Monday, September 7, 2009

The Rolling Stones - Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)

This is the one where I piss off a margin of Stones fans, earn the respect of another (considerably smaller) margin of Stones fans, and find myself on the receiving end of sheer indifference from all other Stones fans.

This album is one of the most divisive records ever put out. My father calls it "A poor man's Sgt. Pepper" and notes that the use of drugs is a lot more obvious here than on The Beatles' album (I disagree with the quote, but he's probably dead right on that last one.) For its defenders, it was a step in the logical direction after Aftermath and Between The Buttons, a sign of their edge for experimentation. For others, this is proof that the band had lost their way, trying a little too hard to keep with the times.

Yes, and what was Some Girls? Oh, wait, that was just more of what they SHOULD have been doing instead of the aimless mid-tempo sludge that dominated their 1970's output and earned them the disparaging dinosaur title from the punks.

(Gee, you really need to guess where I stand on Their Satanic Majesties Request?)

I love this album. Get these notions of Pepper or Forever Changes or even Safe As Milk out of your head. Hell, if it helps, pretend it's NOT The Rolling Stones. If this had been some one-off by a British underground band, it would be the object of the respect it deserves. Anyway, do whatever it takes to approach this album with an open mind, because there's not a trace of the band's blues roots to be found.

And that's okay.

Maybe this album's bad reputation says more about the average (let me emphasize AVERAGE) Stones fan than The Rolling Stones themselves. There's something to be said about the resemblance between "Brown Sugar" and "Rough Justice" or the fact that damn near every album since Let It Bleed has featured some rewrite of "Gimme Shelter" - though "Brown Sugar," "Rocks Off," and "Dancing With Mr. D" are all great in their own regards - in one shape or another, yes, but they also play to audience expectations. Here they are, sounding unlike their previous works...and it stands hated, in the shadow of its (overrated, but still good) cousin, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The album spent a long time gestating in the studio, mainly because of Mick, Keith, and Brian all enjoying their share of legal troubles. It was during this period that the notorious bust - on orders to "wait until the Beatle [George Harrison] leaves" - on a party at Keith's home caused a massive scandal, thus beginning The Rolling Stones' career-spanning affair as tabloid fodder (I recommend David Dalton's 1981 book for its compilation of Stones tabloid headlines - amazing stuff), from where Marianne Faithful put that Mars bar to what Mick Jagger was doing with it...yeah.

By this point, Brian Jones was on the brink. His legal tangles kept the band from obtaining travel visas to the States, which on some level I'm led to understand played a small role in the case for his dismissal in 1969. He makes some great contributions to this album, but after that his role in the band is fairly dubious. A slide guitar here, an autoharp there...but that was it. He withered away, and it really was tragic. I can be a cynical asshole (as I was in my entry on Aftermath) and say it was his fault for squandering his talent, but at the end of the day it won't change the fact that his own demons ended his life at 27.

One of Keith's best moments (which is saying something) is in this 1973 interview, himself in the throes of a heroin addiction and discussing Brian's passing:

This album really does mark the end of an era for them. More so than Altamont, I think. For me, Altamont didn't end the 1960's - it was the beginning of the 1970's and the image The Rolling Stones had as this dangerous force, quite possibly with the Devil on their side. This is The Rolling Stones' dying days of the innocence of their youth. Until this point, they'd been troublemakers, the scruffian alternative to The Beatles, and one of the best blues bands in England. They partied, they did drugs, but at that point in time it was all still fun and games. No one had died yet.

The high point of the album comes with "2,000 Light Years From Home," which I interpret as an illustration of the dark side to the so-called rebellion that came with turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. You find it gets awful lonely, so many light years from home. For me, there was always something inherently nasty brooding underneath the surface of flower power. It would come to manifest itself with the great unrest of 1968 in Chicago, Memphis, Los Angeles, London, Paris, and Prague. It was as if The Rolling Stones were able to see through the bullshit and know that this wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

All this, without becoming washed-up acid casualties in the process, some great work still ahead of them.

01. Sing This All Together [10]
This song is great fun. As its title suggests, it isn't too hard to sing along with. There are some great African-derived rhythms (no doubt influenced from Jagger, Richards, and Jones' trip to Morocco) on this track in the interlude, with some buried fuzz guitar. The brass arrangement is both punchy and a perfect tone to accompany the song's middle section. It doesn't grab you and shake you by the collars the way Sir Paul introduces the boys from the Lonely Hearts Club or Billy Shears, but it works in its own way. The Beatles want you to sit back and watch the show, but The Rolling Stones want you to join in on the fun, "Open [y]our heads and let pictures come." Hell, they even have Lennon and McCartney joining in on backing vocals!

