The acronym GOAT. I don’t even like it. I’m old enough to remember when referring to someone as a ‘goat’ was a derogatory remark. So why use it in the title of this post? Probably for the same reason I find myself saying things like “my bad” in reference to a mistake. Sometimes we simply give in to the silly terminology of ‘the times.’
G.O.A.T. “Greatest of all time.” If you asked me three months ago who the G.O.A.T. of Rock bands was, I’d have to pause and really give it some thought. Yet today I can tell you without a doubt in my mind it’s The Rolling Stones. What changed? Why such clarity on the subject now?
The short answer is the combination of a reacquaintance with their music catalog and a whole lot of documentary-watching. (One of the positive byproducts of semi-quarantine) Movies are one thing. The music is what really matters. So what’s so important about the Stones’ music? Let’s take a look:
Most Rock historians view The Rolling Stones as three defined eras. All three obviously include Jagger, Richards, Watts, and Wyman (until ’93). These eras are conveniently separated by their three different guitar players….Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, and Ronnie Wood. I mostly agree, but I think Brian Jones slightly blends into Era #2.
The First Era: 1962-1967
Time Is On My Side
Heart of Stone
The Last Time
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Play With Fire
Get Off My Cloud
As Tears Go By
19th Nervous Breakdown
Mother’s Little Helper
Paint It Black
Under My Thumb
Let’s Spend The Night Together
If The Rolling Stones only existed for this era, they’d be remembered as a pretty darn good band. They produced a lot of hits in a relative short period of time. The last year of this era, 1967, was not a particularly good year for the Stones. Jagger and Richards were swamped with personal issues stemming from relatively B.S. drug charges in England. The establishment was trying to make an example out of the ‘bad boys.’ The other issue was poor decision-making in the creative direction of the band. 1967 in America was “The Summer of Love.” Whereas the British Invasion was influencing American music in 1964, now American culture was reaching across the pond. British bands attempted to capitalize on it. Though it certainly worked for The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper), it just didn’t click with the Stones. Their ’67 albums, Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request were both duds. Totally makes sense why it didn’t work. Think about it. In Las Vegas there’s a Cirque du Soleil attraction called The Beatles LOVE. If they had one for the Stones, it would be called, The Rolling Stones SEX. The Stones were way too edgy to mesh with The Summer of Love.
The Second Era: 1968-1974
The Stones’ return to focus occurred in 1968 with the release of the single, Jumping Jack Flash. The opening line, “I was born in a crossfire hurricane…” was enough to officially indicate their experiment with the soft and cuddly love movement was over. It was time for The Stones to get back to business. 1968 also began the strongest string of albums in the band’s history. That run started with release of Beggar’s Banquet, the last album band founder and guitarist Brian Jones had any meaningful contribution to. Jones would get fired in 1969, and sadly drown to death a month later. His replacement, Mick Taylor, would take part in the remainder of this era….the best era of The Rolling Stones.
Beggar’s Banquet – 1968
Let It Bleed – 1969
Sticky Fingers – 1971
Exile On Main Street (their masterpiece album) – 1972
Notable Songs from this era:
Jumping Jack Flash
Street Fighting Man
Sympathy For The Devil
Honky Tonk Woman
Let It Bleed
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Can’t You Hear Me Knocking
All Down The Line
Let It Loose
Shine A Light
Torn and Frayed
It’s Only Rock N’ Roll (But I Like It)
The sheer volume of notable songs I listed from this era should tell you how I feel about this period of the Stones. There’s little doubt Mick Taylor was the most gifted lead guitarist among the three eras, and his playing certainly elevated the bands sound, but clearly the late ’60’s and early ’70’s were the peak of Richards’ and Jagger’s creativity as songwriters.
The Third Era: 1975- present “The Ronnie Wood years”
Mick Taylor left in late 1974. Word was he felt boxed in creatively, as Jagger and Richards wrote all the Stones’ music. Additionally, Keith was getting frustrated working with him. Richards was looking for a guitar-dynamic similar to what he had with Brian Jones, where the two sort of played off each other in dueling lead and rhythm roles. During the Taylor years, Keith admitted he was more or less relegated to playing rhythm, as Taylor took the lead. In Ronnie Wood, Richards would find that proper compliment in a guitar-playing-partner that’s lasted 45 years strong and counting.
