The Rolling Stones: Just Another Rock Band?

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

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The Rolling Stones
JFK Stadium
Philadelphia
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.

The real limits of these performances, though, weren't technical but conceptual. Jagger can claim that the band does new material to avoid repeating itself, but that's a little silly considering that "Respectable," for instance, is just a rewrite of "Rocks Off," and that "When the Whip Comes Down" is only a reworked "Hand of Fate." What the program really did point up is how much the quality of the group's material has slipped: anyone who can listen to "Star Star," hardly the greatest Stones song, back to back with "Whip," which is near the top of the new crop, and not think the band has lost a great deal in the past five years just isn't paying attention.

Many of the selections from the past made little sense. Since "Happy" only works because it focuses our attention on Keith Richards as a symbol, why not do "Before They Make Me Run," which has a far more current application? And why dispense with the amusing medley of "If You Can't Rock Me" and "Get Off of My Cloud" and keep "Love in Vain," which hasn't had a proper solo since Mick Taylor quit?

Probably because Mick Jagger sings "Love in Vain" exceptionally well. This isn't the band's show, it's Jagger's, something that's made most clear by the six songs on which he plays guitar. And it gets worse when the Stones do a song as out of place as "Far Away Eyes." Almost anything from "Not Fade Away" to "Memory Motel" could take this space with better results, and almost anything would have been more in keeping with the band's tradition.

But there's danger of little more than lip service being paid to the attitudes and music that earned the Stones their reputation. Jagger wears blazers and golfing caps onstage these days, which is reminiscent of nothing so much as Bob Hope – or Jerry Lewis, in The Delicate Delinquent. This is a gesture to maturity, just as "Love in Vain" is a gesture to the blues. Everything here is a gesture, included for pose and posture, which is fine enough, if all that's at stake is entertainment.

It's easy to say that the Rolling Stones are still the greatest, or that they've become silly and dismissible. I wish one of these were true. But the fact is that Jagger is right when he says he's just another singer in another rock & roll band. There isn't anything here to make you dispute him.

And so I found myself moved only once during these two shows: after Keith Richards had been flailing away at the crashing chords of "Jumping Jack Flash," the Palladium show's final song, and was sagging from fatigue at its conclusion. Mick came up and hugged him. It occurred to me then that we might never see this man onstage again and that, however lackluster it all may be right now, that would be a very great loss. Boring and indulgent as the Stones have become, the fan inside me wants to know how they will cope with the Eighties. Without much hope, I wish them well.

From The Archives Issue 271: August 10, 1978
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