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What Makes the Rolling Stones the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World

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I could go on, but I don't think anyone would be that interested in a list of song titles (most the same as the band's arena shows) and a series of notebook jottings that runs increasingly to rows of exclamation points and brilliant musicological analyses on the order of "great guitar solo," "rocks like crazy," "fuckin' A!" Some details, then. In "Waiting on a Friend," Charlie Watts found a new rhythmic direction, a kind of samba with rumba overtones, and inserted fills, using his snare and a choked cymbal, that splashed prettily over the chiming of the guitars. By the time the band rolled into "Let It Bleed," Keith and Ronnie were soloing at the same time and making it work, Keith playing twangy clumps of notes and Ronnie embroidering them. Keith started "You Can't Always Get What You Want" alone, and his playing, which was just two chords — I to IV and back again — was so utterly right, so spectacularly on the money, that the rest of the band let him play for a while. On the record, he plays his opening figure and then kicks the song in with one of those distilled-to-the-bone phrases of which he is the undisputed master. At the Fox, he got the same kick-in effect with half the notes, rendering a musical statement, which was already spare, practically Zen. Mick gave this greatest of Stones lyrics everything he had, and Ernie Watts got so inspired, he blew what must have been one of the most transcendent, heartfelt saxophone solos of his life.

By the time the Stones got to Keith's "Little T&A," the sixteenth song of the set, they were rocking harder than I'd ever heard them rock before. Was it meaningful? Did it have cultural resonances? Was it the rallying cry of a generation? If any of the people there had thought to ask these questions, they would have seemed singularly dumb. At this point, being at the Fox was like being at a Little Richard concert. It wasn't about cultural resonances, it was about stomping the joint down to the bricks. Of course, that has cultural resonances, but what's more fun, cultural resonances or great sex? The Stones were in the homestretch after "Little T&A," and every song was like great sex. There were miracles. Mick sang "Tumbling Dice" so clearly, you could understand the words. "All Down the Line" and "Hang Fire" hit with hurricane velocity. "Miss You" topped them. Maybe it used to be disco, but it isn't disco anymore. It's a relentless rocker, with Mick adding a third chugging guitar part and the steam building and building. "Miss You" as a rock & roll apotheosis? "Miss You" as the climax the band used to get out of "Street Fighting Man" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash"? If you'd told me, I wouldn't have believed it, but I was there and heard it.

Keith cranked up "Honky Tonk Women" with one hand, the other one dangling loose at his side, a look of satisfaction on his face. Again, the band let him play that gut-simple rhythm part for a while, and he might have played it all night if Ronnie hadn't bounced up to the lip of the stage and, er, pretended to stick something up Keith's nose. Well, it's in the lyrics, right? Bobby Keys came out to blow saxophone on "Brown Sugar," duplicating his solo from the original record, but it was a solo worth duplicating. On "Street Fighting Man," Mick's voice started to go, but the band was raging, and wherever that voice went, he found it again for the concluding "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

Ian Stewart and Atlanta-based pianist Chuck Leavell (of Allman Brothers and Sea Level fame) had been kicking each other off the piano bench all night, Ian MacLagan had been zapping Jerry Lee Lewis runs on electric piano, and the groove hadn't faltered. The show was that loose, and that tight. The Stones really are getting better and better. The only question that remained to be answered was whether the band would be able to pull off the same kind of performance in a huge arena.

A little more than a week after the Atlanta show, the Stones played the first of three concerts at the Brendan Byrne Arena, a futuristic new structure in New Jersey's Meadowlands sports complex that was designed for rock as well as for hockey and basketball. The show in Atlanta was all music — no fancy stagecraft, no theatrics. But the show in New Jersey was a show, with a fabulous hydraulic stage, a riser for the drums and amplifiers that revolved so everyone could get a good view, platforms that went up and down, dramatic lighting effects and so on. And it was spectacular, with Jagger running from one end of the stage to the other, riding around on the cherry-picker crane he unveiled at the tour's first outdoor dates and working every part of the crowd he could get close to.

The band's playing was even faster and more ferocious than in Atlanta. Richards' guitar intros sounded like sheet metal being sheared in two – and "Down the Road a Piece," in the spot that had been occupied by "Twenty Flight Rock" in Atlanta, rocked so hard it was almost over before it began.

The Byrne show was a powerhouse, and the staging was effective, though at times it got in the way of the music: The sound was muddy, the guitars weren't distinct and solos weren't always audible. Most of the people who saw the concert, however, thought the Stones were in peak form. But this wasn't Atlanta. Keith Richards once remarked that everything the band does, onstage and on records, begins with the five of them playing together in a small room. Atlanta was as close to that small room as any of us is likely to get.

This story is from the December 10th, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

“American Girl”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | 1976

It turns out that a single with "American" in its title--recorded on the Fourth of July during the nation's Bicentennial, no less--can actually sell better in Britain. Coupled with the Heartbreakers' flair for Byrds jangle and Animals hooks, though, is Tom Petty's native-Florida drawl that keeps this classic grounded at home. Petty dispelled rumors that the song was about a suicidal student, explaining that the inspiration came from when he was 25 and used to salute the highway traffic outside his apartment window. "It sounded like the ocean to me," he recalled. "That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by."

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