Another Spin: The Rolling Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request”

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.”

 

Oh. THIS album.

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.

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7 responses to “Another Spin: The Rolling Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request”

  1. Captain Sensible

    That’s your opinion Squire – and I think you’re wrong.

    Whether they like it or not the Rolling Stones created an exquisite psychedelic masterpiece that works on nearly every level – and yes, that includes the lyrics. Everyone went a bit ‘cosmic’ in the summer of love…. including the pupils at my school in Croydon – which didn’t go terribly down well with the headmaster I can tell you. But that’s another story.

    As you constantly compare Satanic Majesties with the Beatles own 1967 effort I hope you’ll be giving Pepper’s lyrical content the same critical once over. John’s Getting Better strikes me as a contender (with Elvis’s ‘Always On My Mind’) for rock’s greatest wife beaters anthem. And isn’t there some equally hippy dippy drivel on side 2 of the fab four’s platter.

    But going back to TSMR – is side one as weak as you say? Do you ‘dig’ wig out jamming? I do, and I’d say this is up there with the likes of Can, Steamhammer, Syd’s Floyd and Neu. And despite the internal conflicts in the band (and Mick and Keef’s attempts to sideline him at the time) Brian Jones gets one last chance to showcase his genius – and on a multitude of instruments too. The melotron on ‘2000 Light Years From Home’ is probably worth the price of the album alone.

    And was Brian really that pissed off with the direction of this record as you say? By his stupendous efforts this sounds more like HIS album than that of the Glimmer Twats if you ask me. Every note he plays is gold dust, regardless of the blokes legendary personality flaws.

    Satanic Majesties ‘comes in colours’ alright – and compares most favourably to most of the one dimensional, lazy rawk that this band would continue their career with.

    I’m actually NOT much of a Stones fan either…. some of the unmitigated garbage that this bunch of bored rock stars have churned out in the last few decades would have killed most bands – if it wasn’t for the fact that the 60s virtually belonged to them.

    But I LOVE Their Satanic Majesties Request. It is an album that rewards frequent playing…. as evidenced by the fact that I’ve worn out several vinyl copies since my schooldays.

    Anyway musics like that, we can’t all agree on everything can we….. personally I can’t stand Mozart – much preferring Bach and Rachmaninov, blah blah, etc.

    Good blog though.

    Brian Jones RIP – Captain Sensible (that Damned guitarist)

    http://www.captainsensible.com

  2. @ Captain Sensible: Thanks for the passionate reply; it’s good to know that someone is willing to stick up for something they feel is a superior piece of art. If someone is willing to sit at length about the merits of the album, then of course I’m willing to give it another try.

    As it is, I will stand by my conviction that the band’s best work is when they stick to the basics of the blues and rock. Yes, their 70’s material is hit-or-miss at best, and even the later 60’s albums, I think, can be marred by one flawed track where they try to do something a little too ambitious. I hate to say it, but to me, the Stones are simply one of those bands where expanding their sound and style doesn’t work out as often as I’m sure they hoped.

    Mind you, my favorite Stones album is “Beggar’s Banquet,” and even I have to take the needle off before “Salt of the Earth” hits my stereo.

    By the way: John’s penchant for wife beating, I think, is best illustrated in “Run for You Life,” back on “Rubber Soul.” Yeah, the line in “Getting Better” is pretty shocking upon first listen, but an entire song about being the end for a girl who goes around with another man? The harmonies when they sing “That’s the end / little girl” make the line all the more disturbing.

  3. Sure, Satanic majesty’ is a bit of a patchy effort, but songs like 2000 light-years, She’s a Rainbow, The Lantern and Citadel have always been favourites of mine and one of the main reasons I got into the Stones. This was the first proper (non-compilation based) Stones album I ever bought (and the first CD I ever bought) and although it is not in the same league as Aftermath, Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main Street – it was undeniably the beginning of the second rise to power of one the most successful bands there has ever been.

