THE ROLLING STONES: THEIR SATANIC MAJESTIES' REQUEST (1967)
1) Sing This All Together; 2) Citadel; 3) In Another Land; 4) 2000 Man; 5) Sing This All Together (See What Happens); 6) She's A Rainbow; 7) The Lantern; 8) Gomper; 9) 2000 Light Years From Home; 10) On With The Show.
I always feel uncomfortable about joining in the choir and calling Satanic Majesties' Request the Stones' «weirdest» album. This somehow implies that there are certain things we typically expect of the Stones — and certain things we definitely do not expect of them. But these expectations themselves are due to nothing else than the Stones eventually setting themselves in a predictable creative rut with the oncoming of middle age, much like every other artist, and isn't it a bit ridiculous to judge the Rolling Stones of 1967 by the future standards of, say, the Rolling Stones of 1976? In a way, it would almost be weirder if the Rolling Stones did not go psychedelic in 1967, like almost everybody else did at the time, except for a few stubbornly obstinate heroes (Somethin' Else By The Kinks — now there's a truly weird album by that year's standards!). And seeing Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in kaftans was, after all, no more weird than seeing Eric Clapton with frizzed hair, or The Hollies wielding sitars and playing with tape effects.
There are two reasons why, when discussing the Golden Age of the Stones (1966-72, and not one year less), one should never make an embarrassing exception for their psychedelic suite. One: even despite all the personal troubles that they had in 1967, Jagger and Richards had only recently reached top songwriting form, and top songwriting form does not go away that easily once it has been reached — even if one finds plenty of things to complain about in the arrangement and production departments, it is hard to deny the sheer quantity of compositional ideas contained in these songs. Two: claims that the Stones were «aping the Beatles» with their psychedelic creativity are ridiculously simplistic. The Stones did embrace psychedelia, but they put their own and nobody else's stamp on it. As I quickly run the usual gamut of psychedelic classics of the era in my mind (Sgt. Pepper, Are You Experienced, Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Days Of Future Passed, etc.), there is not a single one of these that could be selected as a «blueprint» for Satanic Majesties. Because this was not a simple case of «hey, let's just drop everything we did before and go play some sitars!» This is a case of taking everything they had learned in the previous three years — the darkness, the nastiness, the art of the guitar riff, the unpredictable experimental instrumentation — and applying it to the emerging new musical idiom: a synthesis like no other.
Contrary to a widespread opinion that Satanic Majesties was largely the brainchild of Brian Jones (because who else could push the Stones to far-out psychedelia but the guy who originally brought sitars, marimbas, and dulcimers to the table?), Mick and Keith were just as responsible for the shift as Brian — Keith would later regret this explicitly, but Mick, always on the lookout for all sorts of shifts in musical fashions, seems to have retained more love in his heart for this album than he has for Between The Buttons. In any case, all the songwriting credits still go to Mick and Keith, with the notable addition of Bill Wyman as the sole author responsible for ʽIn Another Landʼ (now there's an actual bit of first-rate weirdness — Bill's only songwriting credit on a proper Stones album!), and there is not a single shred of evidence to suggest that either of the two did not have great fun recording it — with all due reservations, of course, considering that 1967 in general was hardly a lot of «fun» for the Stones with all their drug trials and impending jail terms hanging over them, Damocles-style, for a large part of the year.
That nervous tension and (not unjustified) aura of paranoia are often quoted as the spirit that pervades Satanic Majesties, and, indeed, it makes sense to wonder if the album would have been less tense and dark without the drug busts — then again, history knows no ifs: first, in 1967, the Stones were quite predictably selected as the scapegoats, what with their «dangerous» public image and general notoriety, and second, who could genuinely expect the Rolling Stones to sit there with happy, careless, cozily-stoned smiles on their faces and sing about the gorgeous bliss of Flower Power? Who could even begin to imagine an idealistic Mick Jagger joining in the exuberant camaraderie and clapping and singing along to hippie bullshit like "all you need is love, love is all you need" like there was no tomorrow?..