02. Citadel [9]
This song is a great mix of some great guitar riffing (I especially love the second guitar that drops in for a little bit in the left channel), sax, mellotron, I think some flute, harpsichord, an atmosphere of percussion, and Charlie Watts playing a staggered drum beat like a warped twist on "My Obsession" from the previous album before hitting his stride in the majestic choruses. Who said psychedelic music had to be all "Nights In White Satin" (one of the best songs of its genre) or "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" (blech - more like "A Whiter Shade Of Pail," which I usually need nearby when that snooze-fest comes on) or "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds"? This song rocks, just try to ignore the lyrics:

"Candy and Cathy, hope you both are well
Please come see me in the citadel."

Yikes. Not quite the Carroll-esque imagery of Lennon's psychedelic compositions (which I rank as his best right behind his "I just discovered Dylan" phase, which I mean as a high compliment), now is it? At least the music paints a wonderful picture.

Since YouTube has been the subject of scrutiny from the legal teams at more than a few major labels, I couldn't find every single song from this album. So, here's The Damned doing their cover of "Citadel."

03. In Another Land [10]

Uh...whoa. That was definitely The Rolling Stones on "Citadel," and we could at least pick out Mick Jagger on "Sing This All Together," but who the Hell is this?

This is actually sort of a big deal, being a song written and sung by bassist Bill Wyman. That's right, folks, the band was so keen to experiment in the studio that Mick and Keith let up their monkey grip (get it?) on the songwriting end that they let someone else have a go. The story goes that Bill, the straight-edged member of the band (in all fairness, this was a dual title held with Charlie until the 1980's when he quietly checked himself into rehab for a drug & drink addiction; to further counter that, though, sticking up for my drummer brethren, Charlie has the distinction of being the only monogamous Stone) was the only member to show up to the studio.

He laid down this song just the same, with some help from session man Nicky Hopkins on keyboards and two members of The Small Faces, Steve Marriott (who played acoustic guitar on the song as well) and Ronnie Lane (later to join The Faces with another guy named Ronnie and a guy named Rod). It turns out Mick and Keith liked the song, and it wound up on the album after they added backing vocals alongside Ronnie and Steve, Charlie added drums, and Brian added a mellotron part.

That in itself is one thing, but how is the end product?

It's actually a fabulous song. Bill has a good voice, though he's effected the shit out of it here. With the chant-like lyrics of the opener and the pure psychedelic gloop that make up the words to "Citadel," you might not expect much. Don't short change yourself, these lyrics are tongue-in-cheek. I've always seen this as a send-up of the psychedelic mode of songwriting - especially the third verse, where he twists the dream imagery of the earlier verses of everything being blue and feathers floating around everywhere:

"We heard the trumpets blow and the sky turned red
When I accidentally said
that I didn't know
How I came to be here
, not fast asleep in bed.
I stood and held your hand.

And nobody else's hand will ever do
Nobody else's hand.
Then I awoke, was this some kind of joke?
I opened up my eyes.
Much to my surprise."

The song ends with the sound of Bill snoring, tacked onto the song as a joke by Mick and Keith, who recorded the bassist snoring when he fell asleep during a late night session. A truly unique moment for the band, and one of their most memorable songs.

[Side note: Bill Wyman was the first Stone to put out a solo album, then a second, even a third before Mick or Keith got sick enough of each other to do their own. In fact, all three of these albums - Monkey Grip (1974), Stone Alone (1976), and Bill Wyman (1982) can all be found on one collection, The Bill Wyman Compendium. It had the misfortune of being released on 9/11/01. His solo material is quite good, but only on the grounds that you don't expect to hear Stonesy songs with a different singer. He's also got a keen sense of humor, and as the band's historian has published two excellent books, Stone Alone and Rolling With The Stones. He quit the band in 1992.]

04. 2000 Man [10]

(Yes, this was the only clip I could find. All I can say is I love the Internet.)

Back to Mick and Keith, and this one's got some weird lyrics..."I am having an affair with a random computer." It's about life in the future, but apparently it's okay to have sex with computers. It starts off with a tentative folky feel before its rocking second half. Kiss later covered it, cock-rocking it to the max, and I don't mean that in a good way. The nuances of the original are nowhere to be found in their less than delicate treatment. Oh, well. The original is great, making me wonder just how this would have been done live had they been able to tour. I bet it would have been one of the showstoppers.

05. Sing This All Together (See What Happens) [7]

Is anyone else experiencing deja vu? Not just with this song being a meditation on the opening track, but with The Rolling Stones ending the otherwise stellar A-side of an LP with a song that is maybe a little too long?

