a Friend.” They have also released a lot of simply good albums: the '70s were better than the '80s, which were better than the '90s.

But they have soldiered on, taking breaks but focusing more and more on getting the music out to the fans live, becoming particularly reinvigorated with the “Steel Wheels” album and world tour in 1989. I caught that tour in Los Angeles and the Stones came on with an air of eager assurance. All of the elements clicked: the guitars cut and slashed, the rhythm section locked in and rode it out, the songs were a perfect blending of old and new, the band was abundantly enthusiastic.

Jagger didn’t exhibit a drop of Cool Star attitude: he worked, talked, sang with energy and attention to detail. He was obviously happy to be liked again. The collective joyous relief of the stadium buoyed Jagger to childlike vulnerability:

“Do ya like the new songs?” he almost pleaded of the throng.
”We love them, Mick!”
”We love you!”

Maybe Mick was reminded of his quote from the '70s, “Sometimes I prefer being on stage, sometimes I prefer orgasm.” That night, I’m pretty sure the stage won.

In the 1990s, the band took in a staggering $750 million from three tours. When I watched them live from Madison Square Garden on HBO early last year my eyes confirmed that these craggy, gaunt guys are about 60 years old, but when the cameras pulled back 30 years melted away and the magic was real and grew in intensity as the night wore on.

What a great show! The Stones are a better band live now than they were in the '70s when their lives, bodies and minds were a quagmire of sex, drugs and alcohol. Age has focused them, yet taken away very little of their maniacal energy, and Keith Richards is still the greatest rhythm guitarist who ever lived.

Long live rock ‘n’ roll — long live the Rolling Stones