I have been lucky enough to see many of my musical favourites in concert. I say lucky, I had to buy the tickets, turn up at the right place at the right time on the right day, so I’ve been coordinated enough really. OK it’s a list…the Who,Captain Beefheart, Neil Young, Van Morrison & a bunch of others. I’ve seen & heard great artists deliver little slices of transcendency but there has only been the one time when a singer of a band walked on to the stage & I thought “Bloody Hell. I’m in the same room as Mick Jagger !”
In May 1976 the Rolling Stones paid some attention to that terrible North-South divide we have in the UK…the Midlands. Birmingham has always had pretensions to being our “Second City” but could provide no adequate venue for the “greatest rock & roll band in the world”. The last time around, 1973, the band played 2 nights at the Odeon, admittedly a big cinema but a cinema. Stadium Rock was not here yet but was inevitably coming. To see the band Brummie fans would have to travel the 20 miles to the Bingley Hall, Stafford. Our little gang gathered at the train station to board the special train. I say special, there was no John Pasche “tongue & lip” logo on a Silver Train to take us all down the line (oh, oh). The ready-to-be-condemned rolling stock was rammed. We took our beer & our smokes into a gap between carriages & had our own party. At Stafford station we were transferred to buses for the final leg of our trek. We were too high to be this close to these people.
The new LP was “Black & Blue”. Nowadays the 3 records after “Exile”, “Goat’s Head Soup”, “It’s Only Rock & Roll” & this one are excluded from the pantheon of great Stones records. To lose one guitarist, Brian Jones, may be regarded as a misfortune but to lose another, Mick Taylor, looked like carelessness. “Rehearsing guitar players, that’s what that one was about” said Keith about “Black & Blue”. A parade of contenders passed through the studio, 3 of them made the LP but Ron Wood, surely born to be a Stone, got the job. In 1976 a new Stones LP was still a big deal. Critic Lester Bangs thought it was all over for the band in their “old age”, Robert Christgau wrote “not dead by a long shot”. 4 weeks at #1 in the USA meant that everybody was earning. “Hand of Fate”, “Memory Motel”, “Fool To Cry” & some other good ones, that’s “Black & Blue”.
On arrival at the Staffordshire County Showground our eyes told us we were in a big basic building. Our noses contributed the info that it had recently been in use as some sort of cowshed ! With the grubby train & now this we were rolling strictly second class tonight. No matter, we found our own piece of concrete floor & listened to the support act, the Meters. You heard mate, Art, Leo, George & Zigaboo, Allen Toussaint’s houseband. “Cissy Strut”, “Look-A Py Py”, “Just Kissed My Baby”, all that good stuff & more. They were great.There was a long wait before the Stones arrived. I think that Keith & Ron were into a game of Scrabble or Bill had some knitting to finish. People were getting impatient, the lack of any comfort or distraction was not helping. We were used to standing on football terraces on a Saturday afternoon & we knew why we were here. What was wrong with these people ?
Then it was the “Bloody Hell” moment. From right here, right now in 2013 I could tell you that Keith stroked out the opening riff to “Honky Tonk Woman” & the crowd went wild. He did & we did. It was when the singer walked to the microphone & acknowledged the herd that we knew that everything was going to be just fine. “I met a gin soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis”, slurred Mr Charisma & away we went. I’m not sure for how long but it could not be long enough. This version of the Stones lacked the satanic majesty of “Get Yer Ya Yas Out”. I think the debacle at Altamont, while hardly the end of the 60s, finished the “Devil’s Ringmaster” palaver. Neither were they the drug-fuelled murky magnificents of “Exile”. That much ennui, it’s gonna be the death of you. What we got was a toughened, professional unit, one that was built to last. A Stones that could roll & has rolled forever.
There were a few contenders for that “greatest band” title & the Stones made a strong case for, at least, a podium finish. Keith & Ronnie were a natural fit, they knew just how that dual guitar went. Keith could confidently flow into just pure riffage (perhaps the greatest sight in rock), even investigate whatever had been chopped out onto his amp, knowing that the notes were in capable hands. It was a vigorous sound, the new songs were well built if not intense. “Starfucker”…hell yeah! “You Can’t Always Get…” leading into two from “Exile”, “Happy” & “Tumblin’ Dice” was an irresistible crescendo orchestrated by Jagger. Billy Preston (that’s the Billy P…) got two solo tunes while we & the band caught a breath. The enormous finish of “Midnight Rambler”, “Brown Sugar”, “Jumping Jack Flash” & “Street Fighting Man”, Jagger astride a giant inflatable penis, confetti cannons showering the crowd was as exciting as any concert I have ever attended. Not because of the big prick onstage but because of the music.
The Stones were giving their audience what they thought we wanted. The set list for the 41 gigs was fairly static. They were right about the live shows, we did want the hits. We also wanted another Stones LP that we had to play when we got in the house, In 1978, with a scoop of the new energy in British music, “Some Girls” was just that. It was the last great Stones record & the much publicized tours of the world’s stadiums became a parade of past proficiency with elements of persistence, even pantomime. In 1976 we could not give a flying one about the future.
We were on the cruddy train back home, picking coloured paper out of each others hair like a troop of grooming chimps. Only now were we playing the “Oh, they didn’t play…” game. Seriously, the transport was poor, we had no beer, we were tired & we really did not care. We had been to more than a gig. It had been an event, one of a kind, we had seen the Rolling Stones. Some years later we were walking down the Charing Cross Rd in London’s glittering West End. It was around midnight & as we passed the entrance to the Marquee Club a very bedraggled figure was dragged /carried by 2 burly minders right in front of us into a waiting limo. “Bloody Hell !”, we said, “that was Keith Richards”. Those Stones had still got it !