Their latest shows prove the Rolling Stones can still work a crowd, but their music is of a time long gone
On Sunday night, while the Rolling Stones were performing for 20,000 people at the O2 in London – the first of five concerts they will be playing in London and New York to mark their 50th anniversary – one of their early heroes was also making an appearance a few miles across town, in the somewhat shabbier surroundings of the Kentish Town Forum.
Bobby Womack is the veteran soul singer who wrote, and with his group The Valentinos recorded, the original version of It’s All Over Now, which gave the Stones their first number one hit in Britain in 1964. Womack once recalled his chagrin at his mentor Sam Cooke giving the Stones his song, and depriving him of having the hit himself. “I was still screaming and hollering right up until I got my first royalty cheque. Man, the amount of money rolling in shut me right up.”
Womack, 68, who styles himself as “the Soul Survivor”, has survived drug problems, near-penury and cancer. He was performing songs from a new album, The Bravest Man In The Universe (modesty was never his strong suit), produced by another, younger admirer, Damon Albarn.
The Rolling Stones, who started out as a rhythm and blues covers band, borrowing heavily from black artists such as Womack (a debt which, to their credit, they have always warmly acknowledged), are now among the wealthiest entertainers in the world, a thriving corporation, steered by a CEO – Mick Jagger – who has demonstrated a mixture of shrewdness and business acumen that makes him the peer of any more strait-laced captain of industry.
The Stones are reportedly being paid more than £15 million for their five shows. Ticket prices for the London performances range from £95 to £375, with a “VIP hospitality” ticket priced at £950, and no concessions for the pensioners who are the group’s most devoted audience, many of whom will doubtless have travelled to the O2 on their Freedom Passes.
We can put aside Jagger’s blithe explanations that when it comes to ticket prices the group are merely hapless victims of market forces, or Ronnie Wood’s shrugging dismissal that “we’ve got to make something”. The Stones long ago set the benchmark for shameless cynicism when it comes to exploiting “the brand”. Among the luxury items on offer when the box-set of Exile On Main Street was released two years ago was a limited-edition box of three lithographs, “signed individually by Mick, Keith or Charlie”, priced at £1,999.99. Note, that’s “or”, not “and”.
By one account, the biggest crush of the night at the O2 was not at the front of the stage but at the merchandising stand, where eager customers were spending £200 on a poster of a gorilla’s face – the artwork on the cover of the the band’s newly released greatest hits, Grrr!. Of course, one should not begrudge a handful of pensioners a few bob in their declining years, but as Johnny Rotten once said, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
It is not only the price of the tickets, but the online lottery by which they have been dispersed that leads older – and poorer – fans to feel hard done by. In an earlier age, the devoted fan camping outside the theatre on the night before the show would have seen his loyalty rewarded with a ticket. Now, devotion requires very deep pockets, faster broadband speeds and, ideally, useful corporate connections.