I wish I could tell you how happy all of us down here at B&V are that the Stones have finally released an official version of the entire legendary 1977 show from Toronto’s El Mocambo Club (March 5, 1977). The album, creatively titled, Live At El Mocambo dropped a few Fridays ago – 45 years after the actual shows. In the interest of full disclosure I purchased this one on CD. The $149 price tag on the vinyl was too rich even for this avid, obsessed Stones’ fan. Hearing this live album I have to say, it ranks up there with Get Yer Ya-Yas Out as one of the Stones’ finest live LPs. The Stones have been around so long, different live albums tend to capture/conjure different eras in the band’s storied history. Ya-Yas captured them at their career peak with Mick Taylor still on lead guitar. I’ve always been fond of Live At the BBC: On Air released only a few years ago, but that one really captures the early-Stones, Brian Jones era. Now we have Live At the El Mocambo to give us a taste of the mid-70s, Ronnie Wood-just-joined-the-band era. Of course this early Ronnie Wood era had already been documented on the Stones’ 1977 Love You Live, another Stones live album I love… maybe I just truly love Live Albums.
The Stones were at a cross roads in the mid-70s. After the tour for 1974’s It’s Only Rock n Roll Mick Taylor, lead guitarist extraordinaire, quit the band. Taylor played on what many consider to be the peak of the Stones’ career on albums that include Exile On Mainstreet and Sticky Fingers. When Taylor was in the band there seemed to be a strict division of guitar labor, Taylor played the solo’s and Keith was allowed to become the “Riffmeister,” strictly rhythm. By the time Taylor left the Stones it was largely believed that their classic period had ended and the Stones had become more decadent and less focused on the music. Critics lamented they were a spent creative force. It didn’t help that disco and punk were nipping at their heels. Supposedly, Jagger was fascinated with being a star and Keith was fascinated by, well, heroin. If you ask me Goat’s Head Soup and It’s Only Rock n Roll are still pretty “classic” Stones albums but I’m a pretty big fan. But for the Stones there was never any serious consideration given to quitting when Taylor split. Nothing can stop the Stones, man.
They were ready to record a post-Taylor album so they used those sessions to audition a new lead guitarist. They were probably thinking, “Hey, we need to jam with some new guys, let’s record it and try and get an album out of it. ” Many guitarists auditioned including Jeff Beck and Peter Frampton to name drop a few. Others included Steve Marriott, Rory Gallagher, Wayne Perkins and Harvey Mandel. Finally they decided on Ronnie Wood, who in retrospect was the perfect choice. Wood and Richards’ guitars meld together so well. There would be no more guitar division of labor, these two would practice what Keef calls “the ancient art of weaving,” where their guitars snake in and out of each other’s. Plus Ronnie was a good drinking buddy for Keith. The ensuing LP, recorded as a guitar audition, was Black And Blue. The critical reception was mixed but the album spent a whole month at number one in 1976. I love the record but when a college buddy asked me about it I just said, “It’s more for fans.” Over the years I’ve regretted that as I love the songs on that record. It’s long on grooves and jams but… what’s wrong with that? It also has two of their greatest ballads, “Fool To Cry,” and my favorite “Memory Motel.” The album includes contributions from Mandel, Perkins and Ronnie… but alas no Jeff Beck who left his audition and said, “We jammed for 2 hours and I only played three notes.” Jeff Beck, sigh.
Despite the success of Black And Blue, and the ensuing tour in support of it, critics couldn’t help but continue to decry that things “were over” for the Stones. They were still considered a spent creative force. To make matters worse Keith and his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg kept getting busted for coke and heroin possession. And of course, Keith traveled with such a large quantity of drugs – for his and Anita’s use – that he was charged with trafficking. He could have ended up doing real time. He eventually received a suspended sentence… but they were so nervous Keith and Mick took the band into a studio in Paris at the end of 1977 and recorded enough music to fill Some Girls, Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You. The Stones apparently – when you back them up against the wall – DELIVER. But, I’m losing the thread here…
The Stones made a great choice in Ronnie Wood. The guy’s enthusiasm for rocking out, evinced by his time in the Faces, is contagious. He brought a sense of fun and excitement back to the Stones who were suffering from a bad case of ennui. They were going to follow Black And Blue up with a live album and while they had stuff recorded from both the ’75 and ’76 tours, it was decided they needed to go to Toronto to record a show in a small club, the El Mocambo. Toronto has become the Stones’ home away from home over the years. The Stones now do little club shows at the beginning of almost every tour but in 1977 they hadn’t played a small club since their days the Marquee Club in Richmond 15 years prior. They’d been filling stadiums for almost a decade. It was Wood who lobbied for a club show. It was also Ronnie’s idea that the Stones go back and mix up the set list, playing old blues numbers and some of their shorter classic tracks. I still wonder how they talked Mick into this. It was just the band (Mick/Keith/Ronnie with Bill Wyman on bass and Charlie Watts on drums) with Billy Preston and Ian Stewart on keyboards and Ollie Brown on percussion. There was no horn section or back up singers (save for Keith and Ronnie). This is as straightforward as you’re going to get from the Stones at this point in their career.
