The night I saw the Rolling Stones jam until 7am

John Hind recalls the evening in 1976 when he watched a frosty Mick and Keith prepare for Knebworth into the wee small hours

"I've never heard of the Rolling Stones – I'm 62," insisted the guard on the front gate of Shepperton Studios. This was a dead giveaway, as, having heard a rumour they were rehearsing there, I'd asked if he knew when "the Stones" might arrive, not Rolling Stones. Having spent the day inside the complex, two friends and I, 15 years old, were now determined not to leave and to track down the band I've since considered the world's greatest (real) boyband.

It was August 1976 and the Stones were preparing for Knebworth festival, their largest audience – 200,000 – to date (and their first festival since the tragic Altamont). The summer had been a strenuous one for them. A jealous boyfriend had run at Mick Jagger with a gun in Paris; the Baader-Meinhof group had threatened to blow up the Olympiahalle as the Stones played in Munich; and the Queen's sister had been snapped backstage in London (thus inspiring the punk movement). Keith Richards's baby son, Tara, had died suddenly and he was on bail for drug possession after crashing on the M1 at 100mph. Music gossips were predicting Knebworth would be Richards's last show. Yet by the end of the night I can remember thinking they'd be around for decades to come.

My friends and I had spent the hot summer's day on the set of Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky and – in the canteen – the actor Harry H Corbett had told us that, at 6am that morning, there'd been an outrageous shouting and swearing match outside the front gate, when Richards had turned up for a night's rehearsal precisely as his fellow band members were leaving.

Because film unions demanded a day's extra pay for any overtime, much of the Shepperton complex – except the bar – emptied at teatime, allowing us to explore backlots and film sets, which became increasingly dream-like as dusk approached. Eventually, in the building known as Stage A, we discovered a mocked-up stage and mixing desk, and an engineer (likely Keith Harwood, who would die months later) beckoned us in to see the Stones' dozens of neatly displayed instruments. The surprisingly tiny Bill Wyman arrived around 9pm, and his subsequent two-hour wait for his band-mates was excruciating to watch. The whole night, in retrospect, had flavours of a music therapy session for the autistic.

When Jagger arrived driving a Mercedes with Charlie Watts as his passenger, Wyman suggested visiting the bar with Watts, but it was minutes from closing time and they were barred, sparking another epic swearing match. Back at Stage A, where the giant hangar doors were opened to accommodate the balmy night, Ian Stewart, now present, was running the show – instructing, cajoling and teasing the technicians and musicians to work. Co-founder of the Stones, Stewart had been elbowed from the limelight, 14 years earlier, because of his large chin. "My shower of shit," he called them.

The band tuned-up to their fortune-turning Hand of Fate and their death-defying Dead Flowers, Jagger stressing "I won't forget to put roses on your grave". Richards, having surprisingly arrived before midnight, stood rooted to the same spot, swaying slightly, for the rest of the night. Gaunt and pasty and sporting a scarf three times his own length, he struck out rhythm chords that consistently sounded a split-second too late, yet all the better for it, especially when prefigured by the endlessly accommodating Wyman.

Ronnie Wood (already that year named the official fifth Stone, despite still working for the band on a salary) exchanged banter with technicians, but the only musicians who seemed pally were Jagger and pianist Billy Preston, who spent cosy hours pressed together at the ivories. I subsequently discovered that Richards and Preston had recently had a fist-fight. Indeed, Richards glanced over at Jagger and Preston not once for the next six hours. In fact, he looked at no one. 10cc were also to be on the bill at Knebworth and when two of them turned up to cheerily say hello they were ignored by everyone.

Despite old flared jeans and no makeup, the Stones seemed very camp, hairy, comical, special and determinedly professional, despite the shambolic veneer, and the music they shared as the night progressed felt extraordinary. A highlight was a 50-minute version of Under My Thumb that shifted between rock, pop, jazz and assorted other experimentations before finally settling on a remorseless deep reggae groove with dubby effects and congas. Jagger had mainly rested his voice until this point and had performed only one aerial splits (before returning to the piano almost apologetically), but for Under My Thumb he went full-tilt. It was all "Lil' siiiiister" and "Ooo, ssssssshuggg-ah".

Over the subsequent decades, I've been a bona fide Stones geek, collecting hundreds of bootlegs and out-takes, and once turning down £1,000 for my £10 ticket outside a secret gig. Almost every tune the Stones have recorded seems to me to be an exploration of the synaptic thread between activity and inactivity (or doom and dance), but I much appreciate having had the concept blasted into my ear until 7am on that relentless night 36 years ago.

The Rolling Stones play the O2, London, tonight and Thursday, then gigs in Brooklyn, NY, and Newark, NJ


John Hind

The GuardianTramp

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