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Gather moss? Not the Rolling Stones at 50

Rock's original bad boys are marking their unlikely milestone with another greatest hits album, a new movie and a handful of live shows. And they're doing it their way.

November 14, 2012|By Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times
  • Mick Jagger, left, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones.
Mick Jagger, left, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Charlie Watts of the Rolling… (Rankin )

The Rolling Stones of yore were more likely to be caught dead than to be caught celebrating their 50th anniversary.

Or at least that's what the original bad boys of rock 'n' roll — the band practically invented pop-star misbehavior — would have you believe.

Yet half a century after the group played its first concert in 1962, the Stones are commemorating that unlikely milestone with a blitz of fresh activity that includes yet another greatest-hits set, a movie and a handful of live shows.

PHOTOS: Rolling Stones through the decades

Nobody sticks around for 50 years without paying attention to the bottom line.

Of course, the group's members are sticking with the legend, insisting that they were brought reluctantly to their own 50th-anniversary bash.

"This band thought nothing of this year until it became obvious that millions of other people were thinking about it," Keith Richards said in an interview Monday. The gravelly voiced guitarist cackled in his inimitable fashion. "We're not ones for zeros."

Added drummer Charlie Watts in a separate phone call from New York, where the band had gathered for the film's premiere: "I didn't even know it was the anniversary until Bill Wyman" — the group's former bassist — "told me it was."

PHOTOS: A look at the Rolling Stones

Mick Jagger, as usual, was more pragmatic.

"Once people started talking about the 50 years," the frontman said, "I got the distinct feeling that someone else would hijack this unless we took the initiative."

On Tuesday, the group — Jagger, Richards, Watts and guitarist Ronnie Wood, all between the ages of 65 and 71 — released "GRRR!," a three-disc anthology containing 50 tracks, from early covers of tunes by Chuck Berry and Willie Dixon to classic-rock staples such as "Gimme Shelter" and "Start Me Up" to a pair of new songs recorded this year.

Later this month, the band will kick off a brief arena tour called the Stones — 50 and Counting, with concerts in London, Brooklyn and New Jersey; the last of those shows, on Dec. 15 at Newark's Prudential Center, will be broadcast live on pay-per-view TV.

TV REVIEW: Rolling Stones myth, fact swirl in 'Crossfire Hurricane'

And on Thursday night, HBO is set to air a bracing new documentary, "Crossfire Hurricane," that reconstructs the band's frenzied beginnings using footage from late '60s/early '70s-era films by Robert Frank, Jean-Luc Godard and Albert and David Maysles.

"It's basically a kind of hero myth," said the HBO movie's director, Brett Morgen. "These guys are plucked from obscurity, thrown into the fire, tested every which way and finally emerge as immortal rock legends. It's no different from Joseph Campbell's 'The Hero With a Thousand Faces.'"

The Rolling Stones are credited as executive producers on "Crossfire Hurricane," which ensures that they never look like anything less than the coolest guys in the room.

Yet Jagger said their involvement in the film — and in all the anniversary action — was less about vanity than about maintaining control over the band's image.

The goal as they began making plans, the singer said, was to avoid overdosing on nostalgia.

"Everything like this looks backward — that's the point of it," Jagger acknowledged. "But we thought we could do it without getting too teary-eyed. We thought we could do it while looking forward too."

PHOTOS: Rolling Stones through the decades

The band strikes that balance in "Doom and Gloom," one of the new cuts on "GRRR!" A gritty, guitar-heavy number streaked with allusions to the economic crisis and the oil-extraction technique known as fracking, it's the liveliest Stones song in decades. (The group's most recent studio album, "A Bigger Bang," came out in 2005.)

The band recorded "Doom and Gloom," along with another track called "One More Shot," with longtime Stones producer Don Was and Jeff Bhasker, best known for his work with Kanye West and fun.

"I wanted it to sound different — danceable, funky rock 'n' roll — and not just the same old thing," Jagger said.

PHOTOS: A look at the Rolling Stones

Bhasker admitted that he was surprised by how "virile" the Stones seemed in the studio.

"They're still like kids," he said. "So excited about the music, working so hard to do it, caring so much."

That dedication recently took them to Paris, where they spent a month doing "intense five-hour rehearsals every day," according to Wood, and playing last-minute club and theater gigs, their first performances since 2007.

Jagger said the practice was intended to get the band to a place where it's prepared enough to let go onstage. "You store up a lot of ammunition so you can do anything you want," he said.

Wood claimed the band is "up to a point we've never been before," though Watts scoffed at his bandmate's assertion.

"I don't know what he's talking about," the drummer said in his characteristic deadpan. "We have a lot of songs. You start off playing a hundred, then get it down to 25."

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