The Rolling Stones are one of the longest-lived rock bands in history, having remained active for over fifty years and counting. In that time, they've played countless concerts all over the world, yet for most fans, their greatest work was during the 1960s. Starting off as a blues and R&B cover band in the clubs and coffee houses of London, the Stones played a grueling and punishing schedule of concerts to minuscule crowds in their early years, building up their following and becoming second only to the Beatles in the 1960s hierarchy of great bands. In You Had to Be There! The Rolling Stones Live 1962-69, author Richard Houghton offers a trip back to those heady years by telling the story of the Stones' 1960s concerts in the words of the fortunate fans who were there to witness them firsthand.
Soliciting memories from fans who were at any of the Stones' concerts in the 1960s, Houghton and his contributors tell the story of a ragtag group of five obsessive blues and R&B fans who started the decade playing dingy basement clubs to handfuls of teenagers and ended the decade as the second biggest rock band in the world. When I first heard of this book, I assumed it would be similar to another very good, if not flawed, book I've read and reviewed on the Beatles' UK tours. That book was enjoyable but suffered from being quite repetitive and devoid of charm after a while. However, as this Stones book got closer to being released, I began to think it might be quite different. This was most noticeable to me when my mum sent me a story from my parents' local newspaper in Massachusetts where Houghton was soliciting submissions from fans who had attended the Stones concert there in 1965. When I finally got my hands on the book and saw how the author had put the book together, I was delighted but still slightly hesitant. For each of the shows between 1962 and 1969, the story of the concerts was told entirely in the words of the fans who were there. What made me wary was the fear that the book would get repetitive the way the Beatles book did (that book became a real slog once I was halfway through it).
I'm happy to say that this wasn't the case at all with You Had to Be There...each entry is interesting and engaging and there are many reasons for this. When multiple people shared their memories about the same show, it was fascinating to see how similar or different their perceptions and experiences were. Reading about how the various concertgoers managed to get their tickets, got to the shows, met the Stones, and got home was a wonderful look back to a more innocent time when rock music and the concert business were both young and everyone was flying by the seat of their pants as the world changed around them at a rapid pace. Security was minimal, amplification was inadequate, prices were low by today's standards, and the bands were much more accessible. It was also amazing to read firsthand how quickly and profoundly it all changed...fans who attended a Stones show in 1964 mentioned how when they saw them just a year or two later the experience was different and in many cases, not as enjoyable. By the time the band got to the end of the decade, their tours were huge events and the small club and theater crowds they'd played to in earlier years gave way to faceless seas of humanity in arenas and stadiums. The innocence and simplicity of the earlier 1960s was now marred by restless crowds, police violence, drugs, groupies, cynicism, and money while the band became aloof and untouchable heroes to the masses. These are not new revelations, but somehow hearing it from the perspective of all of those were were there makes it more vivid and sharpens its impact.
Adding to the charm of the book are the many photos accompanying the entries of the contributors, with most pictures being representative of how they and the fashions looked back then. There is also a large section in the middle with fan photos of various concerts and meetings with members of the Stones throughout the 1960s. It's quite something to read about someone in their 60s or 70s looking back on something that happened to them when they were a teenager, especially when they mention how much they've seen the world around them change in the years since. Even better are the instances when fans mention that they went to the concert with their boyfriend or girlfriend who they then married and are still married to. It's really touching to read about couples who went together as teens and are still together fifty years later...some of these entries even have photos of the couples now and then, which is heartwarming and adds a more human touch to their story. Overall, You Had to Be There is a real time capsule that takes the reader back in time to those heady days and tracks the rapid pace of the decades evolution through the eyes of the everyday people who experienced their little bit of rock history. If I have any complaint, it's only that I would have liked to have seen more contributions from fans who attended shows on the 1969 American tour, including Altamont, as the book ends with the Stones' show at Hyde Park in July 1969. Thinking about it, though, I can understand why the author may have stopped here as Hyde Park was the first show the band played in the immediate aftermath of Brian Jones' death and in way, it was the full-stop end of their 1960s incarnation. However, the 1969 tour was their first that was an actual event and the Altamont show is widely seen as what killed the 1960s dream, so those could have been a nice way to bookend the decade for the Rolling Stones. Still, this is a small quibble of mine and as I said, the more I think about it the more I understand why Houghton ended the book at Hyde Park...it was the end of an era and the first chapter in the Stones' career.
In closing, while not offering any new revelations in terms of the inner workings of the Stones or their music, this is still definitely a book that any fan of the band would enjoy. Even those who are more a fan of the 1960s and its music in general and perhaps not dedicated Stones fans would have a good time taking a trip back to those years and reading about the experiences from the lucky fans who were there to live through it firsthand.
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