Sunday, May 05, 2013

Are "the greatest rock and roll band in the world" any good?

There's only one way that the Rolling Stones are going to restore their lustre now that we know the market for tickets to see them on their valedictory tour is soft. They're going to have to do something which they haven't really had to worry about since the 80s, which is to play really brilliant shows.

Round about Live Aid, when outdoor gig going became just another branch of the international leisure industry, audiences decided that they would give the biggest bands slack on the musical front as long as they made up for it in sense of occasion. We won't say that your playing is ropey as long as you persuade us we're seeing "the greatest rock and roll band in the world". It was a confidence trick.

The last time I saw them was around that time in the 100 Club on Oxford Street. They were doing one of their "back to the clubs" column inch grabbers. There were just a few hundred people in the place. Sight lines weren't a problem. The audience weren't distracted by threatening weather or jets going into Heathrow.

And you know what? They weren't all that good. They had grown so used to playing on a certain scale that they could no longer rein in the gestures to suit the fact that the audience were under their noses and not in a different postal code. Keith Richards and Ron Wood played like men watching each other's moves but not listening to the noise coming out of each other's amps.

I've caught live recordings since then and it doesn't seem to have got much better.  Since Bill Wyman left it's gone the other way. This is their official YouTube channel's view of their opening in L.A. this week.  Jagger's urge to sell the song has got in the way of his just singing it. Gwen Stefani does "Wild Horses" as if she's in the West End in some musical based on their old hits. They play "The Last Time" as if they're the only people in the world who don't know that it's all about that echoey old guitar lick and the clanging tambourine and not just another "will this'll do?" boogie vamp.

(This is where McCartney scored. He got younger guys in his band, people who'd grown up listening to his records. They knew how to reproduce them live better than he did.)

And it's all too fast. All of it.

Go back and listen to their great records, from their very earliest ones to "Start Me Up", and the magnificence comes from the slur, the implied threat of the drums, the tail dragging whip of the rhythm section, the feeling of something being reined in in case it got out of control, the sound of something being played slightly slower than other bands would dare.

Jagger at his best was not manically patrolling the apron of the stage as if terrified of losing your attention. He was standing there and commanding it. Maybe he's running up and down working like crazy nowadays because he knows that they don't sound right.

Whether or not Glastonbury turns out to be their last hurrah it'll be treated  as such. They'll be in your living room where they won't be able to retreat behind their mystique. Between now and then they should see if they can rediscover how to rock. I'm actually not interested in "the greatest rock and roll band in the world". I'd just like them to be, as the kids say, any good.


  1. You're right, of course. Just because they made some bloody good records doesn't mean they know how to play them live. From '67 to '74 everything they did sounded different; but when they tried recreating it live it was put through the Jagometer and got turned into a one speed, one size fits all Stones on 45 identikit dirge) and the plot was lost well and truly.

  2. In Bill Janovitz's fine 33⅓ book on 'Exile On Main St.', he remarks that the two major components sorely missed in the past few decades of stadium-filling Stones revues are Keith's raw, yowling backing vocals (I often think of a particular moment, 'I'm the rank outsider' in 'Tumbling Dice', but there are countless songs that are poorer without Keith's singing), and Bill Wyman's bass guitar. Both elements were replaced by very good musicians, but something has been lost, and it has been really puzzling that they couldn't hear it themselves.

    Similarly, they have had the frustrating tendency to deliver even their finest, most beloved riffery ('Brown Sugar', 'Jumpin' Jack Flash') in the most half-baked manner imaginable - the wrong kind of slur, and a sound that possibly wouldn't be accepted of a Stones tribute band.

    As you've pointed out, 'The Last Time' in that Youtube clip of the L.A. shows they're still wide of the mark at times (and the Gwen Stefani bit is just unfortunate), but I've seen the full Newark show from December and was impressed - I think they have started to make their looseness a virtue again over the past few tours, and become a better live act again. Hopefully they won't seem exposed and out of their depth at Glastonbury. It'll certainly be an interesting moment, but Hyde Park will be their last hurrah for now.

