To mark the recent fiftieth anniversary of The Rolling Stones’ first gig we revisit Martin Cloonan’s candid examination of his experiences of them live through the years. This post examines his motivations for wanting to see the band live, set against a wide ranging account of how their career has intertwined with his own life, alongside the popular culture and society of the UK.
This piece began as something of a catharsis and an earlier version was first presented at a meeting of the Scottish Pop Academic Network (SPAN), an informal grouping of popular music scholars which meets twice a year in Glasgow. The thinking behind SPAN was that it would provide a space for academics to “think out loud” and to present work in progress outwith the more formal constraints of departmental research papers, conferences and the demands of the UK’s research assessment processes. It was to be accountable purely to itself.
SPAN began in 2002 and as one of the originators I took the opportunity presented by a visit of the Rolling Stones to my home town of Glasgow in 2003 to try and put together some thoughts about my relationship with “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World”. Insofar as I was arrogant enough to assume that anyone would be interested in it, perhaps this was my Nick Hornby Moment. So the SPAN paper became part of an attempt to explain to myself why I spent two consecutive nights and a great deal of money going to see a band who I was obsessed with in my teens (in the 1970s), but whose recordings hadn’t been musically interesting to me for at least 20 years.
I think that I’ve subsequently made a little peace with myself about my Stones obsession. However, that was a process and in order to explain it I want to beg the reader’s indulgence and do four things here. First I will make some forays into my own musical taste, trying to locate that within broader theories of tastes. Second, I want to say something about the Stones and what they might represent. I’ll then move onto the live experience of the Rolling Stones in 2003 and end by trying to bring it all together.
A Little Bit Me
I was born in 1958 in Farnham in Surrey, southern England. My Dad was, and at the age of 76 still is, a plumber. My Mum was a doctor’s receptionist. I was brought up in a relatively comfortable working class house which obviously benefited from the fact that my Dad was always employed, although in hindsight it became apparent to me that finances were often difficult. I had one brother, three years younger than me and, an extended network of aunties and uncles, all on my mother’s side.
In retrospect my education strikes me as pretty unexceptional. As was common in the early 1960s, I simply went to nearest state schools – infants, primary and secondary in succession. I narrowly failed the 11 plus and missed the chance to go to the local grammar school. So I went on to a secondary modern school and left with 5 ‘O’ levels. I then went on to College and left with 2 low grade ‘A’ levels, eventually returning to full time education in 1984 at the ripe old age of 26. Subsequently I never really left and find myself writing this as Professor of Popular Music at the University of Glasgow. It’s been some journey.
When I think about what my musical influences were during my childhood, it is clear that my parents had some impact, although neither were particularly passionate about music. Indeed one of my outstanding childhood memories is of my Dad routinely being somewhat disparaging about Top of The Pops. As both my parents worked, I was often left with my grandmother (“Nan”). At her house the radio was often on and I played with the newly founded Radio1 in the background. I recall listening to Radio 1 in its early days with DJs such as Jimmy Young (featuring recipes and him singing) and Tony Blackburn (with a really annoying pretend dog called Arnold). Nevertheless by the time I got to my teens I was convinced that Radio 1 was indeed as wonderful as its jingles claimed it to be and that pop music was a normal part of life.
The first record I bought was Peter Sarstedt’s “Where do you go to my lovely” (1969) and I also recall getting Hotlegs’ “Neanderthal Man” (1970) as a holiday present – I think after one of my parents had had a bingo win. A key influence was an Uncle with a great selection of singles which were produced for family parties at Christmas. He also had all The Beatles’ singles and EPs (and, I seem to recall, most of the Stones’) and my first LP was “Please Please Me” which came to me as a Christmas present. I can remember buying the “Let It Be” single and being very upset when the Beatles split (1970). I also bought all the early solo singles by the band members.
In my teens Marc Bolan was my first hero, succeeded by Elton John as I developed a taste for melancholic songs and music which could express feelings which I was far too inarticulate to express myself – something I still use music for.
