Rolling Stones at the ElMocambo, 1977

Here, an unexpurgated version of my Stones’ story in today’s National Post

This summer, the Rolling Stones will play selected dates in the USA, but long before they were a touring collosus grinding from stadium to stadium, they were nimble enough to surprise. In 1977 in Toronto they recorded a live album at the ElMocambo. They could have bolted the doors, drawn the curtians, and mixed in the wild cries later. They could have played it, faked it, then left before anyone knew. But instead, they kept the event secret until right before it happened: the biggest rock and roll band on the planet playing a small club and recording a live album; shows unnannounced, yet filled with fans who deserved to be there. Mick Jagger and his manager, Peter Rudge, did some scouting, looking at this club here, that club there. Then, one afternoon in fall, 1976, they settled at a table in the Windsor Arms. Duff Roman happened to be there, too.

“I saw Mick and Peter Rudge walk in,” remembers Roman, former manager of David Clayton Thomas visionary behind CHUM FM, Canada’s first AOR (album-oriented rock) station (Roman also has the distinction of producing the first ever sessions by Levon and the Hawks, who soon became The Band). “I tried to play it cool, and wrote a message on my CHUM FM business card that said, ‘I’m here if you need anything.’ I called the waiter over and had him take it to Mick and Peter’s table. Rudge looked at it first and then Mick wanted to see. After awhile, they looked over and I nodded, smiled and pointed. Then they left. It was months before I heard from them again.”

Rudge called CHUM FM and told Roman what he was thinking: a secret, two night engagement at the ElMocambo filled with diehard fans who would have to be directed there via ruse so that the club not become over-run by thousands. “He asked me, ‘Do you think you can pull it off?’ remembers Roman. “I told him that we could and then started thinking about how we could actually do it without anyone knowing.” The Stones hadn’t performed in six months– the notorious, ragged, bloated spectacle of their ’75 tour (as well as some shows in ’76) had been finally been ashed– and the pop music world debated the band’s next move. Altamont, “Cocksucker Blues,” and riots in Vancouver had rolled under them, and Keith Richards, the band’s main guitarist, had been dogged by rumours of ODs and near-fatal drug abuse.

Dave Bluestein (“Blue”) was the ElMo’s booker. He staged a plan to book April Wine for March 4th and 5th, 1977 as a smokescreen. “We had natural cover,” he says, “because if anything got out, we could say, ‘No, look, April Wine is playing. That’s the gig. It says so right here,’ he remembers, pointing to an imaginary calendar. “Another band was added to the April Wine shows called ‘The Cockroaches,’ which was The Stones’ alias. On the day of the first show, the band rehearsed upstairs and soundchecked for the live recording; setting up the mics, testing the tape unit, all of that.” People who passed by on Spadina thought they were hearing a Stones cover band rehearsing their repertoire. It was  preposterous to think it would be the actual band, in Toronto, playing in the middle of the day.

“The plan that we constructed,” says Roman, “was to have a contest: ‘What would you do to see the Rolling Stones play live?’ This way we could select the 300 top entries and guarantee that real fans would be there for the event. The prize would be a chance to see April Wine at the ElMocambo. People wrote in and we cherry-picked the best ones. As you might expect, there were lots of nude Polaroids. When the band came in to judge the winners, they slipped the photos into their pockets and took them home.”

After the winners were selected, CHUM FM hired a dozen TTC buses and instructed fans to meet at the radio station on Yonge Street, where they’d be shipped to the show. “I got on the mic on one of the buses and said ‘I have some bad news. There’s a change to the show tonight.’ People were disappointed and started to boo. I continued: ‘Along with April Wine, you’ll also be seeing a band called the Rolling… yes, the Rolling… the Rolling Stones!’ For a moment, people sat in utter bewilderment. Then there was a lot of cheering and shouting when they realized where they’d be going.”

The Stones had been in town for most of the week staying at the Harbour Castle Hilton, a residency not without its own drama or complications. In his superb new e-book, “Before They Make Me Run,” music writer Jason Schneider tells how Keith Richards was busted for 26 grams of heroin in his hotel room. Schneider says: “In his statement, Keith disclosed he had been a heavy heroin user for four years and that he purchased the large quantity to maintain his habit for the five to six weeks he expected to be in Toronto. He also stated he’d tried to kick his habit several times, but could never complete treatment programs due to the Stones’ touring commitments. He concluded by claiming (girlfriend Anita) Pallenberg had no knowledge of his heroin stash, saying: ‘This is supposed to be daddy’s little secret.’

Duff Roman remembers how “at about 7:30 pm, all of the buses rolled down Avenue street, came across College and, somehow, navigated behind the ElMo, in the alleyway, so no one would notice, and we could just spirit the fans in through the back door without creating a commotion or scene of any kind” (the hulking Fedco mobile recording truck– operated by producer Eddie Kramer– was also parked there and that it was unreported is another organizational dint of luck). “It was remarkable that it was all kept underwraps. No one knew about the show until after it ended, and fans started calling their friends.”

Blue had been told to keep the whole first floor of the club as the band’s dressing room. “When people say ‘Margaret Trudeau was in the dressing room’– which she was– you get the wrong impression, because there were a hundred other people there, too. It was a zoo,” he says. Perhaps Blue understates the impact Trudeau’s appearance had on international tabloids: the estranged Canadian prime minister’s wife partying with the most notorious– for their time– rock bands. When Pierre Trudeau was told about Maggie’s adventures, and how she’d emerged from the limo prior to the show alongside Mick Jagger, the PM sighed, “I hope that she doesn’t (also) start to see the Beatles.”

Roman and Blue remember that the shows were great, the band tight, and the crowded excited, if respectful in the most Canadian way possible. But the legacy of the evening, and the next night, was how the city’s taste makers, radio promo types, deejays, groupies, drug dealers, writers and fans who went to the show resisted telling others until the event had played itself out, a nearly unfathomable notion against our modern social media times, where first-mention and being on the inside is everything. “There’s no way we could have pulled this off now,” says Roman. “But back then, there was almost a shared sense of being together, witnessing what people were witnessing– a concert by a stadium band to 300 people in a club– without having to share it, or tell others. History was happening, but that it was happening was enough. It didn’t have to be all immediately announced. It could just be lived and experienced, and, look, it’s an unbelievable thing that happened. In our city. In our time.”

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One thought on “Rolling Stones at the ElMocambo, 1977

  1. thanks! such a fine tale, from another time. i recall the event, was a teenager in montreal. so true the days are gone now when you could pull something like this off. i miss the days before everybody knew everything all the time as soon as it happened. there’s precious little mystery left to daily life.
    it would be neat to hear myles goodwin of april wine’s recollections of the story from their perspective. of course they released their own live album of that show.

    Like

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