At London’s Hyde Park, on July 5, 1969, at 5:25 PM, there was a moment that has come to define The Rolling Stones.
“The greatest rock and roll band in the world. They’re incredible; let’s hear it for the Stones!”
It was the first time The Rolling Stones had been branded such. Today, of course, that phrase – the greatest rock and roll band in the world – and The Rolling Stones are inseparable.
Sam Cutler was the one who said it. Cutler worked for Blackhill Enterprises, the company that staged the first free concerts in Hyde Park. At the time, he was looking out at an audience later estimated between 250,000 and 500,000 people.
The Rolling Stones’ gig in 1969 was not the first rock concert in London’s famous park. Pink Floyd headlined the first free gig a year before, and several other bands followed, including Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood’s short-lived Blind Faith in June 1969. (Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull both attended.) But The Rolling Stone concert is the one that everyone seems to talk about. Ask anyone of a certain age: “Were you at the Hyde Park concert?” They know exactly what concert you’re referring to.
Paying tribute to Brian Jones
There are many things that make that concert both unique and special. It was the band’s first concert in almost two years, and marked the debut of guitarist Mick Taylor. (Taylor had previously been part of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and had only joined the group a few months earlier, replacing Brian Jones.) Looming over the entire concert, of course, was Jones’s tragic death in a swimming pool, two days earlier.
The group decided to soldier on, and beautifully paid tribute to Jones. “Alright! Ok now listen,” said Mick. “Will you just cool it for a minute ‘cos I really would like to say something for Brian. I’d really dig it if you would be with us while I do it. I’d like to say a few words that I feel about Brian… I’m going to say something written by Shelley.”
Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep -–
He hath awakened from the dream of life -–
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife…
The poem was “Adonais” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. And, as Mick finished reciting the poem, Tom Keylock, the band’s road manager released over 3,000 white butterflies, a gesture that cost the band £300, but one that came to define the concert.
One of the other defining features of The Rolling Stones’ Hyde Park concert was Jagger’s attire. The singer was wearing a Michael Fish Greek-inspired voile “dress.” (When the band played Hyde Park in 2013, Mick nodded to it by wearing a blue jacket covered in a white butterfly motif.)
The Rolling Stones concert
The stage for the concert was tiny. “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, a bit of backdrop for Mick with his white dress on, and everybody just came. Now, of course, it’s a proper enclosed area.”
But no matter. The group’s opener, somewhat surprisingly was “I’m Yours and I’m Hers.” The song wasn’t a Stones’ original, but one written by Texan albino blues guitarist Johnny Winter. The tune had featured on his just-released debut Columbia album. Keith Richards had bought it back in June, and it was his suggestion that they opened the show with it. It was the first – and only – time the band has ever performed it on stage.
Next up was another first, the first time the Stones ever performed “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” on stage. The crowd knew this one well. The song had topped the charts for a couple of weeks the previous summer. On their tour of the US in the autumn of 1969, it became their usual opener. Don Covay’s “Mercy Mercy” came next and it was another less than obvious choice, given that it was recorded way back in May 1965. Following it, “Stray Cat Blues,” “No Expectations,” and “I’m Free” also got their live debut.
“Down Home Girl” was the oldest number in their set, having been recorded in late 1964 and released on the band’s second British album. From there, they moved on to a very old song: a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” which he had recorded way back in 1937. It was a new song for the band, though. They had recorded it a few months earlier, and would eventually appear on Let It Bleed later in 1969.
“Loving Cup” was a new song from The Glimmer Twins, which the group had been working on in the studio; it finally made it onto Exile on Main St. in 1972. They followed with “Honky Tonk Women,” their new single, and next came “Midnight Rambler,” which became the opening track of side two of Let it Bleed. (In some press reports of the Hyde Park concert, it was referred to as “The Boston Gambler.”)
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was the only survivor from the Stones’ previous tour in April 1967. “Street Fighting Man” preceded “Sympathy for the Devil,” which were both off Beggars Banquet. During “Sympathy for the Devil,” The Rolling Stones were joined on stage by Ginger Johnson’s African Drummers. (Johnson was a veteran of the London jazz club scene.)
Sam Cutler’s introduction of “the greatest rock and roll band in the world” was spontaneous, but it’s become an entirely appropriate way to describe the group. Cutler used the phrase to introduce them throughout their US tour later in the year, and it can be heard on Get Your Ya Yas Out, the live album recorded on the tour. It reflected just how far they came from their local blues band beginnings. Or their pop heartthrob status, for that matter. As one music paper said in an issue that came out a week after the Hyde Park concert, “99% of the audience came to listen and not (as they might have done five years ago) to scream.” The times were a-changin’…