The list below, part one of our 50 greatest concerts of the last 50 years, was born out of some pretty serious arguments. The concerts and tours that made the final cut weren’t just huge spectacles, they deepened the power of rock & roll itself “You’re almost levitating on the energy from the audience,” says Keith Richards. “And I miss it when I’m not doing it.” Here are the people who’ve done it best.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
1967 Worldwide Tour
Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 debut album, Are You Experienced, established his genius. The 200-some shows he played to support the album assured his legend. Backed by his ecstatically indulgent English rhythm section – bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell – Hendrix did nothing short of liberate the electric guitar, turning each show into a pyrotechnic exploration. “I thought, ‘My God, this is like Buddy Guy on acid,’ ” Eric Clapton later recalled. For the U.S., the coming-out party was the Monterey Pop Festival, where Hendrix set his guitar ablaze, terrifying the fire marshal while leaving the crowd spellbound. As the Experience toured that year, they played alongside Pink Floyd and Cat Stevens in every type of venue, from theatres to biker bars. “We also did a graduation ball in Paris in March 1967, a really plush place,” Mitchell recalled. “There was an oompah band on before us, and they would not leave the stage. I remember one of our roadies, in a final act of desperation, pushing the trombonist’s slide back into his mouth – blood and teeth everywhere.” When the shows went right, however, Hendrix was a tour de force. His sense of showmanship went back to his years as a sideman with Little Richard; dressed in radiant psychedelic frills, he banged the neck of his guitar, bit its strings and played it behind his head. “With Jimi, it was a theatre piece,” Soft Machine drummer and onetime Hendrix tourmate Robert Wyatt once observed. “The drama, the pace, the buildups and drops.” The peak Summer of Love moment came in early June, when the Experience played London. With the Beatles in the crowd, Hendrix opened with the title track from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had been released just two days earlier. “1967 was the best year of my life,” he declared later. “I just wanted to play and play.” Kory Grow
James Brown at Boston Garden
April 5, 1968 Boston Garden
On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. In the aftermath, America burned. There were riots in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Chicago; Kansas City, Missouri; and other cities. In Boston, city leaders expected more violence to come. Amid this tension, James Brown, the most explosive African-American musician of the era, pulled off a miracle. Brown and his band were booked to play Boston Garden on April 5th. The city considered cancelling all public events that night, but the concert’s promoter, local City Councilman Thomas Atkins, convinced Mayor Kevin White that calling off a show of that magnitude might lead to even more anger and violence. “If [his] concert had not occurred,” recalled local radio DJ James “Early” Bird, “we would have had the biggest problem in the history of Boston since the Tea Party.”
Frustrating to Brown was the decision to televise the show, a way of keeping people out of the streets that would also drive down ticket sales. “But he had an obligation to honour Dr. King,” says Brown’s saxophonist and bandleader Pee Wee Ellis, and after Brown obtained the fee he wanted, everything was set.
“The show went on just as it had in all the other places we had played,” says trombone player Fred Wesley. “It was a regular show.” Of course, in 1968, the “regular show” meant a display of raw energy and dynamic power unlike anything else in music. Dressed in a black suit, hair in a tight pompadour, Brown moved with lightning quickness, his screams rattling the rafters, as he drove the band through his hits. They did “I Got You (I Feel Good)” in a double-time blur, and “Cold Sweat” featured an incredible solo showcase for “funky drummer” Clyde Stubblefield.
Still, Wesley, who had only recently become a part of Brown’s band, remembers a palpable sense of fear among the band members, and tension in the arena: “We didn’t know if there was a war against black people, or if a race war was happening. As we got to the stage, we were still wary about what might happen.”
But what ended up impressing him most was what amazed him about James Brown every night: his ability to hold and command a crowd. As the set reached its climax during Brown’s dramatic “cape act,” young fans began rushing the stage, and white police officers ran in to restore order. Shoving ensued, and the moment of mayhem many had anticipated seemed to have finally arrived.
But Brown quickly interceded. “You’re not being fair to yourself and me or your race,” he told the crowd. “Now, are we together, or we ain’t?” Turning to Stubblefield, he ordered, “Hit the thing, man,” and the band launched into a furious version of “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me).” Brown was even joined onstage by Mayor White, whom he announced as a “swinging cat.” Brown exited the stage shaking hands with the people up front, as much like a political leader as a soul star.
In the weeks to come, requests for Brown to appear elsewhere poured in, including one to travel to Washington, D.C., to speak to rioters. In August that year, he’d release his monumental message record, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” “I was able to speak to the country during the crisis,” he later said, “and that was one of the things that meant the most to me.” Almost 50 years later, Ellis is still moved by the moment. “I’m proud to have been part of that,” he says. “I’m pleased that it came off the way that it did.” Jon Dolan
Big Brother and the Holding Company American Tour
Like so much of Janis Joplin’s career, the tour to support Cheap Thrills, her 1968 album with Big Brother and the Holding Company, was a triumph wrought from chaos. On the eve of the tour, the singer announced she was leaving the band, leading to screaming fights with some of the musicians. Yet that very tension – combined with gruelling album sessions that tightened what, as drummer Dave Getz admits, “wasn’t a tight band” – made for a riveting farewell. The combination of her wild-child rasp and Big Brother’s wailing blues rock proved transformative. “By the end of ’68,” says Getz, “I don’t think there was a singer in rock & roll who could touch her.” David Browne
Elvis Comeback Special
Aired December 3rd, 1968
“Elvis was hardly ever nervous,” says drummer D.J. Fontana, remembering the NBC special that relaunched Presley’s career after years in Hollywood. “But he was then.” The highlight: an intimate sit-down set with his band, Fontana and guitarist Scotty Moore, that was almost like catching Elvis at the Louisiana Hayride back in 1954. “Performing with Elvis was amazing,” remembers Darlene Love, who sang backup for Presley on the show, “because we didn’t really know what to expect from him.” K.G.
