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How The Rolling Stones Set Up Their Secret Toronto Gigs Of 1977

This excerpt from the liner notes to ‘Live At The El Mocambo’ details how the group pulled off a wild secret gig.

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The Rolling Stones - Photo: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images
The Rolling Stones - Photo: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

In 1977, the Rolling Stones played secret shows over the course of two nights at Toronto’s El Mocambo. Now available officially for the first time, Live At The El Mocambo collects the best of those performances, showcasing the band at the top of their game in the most intimate of settings. In this excerpt from the liner notes to the release, Paul Sexton describes how the band pulled off the secret gig.

As ever when the Rolling Stones blew into any town with a “secret” gig on their minds, the dates at the 300-capacity club known locally as El Mo had to be set up with considerable subterfuge. The smokescreen came in the form of Montreal rock favorites April Wine, who would later make their big international play with such Capitol albums as Harder…Faster and the platinum-selling The Nature of the Beast.

Keeping anything on the down low when it involved the most famous rock ‘n’ roll band in the world was always a challenge… [But] the visit had been scoped out months before, by Mick Jagger and tour manager Peter Rudge. The previous year, they had walked into the city’s bespoke Windsor Arms Hotel, a bolthole for visiting celebrities, as they scouted potential sites for the club idea. Duff Roman, radio personality and executive and a bastion of the Canadian music business, happened to be there too.

“I saw [them] walk in,” he later told the National Post. “I tried to play it cool, and wrote a message on my CHUM FM business card that said, ‘I’m here if you need anything.’ I called the waiter over and had him take it to Mick and Peter’s table. Rudge looked at it first and then Mick wanted to see. After a while, they looked over and I nodded, smiled and pointed. Then they left. It was months before I heard from them again.”

When he did, Rudge asked Roman if he thought he could pull off the events without incurring a media orgy. “I told him that we could,” Roman recalled, “and then started thinking about how we could actually do it without anyone knowing.”

The booker for the venue, Dave Bluestein, came up with the idea of announcing the March shows as by April Wine. A radio contest was organized in which listeners were asked the question “What would you do to see the Rolling Stones play live?” It was a tactic that ensured a full house of real devotees, even if it also prompted the arrival of more than a few nude polaroids. The prize was tickets to see April Wine with an unknown band called the Cockroaches. Guess who.

“We had natural cover,” says Bluestein, “because if anything got out, we could say, ‘No, look, April Wine is playing. That’s the gig. It says so right here. Another band was added to the April Wine shows called the Cockroaches, which was the Stones’ alias. On the day of the first show, the band rehearsed upstairs and soundchecked for the live recording.”

The band had not played live in seven months. They were dealing with a welter of internal issues, including their attempts to prevent the News of the World from publishing images from Robert Frank’s infamous 1972 film Cocksucker Blues. Halfway through rehearsals in Toronto, Mick had to rush to New York, where his daughter Jade had appendicitis. But it was Keith’s debilitating burdens that were most urgent in their minds.

“I can tell you, I cared about Keith, and not just as a work colleague,” said Bill Wyman in his Rolling With The Stones book of 2002. “We had been through so much in the previous 13 years, conquered the world, shared in an adventure the likes of which mere words cannot do justice to. But it was true, Keith didn’t have to live by the rules of normal society…but when all is said and done, it’s Keith’s life.”

On the day of the first El Mocambo date, the Stones arrived for a soundcheck at 4.30pm. Passers-by, catching the echoes of ‘Honky Tonk Women’ or ‘Tumbling Dice,’ no doubt marveled at the authenticity of the Stones covers act that must surely be playing that night. When the band returned for the show, April Wine were naturally now in a support slot that would yield their own Live At The El Mocambo album later that year. Indeed, the cachet of their involvement in this unforgettable moment would earn them their passport to the international stage.

As if the Stones weren’t already occupying enough unwanted column inches, there was more red meat for the media when Margaret Trudeau, Canada’s First Lady and wife of Prime Minister Pierre, turned up for the gig with Mick and Ronnie. This was before the public knew that Trudeaus’ six-year marriage, the anniversary of which they were notably not celebrating together, was in tatters.

Margaret attended both shows, leaping up and down near the mixing desk. Curtains twitched, editors frothed. Back home, News At Ten ran a report. “She just wanted to see the shows, and that’s the end of it,” Mick told the CBC.

[As a result] the cat was out of the bag, and the Cockroaches out in the open, by the second night. “Word had got out,” remembered Bill, “and it was very difficult to get in.” Keith, undoubtedly relieved to escape the press frenzy even for the length of the gig, reflected: “The minute I got onstage, it felt just like another Sunday gig at the Crawdaddy. It immediately felt the same…it was one of those weird things in Toronto. Everybody’s going around talking doom and disaster, and we’re up on stage at the El Mocambo, and we never felt better. I mean, we sounded great.”

To read the full liner notes, including a lengthy description of the second night’s show, buy or stream Live At The El Mocambo.

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