The Rolling Stones rock Clapham: what happened when the world's biggest band turned up on my doorstep
9 MAY 2018 • 5:40PM
Not much ever happens in Clapham Old Town. Apart from the influx of weekend drinkers, our corner of south-west London is pleasantly dull. We’ve got the Common, the bus stand and the community-run Omnibus Theatre. I like the village-like boringness. There’s even a small tucked-away pub that many of us locals drink in.
The area’s closest brush with rock’n’roll came in 1979 when Squeeze namechecked it in Up The Junction. That, and the rumour 10 years ago that Iggy Pop was planning a gig in a pub called the Prince of Wales. As ever in Clapham, Pop never arrived.
But like a power chord in a library, this tranquillity was shattered last week when The Rolling Stones secretly requisitioned our little theatre for a week of tour rehearsals. It’s not often that the biggest band in the world rocks up to the street next to yours. It’s less often that such news fails to leak out. On a 14-date stadium tour that kicks off next week, the Stones will play to close to a million people across Europe, from Edinburgh to Warsaw.
But for five bizarre evenings, myself, two super-fans and a handful of other residents were able to listen outside this small converted-library-cum-theatre – the audience numbered 19 at the last play I attended – as Mick, Keith and co ran through tracks from Jumping Jack Flash to Angie, a pane of glass between us. The significance of what we were hearing was not lost on the men outside the Clapham Omnibus.
Something was clearly up on the night of Sunday April 29. I noticed two lorries of musicians’ flight cases being unloaded outside the theatre, which sits opposite Holy Trinity church at the Common’s edge. It was odd: I’d coincidentally visited Omnibus days before and read that it was shutting for refurbishment from Monday 30th for a week. So why was gear being humped in?
Interest piqued, I wandered past the next afternoon. A couple of thickset ex-army types were hanging around outside. Then, as if from nowhere, a blacked out chauffer-driven Mercedes purred up the street. It drove through a set of private gates at the theatre’s rear, dropped someone or something off, then reversed out. A second car appeared minutes later and did the same. Then another.
Nothing happened, so I wandered off. Half an hour later I returned to the street to pick up my own car. I heard music coming from inside the theatre. It was a band. They were playing Wild Horses. And the singer was doing a very good impression of Mick Jagger.
Two blokes were standing over the road, listening. They didn’t look part of the set-up but were loitering with purpose, slightly guarded, as if they knew something. I approached. One of their phones went off. The ringtone was Miss You, the Stones’ disco hit from 1978. I frowned. Call me Sherlock. My jaw dropped.
“It’s not…actually…is it?”
A strange omertà governs super-fans. They said nothing. But it was enough. I listened more. There was a Jagger-esque “yay-eh”. A Keef-like guitar lick. It was the Stones, stripped of backing singers and horns. The core band. Seconds from my front door. Bands often hire entire venues in which to rehearse in the run-up to a tour. My best guess was that Omnibus was conveniently-located, available and so unobtrusive that nobody would expect anything.
My moment of rock’n’roll revelation was followed by one of pure comedy. My car battery was flat. Luckily, as no one else was around, the chauffeurs who’d arrived an hour or so before offered to help. Dressed in three-piece suits, the men who were clearly Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie’s drivers pushed my crappy Golf down the road in an attempt to, ahem, start me up. The super-fans joined in. But even in this moment of automotive brotherhood, as I pumped both the pedal with my foot and the chauffeurs for information, they revealed nothing.
On Monday afternoon, the band posted an Instagram picture of their nameless rehearsal space, all speaker stacks and microphones. I recognised it instantly: the theatre’s floor was still painted with a zig-zag pattern from the play I’d seen there.
I called Bernard Doherty, the Stones’ PR man. “Band rehearses for tour” was hardly a huge story. But this was the Stones. I told Bernard that I lived in Clapham, where we have a lovely community theatre called Omnibus. Silence. And it’s funny, I went on, a very good band is playing inside. A very good band indeed. More silence, followed by the incredulous guffaw of someone whose secret has been rumbled. “Noooo! Why do you live in Clapham? No one lives in Clapham!” he said with a laugh. Sorry mate, I do.
We chatted for a while. Fingers itching, I nevertheless agreed not to say anything in the press or on social media for the week. They’d have a security “nightmare” if I did, with hundreds of people turning up. So I spent the week popping down in my coffee breaks and after work, listening.
I made friends with the super-fans, who turned out to be delightful. They asked not to be named here, but one travelled from Europe specifically to stand outside the theatre. He does this every time the Stones rehearse (he’s got good intel), and admitted that he could have bought a nice house with the money he’s spent on concert tickets over the decades. The other man, a Brit, is something of a big shot in the business world, who’s seen more than 75 Stones concerts since 1976.
Both men are married. Three weeks before a tour starts, The European’s (wonderfully tolerant) wife tells him to “just go”. On the second day we listened to Angie, Street Fighting Man and Shine a Light. The pair of Stonesmasons had finely-tuned ears and encyclopaedic knowledge. They saw songs in loose jams. Big Shot blagged a guitar pick from a bouncer.
Dog walkers and buses drifted by, oblivious. So incongruous was the situation that those who recognised a riff would pause momentarily before carrying on with a shake of the head. In a genius piece of misdirection, the band’s camp told people who asked that the band inside was renowned covers band The Counterfeit Stones.
In a moment of cod psychology somewhere between Sympathy for the Devil and Under My Thumb on day three, I asked The European and Big Shot whether constant proximity to the Stones’ music somehow made them feel complete. They said they liked listening for setlist clues and, yes, the familiarity. A costly addiction? No question. But those chaps on the other side of the glass have indulged far more expensive and damaging peccadilloes. Ask Keith’s doctor.
By the week’s end, a handful of locals knew, but a sort of collective secrecy had descended. Someone who lives nearby tweeted about it, but the tweet mysteriously disappeared. A tabloid photographer turned up but couldn’t get a shot, his tip-off useless.
The band left in the evenings amid G7-style security. “Nice dogs,” Charlie remarked to my pooch-owning pub friend Jeremy, who happened to walk past the moment the drummer left. Curiously, Ronnie also appeared to comment on my mate Pedro’s black labrador when he briefly emerged. Keith appeared for a nanosecond. Too cool for canine chat, he was whisked away, a flash of green drainpipe jean and rakish headband all I really saw.
And that was it. Clapham feels boring again after its week of drama. Who knows, perhaps the Stones left some rock’n’roll stardust behind on these quiet streets. Maybe Iggy Pop will now return one day for that long-rumoured gig. At least I’ve now got time to get my car fixed up. The vehicle wasn’t doing so well – but it’s alright now. The jump lead jacks flashed. It’s the gas, gas, gas.