The 180,000 people who turned out to see the opening shows of the Rolling Stones‘ 1981 concert tour at Philadelphia’s John F. Kennedy Stadium couldn’t have cared less that the band was out of shape and two or three times older than many of those in the audience. After all, the whole point of seeing the Stones in a blimp nest like JFK is not simply to hear them, but to spend some time with them. So, despite the boomy sound (the stadium is best known as the site of motorcycle races and high-school games) and the sometimes grating rustiness of the group’s stage act, the Stones grabbed the crowd with the opening strains of “Under My Thumb” and never let go through a hit-filled twenty-six-song set that lasted more than two hours. The Stones were back, for the first time in three years, and they proved there’s still nothing remotely like them in rock & roll.
The Stones’ entourage — sixty-eight people for the outdoor gigs, fifty-two for arenas and theaters — flew down from Long View Farm in Massachusetts, where they had been rehearsing, in a leased Altair aircraft. Secluding themselves in the Barclay Hotel in midtown Philadelphia, they commandeered thirty-four rooms on three floors (Keith Richards and Charlie Watts on one floor, Ron Wood and Bill Wyman on another, Mick Jagger on the third) and maintained a low profile until the eleven a.m. show time on the first day.
George Thorogood and the Destroyers were the perfect opening act: Thorogood’s Chuck Berry-based R&B fetish nearly equals the Stones’, and his band’s sax-stoked, slide-guitar sound cut through the stadium’s dense acoustics like a shiv. Being a local hero didn’t hurt Thorogood any, either. But the fact that he could hold his own — and more — on the Stones’ sprawling, custom-made stage was still impressive.
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Designed by Japanese artist Kazuhide Yamazaki, the stage was the largest mobile concert set ever built: sixty-four feet wide, with eighty-foot ramps stretching out from the right and left sides, and another 150 feet of fluttering silk strips streaming into the bleachers. The massive scrims surrounding the stage — painted with post-modernist pastel renderings of cars, guitars and long-playing records — were constructed with 10,000 square feet of cloth (enough, according to one source, to outfit three clipper ships with complete sets of sails).
Journey, which followed Thorogood at both Philadelphia dates, were less successful at commanding this formidable structure. Nonetheless, their performances — abysmally muddy the first day, spirited and surprisingly effective the second — made audible points with the sizable hard-pop contingent in attendance.
Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts kicked off the Stones’ sets by locking into the rolling riff of “Under My Thumb,” while Mick Jagger — whip-thin and wired in a yellow quilted jacket, scarlet T-shirt and white wool leotards — stomped and scrambled across the stage and onto the wings, pumping his hips, primping his hair, kung-fu fighting to the bleachers and singing like the master he is. Keith Richards, crouched close to the floor as if preparing for jungle combat, and Ron Wood pumped out the trademark licks for “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Let It Bleed,” “Mona,” “All Down the Line,” “Honky Tonk Women” and, from their new album, “Neighbours” and “Start Me Up.”
Much of the band’s roiling interplay was inaudible over the loudspeakers, but by the time Jagger scampered up a cherry-picker crane in the middle of a thundering “Jumping Jack Flash” and swung out over the crowd, blowing kisses and dropping armloads of red and white carnations, frenzy reigned. The Stones finished the first day’s set with “Satisfaction” and the second day’s with “Street Fighting Man.” Then they were gone, leaving acres of stinking garbage and scores of buzzing heads in their wake.
The Stones reportedly were unhappy with the Philadelphia shows. After the first one, they retired directly to their hotel rooms and went to sleep, awaking later to discuss the sound problem, which was partially alleviated by the second show. It seemed obvious that they would get tighter and better as the tour progressed, no matter what setbacks might arise. (In Buffalo, the second stop on the tour, forty-knot winds destroyed the original stage set, requiring the erection of a duplicate, and Jagger’s mike kept smacking into his mouth as he sang, necessitating dental work at the next stop on the tour — Rockford, Illinois, where the Go-Go’s opened — to repair the loosened diamond embedded in his right incisor.)
Only eighty percent of the tour dates had been definitely booked when the Stones hit the road, and it was assumed they would be playing some impromptu, small-club dates along the way. By the time they reached San Diego on October 7th, however, no such gigs had materialized, although the Stones had tracked down veteran R&B sax player Lee Allen in Chicago for some jamming, and were hoping to entice Sonny Rollins (who plays sax, uncredited, on three cuts on Tattoo You) to join them for some East Coast dates later in the tour.
The tour had gotten off to a low-key, yet promising, start. Logistics were being handled with military precision by Bill Graham’s organization. (Graham himself was a colorful sight in Philadelphia, tearing around backstage with a red garter on his arm and a perfectionist’s fire in his eyes.) The efficient tour management gave the Stones plenty of time to concentrate on working out the kinks in their performances. It was a good, if not great, start. Clearly, the best was yet to come.
This is a story from the November 12, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone.