John Harris

Journalist & Author

Why a Rolling Stones bootleg is one of my albums of the year

Their recent reissues might be rubbish, but 1973 bootleg Brussels Affair shows the Stones at their onstage peak

One of my albums of the year has just arrived, and it pains me to say it’s by the Rolling Stones.

I know, merely mentioning them these days conjures up the acrid smell of their current incarnation, not even a shadow of a ghost of an imitation of their former selves. Moreover, they are maintaining the shameless and unsatisfactory burst of nostalgia that began with last year’s Exile on Main Street reissue, presumably to keep the money coming in while they decide whether or not to haul themselves around the planet for yet another tour. The latest superfluous item is this week’s re-release of the chronically overrated Some Girls. Fancy some 34-year-old out-takes not even good enough to be included on 1981’s odds-and-sods collection Tattoo You, spruced up with new Mick Jagger vocal parts? You really do not.

And so to the online side of their operation. Stonesarchivestore.com has recently been launched, with the standard-issue promises that these days pass for white-knuckle rock excitement: “Unheard music”, “rare merchandise”, “signed lithographs”. But wait! By way of bringing all this to our attention, this new enterprise has begun with the online release of the 1973 live bootleg known as Brussels Affair – put to tape in the well-known R&B heartland that is Belgium, long whispered about as a glimpse of the group at their all-time onstage peak, and put up in fragments on YouTube. Not that anyone seems to have noticed, but it’s on sale for what currency converters today put at £4.46, which was enough to tweak my curiosity.

It is, as I half-expected, unimpeachably great: a beautifully recorded, often unhinged 70 minutes during which the Stones manage to sound like the Platonic ideal of a rock band: simultaneously tight, unhinged, absolutely convincing, and gloriously ludicrous. Stones lore has long held that even at their height, they could swing between being awful one night and inspirational the next, and what this recording proves is just how jaw-dropping the latter occasions could be.

At the risk of sounding like the man from Jazz Club, the bass and drums are so wonderfully lithe and interlocked as to sound supernatural. As opposed to his 21st-century habit of just about managing the riffs in between letting loose an open-tuned “clang” once in a while, Keith Richards’ rhythm guitar lives up to expectation and drives the whole band, while Mick Taylor’s soloing threads itself through the rest of the music with grace and understatement. Mick Jagger, looking back, was at the juncture beyond which lay pantomimic absurdity and a reluctance to sing in what you and I would recognise as English, but everything here is pitched exactly right: in between addressing the crowd in schoolboy French, he growls and hollers to pretty thrilling effect; on the slow songs, he’s simply great.

This was late 1973, when Goat’s Head Soup had just been released – and, according to retrospective received opinion, the Stones had exited the run of form that stretched from 1968 to 1972. To my mind, this view of things omits how good large swathes of GHS actually were, a point underlined here by versions of Dancing With Mr D, Star Star (or, if you prefer, Starfucker), Angie and Doo Doo Doo Dooo (Heartbreaker). The only shame is the non-appearance of Winter, one of my favourite Stones songs – though Taylor inserts hints of it into a gorgeous 11-minute reading of You Can’t Always Get What You Want, so all is well.

So, some concluding thoughts. Leaving aside a disappointing go at Gimme Shelter (which has never worked live, even then), Brussels Affair is better even than 1970’s Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out – and, unlike that record, apparently unsullied by post-production cheating. It shreds such other Stones in-concert albums as Love You Live, the woeful Still Life, and the even more miserable Flashpoint. Only one mystery hangs over the whole thing: why did they take the best part of 40 years to release it?

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