THE ROLLING STONES: BEGGARS BANQUET (1968)
1) Sympathy For The Devil; 2) No Expectations; 3) Dear Doctor; 4) Parachute Woman; 5) Jig-Saw Puzzle; 6) Street Fighting Man; 7) Prodigal Son; 8) Stray Cat Blues; 9) Factory Girl; 10) Salt Of The Earth.
«We were starting to find the Rolling Stones», quoth Keith Richards on the time period during which the band made Beggars Banquet — a fairly self-demeaning remark in some aspects, considering that it somehow manages to leave even ʽSatisfactionʼ overboard, not to mention all the glorious pop-rock concoctions of 1966-67. However, if one takes this remark to really mean «we were starting to carve in stone the textbook image of the Rolling Stones in all future textbooks», then it comes out as fairly accurate. Once the Stones went on the road in 1969, after a good two years of recuperation from their 1967 troubles and solving their second guitarist problem, they pretty much tossed overboard everything that they did prior to 1968 — with the exception of two or three heavily rearranged oldies like ʽSatisfactionʼ, it really looked like they themselves had declared all those early attempts at songwriting, all that psychedelia, all that «English vibe» completely irrelevant for the modern age — the equivalent of cute teenage experiments at writing that one eventually locks up in the attic, provided one does not have the heart to just go ahead and burn them in the fireplace, so as not to be accidentally embarrassed in the future.
Ironically, while in 1969 focusing their live sets on recent material was clearly intended to present the rejuvenated band as one of the most relevant forces in modern music, the exact same material eventually became millstones around their necks — in 1969, they were strong enough to give the boot to their past, but eventually songs like ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ, ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ, ʽStreet Fighting Manʼ, ʽGimme Shelterʼ, ʽYou Can't Always Get What You Wantʼ, ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ became forever ingrained staples, the untouchable pivot around which we would find revolving not only the typical Rolling Stones live show or the typical Rolling Stones best-of package, but also the typical perception of the Stones by mainstream critics and casual fans alike. From that point of view, «The Rolling Stones» were indeed found in 1968 — a point of view as unjustly skewed as any, but not one to be going away any time soon.
Several factors converged together by early 1968 to ensure that transition. First, music was evolving, and the Stones — Mick Jagger in particular — were anxious about missing those precious relevant trends that would ensure their remaining on top. «Englishness» à la Ray Davies was not one of those trends: the Kinks were beginning to lose commercial appeal, and Mod culture was starting to dissipate. The flower power thing, having peaked in 1967, suffered the same fate, especially after it became evident that the world was not going to be changed by embarking on magical mystery tours. On the other hand, the «roots revival», illustrated by the activities of Dylan and the Byrds, seemed to be gaining the upper hand; and once Hendrix and the Who opened the floodgates for experimental electric guitar playing, successful hard rock acts began pouring in. It did not take long for the Stones to learn which way the wind was blowing — inevitably, they had to become «rootsy» and «heavy» to join and maybe even head the new leagues of trendsetters.
Second and more personal, by 1968 Brian Jones was no longer a vital presence in the band: drugs coupled with individual psychological problems had reduced him to a ghost of his former self, even as Keith, whose own drug problem was hardly any less serious, still found enough inner strength and discipline to self-organize and steadily hold the rudder. While I would not go as far as some do and claim that in 1966-67 Brian was «at the heart» of the band's music — although there is little doubt that Mick and Keith cheated him out of quite a few songwriting credits, they still came up with most of the basic melodies themselves — he was most definitely a crucial designer of the band's sound, what with all those exotic instrumental embellishments and psychedelic flavors. Without his active participation, one could hardly expect of Keith to start bringing in sitars and dulcimers and mandolins and Theremins and whatnot — the man's motto being «if it's good enough for Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, it's good enough for me». He could, however, be expected to continue searching for that ultimate guitar sound, one that would properly and assuredly convey all the gruff Keefiness of his rough, scary, but noble heart — a sound that he could find in some of his open tunings, as well as in certain simple production tricks, like the cassette-recorded acoustic tracks for ʽParachute Womanʼ and ʽStreet Fighting Manʼ.
We still have some notable elements of Brianjonesism remaining on Beggars Banquet, though, so it would be wrong to ascribe all of its sonic charms to Keith. ʽNo Expectationsʼ would have been bland without Brian's slide; ʽParachute Womanʼ would be less haunting without his harmonica; ʽStreet Fighting Manʼ less tense and ominous without his sitar; ʽJig-Saw Puzzleʼ more plain and dull without his Mellotron. All these elements offer vital links with the Stones' recent past, turning Beggars Banquet into something larger than just a «roots-rock album» and adding enough mystery and psychologism to suggest that even at this point, it may not yet have been too late for Brian to come clean and eventually reassert his place in the band. For this reason, Beggars Banquet will probably also be the one album, out of the «big four» of 1968-72, to appeal the most to all those who typically prefer the «pop» era of the Stones — though not by much, since even Brian's colorful flourishes cannot properly divert one's attention from the defiantly new road that the Stones have taken here.