Cream Farewell Tour
Eric Clapton ended Cream in 1968 after only two years, burned out and sick of keeping the peace between bandmates Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. But even as they were breaking up, Cream pushed the boundaries. “It had nothing to do with lyrics or ideas,” said Clapton. “It was much deeper, purely musical.” At Madison Square Garden, they played a wild, nearly 20-minute “Spoonful.” At San Francisco’s Fillmore, they played under the venue’s psychedelic light shows as Clapton, Baker and Bruce soloed simultaneously. As Roger Waters, who saw them at the time, put it, “It was an astounding sight and an explosive sound.”K.G.
Johnny Cash at San Quentin Prison
February 24th, 1969
“I remember walking through two sets of iron gates, and when I heard them close, I thought, ‘Man, I hope we get back out of here,’ ” Johnny Cash’s guitarist Bob Wootton recalls of his visit to San Quentin prison on February 24th, 1969. San Quentin was (and remains) California’s oldest prison, as well as the largest death-row facility in the country.
That day, as Cash stood onstage in his usual black suit, he was greeted by a sight that might have frightened a different performer: 2,000 hollering, charged-up inmates. But Cash, who always felt a special connection to prisoners, seemed to realise the gravity of the moment. “John was very solemn that day,” Wootton says. “We all were. It reminds you how much you take for granted. John connected with [the prisoners] in a way I never saw him connect with another audience.”
Cash had played prisons before – including an earlier San Quentin gig and, famously, California’s Folsom Prison. His show at San Quentin in 1969 was a full-on revue featuring the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins, and was shot for British TV. He performed with steely intensity, when he wasn’t cracking jokes to his audience. In a sense, he became one of them.
Cash treated his set list more as a guide than as a hard-and-fast program, but ended up catering to the inmates with songs like “Starkville City Jail” and Bob Dylan’s “Wanted Man.” Cash also wrote a song for the occasion – the twangy, brooding “San Quentin.” Its first line – “San Quentin, you’ve been livin’ hell to me” – prompted hooting and cheering from the crowd. “One more time!” they called out. “All right,” Cash said. “Hey, before we do it, though, if any of the guards are still speakin’ to me, can I have a glass of water?” The crowd laughed, then booed the guard.
One of the show’s standout moments was “A Boy Named Sue,” which made its world premiere before everyone in the prison, including the band. “I didn’t even know he had the song,” drummer W.S. Holland says with a laugh. “Back then, we didn’t have monitors and couldn’t hear all that much onstage. John just started doing it. The first time I actually heard the song was [later] in the studio.”
“A Boy Named Sue” became a Number One country single and crossed over to the pop charts, clearing a path for greater success, much to Cash’s amusement. “I’ve always thought it was ironic that it was a prison concert, with me and the convicts getting along just as fellow rebels, outsiders and miscreants should,” he wrote in his 1997 autobiography, “that pumped up my marketability to the point where ABC thought I was respectable enough to have a weekly network TV show.” K.G.
Ike and Tina Turner American Tour
The Rolling Stones’ return to America in 1969, after three years away – a period that included Beggars Banquet and the death of guitarist Brian Jones – was what critic Robert Christgau described as “history’s first mythic rock & roll tour.” But on the 17-date spin through the States, time and again they were upstaged by their handpicked opening act, old friends Ike and Tina Turner and their combustible R&B revue.
The Stones met Ike and Tina among Phil Spector’s orbit in England. “I’d always see Mick in the wings,” Tina remembered of performances in the mid-Sixties. “I’d come out and watch him occasionally; they’d play music and Mick would beat the tambourine. He wasn’t dancing. And lo and behold, when he came to America, he was doing everything!” Jagger later admitted he “learned a lot of things from Tina.”
In the U.S., Ike and Tina won over a new audience with wild, sweat-drenched covers of the new rock & roll canon, including a brassy burst through the Beatles’ “Come Together” (“I said to Ike,” recalled Tina, “ ’Please, please let me do that song onstage’ ”). They spun through Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” and a high-octane version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” that, by 1971, would become their biggest hit. Their take on Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” garnered its share of attention too, thanks to an orgasmic bridge that eventually got even raunchier. “I don’t think it can go any further,” Tina said in 1971, “because, as they say in New York, it’s getting pornographic.”