As I progressed through the streamed classes at the top of the my Secondary Modern School I came into contact with people who looked down on my somewhat pop oriented tastes and preferred bands like Black Sabbath, Yes, Pink Floyd and a whole lot of prog rock. I was a pretty willing convert and soon bought into all the crap about ‘proper’ music and ‘not proper’ music. So by the time I was 16 and leaving school I was an Elton John fan, who had gone through a Beatles phase and was now flirting with Black Sabbath IV.
I don’t remember much about the College years, except that the Stones came to play an increasingly important part in my life. Part of the memory is of the music, but there was also a Mick Jagger t-shirt of which I was particularly fond and which I had ordered from the pages of NME. As I developed I remember two bands were key – Led Zep and The Stones.
I had been to my first gig at 15 (Elton John at the Hammersmith Odeon, supported by Kiki Dee) but at College gigs became a regular occurrence. So did discos – but only of a sort. I didn’t go to the sorts of discos which played 70s dance music or soul, partly because the musical snob that I quickly became thought that was not proper music and was for girls. Instead I went to the sort of club nights which were held on quiet nights when the “hairies” were allowed in, usually Sundays and Mondays. I wish I had a pound for every time I hurled myself around the floor to “Brown Sugar”.
At this point – the mid 1970s – most of the major British bands were in tax exile and not playing much in the UK. When they did, then, there was great excitement, especially in the music press with which I was increasingly obsessed.
So when Led Zeppelin played at Earls Court in 75 I was there (twice) for over 3 hours of excess, which I found a little disappointing. But when it was announced that the Stones were to play Earls Court in 76, I knew that I had to be there. I ended up going four nights out of the six they played. Needless to say I loved it, although in retrospect it was clear that they were not at their best for these shows.
By then I was tracking down every Stones album and single that I could at local markets and excursions to nearby towns. I also went to see the Stones at Knebworth in 76, Wembley in 81, Murrayfield in 99 and then twice in 2003. It doubtless ill becomes the pop academic to generalise from their own experience, but this is different. So here we go.
In terms of theories of taste we can look at things like class, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. I was working class, although beginning to come into contact with middle class kids via a limited amount of academic success. But I was never in any doubt that pop music was for “us” and classical for “them” (being working class in Surrey gives you some pretty clear insights into class structures), even though I had bought into hierarchies within pop.
Not only am I white, but so were all my friends and 1960s Surrey was a place where non-whites were seen as exotic and/or threatening (I’m not sure that that’s changed a lot in some parts of Surrey). It wasn’t simply that I didn’t have any non-white friends, but that I rarely saw any non-white faces. In retrospect I suppose I could say that the Stones (and the Beatles and Motown) were a way into black culture, but I simply accepted their R&B roots, without making many further enquiries and I guess that my record collection now remains predominantly white – something not helped by later affinity with punk and indie.
In terms of gender and sexuality, as a straight male to me the Stones were all the sex and drugs and rock roll that I could only dream of. Plus they obviously had money – which is always sexy. So let me move on to the band.
By the time I got to see the Stones in 1976 the press were already saying “this could be the last time”. Punk was on the rise and the Clash were singing that there would be “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones” in 1977. This was a time when acts in their 30s were seen as old and it is salutary to recall how much of punk’s ire was directed at earlier generations of musicians
The Stones’ Earls Court gigs of 1976 were also the occasion on which Princess Margaret visited the band backstage and the venue itself was much criticised as being too big. In retrospect the gigs can be seen as showing both the burgeoning respectability of rock’s aristocracy (which would culminate in Mick becoming Sir Michael) and a sense of alienation of ordinary fans from that aristocracy which was now more physically distant than ever from its audience and seemingly unconcerned about the harsh economic climate which characterised mid 1970s’ Britain.
The album the Stones were promoting at the time, Black and Blue was pretty average (hardly up there with Exile On Main Street or Sticky Fingers) and I remember being disappointed at the time – not that I admitted it. I had waited too long to hear new material from the band. Besides which I couldn’t let those people who were into “not proper” music see any sign of weakness.
So an over-sized venue, the presence of royalty, the band below their best and an average album being promoted. Apart from simply being in the presence of my idols, what is the attraction?
