JUST OVER A DECADE after they played two sell-out gigs in Hong Kong, the Rolling Stones return to southern China in March for the biggest concert Macau has ever seen.
More than 10,000 people will see frontman Mick Jagger strut his stuff with guitarists Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, and drummer Charlie Watts when the most notorious rock band in history bring their colossal “14 on Fire” tour to the Cotai Arena at the Venetian Macao on March 9.
It’ll be the band’s first time in the enclave, but don’t expect playboy Jagger to make the most of Asia’s number one 1 party hotspot. “Gambling?” he scowls over the phone when told of the city’s favourite pastime. “I’m not a terrific gambler. I mean, it’s not my sort of ultimate sport. I’d say it’s really quite boring, really.”
It’s a far cry from the band’s 1970s heyday when Jagger and company wrote the rulebook on rock hedonism. At 70 years of age, the singer with the most recognisable lips in history is more likely to be seen at swish parties, behind the camera on the set of one of the many films he’s co-produced, or babysitting his grandchildren.
Even so, after 52 years of rocking with the Stones, Jagger is still the most famous and infamous name in rock. With Keith Richards, Jagger has co-written classic hits such as (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Sympathy for the Devil and Angie, he’s played some of the biggest gigs in history, including one before more than a million people on Rio’s Copacabana Beach; and his dedication to the band has kept the Stones rolling through drug busts, broken marriages, financial chaos, deaths and death threats.
He’s also one of the richest men in pop, has been knighted by the Queen and counts royalty and world leaders among his friends.
At the same time he has a ruthless reputation, jealously guarding the Stones’ business interests with a rigour that would put a corporate CEO to shame.
And yet, in conversation, he’s down to earth, just as you’d expect a man who was born in Dartford, in the humdrum backwaters of the Thames estuary, to be. His welcoming gambit couldn’t be more drably English. “It’s not a very nice day out there, it’s, like, really bad,” he says of the weather as he takes to the phone. “It was horrible yesterday too.”
For a man in his eighth decade, whose band has sold upwards of a quarter of a billion records and who, as a long-haired delinquent in the 1960s, was the antithesis of the clean-cut Beatles, Jagger has a disarmingly boyish charm, which comes across even in a brief phone interview.
His everyman conversational references to football, cricket and the work of being a rock star seem a million miles away from the man who presided regally over 100,000 fans at the Glastonbury Festival last year, was rumoured to have dabbled with the devil, and who lorded over the Swinging Sixties in a dress coat and with a sneer.
His perfectionism also comes through.
They may appear delightfully ramshackle on stage, but a lot of work goes into a Stones performance. “If I’m prepping for the tour, I have to up the amount of time I do in the gym, like aerobics and weights and some dancing,” he says, those famous Jagger strangled vowels given full throat as he stresses the final word with a mocking leer.
“Unfortunately, the older you get the more you have to do – not less.”
Once the show is on the road, he eases up on the fitness regime. “It’s like in football – they don’t train a lot between games anymore ‘cos if you’ve got one on Saturday, and then one on Tuesday, you rest,” he says.
Then comes the rigorous scrutiny of every performance, checking video footage for songs that could be played better, or stage management that could be improved.
“When you haven’t done a show for even a few weeks, you get a bit worried about how it’s gonna turn out ‘cos there are so many things that can go wrong, and not all of your making,” he explains.
“Someone else can screw up, the lighting can go down, the sound can not work properly, the new guy mixing the sound doesn’t work out. You know there are lots of things that can go wrong, there are so many variables,” he says.
One of the variables on this tour will be former guitarist Mick Taylor, who is being brought along for the ride. Taylor was credited with reinvigorating the band after the death of founding member Brian Jones in 1969, and when the Stones took to the road again following a two-and-a-half year hiatus forced by a series of high-profile drugs busts.
It was a period when the band produced some of their finest works, including the albums Sticky Fingers, which spawned the hit Brown Sugar, and the epic Exile on Main St. Taylor also played on the band’s classic single Jumpin’ Jack Flash. He eventually left five-and-a-half years later, a victim of the band’s notorious reputation for drug taking.
Taylor returned to the fold last year when the Stones reformed for their 50th anniversary gigs in London. Former bass player Bill Wyman also played at the gigs, but he won’t be travelling to Asia with them.
Fans said it was like a flashback, but Jagger is less convinced. “Er,” he says in an awkward pause when asked if he is reminded of the band’s early ‘70s heyday when Taylor takes the stage. “I don’t know – I suppose I do. I don’t really know. Maybe the first time, when he came on stage, maybe I did get some flashbacks, but after I’d done it 20 times, maybe not.”
Touring is in Jagger’s blood and while he says he’s happy not to go on the road, he feels it’s his calling. “It’s what you do really,” he says. “You don’t have to do anything. You can line up and take the dole if you want to.
No one is forcing you to do anything – it’s just what you do, that’s your life,” he says, adding a little noncommittally “and that’s why you – you know – kind of enjoy doing it.”
“People seem to enjoy watching and so it seems an obvious thing to do.” Jagger is not keen to talk about his age, but says his years have taught him that the show is everything. “You play to your audience to the best of your ability on any given day,” he says when asked if he plays every gig like it’s Glastonbury.
“You hope to have a good time yourself,” the singer continues, “and excite an audience, and knock yourself out for them.
Whether it’s Glastonbury or it’s a theatre in Brisbane – they’re not going to be the same, that’s what you do.”
The Rolling Stones “14 on Fire,” March 9, 8pm, Cotai Arena, Venetian Macao, Cotai Strip, Macau, tickets sold out but VIP packages available at HK$14,880. Inquiries: cotaiticketing.com
Stones on stage
The Rolling Stones have played some of the most memorable gigs in rock history. Here are five of their most famous performances
Stones in the Park, 1969
A free concert in Hyde Park, London, was supposed to introduce new guitarist Mick Taylor to fans, but the death of his predecessor, Brian Jones, days before gave the show a maudlin edge. The event turned to farce as Jagger tried to release thousands of butterflies from the stage in honour of Jones, only to find most of them had died in the box they'd been carried in.
The Stones wanted to throw a free festival to thank American fans for the rapturous response to their comeback tour. There was a heavy mood at the hastily thrown-together event outside San Francisco as Hells Angels, employed as security, parked their choppers in front of the stage. Meredith Hunter, a young fan who had been thrown off the stage, returned waving a pistol and was stabbed to death by an Angel.
Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Toronto, 1979
Keith was handed a suspended prison sentence after heroin was found in his hotel room by Canadian Mounties in 1977. As part of his probation, the band had to play a benefit concert at the tiny Oshawa Civic Auditorium. Keith was lucky to get off so lightly. The gossip columns were full of Jagger's relationship with the Canadian first lady Margaret Trudeau at the time, too.
Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro, 2006
On launching yet another world tour, the Stones played before an estimated 1.5 million people on the world's most famous beach. It was the second-largest gig of all time after Rod Stewart pulled in 3.5 million for a free show on the same beach.
After years of speculation and amid tight negotiations about everything from TV rights to camera positions, the band finally played the world's most revered rock festival.
"The show was fantastic. Very vibrant and up and exciting. There was a tremendous anticipation. It was nighttime and it had a super exciting feel. For us it was high-voltage electric," Jagger said. The 100,000 fans who crammed in front of the Pyramid Stage to see them generally agreed.