At Madison Square Garden, Joplin herself stopped by to assist on “Land of 1,000 Dances.” By the tour’s end, writers couldn’t control their enthusiasm. “Vogue said it best,” said Tina. “ ’They came to see Mick Jagger, but they saw Ike and Tina, and they’ve been comin’ ever since.'” Christopher R. Weingarten
Led Zeppelin World Tour
Before the private planes, mountains of cocaine and allegations of black magic, Led Zeppelin were four blokes tearing a path through America for the first time. They hit the U.S. in late December 1968, just before their debut LP hit shelves. “I remember pulling up to a theatre and the marquee said, ‘Vanilla Fudge, Taj Mahal and support,’ ” Robert Plant said in 2005. “I thought, ‘Wow, here we are: support!’ ”
Everyone knew their name soon enough. A month in, they unleashed a four-hour set at the Boston Tea Party. “We’d played our usual one-hour set, using all the material from the first album,” John Paul Jones said. “The audience just wouldn’t let us offstage.” Over 168 shows that year, as they unveiled new songs like “Whole Lotta Love,” Zep’s live fury and future promise came into view. “This group could become one of the biggest bands in history,” Jones said. “I hope we don’t blow it.” Andy Greene
Black Sabbath American Tour
When Black Sabbath landed at JFK Airport for their first U.S. tour, Ozzy Osbourne scrawled “Satanist” as his religion on the immigration form. Many who saw their shows – opening for the Faces, Alice Cooper and the James Gang – didn’t know what to make of the shaggy Brits. A turning point came at New York’s Fillmore East. “I tore my floor tom off the riser and threw it at the audience,” says drummer Bill Ward. “I was like, ‘Fucking move! Do something!’ Soon everyone was headbanging.” Relentless touring in Europe had turned Sabbath into a brutal assault force. “It was primal,” says Ward of the tour. “There’s a lower self that went onstage, and it was just dynamite.” A.G.
The Who at the University of Leeds
February 14th, 1970
After 1969’s rock opera Tommy, the Who wanted to return to their raw roots with a live album. Pete Townshend hated the recordings they made on their U.S. tour so much he threw them onto a bonfire. But everything clicked back home in England, in front of 2,000 ravenous fans at the University of Leeds, where the band tore through 38 songs, including a nearly 15-minute “My Generation.” Townshend later called it “the greatest audience we’ve ever played to.” A.G.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse Winter American Tour
In early 1970, Neil Young had finally become a star thanks to the huge success of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. During a quick break from that band and from recording his third solo LP, After the Gold Rush, Young decided to introduce his new fans to his other band, Crazy Horse – whose garage-rock thrash sounded the complete opposite of CSNY – on a run of clubs, theatres and the occasional junior-college auditorium. “When Neil plays with Crazy Horse, he goes into this other place and plays deep from inside,” says drummer Ralph Molina. “He becomes Neil Young, the real Neil Young.”
It was a sound no one had heard before. While other early jam bands like the Allman Brothers played with virtuosic professionalism, Crazy Horse produced raw chaos. Each night began with a brief solo acoustic set before Crazy Horse came onstage. Songs like “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” sometimes stretched to nearly 20 minutes, Young trading unhinged solos with guitarist Danny Whitten. “Danny had a strong musical presence, probably just as strong as Neil,” says bassist Billy Talbot. “We started doing songs longer, which Neil had never done before.”
In March, Bill Graham booked them at the Fillmore East for four shows in two nights, where they shared a bill with Miles Davis and the Steve Miller Band. Each night, Whitten sang “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown,” a song about scoring heroin, which he’d started using heavily around this time. One night backstage, Young wrote down the phrase “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done” on a sheet of paper. Within two years, Whitten was dead, and Young’s song about him, “The Needle and the Damage Done,” would appear on Harvest, the best-selling album of 1972. “It was such a loss,” said Young. “[It taught me] you can’t count on things. You just can’t take things for granted. Anything could go at any time.” A.G.
Elton John at the Troubadour
August 25th–30th, 1970
When Elton John took the stage at Los Angeles’ Troubadour for the first night of his six-date residency, he was a little-known 23-year-old pop singer with thick glasses and greasy hair who had only recently changed his name from Reginald Kenneth Dwight. When the show was over, Elton was a sensation. The stakes couldn’t have been higher: His debut LP, which had come out that spring, wasn’t selling. After what he called a “crisis meeting” with his label, it sent him to the States. The label made sure to pack the 300-capacity club with big names like David Crosby, Graham Nash and Mike Love of the Beach Boys. “The second night, Leon Russell was in the front row, but I didn’t see him until the last number,” Elton recalled. “Thank God I didn’t, because at that time I slept and drank Leon Russell.”
Neil Diamond introduced Elton. “I’m like the rest of you,” he said. “I’m here because of having listened to Elton John’s album.”
But those who had heard his album had no idea what they were in for: a poetic singer-songwriter with the flamboyance of a rock star. Album tracks like “Take Me to the Pilot” and “Sixty Years On” were played with a punk-like energy, Elton falling to his knees like Jerry Lee Lewis and knocking the piano bench over. The set also mixed in standards like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Honky Tonk Women.” And the rapturous reception he received encouraged him to experiment with even more adventurous stagecraft. “He seemed like a very quiet, subdued person,” says drummer Nigel Olsson. “All of a sudden, in front of an American audience, he started wearing Mickey Mouse ears and jumping up and down. That’s where all the strange gear started.” Unlike Elton’s debut album, which was packed with lush strings, harp and a synthesiser, he performed that night accompanied only by Olsson and bassist Dee Murray. “We just made a lot of noise,” Murray told Rolling Stone in 1987. “It was new. Elton was experimenting. Plus, we had to make up for the orchestra. We just socked it to them.”
Elton played five more nights as word started to spread around town: “His music is so staggeringly original,” Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn wrote. In the coming weeks, “Your Song” began climbing the charts, eventually hitting Number Eight in January 1971.
Forty-seven years later, Elton still looks back fondly on that first trip to America. “It was just all systems go,” he says. “Nothing was impossible. You’re working on adrenaline and the sheer fact that you’re a success. I still love what I do, and I’m 70 years old. I love it even more.” A.G.
