Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 31, 2010)
Back in the summer of 1986, I bought a compact disc of a Rolling Stones album. I don’t recall which one - Let It Bleed, I think - but I do remember that the clerk made a comment such as, “Great band - too bad they broke up.”
While no official action ever formally occurred in that regard, this was the common opinion at the time. Following the spring 1986 release of Dirty Work, tensions between band leaders Mick Jagger and Keith Richards became well known, and the group’s reluctance to tour clearly showed the tensions. The Stones hadn’t played live since their 1981-82 world tour, and their absence from the stage with this new release - their first for Columbia - seemed particularly noteworthy.
Though the Stones offered no public declarations, their demise seemed even more likely over the next couple of years. Jagger released his second solo album in the fall of 1987 and actually threatened to tour behind it. This inspired extremely vicious comments from Richards, who said he’d kill Jagger if he hit the road without the band. Jagger went on a brief tour of Asia and Australia anyway and apparently survived. (A promised US jaunt never occurred.) Although Richards had often stated he never wanted to tour without the Stones, he also went out in the fall of 1988 on the heels of his first official solo album. These sure looked like the actions of some ex-bandmates.
However, all was not lost. Despite all of these behaviors, tensions started to thaw in early 1989. The Stones were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame at that point, and after a terrific speech from Pete Townshend, Jagger and Richards began to warm up to each other again.
On the heels of this rapprochement, the band quickly reunited and tried to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. They entered the studio to record Steel Wheels and once again hit the road in the late summer of 1989. Beginning in Philadelphia - the town where they also launched their last tour in 1981 - the Stones spent the final four months of 1989 in America before they played elsewhere during the spring and summer of 1990.
I became a Stones fan back in 1981, though the release of Tattoo You had little to do with it. I’d been a massive Beatles fan for the two years prior to that, and it just felt like the natural step to take. I knew little about the band before I picked up a copy of 1966’s Aftermath in the spring of 1981, but I quickly became very enamored of their work. I badly wanted to attend one of the 1981 shows, but tickets were elusive, so it wasn’t to be.
As such, for quite some time I thought I’d never get to see the Stones live. By the time they finally hit the road in 1989, I remained a fan, but I must admit my passion had cooled. A few years earlier I would have gone nuts to attend a Stones show, but I honestly wasn’t that excited about the Steel Wheels concerts, even though I’d scored a front-row seat to one of the three I attended.
I enjoyed the concerts but felt moderately underwhelmed. At the time, I thought that my less-than-enthusiastic attitude toward the band was responsible for my opinion, but since then I’ve determined that this was only part of the reason. Frankly, the band weren’t at their best. Some tension remained obvious, and they hadn’t quite gelled again. Humpty Dumpty got partially reconstructed, but some pieces remained missing.
Ironically, the Stones didn’t really coalesce until their subsequent tour in 1994, at which time a piece literally was absent, as bassist Bill Wyman became the first - and to date, only - founding member to actually quit the band. (Guitarist Brian Jones was fired in 1969 and died soon after that dismissal; replacement guitarist Mick Taylor left the band of his own accord, but obviously he wasn’t an original member.) Old Stoneface had tired of the grind many years earlier, and he finally decided he’d had enough after the 1989-90 tour. He didn’t even bother to show up to shoot the video for “Highwire”, one of two new tunes included on Flashpoint, the early 1991 album that documented the 1989-90 concerts.
The Stones never formally replaced Wyman. Daryl Jones took over the spot for all the band’s subsequent work, but he wasn’t made an official member of the Stones. This seemed somewhat odd at the time, and I wondered if race might have played a part, as the band might have felt a black member of the Stones would be wrong for their image. However, I doubt that was a consideration, and I expect this decision took place more out of respect for Wyman’s place in history. When Taylor joined in 1969, the Stones had only existed for seven years; clearly they’d earned a spot as a great group, but they didn’t have the substantial history behind them that was there by 1994. After more than 30 years together, it might have been unseemly to simply replace such a long-time component like he’s just another guitar string.
Anyway, the pieces all fit together in 1994. In spite of - or perhaps because of - Wyman’s absence, the Stones felt like a real band again. Perhaps it took the Steel Wheels experience to finally exorcise all the demons and the Voodoo Lounge era could mark their renewal as a truly functioning group. All I know is that the 1994 shows - poorly documented on Voodoo Lounge Live - offered a sensational experience that fully brought me back into the fold as a Stones fan. I didn’t expect much from the initial performances - since the tour started here in DC, I attended its first two shows - but I was mightily impressed with what I saw, and that helped get me back on the bandwagon.
Another factor demonstrates that it wasn’t just my relative lack of interest in the Stones circa 1989 that led me to feel somewhat disappointed by those concerts. A few tour artifacts exist, and these display the lack of cohesion that occurred. The band put on a pay-per-view special in December 1989 that came from the tour’s second-to-last performance in Atlantic City. (I attended the actual final concert the following night, even though I had a nasty case of the flu at the time. It almost kept me home, but after I spent $250 for the ticket - an absolute fortune to a then-college student - I think I would have needed to die before I’d let the money go to waste.) Logically, that show - with a roster of guest stars like Eric Clapton and Axel Rose - would have produced a subsequent live video release, but the Stones took a different route instead.
