The Rolling Stones: Just Another Rock Band?

Mediocre performances in New York and Philadelphia generate questions about the Stones' shaky present and uncertain future

August 10, 1978

The Rolling Stones
JFK Stadium
June 17th, 1978

The Palladium
New York City
June 19th, 1978

Just Once I'd like to see a Rolling Stones concert with some pretense of objectivity. But circumstances conspire against that. Either you believe, through thick and thin, that the Stones are the world's greatest rock band, or else you think that claim's fraud. Or maybe, having changed your mind over the years, you feel betrayed.

However, the facts don't support any of those extreme reactions. Onstage, as on record, the Rolling Stones (whatever they may have once been) are now just another good rock band, and it's no fairer to dismiss them as boring old farts – despite the fact that their show is frequently very dull – than it is to claim that they are still the greatest. Stripped of their history, the Stones would not be judged a second-rate band, though it is easy to think that when you realize how much their performances have declined in the past few years. But they would be rated very average, on a level far below that of their peak tours.

Still, the current show is superior to its 1975 counterpart in several ways. The focus is still too incessantly on Mick Jagger to satisfy pre-Exile on Main Street buffs, but at least the concert is now at a workable length. Three years ago, in order to get through a two-and-a-half-hour performance, Jagger was obliged to take frequent breaks, and those were the slackest moments of all. Now, at ninety minutes, he can keep on going.

It also helps that the band has been streamlined. The extra percussionist and the synthesizer are gone, the basic quintet supplemented only by two keyboardists (Ian McLagan, formerly of the Faces, and Ian Stewart, a hardy perennial). The expensive staging has also been eliminated, though a modest stage scrim painted with the tongue-and-lips logo is used for the outdoor shows. In the theory, this ought to be the ideal presentation of the Stones, since for once no one can accuse them of doing it with mirrors. But shorn of extravaganza, it's clear that these Stones can only barely do it at all.

To the Philadelphia audience, nothing would have made much difference. The best-received moments were ritualistic gestures – the opening chords of "Brown Sugar," a snippet of "Satisfaction," Jagger wiggling out to the stage's wings – and anything unexpected was simply ignored. Even the lines about "Bandstand, Philadelphia, P.A." in "Sweet Little Sixteen" didn't get a hand, which is pretty stiff for 90,000 patrons. The New York show (in the 3000-seat Palladium) went overboard in the other direction: the extremely tedious middle section of the show, in which the Stones promote their new album like latter-day Framptons, was as well received as the stronger beginning and end.

Part of the difference was sound. In Philadelphia, the Stones played softly and were less than mediocre – they were awful. But in New York, sufficient volume restored, they were never less than interesting.

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