Aretha Franklin at the Fillmore West
March 5th–7th, 1971
When promoter Bill Graham booked the Queen of Soul for his San Francisco venue for three nights in March 1971, no one was certain the matchup would work, including Aretha Franklin herself. “I wasn’t sure how the hippies reacted to me,” she said. As Franklin’s drummer Bernard Purdie recalls, “She’d been doing what you’d call Vegas-type shows. But this was a whole different audience.” No one needed to worry. With saxman King Curtis leading a band that included Billy Preston on organ, Franklin remade pop and rock classics in her own image – turning Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” into call-and-response gospel and reworking “Eleanor Rigby” as a funky stomp. The weekend of shows (portions of which were released a few months later as Live at Fillmore West) had an appropriately glorious finale: On the last night, Franklin pulled Ray Charles out of the crowd. Though they’d just met that day, the two traded piano and vocal parts on an epic 19-minute version of “Spirit in the Dark.” “She turned the thing into church,” Charles said later. “I mean, she’s on fire.” D.B.
B.B. King at the Cook County Jail
September 10th, 1970
B.B. King was playing a regular club gig on Chicago’s Rush Street in the late Sixties when he was invited to do a show at the local Cook County Jail. “I knew the inmates would enjoy it,” said warden Clarence English. “And that would be something they’d be beholden to us … If you give extra ice cream or let them stay up late at night, [they] don’t fight and destroy each other.”
King’s new manager, Sid Seidenberg – who was helping King score a career resurgence by booking him at venues like the Fillmore West – saw an opportunity. He told King to take the gig, and invited press and a recording engineer for a future live album (Johnny Cash had released the successful At Folsom Prison two years earlier). But what began as a commercial move became something much deeper. “I couldn’t help but feel the oppression,” King said later. “My heart was heavy with feeling for the guys behind bars.” With a full big band behind him, King belted burning takes on “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “How Blue Can You Get?” with a fury the loud assembly evidently connected with. The inmates booed when he took the stage, but by the end they were hypnotised. The show was released on 1971’s Live at Cook County Jail, a document of an electric-blues master at the top of his game. “There were tears in people’s eyes,” English recalled. “In mine, too.” Will Hermes
The Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East
March 11th–13th, 1971
The Allmans were still young, hungry Georgia rockers when they booked three nights at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in New York in early 1971 with the idea of recording a live album. “My brother always believed a live album was what the Brothers needed to do, and the record company finally agreed,” Gregg Allman recalled. “The Fillmore was just the logical choice. I don’t think we even discussed another venue.” The LP they made there, At Fillmore East, became their defining statement.
The Allmans were initially slotted into a bill headlined by Johnny Winter. But they came out guns blazing the first night, and when the hall emptied out after their set, they were promoted to headliner. With the band order duly shuffled, the Allmans had time to stretch out on spectacular journeys – “On those long jams, you climbed in and there was no tomorrow, no yesterday,” said drummer Butch Trucks. The gigs were hardly trouble-free. On the last night, a bomb scare delayed the start of the second show until the wee hours (“Good mornin’, everybody!” someone announced before “Statesboro Blues”). That early-a.m. set ended up becoming the keeper: “Whipping Post” sprawled over gorgeous melodic terrain for 23 minutes; “Mountain Jam” ascended for more than a half-hour. Atlantic Records engineer Tom Dowd oversaw the taping; unlike most live albums, nothing needed to be redone in the studio besides a few vocal overdubs. The LP went gold on October 25th, four days before guitarist Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident. “It’s the best-sounding live album ever,” said the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. “It’s just fuckin’ awesome.” W.H.
The Band at the Academy of Music
December 28th–31st, 1971
The Band’s 1978 farewell movie, The Last Waltz, is the greatest concert film of all time. But even that performance didn’t reach the heights of the Band’s four-night stand at New York’s Academy of Music at the end of 1971. The shows, which were released as a box set in 2013, captured the Band at their tightest and funkiest, injecting New Orleans R&B swagger into their harmonious folk rock. It was a period of high morale and expert musicianship for the sometimes volatile group, the result of a decade of hard touring, with Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan and finally on their own. “There was a spell that everybody was doing really, really good,” the Band’s Robbie Robertson told Rolling Stone in 2013. “It was a roll of the dice after that. You just didn’t know what condition somebody was going to show up in.”
It was a moment the Band needed. Three years on from their groundbreaking debut, Music From Big Pink, their two most recent studio albums, Stage Fright and Cahoots, had been greeted with lukewarm reviews. Aiming for some fresh energy, Robertson re cruited veteran New Orleans band lead er Allen Toussaint to put together a horn section for their holi day gigs at the Academy of Music. It almost didn’t work out. To everyone’s horror, Toussaint’s briefcase full of horn arrangements was stolen on his way from New Orleans to the band’s Woodstock headquarters, where he was forced to rewrite the charts from memory. He wrote them in the wrong keys, and the Band had to relearn their songs in entirely new keys. Robertson recalled thinking, “We’re doomed.”
That anxiety lifted when they took the stage. “A chill ran through me,” Robertson said. “I thought, ‘OK, I’m feeling some magic in the air here. …’ As soon as we kicked off the first song,” he added, “we weren’t even touching the ground.”
