The Rolling Stones define the rock-and-roll band, as they have for nearly six decades now. Exactly how they’ve done so is thoroughly documented, not least by the band’s own expansive and still-growing catalog of songs and albums (all of which I happen to have spent the last few months listening through). But the story of the Stones continues to compel, told and re-told as it is in every form of media produced by each era through which the band has passed: books, articles, podcasts, and also the sort of documentaries we’ve collected here today. Some were originally produced for television; others, like WatchMojo’s “The Rolling Stones: The Story & the Songs” above, for the internet. Each of them addresses the same question: how did a couple of blues-obsessed lads from Kent come to run the biggest rock group in the world?
Even when straightforwardly presented, as in the Biography broadcast above, the history of the Rolling Stones constitutes a pop-cultural thrill ride. It begins, by most accounts, with former classmates Mick Jagger and Keith Richards bumping into each other at a train station in 1961. Their shared interest in music, and especially American blues, inspired them to put a band together.
Before long, Jagger and Richards’ Blues Boys made the acquaintance of another band, Blues Incorporated, whose members included Brian Jones, Ian Stewart and Charlie Watts. Though Watts wouldn’t join up until later, the other four constituted most of the first lineup of the Rolling Stones, who made their debut at London’s Marquee Club in July 1962.
You can see a great deal of archive footage depicting the Stones in their early years in the documentary above, Rolling Stones: Rock of Ages. The title implies an obvious and much-repeated joke about the once-rebellious youngsters’ insistence on rocking into relatively advanced age. But onstage — and the live performance has always been essential to their appeal, more so even than their albums — they remain very much the same band once promoted with the question “Would you let your sister go with a Rolling Stone?” That line was only one of the strategies used by its author, the Stones’ first manager Andrew Loog Oldham, to launch his boys into worldwide popularity by framing them as the brash opposite of the Beatles — to whom, despite their considerable musical differences, one can hardly avoid making reference in the story of the Stones.
Though the bands became fast friends in real life, the press of the 1960s couldn’t resist crafting a rivalry, as recounted in The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones, the Canal+ documentary above. Whatever competition existed between them (or with American bands like the Beach Boys) only encouraged them to make their music more powerful and distinctive. This they did in the face of countless personal and professional setbacks, which for the Stones included the loss of founding member Brian Jones and the violent Altamont Free Concert, widely interpreted as the end of the utopian 1960s. As products and survivors of that era, the Stones also remain embodiments of its insouciant ambition. “For my generation, what was happening and the feeling in the air was: it’s time to push limits, says no less a survivor than the subject of Keith Richards: The Origin Of The Species. “The world is ours now, and you can rise or fall on it.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.