The last great peak and subsequent artistic decline of a great rock & roll band — maybe the greatest rock & roll band — was signified by one t-shirt.
Said t-shirt was on display on a roastingly hot July night in 1978 when the Rolling Stones played Ft. Worth's Will Rogers Memorial Center on their tour to promote the newly released Some Girls. The show, nicely filmed on grainy 16mm stock and vividly recorded, is just out on DVD as Some Girls Live in Texas 1978 (Eagle Rock Entertainment).
The Stones had been on the ropes lately: not only was Keith Richards facing a heavy prison sentence for possessing some 22 grams of heroin, but the band was coming off three consecutive mediocre albums, as well as a damaging scandal over a viciously sexist ad for their previous record, Black and Blue.
And then there was the matter of punk rock. The Stones were all too aware of punk and how it directly refuted the luxuriant torpor of their mid-'70s work. The Stones had been integral players in rock's evolution — through the British Invasion, blues revivalism, baroque pop, psychedelia, pastoral rock and '70s excess — right up until punk. This was the first musical movement that the Stones were simply too old to have been a part of. Which must have been pretty tough to take, especially for the vain and trendy Jagger. All they could do was don punk's vestments, like Hannibal Lecter wearing the skin of his murder victims.
And so at this concert, we witness the unseemly spectacle of Mick Jagger parading around in a t-shirt with the word DESTROY atop a swastika. (Back then, even provincial squares would have picked up on the shirt's punk rock style; today, Jagger would be accused of being a Nazi sympathizer.) The thing is, Michael Philip Jagger was born during World War II; the swastika had a much different significance to his generation than to the punks, precisely why the latter used it to twit their elders, thereby setting themselves apart from them. It's one thing for Sid Vicious to sport a swastika, but when Mick Jagger does it, it's a calculating and somewhat desperate pose. For the Rolling Stones, the writing wasn't just on the wall, it was on Mick Jagger's chest.
Jagger's bandmates are beginning to modify their look too, metamorphosing from the debauched cocaine gypsy look of earlier in the decade and into what would become the postmodern Kennedy-era mode of the '80s, which signified a period the Stones had actually lived through and utterly demolished. So now, in their mid 30s, the Stones were starting to lose their cultural currency.
They shot back with Some Girls, which incorporated modern brevity and a punky kick up the BPMs, while dispensing with the horns, synths and backing singers that had draped all over the previous few albums like an ostrich boa.
It was their last great album, and the start of rock's agonizingly slow generational changing of the guard. Even the Rolling Stones bowed to its power, but it would be 13 long years until punk broke.
In a 20-minute 2011 interview included on the DVD, Jagger says punk had more of an effect on the band's playing than its writing, which accounts for the Ft. Worth show's sped-up takes on just about every song in the set — and they've streamlined everything, eliminating the extended guitar soloing of yore, as well as minimizing the number of musicians on stage.
The minimalism ran deep on this tour. The Stones played a great variety of venues on that tour, from theatres to arenas to stadiums, partly to keep things interesting, partly to echo the intimacy of punk shows. This show was a convention center gig — 3,000 capacity, a tiny room for such a huge band.
Ron Wood indulgently changes guitars for virtually every song, but that's about the most decadent aspect of the show's production values. Unlike the previous tour, there are no gigantic inflatable phalluses or Chinese dragons spewing confetti from humongous unfolding lotus flower stages — like Some Girls itself, it's a stripped-down presentation. On the 1975 tour they were often on stage for two and a half hours, which is either indulgent or generous, depending on how you look at it; perhaps as a reaction to punk concision, perhaps owing to drug-induced malaise, this show is well under an hour and half.
And after years of coasting on their back catalogue, the Stones were determined to coast no longer: despite the fact that fans had had barely five weeks to absorb the new material, the band plays seven songs in a row from the new album, sandwiched by several deep cuts from previous albums, two Chuck Berry covers and only three bona fide hits. They begin with a four-song career recap (Berry's "Let It Rock," "All Down the Line," "Honky Tonk Women" and "Star, Star"), and then dive into most of Some Girls. It's hard to imagine they had ever before played seven songs in a row from their most recent album. They almost certainly haven't dared to do it since.
At the time, Jagger in particular was hitting downtown Manhattan clubs, picking up on not just punk but disco and rap (as it was then commonly called), and the way the hippest New York bands synthesized it all. And it shows up in the new music they were playing. True, they were still clinging to old warhorse covers like "Love in Vain" and "Let It Rock" but they were also absorbing the most important underground musical trends of the late '70s. And now they were somewhat boldly bringing them to the hinterlands.
It was a wildly uneven tour — a Houston newspaper critic wrote of a show only two days later: “It was a dismal experience — to be endured, not enjoyed.” But perhaps because the cameras were rolling this night, the band bore down and cranked out a kick-ass rock show.
There's life in the old boys yet. They might have seemed silly asserting bad boy status while being millionaire jet-setters but the prospect of Richards serving very lengthy jail time must have been as hardcore as it gets for the entire band, and it shows in a truly bad-ass performance.
The Stones had been playing together for 16 years by this point, and were 20 shows into the tour, so they were warmed up. Like the Led Zeppelin concert footage that finally got issued some years ago, Some Girls Live in Texas 1978 shows a world-class rock group in action, the better to understand its mechanics, its sonic architecture. Richards, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman form a V-8 rhythm section, the close-shorn Watts kicking ass like a pissed-off monk.
