It was 1969. The Stones were the biggest live band in the world. The photographer Ethan Russell was invited to go on tour with them — and witnessed things he’d never forget.
When Ethan Russell photographed Mick Jagger for the first time, in 1968, it wasn’t his rock-star swagger or surly pout that struck him: it was his neatly pressed trousers. “He was smart, very pleasant and well mannered.”
Russell, a scruffy 23-year-old Californian, hit it off with the singer, and from 1968 to ’72 was the Rolling Stones’ main photographer. One of his early sessions featured Brian Jones at his home, Cotchford Farm in Sussex, previously owned by A A Milne. Russell’s pictures of Jones, draped around a statue of Christopher Robin and provocatively waving a gun, encapsulate the troubled nature of the doomed guitarist, who was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool six months later. But it’s Russell’s photographs of the band on their 1969 US tour – most unseen until now – that provide the most compelling insight. Contrary to myth, it wasn’t all sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.
There’s the guitarist Keith Richards holding court at breakfast in a rhinestone-studded red shirt – tea in one hand, fag in the other, and a Variety pack of Kellogg’s cereals behind him. In another, Mick is protectively holding the drummer Charlie Watts’s baby daughter. Then there’s the bassist Bill Wyman and his girlfriend, Astrid Lündstrom, sitting glumly in armchairs, looking as if they’d rather be anywhere else.
Russell, now 62, says his unique access to the band allowed him to obtain such intimate portraits. “We travelled, lived and ate together. But I didn’t see it was my job to become their friend. I stayed on the edge, watching. What they really did well was just let me be there.”
But Russell did become their friend, especially Charlie’s, whom he stayed with in England. Mick Taylor, Jones’s replacement, was “a sweetheart”. The only Stone he never got close to was Keith. “I was scared of him. I was shy and Keith has his own version of shyness. Put the two together and we just didn’t get there.”
In 1969, the Stones were the biggest live draw in the world. Yet they flew in commercial planes, eschewed five-star hotels for friends’ houses, and had only 11 people in their entourage “There was nothing prima-donna-ish about them,” says Russell. “Backstage they’d hang out with musicians: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Tina Turner, Chuck Berry. It was all about the music.”
Russell recalls just one fight, between Jagger and the concert promoter Bill Graham, who bellowed at the Stones and threatened to cancel their show. Jagger coolly replied: “Didn’t I speak to you on the phone once? You were rude to me. I can’t stand people who shout on the phone. It shows the most appalling manners. We’ll be on in five minutes, Bill. Now don’t be silly.”
Surprisingly, Russell says it wasn’t a very druggy tour. “Yes, drugs were around, but they were mainly recreational.” As for groupies, there was one blonde who said she had a pound of butter in her bag that she wanted to spread over Jagger, then lick it off, before adding: “I can’t wait around for ever. I have to pick up my little boy.”
So the tour rolled on, the venues sold out, and the dollars rolled in. As a thank-you to their American fans, the Stones announced a free gig at Altamont Speedway, east of San Francisco. And that’s when the bubble burst. Altamont was meant to be all about peace and love, another Woodstock. Instead, it was a vision of hell. Russell describes the aura of danger from the start. “Most of the crowd was high on drugs and alcohol and there was a weird, culty vibe.”
Security came in the shape of the Hell’s Angels, said to be high on LSD. While the band was playing Under My Thumb, the Angels stabbed to death an 18-year-old black man, Meredith Hunter, who they said was aiming a gun at Jagger. The band, unaware of the killing but aware that the crowd was out of control, played on, Jagger saying: “I can’t do any more than ask you, beg you, just to keep it together. Let’s just relax, get into a groove.”
“I was scared for my life,” says Ethan. “All I wanted to do was get out. We left as soon as we could. We had a helicopter designed to hold 11 people and it took off with 17 of us, including the band.” Wyman said: “It was the most dangerous, frightening show we ever did. And this band has never been scared of anything.”
After that, everything changed. On the 1972 American tour: “Security was everything. The band never travelled commercially again, they had private jets. They had limos. Every member had received a death threat from the Hell’s Angels and had an armed guard. The stage got raised higher and the band became untouchable.”
Backstage had turned into a celebrity circuit. Jagger had married the Nicaraguan socialite Bianca Perez Moreno de Macias. The writer Truman Capote and Jackie Onassis’s sister, Princess Lee Radziwill, were part of the entourage. And hard drugs had entered the scene: “Everyone was snorting cocaine,” says Russell. Astrid, Bill Wyman’s girlfriend, says: “Keith’s drug-taking had ceased to be fun. It had become an addiction; he was going into darker places.” But on stage, Russell says the band were still magical, “a really classy bunch of performers”.
The Stones’ Bigger Bang tour, which ended last year, made $558m, the biggest-grossing tour ever. They’re already talking about the next one.
Russell admits that he didn’t think the Stones would still be going strong. “In 1969 Mick said, ‘I can’t do this for ever. We can’t keep going on. I mean, we’re so old.’ ” He was 26 at the time.