I am by no means a great fan of the Rolling Stones. When I admit this, there is usually a sense of outrage that anybody can go on loving rock and roll music without having an unending affinity for Mick and the boys. Don’t get me wrong, I think they’ve done some fantastic work (my favorite being Beggar’s Banquet, followed closely by the raw Between the Buttons), but I’ve always felt their albums, while by and large good, each have a tremendous flaw that I cannot overlook. And usually, it’s a misplaced or misdirected song. As I’ve mentioned, I love Beggar’s Banquet, but I usually stop the tape before “Salt of the Earth.”
Between the two albums I consider best from their catalog is Their Satanic Majesties Request, an album that has a special place among critics, as it has the distinction of being an album that people usually say, upon once mentioning it, “oh, THAT album. Yeah.”
So what, really, is the deal with this album? Well, why don’t we all sing this song together, open our heads and. . . just judge this thing.
After the jump, spoken words, snoring, and jazz flute!
The immediate reaction to the idea of the Rolling Stones releasing a psychedelic album really should be met with hesitations. The band, by 1967, has built up a reputation and a series stake in the claim of being “the world’s greatest rock and roll band.” When everyone else from the British Invasion dared to venture into pop and R&B, the Rolling Stones snottily spat in the face of expectations, and remained the raw bluesy band they wanted to be.
Still, there’s something to be made (money) in having a well-established fan-base and a new idea to try. So they skipped out on making teen girls scream, and instead went straight for the head trip in what may be the most dramatic 180 in rock and roll history. After the fairly adventurous Between the Buttons, the only thing for the Rolling Stones to do in the year of the Summer of Love is to join all the bands in trying the whole psychedelic thing.
Most critics were quick to point out the similarities to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The cover, in which a colorful backdrop sits behind the band in outlandish outfits, and somewhere in a menagerie before them is a reference to the competing band: The doll on Sgt. Pepper whose shirts read “Welcome the Rolling Stones — Good Guys;” and here, if you look closely, the faces of the Beatles can be spotted at various places in the plants. But a lot of this is on the surface. Track by track, it is not so obvious or directly a copy of Sgt. Pepper, though there is some overlap in the recording dates, and the Rolling Stones had the unfortunate misfortune of releasing Satanic Majesties Request at the end of the year. So it may not be the Beatles, but the general aesthetics of psychedelia they’re after.
It is damn near impossible for me to get through “Sing This All Together.” This is an overture for every halfhearted moment on the album, and most of the blame can be found in the lyrics. The chorus:
Why don't we sing this song all together Open our heads let the pictures come And if we close all our eyes together Then we will see where we all come from
If this were written in the time when Ralph Waldo Emerson was just thinking of what transcendentalism meant, this would be earth-shatteringly excellent poetry. But, unfortunately, it’s didn’t, and it may just be simple as saying it’s not because it feels so shallow. Is it fair to say this is only because of it’s post-Sgt. Pepper release date? No, it isn’t, but there’s no other recourse in this song. It is a massive group sing-song sing-along, much like “All You Need is Love,” or even, good god, the Lemon Piper’s “Green Tambourine.” “In Another Land” is also borne of the same sort of lyrical piracy, where the idea is to play up the innocence of childhood as much as possible (even though these were the guys who wrote “Let’s Spend the Night Together!”).
“Citadel” is a vast improvement, musically. Even when the Stones are set on trying to do ‘trippy,’ you can’t deny just how awesome they were with serious riffs. And it seems to be the hallmark of this album: only the second track on the respective side will be immediately good. “The Lantern,” aside from it’s light flourishes, is a Stones song at its heart that even seems to be an early track meant for Beggar’s Banquet. If it weren’t for the lame wordplay in “Citadel,” I’m sure there would be a place for it on Between the Buttons as well.
And even though it ends on a reprise of sorts, an extended jam of just mish-mashed noise, “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” is the kind of indulgence a lesser band would take, feigning any interest in what makes experimental music engaging, and instead opting to write it off as “noise.” It’s damn near an insult. Yet, the few moments are legitimately interesting in terms of texture or a little melody, they truly are precious. Whether these few ideas are the result of inspiration or happy incident, I could never say; yet, I feel compelled to write about them. It does not save the song, or even the album, as being a worthy contender to take Sgt. Pepper’s mantle as top-notch Brit Psych album, but they must be acknowledged for some reason or another.
By the same coin, the second half, starting with “She’s a Rainbow” (potentially titled and maybe ripped from Love’s “She Comes in Colors” from Da Capo), is infinitely better. While “She’s Like a Rainbow” takes directly from the “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” playbook, and “On with the Show” can be a carbon copy of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” the quality of the music on this side just feels a little more natural. As aforementioned, “The Lantern” is just a touch away from being a straight-forward Rolling Stones classic, the kind of B-side that fans praise as being as strong as any of their material. The gorgeous piano from Nicky Hopkins, Keef’s classic acoustic rhythms, and that vintage Brian Jones fuzzy lead fuel this song, and it goes by practically unnoticed. This is the only song where the Stones sound like the bleedin’ Stones, and the only one where I actually nodded my head along with the rhythm.
But, unfortunately, for everything that makes Side 2 more interesting than the first, it gets weighed down by that first side; we’ve already been through such a weak attempt at happy Wordworthian poetry and misguided experimentation, that we don’t want to bother listening to what can happen with a little practice. What happens isn’t perfection, but it’s maybe, just maybe, a fine little psychedelic record, or parody.
If there’s any major shame to the album, it’s the lyrics and the fact that, surprisingly, Mick Jagger can’t deliver. “Ruby Tuesday” hints at psychedelic mastery from all members of the Stones in a folk-rock way, but this is one of the instances where the jump is too great for the band to make. This is by no means a bad album; rather, it’s an unfortunately, tragically lazy one. Whether they were compelled by their peers, or their record company to do this album, it’s a misstep that could have been avoided.