For the same reason that a lot of people believe the Rolling Stones are the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world (because it says so at the start of Get Yer Ya Yas Out), so a lot also believe that 1969 caught them at the very apex of that reign. Neither does (or, as we shall see, did) the recorded evidence disagree.
The band’s one previous live album, Got Live if You Want It, is their catalog’s equivalent to the Beatles’s Hollywood Bowl albatross; while subsequent concert sets veered from the underwhelming (Love You Live) through the competent (Still Life) and on to the “if you build it, they will come” production-line slick kicks of the nineties and noughties.
Recent years have seen the field widen somewhat, with DVD releases for a crop of other 70s highlights… the legendary Ladies and Gentlemen 1972 flick, LA ’75, Texas ’78, Hampton ’81 (and, coming soon, Hyde Park ’69), but still Ya-Yas triumphs, partly because we all know it so well, and partly because it’s focus is so narrow, a fifteen strong set pruned to just ten (the remaining five finally surfaced as a bonus disc within the 2009 box set), then given a full work-out in post-production, too.
Maybe it was recorded during what Dave Marsh called "history's first mythic rock and roll tour”, but excise Altamont (and, yes, Ya-Yas) from the equation and what you really have is a band breaking in a new guitarist on their first ever jaunt around America’s vastest auditoriums. As the bootlegs remind us.
No, the true peak of the Stones as a live act was still to come, in 1971, as they added Sticky Fingers to the three-hole punch that they opened with Beggar’s Banquet and Let It Bleed, then went back to the kind of venues where rock’n’roll is measured by the energy of the band, not the size of the crowd. Eighteen shows spread across ten cities kept to the 2,000-or-so sized theaters with which the UK once bristled not only caught the band at its tightest and tautest, it also produced three bootlegs that might each have rivaled Ya-Yas for quality, had they only been recorded to the same high standards.
Which they were, but only now are we getting to hear them.
Two new releases - one, the long-awaited reissue of Sticky Fingers, across both a two CD package and a three CD-plus-vinyl deluxe set; and the other, the latest in the band’s From The Vaults DVD collection - between them gather up the eighth night of the tour, in Leeds, and the two closing shows, at the Roundhouse and the Marquee Club in London, with the latter filmed before a specially invited audience of industry types and musical peers.
That may or may not be a good thing, the audience’s self-conscious cool seriously at odds with the energy of the band, and the presence of Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page in the crowd scarcely seems notable when you have Mick, Mick, Keith, Charlie and Bill on stage. Even if one of the Micks (Taylor, not Jagger) does seem so intent on his fretboard that you find yourself wondering whether he’s ever seen a guitar before; and the other (Jagger, not Taylor) is still doing that bizarre “can you see me at the back of the stadium” dance that he perfected in the mega-domes of the American mid-west, but which looks frankly absurd on a stage the size of the average dining table.
Still, the Marquee was one of the places where it all kicked off for the Stones, and they acknowledge the history stylishly. Clumped together as a single unit, they power through a set that clashes the best of the Ya-Yas show with some extraordinary takes on the new material, then wrap it up with a rearranged “Satisfaction” that reminds you this is still a functioning rock’n’roll band, not yet fossilized in its own reputation and legend, and certainly not beholden to what the kids want to hear.
Which wasn’t an issue at the Marquee, where the power of the set alone informs the magic of the show, and the audience is just a decorative aside that interests the camera more than your eyes and ears. But the Leeds crowd captured on the bonus disc in the Sticky Fingers deluxe box (the old Get Your Leeds Lungs Out boot), is less convinced, and the Roundhouse audience wasn’t too keen, either. Already, with the song just six years old, it seemed fairly sacrilegious. Now, it feels like one of the all-time great versions of the song, from a time before constant repetition cast it in “oh dear, here we go again” stone.
Okay, formats. The basic Sticky Fingers 2CD package places the parent album on disc one, sounding fine (although Internet chatter does prefer an earlier remastering), then divides the second disc between five alternate versions of the album tracks (an acoustic “Wild Horses” is the best, the Eric Clapton-fired “Brown Sugar” the most exhilarating) and five tracks from the Roundhouse show.
They’re well-chosen tracks, too. Preferable though it would have been to receive the entire show, still five reprises from the Ya-Yas set allow a straight comparison between the two eras, and there’s little denying that these are rawer, earthier, and way more exciting. Less showy, more brutal, with “Midnight Rambler” postively spinechilling.
The boxed deluxe edition adds the Leeds show, plus a vinyl edition of Sticky Fingers, a 120 page hardback book, a single coupling Brown Sugar/Wild Horses, and sundry printed ephemera - although the perfectionist-within sincerely wishes that it was Leeds, and not the studio set, that had made it onto wax.
Sounding better than you’ve ever heard it (at least if bootlegs be your guide), this is the show that spawned the “Let It Rock” b-side to the original UK “Brown Sugar” single, and it is wall-to-wall dynamite. Slip twelve inches of that into your old Leeds Lungs bootleg sleeve, and you’d never look at Ya-Yas again.
In its stead, we turn to the Marquee show, available as DVD, Blu-ray, DVD+CD and DVD+LP - and needless to say, it’s the latter that Spin Cycle is drooling over. Eight tracks highlight the show, opening with a brusque “Live With Me,” powering through a couple of cuts from the new album (“Dead Flowers” and “I Got The Blues”), and then it’s into the hard stuff - “Let It Rock,” “Midnight Rambler,” “Satisfaction” and a closing salvo of “Bitch” and “Brown Sugar.” The DVD adds a few bonus takes, and they’re a lot of fun. But the main show, spread across two sides of wax, looks great, sounds fantastic, and the very act of getting up mid-show to flip the vinyl lends an authenticity to the experience that might be rampant snobbery, but which also lines the show up alongside any of the other “classic” Stones live sets.
And, in so doing, allows 1971 to finally take its place at the head of the list.