Ever since August 17th, when the Rolling Stones moved into the Long View Farm recording complex in North Brookfield, Massachusetts, to begin rehearsals for their first U.S. tour in three years, rumors had been rocketing around New England that the band would play at least one surprise small-club gig. On September 14th, they finally did – and proved that the Stones' magic remains undimmed after nearly twenty years.
Logistics for the show were kept as simple as possible. Three hundred tickets were distributed through WAAF-FM, a rock station in Worcester, not far from the farm. The lucky recipients were those listeners who were found either wearing the station's logo or having WAAF bumper stickers affixed to their cars. The site of the impromptu concert – an earthy, Union Jack-emblazoned Worcester rock club called Sir Morgan's Cove – was kept secret by WAAF until another station, WBCN-FM in Boston, an hour away, leaked the location. Not wanting to prompt a riot, WBCN warned its listeners to stay away from the small Worcester club – apparently to little avail.
A crowd of approximately 1,500 to 4,000 fans lined both sides of the street outside the club for three blocks. Worcester police – an initial force of seventeen officers soon augmented by two busloads of reinforcements – kept the crowd off the streets and monitored access to the club from nearby rooftops. Several arrests were made for disorderly conduct and use of firecrackers, but overall, the atmosphere was that of a woozy block party. In the intermittent rain, hard-core fans rubbed elbows with disgruntled British and American reporters (all press had been specifically excluded from the gig) and bemused locals (some of whom eventually drifted off to Sam's Tavern, two doors down, to watch the Oakland Raiders play the Minnesota Vikings on TV). Crowd commentary ranged from shouts of "Death to imperialism!" and "A media event! In Worcester!" to "C'mon, Mick, show us your underwear!"
At around 11:30 p.m., a thirty-five-foot van squeezed into the alley between Sir Morgan's Cove and a neighboring garage. Inside were all five Rolling Stones, two auxiliary keyboardists (tour vets Ian Stewart and ex-Face Ian McLagan) and Keith Richards' twelve-year-old son, Marlon. ("He was sort of coordinatin' security," Richards later remarked. "Sittin' in the front of the bus, sayin' to the driver, 'Where do we meet the police escort?'")
At midnight, the Stones took the tiny stage and, powered by the unmistakable, resounding wallop of Charlie Watts' drums, plowed through an exciting ninety-minute set that included such tried-and-true war horses as "Honky Tonk Women" and "Under My Thumb," mixed in with more recent material ("Miss You," "Shattered," "When the Whip Comes Down," "Hang Fire," "Neighbors") and an assortment of such seldom-heard gems as "I Just Want to Make Love to You," "Let It Bleed" and "All Down the Line." Hot and sweaty was the word for it.
"It was extraordinary," said Gil Markle, the owner of Long View Farm, who was also on the scene. "It's a very small place, and people were dumbfounded that they were actually seeing a legend so close up."
The Stones finished with a rousing version of "Jumpin' Jack Flash." At 1:40 a.m., their van backed out of the alley, Jagger lifted one of the rear curtains and grinned, and then the group was gone.
"It was great," said a still-smiling Richards a few days later. "Probably better than we thought, because it was our first gig, and technically it was real rough. Also it was so hot, and there was no air. But the audience was great; we all had a good time and it really helped us, you know? Afterward, we knew exactly which songs worked onstage and which ones we didn't know well enough and needed to rehearse. It wasn't a difficult gig, really. It was as if we were playing the Station Hotel in Richmond in 1963. You don't forget those things. It was sort of like, 'Well, we did it then, we can do it now.' "
In the days following their set at Sir Morgan's Cove, the Stones attempted to set up another surprise gig. On Tuesday, September 15th, concert promoter Don Law applied to the city of Boston for a license for the band to play at the 2,800-seat Orpheum Theatre the following Friday and Saturday nights. This plan was rejected by security-conscious authorities on Wednesday. The same day, Boston's mayor, Kevin White, offered to let the Stones play a free concert at the City Hall plaza on Sunday; radio stations WAAF and WBCN encouraged this plan by offering to help defray security costs. The Stones, however, declined. "The fun of it was gone," said a spokeswoman for the group. "It became a political thing."
Finally, all systems seemed to be go for a concert on Saturday, September 19th, at the 3,200-seat Ocean State Theatre in Providence, Rhode Island. The night before, however, a local television station, WLNE, interrupted a Boston Red Sox game to leak the news. By eleven o'clock, two other stations had reported the supposedly secret gig. The Stones canceled.
"We're just going to start the tour as scheduled, in Philadelphia on September 25th," the group's spokeswoman said wearily. She also downplayed a story in the Hollywood Reporter that said the Stones' tour, due to run through mid-December, would ultimately gross some $39 million – more than any previous series of concerts. "The tour may gross $30 million," she said, "but that doesn't mean the Rolling Stones will get anywhere near that. Their production costs are very, very high."
So high, it seems, that the group was happy to accept a partial subsidy of the tour from Jovan, the men's cologne manufacturer. "We've never done any of that crap before," said Richards of the multimillion-dollar Jovan deal. "But we can use the money constructively to pay for small gigs that otherwise we wouldn't have been able to do. It's like a happy medium: Jovan is getting what they want out of it, and we're getting some cash up front to pay for gigs that we're gonna work at a loss. I mean, with the crew and the equipment we've got, by the time they've got the stuff in the front door of those small places, it's costin' the Stones bread, you know? That's no way to run a tour."
This story is from the October 29th, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone.