It was always going to happen. The two counter-cultural heavyweights of the past half century were always destined to finally meet. Three months ago The Rolling Stones, the greatest rock n roll band in the world, were announced as one of the three headliners for this year’s Glastonbury, the greatest festival in the world. That both have shifted inexorably away from their once rebellious beginnings towards a more corporate consumerism seems only to cement the inevitability of their eventual union.
The build-up to this year’s event had been almost totally consumed by Saturday night’s headline act, with the question of money never far away from this extensive coverage. The band had originally banned the BBC from broadcasting their set in full. Ever the businessman, Mick Jagger argued that the Stones had signed up to play the festival, not do a TV show. Keith Richards even stirred himself into a wider debate about the Stones’ exorbitant ticket prices, not wanting to see genuine fans having to “starve their babies” in order to see them play. But in a cost-cutting exercise and to show that one month shy of his 70th birthday Jagger was still a man of the people, he said he would be camping over the weekend in an on-site yurt. He even managed to weave this fact into ‘Glastonbury Girl’, a lyrical reworking of Beggar’s Banquet’s ‘Factory Girl’ for the modern age with its clunky references to Primal Scream, wet wipes and ecstasy.
That these elderly statesmen of rock music should even be performing at a festival which still clings onto the spirit of idealism is for many an absolute anathema. But this doesn’t stop more than 100,000 people from cramming into a farmer’s field in the Vale of Avalon on this the last Saturday night in June. The sense of anticipation is palpable. The start is delayed whilst some very brave technicians scramble around on the Pyramid roof, making some final repairs to the metal phoenix which lies on its top. Finally, a formal master-of-cermonies’ voice intones, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the Pyramid Stage, The Rolling Stones”, and with that Keith cranks out that overly familiar but still subversive opening riff to ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, Jagger jitterbugs and skitters around the stage, rockets blast up into the Somerset sky and we are off.
Two and quarter hours later and after a quite spectacular double-encore of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, complete with gospel choir and what is genuine soul, and a truly inspired blast of ‘Satisfaction’, we all finally come back down to earth. It has been the most absorbing and thrilling of journeys, one made all the more memorable by both the absence of some surprises, and also the strong presence of others. There was to be no big-name walk-on parts for the likes of Adele, Florence Welch or, as had been rumoured, David Bowie. It was just the Stones and for extended and most welcome periods, former guitarist Mick Taylor. Despite hitting some bum notes therein, he stretched Goats Head Soup’s ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ out into the blues colossus that is has always been. And to hear the late ‘60’s psychedelia of ‘2000 Light Years From Home’ was the most unexpected of thrills.
That only one song from the twenty song set – last year’s by-numbers rocker ‘Doom and Gloom’ – post-dates 1978 makes no never mind when you have an early back catalogue which will knock most artists’ entire canon into a cocked hat. ‘Gimme Shelter’, stripped here of its Altamont sinisterism, is wonderfully ramshackle; ‘Wild Horses’ returned to the old country home that once lay inside Gram Parsons’ mind. A most vigorous, muscular ‘Miss You’ proves that even the apparent folly of “going disco” was never really that much of a mistake, and when you have thousands of people chanting “woo woo” and a metallic phoenix breathing a fire accompaniment to ‘Sympathy For The Devil’, nobody really does spectacular better than The Rolling Stones. And then when Keith Richards with the unhurried nonchalance of a man who has surely seen it all strikes the opening chord to ‘Honky Tonk Woman’, you have probably experienced the entire history of what we all know as rock n roll in that one effortless, incredible moment.
Forget all about the overblown pomp surrounding this show, the associated money and the fact that these are men of pensionable age extolling the many virtues of youthful rebellion, desire and sexual conquest. The music that The Rolling Stones continue to produce live is still one of the most genuinely intense and exhilarating experiences you are ever likely to have and as the rest of the weekend unfolds it becomes even more apparent that they are still the greatest rock n roll band in the world today.