Remember that time when Ronnie Wood released a solo album, put together a band to promote it that included Keith Richards and fusion bassist Stanley Clarke, and played a bunch of arena shows centered not around Richards but – perversely – Wood and his songs?
Unless you’re the most diehard of Rolling Stones fans, you probably have zero memory of that moment. But Rob Chapman’s new book, New Barbarians: Outlaws, Gunslingers and Guitars (Voyageur Press), finally tells the story of one of the most oddball and least-chronicled moments in the Stones’ history.
As Chapman details in his art-crammed book, Wood and his new label, Columbia, decided he should play some shows to promote his 1979 solo album, Gimme Some Neck. Richards, who was in between Stones sessions, signed on to his bandmate’s ad-hoc group. Richards was also eager to hit the road, because, as Chapman writes, he was “on the run from heroin, [girlfriend] Anita Pallenberg and endless psychotherapy sessions” after his 1977 drug bust in Canada. The band, a truly odd lot of musicians, included two naturals, Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan and on-again, off-again Stones saxman Bobby Keys, along with two others – Clarke and Meters drummer Ziggy Modeliste – who had barely played rock & roll before.
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For a brief moment, Chapman reports, Neil Young almost joined the lineup after stopping into early rehearsals for the tour. He eventually opted out due to the birth of one of his children and the editing chores involved in his then-upcoming concert movie, Rust Never Sleeps. But after Young remarked “you guys are nothing but a bunch of barbarians,” the ad-hoc band at least had its name, adding a “New” after learning there was another band called the Barbarians. Ringo Starr and Boz Scaggs also stopped by rehearsals but, like Young, didn’t join up.
Over the course of its month-long tour, ending with shows at England’s Knebworth Festival on a bill with Led Zeppelin, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and Todd Rundgren and Utopia, the New Barbarians crammed in a lifetime of rock & roll. Drugs, booze and private jets were a daily treat; a small room was built near the back of the stage so the band could get high without the audience noticing. When Clarke offered Richards a health shake, Richards just replied, ruefully, “Stanley, Stanley.”
As Chapman reports, drama was also part of the recipe. Unsure if Wood’s name would sell out arenas, some on their business side began suggesting to reporters that the shows could include “special guests,” hinting at Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Jimmy Page. None of those musical pals ever materialized, and early in the tour, fans showed their displeasure at not seeing Mick but hearing an hour and a half of Wood originals, covers of blues and country songs, and the very rare Stones cover (usually “Honky Tonk Women”). In Milwaukee, a riot broke out, resulting in 81 arrests and a very pissed-off Richards.
Packed with details of stage designs, offstage and onstage photos and reproductions of tour T-shirts and limousine bills, New Barbarians is surely the last word on one of rock’s most oddball superstar tours. As a bonus, it also comes with a 10-track CD of previously unreleased live recordings – including Wood’s “Mystifies Me” and covers of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Rock & Roller” and the blues standard “Rock Me Baby” – that revel in the band’s proudly sloppy swagger. Would a similar lineup with a similarly quirky set list make it anywhere near a 20,000-seat arena these days? Probably not, which only makes the story of the New Barbarians that much more flabbergasting today.