Who was here in 1969? asked Mick Jagger, referencing the Rolling Stones historic Hyde Park show, held just two days after original guitarist Brian Jones’ death, at which a crowd estimated at a quarter of a million people turned up to pay their respects. “Welcome back,” he said in response to those who stood with hands raised. “It’s nice to see you again.“
Back then, nobody had paid a penny to see the Stones; 44 years on, some tickets were changing prices for upwards of a thousand pounds. Inevitably, the times, they have a changed.
The bank manager long ago won the battle for the heart of the Stones – surveying the baffling number of hospitality packages and “tiers” of general admission at Hyde Park, one can’t help but feel sorry for the poor fan who just wanted a ticket for the gig. But all one’s scepticism disappears the minute the riff of Start Me Up explodes out of the speakers, an awful lot more sure-footed than it sounded on the TV from Glastonbury.
And while a sizeable section of today’s audience weren’t even born the last time Mick and co ambled through Midnight Rambler here, the fact that they’d turned out in their thousands to tread in their parents’ sandal-steps speaks volumes about the band’s enduring appeal. Things got off to a less than auspicious start. Keith Richards fluffed not one, but two of opener Start Me Up’s opening three chords – a riff one suspects, given the number of times he’s played it, would be harder for him to play wrong than right.
Fortunately they proved to be the only bum notes of a near-immaculate set that not just recreated the previous weekend’s Glastonbury crowd-pleasing histrionics, but arguably surpassed them. Richards looked more relaxed and far better dressed, trading licks and cigarette smoke with long-term sparring partner Ronnie Wood.
Drummer Charlie Watts was the epitome of insouciant cool, providing the rock-solid foundations from which the likes of It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It), Honky Tonk Women and an epic Paint It Black were majestically constructed.
The Stones may no longer be “the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world” (is anyone?), but their muscle memory and catalogue mean they are still a fearsome force once they’re in full flow. Gimme Shelter has the unstoppable, lumbering force of a supertanker; Paint It Black, an eternal monument to the point in time when blues fans started dropping acid, still sounds like it was written by some sinister, alternate consciousness, then gifted to the band – the nihilism of the lyric may be cartoonish, but the attack of the music isn’t.
The presentation, too, is stunning. There are no fancy props on stage, but the band are enveloped on huge screens, which during Sympathy for the Devil portray the trees of Hyde Park in flames, while firepots belch orange flame and drape the front 30 or 40 yards of the crowd in smoke. It’s thrillingly effective, and only the delighted whoops of 65,000 or so prevent it feeling suitably demonic. And if Jagger’s call-outs to “everyone at the back” feel forced, given that thousands have paid a good bit extra for the privilege of standing nearer the front, then the explosive force of Midnight Rambler (with added Mick Taylor) or Jumpin’ Jack Flash forces one to swallow qualms. A beautiful You Can’t Always Get What You Want and the inevitable (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction finish the show, and it’s hard to believe, as Keith Richards grins through his fag smoke, that they won’t be back doing it all again soon.