Her Majesty the Queen was not the only British institution to pass a milestone last year. In November, the Rolling Stones celebrated the 50th anniversary of their very first performance, at London's Marquee Jazz Club. Tonight, the Stones take their '50 & Counting' tour to the 20,000-seater Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
It's not just the venues that have expanded over the past half century. Album sales now stretch into the hundreds of millions. Their back catalogue contains a phenomenal number of classic songs, their influence on today's music is incalculable and -- while it might not sit perfectly with their earlier 'bad boy' image -- the Stones are big business. Over the years they have endured more than their fair share of controversies, bereavements, bust-ups, and even the odd brush with the law, and yet the Stones juggernaut rolls gloriously on, without any visible sign of coming to an end.
The Stones were in the vanguard of the British Invasion of the 1960s, when British culture exploded on this side of the Atlantic. But their music is powerfully American-influenced. As Keith Richards' memoirs make clear, the band was from the very beginning thoroughly steeped in the traditions of U.S. blues, country and rockabilly. There are many references to the United States in their lyrics, including New York ('Shattered,' 'Heartbreaker'), Boston ('Midnight Rambler'), Memphis ('Honky Tonk Women') and New Orleans ('Brown Sugar').
The Stones were also not too shy to borrow some of their biggest early hits from American bands: the opening track on the first Rolling Stones album (whose U.S. title was England's Newest Hitmakers) is a cover of '(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,' Bobby Troup's rhythm and blues tribute to the storied American highway; and their first UK number one was a cover of 'It's All Over Now,' a song originally by Ohio's The Valentinos.
They may not be as young as they once were, but the Rolling Stones' energy and charisma remains, and thousands of their fans will flock to the Verizon Center tonight to see the Stones in action again. No doubt the crowds will include several different generations of Americans, some of whom will be seeing the Stones for the tenth time, some for the first. Those lucky enough to have tickets (and I am thrilled to be among them) will have an unforgettable evening. Because as the song (just about) goes, "It's only rock and roll, but we like it."
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