13 July 2013
It’s only Rock’n’Roll, but I like it. And judging by the tens of thousands of other people prepared to ram themselves into Hyde Park and spend this July afternoon cooking slowly like rotisserie chickens under the blazing summer sun (ha ha, how I’ve longed say that these past years!), I’m not the only one that feels that way.Last summer, the incredible success of the London Olympics surprised many a nay-sayer and doom-monger with the sheer intensity of the passion and conviviality that characterised it. Whilst the George Monbiots of the world wrung their hands with worry over CO2 emissions and ‘social cleansing’ – as if we needed the Olympic Games as a fig-leaf for displacing the marginalised from London, haven’t you noticed what they’ve been doing to social housing for decades? – everyone else just said “Fuck it”, looked on it as a wild, carefree dance on the edge of the economic precipice and carried on partying like it was 1899. And you know what? In the twelve months that followed, barely a soul continued to really give a shit about SAP ratings or the displacement of the artists’ units at Hackney Wick, but they have continued to look for any and every opportunity to gather together, one nation under a groove, and vent the enormous levels of torque that have built up on them by the sheer pressure of the years we’re living through right now.
There is no way that we can influence bank willingness to lend (despite the £375 billion of quantitative easing they’ve been happy to Hoover up like foie gras geese willingly participating in their own obscene fattening), or get rid of contamination in the food chain (who knew that shit meat contained, well, shit?), or stop the despicable bloodbath in Assad’s Syria (didn’t the Arab Spring work out so well?), but we can seek our chances to blot it all out and find some things in the world that give it half-way decent meaning. It’s simple man, Newton’s Third Law of Motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And here is that reaction.
It might be slightly churlish to verbalise the fact that on this same site 44 years previously the quality of the supporting acts might be considered, ahem, ever so slightly superior: the ever-bonkers Third Ear Band, Roy Harper, King Crimson (who hadn’t even released an album at that stage!), Family and the Battered Ornaments (the Battered Ornaments!), a band now so low on everyone’s radar that they are practically coal miners. Today we have Tom Odell, who can’t even actually make it on the day due to a “chest infection” (well done Tom, good call, you won’t really regret that when you’re old and grey and haven’t sold an album in close on 37 years) and Jake Bugg (who gives a creditable performance, even if his introduction to the big hit “Lightning Bolt” does make it sound like he’s about to perform “Ironing Board”). The crowd, however, seem strangely unmoved by any of the comings and goings on stage – they are here for one thing, and one thing only.In the meantime there is drink to be drunk, food to be eaten and sun to be soaked up to the very last drop. Weirdly the queues seem OK, little more than those in the pub on an average Friday night, and the prices much the same. Odd. I came here expecting to be fleeced rotten as part of a captive audience, only to find that it just highlights how I am fleeced rotten elsewhere most of the rest of the time. Not a huge revelation I grant you, but discomfiting nonetheless. Fiona tells me that in Ray Ban Aviator shades and straw Stetson I look like Hunter S. Thompson. I think this is a good thing. Is this a good thing? Yes, I think it is. Except it makes me want to have a cigarette holder too, and doing some serious smoking. I’ll just have to content myself with some more Doritos instead.
At just gone 8.20pm the PA system goes quiet, and a surge of expectancy breaks over the crowd with an acceleration that is just breath-taking. Suddenly, the huge projection screens flicker into life, displaying an old-fashioned black and white countdown number sequence. What this betokens is some glorious footage of the 1969 gig – the audience rather than the band – an audience estimated at somewhere between a quarter and a half a million people tuning in, turning on and freaking out, all desperate for their first glimpse of The Rolling Stones in nearly two years, and curious at the imminent unveiling of Brian Jones’ replacement, 20-year old Mick Taylor.Well it’s 1969, OK. It’s incredible to think about the time that has since elapsed, and just how much has happened since then; events, dear boy, events, as Harold Macmillan may, or may not, have said. One could fill a tome the size of Moby Dick analysing them all (ask Dominic Sandbrook, he has), but one thing it does bring into sharp, and somewhat unavoidable, relief is our relationship with Rock Music. Whether one subscribes to the ‘Altamont as Death of the Sixties’ school of thought or not, in July 1969 Rock Music was still seen as a socially transformative force, a battleflag for the armies of the righteous to march beneath, capable of fuelling (perhaps even causing) social progression, acting as a soundtrack for opposition to the Vietnam War and morphing straights into freaks, velvet loon clad warriors who would battle the forces of oppression to achieve liberation for the nation, for the mind, and for the genitals.
