Further thoughts inspired by the recent 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones’ first gig.
When you’re the World’s Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band, people are eager — perhaps way too eager — to roll tape every time you start playing.
And when you have millions of fans worldwide, there’s money to be made from selling those tapes — no matter their level of sonic fidelity, or what kind of burping or stumbling they contain.
I went through a phase years ago where I downloaded a bunch of live recordings off the Internet. It roughly coincided with a phase when I rediscovered my love for the Rolling Stones. (The first phase is over; the second, not necessarily.)
So, click here, click there, and I downloaded a whole mess of stuff.
And at the end of this jag, when I sat down and added it up, I had no fewer than eight full CDs of the Rolling Stones rehearsing.
(Plus a ninth bonus disc of them frantically trying to get their shit together. I’ll get to that.)
Since the 50th anniversary of the first Stones gig is probably pretty close to the 50th anniversary of the first Stones rehearsal, I dug out all those CDs and listened to them again.
I thought it would be fun to write brief reviews of each one. And if you’ve gotten this far, maybe you’ll think it’s fun to read ’em:
June 1, 1975, Baton Rouge, Louisiana (2 CDs): This isn’t exactly a rehearsal; it was the first performance of the Stones’ ’75 Tour of the Americas, with a paying audience in attendance.
But the Baton Rouge shows, according to various reports, were considered warmup gigs — a chance for the band to break in new guitarist Ronnie Wood in a relatively low-pressure, out-of-the-way setting. So they were sort of public rehearsals.
I’ve heard worse documents of the ’75 tour than this one. It’s an audience recording, and the fidelity and the performance are both OK, especially if you turn it up. The band sounds like it was ready enough for the “real” gigs to come.
The set list features a few semi-rarities and period pieces, like “Luxury” and “If You Can’t Rock Me” (from the Stones’ most current studio album, It’s Only Rock n’Roll) plus two tunes with Billy Preston singing lead. They’re not must-hear by any means, but they are unique to that period.
I’d give this one a solid three stars out of five, especially if you ain’t too proud to listen to audience tapes.
1978 U.S. Tour rehearsals, Woodstock, N.Y. (2 CDs): Fast-forward to May and June 1978. Woody is now a full-time Stone, and they’re trying to get their act together once again in preparation for a tour behind the not-yet-released Some Girls album.
This recording boasts 40 songs (including a few false starts.) And its set list would make it seem like the ultimate Stones concert, ranging from old warhorses to less frequently played tunes like “Shake Your Hips” and Chuck Berry’s “Beautiful Delilah.”
The songs are rough takes at best, though; what we’re hearing here presumably took place a lot closer to the first day of rehearsals than the last.
On most of the songs, Jagger contents himself with singing a single rough verse and then dropping out of earshot, leaving Keef, Woody and the piano player (Ian McLagan?) to bounce bum chords and aborted leads off each other until they decide to break for more blow.
There is some marginal appeal in listening to the WGRn’RB blowing the dust off, I suppose.
And Keith and Woody’s marvelously grimy 1978 guitar tone is very much in evidence here. I crave that tone the same way I sometimes crave Old Bay seasoning; and while Some Girls is a better place to get my fix (for the guits, not the seasoning), this recording works too.
Two stars out of five, then.
“Saturday Night Live” rehearsals, Westchester, New York, Oct. 6, 1978: The Stones’ last live performance of 1978 was broadcast live to millions of U.S. TV viewers when the band appeared on “Saturday Night Live.”
SNL biographers Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad later wrote that the Stones peaked too early: They were a force of nature at rehearsals, but were burned out by airtime.
The CD I have (which features no fewer than six versions of “Respectable”) builds up some steam from time to time. But the fidelity is so crappy that you can’t appreciate it. Some of the songs sound like they were recorded by somebody a few floors below, while others have so much disorienting tape warp and wobble that they sound positively dubby.
Oh, yeah: There’s a version of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” that reputedly features John Belushi singing harmony. Don’t be too impressed.
One star out of five.
August 12, 1989, Toad’s Place, New Haven, Connecticut: Having drilled in central Massachusetts for the 1989 Steel Wheels comeback tour, the Stones booked a sneak gig at a famous New Haven nightclub to test-drive some of their material before a small paying audience.
Only 11 songs on the set list — ten classics and “Sad Sad Sad,” which … well, it was 1989, and you gotta at least pay lip service to the new stuff, knumean?
As for the older stuff, it’s a little slower than it might be. But it’s the right kind of tight-but-loose, and both band and crowd sound like they’re having a good time.
Some pretty strong performances here, plus pretty good audio from what sounds like an audience recording. And Mick gets off one of the best lines of any of these CDs at the end of the show: “We’re gonna go practice some bridges. Good night!”
Three-and-a-half stars out of five, and maybe even edging up toward four.
August 29, 1989, John F. Kennedy Stadium, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (2 CDs): Two nights before the proper opening of the Steel Wheels tour, the Stones set up at Philly’s decrepit JFK Stadium and ran through their set, with someone making high-quality tape off the soundboard.
Again, the tunes seem to be a little slow; maybe the presence of 90,000 screaming people was needed to give the Stones a kick in the ass. The piano player (McLagan again?) is also a little louder in the mix than he might be, with Keef and Ronnie a little undermixed.
That said, the performances are still strong. The back-to-back Eighties blast of “Undercover of the Night” and “Harlem Shuffle” in Set One sounds better than you’d think. So do the Sixties jawns in Set Two, including “Little Red Rooster,” “Paint It Black” and “2,000 Light Years From Home.”
The version of “Midnight Rambler” is especially interesting, given the prominence of the keyboard.
It doesn’t have the sheer sonic ferocity of the Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! version. (Not much does.) Instead, it sounds like the way some senior torchbearer of the blues might have interpreted the song. Less immediately hellbent, but still potent.
Three-and-a-half stars out of five.
Which brings us to the CD of the Stones trying to get their shit together — in front of paying audiences.
13 Nervous Breakdowns is a fan-compiled CD of some of the worst moments in Stones concert history. Every so often, the thin rope that binds the Stones together onstage unravels completely. And this is what it sounds like.
A few examples:
- “She’s So Cold,” from a 1982 London show, in which Keith and Charlie Watts manage to start on opposite beats and stubbornly refuse to give in to each other.
- “It’s Only Rock n’ Roll” from the Jersey Meadowlands in ’97, when Jagger responds to the song’s Chuck Berry-styled guitar intro by beginning to sing the wrong song (“Star Star.”)
- “Midnight Rambler” from Seattle ’72, featuring a solid two minutes of tuning up, followed by a false start that sounds like amplifier problems.
This isn’t really something I listen to a lot. But I like the fact that someone was irreverent enough to put it together.
And it’s kinda droll to know that, despite all those hours of rehearsing over all those decades, the Stones are still loose enough to completely drop the ball from time to time.
Two-and-a-half stars out of five, for comedy value.