Some Girls – 1978
Tattoo You – 1981
Steel Wheels – 1989
Voodoo Lounge – 1994
Bridges To Babylon – 1997
Notable songs from this era:
Beast of Burden
Start Me Up
Waiting On A Friend
Rock And A Hard Place
Love Is Strong
Out Of Tears
You Got Me Rocking
Saint Of Me
Clearly 45 years of Era #3 hasn’t produced the amount of hits or quality albums seven years of Era #2 did, but there are still some excellent songs in this grouping. I think most bands, even great ones, are creatively washed out from a songwriting standpoint around the 20 year mark. The fact the Stones put a few good tracks out there between ’89 and ’97 is impressive in my book.
So there’s a four-decade-spanning run of original songs and hits. Is there enough evidence at this point to crown The Rolling Stones the G.O.A.T.? If not, consider this:
I recently watched the film, Ole, Ole, Ole. A Trip Across Latin America. (Netflix) The film featured the Stones’ 2016 tour of Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, Brazil, Peru, and Cuba. The only other time they’d played a Latin American tour was in 1995. For a few of these shows (Uruguay, Peru, Cuba) this was the first time they’d ever played there. Seeing the impact they had on people in these countries was mind-blowing. They were more mythology than men. As if Gods long-talked about and listened to had finally come to greet and entertain the people. I know pretty much everyone has Netflix, so if you haven’t seen this, please do so. Sure it’s about the music, but it’s really something bigger than that. Watching this film made me realize the Stones are something bigger than just a band. They’re a way of life to people. A symbol. An expression. It’s hard to explain, but I can’t possibly think of another band that’s had this sort of impact on folks.
My viewing also took me over to Amazon Prime video and this excellent 5-part series on the history of the band. Each episode covers a decade. ’60’s, ’70’s, ’80’s, ’90’s, and 2000’s-beyond.
For those of us old enough to remember, the Stones nearly broke up in the 1980s. Truth be told, based on where they were at the time, it looked like the appropriate course of action. It was around this point in the documentary (episode 3 – 1980s) that I started pondering the idea for this blog post. My thought was, if the Stones broke up in say, 1986, would they be looked at today as the G.O.A.T.? That’s why I spent the first part of this post listing all those great songs. Would that 20-plus year resume crowned them the title of the greatest? My best guess is maybe. I think they’d definitely be in the conversation, but I think other bands would be there too.
To me, what happened between 1989 and 1998 is where the Stones cemented their place atop the G.O.A.T. category. Consider the following: (stats courtesy of wikipedia.org)
Steel Wheels tour: Aug. 1989 – Aug. 1990
Earned $175 million dollars
Voodoo Lounge tour: Aug. 1994 – Aug. 1995
Earned $320 million dollars
Bridges to Babylon tour: Sept. 1997 – Sept. 1998
Earned $274 million dollars
Now you can say whatever you want about the way the Stones sound today, or even 25 years ago. What you can’t take away from them is that these guys were in their 50’s in the 1990’s and pumped out three tours totaling 340 concerts and earning nearly $800 million dollars. A band in their 4th decade at the time? Hell, fast forward two decades and they’re still out there doing it! No lip-synching. No piped-in track recordings. Real live music. Are you kidding me?
We can all speculate what could have been for this band or that. ‘What if’ this band didn’t break up? What if that singer didn’t die? When it comes to The Rolling Stones, we don’t have to speculate because they’re still here. 58 years and they’re still freakin’ here! Why the hell stop now?
Cultural impact. Massive catalog of hits. Tremendous string of great albums between 1968 and 1972. Monstrous financial success. Live performances. Longevity. Musical influence. Whatever the reason…..pick one….pick ’em all. Put ’em together and you’ve got The Rolling Stones………….the GREATEST OF ALL TIME.
Thanks for reading,