The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club: 'New Barbarians'

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New Barbarians: Outlaws, Gunslingers, and Guitars
New Barbarians: Outlaws, Gunslingers, and Guitars (Jay Gabler/MPR)

One of the most iconic images of Keith Richards has the guitarist, posing during the Rolling Stones' 1975 tour, wearing a t-shirt that says WHO THE F--- IS MICK JAGGER? It's funny in an ironic way, but it was less ironic when keyboardist Ian McLagan made a shirt for himself reading WHO THE F--- ARE THE NEW BARBARIANS?

McLagan, best-known as a member of the Faces, was a member of the New Barbarians — and so were Richards and Ron Wood. Longtime Stones sideman Bobby Keys played sax in the band, with Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste (the Meters) on drums and jazz-fusion vet Stanley Clarke joining in on bass.

That's who the f--- the New Barbarians were, but you might never have heard of them if you weren't around and attuned to rock gossip in the late '70s. They never recorded an album, and they only toured once. All the members were known for being not-the-most-famous members of extremely famous bands.

Legend has it that the New Barbarians came together as part of Richards's penance for a drug bust, and there's some truth to that — but it's also true that the band came together when Ron Wood's solo album Gimme Some Neck became a semi-surprise hit, and the Stones were off for the summer — so, as Minneapolis writer Rob Chapman puts it in his new history of the New Barbarians, "why not hit the road?"

About that drug bust. Richards's biggest disappointment, he later said, when Canadian Mounties raided his hotel room was that they weren't dressed properly. "They were all in anoraks with droopy mustaches and bald heads," the guitarist complained. "I'd have woken up a lot quicker if I'd seen the red tunic and Smokey Bear hat."

As it was, on that day in Toronto in 1977, the Mounties found a princely $4,000 worth of "high-quality heroin," plus some cocaine. Richards was facing seven years to life in prison, and many fans assumed the Stones were essentially through. In the end, though, a passionate young fan "melted the judge's heart with her love for the Stones," Wood wrote in his autobiography. She was blind, which inspired the judge to impose a unique sentence: if the Stones played a pair of benefit concerts for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind within six months, Richards would walk free on probation.

Opening for the Stones at the April 1979 concerts in Oshawa were the New Barbarians, a group named by their almost-member Neil Young, who joked, "You guys are nothing but a bunch of barbarians!" Right after the Stones shows, the Barbarians jetted across the border to the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wisc. — the goal being to spend as little time in Canada as possible — and launched a tour that could have been straight out of Almost Famous.

"It was a complete, 100% rock 'n' roll tour," remembered Clarke, "the kind of thing you'd read about in the magazines — just what you think a rock 'n' roll tour should be. Everything was there, all the bells and whistles, all the perks, all the extras, all the ups and downs." The blood-red stage set even included a room where band members could retreat for mid-set refreshments — of various kinds.

Live recordings — some of which are included on a CD that comes with Chapman's book — capture a rough and ready live unit, but as '70s rock bands go, the New Barbarians weren't sloppy. At their best, they combined the swagger of the Stones with the rhythmic drive of the Meters, and because the frontmen were all sidemen, writes Chapman, "helium-bloated egos bumping into each other backstage were happily absent, and a stately, low-key consideration prevailed."

Still, the crowds were impatient to see stars, and a lot of the fans who came out to see the New Barbarians were not-so-secretly hoping for a surprise cameo by Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart. Richards fired the New Barbarians' manager Jason Cooper after Cooper hinted to a Milwaukee promoter that there would be a "surprise guest" at the band's show. The rumor got around, and when no stars showed, attendees rioted, smashing windows and breaking chairs. The New Barbarians, whose debut was a benefit gig, had to do yet another: a return to Milwaukee to pay for the damages.

After a gig at the Knebworth festival — they went on over 90 minutes late, because Wood waited for the band to be paid in cash before they'd play — the New Barbarians were through. Their legend lives on, though, and Chapman's book is a great read full of unforgettable stories about rock and roll life at the tail end of the Me Decade.

The Current's New Barbarians Giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's New Barbarians giveaway between 8 a.m. CT on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) hardcover copy of New Barbarians by Rob Chapman. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $27

We will contact the winners on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. CT on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017.

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