Stones in the Kitchen: A Lesson in Going Beyond Your Comfort Zone
By Richard Gordon
They called themselves the “Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” in the world, and for over 50 years their body of work proves the point. Most people, young or old, are at least somewhat familiar with the Rolling Stones, and the distinctive sound of the band. It’s blues guitar licks in teasing counterpoint, sneering vocals, and a backbeat played just behind the natural beat of the guitars that produces a slight “wobble” to the driving urgency of their best songs.
The Stones started out as a blues cover band, playing to ever growing and raucous crowds. They became very popular fairly quickly, but even with all their early success, their manager at the time knew that what they were doing was ephemeral. He wanted them to try writing their own songs, but Keith Richards objected. “We’re a blues cover band”, he told Andrew Oldham, the manager. “We should stick to what we’re good at”. Oldham told them that there was no future in that, because there was a very limited repertoire of songs to draw from, and it would become repetitive. He also had a financial motivation. When a band records a song with someone else’s copyright, they have to pay royalties, essentially splitting the profits from the records with the authors of the songs (or whoever holds the copyrights).
So Oldham told Jagger and Richards to go in a room and write, and over the next few months they penned some songs, mostly insipid ballads which were largely nondescript and forgettable (although they did write “As Tears Go By” that first night “locked” in their kitchen). But they kept at it, married their songwriting to their raw blues sound, and exploded into worldwide prominence with a series of extraordinary albums. Their concerts were legendary, a combination of wildly popular original songs and electrifying stage presence (just listen to the live album of their Madison Square Garden concerts from 1969 “Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out”). My niece and nephew, both teenagers, saw them play at Soldier Field a few years ago and said it was the best thing they’d ever seen. Some of them are over the age of 70 now!
Obviously they have a lot of talent, both as songwriters and musicians. Not everyone can write “Jumping Jack Flash”, and then play it in concert with feral intensity. But had they not been challenged by their manager to break out of their comfort zone, to push the envelop of their abilities and try to do what was unfamiliar and uncomfortable to them, their career trajectory would have fizzled out fairly quickly in the 1960s, when the world was changing fast, original art of all kinds was being produced at a rapid rate, and styles and tastes were quickly evolving.
Like the Stones did in their kitchen five decades ago, it pays to keep your mindset flexible and try to break out of your comfort zone.
Postscript: The Rolling Stones recently released their 53rd album, “Blue and Lonesome”, 14 cover versions of old blues numbers first recorded by Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter, among others. It’s an outstanding album, great roots music superbly played by the greatest rock and roll band in the world returning to their own musical roots.