STONES’ GUIDE TO BUSI­NESS

The Rolling Stones aren’t just a band, they’re the most dy­namic cor­po­ra­tion in the world, writes Rich Co­hen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music - Rich Co­hen

The great­ness of the Rolling Stones — that stun­ning li­brary of gui­tar licks and lyrics, the decades of tabloid feuds and im­broglios, the packed sta­di­ums — ob­scures a more in­ter­est­ing fact: for the past 50-plus years, this band, formed in a Lon­don pub in 1962, has been among the most dy­namic, prof­itable and durable cor­po­ra­tions in the world.

In the course of my lifelong study of the world’s great­est rock band, I’ve come away with five lessons — strate­gies that any en­trepreneur should keep in mind while play­ing the long game.

Choose the right name:

The band was orig­i­nally called Lit­tle Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. It was Brian Jones, the band’s lead gui­tarist and first public face, who, on the eve of their first real gig, gave the band the name we know. His eyes fell on the cover of one of his favourite records, The Best of Muddy Wa­ters, side one, track five, Rollin’ Stone. It was the band’s early man­ager, Andrew Old­ham, who com­pleted the trans­for­ma­tion some months later. “How can you ex­pect peo­ple to take you se­ri­ously when you can’t even be both­ered to spell your name prop­erly?” Thus the Rollin’ Stones be­came the Rolling Stones, a name that told afi­ciona­dos ev­ery­thing they needed to know about where the band came from and the sort of mu­sic they played.

Know what the mar­ket wants from you:

When the Stones heard the Bea­tles’ first sin­gle, Love Me Do, on the ra­dio, they were still liv­ing in the Lon­don dump where they slept three to a bed for warmth. By the time they broke through with a sin­gle of their own, the Bea­tles had staked out the high ground as the cute, lov­able, non-threat­en­ing boys next door. It closed off one av­enue but opened an­other.

“By the time we came along, the Bea­tles were wear­ing the white hats,” Keith Richards ex­plained. “So what does that leave us?” Rather than try­ing to be­come new Bea­tles, as many other bands did, the Stones be­came their op­po­site: whole­some­ness from the Bea­tles, sleaze from the Stones; love from the Bea­tles, sex from the Stones. They recog­nised a niche in the mar­ket and filled it.

Beg, bor­row, steal:

At a time when the Bri­tish pop charts were filled with bub­blegum, Jones, Richards and Mick Jag­ger turned to Chicago blues. The Stones started as a cover band, play­ing bas­tardised ver­sions of the songs they loved. They tried to copy them ex­actly but couldn’t help dirty­ing them up. The first real com­po­si­tion by Jag­ger and Richards shows this process in ac­tion. Recorded in 1965, The Last Time has all the el­e­ments that would be­come char­ac­ter­is­tic of their best songs: the open­ing riff, the groove, the low­down sub­ject mat­ter. It closely fol­lows a ver­sion of the gospel song This May Be the Last Time by the Sta­ple Singers, but Richards re­worked it, ad­ding steel, speed. The big­gest change was lyri­cal. A hymn about Je­sus and the Judg­ment Day be­came a pop song about girls and teenage come­up­pance.

Cut the an­chor be­fore it drags you down:

The Stones were the cre­ation of Jones, who blew away Jag­ger and Richards when they first heard him play in a Lon­don dive. But by the late 1960s, Jones was in trou­ble, an early drug ca­su­alty. He didn’t turn up for ses­sions, van­ished on the road. On June 8, 1969, Jag­ger, Richards and Charlie Watts drove to Jones’s coun­try home and fired him. He’d be dead within a month, laden with booze and pills, drowned in his own pool. Why have the Stones lasted while all oth­ers faded? When­ever I ask an old-timer, I get the same an­swer. It’s Jag­ger — his clear-head­ed­ness, his lack of sen­ti­men­tal­ity. Kind peo­ple don’t make it.

Never stop rein­vent­ing:

The Stones have gone through at least five stylis­tic it­er­a­tions: cover band, 60s pop, 60s acid, 70s groove, 80s new wave. At some point they lost that elas­tic­ity and abil­ity to rein­vent — they got old — but the fact they did it so well for so long ex­plains their in­ex­haustible rel­e­vance.

The Stones have lived and died and been re­born again and again. It means that, for many dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions of adults, the sound of high school was the Rolling Stones. Though the Bea­tles prob­a­bly sur­pass the Stones in hits, they don’t come close in rein­ven­tion. The Bea­tles rein­vented them­selves once, maybe twice. The Stones have rein­vented them­selves so many times they might as well be im­mor­tal.

is co-cre­ator of TV se­ries Vinyl, which is avail­able on Fox­tel Any­time un­til Tues­day. His new book, The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones, is pub­lished this week by Ran­dom House.

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