And yet, it would also be a mistake to claim that 1968 found the Stones embracing «generic blues-rock» — a claim that would demean them to the level of bands like Grand Funk Railroad or Steppenwolf and leave one blind to all the unique excitement of this second phase of their Golden Age. Sure, both Mick and Keith (and Brian, for that matter) had started out as unpretentious admirers of American electric blues, almost accidentally converting them to «defiant British teenage electric blues» for fortunate lack of the appropriate expertise — but in 1968, simply emulating genre conventions and clichés was the farthest thing from their mind. This time, they had themselves a mission, fueled by their ongoing battle with The System, a complex relation with drugs, Marianne Faithfull-induced intellectualism, and, above all, a raging perfectionism. Emerging from the whirlwind of 1967, they were aching to be back on top, to cut their own agenda, to become the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world — not simply by stating it, as their road manager would do once they went on the road in 1969, but through honest work.
So let us begin with one song that looks like it would be the easiest target: ʽParachute Womanʼ, a seemingly straightforward 12-bar blues with a fully conventional A-A-B verse structure and fairly traditional sex-based lyrics. The kind of tune that we are guaranteed to find on several hundred different albums in 1968 alone, right? But then nothing in 1968 really sounds quite like that acoustic guitar tone — a sort of «lo-fi to hi-fi conversion» achieved by first recording the rhythm part on cassette tape, double-tracking it, and then transferring it onto the eight-track machine. One could call it a cheap imitation of the pre-war studio sound, but that was not it: it does not really sound much like, say, a Leadbelly or a Robert Johnson tune. It's deeper, more shadowy, more echoey, and when enhanced with a distorted electric lead guitar part chopping out sneering open chords, it creates a properly beastly, arch-nasty atmosphere, to which Jagger than adds his new vocal technique. And that technique is not just an emulation of some American accent: what matters is not how British, American, or faux-American it sounds, but how he is capable of using all the physical potential of his throat — on all those "paeaeshuu woe-maen..." lines, he sings straight from the pharynx, convulsing and contorting his voice like crazy, sometimes going from the deepest aaah to the sharpest eeeh in a matter of milliseconds. On stage, this would never be properly reproduced — apparently, taxing your voice to the max while at the same time propelling your four limbs in all directions is a scientific impossibility even for Mr. Jagger — but in the studio, hoo boy, Beggars Banquet has some of the most delicious vocal extremes ever captured on a pop record.
As a result, even if compositionally, ʽParachute Womanʼ has no particular attractions, style-wise, it gives us a completely new type of blues-rock — one almost scientifically aimed at tickling and tingling all the right nerve endings. Thank God that Mick's vocal contortions make it hard to actually decipher the words — I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this was the first ever piece of popular art to feature the word "throbber", and "parachute woman, will you blow me out?" certainly suggests that we are probably through with ladies who come in colors everywhere and comb their hair. Essentially, ʽParachute Womanʼ is like a Howlin' Wolf song with a mindset of an AC/DC — were it just a tad less intense, it would be boring and offensive, but the way it is, it is threatening and hilarious at the same time. Even the final harmonica blast (actually blown by Mick rather than Brian, who plays the accompanying parts throughout the song) is extreme, like an alarm signal telling all competition to evacuate the territory without delay.
And that is just the one song which is usually omitted from serious discussion on the album's highlights; needless to say, twice or thrice as much can be easily said about the tunes that do crop up on people's lists of personal favorites. Still, I'd prefer to concentrate more on those numbers that have not gone on to become radio classics or stage favorites — rather than channel the discussion in the direction of way too obvious monster hits like ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ or ʽStreet Fighting Manʼ, generating new ideas on which in 2016 is practically impossible on a probabilistic basis. Two of these relative «sleepers», in particular, are strong favorites of mine.
One is ʽStray Cat Bluesʼ — one of the most controversial numbers in the Stones' repertoire due to Mick careless insertion of his victim's age (fun bit of trivia: the original version states that "I can see you're just fifteen years old", the Get Yer Ya Ya's Out live version radically changes that to "I can see you're just thirteen years old", and then, when the song was very briefly resuscitated in the early 2000s, it was corrected to "sixteen years old" — come on, Mick, it's fuckin' age of consent already! It renders the rest of the lyrics completely useless!); of course, if put under pressure, Mick could always retaliate that the song is a send-up of such attitudes, but given what we know about rock bands (the Stones in particular) and their relation with groupies, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that Mr. J doth mean it when he says "it's no capital crime" (not morally, at least). Regardless, it's the song not the singer that matters, and we do not have to turn into potential sex offenders to simply enjoy the tune for its controversial shock value.