Oddly, they used some of the El Mocambo stuff on the ensuing live album, Love You Live, but only 4 tracks. It was, for you vinyl cats out there, side 3 aka “The El Mocambo” side. I can’t help but think it might have been better to just release the entire El Mocambo show back then? I will admit Love You Live has a lot of great moments. They played the entire album on the Houston rock radio station the night after I saw the Stones for the first time with my buddy Brewster, who was apparently upset with the Stones’ set list that night. He said, “What album is this?” I didn’t know at the time. And he said, “At least they’re playing everything I wished they’d played tonight.” Drinking warm beer in the Astrodome parking lot in 1980 I will say, Brewster could always be incisive.
I have to say, first and foremost, Live At The El Mocambo sounds fantastic. I don’t know if its the intimate setting – it only sat 300 people but it feels like you’re there. The Stones had kept the gigs a secret. They faked a radio contest – what would you do to see the Stones? – and the winners would see April Wine live. The opening act was the Cockroaches… aka the Stones. People showed up and were surprised, the Stones were the actual headliners. Mick Jagger sounds like he’s having an absolute blast during this show. At one point he tells the small crowd that Ronnie Wood is inviting them back to his hotel room after the show… but they have to bring their own beer. The band is really tight on these performances – as if this was an escape from all the turmoil off the stage – and the tighter they play the more relaxed and fun Jagger becomes. Or maybe they’re just responding to playing in a tiny club. Keith has always said Mick could rule a stage from a stadium to a phone booth. Ronnie Wood’s lead guitar is also searing on this album. I couldn’t turn it up loud enough.
The Stones start off with a bit of a lumbering version of “Honky Tonk Woman.” It’s like they’re getting their bearings. Then they take off with “All Down The Line” one of my favorites from Exile On Mainstreet. Everything seemed to come together from there. What’s so great about this album is they not only took Ronnie’s suggestion to play older tracks and blues tunes but they play almost the entire Black And Blue album, something that you’re never gonna hear again. They played one of their earliest “Route 66” and its great but around that they play three tracks from Black And Blue. “Hand Of Fate” is a forgotten rock masterpiece as is “Crazy Mama,” but Jagger sounds IN TO IT. I love the ballad “Fool To Cry” (although I’m broken-hearted they didn’t do “Memory Motel”) but I’ve always been a sucker for ballads and sad songs… ask anybody whose dated me. I used to sing the lyric from “Fool To Cry” to this girl I used to date who lived downtown behind the old blood bank on Armour, “I gotta woman, she live in the poor part of town, I go and see her sometime, we make love so fine…” She’d always say the same thing, “This isn’t the poor part of town.”
“Mannish Boy,” and “Crackin’ Up” are two old blues covers that actually ended up on Love You Live but while I enjoyed the El Mocambo side, the songs just seem more in context here. “Dance Little Sister” and “Tumblin’ Dice” just snarl here. “Hot Stuff” from Black And Blue leads off the second disc. “Star Star” is still the most vulgar Chuck Berry-type track ever. They do a couple of blues tracks and it felt like I was back in Richmond (although I’ve never been to Richmond). “Worried Life Blues” is a track I’ve never heard the Stones do and I loved it. They did “Little Red Rooster” which also amazing… I think they took that to number 1 in England. I mean, you just don’t hear these songs at a Stones show. “It’s Only Rock N Roll” and “Rip This Joint” rock with such a ferocity you think things are going to slip the rails.
After they return to more predictable fair to end the March 5th, 1977 set with “Brown Sugar” and “Jumping Jack Flash,” they’ve tacked on three songs from the March 4th show. It may seem weird but it almost feels like an encore. If the encore was obscure songs that I would be allowed to pick. “Melody,” another great Black And Blue track and gives Billy Preston a chance to share lead with Mick. Then they play “Luxury” a reggae thing from It’s Only Rock n Roll. The final track is a very early version of “Worried About You” a song that didn’t see the light of day until Tattoo You, side 2 (and yes, I know there are Tattoo You, side 2 freaks out there…I’m one of you).
This is the sound of the Greatest Rock N Roll Band in the World discovering the joy in playing a concert again. You can hear the joy they find in the music. I do think a lot of that comes from Ronnie Wood’s almost childlike, joyful attitude. This is a treat for big Stones fans and more casual fans alike. It would be another year before the Stones emerged, defiant and triumphant with Some Girls, an album that silenced the “they’re done” talk. That album also happened to awake a rock n roll obsession in a young man living in the Kansas City suburbs…but that’s another post.
I can already tell this album is going to get a lot of airplay here at B&V this summer… Cheers!