On the just-released album Live at the El Mocambo, the Rolling Stones convincingly roar through a setlist that includes It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (but I Like It). Singer Mick Jagger had it wrong, though – It was never only rock and roll.
On March 4 and 5, 1977, the Rolling Stones played Toronto’s tight, grungy El Mocambo club. The shows were sneaky and secret – the room was booked for April Wine, who were a great rock ‘n’ roll band but not the World’s Greatest. The whole thing was scandalous. Stones guitarist Keith Richards and his exotic model girlfriend Anita Pallenberg had been busted for drugs. And while Margaret Trudeau was on the band’s guest list, her husband, the prime minister, was not her plus-one.
On its own, the event is historic, particularly for Stones fans. This was a heavyweight band in a 300-capacity room playing not only its current repertoire but old R&B chestnuts such as Route 66. Beyond the momentary tabloid-fed excitement of the Stones’ visit, however, there were superb long-term implications for Toronto and the Canadian music industry. In the 1970s, the international music hubs were in London, New York and Los Angeles. Our domestic recording business was still finding its legs. But when the world found out the jet-setting Jagger was now getting his kicks in Toronto, the game changed.
“If the Stones were finding something useful about Toronto, by god that says something,” said Duff Roman, who helped organize the concerts. “The perception was that Toronto was no longer a sleepy backwater, it was now a destination on the world touring map.”
In 1977, Roman was the program director of Toronto’s CHUM-FM, at that time the country’s pre-eminent album-rock station. The station ran a contest that promised tickets for an April Wine concert. Instead, the winners unexpectedly got to see April Wine opening for the Stones.
Roman was one of the panelists who appeared earlier this month at the El Mocambo for an event promoting the release of Live at the El Mocambo, a 23-track album of material culled from their two surprise shows of 45 years ago. (The El Mo recordings of Little Red Rooster, Crackin’ Up, Mannish Boy and Around and Around previously appeared on the Stones’ double album Love You Live.)
The El Mocambo has undergone a major renovation over the past few years, but the second-floor stage now occupies the same space it did in 1977. Among those assembled on it last weekend with Roman were Rob Bowman (a Grammy-winning musicologist who weaselled his way into the Stones’ first-night El Mo show) and David Bluestein, the booker for the club back then.
They and others told stories about the concerts – most of tales we’ve heard, but some we have not. Among the latter is the destruction of the myth that the Stones played the covert shows under a fake name, the Cockroaches.
“It was never a secret pseudonym,” Bowman told a small crowd of Stones junkies on hand and anyone watching the panel discussion livestreamed online. “Nobody thought they were going to see the Cockroaches as an opening band for April Wine.”
The Cockroaches was simply the name used internally as a cover. It appeared on backstage passes. “We couldn’t have the printers print something that said ‘Rolling Stones,’ because then the printers would know,” Bluestein said.
Indeed, the new album begins with an announcement that fails to mention Cockroaches. “Please welcome to the El Mocambo, to Toronto and to Canada, the Rolling Stones!” Then Honky Tonk Women kicks in: Jagger sings about a woman who blew his mind, while everyone in the room seems to be losing their own.
By all accounts, the second night concert, on a Saturday, was the superior performance – most of the tracks on Live at the El Mocambo were taken from that show. “The Stones had to bring their A-game on the Saturday,” Roman told The Globe and Mail before the panel discussion. “The secret was out and crowd was juiced up. They couldn’t believe their good fortune.”
Another El Mo myth is that the prime minister’s wife partied with the Stones in their dressing room. In reality the “dressing room” was the whole first floor of the venue. It was full of all kinds of people; the scene was anything but debauched.
“Every time Margaret Trudeau walked by, Mick would roll his eyes,” Roman says. “Because 20 feet behind her were two large guys in tweed jackets who seemed to have a lot of authority.”
The men were the security detail attached to the first lady of Canada. Whatever buzz the room might have had was harshed by the goons. “There was no real partying going on,” Roman says.
It wasn’t just the heavies who were cooling the temperature. After police found heroin and other drugs in Richards’s room days earlier at the Harbour Castle Hilton, the guitarist was charged with intent to traffic and had his passport confiscated.
Eventually a sweet deal resulted in probation and a conditional discharge for the guitarist. The Toronto-loving Stones would later associate themselves with Canadian concert promoter Michael Cohl, rehearse in Toronto before major tours, play numerous secret club shows in the city and, in 2003, headline the massive Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto concert put together to help revive the city’s economy after a SARS outbreak.
That concert drew the world’s attention to Toronto, much like the El Mo caper in 1977 had done. “By the Rolling Stones establishing the city as a home away from home, it made Toronto cool and established us as a music capital,” Roman says. “So many things could have gone wrong with El Mocambo concerts, but they didn’t. And that why it’s so special.”