The 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones’ birth in 1962 has had no shortage of commemorative activities: Last year the group was the subject of a retrospective film documentary, a triple CD survey of their recorded output and a handful of celebratory concerts in England and northeastern U.S.
The celebration extends into 2013 with a slate of shows on the 50 and Counting tour due to get underway May 2 at Staples Center in Los Angeles — if the Lakers, Clippers and the Kings cooperate — and at least a dozen dates in North America and Britain.
But group founders Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were much more interested in discussing what lies ahead than in reliving past glories when they got on the phone to talk about the highly anticipated upcoming shows.
“It’s strange that we don’t know for sure what day the tour will start,” Jagger, 69, said from a retreat in the West Indies where he was gearing up for rehearsals that will begin next week in Los Angeles with Richards, drummer Charlie Watts, longtime guitarist Ron Wood and the rest of the Stones’ touring ensemble. “I don’t think that’s ever happened before.”
He was referring to the possibility that the nominal opening date might move if any NBA or NHL playoff games fall on May 2 in L.A.
For Richards, 69, the novelty was starting a tour on this side of the continent.
“I can’t remember kicking off from the West Coast before,” the Stones’ guitarist said in a separate interview, calling from the patio of a Connecticut restaurant. “We’ve always kicked off in Boston or New York, so it’s evolving already.”
Actually, the Stones’ first concert in the U.S. took place at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino in 1964, where they were booked as a last-minute replacement when the promoter’s deal to bring the Beatles to the Swing fell through. And the band’s watershed Exile on Main Street tour started eight years later in Vancouver, Canada, then played down the West Coast — including the Forum in Inglewood — before heading east.
But those were anomalies among half a century of touring on both sides of the Atlantic. So far, only about a dozen dates in May and June have been announced, with stops in Anaheim, San Jose, Oakland, Las Vegas, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, London and Glastonbury. But it’s hard to imagine cranking up the juggernaut that is a Rolling Stones tour for such a relatively short run.
The Bigger Bang tour started with a similarly modest number of dates in 2005 but extended into 2006 and 2007, pulling in $558.3 million over the entire run to become the highest-grossing concert tour in history, according to Billboard. That figure was eclipsed by U2’s mammoth 360 Tour, which took in $736.4 million from 2009 to 2011, a total even the Stones are unlikely to top because so far the 50 and Counting itinerary doesn’t include stadium shows.
“The thing about the Stones is, once you start this thing rolling, it’s hard to stop,” Richards said. “I’m happy to play as many gigs as we can.”
Their shows at the end of 2012 expanded the repertoire backward as they attempted to acknowledge the group’s early material more than they had on recent tours. The group reached back to the group’s first hit, “I Wanna Be Your Man,” written for them by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
“We thought it’d be a laugh,” Jagger said. “It was great in rehearsals, but it didn’t really translate as good as I had hoped. The idea was having three really ancient numbers to open with, and having this black-and-white look and feel to the whole thing. It kind of worked, but then it kind of crumbled, as these things often do.”
Guitarist Mick Taylor, who joined the band from 1969 to 1974 after the death of guitarist Brian Jones, will be along for the 2013 dates and is expected to expand the modest role he played during the 2012 performances.
“To have Mick Taylor with us, that was a real turn-on,” Richards said. “Ronnie and I, we need a third hand.”
If there were any doubts about the Stones’ box office appeal half a century down the line, response to their hometown show July 6 at London’s Hyde Park obliterated it. Even with seats costing up to $1,000, all 65,000 tickets were snapped up in five minutes.
Asked about the Hyde Park curfew that got the plug pulled on Bruce Springsteen’s show there last summer, Jagger laughed. “They have a curfew everywhere. I can’t believe they even have curfews on indoor shows.
“Some of it has to do with subway travel, and if your show runs over, people get stuck and can’t get home, and that’s not nice to the audience,” he said. “To be honest, they have very strict curfews a lot of places in Europe. There’s a rigid curfew at Wembley Stadium that we’ve run into before. But Hyde Park is right in the middle of town, and you’ve got a lot of moanie people around you.”
As for the Stones’ ultimate legacy, Jagger says he got his fill of reflection last year putting together the “Crossfire Hurricane” documentary on HBO, and Richards is more than content to leave history to sort itself out.
Rock stars come and rock stars go, and Richards is philosophical about it all. “The weak will fall by the wayside and the good ones will always be remembered. A lot of guys get up there because they want to play for the people; it’s up to the people whether they want those guys to stick around or not.
“We have several generations behind us now, which is quite amazing, and maybe well worth me remembering to say when I reach the gates of purgatory.”