Musically the band come from a rhythm and blues tradition and have generally recognised (and paid homage to) their debts there. They were explicitly a covers band at first and seeing them play “Mannish Boy” in 2003, some 40 years down the line, was certainly a highlight for me. So, of course, the music was a key attraction. Hearing the sounds of the band at various family events obviously sparked something within me.
But they are also important culturally. Like the Beatles, the Stones are so much a part of how we think about the 1960s that it is hard to disentangle it all. Of course, they had the rebellious image which was used in what can retrospectively be seen as a somewhat clichéd opposition to The Beatles. They were long haired, scruffy and disdainful of authority. Here they certainly held an attraction to my adolescent self. Their seeming ability to say “fuck you” and live how they pleased was enormously attractive. Nor was I alone on the left in my affection for the Stones. Even Dave Harker, who sometimes comes across as the pinnacle of the po-faced left, saw fit to praise the Stones for their “marvellous lack of respect” (Harker 1980, p. 72). In their early biography they claimed themselves as rebels with a cause, that of Rhythm and Blues (cited Frith 1983, p. 70).
Although I couldn’t have distinguished between rebellion and revolution at the time, for a would-be socialist what I saw in the Stones was a form of freedom and it’s only since then that I have come to see how gendered, and in many ways reactionary, that form of rebellion was. This was rebellion within capitalism, not a revolution against it. At the time this would have been hard for me to disentangle. Then all I knew was that I was instinctively a socialist and the Stones (and others) were on my side against “them”.
In fact, the Stones encapsulated a particular sort of male, liberal, 1960s freedom.
They were anti-censorship, sang of being free to do what they wanted, were pro drugs and had a seemingly endless supply of women. For an unconfident, naive and, frankly, sexist would-be rebel/revolutionary from the home counties the idea that you could be ugly (or at least not conventionally attractive), seemingly have almost no responsibilities, write great songs, take as many drugs and drink as much alcohol as you wanted and still have women desperate to sleep with you was a pretty appealing one.
In fact one of the notable things about the band was how often they denied notions of having responsibilities. After their drugs best in 67 Jagger said “As far as I’m concerned we did pretty well because we never said everyone should take this or that. We never said you shouldn’t. We just left it up to everyone else which is the way it should be. Which is my version of responsibility” (Whiteley, 1997, p. 87). Or as Keith Richards said: “You don’t shoulder any responsibilities when you pick up a guitar or song because it’s not a position of responsibility” (ibid).
Or let us might consider the fact that Brian Jones had three illegitimate children and ignored them all (Street 1986, p. 137) – something which he might not have been able to do in the age of the Child Support Agency. In defence of this sort of thing Jagger said: “Rock and roll is not a tender medium; it’s raunchy and macho. There’s no such thing as a secure family-orientated rock and roll song.” (ibid, p. 132).
Meanwhile, as Frith (1983, p. 242) has noted rebellion is a particularly male thing. Certainly one thing the Stones were not rebelling against was traditional gender roles. The band’s sexism is evidenced in songs such as “Stupid Girl”, “Back Street Girl”, “Factory Girl”, “Some Girls” (it’s almost as if the word girl itself is an insult – something I would have certainly been complicit in), the ad for Black and Blue, “Starfucker”, “Under My Thumb” and so on and so forth. If you want evidence for male disdain for the female then you don’t have to look too far into the oeuvre of “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in The World”.
I’m not going to go into a close textual analysis here or to claim that text and context need to be considered. Instead I just want to note how many of my politically correct pals are also fans of the Stones and this includes at least one academic who has tried to emphasise Jagger’s androgyny and to deny his status as a cock-rock star, although quite how this squares with what we know about Jagger’s private life I’m not quite sure. Unless rebellion trumps sexism?
Meanwhile, as someone who has had his own problems dealing with responsibilities, perhaps this was why I loved the band. Whatever the reason, by the mid 1970s I was soon never seen without a Keith Richards badge or Stones t-shirt on. Richards’ drugs arrest and possible imprisonment in Toronto simply added to the glamour. Here was someone who was really taking on the establishment. Plus, of course, when the Stones got busted in 67 the pillar of the establishment the Times supported them – our side was winning!
