When the Rolling Stones take the stage anywhere in the world, a few things are guaranteed to happen. The band will play “Miss You,” “Honky Tonk Women,” and “Midnight Rambler” at some point during the night, Mick Jagger will depart the stage midway through the set so Keith Richards can lead the band through a couple of songs on his own — and ultimate Stones superfan Matt Lee will be perched directly in front of the stage, usually on Ron Wood’s side, with an iPhone 13 Pro in his hand to shoot stunning concert videos that will ricochet around the globe within hours.
Lee has been following the band on tour since the mid-Nineties, and he’s amassed a collection of Stones memorabilia so massive that it’s earned him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records (and set him back more millions that he cares to count), but he only started uploading concert videos to YouTube within the past year. Despite his complete lack of experience as a filmmaker, his work stands out like Steven Spielberg surrounded by a bunch of Ed Woods when you compare it to other Stones concert videos you’ll find on YouTube after any given show. He doesn’t work for the band, and he does this all totally under his own volition.
“I’ve got a steady hand, which helps,” Lee says over Zoom from his office in London. “I’ve always been quite creative, so I’ve got an eye for a good composition. I also kind of know where they’re going to be after seeing so many shows. And it’s just really satisfying to get a good video. A couple of times in America, my data charges were ridiculous because I uploaded them in the car on the way to the hotel after the show. I paid 75 pounds for a data pack that ran out in five minutes. I just really wanted to get them up quick.”
Assembling a collection of hundreds of pristine Stones videos on his YouTube page is part of a strong collecting impulse that’s been present in Lee since he was a little kid in Sussex, England, trying to get his hands on as many souvenir pencils as he could. “Every time I visited a castle or a government building, I’d try and get one,” he says. “I’d just buy them everywhere.”
When he was 12, his father bought him the Stones compilation album Solid Rock on cassette tape. As soon as he heard “Honky Tonk Women,” he put his pencils away and shifted his attention to the Stones. This was 1987 and CDs were relatively new to the market. Lee set his sights on assembling a complete collection of Stones CDs, including foreign editions, promotional copies, and bootlegs. It was slow going at first, since CDs were expensive in England and his funds were limited, but in 1996 he took classes at the University of Illinois and came across used record stores with stacks of cheap discs. He bought bags of them.
By early 2000, Lee’s collection had become so big that Record Collector put his Stones stash on the cover and called it “The Ultimate CD Collection.” To thank him for participating in the article, the magazine gave him VIP tickets to an Ian McLagan gig at the Jazz Cafe in London. Thinking odds were decent that Ron Wood would show up to see his former Faces bandmate, Lee showed up with the sheet music for Wood’s 1974 solo song “I Can Feel the Fire,” hoping to get an autograph. Sure enough, he spotted the guitarist and gathered up the courage to approach him. “He was like, ‘Oh, my God, where did you get this sheet music?” Lee recalls. “‘I’ve never seen this.’”
Wood invited him to an art gallery the next night, kicking off a long friendship that continues to this day. “I’ve been to seven of his houses,” says Lee. “We text all the time. I was the executive producer of one of his albums.”
In 2007, Wood gave Lee something more valuable to him than almost any piece of memorabilia: a laminate that would get him into any show on their tour, free of charge. It also allowed him to enter venues before the masses lined up outside, meaning he could secure any spot he wanted in the general admission area directly in front of the stage. “The wonderful thing about a laminate before Covid was the backstage area,” Lee says. “I could go the show, have food, and walk around and soak up the excitement and atmosphere. But Covid has kind of killed that. You can’t be back of house and front of house, and I always want to be front of house.”
His original 2007 laminate hangs proudly in a collection of Stones artifacts that now numbers somewhere close to 200,000 items. Highlights are too numerous to mention, but they include the shirt that Keith Richards wore onstage at Altamont; the Stones’ very first professional contract from 1963, signed by all five members of the band at the time; their earliest known concert poster, which comes from an April 1963 show; and a ludicrously rare acetate of the Stones’ first recording session on March 11, 1963. Lee also somehow got his hands on the private letter that Bill Wyman wrote to the band in 1992 informing them of his decision to quit the Stones.
Photos of Lee’s collection are the center of his book Hot Stuff: The Story of the Rolling Stones Through the Ultimate Memorabilia Collection. The Stones themselves borrowed many of his artifacts when they put together their traveling exhibit Exhibitionism in 2016; three years later, his collection entered the Guinness Book of World Records, though he’s slightly miffed that they credit him with only 2,789 items, when his real total is closer to 50 or 100 times that amount. “That was enough to beat anyone that had done it previously, I guess,” he says. “I said, slightly arrogantly, that it was like Usain Bolt at a primary school sports day — he just has to walk to win.”