The group set the tone with a taut, funky cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It,” and gracefully moved through its canon. The Band played with intensified warmth on “Unfaithful Servant” and “Get Up Jake” and jittery energy on deep album cuts like “Smoke Signal.” “We only did it once or twice,” said Robertson. “Levon [Helm] did an amazing job on it.” They turned “Chest Fever” and “Rag Mama Rag” into the stuff of a Crescent City street party, and returned to their roadhouse roots on Chuck Willis’ 1958 deep cut “(I Don’t Want to) Hang Up My Rock & Roll Shoes.”
The Band saved their biggest surprise for last. During their New Year’s Eve encore, they invited out their old friend Dylan, who had been out of the spotlight for years. Looking like his mid-Sixties self with aviators and a Telecaster, Dylan howled fiery takes of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Don’t Ya Tell Henry,” pausing only to talk through the arrangements. “We were being a little bit bold,” said Robertson. (The horns didn’t accompany Dylan, though: “He looked over and saw us, jumped back from the microphone and glared over his shades,” says tuba player Howard Johnson. “I told everyone, ‘OK, let’s just get offstage.'”)
Months later, highlights of those shows comprised the dazzling live double LP Rock of Ages, which critics immediately called one of the best live albums of the Seventies. For drummer Helm, it was simply “the most fun I ever had making a Band record.” D.B.
The Rolling Stones North American Tour
Mick Jagger has a clear memory of being onstage in the summer of 1972, singing “Love in Vain,” the Robert Johnson song the Rolling Stones had recently reworked into a soul ballad. Jagger still marvels at the live version – particularly Mick Taylor’s searing lead guitar, which slowly took over the song and culminated in a minute and a half of mournful, melodic virtuosity. “He was playing beautifully at this point,” says Jagger. “It was chilling. It was so sad and haunting. And the horns were really just subtly there. The beats and stops were usually perfect. That was one of my favorites.”
The Rolling Stones were at the peak of their powers in the summer of 1972: Keith Richards was playing the most fearless rhythm guitar of his career; Taylor stretched out their music to improbable peaks; and Jagger stalked the stage, whipping his belt and perfecting his ability to turn music, as critic Robert Greenfield observed, into a psychodrama.
It was the band’s first North American tour since Altamont, the disastrous, deadly California festival in December 1969. Shaken by that debacle and the death of Brian Jones, the band hunkered down in the studio, recording three masterpieces: 1969’s Let It Bleed, 1971’s Sticky Fingers and 1972’s Exile on Main Street. Their Sixties peers – the Beatles, Bob Dylan – were less prolific, withdrawing from public view. In their absence, the Stones had only grown in stature. “After 10 years of playing together, the Stones had somehow become the number-one attraction in the world,” Greenfield wrote in his chronicle of the tour, A Journey Through America With the Rolling Stones. “The only great band of the Sixties still around in original form playing original rock & roll … They were royalty.”
Both Jagger and Richards remember the excitement they felt ahead of the eight-week run. If the prospect of getting back on the road weren’t enough, the opening act on tour was a 22-year-old Stevie Wonder, whom Jagger made a habit of watching side-stage. “It was exciting, the feeling of anticipation – getting back in touch with what it is we did,” says Richards. Adds Jagger, “We were trying to get out of the studio, out of the South of France, and Keith had all these drug problems – so it was kind of good to get out on the road.”
The Stones’ office was overloaded with requests for tickets, priced at $6.50 (some fans sent in as many as 60 postcards each). A Dick Cavett TV special on the tour described the strange new phenomenon of scalping (plus the new concept of groupies). On opening night in Vancouver, 2,000 fans tried to force their way into the Pacific Coliseum, leaving 31 policemen injured – the first of several violent incidents. “That was in the day when people who didn’t have a ticket would show up,” says Jagger, “and be like, ‘OK, we’re here, we’re fucking going in.'”
Unlike the 1969 tour – which featured slow, slogging rhythms – the band played at breakneck speed. “Keith was doing that,” says Jagger. “I’m not trying to blame him for anything. He kept starting it.” Says Richards, “That was probably trying to catch up with lost time.” Songs like “Street Fighting Man” ran several minutes longer than the studio versions as the band ripped away. “We were probably searching for the ending,” Richards jokes.
For Richards, the highlight was playing the new songs from Exile on Main Street, recorded the previous summer. “Playing the Exile stuff for the first time was a real turn-on,” says Richards. After opening with “Brown Sugar,” the band tore through several Exile classics: “Rocks Off,” “Rip This Joint,” “Sweet Virginia.” Unlike later tours, Jagger hung around during Richards’ songs, howling away “Happy” into the same mic. “I always enjoyed doing that,” Richards says.
There were also a few throwbacks, including a horn-fueled version of “Satisfaction,” and “Bye Bye Johnny,” a Chuck Berry song that the Stones had been doing since 1963. According to Richards, they picked the deep cut for its rhythm: “There’s an interesting reverse beat going on that always intrigued us.”
On the road, the Stones encountered an older audience – one that ranged from about age 15 to 30. “There always used to be screamers, and they didn’t seem to worry much about the music,” Bill Wyman told Cavett. As a result, the band played with more focus. It helped that arena sound had improved: “Now you hear everything and you see everything, and there’s so much tension,” said Wyman.
