July 6, 2013: There had never been a rock concert like it. With up to half a million fans picnicking by London’s Serpentine, rumours circulating of a murder, an ad hoc security force of Hells Angels, and on stage three thousand dead or dying butterflies being crunched under foot by the lead singer, it had everything.
That lead singer was Mick Jagger, who wearing a frilly dress with a leather collar around his neck, started the performance by reading a poem in remembrance of the Stones’ recently sacked guitarist Brian Jones. Jones had mysteriously drowned in his own swimming pool two days earlier. Hence the murder rumours.
Inevitably, too, there was sex in the air. While Jagger’s out-going girl friend, Marianne Faithful, huddled in the celebs’ enclosure, his incoming girl friend, Marsha Hunt, lately famous for her nude appearance in the musical Hair, and now statuesque in skin tight white leather, stood high on the scaffolding for the multitude to appreciate.
All this and more happened at the Rolling Stones free rock concert in London’s Hyde Park on July 5, 1969, in a moment that, 44 years ago, caught the group at the zenith of their “outlaw” status.
Now, no longer an outlaw but respectably, if surprisingly, knighted, Jagger is to lead the Stones back to Hyde Park this afternoon – albeit in very different circumstances.
Back in 1969 the show was, in the Sixties ethos of “peace and love”, free to everyone, the cost of the performance being met by Granada Television who television who filmed it. This year the crowd is limited to 65,000, and, with the show sponsored by Barclaycard, very “un-free”.
Indeed with the cheapest tickets on sale at £95, the likelihood is that many have found their way on to the black market where scalpers have been demanding anything up to £300 so that fans could say “I was there”. That’s corporate Britain, 2013, where the self styled “greatest rock and roll band in the world” can still mine money that would make a banker blush.
As it happens I was at Hyde Park the first time round, when as a young journalist for the Evening Standard, I wrote an entire four page supplement to celebrate the moment as well as covering the events of the day as they happened, edition by edition.
And what a day! In fact, what a month.
Just over three weeks earlier rock fans had been astonished, not to say disappointed, to learn that Jagger and Keith Richard had driven down to Brian Jones’s home in Sussex and told the guitarist that he was being kicked out of the Rolling Stones – the group he’d started.
For years the rest of the band had put up with Jones’s drug problems. Although illegal substances were not exactly unknown to some of the others, Jones’s intake had caused problems. Talented though he was, he’d sometimes been so comatose at recording sessions he’d been unable to play.
Now, after becoming increasingly side-tracked by Jagger and Richards, he’d become a liability, and a replacement had been found in the shape of Mick Taylor, a virtuoso guitarist.
The Hyde Park concert would be Taylor’s first appearance in the Stones. Would the fans take to him? No-one knew. It was a risky decision.
Publically, and despite immediate fan outrage, Jones took his sacking well, claiming that musical differences between him and the rest of the group were to blame. But when, just two days before the concert, he was found dead on the bottom of his pool after a late night party, suspicions were raised.
Had Allen Klein, the Stones’ much distrusted and disliked new American manager, had him killed during some horseplay in the pool, ran the silliest and wildest rumours? Or, had Brian committed suicide after being sacked? And how could a strong swimmer like Jones have died at the age of 27?
Eventually a coroner would decide that a combination of illegal drugs and asthma had been the most likely cause of death. But early in July 1969 conspiracy theories were much more fun.
For a day those of us following the story thought the concert would have to be cancelled. But it was too late. Despite drummer Charlie Watts’ tears, and fears of a hostile reception for the new guitarist, the show would go on.
The set was already constructed and at ten feet high, it was believed that it would enable up to 75,000 fans to see the act. No-one had envisaged that by eleven o’clock on the Saturday morning of the concert over 20,000 would already be on the Hyde Park grass, or that the streets of West London would be turning into rivers of hippy pilgrimage as hundreds of thousands of sandled young feet padded their way towards the venue. By the time I got there in early afternoon, the ocean of faces stretched as far as anyone could see. And the crowds just kept on coming.
A few years earlier, in the mid-Sixties, there had been riots as the Stones had toured the world. But that had been before the hippy summer of 1967. Now the crowd was docile and good spirited – some no doubt encouraged to this benign state by the scent of marijuana on the summer air. What they didn’t know was that Jagger was so nervous of appearing with an under-rehearsed band and the new replacement guitarist, that he’d had a psychosomatic fit and lost his voice that morning.
Would I be writing about the concert that never was and the wrath of half a million unhappy fans, I wondered as, back stage, we waited for bulletins on his condition.
Then, at just before five thirty, a miracle occurred, and there they were on stage – the little dress that Jagger had had specially designed for him by Mr Fish, a fashionable couturier of the time, bringing much amusement among the crowd around where I was sitting.
Not that Mick was in the mood for amusement. “Quiet, I want to read a poem for Brian by Percy Bysshe Shelley,” he ordered, before beginning to solemnly recite from an anthology of poetry that Marianne Faithfull had given him.
“Peace, peace! He is not dead, he doth not sleep, he hath awakened from the dream of life…”
You don’t get Shelley at many other rock concerts, not then or now.
Then there was another surprise. As the poem finished and the potted palms on stage waved gently (Mick had wanted parakeets but couldn’t find any), three thousand cabbage white butterflies provided by a Cambridge researcher of invertebrates were set free from boxes around the musicians.
The idea might, I imagine, have been to symbolise the flight of Brian Jones’s soul into the rock hereafter. Unfortunately, being cooped up in cardboard boxes for too long as they waited their appearance had already done for many of the butterflies. With few making it out beyond the stage, a gentle blizzard of white, dead gossamer fell around the band as they began to play.
So, were the Rolling Stones any good that afternoon. Well, I’ve seen them much better. Stadium acoustics were then in their infancy, and Charlie Watts drumming and Bill Wyman’s bass playing became somewhat lost, while new boy, Mick Taylor kept his expressionless head down and simply tried to fit in. Nor were there those big screens that now appear at huge rock festivals, which meant that those at the back couldn’t see anything at all of the stage.
Not that it mattered. No one was there for a musical experience, as they won’t be this afternoon when the Stones return to Hyde Park. The joy was, and will be, in sharing the experience with so many thousands of others.
It was only one concert, but much changed for fans after that day. Soon rock festivals would be regularly drawing hundreds of thousands, at first to Woodstock in the US and then to the Isle of Wight in Britain and on through the years as the annual Glastonbury events (where the Stones finally appeared this summer) just got bigger and bigger. And with the festivals would come better amplifiers and more extravagant acts.
On a personal front there was a change, too. Shortly after the concert Marianne Faithfull left Jagger to star in a movie in Australia. While she was there she suffered a drugs overdose, and Marsha Hunt became, for a time, the new lady of choice for the singer.
The experiment in employing Hells Angels had seemed a zany one, but it worked. The Angels looked ferocious, but turned out to be quite harmless. Unfortunately this led the Stones to believe that they could recruit Hells Angels to police a concert at Altamont in California the following December at the end of a US tour. It ended in the murder of a spectator by some of the Angels. The experiment wouldn’t be repeated.
For the Stones, 1969 was a turning point. As good as they were, they’d been in the shadow of the Beatles up to that point. With Hyde Park they raised their profile beyond that of the Liverpool band who’d given up performing and were only a few months away from breaking up. From now on they would have no equals as a touring group. Arguably they still don’t.
The Ray Connolly Beatles Archive is now available as an eBook on Amazon.