The Stones by the Stones

The Stones by the Stones: Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie give their most revealing interviews about each other in a new documentary marking 60 years together

  • New 4-part BBC documentary series celebrates 60 years of the Rolling Stones 
  • Astonishing revelations include how Ronnie pulled the band back together
  • It’s clear Mick Jagger has had about enough of the folklore of the Stones

Mick Jagger, the satanic shaman of 1960s counterculture, used to go to pop show Ready Steady Go! when the Rolling Stones weren’t playing to check out the camera angles, and would then practise his moves at home. Keith Richards, the alleged blues purist and fearsome rock desperado, was the Stones’ biggest Beatles fan, and failed to spot that Satisfaction might be a hit. 

Charlie Watts, the band’s debonair jazz nut, sketched every hotel bed he ever slept in and needed to be warned off hard drugs by Keith after a lapse into rock’n’roll behaviour in the 80s. And Ronnie Wood, still the puppyish new boy after only 47 years, pulled the band back from splitting not once but twice. 

These are just some of the astonishing revelations in a landmark new four-part BBC documentary series – one episode each for Mick, Keith, Ronnie and the late Charlie – that arrives 60 years after their formation as the band prepare for the second of two huge home – coming shows in London’s Hyde Park tomorrow night. 

My Life As A Rolling Stone features fresh, frank and highly revealing interviews with the Stones themselves, the men who strutted and scandalised their way to greatness, now chortling and rolling their eyes about it all with the benefit of hindsight. 

New 4-part BBC documentary series celebrates 60 years of the Rolling Stone. Mick Jagger (pictured) gets the first episode, and it’s clear that he’s had about enough of the folklore of the Stones

Superstar fans such as Rod Stewart, Sheryl Crow, Jon Bon Jovi, Chrissie Hynde and Lulu lace the series with juicy anecdotes (‘He was watching me, just watching every move – this white-faced person behind the speakers, while I was doing my thing,’ says Tina Turner of Mick when she supported the Stones in 1966, adding that she didn’t think he’d amount to anything), while rare and unseen vintage footage captures the band in their outlaw magnificence – ripping up 60s crowds and commanding 70s arenas in a blur of pouting lips, shaking hips and bleary eyes. 

But the most fascinating contributions come, of course, from the modern-day Stones. Jagger gets the first episode, and it’s clear that he’s had about enough of the folklore of the Stones. 

‘It’s all bull****, the mythology,’ he scoffs, taking aim at the much-repeated line – most recently by Sir Paul McCartney – that the Stones were basically a blues band. ‘We weren’t just a blues band, we were an everything band.’ 

Jagger – an engaged, almost joyous interviewee – also kills the notion that a band are just like a family. ‘The thing about bands,’ he says, with an exasperated sigh, ‘is that it’s a band. 

There are some astonishing revelations including how Ronnie (pictured on stage with Keith) pulled the band back together on not one but two occasions

‘They say, “You’re just like brothers, it’s just like a family.” It’s not. I actually have a brother, I know what it’s like. And it’s not like being with Keith at all…’ 

All the same, after six decades of rock’n’roll My Life As A Rolling Stone finds the band playing happy families, or as close as they’ll ever get, rallying under that big red tongue and lips logo to marvel at it all, reminisce a little bit and even send a few warm words in each other’s direction. 

‘Mick is the best frontman in the business,’ says Keith, tapping an arthritic knuckle thoughtfully against his lip. ‘And he’s really a very honourable man, you know. I mean, under all that c**p, ha ha ha…’ 

The structure of the series reveals the wildly different personalities at the heart of the band. While he’ll always be remembered by many as the rubber-lipped lothario of the Stones, Jagger has spent the past 50 years as their de facto chief executive, dragging the whole rabble through a changing world and, along the way, inventing the modern-day touring stadium rock show. 

‘I’m not a control freak,’ he says. ‘That must be really boring. But someone has to be in control of an enterprise like this. 

‘It’s not only about the music – I’m representing the band, in a way, to make sure that they don’t get f***ed.’ 

If Mick’s true self is a remarkably driven singer-songwriter-businessman, Keith is a man who, for all his gravelly pirate laugh, is earnest, obsessed with music and far more sentimental. 

Labelling his five-string guitar method as a ‘cheap ride to heaven’, he reels off well-worn lines – ‘Solos come and go, a riff lasts forever’ – and says the drug addiction he nursed through the 70s was a response to the pressures of fame. 

‘I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody, but there again it’s a rough old world and sometimes you need something to blank it out. It probably ain’t worth the ride,’ he growls. 

But it was secret softie Keith, Mick suggests, who came up with pretty songs such as Ruby Tuesday and Angie, and who, for all his hard-bitten blues authenticity, was the band’s biggest Beatles fan. ‘Keith would play The Beatles all the time,’ says Jagger. 

The band in 1964: The documentary shows rare and unseen vintage footage capturing the band in their outlaw magnificence – ripping up 60s crowds and commanding 70s arenas

‘It would drive me absolutely batty. Keith wanted to write these pop songs.’ 