For all the onstage professionalism, the backstage scene was as wild as any rock & roll tour before or since. The band traveled with the largest entourage in rock history up to that point – including a physician, label president Marshall Chess and a press corps Richards compared to a political campaign. The press included photographer Annie Leibovitz, and authors Terry Southern, Robert Greenfield and Truman Capote, who reluctantly joined for a Rolling Stone cover story. “For him, it was a social occasion,” says Jagger, who recalls Capote saying he hated the fact that Jagger wore the same clothes every night. “He would’ve liked it better now – I have such a bigger wardrobe.” (Capote never wrote his piece, claiming it “didn’t interest me creatively.”)
Jagger admits that the traveling party was “a bit distracting.” He had to watch his drug intake in order to perform. “I wasn’t on meth, out of my mind or anything,” Jagger says. “But I was having a lot of fun.” Richards’ favorite story “has got to be Bobby Keys and me nearly burning down the Playboy mansion,” he says. Staying at Hugh Hefner’s home, Richards and saxophonist Keys accidentally set fire to one of the bathrooms. “We were going through a doctor’s bag and we knocked over a candle,” says Richards.
At the same time, Jagger remembers “all these dark moments” on the tour. On the morning of July 17th in Montreal, dynamite exploded beneath one of the band’s vans, destroying equipment. “It was kind of scary because it was during the separatist movement of Quebec,” says Jagger. “I mean, it wasn’t just some random guy trying to blow up a truck.” The show, remarkably, went on that night, but a riot ensued when 500 fans with counterfeit tickets were turned away.
The following day, the band flew to a small airport in Rhode Island. As the entourage cleared customs, Richards took a nap on the side of a parked firetruck. He woke up to the flashing lights of a local newspaper photographer. “I just reacted,” Richards says. “I got up and hit in the general direction of the light and busted the guy’s camera. Things escalated from there. Then the fucking FBI got involved.” The photographer claimed he was assaulted, and Richards and Jagger were arrested and placed in a jail cell, while an unruly audience at Boston Garden waited. Fearing a riot, Boston Mayor Kevin White organised their release, and the band took the stage after midnight. “There was never a dull moment,” says Richards.
The offstage chaos was documented by the legendary photographer Robert Frank, who brought along a camera for a documentary that, as Jagger understood, would be “about playing and about music.” Instead, Cocksucker Blues was a cinéma vérité experiment full of lurid scenes: naked groupies having sex on an airplane, Jagger snorting cocaine, and groupie heroin use. The band blocked its release (though it became a popular bootleg). “[Robert] would initiate things,” says Jagger. “Most documentary filmmakers kind of get you to do things that you perhaps wouldn’t do if they weren’t there.” Jagger cites the famous scene where Richards and Keys threw a TV out of a Hyatt Hotel window: “Robert would probably say to Keith, ‘Keith, throw the TV out the window.’ They probably weren’t going to do that that morning.” But Richards disagrees. “Bobby Keys and I engineered that,” he says. “We called the cameraman ’round when we dismantled the TV. So that scene was directed by Bobby Keys and Keith fucking Richards.”
The tour wrapped with four shows at Madison Square Garden. Though the Stones had played 48 shows in only 54 days, they didn’t hold back. The July 25th show featured a sentimental sing-along of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and perhaps the fiercest “All Down the Line” ever played. “You almost feel like you’re levitating on the energy from the audience,” says Richards. “It’s a strange experience.” The tour ended the following night, on Jagger’s 29th birthday. Wonder joined the band for a raucous medley of “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and a revved-up, horn-fuelled take on “Satisfaction” (Wonder said he wrote “Uptight” with “Satisfaction” in mind). A cake was rolled onstage, and the show ended with a pie fight among bandmates. The afterparty, thrown by Ahmet Ertegun, included Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
It was the end of an era. Afterward, Richards slid further into addiction, and was arrested on heroin and gun charges the next year. In 1974, after only five years, Taylor left the band to go solo. The Stones’ next North American tour, in 1975, featured stage props like a giant inflatable phallus, and little of the ragged charm of the 1972 tour. “There were no sort of guidelines,” Richards says. “You sort of made it up and you went along. It was a good feeling, that tour. A bit frenetic and a little blurry, like an old movie, you know? It was a bit jerky.” Patrick Doyle
David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars World Tour
“I wanted the music to look like it sounded,” said David Bowie, who reigned over the moon-age daydream of his greatest tour as a crimson-haired, sparkly, makeup-slathered rock & roll space god. The music, thanks to the savage elegance of the Spiders From Mars, was even wilder, with an intense symbiosis developing between Bowie and chunky-toned guitarist Mick Ronson. “There was magic there,” says keyboardist Mike Garson. Ziggymania broke out across the world, and even as Bowie moved on, it never really stopped. A.G.
Van Morrison North American Tour
It takes an extraordinary band to top the studio versions of songs like “Domino” and “Cyprus Avenue,” but with the 10-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra, Van Morrison pulled it off night after night. With horns, strings and blazing jazz chops, the band was ready to “take the songs anywhere Van wanted to take them,” says guitarist John Platania. “Every performance of each song was different.” Morrison was, as usual, lost in the music, getting so into it that he gave himself backaches – the platform shoes he was favouring at the time probably didn’t help. He rarely addressed the crowd, and kept his band on its toes with subtle gestures that sparked dynamic shifts worthy of James Brown. “He had these signals behind his back,” says Platania. “He would flash his hand and spread his fingers out. We knew instantly we had to bring it down and then build it up again.” Morrison was stretching out, toying with his phrasing, elongating syllables like a jazz singer. The band ended when the tour did – but it lives on in Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now, one of the most essential live albums of all time, recently released in a gloriously extended version. “We were sad to see it end,” says Platania. “But in those days, he would say stuff like, ‘The show doesn’t have to go on.'” D.B.