Lee says he can’t even begin to guess exactly how much his hobby has cost him, but he estimates that he’s spent “seven figures” in the past two years alone. He’s able to afford it because he has owned a series of successful marketing businesses. They’ve provided him with a very cushy lifestyle where traveling to America for weeks at a time to follow the Stones, including a two-week stay in the Bahamas in 2021 to get around Covid restrictions, is not a major financial burden.
Lee with Charlie Watts
Courtesy of Matthew Lee
“Luckily, I’m not married,” he says. “I have no other major expenses besides cars, since I’m an amateur car collector. I’ve only got five of them, though. One of them crosses over into the Stones, since it’s a Rolls Royce from when Ronnie themed a car for charity around a live album of his that I executive-produced, and I bought it.”
Every time the Stones tour, Lee needs to secure a new laminate that gets him into every traditional show they play on that trek. “They never lifetime you,” he says. “And they’re always cutting the list, so it’s hard.”
Even harder is getting into the under-the-radar private shows the Stones play a once or twice each tour, which are usually arranged by a billionaire and held in a tiny venue. “Those are really tough,” he says. “I’m not denying it. I’ve had to go to extreme lengths to get into private shows, but I’ve never failed.”
A memorable one took place just last year, when New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft booked the Stones in a tent on the field at Gillette Stadium which held fewer than 500 people. It was their first gig since the death of Charlie Watts. “I sent Robert Kraft a really heartfelt letter and a copy of my book,” Lee says. “And I risked going to the Bahamas without any promise of a ticket. I didn’t learn I made it until the day of the show. It was a very emotional night. It was such a small venue and the stage was almost the height of a dining-room table. I was so close I could have polished Ronnie’s shoes.” (He agreed not to film the show.)
The toughest Stones ticket to score, Lee says, was for their set at New York’s 3,000-capacity Roseland Ballroom in 2002. He didn’t secure a wristband during the initial on-sale, and there was seemingly no other way to get in. “My friends and I spent three days on the street outside the club,” he says. “We figured out who was in charge, followed them into a nearby bar, and got to chatting with them innocently.” Lee and his friends were told they were attempting the impossible. “Do you realize that it’s like $10,000 for a broken wristband, and the security will detect them, and you’ll be thrown out?” he was asked. “You haven’t got a chance.”
He was undeterred. “That would be true if we stayed in London,” he recalls saying. “But we’re here. We are 50 yards away. All we have to do is walk out this door and somehow get in that other door. This door is easy. We just have to pay the tab and leave. The second one is a bit harder.”
His persistence earned him a last-minute slot on the guest list, and he saw an amazing set that featured the live debut of the 1967 deep cut “She Smiled Sweetly” and the Stones’ first rendition of the Temptations classic “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” since 1976. “The first golden rule is that you have to never give up,” says Lee. “And you have to actually be there. You can’t get in if you aren’t there.”
He attends every single show whenever they tour, which means he’s seen them play their biggest hits hundreds of times, but he never gets tired of hearing them. “‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ is my favorite warhorse,” he says. “If they played that 19 times in a show, I’d be happy. I’m less into ‘Midnight Rambler.’”
The YouTube videos began last year so he could share his experiences with friends. Posting them online was easier than e-mailing them out one by one. Since then, when notable moments happen on tour — like the group playing “Out of Time” for the first time since the original 1966 recording, or guest vocalist Chanel Haynes joining them for “Gimme Shelter” — it’s been Lee’s video that fans see, with a little help from news sites like this. “It started going crazy when Rolling Stone said I deserved an Oscar,” he says. “Once you get that spike of views, YouTube automatically recommends your videos to more people. It just grew from there.” (The “Gimme Shelter” video got about 200,000 views, and his average view count is in the tens of thousands.)
The Stones only play about 14 shows a year, leaving Lee lots of time to focus on his collection. He’s even opened up a mini-museum so he can show it off to fans who reach out and request a personalized tour. He never charges anyone a dime. “I love sharing my passion,” he says. “I’m not going to stash it away like a hermit and stroke it every night and and protect it. Some of the biggest collectors in the world will not not even send you a low-grade, low-resolution photo of what they have. They say it will ‘devalue’ it. It won’t devalue it, but who cares? Share the joy. When I found out people liked my videos, I began making more of them. It’s been a pleasure.”
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