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From Steel Wheels To The Urban Jungle

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After three decades of touring, The Rolling Stones had seen it all and played thousands of gigs, but nothing they had previously attempted came close, in terms of scale and ambition, to their Steel Wheels tour

Everything about it was massive. The set, the money, the size of the touring party, the merchandise, the sponsorship deal, and the set list, all took The Stones to another level. The tour’s opening night was on 31 August 1989 and at the end of the year, Variety magazine reported that the band had secured 10% of every $ spent on seeing rock shows in the USA.

By the time their tour of America, Japan and Europe was over they had played to almost 6 million people, who each night marvelled at the set and the two hour show that the band put on… and what a show it was.

The Beatles - Now And Then
The Beatles - Now And Then
The Beatles - Now And Then

The opening night was at Veteran’s Stadium before a crowd of 55,000 fans and the following day the Philadelphia Enquirer‘s headline simply said, “Inspired Rock And Roll, Despite All The Show Biz.” The paper’s slightly backhanded compliment was because no one had ever witnessed a stage set like it before.

Set designer Mark Fisher had created an ‘apocalyptic vision’ of urban decay and it was huge. To this point it was the largest touring stage ever built and took 80 trucks to move it from city to city and needed a crew of 200 people to erect it, along with 150 additional workers at each location. To add to the brilliance of the stage set, Patrick Woodroffe’s lighting effects were equally amazing.

Steel Wheels albumThe set list for Steel Wheels, named after the band’s album that came out a couple of days before the Philadelphia show, remained pretty much the same throughout the US leg of the tour with The Stones opening with ‘Start Me Up’ and then playing a greatest hits show of around 30 songs including a selection from their new record.

This was The Stones first tour without Ian Stewart, who passed away in 1985, and it included a number of additional musicians including Chuck Leavell and Matt Clifford on keyboards; Clifford used some samples during the show making their music more tightly choreographed than on any previous Stones’ tour. There were three backing singers, Lisa Fischer, Bernard Fowler and Cindi Mizelle – another first, and in addition to four man, Uptown Horns, Stones’ stalwart, Bobby Keys, played saxophone.

The last night of the US tour was on 20 December 1989 in Atlantic City, New Jersey and after a near two month break things got back underway in Tokyo’s Korakuen Dome on Valentine’s Day 1990 for what was the band’s first tour of Japan. Their ten shows at were seen by half a million people and the tour was sponsored by the oddly named, to western ears, Pocari Sweat; one of Japan’s leading soft drinks; in the US Budweiser paid £3.7 million for the exclusive rights to sponsor the tour.

On 18 May 1990 the European leg began, but the sheer size of the American set is what lead to Steel Wheels having an identity crisis by the time the tour opened in Rotterdam. The smaller European stadiums meant that the set had to be scaled down and with it came the name change to the Urban Jungle Tour.
Steel Wheels Cassette
The new, $40 million Urban Jungle stage set was based on “an industrial folly, corroding in a fluorescent jungle of mutant foliage”. And while it was smaller it was still, 236-foot wide and 82 foot high set. During the opening number, Start Me Up’, a 300-foot wide wall of flame was let loose and $40,000 worth of fireworks were used each night for the finale. Throughout the European leg their were two stages on the road at any one time; one in use and the other under construction, which took four days.

In the middle of the tour a gig at Cardiff in Wales and two London shows at Wembley Stadium had to be postponed because Keith cut his finger and it turned septic; this was the first time Keith had missed a show in his career. This meant that the last show of the tour was at Wembley Stadium on 25 August 1990, close to a year since this massive affair had got underway.

Their set at Wembley was shorter than in Philadelphia in terms of the number of songs they played, just 23, but it did include some new numbers – ‘Harlem Shuffle’, ‘Angie’, ‘2000 Light Years From Home’ and ‘Street Fighting Man’. It was also Bill Wyman’s last gig as a member of The Rolling Stones, before the Voodoo Lounge tour began in August 1994 Wyman announced he was quitting the band.

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  1. B Gavenda

    August 25, 2016 at 5:44 pm

    I saw the show in Prague, Aug. 8, 1990, and I believe the tour did not originally include Prague. I wish someone would write about how Prague was added to the tour or maybe post a previous article that was written about how it happened.

