Time is still on their side. After a half-century, the Rolling Stones remain a powerful, transfixing and lionized force in pop culture. You can't say the same for tape cassettes, the Telstar satellite or The Jetsons, which also made an entrance in 1962.
Fifty years ago this month, the newly formed British band was touring the U.K., ranked third on a bill behind the Everly Brothers and Bo Diddley. Before long, they were cranking out hits to challenge The Beatles' grip on global charts.
Rocking and rolling ever since, the band is marking its golden anniversary with sold-out concerts, a book, a documentary, its umpteenth compilation album and possibly a 2013 tour.
Nobody is more surprised by the Stones' shelf life than singer Mick Jagger, who in his 30s proclaimed he'd rather be dead than sing (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction after turning 40. He's now 69 and rehearsing tunes that span the band's entire catalog.
"It would have been very foolish to think it was going to last a long time," Jagger says by phone from a rehearsal venue in Paris. "The world around us was pretty crazy. You're battered by the winds of the wild times we lived through.
"Of course, I don't know the answer to our longevity," he says. "One of the important things is that we always had such amazing appreciative fans. If they didn't exist to keep this afloat, the Rolling Stones wouldn't exist."
Guitarist Keith Richards chimes in, "I don't think anybody in their right mind thought we could carry on. When our first record hit the charts modestly in England, we thought, we've got two years. That was the life span. After that, we got carried away along with everyone else."
He credits much of the band's durability to undiminished drive.
"The boys are very tough and they really love what they do," says Richards, 68. "We're having a ball and hopefully we'll translate that on stage."
Fans snapped up every ticket to a short run of arena shows, dubbed The Stones - 50 and Counting, despite some seats selling upward of $800. The band will perform Nov. 25 and 29 in London's O2 Arena and Dec. 13 and 15 in Newark's Prudential Center. The final concert will air live at 9 p.m. ET as a pay-per-view special, One More Shot, distributed by WWE to cable and satellite outlets.
The 50th salute also brings Tuesday's release of GRRR! Greatest Hits, a classics collection with new songs Doom and Gloom and One More Shot, and newly published coffee-table book The Rolling Stones 50 (Hyperion, $60), curated and narrated by the band and packed with 1,100 illustrations that include rare photos, posters and memorabilia.
Crossfire Hurricane, a Stones documentary directed by Brett Morgen, makes its U.S. debut Tuesday at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York before premiering Thursday on HBO. The 111-minute retrospective chronicles a raucous transition from rebel outsiders to commercial titans.
"It wasn't a goal in life to become an institution," Jagger says. "If you stick around long enough, you tend to become one. It wasn't our master plan."
The rockumentary introduces the band in shambolic club dates packed with screaming girls and closes with aerial footage of 1981's record-setting American Tour.
It halts at midcareer "because we ran out of time," says Jagger, Crossfire's producer. "Brett's excuse was that it was an interesting place to end, but we really needed another nine months to do Part 2. It's a good place to drop out, and we could always do Part 2 later.
"I should have started two years before because it's quite time-consuming. I thought about it two years before but didn't do much. It was rushed, and yet we got a very decent film out of it. This is the best (Stones doc) I've seen for a long while. This and (Martin Scorsese's) Shine a Light are two of my favorites."
The voices of the players (Jagger, Richards, drummer Charlie Watts, guitarist Ronnie Wood and two former members, bassist Bill Wyman and guitarist Mick Taylor) are heard over archival footage drawn from TV clips and such films as Gimme Shelter and Charlie Is My Darling. Scrappy live versions of Street Fighting Man, Jumping Jack Flash and Paint It Black are spliced with key scenes from the Stones age.
"My intention was to not have too many talking heads, in fact, none," says Jagger, who is co-producing a James Brown biopic. He felt more engaged as Crossfire's architect than its subject. The film "is an exciting ride, but I can't say I was surprised by any of it. I'm quite familiar with the story. For me, it's about how the narrative unfolds, what you give prominence to, avoiding certain side roads."
In the film, the young Jagger appears witty and astute amid the chaos and self-possessed through the hysteria at early shows, drug busts, Brian Jones' death, even 1969's horrific free concert at Altamont Speedway near San Francisco, where 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was killed by one of the Hells Angels serving as security. Was he as cool as he seemed?
"It's hard to say," Jagger says. "You can say the whole thing is a façade, a fantasy. No matter how crazy it was, you manage to keep going. There was no training for that. There was no school for rock."
Richards' reaction to footage of himself as a teen rock anti-hero: "It's amazing to see it walk and talk."
He's impressed by Crossfire's laser focus on the band's core and its exclusion of "girlfriends and blah-blah-blah peripheral stuff. It's fascinating, even for me, and I was there. It's very Marx Brothers in a way. Those crazy shows in the early '60s where riots broke out in the first minutes - the main problem for us was how to get in and how to get out. With the Stones, y
ou never knew what was coming around the corner."
