Falling between this year's crossfire PR hurricane for 1972 Rolling Stones magnum opus reboot, Exile on Main St., and now Keith Richards' sensational autobiography Life – published Monday – the Screen's Greatest Rock & Roll Band also reissued another defining time capsule, cinematic and perhaps otherwise.
Nearly a month before its DVD release, and for one night only – Thursday, Sept. 16, 7:30pm – Ladies & Gentlemen the Rolling Stones returned to numerous big screens up and down Austin's I-35 corridor. Groupies were in surprisingly short supply, but a couple were rounded up, and just as my best friend and I had done not so many year's after the film's brief and limited theatrical release in 1974, we made the scene. We weren't alone. The Metropolitan didn't exactly sell out, but to a closet full of moths, the flame always draws.
From 1966's Charlie Is My Darling, whose one-hour doc of a period Rolling Stones tour played at the original Alamo Drafthouse's Music Mondays in an honest to goodness celluloid print, all the way to Martin Scorsese's Shine a Light in 2008 – and with stops everywhere from Jean-Luc Godard's Sympathy for the Devil to Rock History 101 Gimme Shelter – the Stones on film might as well date back to the very dawn of the medium itself. Rolling Stones Live at the Max was upgraded to DVD, but concert videos of the Voodoo Lounge and Bridges to Babylon tours in '95 and '98 cede shelf space to new millennial 4-DVD box sets Four Flicks and The Biggest Bang, which includes the UK legends' unbelievable 2006 Zilker Park performance.
None of it touches Ladies & Gentlemen the Rolling Stones. Nor for that matter can most of those titles man up to another concert film that unlike its bookend here was at least issued on VHS (and my LaserDisc!) and, while also generally forgotten, makes its debut on DVD next week. In both beats the blackest soul of the Rolling Stones.
Glitter glued to the corner of his eyes and on his forehead, pinky ring protruding and a blue denim shirt over his chestless white jumpsuit and red sash belt, the Mick Jagger of Ladies & Gentlemen the Rolling Stones animates the Mick Jagger of our collective imagination. Crown him Rock Star No. 6 – after Presley and four Beatles. First frontman.
Rock Star No. 7 – Lucky Seven – Keith Richards enters in heeled boots and a scarf, shag haircut that launched a whole human subspecies of bad boys. Charlie Watts, in his cream puff conga shirt, looks like an ice cream sundae. That the film, culled from four shows in Fort Worth and Houston, June 1972, offers absolutely no costume continuity – stage clothes changing from song to song – lends the whole venture a Fellini-esque haze: 8½ rock stars and their many-colored clown suits!
Before football stadiums and stage lengths to match, when guitars were still connected to amplifiers by what looks like curly headphone chords, the Rolling Stones clustered around the drum kit. Mick Taylor stands mostly motionless downstage left of Jagger, unleashing piercing leads like a one-man "Proud Mary" pumping "tane" down in New Orleans. "Brown Sugar" and "Bitch" open by kicking in the latter's proverbial stall.
"Gimme Shelter" goes from wobbly folker to avalanche in a minute flat, Taylor slick as ice on his Les Paul Sunburst as Jagger strips down to his tank top and package-enhancing trousers, hand on his hip in classic Jagger pose. The song's author, Richards, keeps playing its red light district rhythm like a schoolboy scooping jacks. Given such exposed roots, country bumpkin "Dead Flowers" next makes perfect sense, especially given the rare illustration of Richards' once tangy tenor on harmonies at the same mic with Jagger. Glimmer twins forever, "Sweethearts Together."
Jagger clearly relishes the country harmonies, and Richards in his white satin shirt and two-tone mop top pushes it all forward. Turns out to be warm-up for the guitarist's Exile solo, "Happy," Richards' semi-skeletal, jack-o'-lantern grin at the mic, with his mouthful of junkie teeth rot, is mesmerizing in his anti-hero charisma. When he delivers the line, "Never wanna be like papa," and Jagger's head bobs into the frame while both cats yowl the rejoinder, "Working for the boss every night and day," it's rock & roll incarnate in one single frame.
"Sorry that you didn't get to see Stevie Wonder, but we'll do our best," offers Jagger afterward, the '72 tour opener having slept in apparently.
Suddenly, Jagger's in a black diamond jumpsuit and white sash as Richards' rolling riffs begin undulating "Tumbling Dice" and Watts beats cardio. Jagger mouthing the riff at the end and looking as if he was just fed a roofie apparently made it past the band's censors.
"Thank you," smiles the singer. "We'd like to do a little blues for you, I think, yes." Then whispering: "We're gonna do a little blues for you." He reconsiders.
"Can you hear in the back? Can you hear in the back at all? Can you hear anything?"
