From the outset it has to be clear, I regard The Stones by Philip Norman very highly. I would go as far as to say this is one of the best books I’ve read this year and undoubtedly one of the best biographical works I’ve read.
Norman has form. I recall reading his biography of Elton John and appreciating the level of detail and yet commitment to good storytelling to marked the book out. In as much as that biography is a good one, I would go as far as to see this one is better.
I accept that I am a man out of time. Born in the 1970’s and influenced by a lot of the mid to late 80’s culture by all rights I should have an attachment to that era. Yet for reasons still unclear, I actually found the Beatles far more interesting. Indeed I was caught up, belatedly, in the thinking that when it came to music you were either a Rolling Stones fan or a Beatles fan. I remained firmly in the Beatles camp. I loved their music (most of it, I’m not that fanatical), I followed the solo careers in patches and thought them to be superior to all pretenders to their throne.
As for the Rolling Stones, I had bits and bobs but wasn’t that impressed. I thought they made a name for themselves more out of the notoriety of a reputation based on their image rather than the actual quality of their output. So what appealed to me about reading a biography of the life and times is their extraordinary longevity and the place they still hold in the rock pantheon as respected and revered true rock and rollers.
Norman takes pleasure in setting the scene for the reader in narrative terms and then in informational issues as we go along. The background to the development of the group picks on the key parties one by one and interweaves their own small biographies into the work as we go along. There are the main players – who are not all the Stones, if anything the cast list would be lead by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones and then the influential manager Andrew Loog-Oldham and the significant loves in the lives of the Stones chiefly Marianne Faithful, Anita Pallenberg, Bianca Jagger and to an extent Jerry Hall. Like the group themselves, Charlie Watts is a side attraction and Bill Wyman only gets more space in the Epilogue that covers his fateful affair with a 13 year-old Mandy Smith, who would be his third wife for all too brief a time. Former guitarist Mick Taylor who replaced Brian Jones gets some space as does Ronnie Wood, but this book is as much about those caught up in the whirlwind of the Jagger/Richard(s) dynamic.
Yet as well as the all-consuming partnership Norman sets the whole piece well in terms of the historical context of the development of what would turn out to be an incredible rock ‘n’ roll juggernaut. It’s particularly amusing to read the critique of the role the press played in highlighting the ‘evils’ of the rock rebels.
It is not a comprehensive biography of the Stones. More energy and space is devoted to the Stones at the height – from 1964 to 1972 by which time their notoriety was keeping them going rather than a commitment to producing ground-breaking music. The secret of their longevity is not elaborated in great detail beyond the boredom of Richard(s) to consider life without the touring. The evolution of the power of the Jagger/Richard(s) dynamic and its role in isolating the initial protagonist Brian Jones is a most intriguing exploration of the human condition. There are familiar themes of the maturity of the main cast and one thing that appears evident is that however disciplined physically and financially a situation can appear, it does not rule out the lack of contentment and satisfaction in life.
There are so many great points in the biography worthy of mention it would be an injustice to focus on just one. How the contrasting characteristics of the central partnership inspire and frustrate each other and yet never seem to let go. How the love interests involved would hope to claim a hold on the egos and always seem to lose out in one shape or form, sometimes leading to suicidal consequences. How the love of music and the blues roots would evolve to the rock reputation without neglecting their roots. How the neglect and exploitation of the managerial early years taught them to wise up to the financial opportunities possible from their fame and how that was ironically exploited by the main two to the expense of the other members.
If there are any slight points it is the way that the biography fizzles out chronologically near the end of their coverage, so outside the epilogue we just witness rock gods ruling their throne without any further elaboration on the current dynamics and key stories involved in the characters. It is as though once the peak days are over, there’s nothing much to report and even the epilogue doesn’t illuminate that much more on the main cast – just opening a bit more on what it is to survive the Stones in the life of Bill Wyman. This wouldn’t be a problem other than the fact that with the book ending at the end of the last century there appears to be so much more than could be revealed.
That weakness, though, is as much about how gripping the rest of the biography is that leads you to want more of the same for an up to date understanding. That has a lot to do with Norman’s evident commitment to getting the insight to create the picture and then reveal depths beyond the surface. This all makes the piece that outstanding and to be recommended as another great book to read and enjoy.