The Rolling Stones at Hyde Park 1969: Looking back on the band's legendary free gig

·4-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Beneath the inescapable weight of it all — sweltering sunshine, frenzied hype and the melancholy-laced joy of performing in front of more than 250,000 people just days after the death of the band’s founding guitarist — things were never going to go as planned.

Even though it ended up with passed-out audience members, swastika-clad Hells Angels and suffocated butterflies, the intention had been fairly straightforward. The Rolling Stones were to play a free concert in Hyde Park — just as Pink Floyd had done a year earlier — to officially introduce their new guitarist, Mick Taylor. A former member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, he was to replace the faltering Brian Jones.

It was Jones’s newspaper ad in 1962 that had initially brought the group together and, later, his work alongside Keith Richards that had pioneered the Stones’ trademark sound. As the decade progressed, however, he was pushed further towards the margins — his temperament was erratic at best and his addictions were driving him to ruin.

Eventually, Jones got the boot and Taylor was in. On June 13, 1969, a small press conference was held on a Hyde Park bandstand to announce the latter’s arrival, before the altered line-up started rehearsing in the Beatles’ basement studio on Savile Row. To stage such a huge gig just weeks after appointing a new member, and more than two years since the Stones had played a public concert, seemed unwise — if not crazy — but the plan proceeded.

The Rolling Stones - In pictures

Then, on July 3, two days before the concert, tragedy struck. Jones was found at the bottom of his swimming pool, with a coroner later reporting “death by misadventure”. What was meant to be celebratory, a show marking a new chapter for the band, suddenly became funereal.

On the night before the concert, fans gathered in the park with candles to pay their respects to Jones, and around 7,000 of them decided to stay the night. The next day, before the concert started, Jagger took to the stage, asked for silence, and read two stanzas from Shelley’s elegy Adonais, originally written for John Keats. Hundreds of white butterflies were then released into the summer air — it was meant to be thousands, but scores of them perished in the airless boxes they were being kept.

By then, close to half a million revellers had settled in the park. They were a glistening portrait of counterculture — colourfully dressed hippies sunbathed and frolicked in the nearby ponds, while the self-styled biker gangs, who had been brought in to police the stage and equipment, surveyed the gathered masses. It was intensely hot and, with little shade to take refuge in, many ailing attendees had to be carried out above the crowd.

Behind the scenes, things were fraught. Jagger was nervous about how many people would turn up, and how they’d take to this new guitarist. It wasn’t helped by his rampant hayfever. The atmosphere was tense, too — some of the other bands backstage were affronted by the Stones’ frostiness, arriving as they did in a limo before cordoning off their own VIP area.

Still, a number of artists took to the stage and put on a fine show. Third Ear Band, Screw, Alexis Kroner’s New Church, Family, Roy Harper and The Battered Ornaments all appeared, with King Crimson delivering a set that threatened to steal the show. Relatively unknown and without a debut album to their name, they were booked on the strength of their recent London gigs and tore through a number of soon-to-be classics — not least a searing rendition of 21st Century Schizoid Man.

Finally, after all the build-up, the Stones emerged. Truth be told, they didn’t entirely live up to the billing. Guitars were out of tune, possibly down to the excessive heat, and the band played sloppily, no doubt due to ring rust. Perhaps it was simply the gravity of the occasion that hung heavy.

Whatever the problems, they still managed to forge some landmark moments. They opened with I’m Yours and I’m Hers, a cover of the Johnny Winter song that had been a favourite of Jones’s. It was the only time they ever played it live. Elsewhere in the 14-song set, they aired brand new compositions, including Jumpin’ Jack Flash. And to end it all, there was a 18-minute rendition of Sympathy for the Devil, invigorated by some fierce percussion by Ginger Johnson’s African drummers.

Looking back, however, the music was largely underwhelming. By the time they reappeared for their European tour in 1970, they were a much sharper outfit, recovered from the shock of Jones’s death and with Taylor as a fully embedded member. That said, it’s this Hyde Park gig, with all its tragedies and tumults, that remains lodged in the memory.