On the night Paul McCartney thrilled the crowd and a huge television audience at the 2022 Glastonbury Festival, a few of The Beatles’ celebrated ‘60s arch-rivals were giving it their all elsewhere, rocking Hyde Park, more than half a century after their first open-air show there. And among the crowd in central London was Stones aficionado Richard Houghton, a few days after catching his favourite band on honeymoon with wife Kate in Milan, on that occasion at the San Siro.
We’ve seen a few notable dates for the Stones – let alone Richard – this year, this month marking the 60th anniversary of their first gig at the Marquee, barely a mile from the site of that latest visit to the capital, and frontman Mick Jagger turning 79 (a year younger than Paul McCartney); while next month marks the first anniversary of the passing of legendary Stones drummer Charlie Watts, just beyond his 80th birthday.
Then of course – very much still with us – there’s Keith Richards, set to turn 79 in December, and relative new boy Ronnie Wood – the former Faces guitarist on board since 1975 – who reached 75 last month. What is it about these old stagers that lures recently semi-retired Richard, a mere 62, back every time, not least in his role as an author and editor of music books (having written 20 books on a variety of artists over the past seven years)?
“Quite simply, I’m a fan. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’ve collected over 200 different books about the Stones over the years, and whilst I haven’t quite gone to the lengths of some of the uber-fans out there who’ve got every album, DVD and t-shirt that’s ever been produced, I have seen them over 30 times and my travels have taken me to the States, Brazil and Europe … and Anfield, which shows just how dedicated I am!”
Spoken like a diehard Manchester City fan, albeit one with a love for hometown team Northampton Town too, despite having lived in Chorlton, Manchester, for some time now. And it turns out he has two Stones people’s history publications landing this year, All Along the Line, tackling the iconic band’s 1972 North American tour, and an updated take on The Rolling Stones in the Sixties, covering the initial Brian Jones era (the original lead guitarist and major innovator died in July 1969, aged just 27, his replacement, John Mayall’s Bluebreakers guitarist Mick Taylor remaining on board until Ronnie Wood took over in the mid-70s), in limited-edition hardback (‘480 pages, 600-plus memories, one great band’).
The other key members from that classic ‘60s line-up are also fondly remembered in the latter – namely ground-breaking bass player Bill Wyman, who joined in late ’62 and stuck around until ’93 (also guesting in 2012); and co-founding keyboard player Ian Stewart, who later took on road manager and pianist roles (he died aged 47 in late 1985). And it’s good to see Charlie Watts featured on the cover, in an iconic image by Stanley Bielecki from 1964.
However, isn’t their legacy somewhat overstated (he asks, somewhat mischievously)? They wrote some cracking songs in the Sixties but surely they haven’t released a properly decent album since 1978’s Some Girls. Aren’t they just a golden oldies machine, recycling the same songs for the same adoring section of the concert-going public?
“You could level that accusation against any stadium act, whether that’s Queen with Adam Lambert, Bruce Springsteen, Metallica or whoever. And in that setting and with that audience, you haven’t just got the fan who wants to hear a few deep cuts but also the casual fan who only knows the hits that have been played on the radio.
“Mick Jagger understands that, and that dictates the choice songs they perform live. But I think what it is about the Stones that is worth remembering is that they’ve done more to shape modern music than anyone except perhaps The Beatles. The Stones pretty much invented stadium shows with the pyrotechnics, the lighting and the big screens, and which, like it or not, is the way many larger bands now choose to perform.
“And don’t forget that back in the Sixties, the Stones were the rebels, whereas The Beatles were very much in the showbiz tradition. In the same way Elvis ‘died the day he went into the army’, as john Lennon put it, The Beatles ceased to be a great live act when Brian Epstein took them out of their leather jackets, put them in matching suits and made them wear collars and ties.
“They appeared on variety bills with comedians and jugglers. They had great songs but weren’t really any more radical looking than The Shadows. They became the boys next door you could bring home to tea with your mum. The Stones were the ones who had fathers foaming at the mouth at the idea that these scruffy layabouts might come anywhere near their teenage daughter. If Mick Jagger and Keith Richards moved in next door to you back then, your dad was probably going to go out and buy an electric fence.”
When I hear that oft-repeated charge, I like to counter with Lemmy Kilmister’s quote (from 2004 memoir White Line Fever), ‘The Rolling Stones were the mummy’s boys – they were all college students from the outskirts of London. They went to starve in London, but it was by choice, to give themselves some sort of aura of disrespectability. I did like the Stones, but they were never anywhere near the Beatles – not for humour, not for originality, not for songs, not for presentation. All they had was Mick Jagger dancing about.’
But I only dug that out later, on this occasion allowing Richard to rant on. Wasn’t much of that ‘bad boy’ image made by then-manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, though, feeling that portraying them as rebels would work well in the media?
“It wasn’t just Andrew’s idea. The Stones took it beyond Andrew, who ceased to have an effective role as manager with the band from the mid-Sixties onwards. They were getting busted for drugs, they were wearing more exotic and outrageous clothes and they were still playing concerts and having audiences, particularly in continental Europe, rioting and smashing up venues.”
What made you decide – after the Sixties project – on a book about the Stones’ 1972 North American tour? I’m guessing you were still at school in Northamptonshire then, yet to hit your teens.
“I was, but that was exactly the time – when the double album Exile on Main St. came out and ‘Tumbling Dice’ was in the charts – that I became a fully-fledged Stones fan. The band were in their pomp, with Mick Taylor having replaced Brian Jones on guitar, and the tour that they undertook in June and July of that year was a ground-breaking one.
