(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 22.)
Is the Rolling Stones juggernaut finally running out of steam? That’s the question people are asking overseas as fans baulk at the preposterous prices the British rock veterans are charging on their latest American tour.According to reports from the United States, the band’s management has had to slash ticket prices because of poor sales. The alternative was to play to half-empty venues – not a good look for an act that has long claimed to be “the greatest rock and roll band in the world”.
Prices for the tour were originally set at $US170 in the cheap section, $635 for a premium seat and $2000 for a VIP package. A music blogger wrote that the cost was prohibitive for anyone not working in investment banking.Compare that with the price of tickets to see Paul McCartney later this year: $50 in Seattle, $39.50 in Milwaukee. Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty are reportedly charging modest prices too, and selling well. So it’s not as if fans are no longer interested in seeing old stagers recapturing their glory days.
Part of the problem may be that the Stones are running on empty. Their last No 1 hit in the US (Miss You) was in 1978 – 35 years ago. They haven’t made the Billboard Hot 100 chart since 1998, when Saint of Me rose to the dizzy height of No 94.Their last album, A Bigger Bang, was in 2005. How long can they expect fans to keep paying for variations of the same old routine?
But familiarity – dare I even suggest boredom? – is only one part of the explanation for resistance to the Stones’ ticket prices. I suspect the band is paying the price for good old-fashioned greed.The Stones have never come cheap, and as their recorded output has dwindled they have had to rely more heavily on tours to maintain them in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Their Bigger Bang tour of 2005-6 was declared the highest-grossing tour of all time, earning $437 million. But they may have pushed their luck too far.
Certainly, some of their fans seem to be seeing them in a more critical light. “I have to give them respect for what they have done, but now they seem like an embarrassment,” Cameron Bowman told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Seriously, how much more money do they need? I feel like they are in Donald Trump or Gordon Gekko territory – just money for money's sake.”Here we’re getting to the nub of the issue. For more than 50 years the Stones have been remarkably successful in passing themselves off as working-class rebels and heroes of 1960s counterculture, thumbing their noses at the capitalist establishment. The gullible fans bought it unquestioningly.
Perhaps they are now finally waking up to the reality that the band members are capitalists to the core, as fervently committed to making money as any giant multinational corporation. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the band moved en masse to the south of France in the 1970s to escape paying British taxes.Let’s look at Sir Michael Philip Jagger, in particular. Jagger’s entire career has been built on fakery.
Some of the other original Stones – notably Bill Wyman and Keith Richards – had a legitimate claim to the working-class pose the band assumed in its early years, but Jagger came from an impeccably bourgeois background. His father was a schoolteacher and his mother was an active member of the Conservative Party. Jagger attended the relatively select Dartford Grammar School.Given this background, it astounds me that for decades Jagger has managed to make a fabulously lucrative career pretending to sound like a black man from the mean streets of urban America. The jive talk, the bluesy inflections – it’s an astonishingly cheeky pastiche, but he’s carried it off.
As for that anti-establishment persona, which persists to this day (and which Jagger still promotes), it’s hard to reconcile with his immense fortune, which is estimated at nearly $US300 million. I don’t see how you can claim to be part of the revolution while living in the palace.He’s reputed to be tight-fisted too. Jagger is a rarity among wealthy showbiz figures, and rarer still among knights of the realm, for having no known record of charitable work or public service.
This is no great surprise. Some of the meanest, most grasping individuals I’ve known were people who assiduously cultivated their anti-capitalist credentials.You may deduce from all this that I dislike Jagger, but that’s true only up to a point. I think he’s a phony, but good luck to him if he can get away with it. My irritation is with all those dopey fans who still worship him as a totem of the protest generation.
Like most of my generation I’ve enjoyed the music of the Stones, though I wouldn’t call myself a hard-core fan. They made some great records, albeit a long time ago, and on the one occasion I saw them in concert (again, decades ago) I thought they probably merited the label of greatest rock and roll band in the world.I have a grudging admiration for the wizened old reprobate Keith Richards, who strikes me as a much more genuine and likeable individual than Jagger, and more seriously committed to music for its own sake.
But the band is stretching credulity – in fact defying gravity – by continuing to masquerade as down-and-dirty rock and roll rebels after more than 50 years. No one can pretend that their appeal rests on anything other than nostalgic yearning for the heady days of Honky Tonk Women and Gimme Shelter, when we were all young, idealistic and beautiful (well, young and idealistic, at least).It’s pathetic, really. Perhaps the Stones would be doing themselves and everyone else a favour by pricing themselves out of the market. Then they could quietly retire and take up indoor bowls, or some such activity as befits their age.