Hyde Park in midsummer; an audience that had defied the train strikes to come out in force for The Rolling Stones. Keith Richards led the band out, sauntering to the front of the stage, bandana-clad, smiling, to start the rumble of Street Fighting Man. And then it was on: a performance of such astonishing verve that I was still awake and buzzing hours afterwards.
“It’s 60 years to the week that we first played the Marquee Club,” Mick Jagger told the London crowd. Ten years later, he and Richards had turned the Stones into the sexiest band there had ever been. Yet watching them live in their seventies, it’s clear that the Stones are – and always were – about something deeper than sex. They embody darkness and danger with an edge that others just can’t match.
Their songs conjure an urban dystopia, where violence and emotional threat is real and close at hand. You can sing along, but so many of the classics they played at Hyde Park – from a spellbinding Paint It Black to the 2020 single Livin’ in a Ghost Town, which Jagger wrote in 2019 about “being a ghost after a plague” – drag you with them into the shadows. “Here it comes,” sings Jagger, “Here comes your 19th nervous breakdown.”
The lyrics are not faked for pop success, and they’re rarely specific, so they don’t date. It’s life with the nastiness left in, and the band members are walking proof of it. Richards is rock’n’roll’s Orpheus – the musician who perfected the lyre and survived a journey to the underworld. As he moves, at one with his guitar, he carries the grimness of his 1970s journey within him – of heroin, death and very dangerous associates. Ronnie Wood, too, has been to desolate places, where there is nothing but the drug or the bottle.
It seems that a sober Wood and a musically reborn Richards have transformed the Stones from an outfit driven solely by the ambition and intensity of Jagger into what they were in the first place: the best guitar band in the world. On Jumpin’ Jack Flash, they’re lightning in a bottle.
Jagger’s ambition and intensity are still there, though. Calling Harry Styles the new Mick Jagger, calling anyone that, misses an essential fact: Jagger himself is the new Mick Jagger, the old Mick Jagger, the eternal Mick Jagger. Strutting, dancing, never still; he’s unstoppable. His voice has the same fierce soul that it had when he was 20 – there will be no Vegas crooning for Mick, to the end.
What so many groups over the years who’ve wished they were The Rolling Stones have misunderstood is that they’re not just about strut and swagger, they’re about the interplay of two great guitarists, weaving rhythm and riffs, melody and solos. At his most imperious, Richards will let Ronnie drive the song along as he hangs in suspended time, happy, grinning, until he suddenly steps back in, to floor you with a barked chord, then steps away again.
They’re newly missing a much-loved drummer with swing, but Steve Jordan is proving an able replacement, while Darryl Jones on bass brings a new funkiness to Jagger’s Studio 54-influenced Miss You.
The performance was not absolutely without flaws. When the guitars slide apart, as they did on She’s a Rainbow, the momentum briefly stalls; and during Gimme Shelter, when backing singer Sasha Allen screamed out its apocalyptic “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away,” someone needed to turn her mic up.
Yet there was a moment during Midnight Rambler when Richards, Wood and Jones converged around the drums of Jordan, their backs to the audience, lockstep together in a Chicago blues, inside the music as it gathered a primal force. Their heads were bowed, overlooking the same spot, a dirt crossroads maybe, or something more ancient. And from there on in, the band was on fire, turning every song they played into an epic conflagration: Gimme Shelter, Start Me Up, Sympathy for the Devil and the closing (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. Apparently, there was another musical icon playing the same night. You might swap the Stones in 2022 for the 1972 version, but not for anyone else.
The Rolling Stones play Hyde Park again on Sunday July 3; bst-hydepark.com