Musically, it's a sonic masterpiece — one of the two most «dense» heavy numbers of 1968, together with ʽHelter Skelterʼ: both tracks aim at creating a nightmarish atmosphere out of multiple overdubs, but ʽHelter Skelterʼ is definitely the less creepy of the two, because neither Paul nor John could ever properly qualify as their Satanic majesties. ʽStray Cat Bluesʼ, on the other hand, is totally made by (a) Mick, whose vocal extremes, moans, groans, and "bo-bom-bo-bom-bom-cha"s have a scary maniacal feel, and (b) Keith, who is busy transforming the song's coda into a highly realistic descent into the hottest bowels of Hell — that «jackplane riff» entering at around 3:30 sounds like nothing else ever recorded, like an irreversible escalator going down to the pits. Abhor it like a glorification of evil or admire it like a sarcastic put-down, one thing's for sure: the musical canvas created in that song is closer to a truly «hell-ready» sound than anything else at the time. Perhaps the Stooges would top it in terms of sheer brutal power and of how much can be achieved with such relatively simple means on Funhouse, but the Stones aren't really brutal as such — except for that chugging riff, all the instrumental parts here are subtle, be it Nicky Hopkins' piano or Keith's remaining high-pitched overdubs. Their Satan, the smooth sleazy seductor of fifteen-year old girls, is not a raving lunatic — he's as slick as they come, and he prefers to stun his victims with an orgiastic force of carnivalesque proportions rather than go ahead and pin them to the wall with a maniacal hard rock grip. A perfect soundtrack for dirty wild animal sex, or a visionary musical metaphor for the Second Circle? I vote both.
Nothing could be farther removed from that than the clean, orderly soundscape of ʽJig-Saw Puzzleʼ — and here is a song over which the moss of time seems to have grown with particular delight, even if it is out there on one of the band's most critically acclaimed albums. The reason why it was never performed live seems clear enough — its lyrical debt to Dylan and his surrealisto-maniacal narratives of 1965-66 verges on schoolboy adulation (or unfunny parody, which might be even worse). Reading the lyrics makes you feel uncomfortable — it's as if Jagger is almost physically blocked by The Rational in his effort to truly become Dylan, as he paints verbal pictures that try to look surrealist but fail, culminating in the embarrassing admittance that all these images are really a part of a flesh-and-blood jig-saw puzzle rather than of a parallel universe; and then, just as things begin nearing inevitable total failure, in desperation he pulls one last totally wild stunt, with the verse about the twenty thousand grandmas and the Queen and the burning pensions, and it comes out as totally ridiculous (would Bob ever write a line like "she blessed all those grandmas who with their dying breaths screamed ʽthanksʼ"? Okay, correct answer: maybe he would — but he sure as hell wouldn't have made it the last line of the last verse). I can kinda sorta see where the man would be reluctant to reproduce these lyrics on stage for decades afterwards.
Indeed, the lyrics are somewhat laughable, and the song could definitely benefit from being a bit shorter (were it up to me, I'd have certainly made the self-descriptory verse about the musicians the last one and thrown out all the nonsense about the twenty thousand grandmas), but none of that truly matters in the face of the musical layers: Keith plays some of the most exquisite and, dare I say it, subtly psychedelic slide guitar lines of his entire career — and on top of that, Brian is busy blurring the lines between Mellotron and Theremin. Take a good listen to the coda — it is not any less dense than the one of ʽStray Cat Bluesʼ, only here the acoustic and electric guitars, Nicky's piano and Brian's Mellotron create a heavenly rather than hellish soundscape, with the Mellotron lines gliding to and fro like little exuberant angels on speed. «Generic blues-rock album»? Go read more Rolling Stone.
Importantly, even with Keith being the obvious musical director here, the greatest strength of Beggars Banquet lies in the magnificent pool of talent assembled for the sessions. For the first time in Rolling Stones history, the band is blessed with a truly busy — and masterful — producer in Jimmy Miller, who'd already worked his magic for Traffic the year before and now saw to it that not a single instrumental voice would be wasted on this record; together with engineer Glyn Johns, they ensure that every song here sounds like a glorious sum of its parts, yet not a single part gets facelessly lost in the crowd. On piano, they retain the brilliant Nicky Hopkins, who had already proven his worth in gold with ʽShe's A Rainbowʼ and now plays his heart out with equal bliss on ʽNo Expectationsʼ and ʽSalt Of The Earthʼ — with all due respect to loyal old Stu, Ian was strictly boogie-woogie, and could hardly handle Nicky's parts. For ʽFactory Girlʼ, they enlist Ric Grech (of Family and later Blind Faith and Traffic) on fiddle to properly capture that Appalachian folk vibe. And with Brian still somewhat functional, what we have here is a perfect case of a musical transition — an album of «rootsy» tunes with plenty of «artsy» flourishes, even as Mick and Keith go to the outer extremes of their abilities to make it all glow. (Speaking of outer extremes, that solo by Keith on ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ? Not nearly as smooth or complex as the one on the Ya Ya's live version, but utterly determined in its quest to squeeze the most throttling, screechy, banshee-like sounds of his guitar — mirroring the determination in Jagger's voice to reach the extremes of abrasive creakiness).