    • Den

      August 25, 2016 at 6:03 pm

      You are right. It was a late addition. I have Urban Jungle t-shirts, poster that do not list Praha. A behind-the-scenes story would be fascinating. I believe they hung out with Vaclav Havel, though I don’t know if he was at Strahov. To me Praha was more momentous than Havana. The former was a celebration of democracy, the latter an admission that we still have a long way to go. We were all younger back then, too!

    • bert

      August 25, 2016 at 8:14 pm

      i was there too!!!

      here is some info

      The Rolling Stones Take On Prague
      By BURTON BOLLAG, Special to The New York Times
      Published: August 20, 1990
      PRAGUE, Aug. 19— The Rolling Stones, once denounced by the former Communist Government of Czechoslovakia as a capitalist money-making machine, performed before an enthusiastic audience of 107,000 who ignored a heavy rain to attend an outdoor concert on Saturday, which both the band and the fans said they had been awaiting for years.

      The concert, staged at the invitation of President Vaclav Havel, was a late addition to the band’s Urban Jungle tour of about 25 European cities. Tanks are rolling out, the Stones are rolling in, was the slogan with which this concert was promoted. Mr. Havel and his wife, Olga, attended the performance.

      Tickets cost about $10; the Rolling Stones performed free. The proceeds are to go to a charity for disabled children under the patronage of Mrs. Havel.

      A spokesman for the Rolling Stones said that the group had been interested in performing in other former East Bloc countries during its tour, but that it had not been possible to make the arrangements except in Prague and for two performances in East Berlin last Monday and Tuesday. The Stones last played Eastern Europe in the late 1960’s, performing in Warsaw.

      Jackets for Glassware

      Several hours before the concert, the five members of the Stones met with Mr. Havel at his official residence at Hradcany Castle overlooking Prague. The band gave him several leather and denim bomber jackets with the Rolling Stones insignia, and he gave them some fine glassware.

      The Czechoslovak news agency CTK reported that ”in the conversation with Mick Jagger and other members of the Rolling Stones, the president expressed his joy over the fact that the concert was taking place, and spoke of the role that rock music played in the events leading to the November revolution and the revolution itself.”

      Mr. Havel, who has attended the rock club CBGB in Manhattan, has reversed the country’s offical stand on its distaste for rock music. This year, he appointed the musician Frank Zappa a special cultural ambassador for Czechoslovakia.

      Although such artists as Stevie Wonder and Joan Baez performed here in recent years, opportunities for Western and Czechoslovak rock artists were sharply limited.

      Czechoslovak followers of the Rolling Stones said the band’s ”Black and Blue” album from the 1970’s was its only album sold officially in Czechoslovakia before the revolution in November. But Czechoslovak fans kept up with the Stones and other Western rockers by listening to bootlegged recordings and foreign radio broadcasts.

      Gymnastics of a Different Sort

      The concert, complete with a fireworks display and giant inflatable figures, was staged at Strahov Stadium here, said to be the largest in the world. The stadium had mainly been used for gymnastics exhibitions favored by the former Communist Government. But since the gymnastics were staged only once every five years, the stadium was considered by many in Prague to be a white elephant.

      Concertgoers came from across Europe, but organizers said the largest number of foreign concertgoers, about 10,000, came from neighboring Hungary.

      The concert took place just three days before the 22d anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of the country to crush Prague Spring, the reform movement of 1968.

      As if to underline irreverently the country’s break with the past, a giant cut-out poster of the band’s logo – a tongue sticking out of a mouth – was put up on a hill overlooking the historic old section of Prague. Giant portraits of Stalin had stood there in the past.

      Still Strutting, Still Jumping

      After several warmup groups played, the Rolling Stones performed for 2 hours and 20 minutes. Mick Jagger, who became 47 years old in July, strutted, jumped, played and sang in his energetic fashion on such familiar songs as ”Jumping Jack Flash.”

      The audience was particularly excited by ”Satisfaction” and ”Sympathy for the Devil.”

      After the concert, Zdena Riegrova, a 23-year-old student at Charles University in Prague, said: ”It was a great experience. It’s a pity we couldn’t have seen them 10 years ago.”

      Photo:Keith Richards, left, and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones with President Vaclav Havel, right, during a meeting on Saturday in Prague before the band’s concert, which Mr. Havel attended. (Agence France-Presse)

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The Beatles Red and Blue Boxsets
The Beatles Red and Blue Boxsets
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