Oops, never mind. Anyway, speculations and alternate scenarios aside, the fact remains: Their Satanic Majesties' Request gives us a darker, more uncomfortable, more psychologically disturbing brand of psychedelia than most other brands at the time. It does share a certain conceptuality with Sgt. Pepper — in terms of having an encircling framework: I like to think of it as a «dream journey», where things begin in real life (ʽSing This All Togetherʼ as a party anthem or a mock-shamanistic merry-go-round-the-bonfire ritual), lead the protagonist into a nightmarish trance, when, like an adult version of Alice in Wonderland, he passes through alternating surrealist visions of mystery, beauty, and danger (not necessarily in that order), and then finally awaken him to the crude, happy-sad reality of life's hustle and bustle (ʽOn With The Showʼ). But the fantasy world of the Rolling Stones is much less pleasant than that of the Beatles — instead of traveling circuses and Lucys with diamonds and lovely Ritas, your companions will be odd types like 2000 Man and Gomper, cloaked in incomprehensibility and menace — and much of the time, you won't even have any companionship at all, being two thousand light years away from home and all that. It's so very lonely, you know.
Actually, the «no fun» thing begins at the very beginning. A title like ʽSing This All Togetherʼ would normally imply an atmosphere of collective merriment — but there is nothing like that here. Instead, the song agrees very well with lyrics like "Pictures of us beating on our drum / Never stopping till the rain has come" — it does sound like a slightly disorganized collective prayer for rain (or, perhaps, something a little stronger), a seance where nobody can be truly sure of the possible outcome. The odd, «bubbly» sound of the melody, emphasizing the tribalistic rhythm over harmony with every one of the instruments involved, is further enhanced in the instrumental break, which gives the impression that we are now being temporarily dragged under the water — or, at least, through some purple haze — an experience that could either lead to enlightenment or turn out to be lethal. As we emerge from the haze into a reprise of the chorus, it's like gasping for air — see, that spice trance wasn't so bad after all — but it does not take long before real life, with one last whiff of the horn section, once again transitions into the nightmare part, and this time, it sort of stays there almost until the end.
What happens next is a sequence of events and impressions so strange, so scattered, and yet so meaningful that it is not even clear to me where to start. So why don't I start with a personal favorite of mine, a song that is rarely listed as a particular highlight, but one that has always looked to me like it contained the key to the entire album — and maybe even to a large part of the Stones' entire career? ʽThe Lanternʼ is one of those «shine-a-light-in-the-dark» tunes to which I have often recurred at various bad moments in life, and whose compositional brilliance I cannot cease to admire. Distant tolling of the bells, suggesting something mournful — then several bars of a minor-key funereal melody, searching for a resolution — then a strange, stuttering melody, comprised of an insecure acoustic guitar part, searching for the right groove, and an odd broken sound that I have never been able to decipher. Guitar? Organ? Mellotron? Whatever it is, in just a few bars they have effectively created the atmosphere of a lost, terrified soul making its lost, terrified way through some pitch-black cavern... and then, out of the distance, with a soft, but stern crack of the drums, in fade those hope-giving vocals: "Weeeeeee.... in our present life...". That thing alone would be pretty awesome, but the climactic part is the mid-verse, with Mick forcefully counting the beats on "...that IF you are the FIRST to go, you'll LEAVE a sign to LET me know", each of the heavily accentuated syllables raising the tension. As far as I'm concerned, this is the first — and far from the last — of his genuinely «spirited» vocal performances, those that would probably hit the ceiling on ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, ʽShine A Lightʼ, and ʽWinterʼ, the ones that somehow tie together Earth and Heaven by combining sarcasm, decadence and naughtiness, on one hand, with a call for hope, optimism, and salvation, on the other. You can give the song a literal interpretation — a departed spirit comes back to her lover at night, preparing him for the road to take — but I prefer a more general and abstract one: a song about a beacon of hope in pitch-black darkness, and goddammit if I know of a more beautiful musical metaphor (at least, in the realm of pop music) than this one, opening a still underrated — in my mind — tradition of Heartbreaking Humanism in the Stones' career.