As for me, well going to see the Stones four times didn’t help my A level revision much and so I got worse results than expected and missed out on University. For years I perpetuated the story that my trips to Earls Court to see the Rolling Stones had cost me my A level passes and I came to believe it myself. Whether or not it is true I don’t really know. But that fact that I came to believe it somehow seemed to seal a closer relationship with the band. I could, and did, even justify it. I told friends: “I can always take my A levels again, but I might not ever be able to see the Stones again”.
In many ways I guess that this showed a commitment to music and the ideology/mythology associated with some forms of rock. If, as Rolling Stone claimed, music was “the magic that can set you free”, then the Stones were my means of freedom, albeit one that was bought at the expense of the female part of humanity. At this point I was also very impressed by seeing Roger Daltrey saying in an interview that there is always one point in a great live gig where you totally lose yourself in the music – and the Stones did help me lose myself. This was the ultimate escape from all those responsibilities of adulthood which the Stones themselves seem to do so well at rejecting.
As far as the music itself is concerned, I do want to make it clear that I think that The Stones are a great band. They were a superb singles band, as the 80s Decca compilation, Rolled Gold, illustrates. “Satisfaction” still has claim to being one of the greatest rock songs of all time. “Brown Sugar” and “Honky Tonk Women” are also up there and employ my favourite technique of starting with one instrument before the rest of the band come in. “Jumping Jack Flash” is also tremendous – simply energy and arrogance. But I also like more esoteric stuff such as “Play With Fire”, “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby”, “19th Nervous Breakdown”, “Spider and The Fly” and so on.
Of the albums, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and, above all, Exile on Main Street, should all be considered compulsory in any serious record collection. (OK, forgive the non-detached approach here). Of course, it is over thirty years since the last of those great albums and to describe the band’s recorded output as “patchy” since then may be being charitable. Meanwhile the records last for ever, but what of the live show? What can I say about seeing the Rolling Stones in 2003?
Going to see the Stones in 2003 raises bigger questions about why people go to gigs. In part, for some members of the audience this is about processes of authentification. Musicians authenticate themselves as musicians by the ability to “cut it” live.
So did the band “cut it” live in 2003? They played Glasgow’s SECC venue (a large barn by the Clyde river, capable of holding around 10,000 people). At times Jagger got the words to some songs wrong (I know because I was trying to sing or shout along) and when he played along as a third guitarist the overall sound was, to my ears, pretty much the same as when he didn’t. Indeed, the sound itself was often so “muddy” that I couldn’t really say that the experience of seeing the Stones live at the SECC in September 2003 was about authenticating them as musicians.
Except, perhaps in one sense. In the era of Pop Idol and the X Factor, a band which has shown that it can perform live for forty years has a claim to authenticity which few can rival. This band has been “proper” musicians for forty years, when TV reality show acts such as Hearsay barely lasted one. So perhaps one of the appeals of “heritage” bands such as the Stones is a form of authenticity based primarily on longevity.
Partly, seeing the Stones live might have been about affirmation of personal taste – albeit at a price. The people there were not only seeing their favourites, they were paying through the nose to do so. Of course, a high ticket price can be seen as self justification. The Stones are obviously still good as they can get away with charging £150 a ticket.
The crowd was enthusiastic and seemingly determined to get its money’s worth. Here the band are more than capable of ensuring that all the crowd gets involved as Jagger, Richards and Wood all take turns at waving to particular parts of the crowd. So what’s 150 quid when you get Keef waving at you?
Part of the Stones’ lack of responsibility seemingly involves a contempt for others. Being a Stones fan is not about equality, it is about worshipping at the altar of “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in The World”. You can join in, but only on their terms. This is not like seeing your local football team and thinking that with a bit more effort you might make the team. It’s like going to see Barcelona and knowing you never will.
