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"The Rolling Stones: 50 Years Part 1" by Hanspeter Künzler

Literary purists are understandably reticent about electronic publishing. On one hand, the e-book—that disembodied parcel of brute digital content displayed on a standardised reader—precludes the fetish experience of reading. Gone is the grainy texture of the page, the faint scent of the stacks. Proust would not be happy. On the other hand, technology has made books are more accessible now than ever before, particularly those in the public domain. The oeuvres of Shakespeare, Byron, Goethe, Dostoevsky and Poe can be downloaded free of charge from a growing number of libraries and internet archives.

We might also expect an increase in contemporary production as subjects and styles heretofore neglected by notoriously risk-averse publishing conglomerates are explored by independents. In truth, however, little has changed on that front. To take one example, German publisher The eBook People’s catalogue of music biographies includes such known quantities as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Nirvana and the Rolling Stones. More proof that technology in itself will not deliver us from mass-market ennui. Yet a little at least has changed. If Hanspeter Künzler , the Swiss-born, London-based music journalist responsible for 50 Years: The Rolling Stones—Views from the Inside, Views from the Outside, is constrained to write about the most enduringly predictable b(r)and in the history of modern popular music, he’s no longer constrained to do so in the usual style of sensationalized rock-star myth. Released in two volumes, each spanning a full thousand digital pages, 50 Years is part chronology, part cultural history and part archive.

For every year, beginning with Rolling Stones year zero, 1962, Künzler summarizes the professional and personal developments within the Stones camp as well as events in the world at large, including a list of ‘considerable’ non-Stones album releases. Finally he presents a cross-section of photos and press from that year, all reprinted unabridged from the original sources.

It’s is an interesting concept but one which, in giving equal time to every step in a long and inconsistent career, unwittingly exposes how truly boring the Rolling Stones became after the first flush of fame. The band may have begun as a noble experiment in electrified blues or it may have begun as a cynical experiment in niche marketing (Künzler argues the former), but the history of its early years is nonetheless engaging. Things only get monotonous after founding member Brian Jones (above) is sacked and later found dead in his swimming pool (1969), the remaining Stones become millionaire tax exiles (1971) and Jones’ replacement Mick Taylor resigns (1974). By this time, Jagger, Richards, Wyman, Watts and Wood are better described as business partners than bandmates. They usually convene only once annually, to churn out more product.

Without much substance in these later years, Künzler’s commentary naturally loses its focus, becoming an inventory of anecdotes rather than a proper history. Perhaps the only unifying theme is the progressive diminution in the quality of the Stones’ output (which Künzler optimistically attributes to over-production). Surprisingly, the contemporary voices quoted alongside the main text barely register any of this. Regardless of how awful the Rolling Stones became, the press continued to render them in vibrant colours, to make them seem more dynamic than their biographer allows.

One doesn’t publish a thousand-page book for the general audience. 50 Years is clearly intended for Stones fans, the majority of whom will understand Künzler’s ambivalence toward the band’s later work.  It’s a good, brisk read despite its length, and the archival material is often fascinating to peruse (see Cliff Richard’s preachy tabloid op-ed from 1967, “Why I disagree with Mick Jagger”). The implied—but certainly unintentional—media critique is an added bonus for some segments of the population.

The eBook People, 997 pages, $14.99