Book review: 50 Years of Rolling Stone: The Music, Politics and People that Changed Our Culture by Rolling Stone and Jann S. Wenner

No stone has been left unturned in celebrating the landmark anniversary of a magazine which has covered and '“ some devotees would say '“ helped to shape the world around it.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 18th July 2017, 11:21 am
Updated Monday, 11th September 2017, 12:24 pm
50 Years of Rolling Stone: The Music, Politics and People that Changed Our Culture by Rolling Stone and Jann S. Wenner
50 Years of Rolling Stone: The Music, Politics and People that Changed Our Culture by Rolling Stone and Jann S. Wenner

Once derided, and even dismissed as little more than a short-term hippy news sheet climbing aboard the flower power bandwagon, Rolling Stone – when founded in 1967 – was envisaged by its creators as ‘a rock and roll magazine but also about the things and attitudes that the music embraces.’

With that sort of determined mission statement and a good understanding of the generation it was targeting, the mag mushroomed into much more, spreading its coverage into politics and policies, recording cultural changes as they occurred.

Decade by decade, this chunky, large format hardback book – weighing as much as a small boulder to boot! – traces the publication’s rise from laudable music trailblazer through and beyond the years when it was able to add pacesetter in investigative reporting to an ever-widening remit.

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Fifty years from that so-called Summer of Love, the magazine shows little sign of slowing down, with a worldwide readership of more than 11 million, as well as 12 international editions on its assembly line.

So when did this once-outsider head out into more mainstream waters?

It was, perhaps, around the same time as its faithful readers grew up and settled down whilst still maintaining a challenging viewpoint on life. To its credit, the magazine is no nostalgia fest for the love generation and has attracted new readers through the years, many of whom might be surprised at the sheer scope of subjects showcased in this irresistible keepsake of a book.

Rolling Stone was founded by publisher Jann S. Wenner and noted music critic, the late Ralph J. Gleason, and Wenner gets proceedings underway with a lengthy but fascinating introduction, peppered with intriguing black and white photographs from the 1960s and 70s, including what is perhaps the most casual one in the book… a smiling, shirtless Wenner during a marathon interview with Grateful Dead guitarist and leader Jerry Garcia.

It was taken during the five-hour (yes five-hour!) meeting in the garden of Garcia’s California home for the magazine’s 100th issue in which the musician admitted he was proud that the story about the Dead’s 1967 drugs bust had appeared in the first issue of Rolling Stone.

Wenner reveals that early issues were put together on the proverbial wing and a prayer in rent-free office space in a warehouse. The very first letter of appreciation was sent, somewhat appropriately, from Rolling Stone drummer Charlie Watts and the first paid advert brought in 100 US dollars for a full page promoting a Captain Beefheart record, secured thanks to Gleason’s friends in the music business.

Ten years after that fledgling issue, Rolling Stone left San Francisco for Fifth Avenue, New York in a move described by Wenner as ‘a natural progression for the magazine. The unspoken reality was we were going mainstream. We were joining the establishment.’

Over the years it has carried trademark in-depth interviews with all manner of rock legends, among them Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Kurt Cobain and Bruce Springsteen, and a number are faithfully reproduced in the book, appearing alongside iconic photographs by Baron Wolman, Annie Leibovitz, Mark Seliger and other leading image makers.

Indeed, the cover of one special issue carried no words or headlines… it needed neither of these. The photograph, showing John Lennon lying naked and curled around his wife Yoko Ono, and set up to promote the release of the Double Fantasy album, was to be the ex-Beatle’s last photo session, conducted during what turned out to be his last interview on the very day he died, December 8, 1980.

In many ways, Rolling Stone has always been as much about the photography as the words.

(Abrams Books, hardback, £45)