    I think this article seems a little dismissive of the Stones work after Beggars Banquet and the following albums from the late-60’s/early-70’s, which are easily some of the greatest records they ever made – all after Brian Jones was kicked-out the band. It could be argued that the ‘patchiness’ of Satanic Majesty’ is largely due to the inconsistent input from a jaded Brian Jones at this stage in their career,

    Brian Jones shows genius on songs like She’s A Rainbow, 2000 Light-years (although its actually John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin playing melotron), etc – but the eastern instrumental ‘experiments’ and chanting are largely his ideas and sometimes sound a bit disjointed in a band that was trying to be something it was not.

    It was around this time in their history that Jones faded out of the main writing team in the band, caught up in heavy drug use, personal problems and ill health. This was the last Stones album with his stamp on it, as after this his situation with the band was unworkable (Keith stole his woman!) and by the time of Let It Bleed, Jones was barely managing to make recording sessions and is only to be heard on the album playing percussion.

    Her Satanic Majesties Request is a mixture of the very bizarre and the exceptional, but there is no way it is even in the Stones 5 best albums. The Stones are really just a great rock n roll band and they didn’t need capes, flowers or Maharishis hanging about to lay down some great tracks. I can only suspect Steel Wheels/Emotional Rescue/Dirty Work/Bridges of Babylon/Bigger Bang etc might have benefited from such gimmicks though.

    • Disagree Pete…. Satanic Majesties is an inspirational psych masterpiece that rewards constant playing (over many decades in my case) while the subsequent Stones albums are a substandard collection of boogie / rawk n’ roll records on the whole – knocked up by a bunch of lazy stoned millionaire rock stars who have lost the hunger to be bothered to write decent songs any more (with a few notable exceptions of course). These albums are patchy and full of filler tracks – something you cannot say about TSMR, which whether you dig it or not grabs the attention throughout.

      To a certain extent the Damned used it as the template for their Black Album (1980) which is so dark in places it almost single handedly brought goth into being.

      BTW, we are showcasing the Black Album worldwide on our 35th anniversary tour which starts in a few weeks time. Here endeth the plug!

      cheers – Cap’n Sensible

      officialdamned.com

      • Captain: I recon Satanic Majesties has several filler tracks on it! Gomper, In Another Land, Sing This All Together, for instance: they are amusing and i like them – but TSMR is not a psychedelic masterpiece akin to the work of the 13th Floor Elevators, Barrett-era Pink Floyd or the Electric Prunes. The Stones (Brian Jones aside) just didn’t seem cut-out for full-on psychedelia. Much as Jagger tried to follow the trend and embrace it, its fairly obvious that as a group they were more into the drugs than the flowers, crazy lightshows, incense or what-not!

        Let it Bleed on the other hand; is an unstoppable yet perhaps more-typical Stones album and ‘filler tracks’ like Monkey Man and Live With Me are on par with anything on TSMR and many of their most famous hits. Much as i love Satanic Majesties, it’s not really the Stones doing what they do best (IE rock n’ roll) and although it has some undoubtedly fantastic tunes on it – there is always the sense that they were just trying to follow the Beatles. It just seems a wee bit contrived to me – but i still love it!

        Very excited for the Damned tour by the way! Saw you in Glasgow with Motorhead a couple of years back when you played Lookin’ At You by MC5 – mind-blowing! Hope you’ll be coming back up this way again. Cheers – Pete

  4. @ pete howard — Thanks for the comments. In particular, I don’t want to sound like I’m dismissing the late 60’s-early 70’s material completely, but I do feel like they were inconsistent as a string of albums. “Sticky Fingers” is a favorite, as is “Goat’s Head Soup.” But I may be one of the few who can’t find something to love about “Exile on Main Street.” I know that comment can get me black listed, but I got to stand my ground.

  5. “Getting Better All The Time” is Paul.

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