Forty years after his first drug bust in 1967, Keith Richards is still testing the limits of the law. But, as one would expect of a 63-year-old, the substances in question have changed over the years. So it was that, before an enraptured audience at the O2 Centre on Tuesday night, the pirate-captain of the Rolling Stones smoked a cigarette. Now that’s what I call rock’n’roll.
In an unforgiving light, the Stones of 2007 can look like a collision between delivery vans from a wig shop and a latex factory. But that’s not bad for a quartet with a combined age of 253. When the band formed in 1962, Harold Macmillan was prime minister. Indeed, Macmillan was only two years older then than Charlie Watts is now — although I doubt Supermac would have looked as cool behind a drum kit.
‘It’s taken us 40 years to get from Richmond down to Greenwich,’ drawled Mick Jagger in his shimmering frock-coat. Longer, actually; but nobody was quibbling with a superstar who, at an age when many men are getting hip replacements, still has the snake hips of an ageing Nijinsky, who simply refuses to stop moving, a perpetuum mobile of pop.
From the first, mesmeric chords of ‘Start Me Up’, Richards coaxing the magic from his guitar like a tribal shaman, this was a reliable and familiar set, expertly executed by the best in the business. For many, many years, the Stones have been putting on a show, rather than playing a gig. The difference is essential. This was all about celebration, and immutable continuity, not the generation gaps that used to be so important. Pop was invented to divide father and son: now, funnily enough, it is one of the things that binds them together. The Stones could not have imagined the world of MP3 file-sharing and downloading when they started out, but they understand it very well today.
Thus, the group that once delivered a sharp jab to the solar plexus of the Establishment now performs a ritual in its homeland every few years that has become a beloved fixture in the English social calendar. These days the audience hold up Blackberries and mobile phones rather than their lighters. There are no Camberwell carrots, and little shagginess in the throng. But the songs and the spirit remain the same for the punters who longed in their youth to be Mick, or Keith, or Marianne, or Bianca, and have not forgotten that longing.
After ‘Rough Justice’ from the band’s most recent album, A Bigger Bang, the inspiration of their two-year tour, it was back in time to ‘Rocks Off’, the opening track from 1972’s Exile on Main Street. ‘How does the ending go on that?’ mused Jagger, rather sweetly. But he hadn’t forgotten a single note of ‘Let It Bleed’, which he performed beautifully, to the accompaniment of his own acoustic guitar.
Mick paid homage to James Brown with ‘I’ll Go Crazy’. Keef parried with 1969’s ‘You Got the Silver’, the first Stones song on which he performed lead vocals (said to be a poem to Anita Pallenberg). He does a mean blues vocal, does Keef. Jagger is all about the will to stay young; Richards, crumpled and majestic, with bits and chains hanging off him, is all about the will to stay alive. Both are compelling to behold.
Then, in a coup de théâtre as obvious as it was effective, the stage floated on rails into the centre of the venue, turning an arena concert into something a bit more intimate. ‘Respectable’ from Some Girls was followed by ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Honky Tonk Women’, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and (my own favourite) ‘Paint It Black’. As Jagger bounced up and down incorrigibly, implacably, to ‘Jumping Jack Flash’, the numbers 102, 104, 106 were projected behind him. Is this the age Sir Mick will be when he finally retires?
Indeed, with vitamins, medical advances and daily Pilates is there any reason why he should ever retire? My six-year-old son asked me the other day what I was doing this week, and I said I was seeing the Rolling Stones. ‘Oh, yes,’ he said. ‘Like the Beatles. But more rock’n’roll.’ That’s spot-on. And doubtless, in a few years’ time, when the Stones roll back into town, he and his younger brother will have the chance to see for themselves.