Wednesday, July 31, 2013

DVD Review: The Stones In The Park (1969 / 2006)

The news this week that the Rolling Stones have released a digital album featuring the band’s two recent Hyde Park gigs (19 tracks culled from the July 2013 gigs) comes as no great surprise. It probably wasn’t enough that the 65,000 people who turned up to each show paid anything from £95 to £300 for the privilege of attending. Why not cash in while the going is still good? ... I’m sure Jagger and co need the money. Go to iTunes and pick up a copy if that’s your bag ...

But the general consensus is that the going is no longer very good at all. That the Stones have lost their mojo, and collectively they might just be starting to feel the pinch of old age. I’ve no idea whether or not that is true because I’ve resisted buying any “new” Stones material for years now. And yes, there are diehards who insist that the band wasn’t complete shit at Hyde Park. In fact, a few reviews were very positive indeed ... and so the juggernaut rolls on.
Regardless of any of that, there is a real irony in the fact that the inferior 2013 version of the Rolling Stones are looking to cream it from a couple of Hyde Park gigs, when the far superior Stones of 1969 played the exact same gig to more than 200,000 people for FREE.  
That epic day was captured on film and released on video/DVD as ‘The Stones In The Park’. Here’s my review of that DVD ...
The year 1969 looms large as a pivotal and era-defining one in the wider context of Rock history. With The Beatles all but defunct and on the very cusp of self-destruction, with landmark events such as Woodstock and Altamont occurring, and the release of a number of albums that would ultimately qualify for “all-time classic” status, the year heralding the end of the Sixties will forever be recalled as one of huge cultural significance. And that’s without even really scratching the surface. Then there was this, The Rolling Stones performing live at London’s Hyde Park, a free concert, just two days after the untimely and somewhat mysterious death (by drowning) of founding member and (the recently sacked) guitarist Brian Jones.

The late Sixties was a period when outdoor concerts in Hyde Park were fairly regular occurrences, but it’s fair to say that none were quite like this one in terms of scale or longer term relevance. This was just huge … as I’m quite sure many of the 250,000* in attendance that summery July day would attest. This DVD, The Stones In The Park, is a compilation of documentary and concert footage captured exclusively by Granada, recording the momentous occasion for posterity.
(*This is the conservative guesstimate, the DVD inlay suggests some “half a million” were present (if not entirely accounted for). Other sources suggest 250,000-300,000 - the correct figure most likely being somewhere in the middle).
Although the film itself is relatively short in length at around the one hour mark, The Stones In The Park offers considerably more than a mere collection of concert highlights. That is perhaps just as well, given that the performance of the Rolling Stones that day won’t go down as one of their greatest live efforts. Support bands on the day included Roger Chapman’s Family and a fledgling version of King Crimson, but neither - or indeed, any of the other support bands - are covered here. The film-makers instead preferred to provide build-up to the Stones’ gig by capturing the general vibe and sense of anticipation as the crowd slowly swells - interspersed with excerpts from an interview with Mick Jagger.

So it’s bare-footed, flowery bell-bottomed, cheesecloth-clad hippies to the fore as we survey the loved-up and mostly long-haired bohemian crowd. Providing a precursor to the chilling events that would take place at San Francisco’s Altamont Speedway just a few months later, “official” auxiliary security is provided by a surprisingly youthful chapter (or two) of the Hell’s Angels. It is difficult to imagine such an occurrence in today’s far more enlightened times, yet the menace provided by the leather-clad Bikers was just as likely a necessity considering the sheer volume of people in attendance. An otherwise too daunting a task for the local Met - although we do sight the odd “Bobby” or two loitering around the fringes.

On to the performance then, twelve tracks from a larger Stones set-list ultimately making the cut for the film; the highlights (a relative term) being ‘Jumping Jack Flash’, the impressive ‘I’m Free’ (a less-celebrated Stones track subsequently turned into a dancefloor smash by the Soup Dragons some 20 years later), the perennial live favourite from that era ‘Midnight Rambler’, and of course the “new” single ‘Honky Tonk Woman’. Perhaps the best moment though was reserved for a rather unique voodoo-drenched version of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ - which included some riveting percussion from a group of African drummers who had by then joined the band on stage, complete with a suitably-attired tribesman intent on giving Jagger a serious run for his money in the strange-ethnic-boogie stakes.
Jagger, looking resplendent in an effeminate white frilly number, paid tribute to Brian Jones at the beginning of the set, reading a short poem (Shelley’s ‘Adonis’) for his dear friend. One can only wonder what was going through the minds of the band members as they performed what had essentially become an impromptu Memorial gig for Brian. Surely they must have been experiencing some amount of trauma and/or shock given that Jones had died so suddenly just hours before.
Certainly new guitarist Mick Taylor handled the situation with some aplomb considering it was his first live performance with the band, and Taylor would become a valuable permanent member of the line-up through the band’s most creative period until he was eventually replaced by Ronnie Wood in the mid-‘70s.
But generally, as mentioned above, despite their resolve and professionalism in terms of fulfilling their obligations come the day, the self-proclaimed greatest RocknRoll band in the world turned out a less than stellar set by their own high standards (‘Satisfaction’ being the most notable disappointment) and much of their playing was fragmented and sloppy to say the least (aye, looking at you Keef Richards).

However, that was probably not really that important in the wider scheme of things. The Stones In The Park was a one-off, a monumental event, and I’d be fairly sure that the large majority of those present couldn’t have cared less about note-perfect renditions.
Overall, putting the rather poor sound quality and often grainy footage aside, this DVD is a genuine slice of history and a compelling documentary account of a band about to embark on phase two of what would prove to be a truly remarkable existence. From a social and historical perspective, the Hyde Park gig occupies an important place in the rich tapestry of popular culture, if only for the sheer weight of numbers who endorsed as much at the time. Recommended.

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