In all fairness, it isn't as bad as "Going Home." It isn't great, but it's certainly not awful. One thing I'll give it is that it is really well-done as a work of production, with all these musical colors drifting in and out without drowning the production. (I should probably go ahead and mention that Mick and Keith produced this album alone.)

First of all, listen to this song with headphones. You'll just notice more, like for example at 0:22 in the song, you can hear Mick say, "Where's that joint?" A perfect summary of the next eight minutes. Very trippy, druggy number. It has the feel of being in the desert at night, just you, the sand, and the stars...that or doing lots of drugs. Plenty of good instrumental moments from the mellotron, some guitar/brass interplay, a glockenspiel, and a piano dueling with a spaghetti western flute. At the seven-minute mark, the verse from the opening track is resurrected before the song ends with forty seconds of white noise.

It's a trip, not always enjoyable, but solid.

06. She's A Rainbow [10]

I still have no idea what the Hell is going on with this song's intro - is it a carnival game? Ah, it doesn't matter. This is a terrific little pop song, dipped in a bottle of lysergic and served to you on a sugar cube. Ok, it isn't really that psychedelic, but it wouldn't fit in anywhere else in the band's catalog.

How do Stones fans feel about this song? I shamelessly love it, the innocent piano from Nicky Hopkins, some well-used strings in the verses, some must-have-been-embarrassing-to-record backing vocals, and a mellotron that up until (literally) three minutes ago I had always thought was a saxophone. But then I heard an instrumental mix of this song from the sessions...nope. Definitely a mellotron. Good drumming here, too, nice fills. There's a beautiful piano/string solo spot in the middle of the song, and I love the pomposity-deflation that occurs with the violins sawing around the stereo soundscape around 3:55.

Pop music was never really The Rolling Stones' thing...but damn, they NAILED it here!

07. The Lantern [5.5]
Maybe the reason I thought Aftermath had such a dull B-side was because this album has two back-to-back clunkers on its flipside. This one suffers from a horrible production job, to the point that I could chalk it up as being an error in the mixing. But it isn't. The drums and piano in the left channel are barely there, and it doesn't sound good. This means that even though the guitar might really be just a hair too loud in the right channel, with the other instruments so...absent, the guitar might as well be gunshots. Very jarring. Pretty subdued brass contribution - they sound dazed, drugged-out...if that was their intention, they did too good a job with this overlong number - though it boasts some nice brass parts at the end - that never really gains momentum, let alone that it can barely maintain what little momentum it has. Ho-hum.

08. Gomper [7]

This song is unremarkable for the first 125 seconds. It isn't terrible, but it certainly isn't memorable, never quite capturing my attention. Its Indian roots are a little too obvious a cue from The Beatles, I guess. But then at 2:05 comes a really cool jam, led by a flute. The best part? The entire jam was played by Brian Jones via overdubs.

Lots of world music flavor, showing broader influence than - dare I say it? - Sgt. Pepper! (Cue suspenseful music.)

No, seriously, it's got some great motifs of African and Middle-Eastern music. The trip to Morocco, where Brian and actress Anita Pallenberg broke up and Keith took up with her - Brian's own behavior being so boorish apparently that Mick, Marianne, Keith, and Anita ditched Brian without any prior notice - must have had a profound effect on their musical interests.

Even long after the psychedelic Stones were dead and buried...Hell, even on the opening cut of Beggar's Banquet, the incomparable "Sympathy For The Devil," what starts the song but the percussion of conga player Rocky Dijon? The prototype of "Brown Sugar," a song co-written by Mick Jagger and Jones' replacement Mick Taylor called "I'm Going Down" (heard on the 1975 Decca cash-in Metamorphosis) has a dense conga arrangement near the end. "Can't You Hear Me Knocking?" off Sticky Fingers has a pretty good layering of percussion throughout its jamming coda.

09. 2000 Light Years From Home [11]

The Rolling Stones' psychedelic masterpiece. It's got a great message on the savage underbelly of the idealism of flower power: "It's so very lonely, you're a hundred/six hundred/a thousand/two thousand light years from home." The rest of the song is about space travel...but this isn't the goofy retro-futurist space travel we saw in 1950's sci-fi. No, this was the dark, gloomy outer space, the realistic visions of alien landscapes as bleak and desolate as anything on Earth. The lyrics were written by Mick Jagger during his stint in jail amid all the drug trials of the time, further underlining the sense of isolation.