For shows on the European leg of the trek - redubbed the “Urban Jungle Tour” for reasons somewhat unknown - the Stones brought along an IMAX crew to film some of the shows. They’d produced concert films in the past, from 1970’s Gimme Shelter to 1973’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones to 1982’s Let’s Spend the Night Together, so I guess they figured the Nineties version of the band required something bigger than standard 35mm.
The results were edited together for this 85-minute, 16-song approximation entitled The Rolling Stones Live at the MAX. Unfortunately, that abbreviated length meant that quite a few songs remained out in the cold. A typical Stones performance tended to offer between 22 and 25 tunes, so this compilation clearly omitted a slew of tracks.
Did it capture the band adequately otherwise? Yes and no. While the IMAX format seemed appropriate for the enormous scale of a Stones stadium show, a few problems emerged. On the positive side, the 1989/90 tour did offer the Stones’ best stage ever. They always feature cool set-ups, but the urban decay setting of this era was the most effective. It was busy but interestingly so, and it had many effective components to make it an active participant in the evening. It didn’t translate well to film, but when Jagger emerged at the top of the structure to sing “Sympathy for the Devil”, it was a highlight of the evening.
One problem with MAX came from the fact that the Stones circa 1989-90 simply weren’t all that good. Jagger seemed even more distant than usual. For many years, he used a “1000-yard-stare” at live shows. Apparently he was taught by security experts to look off into the distance at nothing in particular while he sang; allegedly this is to avoid eye contact that might encourage psychos in the crowd to believe the two made some personal connection. (Mick’s actually opened up a little over the decades as the post-Lennon paranoia subsided, but he still doesn’t make much eye contact with the fans.)
Jagger displayed this normal attitude during MAX, but even after I compensate for that, he still seemed more detached than normal. It also didn’t help that in those days, he tended to proclaim the songs rather than croon them. By the long 1997-99 tour, he finally started to actually sing again, but in the Eighties, he preferred to belt them out in a declamatory style. The 1989-90 vocals beat the ridiculously low and rough tone Jagger displayed on the Tattoo You tour, but he still didn’t sound very good.
As with every tour since that time, the Steel Wheels jaunt featured a somewhat overstuffed band. In addition to the five core members of the Stones, we got three back-up singers (Bernard Fowler, Lorelei McBroom and Sophia Jones), two keyboard players (Chuck Leavell and Matt Clifford), and five horn players, including long-time Stones sax-man Bobby Keys; he’s most famous for his participation on “Brown Sugar”. The band used accompaniment on many prior tours as well, but never to this degree. The Tattoo You jaunt included Keys and second horn player Ernie Watts as well as two keyboardists, Ian McLagen and Ian Stewart. (The latter actually was a founding member of the band, but he was formally placed on the sidelines due to original manager Andrew Look Oldham’s decree that he looked too loutish and didn’t fit the band’s image. Nonetheless, Stewart remained an integral part of the group until his death in 1985.)
Frankly, I prefer the smaller scale of pre-1989 accompaniment, especially due to the extra singers. I can accept the additional horns, as they fit with many tunes such as “Bitch”, a 1989-90 tour tune that doesn’t appear on MAX. However, the singers make the Stones seem more like a cabaret act at times. I don’t think they harm the live performances to a significant degree, but they add a little too much gloss to the show and I’d love to see the Stones tour with a smaller crew one of these years.
In any case, MAX featured this extensive repertoire of additional performers, for better or for worse. As a whole, the Stones sounded decent but unexceptional. Nothing about the playing on MAX seemed especially terrific, but little about it fell flat. Granted, we did find perhaps the worst version of “Happy” ever recorded; Keith’s vocal was particularly ragged, and Ron Wood’s guitar solo also seemed very sloppy. Otherwise, the music appeared acceptable but uninspired.
Because the program was shot for the huge screen, this meant we saw lots of very wide shots. Those still displayed good detail in an IMAX setting, but a lot of the elements got lost on a standard TV. While my 50-inch plasma screen obviously didn’t remotely approach the quality of an IMAX presentation, the wide shots held up a lot better than they had in any prior video incarnations. What looked mushy and indistinct on DVD became almost shockingly clear on Blu-ray.
Some cropping made them a bit tighter as well. While the purist in me bemoans this, the fan actually supports it. As I mentioned, many of the film’s original shots went very wide – or very high, actually, as the movie featured lots of headroom to demonstrate the grandeur of the stage. When I saw MAX theatrically, I wasn’t wild about the framing; even though the image was tremendously detailed, I thought it seemed like a waste of space. The Blu-ray’s ratio does compromise the original IMAX dimensions, but I honestly can’t say this bothers me because the focus comes across as better developed. I support OAR 99.9% of the time, but this is that rare exception.
My main complaint related to the massive edits apparent. As I noted, the show lost at least a half a dozen - if not more - tracks, and these badly affected the flow of the show. Concerts are constructed a certain way for a reason, and by the summer of 1990, the Stones had clearly found a setlist that they liked and felt worked. This went out the window for MAX, as it dropped so many songs. As such, the production failed to deliver the cohesion and pacing necessary to make a concert effective.
Overall, The Rolling Stones Live at the MAX had some moments, but it didn’t deliver a particularly effective look at a Stones concert. This tour didn’t reflect the band at their best, and the film also failed to maximize their potential.