How the Rolling Stones got their mojo back (and you can, too)

Let’s say you’re an aging business or marketing executive with your back against the wall. You’ve accomplished great things in your career but nothing substantial lately. A brash generation of upstarts threatens to muscle you aside with their attitude and fresh ideas. What would you do?

If you wanted to follow the lesson taught by a group of famous multimillionaires known as the Rolling Stones, you would start throwing punches with one hand and waving your middle finger in the air with the other.

As recounted by the recently published The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls by Cyrus R.K. Patell, the Rolling Stones of the late 1970s was a band on the ropes. The group’s most recent albums (Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll, and Black and Blue) had revealed signs of complacency and artistic decline. Keith Richards was in the grip of heroin addiction. And the rise of punk rock, full of piss and vinegar, made the Stones look more like dinosaurs than the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.

In 1977, when Keith Richards was busted in Canada for possession of heroin with intent to traffic, the band’s future was very much in doubt as Richards faced the possibility of a stiff jail sentence.

How did the Rolling Stones respond? By going into the studio and recording what would turn out to be one of its most critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums, Some Girls.

With Some Girls, the Rolling Stones shocked their critics and reasserting their relevance to modern rock music and popular culture. The album would eventually achieve more than 6 million units sold and would be ranked among the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone. The Rolling Stones returned to greatness by:

1. Beating the upstarts at their own game.

Punk rockers, brimming with anti-establishment swagger, forgot that the Stones were the original punk upstarts in the 1960s. On Some Girls, the Stones showed up the punks as wannabes by recording sneering, nasty songs like “When the Whip Comes Down” and “Respectable,” which gave society the middle finger (sample lyrics: “You’re a rag-tag girl, you’re the queen of porn/You’re the easiest lay on the White House Lawn”).

The title song famously inspired Reverend Jesse Jackson to launch a boycott against the album for its supposedly racist lyrics. At the time, Jackson characterized the song “Some Girls” as a “racial” insult” that “degrades blacks and women.” Jagger’s reply: “I’ve always said, ‘If you can’t take a joke, it’s too fucking bad’” – a gutsy rebuke given Jackson’s public stature and how much Jagger had to lose at this point in his career. Infamous punk rocker Johnny Rotten seemed like a tame choirboy by comparison.

Keith Richards, meanwhile, was no less unrepentant and defiant. His Some Girls song “Before They Make Me Run” was an unabashed nose thumbing delivered to the Canadian authorities who had busted him in 1977. “I will walk before they make me run,” he vowed in the song — a ballsy statement given that he had yet to be tried for the bust and faced years of hard time in jail. It’s easy to sneer at society when you have nothing to lose — doing so when you could pay the price with your life is another matter.

Even the album cover managed to piss off the entertainment establishment for its unauthorized and unflattering use of photographs of hallowed American icons such as Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe (the Stones later changed the album cover art under threat of litigation).

With ugly yet energetic songs like “Some Girls,” the Stones were really recapturing the sound and attitude they had created in the 1960 when they were fined for public urination. And they did so with a vengeance.

Patell characterizes the sound of songs like “When the Whip Comes Down” this way: “it’s the Stones out-doing punk, or perhaps incorporating punk sound into their own, layering on sonic nuances that are beyond the ken of all but a few punk and New Wave bands.”

To cite an analogy from the marketing world circa 2011, it’s like one of the established offline agencies figuring out how to beat the social media boutiques by drawing on good old-fashioned word-of-mouth marketing techniques that have existed for decades.

2. Learning new tricks

Some Girls features one of the great Stones singles, “Miss You,” which became a Number One song on the Billboard charts in 1978. With its disco-tinged beat and Jagger alternately cooing falsetto and growling about lonely angst, “Miss You” sounded quite unlike anything the Stones had ever recorded (although “Hot Stuff” on Black and Blue from 1976 was something of a portent).

In 1977 and 1978, when the Stones were recording Some Girls, disco music was at the height of its popularity. Billboard’s top hits for 1977 included “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave and “I’m Your Boogie Man” by KC and the Sunshine Band. Discothèque Studio 54 was the epicenter for the rich and famous ranging from Truman Capote to Mick Jagger himself.

As related in The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls and in Keith Richards’s biography Life, “[‘Miss You’ is a] result of all the nights Mick spent at Studio 54 and coming up with that beat, that four on the floor . . . Mick wanted to do some disco shit, keep the man happy. But as we got into it, it became quite an interesting beat. And we realized, maybe we’ve got a quintessential disco thing here. And out of it we got a huge hit.”

But by drawing upon disco, the Stones took an enormous risk of sounding like a bunch of old farts trying to pander to a contemporary sound. And disco was dangerous territory for a rock and roll band. Disco was enormously popular, yes, but also alienating to the old guard of rock fans who wore their cut-off jeans proudly and sought refuge in the guitar-heavy sound of Boston and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Contempt for disco would famously erupt in the chaos of the “Disco Demolition Night” riot of 1979 in Chicago’s Comiskey Park.

Incredibly, the Stones figured out how to incorporate the irresistible parts of disco (bass and beat) and in fact claim the sound as their own. How? By adding rough guitars, the bluesy harmonica of guest musician Sugar Blue, and Jagger’s brooding lyrics and soulful singing.

Writes Patell: “Jagger would insist, however, that ‘Miss You’ wasn’t simply a disco song: ‘’Miss You’ wasn’t disco disco. Disco records at that time didn’t have guitars much, and they had all shimmering string lines and oo-eoo-ee girls. It was influenced by it, but not it. I like that.’”

And we like “Miss You,” too. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it among the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and artists ranging from the Black Eyed Peas to My Morning Jacket have covered it.

“Miss You” endures because the Stones, although down and out at the time – or perhaps because they were down and out – tested new waters but still had enough confidence in themselves to remain firmly rooted in the sound they knew.

By 1978, the Stones had played together long enough to know how to make great music. By combining the new with their time-tested sound, the Stones recorded a song that still sounds fresh today, while eclipsing many disco tunes that remain trapped in a 1970s time capsule.

From the business and marketing realm, a similar example of adapting embracing the new while staying true to yourself is the TED (Technology Entertainment Design) conference. Since 1984, the event has attracted the world’s leading thinkers with the promise of delivering “ideas worth spreading.” Part of the event’s mystique is its velvet-rope policy. Not just anyone can attend or speak at TED. Attending requires a $6,000 fee and an application. And only the most engaging speakers who agree to adhere to TED’s standards may appear. (Past speakers have included President Bill Clinton and many Nobel Prize winners.)

And yet TED has changed with the times. TED now makes hundreds of its talks available free on the TED website. The organization uses social media to keep its brand fresh and relevant beyond the annual conference. TED also grants licenses to third parties to hold spin-off TEDx events so that you can experience a little bit of TED around the world. And yet the keynote TED conference is stronger than ever (TED 2012 is sold out already).

TED has successfully adapted by using digital and making its brand more accessible while staying true to its mission of sharing ideas worth spreading.

Where is your Some Girls?

Sooner or later, you’re going to feel threatened as the Rolling Stones once did. If you’re a seasoned grey hair, already established in your field, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re 22 years old and you’re reading this post, just give yourself some time: you will get older, and someone will usher in a fresh idea that’s going to make you feel like you just got kicked squarely in the ass.

And that’s good. We all need to be kicked in the ass from time to time. The question is, How will you respond? Will you stick your head in the sand or come out swinging like the Rolling Stones did?