After the eerie intro of backwards piano and a guitar riff accompanied by mellotron, off we go, the engines of the band thrusting us onward and upward. This is the first time since "Citadel" that they actually sound like a band, and that feels like ages ago by this point. "2000 Light Years From Home" is the only song on Their Satanic Majesties Request that lives up to the sinister implications of its title. Amazing. Truly amazing.

Long, long ago when I was in elementary school, my 4th grade class did a play called "Food Wars," a nutrition-centric spoof of Star Wars. Our teacher asked us to bring in "outer space music" to use as intro and outro music for our performances. I brought in this song. I was told it was too weird. What did she choose instead? Why, Meco's disco-tastic treatment of the Star Wars theme, naturally!

Their loss.

10. On With The Show [9]
This song isn't as memorable as I once thought it was. Otherwise it would be a ten, hands-down. It is much-needed after the last song, Mick putting on the affect of a posh cabaret emcee - "We've got all the awnsuhs!". There is a little break at 1:05, before the song can really go anywhere, I'm assuming to emulate a striptease act? The song's last minute also carries on the same vibe, with plenty of indiscernible bar chatter. My favorite is at the end where a lady says with a Texan accent, "I hope you didn't record any of this!" and Mick's prompt reply is, "No, we didn't." And that, friends, is every reason why I love The Rolling Stones.

Subtotal: 88.5% B+

Replayability Factor: 1
It had been three years since I last heard this album, popping into my head only because I found myself wanting to hear "Citadel" again. I really have to be in a specific mood to hear it. As just background music - though many Stones albums DO make for perfect background music - it's got too much going on, deserving a closer listen. Besides, if you aren't in the mood for this sort of thing, "Sing This All Together (See What Happens)" can be the most annoying shit in the world.

Consistency Factor: 0
Um...sorry on this one. My guideline is that an album earning "It's for the die-hard fan" status gets zero points for this tilt factor. I think it's a great album...but it doesn't stand for comparison to something like Sticky Fingers. That's like comparing Rubber Soul to Never Mind The Bollocks. Two great albums, but in wildly different ways. And Stones fan or not, this is not an accessible record. There are albums by The Residents more accessible than this.

External Factors: 1
Not giving them the two was difficult, based solely on the merits of "I'll give you an A for effort." This is a mesmerizing album, the last of their great innovative works. They push the envelope as much as possible, more than a few of these songs actually possessing what Frank Zappa called "NO COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL" on The Mothers' first album, Freak Out!

Unfortunately, sometimes they go too far. Not in terms of them getting too experimental, but the self-production (most noticeably on "The Lantern") was a sign that the boys shouldn't venture over to the other side of the control room window alone. They'd have Jimmy Miller for the next few albums, maybe you've heard them?

Beggars' Banquet
Let It Bleed (1969)
Sticky Fingers (1971)
Exile On Main Street (1972)
Goats Head Soup (1973)

Mick and Keith would man the production chair again on 1974's It's Only Rock 'N' Roll, and guess what? It sounds like shit. Thankfully, they got a little better at producing in time for Some Girls. Anyway, the production is at its best really bold (in the case of the layering of "Sing This All Together (See What Happens)" and the chilling work on "2000 Light Years From Home") and at its worst unnecessarily and unintentionally lo-fi dreck ("The Lantern," the first half of "Gomper.")

This also marked their first release without Andrew Oldham in the picture. He left as their manager mid-year. It's strange, the bizarre parallels with The Beatles: both groups lost their managers and proceeded with what most writers consider missteps (this album, with The Beatles it was Magical Mystery Tour) that I somehow think are overlooked and underrated. One major difference, though: while The Beatles, depending on which member of the band you asked, were doomed the moment Brian Epstein went the way of the Norwegian Blue parrot (I don't agree with that at all), The Rolling Stones flourished in the new-found freedom that came without the control Mr. Oldham had exerted on the band.

Two steps forward: great album, ditch the manager...and one step back: crummy production job and some unimaginative lyrics/songs.

TOTAL: 90.5% A-

Singles / Non-LP:

Before we do the singles, let's visit a US-only compilation entitled Flowers, released in August 1967. I don't want to go off on some stupid rant, but the US/UK disparity in releases for The Rolling Stones is Byzantine. Buy all the UK albums, you're still missing a good chunk of songs, from songs released only in the US (there's a few) to different mixes to, oh yeah, the singles. No "Paint It Black." No "Ruby Tuesday." Buy all the US albums and you're missing about an album's worth of songs trimmed from the UK releases to make room for the singles. Plus, you're buying more albums, and albums around 30 minutes in length, at that. In short, ABKCO was run by a crook - a feller by the name of Allen Klein, you may know him for some of his other exploits - and they did very little to remedy this problem with the CD reissues.

