DETROIT, Oct. 9 (UPI) -- When the Rolling Stones played their first gig some 40 years ago at London's Marquee Club, they had no way of knowing that they'd still be together, much less selling out arenas and stadiums, in 2002.
"Rock 'n' roll was a nine-day wonder," muses Stones frontman Mick Jagger. "It was supposed to be here today, gone tomorrow ... but it's still here."
And so are the Rolling Stones, who remain as active and ambitious now as ever during their lengthy, celebrated career.
Jagger and his mates may quibble over which anniversary this actually is -- drummer Charlie Watts didn't join until 1963, they point out -- but it's clear that the Stones are still getting their satisfaction from working at a pace that belies the musicians' AARP-eligible ages that range from 55 to 62.
The quartet, abetted by nine other musicians and singers, is in the midst of its Licks Tour, playing a combination of stadiums, arenas and theaters in North America through January with plans to continue well into 2003, including the Stones' first dates in China and India.
The group's 1963-71 catalog has been rolled out in impressively remastered packages, while the newly released "Forty Licks" collection not only reprises the Stones' high points but also features four fresh tracks from spring sessions in Paris that yielded more than an album's worth of material.
"Everything is still exciting and out on a limb and different to what it has been before," says guitarist Ron Wood, the youngest Stone at 55.
"We've raised the bar. We're clearing greater heights now, and whatever magic is instilled in the band now, I think it's just gonna blossom."
"Either we stay at home and we become pillars of the community or we go out and tour," adds Jagger, 59, who was knighted in June by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. "And we really couldn't find any communities that still needed pillars."
The Licks Tour has demonstrated that the Stones are still capable of generating plenty of excitement and drama -- not to mention income -- even though they're well-removed from the controversial counter-culture heyday of "Let's Spend the Night Together," "Sympathy For the Devil" and the "palace revolution" voiced in "Street Fighting Man."
To accommodate the varying venues, the group has worked up some 140 songs to play during the tour, digging deep into its catalog for long-buried album tracks and dedicating a four song set each night to one of its classic albums, such as 1972's "Exile on Main Street" or 1978's "Some Girls."
"As we didn't have a new record as such to promote this time, it just throws it open for us to be much looser," Wood explains.
"During rehearsals up in Toronto, there was this atmosphere where we'd throw one forward, like I'd say 'OK, let's play 'Come On' and they'd go 'OK...But how does it go?' It was really funny."
Chuck Leavell, the Stones' tour keyboardist since 1989, says the exercise of song selection keeps both the group and its audience on their respective toes.
"It's such a rich catalog to choose from," Leavell explains. "We could do two, two-and-a-half hours of songs the band's never played live.
"It becomes difficult because how do you not do certain icon songs that you know people want to hear? I think there is some credence to the fact people pay their money, and there are certain things they want to hear that are familiar to the Rolling Stones, and they always like a surprise. Therefore the challenge becomes the balance."
Jagger, however, cautions that "you don't want to become too much of a nostalgia act. You don't want to be in exactly the same groove all the time."
That made the Paris recording sessions with producer Don Was encouraging, Wood says. "To me it was an eye-opener of how wide open the band was," the guitarist notes. "We went there to do six songs, and we ended up doing 25; we have another new album in the making, if you like, and it really prepared us much more than we really thought for the (tour) rehearsals in Toronto."
Among the new songs is the Stones' current single, "Don't Stop," which Wood describes as "kind of a stock Mick (Jagger) riff" that he and guitarist Keith Richards helped flesh out. "It's quite a simple song," Wood says. "Mick had the words and the phrasing, which was good, and Keith and I were kind of, 'All right, we'll give it a try.'
"It ended up sounding like another 'Start Me Up,' out of that stable."
As for the rest of the Paris tracks, Wood says they're not quite finished, but that it wouldn't take long to turn them into a full-fledged album.
"It would take maybe a few months to do the final vocals and mixing," he says. "There's not much that needs doing to the basic tracks; maybe an overdub here and there. But if we were forced, we could have it out in a couple of months."
For Wood, meanwhile, this new recording and touring activity has also marked a new phase of his life, personally and musically. While Jagger rankled Richards by accepting a British knighthood in June -- the guitarist felt it was hypocritical given the British police's rough treatment of the band during the '60s -- the group was unified with Wood's family in urging him to undergo treatment for alcoholism and cocaine addiction.
After a spring stay at the Cottonwood de Tucson Clinic in Arizona, Wood says that "now I remember things. My higher power is my guitar neck. I'd never done (rehab) properly before; this time I was into it because I realized I wasn't made of iron and my kids, when they say 'Come on, dad, you're pushing it too far,' I went 'Oops ... '
"Of course, I had given up smoking before I went into rehab for drinking, and everybody smokes in (rehab). I'm smoking again now, and not drinking. I don't know which is the worse of the two evils, but one thing at a time, that's what I say."
Wood's sobriety and the Stones' productivity only bode well for the future -- and, they concur, there will be a future. As Richards notes, "We have to go out there and find out if it can be done. Why can't you have a grown-up rock 'n' roll as well as the influx from the young end? It would be a terrible waste for us to get this far down the line and not carry on."
Others aren't so sure that's necessary. Noel Gallagher of Oasis, another British band that took both musical and attitudinal lessons from the Stones, balks at the idea of the Stones continuing for the long term.
"They've looked ridiculous for 10 ... years,'' Gallagher says. "Mick Jagger in tights at 60? Are you sure? Come on; it's not right, is it?"
But Rod Stewart, a Stones contemporary and former bandmate of Wood's, says it's time to stop niggling and give the group it's due.
"I think they're the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world; no one's ever gonna take that away from them," Stewart says.
"They might be looking a bit ancient now, but it's what they do; they're the best at it, and good luck to 'em."
The Stones, meanwhile, pay little heed to what others have to say. "I think from everyone's awareness and focus, there's no reason why we can't keep on rocking, you know?" Wood says.
Richards, meanwhile, clarifies that there's no master plan. "The way the Stones do it is you never plan nothing," he says. "Whatever happens is what is. So I don't know when we'll be done, pal; you tell me."
After 40 years, however, it hardly seems like our place to do that.