Cool it for a minute: the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park, then and now

Absolute Radio DJ Pete Mitchell looks back the Stones gig in Hyde Park in 1969 and hears from Mick Jagger backstage at this year's concert

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Cool it for a minute: the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park, then and now
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Pete Mitchell
Pete Mitchell
Absolute Radio DJ Pete Mitchell

The current phase of the Rolling Stones’ 50 and Counting world tour goes on hiatus after their second sellout Hyde Park show this Saturday.

Last week's show was hailed as “biblical” in some quarters, as 60,000 fans went home sunburnt and happy, safe in the knowledge that they had witnessed a performance by one of the greatest bands of the 21st century.

Much has been said and written about the Stones first historical performance in the park some 44 years earlier, which according to some sources was attended by nearly a half a million people. How could the Tube, cabs and buses cater for that amount of people in one place at one time, virtually without incident?

There has been much debate about the sound levels in the park —  “turn it up” is the usual mantra from the crowd these days as noise pollution threatens all of human existence. You may remember the farcical “pulling of the plug” during Bruce Springsteen's duet with Paul McCartney as they audaciously dared sneak past the nightly 10.30 noise curfew one Saturday evening last year. Bruce had introduced Macca by saying “I've been waiting for this for 50 years,” just before silence fell over the park minutes later.

Forty-four years previously, in July 1969, the Stones performed at a free outdoor festival in the park in front of a sea of human beings that stretched back as far as the eye could see. Check out the excellent Granada TV documentary filmed on the day.

Dressed in an Ozzie Clark white outfit, Jagger opened with a eulogy to the recently deceased Brian Jones. He had died a few days earlier in a mysterious swimming pool incident at his home in Sussex. He was just 27. Mick quelled the over-excited crowd by telling them to “cool it for a minute”, then recited a Shelley poem and released hundreds of butterflies into the park.

This gesture caused some consternation within the botanical and park keepers’ world, as Mick explained to me backstage before last week's show.

“It was a sad occasion but a wonderful gig attended by lots of wonderful people, but the releasing of the butterflies didn't go down very well with the park keepers. We got complaints from the park because they didn't know we were going to do it, and they were of course the wrong kind of butterfly, which went on to eat the wrong kind of things.”

The Rolling Stones not only threatened the establishment but the entire ecosystem of Hyde Park.

Looking back at the event through the camera lens of the Granada TV doc, it looks as if health and safety had yet to be invented. Hundreds of fans were clinging on to the branches of the trees without any fear of what might have happened if they gave way; very few police officers seemed to be in attendance; and the PA, or the “amplification” as it was known then, was suitable for a village church hall — and yet no one complained.

It was organised chaos, even the tiny stage that the Stones performed on looked woefully inadequate — it could have easily crumpled under the weight of the amount of people on stage alone. Adding to all of this, the band had not performed live in almost two years.

When you consider what happened in December of that year at Altamont in northern California, this ramshackle show was a complete and utter triumph. I can find no record of any arrests or incidents that day apart from the controversial releasing of the butterflies by the not-too-eco-savvy lead singer.

Sitting backstage a few days before the first of their two Hyde Park shows with Mick Jagger in the office Portakabin of the Stones, you realise that this is a quantum leap from the lackadaisical free show of 1969. The Rolling Stones are a global brand, bigger now than they have ever been, and are up there with the likes of Coca-Cola and Apple in terms of awareness.

The backstage area is impressive as hundreds of ant-like workers and assorted PAs, PRs, secretaries and assistants come together to make this one of the greatest music shows on Earth. And sitting at the epicentre is a man about to celebrate his 70th birthday: Mick Jagger. He is relaxed, looks healthy and is in total control of this well-oiled machine.

How long can this rock ‘n’ roll circus go on for, is the burning question. Reading between the lines it seems to me that this 50 and Counting tour is far from over, maybe even only half way through. When you consider that 80 per cent of the audiences are seeing the band for the very first time, then surely they will roll out the show into Europe and beyond later this year and into 2014 and maybe just maybe beyond.

I enquire as to the band’s future plans and Mick is a little guarded but offers up a hint of what may be around the corner. “I'm always writing new songs, so hopefully we'll record some one of these days. Maybe there will be things beyond that, but right now this is the summer and I'm looking forward to these shows in the park. We will then have a bit of a break,” he says with a glint in his eye. On present form you would not rule out the 70 and Counting tour.          

When the dreaded day comes and the nuclear warheads drop, eradicating the world and all its contents, the only things to survive will be cockroaches, the Rolling Stones and perhaps the odd butterfly on the wheel.

Hear Pete Mitchell celebrating 50 years of the Rolling Stones this Saturday at 10pm on Absolute Radio – absoluteradio.co.uk/listen

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