The red glow of Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain," covered by the band on 1969's Let It Bleed, rusts immediately on Richards' sole guitar tiptoeing through the opening strangle of blues. Taylor's slide solo, as perfect as his young, painted, John Singer Sargent profile as he looks down at his guitar, downshifts the tune into its true whorehouse hues, its slow, sweaty embrace evoking everything carnal in man and music. Jagger's eyelids get heavy, Keith and Charlie lock into a death row strum and bang, and Taylor continues plugging deeper and deeper into the song's electric confessional.
In an act of mercy afterward, Jagger announces the onset of acoustic guitars on this "quiet Sunday afternoon."
"Why aren't you in church anyway?" he wonders, Watts' rimshot an entire drum solo in lesser hands.
The steel-string rain barrel of "Sweet Virginia" runneth over with Jagger clapping and intoning its hillbilly hippie lament, cracker country as imitated by drug-hoovering acolytes. A two-shot of Jagger singing and Richards sitting strumming behind him, the guitarist's harmony as piercing as smelling salts, and Lubbock landmark Bobby Keys, stepping to the mic with his saxophone lacquer, encores on a triumphant flourish from Richards at the finale.
Segued into said ruffian's Fender call-to-worship, "You Can't Always Get What You Want," his satin blouse open to the waist, the dark prince of rock & roll plays to a higher audience when his eyes roll back into his head. Richards then gazes at Jagger as the frontman sings to the congregation with a look that's impossible to decode, his descending guitar spiral a ringworm hook. Again their harmonies, Mick and Keith at the mic together, define their genre at a glance. Mick Taylor, in a sequined Stones tongue wife-beater, looks like a choirgirl next to the two bad-boy missionaries.
"We're gonna turn the heat up," announces Jagger with a merciless look in his eye, to which the band responds by climbing aboard "All Down the Line" and barreling down the Union Pacific tracks.
Jagger in his white jumpsuit and red sash, looking like the hood ornament off one of Richards' crashed Bentleys, and his co-writer honking out freight-liner riffs as Taylor flies his steel slide hang glider lead the band in full lunge, quick-edit visuals quoted ever since. The singer's compact stage boogie speaks to the music originating within him rather than his reaction to it. Shifting into "Midnight Rambler" next, a nasty piece of blues spook-'n'-slash opening the cell blocks to every 12-bar thief, pimp, and murderer who ever wreaked havoc on a full moon Saturday night, the band taps into its pact with the devil – worth every bleeding penny. This is where Jagger delivers the song's pulsed bump and grind on his hands and knees, lashing the stage with his sash, every post R&B imitator having paled since. At the 60-minute mark, it's the volcanic peak. Richards takes a swig of Jack Daniels in celebration.
Chuck Berry gets a beating on the rough and tumble assault of "Bye Bye Johnny," Jagger donning a cowboy hat, which is nothing compared to his headstand during "Rip This Joint." Then hits "Jumpin' Jack Flash," Richards and Watts the twin pistons driving its lashing downpour. The bandleader – Richards – shot from behind Watts, offers a picture of youthful obsession. Quick cuts and close-ups of the final number, "Street Fighting Man," Jagger convulsing and Richards sawing, fire a heart shot at Nixon's Vietnam-ravaged America.
Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train," opening theme of the Rolling Stones' North American tour, 1981-82, plus a sky full of balloons, matte the screen legend:
A Hal Ashby Film
The Rolling Stones:
Let's Spend the Night Together
Caravanning with the band onstage, the big daddy of modern concert promoters, the late Bill Graham, slices around both Keith Richards and Ron Wood – in their black leather jackets sucking down their ever present cigarettes – to the stage front behind the curtain. Charlie Watts takes his seat, while the pianists – Austin's Ian McLagan and sixth Stone Ian Stewart – boogie-woogie back-to-back as Graham snaps his fingers to their bounce.
"Thank you so much for waiting," yells Graham out front, and believe me, you had to wait forever to get the Stones onstage that tour. "Would you welcome please the Rolling Stones!"
A decade removed from Ladies & Gentlemen the Rolling Stones, which in rock & roll years might be double or triple that, the World's Greatest Rock & Roll Band is light years rougher and tougher at the dawn of the Reagan era, Jagger now a jersey-and-knee-pads-wearing football stadium Olympian and Richards the ever feral, now heroin survivor and mascara thug, Woody his understudy. Watts and Bill Wyman thump it all together as the rude, buzzing riffs of "Under My Thumb" pump out onto a Roman coliseum of fans. Cameras pan a 180 behind the band onstage and then lift off above the hills overlooking Tempe, Ariz.'s Sun Devil Stadium.
Instead of the lead/rhythm dynamic of the Mick Taylor years, Richards and Wood practice the ancient art of guitar weaving, its mainstay cranking out chunky Chuck Berry and his protégé wrapping it in barbwire. An early shot in Let's Spend the Night Together finds Jagger prancing to the audience, while Woody holds high ground upstage and Richards grinds the chopping sway of "Thumb" in the foreground. The sound mix, Richards' chanka-chanka in the left channel and Wood's pink tones in the right, begs for ever-higher volumes. Richards then picking out the film's title song at twice its original tempo rouses the same as a shot of the band's original epicenter, Ian Stewart, rolling and tumbling on the keys as his silver/pepper hair shifts like snow. These were the cocaine tempo years – for all rock, roll – but the underlying soul can't be quashed.