God, at least with The Beatles we had Past Masters, which gave us the singles, the ONE exclusive EP's worth of tracks, and the ONE US-only tune ("Bad Boy") in two healthy installments. (By the way, two days from now the remasters are coming out. Holy Shit.)

That said, Flowers was surprisingly balanced for a US compilation. Sure, the US listener had "Ruby Tuesday," "Let's Spend The Night Together," and "Lady Jane" from the albums, but "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby?" was given a proper release, along with ALL of the songs trimmed off Aftermath (all five of them) and Between The Buttons, plus three unreleased songs for good measure. I'm enumerating them based on their track listing on the original LP.

06. My Girl [7]
Dating from the early/mid 1965 sessions for the Out Of Our Heads album (their third UK album, their fourth in the US), this is the "My Girl" you're probably thinking of. It's pretty faithful to the original, though the string break is nowhere near as ornate as The Temptations' version. Mick doesn't have the inflection or emotion of the original, and the song drags as a result. But it isn't a terrible cover, though history would not have been kind to it had it been given a proper album/single release, as the original "My Girl" has entered the public lexicon as one of the best popular songs to come from America, ever.

11. Ride On, Baby [9]
Recorded for Aftermath in late 1965, this shows just how far they'd come from doing soul covers in their spare time. This is a driven, rocking number, with some kick-ass timekeeping from Charlie. This should have been on the album! As with "Out Of Time" and "Take It Or Leave It," this song was done by Mick Jagger's friend Chris Farlowe.

12. Sittin' On A Fence [9]
The Rolling Stones do The Kinks? Though it's a Jagger/Richards original, this song could have been plugged into a certain little green amp (but keep the harpsichord) and wouldn't have been at all out of place on (sigh, I hate this title) The Kink Kontroversy or Face To Face. Comparison to The Kinks aside, this is a lovely little acoustic country song, with some nice finger work on Keith's part and Brian on harpsichord. This, too, should have been released. It was a hit for Immediate Records duo Twice As Much. They didn't go too far.

Next comes the actual single from the time...

01. We Love You [10]
This was Mick and Keith's message of thanks to their fans and friends in the press who voiced their support during their drug trials. John and Paul are present on backing vocals (on both side of this single, in fact). The Who pledged to keep releasing their own takes of Stones songs until the two were released (managing to squeeze out "Under My Thumb" b/w "The Last Time" before they indeed were free men). Monkees Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz wore black armbands in support of Mick and Keith during their tour of England.

Great. So how's the song? Amazing! The drums, the mellotron, the backing vocals, it's all one big sound. Very cacophonous production, perfect for the song.

Try not to look directly into Brian Jones' eyes. You might catch a contact high. Jesus.

Here it is again, shorter, with the image flipped horizontally, but it's IN COLOR! That's another thing, can they not just put this stuff out on a DVD? I guess that would make too much sense, wouldn't it? Wait till I put up the promo film for "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

02. Dandelion [10]
In the midst of the "Summer of Love," The Rolling Stones pulled off a song that teeters on being kick-ass rock and acid-soaked naivety. It's a beautiful song - love the oboe solo - and there really is an innocence to this song, however imagined it might have actually been, that showed just how much respite there truly was to psychedelia, with the death of Camelot and Watts on one end, and all the turmoil of 1968 through Watergate and Hanoi on the other side. Hunter S. Thompson put it best:

"...[t]he middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run... but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant...

There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning... And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave..."

Though the late Mr. Thompson's quote ties more into the culture of America than England, its message is universal. Idealism reigned supreme. I guess knowing what horrors lurked around the corner from the peace and love scenes of 1967 gives such a bittersweet air to a song as pretty as "Dandelion." Who cares? I was born twenty years after it was released, and that's how I always knew it. I recall hearing it and thinking this song was quite happy for a band with such a dark and murky story. I was nine years old, and I knew it then.

"We Love You" b/w "Dandelion" is a Hell of a single, better than "Penny Lane" by a long shot. If only the middle of side B of Satanic Majesties had carried on the momentum, there wouldn't have been any doubt that The Rolling Stones put out two marvelous albums in 1967. Oh, well. It was what it was, love it or hate it. I'm sticking to my original statement: I love this album.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not my favorite Stones album. I don't listen to the whole thing that often. I do love a lot of the songs on here, particularly 2000 Man.

Maybe it's me, but doesn't part of the melody of Sing This All Together sound like People Take Pictures Of Each Other?

Love the psychedelic side of The Stones, especially 2000 Light Years From Home, Child of the Moon, and Dandelion.