There are other occasional chunks of Light and Beauty on the album, of course, the most obvious of which is ʽShe's A Rainbowʼ — a song that largely belongs to Nicky Hopkins and his Mozartian piano, not to mention an exquisite baroque string arrangement from the soon-to-be-famous-for-other-endeavors John Paul Jones, and is usually lauded even by the album's detractors as one of the Stones' most resplendent ballads ever. Indeed, on this one it is practically impossible to find any subtle hints at a darker side — other than, perhaps, the odd «alarm-like» distorted guitar chords that generate an unpredictably eerie coda to the song (but also alleviate its transition into the darkness of ʽThe Lanternʼ) — but then again, even the bleakest of interminable nightmares may be allowed to have its moments of respite, and being so hemmed on all sides by eeriness only helps further accentuate the baroque elegance of the song. This is the only time in the band's career that they wrote a paean to Abstract Beauty — good luck trying to find a real-life addressee of the song — and, lo and behold, it is as gorgeous as any of the masterpieces of the baroque-pop era, with a piano / strings / brass mix that even a Brian Wilson could have envied, though this lively and somewhat pompous approach is rather distant from his usual pensive style.
But other than that, what we have here is one unsettling experience after another. There's the sci-fi, proto-Hawkwind hustle and bustle of a complex and dangerous-looking futuristic "concrete hills" city in ʽThe Citadelʼ, a song that by-the-book Stones fans respect a little more than the others because it is the only one to feature a monstrous hard-rock riff from Keith but which is actually so much more than just one riff — the harpsichords, the Mellotrons, the hell-raising drums, the merciless vocals, and, above all, that odd ringing sound, the one that gives the impression of droplets of liquid gold repetitively dripping from a huge faucet in the sky... again, what the hell is it, and why is it there? Still a mystery to me. There's Wyman's ʽIn Another Landʼ, which is very much like a dream-within-a-dream sequence — that harpsichord never sounded quite that cold without the winter winds howling around it, and we never even get to understand what's better: getting caught up in a dream like that or waking up to find out that it was all "some kind of joke" (I assume that the former is still preferable, given how the song ends with some authentic, and fairly impressive, snoring that the band allegedly diligently captured on tape from Bill himself one day in September). There's ʽ2000 Manʼ, an almost «progressive» mini-suite that not only contains three equally catchy, but totally distinct, melodic parts, but also functions as a smart foresight into the technological future — "Oh daddy, your brain's still flashing / Like it did when you were young / Or did you come down crashin' / Seein' all the things you've done / Oh, it's a big put on" seems to resonate quite painfully these days, for a number of reasons.
And then, «the darkest hour is right before dawn» — ʽ2000 Light Years From Homeʼ is an absolute gem of the sci-fi subgenre. Pink Floyd had already told us that "stars can frighten" a short while ago, but if I had to make a choice between the compositional and sonic weirdness that is ʽAstronomy Domineʼ and the somewhat more conventional sound of ʽ2000 Light Yearsʼ, I'd still go for the latter. ʽAstronomy Domineʼ was an ambitious sonic painting — an approximate musical representation of the grandness, complexity, and randomness of the Universe — but largely a depersonalized one, with the artist as an uninvolved spectator, maybe glued to a telescope or something. ʽ2000 Light Yearsʼ is not about the wonders of the Cosmos — it is a deeply personal impression of how terrifying it feels to be alone in a galaxy far far away, and by «galaxy» one might just as well mean «bad acid trip» or «solitary cell in a London prison». Everything about the song is dark, cold, repellent, destined to spook or frighten (including the first forty seconds of atonal piano clanging, which is arguably as close as the Stones ever got to true avantgarde; or the amazing guitar solo, all of it played in the lowest range of the instrument and sounding like the digestion process of some giant ugly space slug) — the bassline is building up suspense, the Mellotrons are pumping up mystery, and Mick makes his best effort to sound out of a cryogenic chamber. In certain contexts, ʽ2000 Light Years From Homeʼ might sound absolutely terrifying (this is definitely not a song I'd recommend for astronauts to take with them on their missions for entertainment) — and while fairly soon we would be getting plenty of psychological singer-songwriter stuff on the issue of cosmic loneliness and isolation, from ʽSpace Oddityʼ to ʽRocket Manʼ and beyond, none of these songs would be bent on inducing sheer psychic terror through purely musical means. I guess we do have something to thank that judge for, after all — allegedly, Mick came up with the basic concept and lyrics of the song during his 24 hours in Brixton Prison.
