The Rolling Stones – and their incorrigible manager, publicist and hustler, Andrew Loog Oldham – were part of the Sixties scene in swinging Knightsbridge
Words: Rob Ryan
Musical Knightsbridge: The Rolling Stones
It is no surprise that rock stars, once they hit the big time, are drawn to Knightsbridge’s high-end department stores, luxury boutiques and famously discreet restaurants. The area sometimes even gets a reference in song, as it did in the Rolling Stones’ Play With Fire in 1965. The number is a not-so-veiled warning addressed to a wealthy girl who is enjoying a privileged life: ‘Well you’ve got your diamonds/And you’ve got your pretty clothes/And the chauffeur drives your car’. However, there are dark clouds in this blue-sky life, as her heiress mother seems to have lost her ‘tiaras’ in a divorce. As the lyric goes: ‘Now she gets her kicks in Stepney/Not in Knightsbridge any more’. Quite a fall from grace, although it is not clear how much the Stones knew about life in the poor East End at that point, but, as we shall see, they were certainly familiar with Knightsbridge.
The song itself was an important milestone in the group’s evolution. From 1963 onwards they were under the influence of their very own svengali, Andrew Loog Oldham. He was increasingly pushing Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to rely less on the blues and R&B covers they regularly recorded and to produce original material like their great rivals John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Although it is very much a London song, and was written in the capital, Play With Fire was recorded at RCA’s studio complex in Los Angeles in January 1965. In his memoir, Loog Oldham says: ‘In just one year, Mick and Keith’s songwriting had graduated from soppy ballads to commercial ballads to album material for the Stones, and finally, with the two songs we were about to record, [they] had cleared that last hurdle to a real, live single for the Rolling Stones.’
The two numbers were The Last Time, which would become the A-side, and Play With Fire. The former took a mammoth 11 hours to get right in the studio, which meant that Play With Fire had a rather unusual line-up for a Stones record. Loog Oldham again: ‘Brian [Jones], Bill [Wyman], and Charlie [Watts], exhausted from the onslaught to complete The Last Time, headed for the hotel… as the morning light rose on the Sunset Strip, Mick sat back on his stool and sang it, Keith’s acoustic gave him something to sing to, Jack Nitzsche played a worldly harpsichord, Phil Spector gave the lining by playing bass, and Play With Fire was cut. If you listened hard you could hear my heart beating: we were home!
Actually, if you pay close attention you can hear the tiredness in Mick Jagger’s voice, but it lends the song a suitably world-weary, louche feel. Although The Last Time is credited to Jagger/Richards, Play With Fire was written by someone called “Nanker Phelge” – a pseudonym used when every member of the band, including Loog Oldham, had a hand in the writing.
The band’s manager certainly knew the denizens of Knightsbridge. Pre-Stones, he worked for Mary Quant at her HQ in Ives Street, which involved a daily walk to and from Knightsbridge tube station. For £7 a week, as he later wrote, ‘I poured drinks for journalists, I walked the dogs of famous models – which taught me how to handle stars – and I learned how to throw parties.’ Quant’s famous gatherings involved the cream of London’s musicians, actors, artists, writers, fashionistas, royalty and high society, many of the latter with homes in Knightsbridge. Did Loog Oldham supply the crucial reference to the area in Play With Fire? Possibly, is all we can say at this juncture.
All-day and all-night studio sessions were not unusual for the Stones. The late Mara Berni, the legendary proprietor of the now closed San Lorenzo restaurant in Beauchamp Place, liked to tell the story of the band ringing her bell at 3am, demanding that she cook them dinner after a late-night recording session. But San Lorenzo was no stranger to rock’n’roll antics – Madonna, Eric Clapton, Marianne Faithfull, David Bowie, Rod Stewart and many others came not so much for the food as the welcoming embrace of Mara and the table-hopping celebrity scene.
When on tour and playing in London, the Rolling Stones liked to stay overnight in or near Knightsbridge, even though many of them had houses close by (using a hometown hotel is a well-known ploy to keep the “on the road” mentality intact). There is a famous picture of Keith Richards taken by photographer Denis O’Regan at The Carlton Tower hotel in 1982 – when the guitarist was in touring mode – which made the cover of Sounds. The group have also been known to frequent The Berkeley.
There is another Knightsbridge stalwart, though, where you can often find evidence of the Rolling Stones – the auctioneers Bonhams, on Montpelier Street. It has frequent pop/rock memorabilia sales and it is a rare one that doesn’t include a few lots associated with Jagger and co. In 2018, you could have picked up a kelim-like jacket, made in Iran, worn by Charlie Watts in the 1970s, for £1,625. Two years earlier, a silk jacket worn by Keith Richards on the TV show Sunday Night at the London Palladium in 1967 went for a cool £35,000. Someone was getting their kicks in Knightsbridge, not Stepney, that day.
Rob Ryan is a British journalist, author, screenwriter and jazz correspondent