‘We were just envious, to a man,’ admits Richards, whose ambition helped to carry the Stones out of the London blues circuit and into the charts alongside the Fab Four. Incidentally, he isn’t convinced the notoriously badly behaved Stones were any worse in reality than the squeaky-clean Beatles. 

‘They were exactly the same as we were. Filthy swine,’ he says. 

With The Beatles as role models, the hits gradually started coming. When Mick and Keith wrote Satisfaction, perhaps the band’s most enduring hit, beside a pool in Clearwater, Florida, Jagger gleefully recalls that Richards totally missed its appeal. 

‘Our manager Andrew Oldham said, “This is a Number One single, this is great.” Keith was like, “Oh, I don’t really like it, it can’t come out as a single.” And it went to Number One instantly,’ beams Jagger.

The Rolling Stones in concert, as part of their ‘A Bigger Bang’ tour in 2006. L-R: Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts

As the story ticks along, famously thorny episodes in the Stones story are dealt with soberly. The death of Brian Jones gets a brief nod, as Jagger reads Shelley’s Adonais at the 1969 concert in Hyde Park in a very frilly frock. 

Altamont, the notorious free festival near San Francisco that same year at which four fans died, including one stabbed by the Hell’s Angels who were supposed to be providing security, still casts a chill. ‘These people were crazy and they were standing next to you,’ says Jagger of the brutal Angels. 

Such incidents did much to define the dark aura of the Stones, and the band’s adventures on tour in the 70s set a standard for debauchery that’s seldom been matched. ‘People really were dying trying to keep up with Keith’s drug intake,’ says Ronnie Wood, who later would almost do the same. 

The Stones came close to splitting twice. Once in the mid-70s after Jones’s replacement Mick Taylor quit, having lent his elegant guitar to classic albums including Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main St. 

And once in the mid-80s, when the Jagger-Richards relationship iced over as a result of Jagger’s attempts at a solo career. 

On both occasions it was Wood, previously Rod Stewart’s guitar foil in the Faces, who patched things up. Ronnie had already made a contribution to the Stones when he and Jagger, playing through the night in the studio at Ronnie’s elegant Richmond party pad in 1973, recorded demos for two songs. 

‘Mick said, “I’ll tell you what, you keep I Can Feel The Fire,” which sky-rocketed to oblivion, “and I’ll keep It’s Only Rock ’N Roll,”’ says Wood. ‘And I went, okaaay…’ 

In 1975 Ronnie arrived full time, positioning himself as both a permanent jamming and drugging buddy for Keith and the band’s internal diplomat. ‘Eric Clapton said, “I could have had that job,”’ recalls Wood. ‘And I said, “Eric, but you’ve got to live with them…”’ 

Ronnie’s own over-indulgence soon became so dramatic that Keith himself had to personally guarantee his behaviour on the band’s 1981 tour in order to get them insured – leading to a legendary hotel punch up when Richards got word that Wood was freebasing cocaine. 

Sixty years down the road, with Watts and Jones gone and Taylor and original bassist Bill Wyman barely shadows on the edge of the tale, the Stones are Mick and Keith, plus Ronnie

But it was a phone call from Wood that got Jagger and Richards talking again in 1987. ‘There was hatred from Keith that was really severe,’ says Ronnie.

‘He didn’t want Mick’s name mentioned, didn’t want to ever see him again.’ Once again, Ronnie saved the Stones, summarising his role as being like the super-strength glue Araldite, or, in the words of Chrissie Hynde, ‘MSG – the sticky stuff that’s keeping it all together.’ 

But in a band of rebels, the true non-conformist was the one who seemed to be the most strait-laced. Charlie Watts, who died last August aged 80, loved jazz, was contemptuous of rock’n’roll, nurtured one marriage for 56 years and collected tailored Savile Row suits and vintage cars – even though he never learned to drive. 

Having shunned rock’n’roll excess during the band’s wildest years, Watts – who for decades compulsively sketched his hotel beds and meals to stave off boredom on the road – had ‘a mid-life crisis’ in the 80s, becoming a junkie years after Keith Richards had cleaned up.

Keith, free of heroin since a drug bust in Toronto in 1977 left him narrowly avoiding a potential seven-year jail sentence, was the unlikely moral voice in Charlie’s darkest hour. ‘I told him that it’s just not you, Charlie,’ remembers Keith now. 

Sixty years down the road, with Watts and Jones gone and Taylor and original bassist Bill Wyman barely shadows on the edge of the tale, the Stones are Mick and Keith, plus Ronnie. And that, with the help of a hardy coterie of long-term backing musicians, appears to be enough. 

All the same, the singer and the guitarist both occasionally nod to the inevitability of an ending. ‘Some – times I think the Stones would go on without Mick or me. It’d still carry on somehow,’ says Keith. 

‘If you look at pop history,’ adds Mick, ‘nothing lasts forever.’ Then a face-splitting laugh, as if he doesn’t believe it for a second. 

  • My Life As A Rolling Stone, Saturday, 9.30pm, BBC2. All episodes are available on BBC iPlayer from today. 

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