Often, it was the authorities. He faced a long jail term when charged with heroin trafficking in 1977 in Toronto, but got a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to possession.
"For some weird reason, we never had any fear that we wouldn't get out of it one way or another," Richards says. "I've got to put that down to the fans. It was hardly worthwhile putting me away, was it? Half the stuff I was accused of was bull. The judges saw through the prosecution. I thought, well, God's on my side and we'll win out."
He was less placid about Altamont, "the one show I'd rather not have been at. It was all done a bit on the wing. We had the Grateful Dead set it up, and they did free shows all over the place using the Angels as security, no problem. We just waltzed in expecting another Woodstock, and apart from that terrible incident, it was.
"Obviously, it was the dark side of what can happen at those things," he says. "I was amazed that Meredith was the only casualty. It's a shame the guy died, but he wasn't an innocent bystander. (Hunter rushed the stage and later pulled a gun before being stabbed.) People said the cat was asking for trouble. You don't screw with the Angels, and they were already antsy."
Crossfire doesn't whitewash controversy, misbehavior or, as Jagger describes the 1972 U.S. tour, the band's "ill-disciplined hedonistic binge." At one point, Jagger is glimpsed snorting cocaine from a knife blade.
He resisted censoring such scenes "because it's all so long ago, and there aren't any great secrets," says Jagger, known for ferociously guarding his private life. "You can't let it all hang out there. I can't, anyway. You have to fend things off to some extent. When an inevitable invasion takes you by surprise, it is upsetting, and you learn from that mistake. I have to cope with it better and protect myself better."
On July 12, 1962, the "Rollin' Stones" played their first gig at the Marquee Club in London. Since then, they've performed before more people than any band in history, graduating from club brawls and bad-boy headlines to full stadiums, high-tech productions and box-office bonanzas.
"It's stupid to make out that you're rebellious your whole life," Jagger says. "People in the French Revolution wanted it to go forever, but other people got fed up with it. You move on to the post-revolution, which is what we did. It doesn't mean you get comfortable and end up fat in front of the fire with a big cigar. I still like to get out there and bust it up.
"I am the same person," he says. "I'm doing all the same songs, hopefully with the same aplomb and enthusiasm. You can't be a lead singer without having a certain forceful ego. You have to have a ton of ego or you'll have a nervous breakdown. It's not for shy people."
Rehearsals have unearthed rare nuggets "and an awful lot of different songs," Jagger says, declining specifics. "The last song we rehearsed is one I did when I was 16."
So what can fans in Newark and London expect?
"The band fantastically, completely and utterly different from what it's ever been," Jagger jokes. "It's the Rolling Stones onstage. We do things we just wrote and things we did in 1963."
A recent pair of small Paris club shows "felt like being back home," Richards says. "We've been away too long. We know we're ready. Now it's just a matter of polishing the chrome. We want to oil the new ones, and we're really digging deep through the reportoire and may be playing stuff that nobody's heard for a long time. Everyone's in top form, and I'm really looking forward to laying it out again. It's been a long layoff."
Getting the Stones rolling again entailed repairing his bond with Jagger, in particular apologizing for barbs in his 2010 memoir, Life. Richards says that reports of strain are "terribly overblown" and that the pair's shared sense of humor incorporates trading insults.
He adds, "It's no big deal. I can understand how it's taken out of context by people who don't know us, but as far and Mick and I are concerned, we're rocking."
And that has intensified buzz about a 2013 tour. The 2007-09 Bigger Bang global trek, which grossed $558 million, was history's biggest outing until U2's 360 marathon from 2009 to 2011 pulled in $736 million. Few question the Stones' ability to eclipse that peak, should they take the plunge.
The band hasn't lost its muscle or pull, says Anthony DeCurtis, Rolling Stone contributing editor, noting, "Onstage the Rolling Stones long ago earned their reputation as 'the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world.' But whatever the size of the venue, the Stones still play like a band in a club on a Saturday night, ripping, scratching and tearing at their bottomless catalog of hits as if they still had everything to prove. That's why fans turn out to see them in such huge numbers. They're legends who in performance burn as hot as ever."
A 2013 tour has yet to be confirmed.
"One thing at a time, baby," Richards cautions. "It's taken me a year or two to get it this far. I do know that once this juggernaut gets rolling, it's hard to stop. Without being able to promise anything, I have a feeling there's definitely going to be something going next year."
A farewell tour? Jagger is similarly fuzzy about the band's exit.
"All good things will come to an end, children, but I can't foresee when that will be," he says.
Meantime, "the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world" isn't ready to relinquish its title.
"I haven't seen anyone else dare to take it from us," Richards says. "Remember, we've never said that. Other people have called us that. The greatest rock 'n' roll is probably played by a different band in a different part of the world every night. I'm very happy people think that of us. It's something to live up to."
By Edna Gundersen