You can't go see Led Zeppelin, it would be best all round if the Velvet Underground never reformed again, and The Ramones are mostly dead. The Rolling Stones - conversely - are going to be in a stadium near you sometime soon, promoting a competitive new album, making it clear that they'll keep on trucking even if the "irreplaceable" Charlie Watts falls off his perch..
Prior to their 2003 Licks tour I'd seen the band a few times in large outdoor arenas. I first caught them in 1983 when they were very much a working band. Perhaps they were coming to the end of what is critically perceived as their "Golden Era" but they were still on the circuit and in the charts, turning out undeniable classics like Waiting for a Friend or Undercover of the Night. They were still of an age when a Rolling Stones concert was a celebration of youth on a hot summer night defined by a sweaty, sultry, sensuality.
They broke up in the mid - 80s, the values and verities of the Sixties long discredited, floundering in a Reagan world which saw them turn to U2 producer Steve Lillywhite for a salvation which never materialised. When they got back together a few years later time had robbed them of the illusion of youth.
The revived band was initially reviled as a dinosaur but, as years rolled by, they came to be regarded as a treasure worthy of preservation and reverence. Critical esteem was aided by the departure of Bill Wyman and by the emergence of Don Was as in-house producer. Was supervised a handful of bright studio and live projects for the Stones but the current A Bigger Bang album is the crowning glory of the partnership
When they toured their Bridges to Babylon album I went to see them at Wembley Stadium and promised myself that I'd never subject myself to that ordeal again. They cordoned off the entire front-of-stage area to create a comfortable move-aroundable space for Fan Club geeks and for the privileged rich (pals and relations, corporate jerks, people connected with the music biz power elite). I found myself corralled, miles away from the stage, surrounded by middle aged Sunday supplement-reading people who might enjoy a Sting or Norah Jones concert. In this middle-of-nowhere suburban stadium hell I encountered likewise-stranded demimonde acquaintances; a black leather jacketed junkie prince of the London punk scene, the willowy daughter of a Sixties supermodel. The band was musically superb but I knew I'd never go see them again if all that was on offer - for a pretty high admission fee - was a video screen and the company of the masses.
For the 2003 Licks tour they, for the first time, altered their game plan. In major cities (where the critics and industry insiders hang out) they did three different shows; a stadium package dominated by hit singles, an arena show which mixed hits with popular album tracks, and a club gig which promised something special.
The London club night took place on August 27th 2003 at the Astoria, the grungy city centre venue which plays host to punk metal or hardcore up and comers and, late at night, to the popular GAY club. The funky, grungy, Astoria takes about 1600 people so tickets for this hometown show didn't disappear from the marketplace - they vaporised.
I pass the Astoria - virtually on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road - six days a week and must catch 10-20 shows a year there but, as the day of the Stones gig approached, I knew scalps were going to make this a high ticket item - $3000 was the price mentioned on eBay.
The day before, there were signs of a circus having come to town. Crowds gathered in front of the venue, cops were stationed at every junction advising people not to go down Tottenham Court Road unless s they had business there. The improbable words "Rolling Stones" were emblazoned across the Astoria's signage, a place normally reserved for names like Fear Factory or Bowling For Soup. Passing dreadlocked tourist teenagers, unlikely Stones fans in their Aphex Twin or Rage Against The Machine t-shirts, pointed in amazement and said, "Look! The Rolling Stones!!" as if everything they've ever heard about London was true, as if these near-mythical beasts regularly pranced and preened on the stages of their home town.
I still reckoned the tickets were going to cost a fortune and that I would not go. Roadies seemed to be hauling more equipment into the venue than most bands would need to play a stadium. My pal James, who did lights at Rouge nightclub across the street, promised to try to get me into the aftershow which was happening there. I assured him that it was unlikely that any actual Stones would show up, not even Ronnie Wood.
The excitement this small scale event was generating was palpable and undeniable, whatever you thought of the band. It was perfectly obvious why they were playing clubs - the Astoria gig generated more street-level attention than the faraway rugby stadium show full of rich old people who only buy Greatest Hits albums. Two days after the gig James, who at 25 had never heard a Stones album in his life, said, "Jesus Christ! Those Rolling Stones! They caused so much fucking chaos! Wow! It was like a bomb had gone off or something."
I went to bed the night before the Astoria show resigned to the fact that I could not afford to spend that much money on seeing the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world.
* * *
Around 5am I awoke from a deep sleep and sat bolt upright in bed. Two words went through my head, "The Stones!" I realised that I'd have to get a ticket. Then I went back to sleep and arose at a civilised hour.
* * *
I've bought tickets from Astoria touts before; they're a shabby mixed bag of alcoholics, junkies, small time crims, fags, and loners. They can be downright nasty but you can sometimes reach terms with them. Not one of them was in evidence when I started stalking the Astoria at lunchtime. In their stead were a gang of slick scum in chinos and Gant shirts, professional touts of the sort normally found outside Wimbledon during the tennis season or the Royal Albert Hall when Pavarotti is doing a Farewell Tour. There were about twenty of them and they amounted to a single gang - in touch on phones - fixing a price. Tickets were around $2000 then and nobody much was buying. The suckers would show up after work; young executives, City financiers, demented Japanese fans. I went off around town to take care of business and then I went home.
When I got back around 7 the touts had finished most of their business and were anxious to get away - doors opened at 7.30. The prices had come down to $900 and, after some extremely turbulent and nasty negotiations conducted down back alleys - at one stage I thought I was going to get punched - I got my ticket for $600.
Getting in was a whole other procedure involving the slowest queue ever. People were processed through the door at a rate of about two a minute. This was because the tickets were being examined with great care to make sure they were real, the armbands which accompanied each ticket were being tugged at to ensure that they were firmly secured, and each person, one at a time airport-style, had to go through a metal detector. If it beeped you got patted down. If they found nothing, you went through it again. If it beeped...r
The reason for the high security became obvious the moment Mick Jagger walked onto the stage at 9.45 and ambled out onto a short ramp which jutted modestly into the crowd. There was no security on this gig. There was no cordoned off area between audience and stage occupied by bouncers, medics or photographers. The band was right there and the people in the front row, if they'd wanted to, could have rested their chins on the edge of a stage on which Jagger's dancing feet could be observed at absurdly close quarters.
The band's commitment seemed to be total - this really was a club gig. They're so famous that the whole thing had an air of unreality about it. I could see the lines on Jagger's face so clearly that it was like watching him on TV. The cartoon aspect of seeing them from a distance was missing, as was the aurally cartoonish hit-laden set. Instead they played rarely heard album tracks and soul cover versions. Jagger's singing rang so true that a beautiful looking woman near me in the crush wept during a sizzling version of That's How Strong My Love Is.
Much is made of the Stones' age and, no doubt, it is difficult for Jagger to sell sex now that he has reached retirement age. What can they do about it? They can either play tasteful music for jerks mainly interested in whether the guitars are in tune or they can tramp around the world like a gang of ageing whores still anxious to prove something to themselves. I like them now, for all the legitimate questions which can be asked about their sponsors, attendees, and avarice. The first thing on the agenda in 1965 was the music - it remains the final thing on the agenda today.
Joe Ambrose has written 12 books, the most recent being Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. He is currently writing a book about the Spanish Civil War.