Buried in the long, storied, and debauched history of The Rolling Stones is a peculiar footnote: The New Barbarians. A side project, of sorts, of Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, the band formed in the spring of 1979 and essentially flamed out a few months later. And buried in The New Barbarians’ brief run is another peculiar footnote: a good old-fashioned riot at Milwaukee’s MECCA Arena.
First, some background. With the Stones deciding not to tour in 1979, Wood formed The New Barbarians to not only kill some time, but to promote his third solo album, Gimme Some Neck. He quickly formed a “pickup band” that would perform his solo songs and a host of blues and rock covers. That band was a doozy: bassist Stanley Clarke, keyboardist Ian McLagan, saxophonist Bobby Keys, drummer Joseph Zigaboo Modeliste, and, most notably, Keith Richards. (The band’s name, meanwhile, was suggested by Neil Young.)
It was Richards’ involvement that shaped much of the Barbarians’ brief existence. Two years earlier, the Rolling Stones guitarist had been busted for heroin in Toronto. His sentence called for addiction treatment and a benefit concert for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). So, where and how would The New Barbarians make their debut? In Canada, of course, playing two CNIB charity shows on April 22, 1979. Oh, and the headlining act for those shows? The Rolling Stones.
From there, free from the Stones and any further court-mandated obligations, Wood, Richards, and The New Barbarians played one show in Ann Arbor and two in Detroit. They landed in Milwaukee on April 29. Like those previous gigs, the Milwaukee date was plagued by rumors that certain “special guests” would be making appearances. Everyone from Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan to Rod Stewart and Jimmy Page was promised and/or hoped for. Wood initially welcomed—and even spread—the rumors, but by the time the Barbarians arrived in Milwaukee, he was having none of it. Then, the night of the MECCA show, a riot broke out.
Turned out, though, in an effort to ensure venues were sold out, Wood’s manager and the promoters had spread rumors via the press that the Barbarians would be joined by “special guests.” Everyone from Mick Jaggar to Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Jimmy Page, Peter Frampton, and others were promised. When the big names didn’t show, crowds responded with catcalls and, eventually, riots.
Such frenzy reached a peak in Milwaukee in April of ’79, when angered fans charged the stage at the end of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Forced back by police, the scuffle turned into a melée (as described by Billboard) as fans smashed chairs and broke windows. The police arrested 81 people.
A similar incident occurred on May 7 at New York’s Madison Square Garden, “where production manager Ken Graham remembers using his body to block the mixing board from flying furniture.”
Milwaukee wasn’t pleased with the riot, and the city brought suit against The New Barbarians for damages done to the MECCA. Thus, a “make-up” show was set up for January 1980, albeit one with a far different (and diminished) lineup. This time, Wood was joined by Andy Newmark, Reggie McBride, Johnnie Lee Schell, and, um, MacKenzie Phillips. Keith Richards was nowhere to be found.
And thus The New Barbarians came to an end. But the band’s unlikely Wisconsin ties don’t end there. Because of Richards’ 1977 heroin bust, Barbarians’ tour chief Richard Fernandez was initially wary of the guitarist stepping foot on Canadian soil for the band’s first two charity shows. His solution? Have the Barbarians set up shop in the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and use it as a headquarters for the tour’s Midwest dates. Instead of staying in Canada, Richards and company would fly in and fly out—or, as Fernandez said, “Get in and get out, spic and span.”
“There was a lot of X-rated stuff going on,” Stanley Clarke remembered in 2016. “It was a complete rock-and-roll tour—the kind you read about in magazines. Just what you think a rock tour should be. Everything was there—bells and whistles, perks, the extras…all the ups and downs.”