Patti Smith Group and Television at CBGB
Over a two-month-long residency, the Patti Smith Group went from art project to formidable band – and lower Manhattan’s CBGB was well on the road to becoming one of the most famous rock clubs in the world. Much of the material that ended up on Smith’s debut, Horses, came to life at CB’s, with Smith improvising poetic chants as the band brutalised simple chord patterns. “CBGB was the ideal place to sound a clarion call,” Smith wrote. Television, meanwhile, had just begun emphasising the guitar-weaving tapestries they would immortalise on Marquee Moon. Rock history was being made at a club with no dressing rooms and an incontinent dog in residence – and the musicians knew it. “I remember one night standing outside CBGB, in the doorway of the derelict hotel next door, smoking a joint,” says Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, “and realising that this was the kind of gathering of psychic energies I’d always dreamed of when, say, I would read about the San Francisco scene in 1966.” W.H.
Bob Marley at the Lyceum Theatre, London
July 17th–18th, 1975
Bob Marley’s two concerts at the Lyceum Theatre in London in July 1975 were more than just musically transcendent shows: They were the triumphant peak of Marley’s first proper tour as a solo artist and would elevate him from cult act to international icon – in part thanks to Live!, a concert document from the shows that gave him his first international Top 40 hit, “No Woman, No Cry.”
“Lyceum was magic,” recalls Marley’s friend Neville Garrick, the Wailers’ lighting designer and art director at the time. “It was an old theatre, so the acoustics were proper. … They took out all the seats, and people were going from the very first song.” Booked in a small room to drive up ticket demand, the Lyceum shows sold out in a day, and roughly 3,000 ticketless hopefuls mobbed the streets outside the venue on Marley’s first night there, along with a phalanx of cops. Some fans nevertheless managed to tear the fire doors off their hinges and rush in, packing the room tighter still, shoulder to shoulder. It was so hot, condensation was dripping from the ceiling, and roof hatches had to be opened to let air in. Marley appeared before the crowd like a prophet in a denim work shirt, dreadlocks bobbing, and few moments in pop are as spine-tingling as the opening of “No Woman, No Cry,” the audience chanting the chorus like a hymn before Marley had even sung a word. Recalled bassist Aston Barrett, “Everyone onstage [got] high from the feedback of the people.” W.H.
Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue North American Tour
Bob Dylan could have played arenas when he toured to support 1976’s Desire. Instead, true to form, he did the unexpected: He booked tiny theatres with just days’ notice, charged less than $9 per ticket and took along a gaggle of friends – including Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Joan Baez. Dylan had started hanging around his old West Village haunts with buddies from his folkie days, and he wanted to take that nostalgic spirit on the road. “We all sing and sing and sing and laugh until we pass out,” Baez told Rolling Stone. “For us, it makes no difference if we just play for 15 people or 15,000.” Backed by one of his best bands ever (including guitarist Mick Ronson), Dylan stretched out shows for as long as five hours – with help from McGuinn, Elliott and others, who would do their own sets and join his. New tracks from Desire were mixed with 1960s classics (“It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Just Like a Woman”) and covers (“Deportees”). The shows were full of raw, spontaneous intimacy: Dylan duetted with his ex-lover Baez, did scorched-earth versions of “Idiot Wind,” and pleaded for the release of jailed boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. As Rolling Thunder participant Allen Ginsberg said, “Having gone through his changes … Bob now has his powers together.” A.G.
Grateful Dead North American Tour
“Our second coming,” says Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart of the band’s 1977 North American tour. Everyone knew the Dead could jam out infinitely. But that year they were discovering something new: that tight, songful concision could transport a crowd just as easily. “We had a lot of new songs and wanted to get at ’em,” says singer and guitarist Bob Weir. “And the only way to get at the next song was to finish the one you were doing.” Ironically for a band that had little use or patience for studios, it would be recording sessions that strengthened its live approach. Terrapin Station, the group’s most recent LP, was recorded with Fleetwood Mac producer Keith Olsen, who’d helmed their self-titled 1975 breakthrough; he forced the Dead to prep and rehearse more than they ever had. “Going in with Keith and having him organise and arrange all this stuff,” says Weir, “that gave us a solidity.” The results of Olsen’s whip-cracking became clear as soon as the Dead went back on the road – they tore into old favourites like “St. Stephen” and tried new combinations, like going from the fast-paced “Scarlet Begonias” into the churning “Fire on the Mountain,” and proved their newly honed chops could help sculpt jams such as the 10-minute “Terrapin Station.” “We felt like rock gods,” Weir says. It helped that the band was in relatively good shape physically as well. “Jerry was healthy,” says Hart. “That was a big thing.” The high point took place on May 8th at Cornell University’s Barton Hall, regarded by Deadheads as the band’s greatest show ever. In the end, the 1977 tour completely changed the Dead’s sense of connection with fans, and their own musical purpose. “That was an era where it started to creep up on us that people came to hear the songs,” says Weir. “It finally dawned on us: ‘Oh, that’s what it’s all about.'” D.B.
The Ramones European Tour
The Ramones arrived in England with something to prove. The punk revolution had broken out in London in 1977, with the Sex Pistols getting wall-to-wall press and causing havoc. But no one in the nascent U.K. punk scene was ready for the precision-strike arrival of the Ramones. In his memoir, Johnny Ramone wrote that at a Pistols show on their first night in town in December ’77, “Johnny Rotten asked me what I thought of them, and I told him … they stunk.”
