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 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.
The 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.
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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