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The Rolling Stones North American Tour
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The Rolling Stones North American Tour

Mick Jagger has a clear memory of being onstage in the summer of 1972, singing "Love in Vain," the Robert Johnson song the Rolling Stones had recently reworked into a soul ballad. Jagger still marvels at the live version – particularly Mick Taylor's searing lead guitar, which slowly took over the song and culminated in a minute and a half of mournful, melodic virtuosity. "He was playing beautifully at this point," says Jagger. "It was chilling. It was so sad and haunting. And the horns were really just subtly there. The beats and stops were usually perfect. That was one of my favorites."

The Rolling Stones were at the peak of their powers in the summer of 1972: Keith Richards was playing the most fearless rhythm guitar of his career; Taylor stretched out their music to improbable peaks; and Jagger stalked the stage, whipping his belt and perfecting his ability to turn music, as critic Robert Greenfield observed, into a psychodrama.

It was the band's first North American tour since Altamont, the disastrous, deadly California festival in December 1969. Shaken by that debacle and the death of Brian Jones, the band hunkered down in the studio, recording three masterpieces: 1969's Let It Bleed, 1971's Sticky Fingers and 1972's Exile on Main Street. Their Sixties peers – the Beatles, Bob Dylan – were less prolific, withdrawing from public view. In their absence, the Stones had only grown in stature. "After 10 years of playing together, the Stones had somehow become the number-one attraction in the world," Greenfield wrote in his chronicle of the tour, A Journey Through America With the Rolling Stones. "The only great band of the Sixties still around in original form playing original rock & roll ... They were royalty."

Both Jagger and Richards remember the excitement they felt ahead of the eight-week run. If the prospect of getting back on the road weren't enough, the opening act on tour was a 22-year-old Stevie Wonder, whom Jagger made a habit of watching side-stage. "It was exciting, the feeling of anticipation – getting back in touch with what it is we did," says Richards. Adds Jagger, "We were trying to get out of the studio, out of the South of France, and Keith had all these drug problems – so it was kind of good to get out on the road."

The Stones' office was overloaded with requests for tickets, priced at $6.50 (some fans sent in as many as 60 postcards each). A Dick Cavett TV special on the tour described the strange new phenomenon of scalping (plus the new concept of groupies). On opening night in Vancouver, 2,000 fans tried to force their way into the Pacific Coliseum, leaving 31 policemen injured – the first of several violent incidents. "That was in the day when people who didn't have a ticket would show up," says Jagger, "and be like, 'OK, we're here, we're fucking going in.'"

Unlike the 1969 tour – which featured slow, slogging rhythms – the band played at breakneck speed. "Keith was doing that," says Jagger. "I'm not trying to blame him for anything. He kept starting it." Says Richards, "That was probably trying to catch up with lost time." Songs like "Street Fighting Man" ran several minutes longer than the studio versions as the band ripped away. "We were probably searching for the ending," Richards jokes.

For Richards, the highlight was playing the new songs from Exile on Main Street, recorded the previous summer. "Playing the Exile stuff for the first time was a real turn-on," says Richards. After opening with "Brown Sugar," the band tore through several Exile classics: "Rocks Off," "Rip This Joint," "Sweet Virginia." Unlike later tours, Jagger hung around during Richards' songs, howling away "Happy" into the same mic. "I always enjoyed doing that," Richards says.

There were also a few throwbacks, including a horn-fueled version of "Satisfaction," and "Bye Bye Johnny," a Chuck Berry song that the Stones had been doing since 1963. According to Richards, they picked the deep cut for its rhythm: "There's an interesting reverse beat going on that always intrigued us."

On the road, the Stones encountered an older audience – one that ranged from about age 15 to 30. "There always used to be screamers, and they didn't seem to worry much about the music," Bill Wyman told Cavett. As a result, the band played with more focus. It helped that arena sound had improved: "Now you hear everything and you see everything, and there's so much tension," said Wyman.