Close on half a century later, and I think it’s fair to say that our expectations of Rock Music are now somewhat more circumspect than that. Would Roy Harper have blown the gig because of a ‘chest infection’? Would he fuck. Rock Music mattered then in a way that, for better or worse, it simply can’t in 2013. Yet, in a curious Möbius Strip paradox, all this actually seems to have had a rejuvenating effect on The Stones and their career. After the small, guttering flame of the band’s recording greatness finally burned out with the much-publicised 1980s spat between Jagger and Richard(s), and the pastel-clad nightmare of the Dirty Work album, The Stones, once cock of the walk (both literally and metaphorically), found themselves wandering the wilderness, viewed vaguely as sell outs by those that that participated in the counterculture, and as akin to the embarrassing uncle who gets pissed and maudlin at family Christmas gathering by those younger – they were too busy exploring the bold new horizons of Arsequake, Rave, Shoegaze, House, Dance, Ambient, Illbient, Emo, Romo (remember that one..?) and a thousand other splintered genres and subgenres, each one seemingly the world in a grain of sand, Heaven in a wild flower.
Whereas Robert Greenslade had once portrayed Jagger as the absolute aching acme of cool in Through America with The Stones, his document of their monumental 1972 tour of Exile on Main Street, now Jagger was, quite simply, naff. Though not in the Polari sense, obviously. For years it became a given, it became de rigeur, that critics would complain about ‘old wrinkly-face’ (or some such other devastatingly witty sobriquet) still wanting to perform and asking, vaguely indignantly, just when he was going to stop embarrassing us all and pack it all in – ‘I know that BB King is nearly 70, but that’s different.’ Is it? Why? No-one could ever really make a truly convincing, or more often even just half-cogent, case for saying this, they just knew it to be true, and that was enough. See also Bowie, David (…you know who you are…)
Yet, imperceptibly, over the past few years something strange happened, a silent tectonic plate movement that no-one really noticed, and that went totally unheralded until the band’s 50th anniversary, starting at Glastonbury. The oldies from the counterculture are now nearer the end than they ever imagined that they could be, and are now getting dewy-eyed looking back at what they lived through, and at the lined faces and grey, thinning hair that stare back at them from the mirror. It was one thing to go out in a purple blaze of drug-fuelled glory in ’69; it’s quite another to be enduring hip replacement operations, pacemakers and aggressive tumours. When you’ve just noticed that four decades have flown past in five minutes, and that it’s now much, much later than you think, suddenly everything takes on a different hue.A generational awareness of its own mortality has made it look to one of its greatest totems in a new light. And as the lyrics to “Street Fighting Man” patently attest, Jagger never claimed to want palace revolution – the game he always played was compromise solution. And you know what? Now maybe that doesn’t look like such a capital crime. The grey freaks are starting to just doff their collective hat at things like achievement, longevity, just the sheer ability to make your way through it all (relatively) unscathed. Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel? Clearly not the establishment of the 1960s. Jagger is one butterfly clearly still very much alive this summer’s day in the park. And for those of his generation, perhaps they’ve realised that it’s now time to forgive him and to revel about the extraordinary times they all had together when they were young.
