This is certainly the most unusual book yet written about The Rolling Stones. Prior books had either been written by insiders (Up And Down With The Rolling Stones by Keith Richards’ drug supplier and aide-de-camp “Spanish” Tony Sanchez) or by professional writers/biographers (Old Gods Almost Dead by the ever-present Stephen Davis). What we have here in Under Their Thumb is a book written by a fan.
Bill German is not just any fan, though. As a teenager he started to self-publish the Rolling Stones fanzine Beggar’s Banquet. He toiled in obscurity for several years, building a network of fans and bootleggers who gave him tips about what (and who) the Stones were doing.
As fate would have it, German met the Rolling Stones and pressed a copy of his fanzine into the hands of Ron Wood, who looked it over and handed it to Keith Richards.
From this inauspicious beginning, Bill German somehow became a friend to the Rolling Stones. Not quite an insider, but far from being a mere fan, he managed to strike up friendships with both Ron Wood and Keith Richards. He went to their apartments, was invited to their parties, drank with them (but stayed away from drugs). He interviewed them, got insider information which was then published in Beggar’s Banquet with the approval of the Stones. Throughout he seems to have remained aware that he was possibly the luckiest Rolling Stones fan ever. Woody and Keith seemed to genuinely like the guy. Ron Wood asked him to help write his book of artwork, The Works. He got into press conferences, and backstage. Bill German was the proverbial fly on the wall.
His presence was disconcerting, if not downright alarming, to many of the business people that were tasked with taking care of the Stones. German would publish insider information straight from Ron Wood’s mouth, but then would get lectured by the managers and handlers who wanted all the information about the band to funnel from them. It seems apparent that, as the Stones went from their relatively care-free rock band days to becoming a business and marketing juggernaut, Mick Jagger began to become as much businessman as rocker, and as time went on he began to distance himself from German.
After first embracing German (Beggar’s Banquet became the official Stones newsletter around the time of the Undercover album), the suits behind the scenes began to fear him. Even though German usually sought approval before publishing anything, he still insisted that he was a “journalist.” Having a journalist deep in the heart of the Stones camp where outrageous drug use and serial infidelity were the norm was a worrisome prospect for those tasked with making sure the Stones got through customs at the airport and maintained good relationships with their wives.
The inevitable ending should surprise nobody except, apparently, the author. Bill German became frustrated and angry that the access he once enjoyed was now being denied. Once the Stones became the Machine starting with the 1989 Steel Wheels tour, even his friendship with Keith and Woody was not enough to get him where he felt he needed to be to continue putting out the fanzine.
He managed to hang in there until after the Voodoo Lounge tour but then closed the fanzine down and fell largely out of touch with his friends in the Stones camp.
German has a nice style, conversational, easy-to-read. He comes across as a likable and pretty level-headed guy and takes great pains to portray Ron Wood and Keith Richards as being wonderful human beings. Mick Jagger is, in Keith’s words, “a great bunch of guys.” Jagger is shown as coldly calculating, warm to those he likes and trusts, but he doesn’t like or trust too many people, including the author.
For me, the selling point of the book was that it was about the Rolling Stones well past their prime. Most Stones books concentrate on the Sixties and early Seventies, when they were challenging The Beatles for supremacy of the music world and The Who for the title of “Greatest Rock and Roll Band in The World.” Under Their Thumb is about the period of time that these earlier Stones biographies gloss over: the dreaded 80s and 90s when the Stones were releasing mediocre albums and tearing at each other’s throats. It’s a period that has an interesting story behind it. Here is where you’ll find the near break up of the band, Mick’s awful solo albums, Keith’s excellent solo albums, the Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll Chuck Berry film that Keith organized, and the massive tours that brought the Stones back from the brink of death, but brought them back in a way that was largely unrecognizable from what they had been before. It is, somewhat surprisingly, a fascinating period in the history of the band, and Bill German was there for almost all of it.