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Last Updated: Friday, 2 September 2005, 10:34 GMT 11:34 UK
The Stones: still courting controversy
By Robin Denselow
Correspondent, BBC Newsnight

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on stage

In an exclusive interview at the start of their world tour, rock legends The Rolling Stones talk about life on the road at 60-plus years, US politics and why they didn't play Live 8.

"The idea of retiring is like killing yourself," announced Keith Richards. "It's almost like Hari Kari. I intend to live to 100 and go down in history."

The Rolling Stones guitarist was perched on a flight case in Boston behind the massive 500-ton stage on which the band will be performing for the next year, or more.

He may be 61 now, and look as battered as he has done for most of his career, but he seems delighted to be back at what he calls "the office", on tour with surely the most celebrated surviving veterans in the history of rock and roll.

The Rolling Stones may have been together for an extraordinary 43 years, but in many ways they are still pioneers, and this is a crucial time for them.

No other band has embarked on quite such a massive tour, with well over 100 concerts, when three of the band members are in their 60s.

New album

They will, of course, be playing favourite songs from the past four decades, from Brown Sugar and Satisfaction to Sympathy For The Devil, as well as songs from their new album, A Bigger Bang.

We're weird chemistry but somehow it works... the only time you hear about Mick and me is when we're having a spat
Keith Richards on his relationship with Mick Jagger
It is their first studio set of new songs in eight years and their longest for over three decades. It includes old-style, pared-down Stones' rock songs, as well as ballads, funk, and a reminder of the Stones' early days as a blues band.

"If you don't know the blues," said Richards, "there's no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music."

There's even a rare political song, Sweet Neo-Con, which revives their reputation for controversy. It's an attack on the American Right, and includes such lyrics as "you call yourself a Christian... I think you are a hypocrite."

It was written by the now Sir Mick Jagger, who has had something of an establishment image since he was knighted nearly two years ago, but now said he felt obliged to tackle American politics.

"It was my feeling for these last two or three years that this kind of politics comes from a very small but very vociferous group of powerful people," said Jagger.

"I think you're always prepared to listen to peoples' points of view, but when they're not working you've got to speak up as well. I think social comment is very much part of what the Rolling Stones have always done."

Knighthoods and politics

Even so, songs about politics - and that knighthood - clearly worried his song-writing partner, Richards.

Rolling Stones
The Stones' world tour is expected to reach the UK next summer
"I've no problem with the sentiments or anything like that," he said.

"But I didn't want it to become a distraction, a political storm in a tea cup. Very rarely do we touch on political subjects, and I think some of the best ways we've done it were with songs like Street Fighting Man, which were more oblique," he added.

"But on this one he wants to go face-to-face. That's fine. I'm waiting for the counter-attack!"

It was Richards' mistrust of anything to do with politics that kept the band away from the Live 8 concert this summer.

"I just thought the connection between Geldof and the Labour Party was... just too tight, and I don't see that debt reduction is going to feed the babes down there.

"Who is this gratifying and where were the Africans? Where was their say?"

He agreed that both "Sir" Bob Geldof and Sir Mick Jagger had tried to make him change his mind. "Oh yeah - all the Sirs had a bash - every one of them."

The relationship between the two, totally contrasting stars - Jagger and Richards - has always been part of the Rolling Stones' fascination. When asked about Richards' criticism, Jagger simply replied: "He's not a happy person."

The way these guys are going it's a pretty remote chance this is the last one [tour] they are bloody teenagers... I'm trying to keep up
Keith Richards on his fellow Stones
For his part, the apparently jovial Richards added: "Vive la difference. We're weird chemistry but somehow it works. I've known him since I was four - and other brothers' rows don't get in the press. The only time you hear about Mick and me is when we're having a spat."

Mellow Stones?

As for Richards' own, once-notorious lifestyle, he claims he has mellowed with the years.

Appearing on Newsnight 22 years ago, he talked of his years as a gun-carrying heroin addict. Now, he said: "I'm not that way anymore. I'm a family man. I'm a grandfather now - I'm really a benign sort of old chap."

The Rolling Stones are great survivors, but there is clearly the possibility that this could be their last massive-scale world tour.

Drummer Charlie Watts is the oldest Stone at 65, and has been treated for throat cancer.

He said: "I thought I was going to die." Though he has now been cleared he is concerned that "the horrible thing about having anything like that is you can never be 100% sure".

Jagger admitted: "This is a long tour. I don't know what happens after this tour."

Richards was far more upbeat. "The way these guys are going at the moment it's a pretty remote chance that this is the last one.

"They are bloody teenagers, the lot of them. I'm trying to keep up."

Robin Denselow's exclusive interview with The Rolling Stones will be broadcast on Newsnight on Friday, 2 September 2005, BBC Two at 2230 BST.

The Rolling Stones' new album - A Bigger Bang - is released on 5 September. Their world tour is expected to reach the UK next summer.


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