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You should have heard 'em, just around midnight. - Brown Sugar, the Rolling Stones

'Tomorrow we rehearse. For sure." The concert the night before in Kansas City, Mo., was not up to par, and Keith Richards wasn't happy about it.

In the summer of 1972, the Rolling Stones were the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world, on the world's greatest rock 'n' roll tour - 48 dates, beginning in Vancouver and ending at New York's Madison Square Garden on July 26, Mick Jagger's 29th birthday.

By today's standards, the tour was commercially modest, grossing $3-million (U.S.). In comparison, the Stones reportedly earned $5.4-million for a single private show last week alone in Barcelona. Still, the tour of arenas at the time was a trendsetting undertaking and no small deal.

The concerts immediately after the poor performance in Kansas City - two shows on Saturday in Dallas, and two more in Houston the day after - were filmed.

The resulting 35-millimetre documentary, Rollin Binzer's Ladies and Gentleman: The Rolling Stones, receives a screening tonight at Toronto's Bloor Cinema (on Jagger's 64thbirthday). Captured is a band not only at the top of their own game, but at the top of everybody's game. Richards' grim insistence on rehearsal paid off.

"They were always their own harshest critic," remembers Robert Greenfield, who covered the tour for Rolling Stone magazine and later wrote the book S.T.P.: A Journey Through America with the Rolling Stones. "But it was Keith, as out of control as he may have seemed to be, who would often be the one most pissed off. He was always the one who incited the band on stage, running over to Charlie to get him to pick up the beat."

Greenfield has specific memories of Texas - drinking dark beer with drummer Charlie Watts and photographer Annie Leibovitz at a collegiate pub in Dallas, for example - but no recollections of the mid-tour shows themselves. "They were in their groove at that point," says Greenfield. "They knew how to do this. They had their shakeout gigs early. In terms of performance on that tour, they were pretty consistent."

Greenfield was not the tour's only scribe - far from it. Celebrated author Truman Capote was also on board for Rolling Stone magazine (although he never actually filed a piece). Terry Southern covered the band for Saturday Review; heavyweight mainstream periodicals Life, Time and Esquire were represented as well.

The most notorious coverage came from filmmaker Robert Frank, whose resulting cinéma vérité documentary, sporting a highly lewd title, has never been released. That film depicts the band and entourage in assorted illicit conduct - some of it arranged for the camera - along with concert footage.

Ladies and Gentlemen, on the other hand, is straight live performance, beginning with the film's titular introduction, continuing through 15 songs, which, one imagines, culled the best moments of the four weekend concerts. "Why aren't you in church, anyway?" Jagger mildly scolds Houston's Sunday audience.

The band's core trio is seen first: Watts, the truck driver's son who fantasized about being a jazz drummer; Richards, the blond-streaked guitarist who always took candy from strangers; and Jagger, a shameless copier of Tina Turner. The tour followed the release of the Stones' - and, arguably, rock's - greatest album, the double-LP Exile on Main St., with the songs performed on the film representing the standard set list of the day.

Material is rugged and sleazy ( Brown Sugar, Bitch) and threatening ( Gimme Shelter and the belt-whipping Midnight Rambler). There is cosmic country ( Dead Flowers), country blues ( Love in Vain) and straight Chuck Berry rock ( Bye Bye Johnny). With the fluid lead-playing of guitarist Mick Taylor figuring prominently, the Stones lineup in 1972 was likely its best, to that point or since.

Preceding the tour, Greenfield had spent three weeks at Villa Nellcôte, the 19th-century mansion in southern France where the tax-evading Stones recorded Exile. A year ago, his book Exile on Main St. : A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones was published. Today, Greenfield remembers the darkness. "I can hear the drugs in the music, even now. It's an album made under the influence of heroin, and Mick's under the influence of cocaine."

Though there was no shortage of drug use on the road, the concerts were a "step up" from the recording of the album, according to Greenfield. "They got their stuff together to tour. They cleaned up their act."

If the band had tidied, the audiences decidedly had not. For their previous North American jaunt in 1969, the Stones played to audiences that were stoned on marijuana, some on acid. In 1972, it was cocaine and Quaaludes and harder drinks.

"It was a really strange time in America," Greenfield explains. "Maybe it's always a strange time in America. But when the Stones had toured previously, it was full-on counterculture, to hippies. Who else would see them?

"But now it was starting to change. They were becoming more of an interest to mainstream audiences. The glam stuff was beginning to happen, and the seventies were really starting to pump up. The [sixties]revolution was over, and the sexual and drug stuff was just starting to boil over."

In the early 1970s, audiences were changing, and so was the business of playing to them. The 1972 tour was the highest-grossing tour ever at that point; arena rock, which led to stadium shows, was born.

"It was the turning point in the history of rock 'n' roll," Greenfield says, "and the Stones were doing the turning."

Now, as then, the Rolling Stones are in front. The band's current Bigger Bang spectacle is the highest-grossing tour in history, more than $400-million and counting. That's a ton of cash, probably well earned. But to see a band in their heyday prime, ladies and gentlemen, we give you Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones.

Welcome to Canada

As documented in Robert Greenfield's book S.T.P.: A Journey Through America with the Rolling Stones, the band's legendary 1972 tour of Canada and the United States begins dreadfully, in Vancouver on June 3.

Because improper flight documentation prevents the tour jet from landing in Canada, the plane is routed to rural, northern Washington State, where the Stones and crew take a fleet of black limousines to the border.

There, a "hapless Customs man in a log cabin with a Canadian flag on top" struggles with manifests and a motley bunch not normally encountered at his bucolic outpost.

Later at the Pacific Coliseum ("a sweaty hockey arena"), ticket-less fans riot with police before the show. The concert itself is fraught with technical issues, and afterward the band stays up until 4 in the morning adjusting the set list for the dates that would follow.

One of those dates, Montreal on July 17, sees more mayhem: A bundle of dynamite blows up one of the equipment trucks outside the Forum. As well, forged tickets incite another riot of fans. A pair of shows at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens, two days earlier, are tame by comparison.


Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones is screened tonight (9:30), at Toronto's Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor St. W. (416-516-2331).