The night before the first of the Rolling Stones' 50th anniversary shows in London, BBC2 broadcast the second part of the documentary Crossfire Hurricane, devoted to what Mick Jagger drily refers to from the O2 stage as the band's journey "from Deptford to Greenwich".
The most striking thing about it might have been the fact that the journey ended, rather abruptly, in 1981. The subtext appeared to be that nothing of interest had happened in the last 31 years of the Rolling Stones' career, that the band had ceased to have any real interest in artistry and instead become a straightforward money making machine periodically embarking on hugely lucrative world tours.
That seems a little harsh on their latter-day oeuvre: admittedly, the track they play from 1997's Bridges to Babylon, Out of Control, is pretty dreary, but they've made better music than that in the last quarter of a century. Nevertheless it's a reading that seems to fit with the Stones' 50th anniversary gigs. There's something perversely admirable about the way the self-styled "greatest rock'n'roll band in the world" seem openly intent on celebrating their golden jubilee by making as much money as possible with the absolute minimum of effort.
No new album, just a couple of new tracks to generate interest in what a conservative estimate suggests is the 36,734th Rolling Stones greatest hits collection: both get an airing, and if neither is destined to supplant Brown Sugar or You Can't Always Get What You Want in fans affections, Doom and Gloom suggests there's a little more life left in the Jagger and Richards songwriting partnership than their detractors suggest. No world tour, just a few dates in London and New York, with mind-blowing ticket prices. To sit at the back of the O2 arena, where the tickets come with a warning suggesting sufferers of vertigo should think twice about showing up, cost £95. "Are you all right in the cheap seats?" asks Jagger at one juncture. But they're not that cheap, are they?
The top of the range "hospitality package" – seemingly targeted at the subsection of their fan base who've taken leave of their senses – costs £950 a head, which seems steep even to stand in what's effectively the lower jaw of a stage-set based on their famous lips-and-tongue logo. Still, the Rolling Stones have never really hidden their desire to rake in cash. In the mid-60s, while at the height of their early notoriety – an era they linger far longer on than usual, tearing through I Wanna Be Your Man, Get Off My Cloud, It's All Over Now and Paint it Black, the latter still carrying a distinct hint of menace despite its advanced years – their carefully cultivated antiestablishment image didn't preclude the band flogging Rice Krispies on a TV ad.
In 1981, they were the first band to take corporate sponsorship for a tour. Perhaps the question shouldn't be why the Rolling Stones charge so much – doing that kind of thing is in their nature – but why anyone would think a gig by them is worth nearly a thousand quid. The sudden curtailment of the documentary suggested it's entirely out of affection for the past. People want to see the Rolling Stones on stage in 2012 because three of them are the same people that were onstage at the absolute height of their powers. In fact, five of them are the same people that were onstage at the absolute height of their powers.
Your cash buys you a chance to see Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts reunited with bassist Bill Wyman, who turns up for It's Only Rock'n' Roll and Honky Tonk Woman – his facial expression suggests a man very much not reconsidering the wisdom of quitting – and more excitingly, guitarist Mick Taylor, whose guest spot on Midnight Rambler is really thrilling.
He cuts a rather avuncular figure these days, and at one point breaks off from soloing to plant a kiss on Keith Richards' cheek, but there's nothing remotely cosy about his guitar playing.
In fact, the evening is liberally flecked with moments where the Rolling Stones' live show seems to be about more than mere nostalgia, where the band seems to suddenly hit its stride, when well-worn material comes alive. Keith Richards' Before They Make Me Run arrives with its screw-you swagger intact.
Mary J Blige turns up for Gimme Shelter. She sounds predictably fantastic, but more exciting is the effect her presence has on Jagger.Visibly in fear of being upstaged, he starts working twice as hard to dominate the song and the cumulative effect is genuinely gripping. Whether it's worth nearly a thousand pounds to witness is a moot point, although the noise the crowd makes implies they think it is.
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