You can’t always get what you want but the Rolling Stones defy the gloom

DON’T paint Mick Jagger too black. The Rolling Stones have come in for criticism over high ticket prices for their fiftieth anniversary gigs at the O2, which go on sale this morning. But I have some sympathy for the devil. While the cost may have disappointed some of the veteran rock band’s passionate fans, it’s a gesture of economic honesty for which they should be respected, not reviled. It reflects the exceptional demand for their music, and the realities of a music industry in which most revenues must be earned from concert performances rather than recording sales.

The Stones remain a global phenomenon: popular for fifty years and still, as their new single Doom and Gloom confirms, able to snarl out a tune that can resonate with everyone from teenagers – nodding along to the lyric “all is darkness in my room” – to those who were teenagers the first time around – now a bit more interested in the song’s political references, and its understanding of the afterglow of success in lines like “Battle to the rich and you worry about the poor”.

Proof for me that the Stones deserve the prices they can command comes in the economic and poetic intelligence of a lyric in the song that doesn’t seem to have gathered much attention. At the end of the third verse come these four remarkable lines. “I’m running out of water,/ So I better prime the pump;/ I’m trying to stay sober/ But I end up drunk.”

The lines are subtle enough to be misunderstood by a casual listener – either as somehow a continuation of Jagger’s reference to shale gas fracking earlier in the verse, or as a literal rock-and-roll reference to the temptations of the bottle. But this is surely a masterfully distilled case against economic stimulus.

“Priming the pump”, a metaphor invented by President Hoover in the 1930s, is still a common stand-in for the Keynesian idea of spending money in order to get the economy flowing. Jagger isn’t singing about conventional drunks. He is explaining that politicians’ sticky fingers may return to the till in search of a bigger bang with good intentions, but with a disastrous aftermath. Spending money you can’t afford is a route to the gutter. You can’t always get what you want.

The achievements of popular culture are rarely given their intellectual due. Perhaps the money such works earn is considered reward enough. But compression, insight and wit deserve recognition. Just as Bob Dylan’s literary quality is championed by critic Christopher Ricks, and Camille Paglia celebrates the visual ballet of Star Wars, we should acknowledge satiric achievement in unexpected places. That can be the skewering of ineffective politicians on hit TV show The Thick of It: “What have we done in three years? In that time, Apple have launched two iPhones, three iPads and their boss is a dead guy!” And it can be Jagger, dancing despite the tightening of the screws, defying economic doom and gloom with a few well-chosen words.

First published: City A.M., 19/10/12

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October 19, 2012 · 9:30 am

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