ON SUNDAY night, while the Rolling Stones were performing for 20,000 people at the O2 in London - the first of five concerts they will be playing in London and New York to mark their 50th anniversary - one of their early heroes was also making an appearance a few miles across town.

Bobby Womack is the veteran soul singer who wrote, and with his group the Valentinos recorded, the original version of It's All Over Now, which gave the Stones their first number one hit in Britain in 1964.

The Rolling Stones, who started out as a rhythm and blues covers band, borrowing heavily from black artists such as Womack (a debt which, to their credit, they have always warmly acknowledged), are now among the wealthiest entertainers in the world, a thriving corporation, steered by a CEO - Mick Jagger - who has demonstrated a mixture of shrewdness and business acumen that makes him the peer of any more straitlaced captain of industry.

The Stones are reportedly being paid more than £15 million ($A23 million) for their five shows. Ticket prices for the London performances range from £95 to £375, with a ''VIP hospitality'' ticket priced at £950, and no concessions for the pensioners who are the group's most devoted audience.

We can put aside Jagger's blithe explanations that when it comes to ticket prices the group are merely hapless victims of market forces, or Ronnie Wood's shrugging dismissal that ''we've got to make something''. The Stones long ago set the benchmark for shameless cynicism when it comes to exploiting ''the brand''. Among the luxury items on offer when the box-set of Exile On Main Street was released two years ago was a limited-edition box of three lithographs, ''signed individually by Mick, Keith or Charlie'', priced at £1999.99. Note, that's ''or'', not ''and''.

It is not only the price of the tickets, but the online lottery by which they have been dispersed that leads older - and poorer - fans to feel hard done by. In an earlier age, the devoted fan camping outside the theatre on the night before the show would have seen his loyalty rewarded with a ticket. Now, devotion requires very deep pockets, faster broadband speeds and, ideally, useful corporate connections.

This tour has been accompanied by a marketing campaign - a veritable deluge of radio and television appearances, photographic exhibitions and documentaries - that has pitched the Stones' appearances as akin to the Second Coming. (Jagger is much too canny to have spelt out that these could be their last-ever appearances, although the feeling that they might be can't have hindered sales.) ''The greatest rock and roll band in the world'' has become one of the greatest advertising slogans of all time.

It is an odd paradox that while the Stones have not made an album worth listening to since Tattoo You in 1981, they are bigger business now than they ever were - the prime example of sixties and seventies rock music as heritage industry. The Stones performing their greatest hits, Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds, Van Morrison performing Astral Weeks - these are rock music's equivalent of the blockbuster Jackson Pollock or David Hockney retrospective.

Some manage this trick better than others. It is a tired and familiar trope to point out the irony of old rockers, who can barely make it to the stage unaided, singing the anthems of their rebellious youth: the Who, for example, singing My Generation at the Olympics closing ceremony (or to be more precise, half the Who, the rhythm half having sadly fulfilled the song's prophecy). Paul McCartney has become a national institution, wheeled out at state occasions to sing the creaking Hey Jude - the postwar generation's We'll Meet Again - with ever-diminishing effect. Surely it's time to give it a rest?

The counter-argument is equally familiar. No one demands that the veteran bluesman B. B. King should hang up his guitar because he has reached a certain age. On the contrary, while the youthful fire may have gone out of his playing, there is still pleasure to be derived from a more relaxed, seasoned approach to his repertoire; and the blues are the blues, at whatever age you may be singing and playing them.

Both Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen write and perform songs that reflect the people they have become, as much as the people they once were, and become peculiarly timeless.

But the Stones seem to be a special case, subject to the peculiar curse that no matter how much their artistry may hold up - and their performance was, by all accounts, superb - their music is essentially and inescapably defined by the times in which it was made.

To listen to these songs is to immerse oneself in a legend of rock music as a vehicle of danger and subversion. Gimme Shelter and Sympathy for the Devil are potent reminders of our younger, more idealistic, more reprobate selves, when ''bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!'' - or in the Rolling Stones' case, with their delicious whiff of brimstone and debauchery, flirting dangerously with the prospect of going happily to hell. It's the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected not in tranquillity, but in a noisy attempt to hold on to the last, vanishing spectre of youth.

The songs still sound marvellous, of course, but it is the disjunction between the group who first performed them and the group who perform them now that seems so peculiar and incongruous.

In their prime the Stones were glamorous, dangerous and romantic; a different species altogether from the cadavers who emerged, as if from creaking coffins, on to the O2 stage. Jagger is, as they say, marvellous for his age but nobody would describe him as ''a soul survivor'' - unless one counts surviving the inconvenience of tax exile, two expensive divorces and, ''dozens'' of paternity suits.

It was always said of Jagger that his ambitions were to mingle with the aristocracy. He achieved that and more; in a sense, the Stones became the aristocracy, exhibiting some of the more disagreeable characteristics of their caste, with all the air of entitlement and the barely concealed disdain for the paying punter.

Another song comes to mind. ''Let's drink to the hard-working people/Let's drink to the lowly of birth/Raise your glass to the good and the evil/Let's drink to the salt of the earth.''

The song is Salt of the Earth by … the Rolling Stones. It was not a song they found time to play at the O2. They did, however, perform It's All Over Now. Surely now, it's really time it was.

Mick Brown writes on cultural issues for The Telegraph, London.