Not the best, they're merely the greatest Essay: It isn't the latest music that's drawing 50,000 fans to tonight's concert, it's the Rolling Stones.

October 23, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Do the Rolling Stones even matter any more?

It may seem an odd question to ask, given the amount of attention the band is generating. Not only are the Stones on tour at the moment, playing sold-out stadiums all across America (including Jack Kent Cooke Stadium near D.C. tonight), but the group is in the midst of a full-on media blitz, with concert performances on MTV and VH1 scheduled and a Rolling Stone cover in the works.

Taken in terms of sheer celebrity, the Stones are definitely hot stuff. So why don't people care about the band's music anymore?

There was a time when the release of a new Rolling Stones album was an event. Back then, the band was seen as edgy and dangerous, a menacing reminder of how scary popular culture could be. And its recordings reflected that. From the seductive malevolence of "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Midnight Rambler" to the perverse sexual politics of "Under My Thumb" and "Some Girls," each new Rolling Stones record was guaranteed to be provocative.

Now, it's just product. "Bridges to Babylon," the band's latest release, is solid, professional and about as likely to offend as a "Cheers" rerun.

It lacks the sonic aggression of Nine Inch Nails and the puckish wit of Beck; it's not as scary as Marilyn Manson and can't approach the rhythmic intensity of the Chemical Brothers. Instead, the current Stones sound is familiar, traditional, safe. It's the sort of thing that would make a perfectly acceptable Father's Day present -- assuming, of course, dad isn't all that young.

Needless to say, "Bridges to Babylon" hasn't exactly knocked the music world on its ear. The album entered the Billboard charts at No. 3 -- higher than the new Dylan, lower than the last Paul McCartney -- but dropped out of the Top 10 the following week. Worse, "Anybody Seen My Baby," the album's first single, hasn't even dented the Billboard Hot 100.

Somehow, though, the Stones remain a box-office phenomenon. The "Bridges to Babylon" tour sold out a half-dozen stadiums before anyone had heard so much as a note of the new album. Even more impressive is the fact that Stones tickets are selling at a time when even multi-platinum acts have trouble filling seats.

But seeing the Rolling Stones at this stage of the game has nothing to do with the group's latest release, much less its once-rebellious image. It isn't about the elaborate stage show or even how well the band is playing these days.

What it's about is fame. Name-recognition. The opportunity to boast about having seen The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band.

In a sense, the Stones have become the rock and roll equivalent of the Mona Lisa, a musical icon whose recognition factor has long since transcended the need for entertainment value. The band has long since become a part of the cultural firmament, with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ron Woods being as recognizable to rock fans as the faces on Mount Rushmore.

Likewise, the band's sonic signature -- Jagger's drawling croon, Richards' choked guitar chords, Watts' loose-limbed backbeat -- is one of the most recognizable in rock, a sound that has inspired countless imitators over the years. We all know the classic Stones recordings, have heard them each a thousand times or more. Yet even the most familiar moments, be it the clanking cowbell that kicks off "Honky Tonk Women" or the "doot-doo!" harmonies that support "Sympathy for the Devil," still retain potency, their power.

The key word in all this is "classic." Those recordings haven't just endured; they've gained value over the years, turning from Top-40 hits into modern musical monuments. As with the best-known works of Beethoven or the Beatles, those classic Stones recordings are basic knowledge for any well-rounded music fan. Not to recognize the riff from "Satisfaction" is almost as embarrassing as not knowing the first four notes of Beethoven's fifth symphony.

But unlike most of the musicians whose work we consider classics, the Stones are still around to offer first-hand evidence of how the music should sound. So seeing the Stones becomes something of a pilgrimage, an act of homage to the power of rock and roll.

In that sense, the Rolling Stones truly are The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band. It doesn't matter that they don't have the most modern sound on MTV -- the Stones will be valued long after the current Buzz Bin bands are forgotten.

So, yeah, the Rolling Stones do matter, in the same way as Ellington, Sinatra and James Brown. Because not everything in popular culture is faddish, ephemeral or forgettable.

Rolling Stones

When: Tonight at 8

Where: Jack Kent Cooke Stadium (see accompanying story)

Tickets: Sold out

Call: 410-481-7328

Sundial: To hear excerpts from the Rolling Stones' new release, "Bridges to Babylon," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6125. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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