Ruby Tuesday - the Rolling Stones
I've never wanted to see a tribute band. It's always seemed to me that you either saw a band the first time around or you didn't see them at all, the latter adding to their mystique. So it was with some reluctance that I booked the Counterfeit Stones for the Islington November 5th Bonfire Display in 1996, it having been suggested that they would be ideal for the occasion.
After nine years of holding the display at Highbury Fields, the event had become so successful that the police were anticipating an audience of upwards of 60,000 and had decreed that it was no longer safe to hold it there, due to the enclosed nature of the space and the risk of a dangerous bottleneck of human traffic as the crowd left at the end of the display. We had already introduced several measures to tempt the crowd to linger and leave gradually, such as having a fair there at the same time, and putting on a music act with broad family appeal directly after the fireworks. One year we had a Glenn Miller style big band, another Luddy Samms and Soul Tax. But, in the end, these just worked against us, as although they staggered the crowd's departure from the the park, they also added to the overall attraction of the event, so that more and more of the public chose us as opposed to rival displays in Camden and at Alexandra Palace. So we had to move it to Finsbury Park, which, although the borough of Islington bordered it on one side, the actual park was in the neighbouring borough of Haringey. As has often proven the case in life, the decision was not very well thought through: having formerly been in a relatively genteel area of London, the display was now in one of the most deprived wards with one of the highest incidence rates of crime in London. I was nominally in charge of the whole event, but in reality Trevor was. The police thought he had too much on his plate, what with the sound and lighting and fireworks, but once I had seen that he'd taken his usual place at the "Central Control Desk" I was happy to leave him to it. He'd planned the whole evening anyway and I was glad to concentrate on the show afterwards, which I had organised.
The Counterfeit Stones, besides annoying me before we'd even started by being a tribute band, had also irked me by having the kind of rider that would look excessive even with some of the bigger genuine bands I had programmed. One item that caused particular angst was the request for a complete 3 course Indian meal for 14 people at the end of the concert. To get it delivered to the park from a restaurant, through all of the crowds, road closures and other security, was a problem.I had the brainwave of asking the Anglo Asian Women's Association, who were based just off the Seven Sisters Road. We had worked with them on many of their events and so knew them well. The lady who answered my call - I'm afraid I can't remember her name - with barely a pause accepted the mission, and when I said that I'd send some stewards to get the food, she said not to worry, she'd see to it.
The fireworks were a great success. By then the displays were lasting a full 30 minutes and cost over £90k and showed it, so the crowd was enraptured. However, because the police had from the start been expecting trouble, they had turned out in large numbers - we had hardly any police present on Highbury Fields - and this in itself was acting as provocation to the local, mainly black, Finsbury Park residents. A fight had occurred in the fair area, and police reinforcements had been sent, and battle lines were being drawn up on both sides. The police were advising us to cancel the remainder of the evening when Trevor put his foot down and asked for all police officers to be completely withdrawn from the park and to just be standing by out of sight in case of an emergency. We'd rely on our stewards alone to keep order. The police acquiesced and backed off and Trevor told me to get the band on asap. Which we did.
This was just what was needed. The Counterfeit Stones were terrific and there wasn't a whisper of any further trouble. The whole bad situation was defused by good music. Everyone loved them and were singing along right from the start. I've always said that they sounded more like the actual Rolling Stones than the Rolling Stones ever did. They had a large lorry backed up to the rear of the stage behind the backdrop, and a team of three were tuning a succession of guitars which were then relayed to the band for each successive song, so that they sounded exactly the same as the original recording of each number; something the Stones never have done - why would they, they can play their own songs however they like. Plus, the Counterfeit Stones were funny, pastiching Mick, Keith and the rest in the song breaks. I remember once, lead singer Nick Dagger (sic) referring to the nearby high rise flats, drawling " We heard that the nearest residents were complaining there would be too much noise, so Keef bought the whole block and evicted the lot of them."
I went round the front to keep an eye open for the Indians with the food, and was suddenly hit by the universality of the music that they were playing.It was "Ruby Tuesday", not necessarily the most famous Stones hit, originally issued in 1966 as a double 'A' Side with the better known "Let's Spend the Night Together". The whole crowd, several thousand of them, were singing along, young and old, punks, skinheads, rastas, goths, Sikhs, grandfathers with their seven year old grandchildren on their shoulders, mothers with their babies in their backpacks, couples of all ages and races, arms linked, joining in the verse, and then - all together now - the wonderful chorus.
"Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday,
Who could hang a name on you?
When you change withe every new day
Still I'm gonna miss you"
And I suddenly felt the greatest legacy of the Beatles and the Stones, and the other great pop groups of the era. More than any political party, any education system, any Queen, or police force, or film or tv programme, their music has created the thing we know today to be Britishness: a common thread that is, at its best, optimistic, creative, open-minded, proud, tolerant and diverse in every sense of that much maligned word. It was one of the unexpected moments when I realised that being an arts officer was about as good as it gets.
Then, after several encores, the crowd began to disperse and I realised that the meal for the band hadn't arrived. They were late. I was fretting that I'd been a fool to trust a community group to come up with the goods when, through the dark ten-o-clock night, thick with November fog and the smoke of a Miroesque melle of whizzing illicit rockets, a posse of around a half dozen small, stocky Asian women, came running at a canter in a well-ordered line, like a caravan emerging from a desert sandstorm carrying stacked tiffins of four or five pans suspended from each hand.
The band said the food was the best they'd ever had, the Indian women had come up trumps, the riot was averted, the people of Islington and Haringey went home happy, feeling that they were part of something big and good. What could be better than that?
That was the last Islington Bonfire Night Firework Display. Cuts, the police and Trevor not being there to fight for it put paid to that. But it was worth every penny spent. For once, ordinary people from all walks of life came together and had a good time; and got something real back from the taxes they paid.
I haven't been to see a tribute band since. Why should I? I've seen the best, the original tribute band.