The Rolling Stones' 50th anniversary celebration is in full swing.
As is to be expected with such a rare milestone, at least in the world of popular music, there's plenty of commemorative merchandise to go around — a line of t-shirts at Kohls, books, skis, whiskey, DVDs and another greatest hits collections.
They're doing plenty of interviews, too, often pointing out that even though they played their first gig as the Rollin' Stones in 1962, they consider the addition of drummer Charlie Watts in January 1963 to be their real beginning.
As the Stones ramp up for shows Nov. 25 and 29 in London and Dec. 8, 13 and 15 in the New York are (the last a PPV), I thought I'd take a look at three of their most important anniversary releases. They cover a lot of ground, but feel like they were done quickly. Maybe because the ground's been covered before.
• "Grrr!" — The Stones have released periodic hits collections since their first, "Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass)," in 1966. They've assembled them at various turning points since, usually a record company change or anniversary. What Stones fan doesn't have "Through the Past Darkly," "Hot Rocks," "More Hot Rocks," "Made in the Shade," "Rewind," "Jump Back: The Best of the Rolling Stones" and "Forty Licks," among others?
"Grrr!," which comes in four different editions, has two new songs and is aimed at completists and newer fans who don't have much of their music on iTunes. They cut two new songs last spring in Paris as they geared up for what promises to be a lengthy 50th anniversary party that could extend well into next year.
Singer Mick Jagger wrote "Doom and Gloom," a swinging rocker (and not one of his frothy ballads, thank god) and a buoyant appeal to have fun and "come dance with me" in a world full of negativity. Guitarist Keith Richards' "One Last Shot" is a little more poignant, and it grows on you. It's a musical cross between "Street Fighting Man" and "Mixed Emotions" that asks for one more chance, a fitting sentiment for a guy who had to mend — yet again — a rift with Jagger, with whom he was once joined at the hip.
They're not great, but not bad for a band just beginning to rev up the machinery when they were recorded a few months ago. They're certainly better than questionable inclusions such as "Highwire," the preachy Persian Gulf War obscurity, and "Don't Stop," one of the so-so songs the band cut for 2002's 40th anniversary "Forty Licks" box set.
The rest of the three discs in the $30 3CD, 50-song deluxe version is pretty predictable. Still, it's an impressive body of hit singles and album tracks that, taken as a whole, trace the band's evolution from a blues and R&B cover group in the early '60s ("Come On," "Not Fade Away") to a hit-making pop machine in the mid-'60s ("Satisfaction," "Let's Spend the Night Together") to social commentators and provocateurs in the late '60s ("Gimme Shelter," "Sympathy for the Devil") and decadent rock stars with an edge in the '70s ("Tumbling Dice," "Miss You").
The Stones pretty much became a part-time band in the '80s and it — and the decreasingly collaborative Jagger-Richards songwriting team — shows in the lack of consistently good material. At least the $150 80-song version does a better job of filling in some gaps.
The audio quality is a nice surprise. Slip on the headphones and you can practically see Jagger singing "You Can't Always Get What You Want" alone in the vocal booth, or hear just how tight the horns are on "Honky Tonk Women."
The deluxe edition packaging, which includes a book (I love the photo of the practice drum kit Watts used on "Street Fighting Man"), is smart enough. But it's too bad the songs weren't sequenced in chronological order, to better show the band's evolution, and that the book doesn't include details such as when the singles were released and where and when they were recorded.
Then again, from the uninspired title ("Grrr!" as in "grrr, another greatest hits collection!") to the packaging, this one has the feel of a rush job.
• "Crossfire Hurricane" — Speaking of rush jobs, filmmaker Brett Morgen had about nine months to pull together this two-hour documentary, which premiered Nov. 15 on HBO (it comes out on DVD on Jan. 15). He does a yeoman's job, considering he had a lot of material to sort through and so little time to sort it out, but it leaves you hanging in the end, cutting off at the early '80s.
Mostly because Morgen focused on the band's first 20 years — when it was a fulltime occupation, not the part-time gig the Stones' became after infighting sidelined them through most of the '80s — he is able to capture their incredible and sometimes unlikely rise. He skips their first couple of years altogether, jumping from behind-the-scenes footage from the band's 1972 American tour, when the Stones were their most decadent (we see Jagger's bare butt, and a shot of him sniffing coke off a knife) to its mid-'60s pop stardom.
It's pretty much a whirlwind from there as he traces their growth from innocents to societal bad boys to the showmen they became in middle age. Along the way there were screaming girls, rioting boys, cops and establishment press bent on their destruction and the almost cosmic forces that made their music a disquieting soundtrack of the '60s counterculture.
The death of founding member Brian Jones is an appropriately poignant moment here. The band-changing impact of a high-profile drug bust in 1967 and the murderous environment at their free Altamont, Calif., concert in 1969 aren't glossed over.
Morgen's two-hour ride wisely avoids talking heads and experts, and unwisely cuts out the women who played such key roles in the band's lives and music. Instead, he uses the recollections of the four current Stones — Jagger, Richards, Watts and guitarist Ron Wood — and former members Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor to tell this story of perseverance in spite of internal and external forces.
Jagger, for example, defends his notoriously elusive nature in interviews as "a kind of protection against intrusion," not to mention a way to fend off the same questions over and over and over. But the most telling observation is from Richards, who, recalling their formation, said, "We put together a band that was a little less show business. Show business was boring to us."
Of course, they're more about show business these days. Guess they'll talk about that in the sequel.
• "Rolling Stones 50" — Similar to, but much grander than their last retrospective book, "According to the Rolling Stones," this colorful collection includes more than 1,000 images arranged in chronological order from their first show show at London's Marquee Club on July 12, 1962 to shooting the "Shine a Light" concert film, with director Martin Scorsese in 2006. It's filled with short reminisces by Jagger, Richards, Watts and Wood, whose blurbs are more reactive than insightful, and some wonderful concert photography.
But it's the words of drummer Charlie Watts, writing in the forward, who tells the real story of the band as it was and as it is now. "These days we don't see much of each other but when we get together we pick up right where we left off — it's just like always," he writes. "In the early days we were very close; seeing each other and playing together almost every day was important to how we developed as a band."