Three days later, the Ramones unleashed a furious assault on the audience in Glasgow, opening with “Rockaway Beach” and not taking a break until 26 songs later. Playing to a punk-crazed English audience pushed the Ramones to play their most intense shows. The tour wrapped on New Year’s Eve at the Rainbow Theatre, their 148th show of the year. “Probably the best show the Ramones ever did,” said Johnny. Amazingly, Joey had been singing through incredible pain; he’d suffered third-degree burns on his neck when a makeshift humidifier exploded on him. Said Ramones co-manager Linda Stein, “[Johnny] came to me and said … ‘Put me in a wheelchair and get me on a plane before I go insane.'” He wanted to be sedated. A.G.
The Eagles U.S. Tour
The career-defining two-year stretch of shows that followed 1976’s Hotel California saw the Eagles become a stadium band. Yet in an era in which rock shows were growing bigger and more impersonal, the Eagles’ studio perfectionists, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, found a way to recreate the feel and detail of their albums onstage, with every harmony and guitar lick seamlessly in place decades before backing tapes and Auto-Tune made that process easier. Hits like “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Take It to the Limit” were given almost impossibly pristine treatment. The tour itself was chaotic; at one point, bassist Randy Meisner and Frey got into a fistfight when Frey called Meisner a “pussy.” But you wouldn’t have known it watching their sets. “Some critic said we used to go out onstage and loiter,” Henley said. “I think we accomplished a great deal.” D.B.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band American Tour
It had been three very long years since Born to Run made Bruce Springsteen a national star. A bitter lawsuit filed against his former manager in 1976 left him legally unable to enter a studio for two years before making Darkness on the Edge of Town. “Prove It All Night,” his new single, stalled at Number 33 on the charts. Anything radio-friendly, like “Fire” and “Because the Night,” was held off Darkness to maintain the starker atmosphere Springsteen wanted for his set of songs about the reality of everyday working life. To many, all of this was evidence that Springsteen was in decline. So he did the thing he could do better than almost anyone alive: He went on tour. “With the burden of proving I wasn’t a has-been at 28,” he wrote in his 2016 memoir, Born to Run, “I headed out on the road performing long, sweat-drenched rock shows featuring the new album.”
Springsteen and the E Street Band played 115 shows across North America, the longest series of dates they would ever play in a single year. Even the soundchecks were gruelling. “Literally, we would play ‘Thunder Road’ for a half-hour and Bruce would walk around and sit in every section and make sure the sound was as good as possible,” says drummer Max Weinberg. “Look, Bruce took his fun very seriously.” Not everyone thought it was so much fun. “I thought it was a little self-indulgent and a little bit silly,” says bassist Garry Tallent. “We would do four-hour sound-checks and then a three-and-a-half-hour show. We were younger then.”
Sets featured the majority of the new album, a big chunk of Born to Run and favourites off the first two discs, like “Spirit in the Night” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” After so much time off, the band played with a stunning mix of pent-up energy and technical precision. “Anyone can be great on any given night,” says Weinberg. “To really be great every night takes a lot of willpower, a lot of dedication, a lot of self-confidence, a lot of respect for your audience – tremendous respect for the audience.”
Live, the songs completely transformed from their recorded versions. For “Prove It All Night,” the band added a piano and guitar intro that built to a furious climax, and “Backstreets” developed an emotional spoken-word interlude about lost love that eventually morphed into “Drive All Night,” from The River. “Even at that point, the whole thing was ‘You have to see them live – you can’t go by the record,'” says Tallent.
As the tour crisscrossed the nation, with five shows getting broadcast on the radio and quickly hitting the bootleg market, a new respect for the album took hold. “Night after night, we sent our listeners away, back to the recorded versions of this music,” Springsteen wrote in Born to Run, “newly able to hear their beauty and restrained power.”
One particularly great show took place at the tiny Agora Ballroom in Cleveland. Opening with a ferocious cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” and wrapping up three hours later with a wild “Twist and Shout,” it became one of the most coveted bootlegs in rock history. “It was really hot,” says Weinberg. “Just sweltering. It was incredibly exciting. Then you just get on the bus and go to the next gig. It was like that about five nights a week with two days off.”
Word of Springsteen’s glorious return prompted CBS Records to mount a huge billboard of his image on the Sunset Strip, advertising the album and tour but making no mention of the band. “It was the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” Springsteen told a radio DJ. One night, Springsteen snuck up to the roof of a nearby building with Tallent and saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Armed with cans of black spray paint, Springsteen hoisted himself onto Clemons’ massive shoulders and wrote “Prove It All Night E Street” across the entire thing. “We didn’t deface it,” says Tallent with a laugh. “We corrected it. That was our way of letting people know to not expect the next coming of Christ. It’s just a rock & roll show.”
Darkness on the Edge of Town still wasn’t a commercial hit by the end of the run, but critics across the country hailed the tour as the best of the year, and the album remained at the core of Springsteen’s set list for decades to come. “[They] are perhaps the purest distillation of what I wanted my rock & roll music to be about,” Springsteen wrote. “[On the last stand of the tour] an exploding firecracker tossed by an inebriated ‘fan’ opened up a small slash underneath my eye. A little blood’d been drawn, but we were back.” A.G.