The Rolling Stones Have Become Their Own Tribute Act

The Stones were amazing back in the day, but nostalgia alone isn't enough to guarantee a good show at Glastonbury.
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The Rolling Stones were past it in 1982. I know this because I saw them at St James Park in Newcastle, dressed like Gok Wan-styled American footballers and emitting a tiny, tinny sound that made George Thorogood and the Destroyers look like the future of rock ‘n’ roll.

Now they are playing Glastonbury, thus spawning a miasma of Stones nostalgia. And you can bet that we will all be there, most likely watching on TV as we could not negotiate the Oxbridge style entrance exam that is the Glastonbury ticket sale, and we will be treated to no end of reverential bad back-slapping.

This is the Glastonbury way. I love Blur because they wrote lines like “I’m a professional cynic but my heart’s not in it” rather than “you’ve got to roll with it”, but scrape away Damon’s tears and the emperor’s new clothes and you had to admit that they were a bit average when they pitched up in 2009. Graham Coxon toiled away but dear old Damon was exposed as the poor live singer and great frontman that we always knew he was.

I love Bruce Springsteen even more. He opened his set that year with a classy Joe Strummer cover but, although the reports said it was a crowd-pleasing set and Glastonbury bowed down to The Boss, there were plenty of others who could only take so many songs about cars and women called Mary.

People say Springsteen is the exception to the musical law of diminishing returns, but while he still puts on a good, and very long, show, none of this century’s albums come close to The River or Nebraska or Born to Run. Give Bruce fans the choice and who would they want to see – the young gunslinger fighting his way out of hard times with songs about open roads or the multi-millionaire pensioner with faintly comical earrings and iffy lines about one-legged dogs (The Wrestler)?

There is something visceral and exhilarating about seeing a band launch itself from near oblivion like Bruce did at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975. By contrast, the Stones are their own tribute band, not as good or exciting or sexy as they were when it mattered.

Their back catalogue is better than anyone still going, but so what? This is not the Stones, this is a tribute act. And what is more, it is not as good as the real tribute acts, because, well, the faux tribute act are 70-ish and that is too old to be playing Honky Tonk Women and Brown Sugar without lashings of Viagra and irony.


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The Stones have never really moved on in the way another Glastonbury headliner, the Arctic Monkeys, have done. Their debut was one of those life-enhancing fixes, but no sooner had they made it than Alex Turner was turning his nose up at rhyming couplets about kebabs and cuddles in the kitchen. The pace slowed and the deadpan Yorkshire witticisms were expelled. Admittedly, I have not understood a single lyric of theirs since, (what is a "quickening canoe" - is it a knob gag, something about outdoor pursuits?) but at least they tried.

I read the Mick Jagger interview currently to be seen in Q and he seems like a nice bloke. But there was a routine mention in there about his penis, via Pete Townsend. This is to go with the one Keith Richards made about it in his book. Men of a certain age seem inordinately fascinated by the inordinately endowed, but it’s not even sleazy. It’s just silly. Let’s face it, Jagger is not, as first thought in the late 60s, Satan; he’s just a randy granddad. And Keef with all his talk of cats and Pirates cameos is the very parody of a spoof.

This is not to discredit a great band of the 60s and 70s, but that was a very long time ago. They were rebels and genuinely dangerous if Altamont is anything to go by. Now the only danger is to your wallet with totally unjustifiable ticket prices that show how out of touch or uncaring they really are.

Watch the Glastonbury set with any teenager who is bereft of the history of this band and their cultural importance and it is hard to imagine they will deem it earth-shattering. Rather they may ask why these men are not acting their age and getting a Rick Rubin makeover. The two new tracks on GRRR! were roundly lauded, but they were still pale imitations of the glory days. Now expectation is so low that mediocrity is inflated into significance.

Several years ago I was let down by another hero at the new Camp Bestival festival. Chuck Berry looked resplendent but struggled to play his life-altering riffs, what with the arthritic fingers and all. Far better was the screaming banshee who had shown up that afternoon for a crowd of around 25 people, dancing barefoot, chasing the keyboard player around the stage and even accepting a kiss from my mate Frank who, fuelled by the joy of the Bushmills Tent, was effusive in his praise. That was the then unknown Florence and the Machine and we debated whether she or the equally good Emmy the Great would ever make it. You felt like you were in on the start of something. With the Stones it’s a pre-death wake.

I hope the Stones put on a good show because I loved them. It will be nice to hear them play some of the old classics, but it’s just a posh bucket list gig. Mind you, we thought that in 1982 too. As for Thorogood, last year he was named one of the 50 most influential Delawareans of the past 50 years. Rock and roll.