Forty-five years ago today, at around 5.25pm in London’s famous Hyde Park, came the moment that redefined the Rolling Stones. One year ago tomorrow came the first of two concerts in the same location that did so again.
“The greatest rock and roll band in the world,” said the announcer, on July 5, 1969. “They’re incredible; let’s hear it for the Stones!”
It was already seven years since their first gig, six since their debut single, and five since they really started to conquer the world. But this was the first time the Rolling Stones had been described as “the greatest rock and roll band in the world.” You could say it stuck. By the time they got back to Hyde Park a year ago tomorrow — a week after headlining the Glastonbury Festival for the first time — the excitement surrounding the first of two return appearances in the park was feverish.
The Stones’ appearance in 1969 was not the first rock concert in London’s famous green space, and probably not the best. Pink Floyd headlined the first free show there the year before, and several other bands followed, including Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood’s short-lived supergroup, Blind Faith, in June ’69, watched by Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull.
But the Stones’ show is the one that everyone talks about. Ask anyone of a certain age if they were at the Hyde Park concert, and they’ll instantly know which one you’re referring to. Estimates at the attendance that day vary wildly, sometimes up towards half a million people, but it’s fair to guess that 200,000 were inside the park for the free show.
Before the band played in 1969, Mick Jagger read a part of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Adonais’ (“Peace, peace! He is not dead, he doth not sleep”), in memory of Brian Jones, wearing the famous Greek-inspired white voile ‘dress’ created by designer Michael Fish. In 2013, Jagger briefly wore an approximation of the same outfit, joking that he’d found it at the back of the wardrobe.
“When Blind Faith did it, they set this stage in the middle of the grass, put the drums and amplification on it and everyone turned up and went around it,” Charlie Watts remembered in 2013. “When we did it, we had a Mickey Mouse little stage, a tiny thing on metal scaffolding, drums, bit of backdrop for Mick with his white dress on, and everybody just came. Now, of course it’s a proper enclosed area.”
There were many things that made the ’69 show both unique and special – not least the death, two days earlier, in unusual circumstances, of former Rolling Stone, Brian Jones. It was also the band’s first concert in almost two years and the debut of the brilliant guitarist Mick Taylor, who had joined the Stones only a month or so earlier.
“It was nerve-racking for me because it was my first gig,” Taylor said last year. “But for the others, it was probably a much more emotionally draining experience because they knew Brian. I didn’t know him at all. So that whole side of things never really entered my consciousness.”
44 years later, Taylor was back on stage with his former bandmates, as he had been for earlier shows on their 50 & Counting tour. In front of 65,000 people — a large percentage of whom weren’t even born back in 1969 — Taylor joined them for the epic ‘Midnight Rambler’ and again on the encore for ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,’ after American blues-rock guitarist Gary Clark had guested on ‘Bitch.’
The Stones of 2013 played for two hours, compared to less than one hour in ’69, and the press were ecstatic. “It’s impossible not to concede that the Stones are still a fearsome force,” said The Guardian. “Five-star performance dripping with memorable moments,” gushed the Daily Mirror.
“I’ve been doing various things in the park with Rod Stewart and other people over the years,” said Ronnie Wood when the 2013 return was announced. “But I never thought the Stones would do it, to be quite honest. But it’s come to fruition, and it’s very pleasing.”