“We became a kind of institution,” Mick Jagger says here, talking about the Rolling Stones’ 1981 tour — then one of the biggest of its kind. There would be more, many more. And the Stones would go from institution to commodity.
Of course, we know now just how creatively bereft — and personally estranged — the band had become by then, touring behind an album of cutting-room floor leftovers in Tattoo You and on the cusp of what had to be their least interesting decade. We also know now that they would, indeed, keep rolling, and rolling … and rolling … right into a new millennium, something celebrated on the just-released film Crossfire Hurricane.
In a series of new 50th anniversary interviews interspersed between performances, each of the band’s living members — current and departed — shares their own thoughts on the wonder of it all. “Cats have nine lives,” stalwart guitarist Keith Richards says at one point, “and we seem to have gotten through about 20 fucking lives. I don’t know how we do it.”
They’d do it despite losing a series of key figures — Brian Jones in the 1960s, Mick Taylor in the 1970s, Bill Wyman in the 1990s — not to mention an endless string of bad decisions, bad trips and bad scenes. Crossfire Hurricane, issued by Eagle Rock, tracks that inexorable journey — beginning with a 1972 performance that finds Jagger prancing around with a scarf that goes from his Adam’s apple to his ankles — one that later ends up lassoed around his waist, and then draped over the microphone, all during a single shambolic reading of “Street Fighting Man.”
Earlier footage, mesmerizing if only because of the ghostly figure of a doomed Jones, finds the band trying desperately to put forward a sinewy version of “Route 66″ over the howls and screams of a delirious group of teeny-boppers. The bonus features focus on this era, as well, offering five songs from NME Poll Winners concerts in 1964-65, including the ageless “Not Fade Away”; two cuts from a 1964 appearance on the Arthur Haynes Show; and two more tracks from a 1965 concert in Germany, with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” as a highlight.
Of course, the Stones ushered in the cataclysmic end of that black-and-white era, performing before a blood bath during a free concert at Altamont. By then, Jones had already been found dead at the bottom of a swimming pool, and the just-released Let It Bleed — home to “Midnight Rambler,” a song that Richards rightly says represents the quintessential Rolling Stones melding of rock attitude, nasty blues and sheer presence — never played the same way again.
From there, the Stones went into a spiral of drugs and twilit recording sessions, even as they somehow put together — with the smart assist from the early-1970s guitarist Taylor — a pair of unforgettable recordings in 1971′s Sticky Fingers and 1972′s Exile on Main St. Their rendition of “Brown Sugar” from the period represents a edgier, more mechanized attitude than what had came before; some of the light has gone out of Jagger’s eyes. Taylor’s quick departure led to the addition of an affable mascot in Ron Wood, and the Rolling Stones began a relentless march toward not just a more polished brand of flamboyance but also this sleek commercialism into the 1980s — both in the records and, especially, on tour after blockbuster tour.
In keeping, the performance of “Hey Negrita” from Black and Blue finds the whole band on stage in polka-dot silk, fringed vests and neon leather. “Miss You,” from just a few years later, is dominated by a stage shtick from Jagger that has already been reduced to a series of ticks and contrived gestures.
The Rolling Stones would thereafter become far less dangerous, far more focused on the business of rock — and in this way, they managed not just to survive but to thrive (at least at the box office) into a sixth decade.