Start it up: the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones' first gig

Fifty years ago this week, a nervous band called the Rollin' Stones played their first gig – to a bemused crowd of jazz fans. Christopher Sandford, the band's biographer, charts a revolution

See how The Guardian and The Observer covered the Stones in the course of 50 years with our interactive history

In the summer of 1962, the management of the Academy cinema on Oxford Street in London thought it wise to warn patrons that the film they were about to see, the big-screen adaptation of John Wyndham's novel about killer plants, The Day of the Triffids, "contained graphic horror" and "might prove disturbing to those of a nervous disposition". Today, Wyndham's mutant shrubs look blandly innocuous. But on the night of Thursday 12 July, in a basement club called the Marquee, just a few feet below the cinema where the Triffids was screening, something much more unsettling was about to get under way.

A sober-suited crowd of about 80 men and 30 women were on hand to witness the Rolling Stones' first gig. There was a taste among both sexes for shapeless, utility-style clothes, stout shoes and goofy square glasses. (It's remarkable how many young men seemed to resemble Buddy Holly.) Based on the number of goatees in the photographs, many were also diehard jazz fans; those who were there report that the audience took some time to warm up to the Stones' 50-minute blast of American rhythm and blues.

The band were officially billed as "Mick Jagger and the Rollin' Stones", although the lead vocalist was by no means their most compelling personality. Jagger, his Dartford Grammar schoolfriend Keith Richards, and the self-styled "Cheltenham Shagger" Brian Jones (who had recently come up with the group's name) were the front line. Jagger, who was still a student at the London School of Economics, wore a striped sweater and corduroys; Richards a funereally dark suit; while Jones pogoed up and down, leering at the women. Behind them was the already comically deadpan rhythm section, which for now comprised Richards's art-school friend Dick Taylor on bass and the future Kinks drummer Mick Avory, who sat in for the night. Jagger and Richards were 18 and living at home; Jones was 20; Ian Stewart, a 23-year-old shipping clerk, stood off to the side, eating a pork pie with one hand and playing piano in a loping, barrel-house style with the other.

In the Britain of 1962, young people were already creating a certain amount of consternation. Perhaps inspired by Hank Marvin and the Shadows, and their string of five UK hits that year, things were looking up for the electric guitar; in suburban Ripley, Surrey, a teenager named Eric Clapton took possession of his first Kay "Red Devil" that summer. The Beatles signed for George Martin and the Parlophone label, but were yet to release their first single. A revolt against the accepted cultural order was at least tentatively under way. The autumn of 1962 saw the release of Lawrence of Arabia, Dr No and Mutiny on the Bounty; in November, Anthony Burgess published A Clockwork Orange, priced 16 shillings (80p). The 1961 Census listed 2,471 licensed places of entertainment in London alone; an estimated 300 of these catered in one way or another to young groups such as the Stones, inspired by the urban R&B tradition of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry.

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Not all of this was in evidence on that warm July night at the Marquee; a wider social revolution still felt some way off. The ambient smell in the room was one of boiled cabbage, ground deep into the audience's worsted jackets, and of the ubiquitous Players Weights cigarettes. The gig itself was a mixed success. The band downed scotches and brandies as they played to calm their nerves. Taylor recalled that there were some initial catcalls from the house, possibly due to the band's limited rehearsal time. (The next week's Melody Maker seemed to confirm this theory, reproachfully noting the Stones' "very suspect tuning and internal balance".) Towards the end, however, things picked up with a loud, catalytic burst of Down the Road Apiece, played in the style of Chuck Berry. According to Ian Stewart's diary, the Stones took it up a gear during their last 15 minutes on stage, finishing big with Elmore James's Happy Home. Even then, they took their sense of urgency not from the singer, but from the acne-faced second guitarist, dressed completely in black, who called out each number and encouraged the drummer by hammering one spindly leg up and down and yelling, "Fuck you! Faster!" Even from the off, the Stones had great rhythm.

After the show, the band went up through the foyer of the cinema, walked down the street unrecognised and had a drink in The Tottenham pub, near Tottenham Court tube station, leaving a friend of Jones's to hump the gear upstairs and load it on to a passing bus. They were joined by an acquaintance who had come to the gig, part-time drummer Charlie Watts, who thought the Stones "had an obvious appeal for the kids that wanted to dance. My band was a joke to look at, but this lot crossed the barrier. They actually looked like rock stars."

The Stones split the 30-guinea performance fee six ways, which somehow meant that Jones got £6 and 10 shillings, everyone else got a fiver. No one there would have guessed that the band was 21st century bound, least of all the band members themselves. By Christmas of that year, Taylor and Avory had both left the fold, to be replaced by Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts respectively. In April 1963, a young hustler named Andrew Loog Oldham took over the Stones' management, Stewart was unceremoniously sacked, and Decca put out the band's first single – a cover of Chuck Berry's Come On, which sold 250,000 copies. The rest – well, the rest you know.

Christopher Sandford's The Rolling Stones: Fifty Years is published now by Simon & Schuster.

Tell us if you've ever seen the Stones live (and what you thought)

Christopher Sandford

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