"I've been shit, shat, and shit on – shedoobie, shedoobie, shedoobie," snarks the singer.
Jagger delivers "Shattered" even faster than "Rip This Joint" in the previous film, Let's Spend the Night Together delivering 25 songs to Ladies & Gentlemen's 15 while needing only 10 additional minutes and 90 overall to do so. Here, Richards and Wood share a mic, and Mick's gone wireless. Better still, the director of this cinema verité – 1970s auteur of Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, Being There, and more – no doubt raised twice the budget of the band's previous concert film, used double the cameras (20), and matches the Rolling Stones in God-given chops. Ashby's onstage lenses prowl the stage voyeuristically, catching Jagger and Richards hunched down and squaring off from just over the left shoulder of Ian McLagan. His camera lingers in opposition to modern music film technique, Ashby balancing long shots and close-ups by following the music. This is an action film disguised as a documentary.
Backstage the boys do their hair – aided by the band's blondes, Jo Wood and Jerry Hall – and material off the band's then-current album, Tattoo You, slam-bams 40,000-65,000 on "Neighbors" and cruises a stretch Cadillac on "Black Limousine." Some Girls' Temptations cover, "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)," was a highlight of the LP trek – and of its truncated tour souvenir, Still Life (American Concert 1981) – so when Jagger straps on a cherry-red Gibson SG and Richards takes hold of the song's loping backbone, Watts lays in a beat to live life by. Look for the bit where Richards misses his harmonic cue, runs to and overshoots the mic, then has to put his cigarette down onstage to sing, only to have Woody bend down to pick it up a second later. Richards' hound dog harmonies bark as casual as his black vest and tie. Jazz man Ernie Watts subs for Bobby Keys.
Another 1981 set snort was a two-minute rip through Eddie Cochran imprint "20 Flight Rock," Richards manhandling his Fender as the Stones rock back on their rockabilly roots, the guitarist jolting out a street beating. Watts pulls the rip chord on an even faster tempo for Emotional Rescue's "Let Me Go," which makes "All Down the Line" sound like it's standing still. "Whoa," mouths Richards to Woods, surfing atop the beat as Jagger bounds out into the audience.
Before the band has a heart attack, Jagger dons a hat and everyone slows for "Time Is On My Side." Ashby cuts in vintage photos of the band as children, plus television footage from the Stones' reverse Dorian Gray portrait (the band ages, but the picture keeps getting face-lifts) and other visual memorabilia of the quintet's then barely 20-year career. Ed Sullivan footage of the band in all its Brian Jones glory makes the song even more poignant prior to Richards' thank-you to Jagger for carrying the Stones through his drug "experiment," Some Girls' "Beast of Burden," which slides into a babymaking rhythm. Richards' cigarette and supplication to the audience during it assumes a postcoital glow.
"Waiting on a Friend" receives a dusky reading from Jagger, while a manhandling jungle beat on Smokey Robinson's "Going to a Go-Go" soundtracks a time-lapsed stage erection of the juggernaut's indoor show, begun here on "You Can't Always Get What You Want," Richards' shrugging riffs played in a shirt torn from the tatters of "Shattered." His entire interpretive dance and harmonic yowl, accented by Woods' shred whispering, glimpses Richards' inner muse.
"On bass, 39 and holding, Bill Wyman," cracks Jagger during the band introductions, and in them you can see his master of ceremonies of the past 20 years: glib and slightly scripted but completely in the moment. In Richards' repaired grill and nicotine-scarred vox resides the band's ever-growling lion of Judah ("Little T&A"). Complimenting him always, Charlie Watts' atomic clock timekeeping outdistances the Maya calendar.
Glimpse the director himself, shirtless backstage on a couch, during the montage roll of "She's So Cold," Richards hammering out its Chuck Berry cop like a stonemason. "All Down the Line" spins at 78 rpm, but the stomping garage tear of "Hang Fire" burns rubber. "Miss You" ends the adrenal pace as the whole band limbos the Studio 54 strut in unison. Bathed in red, Richards demonizes the groove, while Jagger's scowl opening "Let It Bleed" uncorks the end-run of hits: "Start Me Up," "Honky Tonk Women" (featuring Shirley Watts in the dance hall girl chorus and Jagger and Richards back at the mic together), "Brown Sugar" and its original saxophonist Bobby Keys, "JJ Flash" (as the band notes the song on its set-lists), and finally, "Satisfaction."
The editing, stolen close-ups, and mini montages (Jagger's bows), not to mention the ceiling shot of falling balloons and lights-up victory spike of "Satisfaction," are easy to take for granted in the closing minutes of Let's Spend the Night Together, but a lifetime of concert films since prove this the work of a master director, right down to the end credit fireworks and explosions accompanying Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner."
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