AS the name of their new album suggests, the Rolling Stones are tooling through North America on ``Steel Wheels.'' With this tour - the Stones' first to the United States since 1981 - the legendary British rock group is proving its staying power and cementing its image as one of the greatest rock-and-roll bands of all time. Playing a sold-out concert at Sullivan Stadium near Boston, the quintet (formed in 1962) served up a rock extravaganza to a well-contained 55,000-strong crowd, ranging from teenagers to middle-agers. It was the first of three sold-out shows here.
The long-awaited tour has been the talk of rock fans across the continent. By the time the Stones finish their last show in Montreal Dec. 14, nearly 3 million people will have see them, many of whom went to great lengths to obtain tickets priced around $31.50 and scalped for as much as $600. In several cities, sellouts occurred in record time: New York, for example, sold out the tour's four shows at Shea Stadium in less than six hours. (Two more shows have since been added.)
At the Sullivan Stadium show, the mood was jubilant both on and off stage, as the Stones drove through the decades with a dandy set ranging from '60s hits (``Satisfaction,'' ``Little Red Rooster'') through music from ``Steel Wheels'' (``Sad, Sad, Sad,'' ``Mixed Emotions'').
Mick Jagger (lead vocals, guitar) strutted and skipped around the stage scowling and shouting lyrics into a cordless microphone. Keith Richards (guitar, vocals), often cracking a smile, slinked around in tag with Ron Wood (guitar). Bill Wyman (bass guitar) stood statuelike, anchoring the music with Charlie Watts (drums). Several back-up singers and other musicians helped add depth and color.
Two large video screens offered clear close-ups of stage happenings as well as film clips to complement some of the songs. The audience sang with the band on an emotional ``Ruby Tuesday'' and ``You Can't Always Get What You Want.''
A surprise came with ``Honkey Tonk Woman,'' when two 55-foot ``balloons'' in the shape of women suddenly inflated. At concert's end, the Stones brought the audience in for a spectacular landing on ``(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction,'' ``Brown Sugar,'' and ``Jumpin' Jack Flash''- complete with fireworks.
The tour comes on the heels of the August release of the ``Steel Wheels'' album. Many critics have hailed it as the Stones' best work in 10 years. Certainly the fact that it's their 39th album speaks for itself.
But what is it about the band that still draws multitudes of faithful fans?
``They've been around for a while, and everybody grew up with them,'' offered Bryan Corthell, a member of the Sullivan Stadium audience, who last saw the Stones in 1975.
``Elvis is gone. The Beatles are gone. The Rolling Stones are No. 1,'' said Michael P. Kilcoyne of Clinton, Mass.
What's endured is their image from the past - that they're the world's greatest rock-and-roll band, said Paul Robicheau, a Boston rock critic. ``Whether or not that's true, Jagger is still one of the brashest personalities in rock, and Richards embodies the rock-and-roll outlaw, with his whole swagger,'' he continued. ``And in these days of classic hit radio and oldies, the fact that they're in their late 40s doesn't detract that much from the fact that they're still the Rolling Stones.''
The press has spotlighted the momentous tour in various ways - as a ``comeback'' not unlike those of the Who, the Grateful Dead, Paul McCartney, and Bob Dylan, and as a test of the fragile relationship between Jagger and Richards. Some observers are astounded by the estimated $65 million to $70 million the tour is generating. Others are fascinated by the towering industrial stage set: a futuristic superstructure of ducts, pipes, lights, video screens, and special effects. (See article at left.)
But Rolling Stones news hasn't always been so smooth. Over the years the Stones have gathered controversy and criticism from their association with sex and drugs which, in turn, fueled their negative ``bad-boy'' image in the music industry. Targeted by feminists, criticized by parents, or in trouble with the law, the group maintained a belligerent attitude. Young people reveled in the this rudeness, while mothers and fathers cringed. But nowadays, those issues aren't so hot. The band has mellowed, and the public has too.
The appeal of the Stones' music has become multi-generational. Some older fans have grown up with the band. The younger ones know them by their hit songs and videos, or through siblings or parents.
``My mom loves the Stones,'' said 19-year-old Sean Walker from Long Meadow, Mass., explaining how he first heard their music. For him, seeing the Stones live was ``incredible.''
The Stones can be sure their music will outlive them. There's no doubt that the band has a chemistry that works. As Mr. Robicheau put it: ``They know how to play the rudiments with a flair. They're certainly not the flashiest, but they have a style and a groove that belongs to them.''
Remaining tour dates: Los Angeles Oct. 21-22; New York Oct. 10-11, 25-26, 28-29; Oakland, Calif. Nov. 4-5; Miami Nov. 15-16; Tampa Nov. 18; Atlanta Nov. 21; Jacksonville Nov. 25; Minneapolis Nov. 29; Toronto Dec. 3; Indianapolis Dec. 6-7; Montreal Dec. 14.