  3. I presume the special guests like Gwen Stefani are their attempts to reach a younger generation.In the Scorcese film 'Shine A Light' the best bits were when it was just the band onstage - the guests were an unnecessary distraction.

  4. Totally agree, and very well expressed. I really thought the Stones wouldn't play Glastonbury, because they wouldn't want their show, warts and all, to be on TV. (And I'm still not convinced it will be!)

    Take U2 at Glasto last time: their show was great for us punters in the field but on TV it was a different story and they were slated. And they played their songs perfectly. I can see even worse flak hitting the Stones post-Glasto.

  5. The only time I ever saw them was at Roundhay Park, in 1982. Even over thirty years ago there was a sense that they were too old to rock'n'roll and it was rumoured that it would be their last tour. I remember the same assumption when they toured in the '90s. But now they certainly are too old to carry off the swagger and it's sad to watch them try.

  6. I also saw the Stones in 82, thinking it might be my last chance, and it wasn't all that. The best thing about being at Wembley that year was the amazing sounds Black Uhuru produced in support. From 62 to Miss You is a magnificent body of work, unfortunately they've becime they're own tribute band

  7. Couldn't agree more David. Part of the reason I wish I could've gotten in to the Echoplex gig here in Los Angeles is because to me the Rolling Stones basically turned into a glorified bar band after Mick Taylor left.

    So naturally I'd prefer to hear them in a bar! Not in some arena for $600 bloody dollars!

    The greatest bands are those with chemistry, they are not interchangeable bits. You can't replace a Bill Wyman. It doesn't matter how good a session player Darryl Jones is. For that matter you can't really replace a Mick Taylor either.

    If the Stones had any balls left they would've said "'ere Woody, Darryl - we are gonna do a few 50th anniversary gigs with Mick and Bill for a laugh - just go have a holiday and we'll get back to you later". Instead they insult both Mick and Bill by relegating them to 2-song "guest star" roles.

  8. I dont think age automatically means you outgrow the capacity to deliver and update your rock and roll. Despite a few messy moments and an arena guitar tone that didnt always translate well to documentation, Led Zep's 07 concert proved that magic and swagger and reintrepretation can happen at any age. Page, Plant, Jones proved you dont have to be a parody of yourself. They owned it.Seems tragic that the Stones can't get to that place themselves.

  9. A pal of mine lent me the "Some Girls" Tour DVD and on returning it I thanked him for saving my $600+ in case I lost my head and felt the need to go see the Stones on tour. I was left wondering what all the fuss was about. Admittedly, I never owned a Stones album, confident I could find them somewhere on my radio dial at any moment in the St. Louis market.

    I contrast this to 'Celebration Day' which I saw in the theatre and it raised goosebumps. I got the package for X-Mas and, popping in the CD, realized at once Zeppelin is not the Zeppelin of 'Song Remains the Same'. But, even if Plant's voice has lost a step (maybe just a half-step) or two, at least he still wants and tries to channel the Golden God when he's on stage.

  10. Am I the only one who just can't stand seeing bands playing in this centre or that Stadium? Even the Glastonbury stage has no allure for me. I want to be surrounded by the noise and experience f the band and not 60,000 pac-a-macs.

    In fact the last time I did see a band in that situation was the Stones at Wembley in 1990(?). Queen et al at Knebworth in '84 (?) just left me laughing at my disengagement with it all.

    Give me the Brixton Academy any day. Rock 'n Roll is an indoor sport.

  11. The Stones are playing here in Las Vegas tonight but the cheapest tix are $248.00 which makes my eyes water. I'm heading to see Os Mutantes for $25.00 instead. other options were Donny and Marie on the east side of town, with bizarrely The Osmonds competing for attention over to the west!