The Rolling Stones: before they were legends

It's easy to forget how shocking the Stones were in 1965. The previously unreleased documentary Charlie Is My Darling is a riveting reminder of when they were a generational lightning rod

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On 3 September 1965, the Rolling Stones flew out for a brief Irish tour. Accompanying them and their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, was film-maker Peter Whitehead, who had just shot the infamous International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall – a founding countercultural event later known, after his film title, as Wholly Communion.

Whitehead shot by himself in the Maysles style, with a handheld camera placing the operator and the viewer right in the centre of the action. He was hired by Oldham to see how the Stones materialised on film: it was the mid-60s and all major groups were supposed to star in feature flicks, however cheesy, but the Stones still hadn't. This was their "trial run", which was effectively frozen at the starting blocks.

Whitehead completed a 50-minute edit of the footage. After a few showings, this disappeared into thin air, copyright hell and fan legend. Despite various properties being mooted, including adaptations of A Clockwork Orange and Dave Wallis's teen takeover novel Only Lovers Left Alive, the high-pop Rolling Stones film was never made – which makes the brief documentary that has finally now emerged all the more valuable.

The previously unreleased Charlie Is My Darling is a document of a group and a moment in time. The format is simple: follow the Rolling Stones in Dublin and Belfast, shoot them backstage, travelling by train and plane, and after-show at their hotel. Sit them down for some quick interviews, edit it together to some cool big band versions of Rolling Stones hits by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra and hey presto: a budget Hard Day's Night.

But the Rolling Stones were not the Beatles. There's no acerbic, lightning-fast banter. When they're trying to be funny, it's a disaster: trite parodies and boring drunken singalongs. Mick Jagger is cool, collected and just a little mannered: Keith Richards busies himself with whatever musical instrument happens to be lying around. Brian Jones is pretentious and haunted, with a curious, creepily soft voice.

It's the rhythm section that comes off best. Bill Wyman is solid, forthright and self-deprecating. Several years older than the rest, he knows who and what he is. The only natural here is Charlie Watts, who is both mercurial and charming. Hence the title, dreamed up by Oldham as a wry joke after he saw the edit. For it showed him, with graphic clarity, that "the Stones were not to the celluloid manor born".

But the film is still riveting. In September 1965 (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction was just about to go No 1 in the UK, having topped the US charts for four weeks in high summer. This was the Stones' big breakthrough record and the Whitehead film captures them just as their lives were being transformed: they are caught in the middle, part analysing the change as it happens, part surrendering to the mania.

There's a lot of chat about how they're not real musicians, about how they thought they'd only last a year or two. But there's also a slow realisation that this is something different: a sea-change in values – part dramatised by the appearance of a priest at the Dublin show, shown amid a crowd going crazy to Satisfaction, part exemplified by how the Stones look in contrast to the general public of the time.

They are modern and the general public – not the fans – are ancient. Members of the wartime generation gaze at the airport hubbub and look both fascinated and vaguely disgusted. The people on the streets of Dublin are transported from the 19th century. The Stones are in their bubble, at their peak: Mod smart yet long-haired, still sharp witted and bright eyed, before the dulling of drugs. Decadence had not yet arrived.

At the film's centre are the musical performances: six full songs from two shows. The recent singles The Last Time and Satisfaction show the Stones as masters of negation: as Jagger repeats at the end of the former, "oh no, oh no". Set closer I'm Alright shreds a Bo Diddley tune into spikes of mayhem: in Dublin the crowd rush the group and take over the stage. The sound cuts, the show ends.

The Rolling Stones have been what they are for such a long time that it's easy to forget how blunt, forceful and shocking they were in 1965. Despite the trappings of the emergent consumer society, the UK looks pretty bleak and dull in the exterior footage here. Victorian attitudes still held sway: it was only a few months after the January 1965 funeral of Winston Churchill – a world event and a major marker in British life.

The group were a generational lightning-rod: the dividing line between adults and the teenagers for whom they were rapidly becoming an obsession. In July 1965, they achieved tabloid notoriety after being fined for urinating in public. This in some small, stupid way was a reflection of the fervour aroused in their live shows. "It's a sexual thing," Mick Jagger opines, but it was also a chaos thing: an eruption of the Id.

There had been fan mania before, of course. But rarely for something so negative: "Oh no, oh no", "I can't get no." This was the period when, as Keith Richards writes in Life, "our songs were taking on some kind of edge in the lyrics, or at least they were beginning to sound like the image projected on to us. Cynical, nasty, skeptical, rude. We seemed to be ahead in this respect at the time."

This would curdle sooner than anyone would think – impossible to think that they would still be playing five decades later – but this beautifully restored version of Charlie Is My Darling shows the Stones right at the moment when they were, in Nik Cohn's words, "major liberators". These five slightly dazed young men are in the first flush of artistic and cultural power and it's fantastically exciting. Never mind the serial ugliness to come, this is how 1965 felt for many teens, and this is why the Rolling Stones mattered.

Charlie Is My Darling is available now as a super deluxe box set, Blu-Ray disc or DVD.


Jon Savage

The GuardianTramp

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