Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Rolling Stones. Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967).

You have to be of a certain age (okay, you have to be old) to remember that before being the “world’s greatest rock and roll band,” the Rolling Stones were for a time restlessly looking for an identity, going broke, and repeatedly facing ridiculously harsh penalties for possession of pot. And then they lost the leader of the band. (Sadly, who today remembers that musical genius and multi-instrumentalist, Brian Jones, actually started the Stones?). The Rolling Stones began as an R&B cover band forced into writing their own material by their manager, who actually quit during the making of Their Satanic Majesties Request because the band insisted on producing themselves.

Viewed at the time as the Beatles’ only competitors, in reality, Lennon and McCartney barely took a look over their shoulders to see what the Glimmer Twins were up to. Rather, they were taking notes on Brian Wilson’s latest vocal miracles with the Beach Boys.

So, in 1967, as The Beatles were dropping Sgt. Pepper, Jimi was unleashing Are You Experienced, and we saw the debut albums by The Doors, and The Velvet Underground, the Stones released their contribution to 1967, Their Satanic Majesties Request. Long thought to be the nadir of execrable self indulgence, few admit to having any regard for this most anomalous of Stones releases.

But is it really all that bad? Let’s talk about "Sing This All Together (See What Happens)." No, we really can’t talk about that one. Mick said, “Anyone let loose in the studio will produce stuff like that.” Maybe, but no one would release it. As Keith put it, in an absurdly obvious understatement, "There is a change between material on Satanic Majesties and Beggars Banquet.” Oh, you think?

However, we do have "She’s A Rainbow." Ingeniously arranged, it features prominent piano work by Nicky Hopkins, who plays beautifully articulated sections of swirly, filigreed Baroque figures. The silly but stylish lyric is about a girl arrayed in lots of different colors. They nailed the zeitgeist on that one. And who can forget the fractured string quartet at the end playing like some parody of a Ligeti nightmare? The strings were arranged by John Paul Jones, who would become the bass player for Led Zeppelin the following year. Great stuff.

Then there’s "2,000 Light Years From Home." A palpable description of alienation with the sound of a rocket engine slowing down and some of the best creepy Mellotron ever recorded, as played by Brian Jones.

So, Their Satanic Majesties has some classic highlights, among a few missteps symptomatic of the times.  One would have thought Jagger was responsible for the experimentation here, as he often admitted to being bored by sticking only to rock & roll.  But, oddly enough, accounts have suggested Keith leading these sessions, most often aided by close collaboration with Brian Jones, who apparently was able to play any instrument he could lay his hands on. 

The truth is, the badass Stones never fit into the hippy dippy flower power era of the 60’s. Just look at the cover of Satanic Majesties.  They seem to be saying, "Yeah, we're down with all this groovy psychedelic stuff.  Well, actually, no, we're not."

The Stones didn’t really come into their period of greatness until the brackish dawn of the sleazy, disenchanted 70’s, after the disillusionment of the Altamont tragedy. Suddenly, with the Beatles disbanded, and the death of 60’s idealism, it seemed nobody did naughty better than the Stones, and they found their niche just by being themselves.

Every Stones fan and rock critic will tell you Exile On Main Street is their masterpiece and pinnacle. Seeing things differently, I would call Exile the beginning of the end. For me, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, and Sticky Fingers were the unbeatable trio of albums from conception to execution that they would never surpass. On Exile, I can hear them start to imitate themselves, which is usually the first glimpse of creative downturn. But I’m probably alone there.

I love their now more neglected work from 1966, like "Mother’s Little Helper", "Paint It Black," and "Lady Jane," all from Aftermath, as well as "Ruby Tuesday," from Between The Buttons. These were baroque, chamber pop songs based in social commentary on the hip, new middle class trends in London. It was the pithy and unflinching criticism and fashionable depictions of the latest empty fads in these tunes that made the Stones seem like enlightened and intelligent observers.

But would anyone, I wonder, agree that perhaps their greatest achievement was "Gimme Shelter?" It’s a portrayal of desperation overcome at the very last moment by redemption (“Love, sister, is just a kiss away”). Here, the Stones pull off a brilliant and heartfelt balance between the dark and the light that remains remarkably mature and untouchable. It summarizes for me what the Stones, at their best, were really all about. The studio recording features the harrowing vocal by Merry Clayton, which takes the performance into a realm of profound spiritual terror.

"Gimme Shelter" live (live vocal anyway, but a fine performance nonetheless by Mick):