What made the Rolling Stones the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World?
That phrase keeps coming back to haunt the Rolling Stones.
Reviewers wield it like a rusty razor when the Stones are sloppy and dispirited, as they were at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia in 1978. That was one of their worst shows. At JFK Stadium this past September, for the first show of their current tour, the Stones were sloppy and spirited, and that made a difference.
But the phrase still seemed overblown, inappropriate. Keith Richards laughed it off in his recent Rolling Stone interview, suggesting that “on any given night, it’s a different band that’s the greatest rock & roll band in the world.” That makes sense. And on October 26th, at the 3,933-seat Fox Theatre in Atlanta, there was no question about it: The World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band was the Rolling Stones.
Okay, what makes them the greatest?
It isn’t consistency. Scores of bands can knock off the same letter-perfect set night after night, every note and nuance frozen firmly in place, right down to the guitar player’s grimaces. In fact, the Stones may be the only band on the stadium circuit that’s loose enough to make mistakes, the only band that isn’t afraid to start a number without having the vaguest idea who’s going to take a solo.
When was the last time you saw a guitar player yell, “I’ve got it” and plunge into a solo, only to realize that the other guitar player was soloing, too? It could only happen in your neighbourhood bar or at a Rolling Stones concert. And if it doesn’t happen at least once or twice, you aren’t at a rock & roll concert.
To play rock & roll, you need a rhythm section, and the Stones are the great rock & roll rhythm section of our time. Everything Keith Richards plays, from the simplest handful of notes to the most monolithic riff, pushes the music forward. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts catch Keith’s momentum and swing with it. Watts brings his ear for jazz to the Stones; like a first-class jazz drummer, he provides lift without ever overplaying.
Wyman meshes so tightly into the grooves that much of the time you don’t even hear him; if he dropped out, however, you’d notice right away. Ron Wood can be a ferocious rhythm player too, and let’s not leave out Mick Jagger, whose sure sense of time enables him to punch out phrases and repeat little vocal riffs like an instrumentalist.