The ring and middle fingers of bassist Bill Wyman's fretting hand are taped together — he'd broken a knuckle in a stage fall days earlier — and even still, he's laying down some incredible lines, with a loopy, loping tone that directly recalls bassists for the likes of Slim Harpo or Howlin' Wolf. As much as anyone in the Stones, Bill Wyman was keeping it real. He is perhaps the most underrated bassist in rock history.
The stage arrangement is actually kind of bizarre: with no less than five fridge-sized amplifier cabinets, Wyman occupies the entire right half of the stage, and everyone else — Richards, Wood, the two keyboardists and, for the most part, Jagger — inhabit the other half. And so Wyman, virtually stock-still except for his hands, is out there all by himself, mostly in the dark. No one in the band even seems to look at him as he stares straight out in the crowd, presumably scouting for chicks. It really is peculiar, and the band was probably so dysfunctional that they didn't think twice about it.
Ron Wood also gets a fair amount of onstage stick. He is (and always will be) the new boy in the band, and Jagger constantly reminds him of that fact. At one point, Jagger takes Wood's cigarette and crushes it out on the floor; at various points in the show, he whips Wood with a towel, spanks him on the ass, pretends to slap his face and fondles his crotch while the poor man is trying to play a solo — just in case Wood still didn't understand the band's pecking order. Jagger doesn't dare attempt anything of the kind with the forbidding Richards.
Wood and Richards' guitars are helpfully panned hard left and right in the stereo mix, respectively, the better to hear their interplay, what Richards called "weaving": constantly and seamlessly passing lead and rhythm parts between the two guitarists.
Wood's predecessor Mick Taylor played flowing, lyrical narratives; Wood merely plays series of tough-sounding notes in the same key as the song. So where Taylor's solos were spotlights for his stunning talent, Wood's solos are merely placeholders, an occasion for Jagger to take a breather before singing another verse. Wood's solo on "Love in Vain" is little more than a tribute to the one Taylor played on Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out. The move away from epic showcase soloing suited the band's new, more compact approach anyway: Some Girls Live in Texas 1978 catches the band in transition, between the '70s blues-rock Stones and the '80s "Start Me Up" Stones with their day-glo spandex and corporate sponsorships. It also shifted the focus even more squarely on Jagger and Richards.
The Stones had always adapted to changing trends while stubbornly — or helplessly — maintaining their bluesy essence. The only extended workout at the Ft. Worth show is the eight-and-a-half-minute discoid chug of "Miss You." It boasts no less than three separate guitar solo sections, but that's authentically disco — it's a live extended mix. They hit an incantatory stride on the tune, and afterwards Watts whoops it up on the drums in celebration. (Charlie's good tonight, ain't he?) Just about everything gets played at a much faster tempo than on record. Towards the end of the show, Jagger sarcastically announces that "If the band is lacking energy, it's because they spent all last night fuckin'… We do our best," a comment laced with several layers of irony.
One of the great things about that rendition of "Miss You" is that Jagger sings the lyrics like they're really about missing someone, as opposed to some affected Mick Jagger pose of missing someone. Maybe it's just because he knows he's being filmed, but particularly on the new material Jagger really seems to mean what he's singing, instead of merely making lubricious sound-shapes with those giblet lips. Or maybe it's because Some Girls is one of their most autobiographical albums — "We're talking heroin with the president," Jagger yowls in "Respectable," and there are plenty of other self-referential songs, like "Beast of Burden" (apparently a metaphor for Mick and Keith's working relationship in the wake of the latter's drug addiction), "Shattered," and Keith's "Before They Make Me Run" (which they don't play here, unfortunately).
And when Jagger isn't singing, he erupts into particularly energetic dancing. Sometimes one is struck anew by Jagger's absolutely freakish stage manner, a language all his own that he willed everyone else to understand. It's completely unself-conscious and yet totally self-aware at the same time. The only time Jagger really looks awkward is when he picks up a guitar for several songs and plays one, maybe two (nearly inaudible) chords at most, and for the rest of the song the guitar is an albatross around his neck; he simply doesn't know what to do with this foreign object.
It's nearly an hour into the show before they ease up on the throttle with the throwaway country pastiche "Faraway Eyes." It really is shaky, with the band almost clumsily feeling their way through the song; Jagger even gets fed up with his keyboard and moves to another midway through the tune, and throws a wobbly cue for guest violinist Doug Kershaw to start his solo. Jagger then continues to sing a song that is dreadfully condescending to southerners — to a roomful of them.
After "Love in Vain," they begin to lift the show out of the doldrums and into a stratospheric final sprint: "Tumbling Dice," "Happy," "Sweet Little Sixteen" (interesting that they play Chuck Berry tunes at such crucial places in the set), "Brown Sugar" and then "Jumping Jack Flash" with an extended coda, Richards ordering up another round of the closing riff as if he just can't bear to leave the stage.
In the '60s and early '70s, the Rolling Stones vividly embodied things about their generation, and even the culture at large. "They weren't just a musical group," the New York Times' Robert Palmer once wrote, "they were news." On this tour, they proved that all over again. The Stones may have cynically co-opted punk rock, but in doing so they embodied something momentous: the passing of the rock & roll torch. To their everlasting credit, as demonstrated on nearly every minute of this film, they did it with consummate flair.