And for the young? Well, so used are people now to a cycle of industrialised musical product, with a built-in obsolescence whose terminator gene – fed with the Baby Bio of social media – means it’s hard to remember who was hot yesterday afternoon, let alone last year, that the quest for the novel and the innovative has perhaps given way to a more sober assessment of what is actually good; of where it actually all came from; of what has endured; of what is once and future beautiful, and not merely a sparkling gewgaw that turns to dust in the hand. Let it Bleed is now 44 years old, as old as Al Jolson’s musical Big Boy was when The Stones released it. Jesus. And you know what? “Gimme Shelter” sounds as good now as it did then. Perhaps even better. Many have now asked themselves ‘Why should I stand around in the Dublin Castle and watch two young men strutting around in flowing gypsy chic scarves pretending to be The Glimmer Twins for the 8,773rd time, when I can actually see The Glimmer Twins themselves?’ (…you know who you are…)Why indeed? Rock has finally had to start addressing its own inherent ageism (some might point, not without cause, to The Stones’ own role in creating that, their “We are not old men. We are not worried about petty morals” attitude) and The Stones are one of the first, and biggest, beneficiaries of that. Keef looks every second his 69 years…but so what, he’s Keith Richards FFS! Every hussling young punk, young Punk, who has picked up a guitar in the past half century has wanted to be him. And here he is. Alive. Kicking. Playing the guitar. An absolute force of nature. Tom Waits tells amusingly of watching in absolute amazement as Keef bounds up the stairs of the building two at a time whilst Tom waits for the lift, sorry, elevator, or plods wheezingly upwards in his wake.
And Jagger? Well, he’s Mick Jagger, and there’s really precious little that spilling yet more ink on the subject will actually illuminate. When you’ve written lyrics like “Sympathy for the Devil” (“rode a tank, held a generous rank, while the Blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank”), then you can come back and criticise. But not beforehand, OK? Good.It feels like being overwhelmed by the sea, the waves are coming so fast and powerfully that you have to gulp for air – “Sympathy for the Devil” is announced with an enormous explosion of red light and sulphurous gas; “Miss You” has the entire audience ooo ooo ooo ooo, ooo ooo ooo-ing as one; “Happy” sees Keef croak through his glorious career vocal highlight; “Jumping Jack Flash” lets everyone embrace their inner Satan, and “Doom and Gloom” (their recent single) sounds as good as everything else they play tonight. That is, unbelievably great.
Thirteen songs in, far from unlucky for us or, I hope, for him Mick Taylor wanders onto the stage, picks up his guitar and launches into “Midnight Rambler.” Written on the Amalfi Coast in Italy whilst Jagger and Richards were on holiday there, the stunning, light-filled, beauty of the environment failed to translate into the material, producing instead one of the dark side’s greatest ever anthems, a creepy biography of early 1960s serial killer, the Boston Strangler (also referenced in Sixties Garage classic “Dirty Water” by The Standells). This mammoth epic, whose dark, murderous power the years have done nothing to diminish, reminds that Taylor is a man for whom the word ‘underrated’ could have been invented. Taylor’s ability to combine free-flowing melody with lower register growl set a new post-Hendrix benchmark in Rock guitar, once which was Xeroxed endlessly in the years that followed, although rarely ever being properly attributed to Taylor.Oh mercy, this is too much. Even now, even after soooooo many years of Rock Music losing its way, losing its transformative purpose, this knocks me for six. It’s The Rolling Stones, with Mick Taylor, playing “Midnight Rambler” in Hyde Park. I feel like I want to cry.
After having pulled the plug on The Boss last summer, no-one is under any illusion that The Royal Borough will pull the plug if we run so much as a minute over time. With only two songs for encore, The Stones make them count, and how. Crystal clear choral voices usher in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – my favourite flavour is always cherry red – and finally, inevitably, but not inappropriately, they finish with “Satisfaction,” whose scathing critique of ersatz commercialisation seems as right for 2013 and the administration of David Cameron as it ever did for 1965 and the era of Harold Wilson.
When I got home from seeing The Stones at Wembley Stadium on the Steel Wheels tour in July 1990 I stayed up till dawn filling my diary with angry scribbles about the integrity of Crass, and the horrors of musically-bankrupt tax exiles appearing as mere blips on the horizon for the outrageous price of £22.50. Just when will old wrinkly face stop embarrassing us all and pack it all in?
Yet everything changes. Times have changed. I’ve changed. Maybe that’s just what growing older does to you. Either way, tonight The Stones are fucking magnificent.
Words: -David Solomons-
Pictures: -Fiona MacAlister-