Back on a Hometown Stage after seven years of semi-retirement and another ten months of touring the rest of the world, the Rolling Stones sounded neither tired nor tiresome as they whipped through their Steel Wheels revue for an ecstatic crowd of 60,000 fans, friends and old neighbors. Defying both middle age and road fatigue, the Stones burned rubber through their greatest hits and reached deep into their back catalog for a couple of wonderfully obscure surprises – would you believe “Factory Girl,” from Beggars Banquet? – to prove to the locals that they still work hard for all that money.
There were a few differences between this show – the second of five scheduled nights at Wembley – and last fall’s U.S. stadium version. The massive “industrial holocaust” stage set has been replaced by garish mustard-yellow scaffolding decorated with so-so graffitilike art. Four rabid-looking inflatable hounds danced in the brisk evening breeze during “Street Fighting Man.” And the Stones dubbed this European leg of their world trek the Urban Jungle Tour, apparently in honor of the hot-air dogs.
But the most startling thing about the Stones’ performance was its consistency. After nearly a year on the road, they were still making merry with old war horses like “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women”: Mick Jagger howled with credible white-blues chutzpah and worked the stage with artful sass; Keith Richards and Ron Wood fired off lovingly warped volleys of textbook Chuck Berry licks; and Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts nailed down the beat with poker-faced aplomb. “Midnight Rambler” in particular was great electric-blues theater, with Jagger blowing smoky harp licks and singing with dashing malevolence while Richards sliced the cool, damp air with fearsome knife-edged riffing. (The next night, Richards sliced a knuckle on his right hand with a broken guitar string; the cut became badly infected, forcing the Stones to reschedule the last two Wembley dates for late summer.)
As a nod to their roots in the local Sixties R&B scene, the band members stormed through a torrid reading of Muddy Waters‘s “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” a staple of their early London club shows. Wood’s stinging lead guitar flourishes heightened the enduring poignancy of “Tumbling Dice” and “You can’t always get what you want.” Even Richards’s obligatory solo spot (“Before They Make Me Run” and “Happy”) kicked with unexpected urgency, thanks to Wood’s careening slide guitar and Richards’s gnarly rhythm guitar.
There were a few snooze spots. The Steel Wheels song “Almost Hear You Sigh,” a recent addition to the show, was undone by a murky mix. “Ruby Tuesday,” an emotional high point of the U.S. gigs, was little more than a campfire sing-along, while the acid-flashback medley of “Paint It Black,” “2000 Light Years From Home” and “Sympathy for the Devil” had lost some of its psychedelic zest. But “Factory Girl” was a welcome reminder of the Stones’ great country-blues excursions of the late Sixties. “Gimme Shelter” was positively incendiary (especially the “rape, murder” vocal segment). And it was a gas just to watch Richards casually stand at center stage – hand on cocked hip, cigarette dangling perilously from his lips – during the introductory vamp to “Honky Tonk Women,” enjoying the palpable rush of anticipation as the crowd waited breathlessly for that riff. Satisfaction indeed.
This story is from the August 23rd, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.