For all the onstage professionalism, the backstage scene was as wild as any rock & roll tour before or since. The band traveled with the largest entourage in rock history up to that point – including a physician, label president Marshall Chess and a press corps Richards compared to a political campaign. The press included photographer Annie Leibovitz, and authors Terry Southern, Robert Greenfield and Truman Capote, who reluctantly joined for a Rolling Stone cover story. "For him, it was a social occasion," says Jagger, who recalls Capote saying he hated the fact that Jagger wore the same clothes every night. "He would've liked it better now – I have such a bigger wardrobe." (Capote never wrote his piece, claiming it "didn't interest me creatively.")

Jagger admits that the traveling party was "a bit distracting." He had to watch his drug intake in order to perform. "I wasn't on meth, out of my mind or anything," Jagger says. "But I was having a lot of fun." Richards' favorite story "has got to be Bobby Keys and me nearly burning down the Playboy mansion," he says. Staying at Hugh Hefner's home, Richards and saxophonist Keys accidentally set fire to one of the bathrooms. "We were going through a doctor's bag and we knocked over a candle," says Richards.

At the same time, Jagger remembers "all these dark moments" on the tour. On the morning of July 17th in Montreal, dynamite exploded beneath one of the band's vans, destroying equipment. "It was kind of scary because it was during the separatist movement of Quebec," says Jagger. "I mean, it wasn't just some random guy trying to blow up a truck." The show, remarkably, went on that night, but a riot ensued when 500 fans with counterfeit tickets were turned away.

The following day, the band flew to a small airport in Rhode Island. As the entourage cleared customs, Richards took a nap on the side of a parked firetruck. He woke up to the flashing lights of a local newspaper photographer. "I just reacted," Richards says. "I got up and hit in the general direction of the light and busted the guy's camera. Things escalated from there. Then the fucking FBI got involved." The photographer claimed he was assaulted, and Richards and Jagger were arrested and placed in a jail cell, while an unruly audience at Boston Garden waited. Fearing a riot, Boston Mayor Kevin White organized their release, and the band took the stage after midnight. "There was never a dull moment," says Richards.

The offstage chaos was documented by the legendary photographer Robert Frank, who brought along a camera for a documentary that, as Jagger understood, would be "about playing and about music." Instead, Cocksucker Blues was a cinéma vérité experiment full of lurid scenes: naked groupies having sex on an airplane, Jagger snorting cocaine, and groupie heroin use. The band blocked its release (though it became a popular bootleg). "[Robert] would initiate things," says Jagger. "Most documentary filmmakers kind of get you to do things that you perhaps wouldn't do if they weren't there." Jagger cites the famous scene where Richards and Keys threw a TV out of a Hyatt Hotel window: "Robert would probably say to Keith, 'Keith, throw the TV out the window.' They probably weren't going to do that that morning." But Richards disagrees. "Bobby Keys and I engineered that," he says. "We called the cameraman 'round when we dismantled the TV. So that scene was directed by Bobby Keys and Keith fucking Richards."

The tour wrapped with four shows at Madison Square Garden. Though the Stones had played 48 shows in only 54 days, they didn't hold back. The July 25th show featured a sentimental sing-along of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and perhaps the fiercest "All Down the Line" ever played. "You almost feel like you're levitating on the energy from the audience," says Richards. "It's a strange experience." The tour ended the following night, on Jagger's 29th birthday. Wonder joined the band for a raucous medley of "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" and a revved-up, horn-fueled take on "Satisfaction" (Wonder said he wrote "Uptight" with "Satisfaction" in mind). A cake was rolled onstage, and the show ended with a pie fight among bandmates. The afterparty, thrown by Ahmet Ertegun, included Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

It was the end of an era. Afterward, Richards slid further into addiction, and was arrested on heroin and gun charges the next year. In 1974, after only five years, Taylor left the band to go solo. The Stones' next North American tour, in 1975, featured stage props like a giant inflatable phallus, and little of the ragged charm of the 1972 tour. "There were no sort of guidelines," Richards says. "You sort of made it up and you went along. It was a good feeling, that tour. A bit frenetic and a little blurry, like an old movie, you know? It was a bit jerky." Patrick Doyle

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