With all these great performances in sight, I no longer seriously bother about the «excesses» of the record — such as the interminable psycho-jamming of ʽSing This All Together (See What Happens)ʼ and the Eastern-influenced droning on ʽGomperʼ. In fact, I definitely seem to understand and even enjoy them much better than, say, the average improvisation by the Grateful Dead; and I certainly do not understand how it is possible to condemn them while at the same time singing hipster praise for something like the Velvet Underground's ʽEuropean Sonʼ or ʽSister Rayʼ from that same year. Of course, the Stones were not well-versed in contemporary avantgarde or modern classical, but then again, everything was instinct rather than science back then, and I'd say that in both of these cases their instincts worked all right — ʽSee What Happensʼ, introduced with an innocuous, but insightful question of "where's that joint?", is like the soundtrack to a guided (or mis-guided) trip through some surrealist freak show (all it lacks is a Salvador Dali gallery for visual accompaniment), and ʽGomperʼ is like... well, like a typically Stones-like interpretation of an Indian raga. Imagine Ravi Shankar and friends suddenly having a freaked-out panic attack in the middle of a concert, and that's ʽGomperʼ for you. It's fun! And even if it isn't, you still have to admit that they have a pretty freaky combination of instruments out there.
By the time we emerge — almost literally emerge — into the grounded, down-to-earth conclusion of ʽOn With The Showʼ, you might feel relieved, really shaken awake from a nasty, but unforgettable dream that just showed you the flipside of ʽLucy In The Sky With Diamondsʼ. Do not let yourself be fooled by the preconception that, since this is the Stones' psychedelic album, Their Satanic Majesties' Request is about glorifying psychedelia and propagating the pleasures of that whole mind-opening business: there is nothing of the kind there, and there is not a single song on the album of which anybody should feel «ashamed» after all these years. This is an astute, intelligently designed and completely self-sufficient piece of musical art — featuring some of the band's most interesting lyrical, melodic, and textural ideas of all time, and having certain analytical qualities of its own; in fact, I'd go as far as to say that it has a much more intellectual nature to it than Sgt. Pepper, and that its release, at the tail end of the magic year 1967, makes it a perfect wrap-up offering for the psychedelic excesses of that year, sending up some of these excesses and already containing certain antidotes for others. Even the album sleeve, when seen from that perspective, would look like a tongue-in-cheek reaction to Sgt. Pepper and the like (though it probably wasn't, and, in fact, the album sleeve is probably the corniest element of all here — I still love its furious colors, though).
In recent years (decades?), Satanic Majesties, after having for a very long time been regarded as the band's biggest blunder in their peak years, started gaining a rather large cult following — particularly among those hipsters who like to declare themselves professionally bored with the «typical» blues-rock of pre-1966 / post-1967 Rolling Stones and are only interested in stuff that would allow the band to be, at least temporarily, aligned with either the Kinks or Syd Barrett's Floyd or the Zombies or whatnot. This is, I believe, a different kind of extreme, and I have no desire whatsoever to sing this praise of Satanic Majesties at the expense of Beggars Banquet — or vice versa. The thing is, the sheer greatness of the Stones, and their ability to hold their own beside the Beatles, lies precisely in their ability (at one time) to put out a record like Satanic Majesties, and then to follow it up with a record like Beggars Banquet. Only a rough-hewn, harsh, blues-rock-raised rock'n'roll band could have made a dark psychedelic album like Satanic Majesties — and only a band that had just made a dark psychedelic album like Satanic Majesties could go on and inject some of that darkness and artistic pretense into their subsequent blues-rock records like Beggars Banquet. One simply does not exist without the other, and in order to truly «get» the Stones, the blues-rocker in you has to be complemented by the art-rocker, and vice versa — this, in my opinion, is the primary reason why this band gets so criminally underrated today by so many fans on both sides (whereas in their actual prime, when target groups for different musical styles were not so harshly delineated, their popular reputation was unassailable). In short, as the Stones say themselves — "open your heads, let the pictures come". And here comes a thumbs up for a creative masterpiece that I think I love even more these days than when I first got my mind blown by it some thirty years ago.