That Time the Rolling Stones Played for 500,000 Fans at Hyde Park
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One of the most highly anticipated gigs of 1969, the Rolling Stones‘ free concert in London’s Hyde Park on July 5 delivered on all the promise and then some.
Having taken two years off from the road, the show was conceived as the beginning of the band’s big return to the live stage. The evening was also planned as an introduction of their hot new guitar player, Mick Taylor. A former disciple of British blues legend John Mayall, Taylor had been inducted into the Rolling Stones just a month prior, after the band had decided to finally wash their hands of the supremely talented but increasingly erratic Brian Jones.
“I just made a phone call to John Mayall,” Mick Jagger recalled in the book, According to the Rolling Stones. “And he turned up with this guy Mick Taylor almost the next day.” After jamming with Taylor a bit, the band were sufficiently impressed by his talent to bring him into the fold with little extra vetting. “There wasn’t a big audition,” Jagger went on to say. “He seemed to fit in really well and there was the pressure to do the gig [at Hyde Park]. Maybe if we’d not had a gig coming up for six months, we’d have tried lots of others, but we just had to get on with it.”
As the Hyde Park show drew nearer and nearer, the group got into playing shape by rehearsing at the Beatles’ Apple recording studio on Savile Row. Then like a lightning bolt came the bad news no one was expecting. On July 3, 1969, Brian Jones was found dead at his home outside of London. As you might expect, the band was equal parts shocked and horrified by the news. Rather than cancel their upcoming concert however, they decided to carry on and reformat it as a tribute to their ex-band mate.
More than just another show, the Hyde Park concert was an event. Estimates put the crowd as large as 500,000 people who showed up to take in the spectacle. Opening for the Rolling Stones was a melange of fantastic British acts including King Crimson and Alexis Korner’s latest outfit New Church.
Just before the Rolling Stones hit the stage, Mick Jagger came out and read from the Percy Shelley poem “Adonais,” in a touching tribute to Jones after which hundreds of white butterflies were released into the summer air. “We wanted to see him off in grand style,” guitarist Keith Richards wrote in his autobiography Life. “The ups and downs with the guy are one thing, but when his time’s over, release the doves, or in this case the sackfuls of white butterflies.”
When the full band finally came out and launched into “I’m Yours and I’m Hers,” it was apparent to most of the fans in the crowd that there was still a bit of rust that needed to be knocked off, but the energy more than made up for the out-of-tune musicianship. For his part, Mick Taylor took a measured view of his grand coming out party. “I wouldn’t call Hyde Park a great concert. It was a great event. It wasn’t a great concert for the Stones musically, because it was the first time they played together in two years,” Taylor said, adding, “I would say by the time we did the second American tour, we were really tight and really good.”
While Taylor, as a newcomer, could afford to be a bit critical of the performance, for the Stones’ other Mick, the gig felt like a breath of fresh air. “Hyde Park didn’t feel that difficult,” he recalled. “I think we were pleased to get out and play with somebody else, because we’d been like a horse with three legs. Now we had another guitarist, and we could say, ‘play this,’ and he’d play it.”
In 2013, the Rolling Stones again returned to Hyde Park as part of their 50 and Counting tour. The first of two planned shows took place just one day after the 44th anniversary of the first time they’d taken over the park. Both shows were filmed and later released on DVD and Blu-ray in a package titled, Sweet Summer Sun: Live in Hyde Park.
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