The one thing that was most heavily discussed in tabloids around the time — the alleged attempt to «connect with the people» on songs like ʽStreet Fighting Manʼ (with its alleged call to revolution), ʽFactory Girlʼ (as opposed to, say, ʽLady Janeʼ or all those songs about jaded, morally corrupt wealthy socialites), and ʽSalt Of The Earthʼ ("let's drink to the hard working people") — is probably the one aspect of the record that has dated more than anything else. The Rolling Stones, a self-made band on its merry way to private jet planes and expensive heroin addictions, were never a «people's rights» band — and one serious look at all these songs will show that ʽStreet Fighting Manʼ is really a song about an individual pushing his way to the top ("what can a poor boy do except to sing in a rock'n'roll band?"), ʽFactory Girlʼ is probably about a random attractive female that Mick had the hots for (might as well be ʽLiquor Store Girlʼ or ʽTattoo Parlor Girlʼ with a different throw of the dice), and ʽSalt Of The Earthʼ intentionally buries all the credibility that it gains with its verses once it comes to the bridge section (wouldn't it be hilarious, now that I think of it, if Donald Trump had accidentally chosen that song instead of ʽYou Can't Always Get What You Wantʼ for his campaign? "A swirling mass of gray and black and white, they don't look real to me" — The Donald's secret thoughts, aren't they?). But none of these circumstances detract from the ultimate satisfaction of these songs: ʽStreet Fighting Manʼ is still triumphant and rowdy, ʽFactory Girlʼ is still charmingly friendly, and ʽSalt Of The Earthʼ has these intriguing ambiguity layers, so that you never can tell if it wants to be a glorifying anthem or a terrifying horror story.
A few moments still prevent the record from becoming the perfect single-LP Stones experience. ʽDear Doctorʼ, one of the earliest examples of the band's comic-parodic treatment of the country genre, tries to be funny but fails — it ain't no ʽRocky Raccoonʼ, and Mick's falsetto imitation of the «bride»'s voice is annoying. The cover of Robert Wilkins' ʽProdigal Sonʼ is funny, but this is probably one track on which the collective talents of the Rolling Stones in their peak period are somewhat wasted: fun and nicely played, but inessential (unless you want to see it as an important testimony of the Stones sacrilegiously sending up the New Testament). And while ʽSalt Of The Earthʼ is a good composition overall and a reasonably suitable anthemic finale for the album, they have not yet mastered here what it takes to come up with a truly glorious finale: the Watts Street Gospel Choir here is hardly a match for The London Bach Choir on ʽYou Can't Always Get What You Wantʼ, or, for that matter, Paul Buckmaster's epic orchestral arrangements on ʽMoonlight Mileʼ. All of these are minor nitpicks, but when we've got this kind of epic standard, well... you can't really discuss the differences between Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, or Sticky Fingers on anything other than «minor nitpick» level anyway.
So please allow me to introduce myself — Mick Jagger presenting The Rolling Stones for the post-1967 generation, one that likes it heavier and darker and rougher and crazier and with a little coke on the side, please. Once again, they couldn't avoid comparison with The Beatles, with the stars again aligned in the Fab Four's favor: the record should have been released in the summer of '68, several months before The White Album, but a dispute with the record label over the «controversial» album sleeve delayed the release until December 6, by which time The White Album had already spent two weeks on the market — and, adding insult to irony, Decca had replaced the cover with a plain white sleeve (who wants to bet that the decision was suggested by a covert Apple agent?). But, strange coincidences aside, of course, The White Album and Beggars Banquet do share a non-coincidental similarity, as both records represent a «back-to-roots» strategy, often described in retrospect as a sort of conservative antidote against the psychedelic hangover of late '67 (as represented by Magical Mystery Tour and Satanic Majesties, respectively). It could be argued, however, that for the Stones this particular strategy works even better than it worked for the Beatles — what with the Stones having always been much bluesier and rootsier in essence. Yet most importantly, it works because nobody can meld transcendental beauty and grotesque ugliness in a more coherent package than the Stones could in their prime — and, as it turned out, they were just getting started. So what can a poor boy do except to hand out another predictable thumbs up rating?