Nostalgia is obviously cited as a reason to go and see any heritage band. With the Stones it’s true that most of the truly great records are at least thirty years old. But any feelings of nostalgia are tempered. The live experience shows the Stones to be a functioning live act, arguably still “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World”. In the live experience the age of the songs, and to some extent that of the performers, can be irrelevant. The paradox of nostalgia as a live experience is that it is of the NOW and as long it provides the capacity for the audience to lose itself in the performance it has done its job.
So, yes, I was there for nostalgic reasons, but I was also there because the Stones were, and continue to be, an important part of my life. I simply couldn’t NOT go when they were two miles down the road. It would be like an old friend turning up unexpectedly in my local pub and me not going along to say ‘hi’. Of course, with the Stones you’re the one that ends up buying all the drinks but you still feel it’s worth it simply to be in their company again.
Partly the Stones live experience is about hype and extraordinary amounts of sponsorship and commercialisation – tens of different t-shirts, numerous corporate sponsors and special fan trips from the US to Europe to see them. Once again the fan is positioned as consumer, as worshiper.
For me one of the most gratifying parts of the show was the fact that it varied so much between the two nights – about a third of the set changed. Here I got my confirmation that they were still proper musicians, despite all the hype.
Press coverage was also interesting. Of course there were lots of references to the band members’ ages, but the overall tone was generally affectionate. Their status as elder statesmen seems to be well established, possibly aided in the UK by the success of the television programme Stella Street’s affectionate piss take of Mick and Keef. The reviews of the live show were also overwhelmingly positive, especially for the “intimate” show at London’s Astoria.
Another reason given for going to gigs is that of aura, of simply being in the same place as people whose music you spend a great deal of time listening to. For those of us for whom music is a constant backdrop to their lives, the chance to see the music makers in the flesh is a key part of the gig ritual. The chance to see the musicians one holds in awe actually playing in flesh and blood, as opposed to on one’s stereo, CD player, computer or i-pod, is a key incentive. This is, of course, all wrapped up in notions of stardom and celebrity in ways which are hard to disentangle. Personally I spend a lot of time wondering what Keith and Mick are up to and when I see them live, I know. I somehow find that strangely comforting.
What are we left with then? A middle-aged academic trying to come to terms with his youthful obsessions and the part they continue to play in his life. I’m aware in this of having my Hornby Moment and assuming that my tastes are of interest to a wider audience. This may well not be the case.
I’m also concerned that I rationalise my obsessions. I like to think that it ultimately is the music which draws me to see the Stones and that here I’d exercise some quality control so that, for example, if it was announced that they were touring and just going to play tracks from Dirty Work or Emotional Rescue then I would stay away.
But I wouldn’t.
In my youth the Stones captured so much of what I wanted to be – rich hedonistic womanisers who wrote great songs, took loads of drugs and seemed not to give a fuck about anything. So of course, I wanted to be Keith Richards, although at the end of the SECC shows I simply wanted to be Ronnie Wood – so perhaps I’m becoming more realistic. Overall going to see that Stones live in 2003 was a bit weird. As John Street wrote:
‘Even as Jagger works harder and harder to get fit for each successive tour, even as Charlie Watts… withdraw(s) further from the world of rock, even as Keith Richards beats his drug habit and settles into (relatively) conventional domesticity, the Stones continue to make a success of rock’s traditional mythology’.
And he wrote that in 1986! (Street 1986, p.196). But they do still “cut it” live. The show works.
At times in the past I’ve hidden my Stones obsession and now I’m celebrating it, or at least indulging it. Or perhaps I just jumped on the bandwagon of critical acclaim for the 2003 shows. But it didn’t feel like that. I don’t think that it was inevitable from my background that I would become a Stones fan, although the odds were stacked in favour of that. Whatever, I’m glad that I did. The pros still far outweigh the cons. You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you just might get what you need. Meanwhile if you really wanna know what the Stones live experience is like save your money and go and see them next time.
I’ll be there.
Frith, S. 1983. Sound Effects. London: Constable.
Harker, D. 1980. One For The Money. London: Hutchinson.
Street, J. 1986. Rebel Rock. Oxford: Blackwell
Whiteley, S. (ed.) 1997, Sexing The Groove. London: Routledge.
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