“And those were challenging times for the Stones. They were performing on American soil for the first time since the stabbing of a fan by Hell’s Angels at Altamont three years earlier. And with The Beatles having split up – and with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all dead – in 1972 the Stones embodied what was left of Sixties counterculture. The United States was coming to terms with 1970’s Kent State massacre and grappling with the Vietnam War, the draft and the civil rights movement.”
Robert Greenfield’s STP: A Journey Through America with the Rolling Stones (1974) captured some of that, but Richard – currently knee-deep into his next writing projects, covering The Stranglers and Fairport Convention – goes at it from a different angle, collecting memories of more than 300 people who saw that tour (as with several of his past books, including those on The Beatles, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Queen and Thin Lizzy).
“It has been written about, yes, but that’s where my Stones book is different because I’ve collected together the memories of over 300 people who saw that tour. As with the other books I’ve written – on The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Queen and Thin Lizzy for example – it’s a different perspective on things.
“It’s not about backstage passes and meeting (acclaimed photographer) Annie Leibowitz. This book is about American teenagers falling in love with the Rolling Stones and doing whatever it takes to get hold of a ticket for a tour that was hotly anticipated. There was no internet then, but if there had been, it would have crashed the day the tickets went on sale. In New York, for example, people had to send in postcards and tickets were allocated randomly on a lottery basis to beat the touts. Some people sent in more than 50 postcards, or got every friend or relative they could think of to submit an application on their behalf.”
The Stones played 48 shows in 32 cities in 54 days to promote their new album on that occasion. What is it that marked this tour out from what had gone before, or has happened since?
“Well, they had a ground-breaking new stage show, with large mirrors so that lights behind the stage were reflected down onto the band. That was unheard of at the time, and of course we’re all so used to digital effects and full-on light shows, so some of this doesn’t sound that special now. But back then it was.
“More importantly, the Stones and their fans found themselves going head-to-head with the authorities from the outset. Concerts were marked by crowd riots in the clamour for tickets, starting with the very first show in Vancouver, and there were drug busts and tear gassings as a result of over-zealous cops at several stops on the tour.
“They weren’t just playing the usual cities that rock bands visited. The Rubber Bowl in Akron, Ohio, for example, had never hosted a band as big as the Stones before. And in Tuscaloosa they still talk about the visit by the Rolling Stones, not least because one of their own was in the audience that day and has been a Stones sideman for the past 40 years, in the shape of their keyboardist and musical director, Chuck Leavell.
“And in Rhode Island, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wound up in police custody after an altercation with a photographer while miles away in Boston a full house waited expectantly for them to appear on stage.
“No one had toured the way the Stones did before, bringing their own crew with them. Previously, bands turned up with one or two crew and used local crew. Cream’s touring personnel in 1967 and ‘68, for example, consisted of three band members plus two other people. They didn’t have the fleet of HGVs that the biggest bands tour with now. The Stones had what was branded the ‘Stones Touring Party’. They were like a band of brigands roaming across the US, and of course the press interest in the tour, and the presence of a film camera crew, added to that.”
Ah, Robert Frank’s infamous Cocksucker Blues fly-on-the-wall tour documentary, which never saw a full theatrical release because of the scenes of, erm … general debauchery contained within. Isn’t that all a bit old hat now?
“Well, the Stones – and specifically Mick Jagger, because I suspect Keith Richards may have been too strung out at the time to have any real perspective on things – vetoed its release on the grounds that the overt drug taking it portrayed might mean they’d have trouble getting visas for entry into the United States. It would certainly have meant that they attracted more attention from immigration officials every time they entered the country.
“Don’t forget that Nixon was the US President, and rock ‘n’ rollers, and particularly British ones, were viewed as the enemy. John Lennon was living in America and trying to get a green card which would have legalised his residency in the States, and for the Stones, not being able to tour there would have meant the end of the band as a commercial entity.”
Back to the Stones in the Sixties, and there are far more details of the earlier version of the book on this very website, from my first feature/interview with Richard back in 2015. But Brian Jones and Charlie Watts clearly play a huge part in the first book, and no doubt it’s the same again with Charlie in All Down the Line. Those two certainly can’t be forgotten when you are talking about the Stones and their musical legacy.
“Absolutely. As longstanding Stones fans will say, ‘No Brian Jones, no Stones,’ because he was the first and founding member who brought Mick and Keith into his idea of the band. And his instrumentation on songs like ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and ‘Paint It, Black’ are what made those songs special.
“And of course Charlie was the backbone of the Stones until his sad passing last year. He is widely acknowledged as one of the best drummers in the world, with his own distinctive and yet unassuming style. And he was unaffected by fame, or as unaffected as anyone who has been in the most famous working rock ‘n’ roll band for the past 60 years can be. I cried when I heard the news of his passing, because it marks a step closer to the end of the Stones, and I have put him on the cover of the Stones in the Sixties book as a tribute to him.”
Finally, looking forward, how long do you reckon Mick, Keith and Ronnie can keep this going?
“Mick still trains as hard as ever for a tour to make sure he’s fit, and Keith has given up hard booze and hard drugs. Ronnie’s had a couple of cancer scares in recent years but, subject to them all staying healthy, they’ll keep going until they drop. And I, for one, will keep going to see them for as long as I can.”
For a link to this website’s original Richard Houghton interview, from late 2015, marking the release of the first version of the Stones’ Sixties book, head here.
Bill Wyman featured in an interview on this website in October 2013, with a link here.
Richard Houghton’s The Rolling Stones in the Sixties and All Down the Line are both available to order. For more details, head to the Spenwood Books website.