The Rolling Stones. Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, about to enter the recording studio in mid 1967, provided they stay out of the clutches of Her Britannic Majesty’s criminal justice system that has been rigged against them. Quick answer: They don’t. BELOW: Earlier, happier times . . .
The Royal Albert Hall, September 23, 1966. Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow? Maybe, but Mick Jagger doesn’t see a crazed fan race toward him from the offstage shadows until she is about to tackle him with assistance from a friend who joins the melee. While Jagger is nearly hog-tied by fans, Brian Jones (foreground) and Keith Richards (background) play on, unfazed. Just another day at the office . . . But pop music had already entered a new phase that would end the phenomenon of screaming teen audiences.
In the fall of 1966, a seismic shift began in the world of pop music. Much like economic recessions and recoveries, such movements are rarely spotted without the benefit of lengthy hindsight, and this one as well came largely unnoticed at the time it occurred. The British pop artists who led the early 60s musical invasion of the West, who had seen America as the source of both their inspiration and their new wealth, found the road and concert halls, teeming with screaming teen fans, tiresome. Those acts who were well-established reasoned that expensive and exhausting trans-Atlantic tours were no longer all that important — they sold records just as well with the occasional television appearance — in person or in a newly developed format: the promotional film, or “promo.”
After performing their final concert tours that fall, The Beatles announced they were leaving the stage and retiring to the recording studio. Reports trickled in over the fall and winter months from Abbey Road studios in London that seemed to indicate to outsiders that the band was struggling to find a different musical direction. After several months in the studio, they were reportedly nowhere near completing their latest album (in an era in which most such works were completed in a matter of a few weeks), one that was reportedly over-budget, and costing close to the tune of 100,000 British pounds.
The Beatles’ closest competitors, The Rolling Stones, were always genuinely friendly rivals with whom they had an unwritten pact to never release their latest work at the same time. The Stones, unlike The Beatles, had never carried the weight (or had it thrust upon them) of an entire musical or cultural movement. The Stones, having started as an R&B cover band much like the Beatles, had not developed their own songwriting skills to the point where they could fill an entire album with their own compositions until late 1965 when they began to lay down tracks at RCA Sound Studios in Los Angeles at the end of yet another American tour.
Above: More madness at the Albert Hall: this time it’s Keith Richards’ turn to be saved by security from crazed fans while, Below: Brian Jones has a hearty laugh at his expense . . .
The album that resulted from those sessions, Aftermath, was released in the spring of 1966. Musically, it was the Stones creating their own brand of what was basically standard R&B. If they occasionally broke out of the R&B mold, it was with the employment of exotic instrumentation by Brian Jones on tracks like “Lady Jane,” and “Mother’s Little Helper.” Lyrically, they addressed subjects such as drug use and casual sex with a directness that exceeded any of their contemporaries, but they hadn’t made any major leaps forward musically, nor were they expected to. The Beatles, however, had followed in June 1966 with the release of Revolver, a masterful collection of recordings that extended the possibilities of pop song structure even further than the band already had done in their prior work.
. . . and Brian Jones feels the benefit of extra security as well, as he is led off stage to safety.
Even in their earlier recordings, The Beatles had ignored the standard pop song structure that had dominated the past 65 years, i.e., songs having the typical format of a combination of intro, verse, verse, chorus, bridge, verse and chorus. Revolver was the refreshing work of songwriters not schooled in the formal structure of traditional pop song, or at least the classic 20th century model of it.
From the latter decades of the 19th century up until the mid 1960s, popular music had been dominated by music publishers employing professional songwriters — not popular performers – to pen “hits.” And the rigidity with which they held to standard popular song-form was formidable. American professional songwriting had its figurative headquarters (and its early, literal headquarters as well) on “Tin Pan Alley,” a stretch of West 28th Street in New York, a Manhattan crosstown street that got its nickname from the constant clanging of upright pianos wafting the latest hopeful hits from open windows on every floor above ground level out onto the street just a Stones’ throw from Broadway and the old theater district.
The close connection with Broadway fostered a symbiotic relationship between the stage musical — a form that grew rapidly at the dawn of the new century – and the music publishing houses. Hit songs sold shows and hit shows sold more songs, first in the form of sheet music and later with recorded music. As late as the mid 1960s, many of the big pop hits were still being written by professional songwriters, but closer to Times Square, clustered in the Brill Building on West 49th Street and Broadway. Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Lieber and Stoller, Mann and Weil, Neil Diamond and many other professional songwriters wrote hits for performing artists. (Some of these writers also became successful performers in the 60s, and well into the next decade — even an iconoclast like Lou Reed began his career working as a staff songwriter during the same period.)
But as 1967 dawned, the focus of the pop music world was on America’s West Coast. California, and San Francisco in particular, had since the late 19th century been a haven for a “counter-culture,” a place where freak flags could fly without (or with less) fear than elsewhere in an otherwise conservative, even puritanical, America. San Francisco had been home for literary and intellectual adventurers from Frank Norris to Lenny Bruce. Always left-leaning, it had attracted the progenitors and devotees of both progressive jazz and politically radical folk music, disparate forms that found commonality in being practiced by outliers of American society. This is where pop musicians began to sift their way through the mix in order to find elements that fit an open and less conventional sound both musically and in song structure. And virtually all of these elements were on vivid display, both aurally and visually, at the International Pop Festival at Monterey, California in June, 1967.
For the first time since the early 60s, it was the British musicians who found themselves in the new and now rather uncomfortable position of having to react to a new sound. Their biggest problem was that this new music appeared to have no single defining sound or artist – except that, similar to the judge’s definition of pornography, you recognized it when you saw or, in this case, heard it. And being open wide to interpretation, this lack of definition offered greater opportunities, the sort never imagined on Tin Pan Alley, for artistic license to reach new highs – and lows.
It should not be surprising that John Lennon and Paul McCartney — whose considerable talent as songwriters and their refusal to adhere to traditional song forms – would be able to pick up the challenge, and emerge as the standard bearers for the new music of a generation. After all, they had already planted the seed themselves.
Without realizing it, The Beatles had kick-started a revolution with Revolver in mid 1966. Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead had heard it playing from a second floor window in San Francisco, much as half a century earlier the clanging pianos of Tin Pan Alley were heard on the streets of New York below. It was “Tomorrow Never Knows,” from Revolver, an eastern-influenced, pseudo raga-rock track with a propulsive, yet slightly off-kilter beat, backward tape loops and a heavily processed, distorted vocal by John Lennon reciting his lyrical take on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In an era of top-40 radio populated — and sometimes dominated — by Herman’s Hermits, Sonny and Cher, and the Cowsills, the contrast was truly mind-bending.
The Rolling Stones had followed the Beatles’ Revolver with a new release in early 1967, the album Between the Buttons, buttressed by a two-sided hit single, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”/”Ruby Tuesday,” the former a lyrically lascivious, four beats to the bar, piano-based rocker, and the latter a baroque ballad underscored again by piano, with Brian Jones on the flute-like recorder, and Bill Wyman on bowed double bass. The Beatles released their response, the equivalent double-sided 45 rpm masterpiece, “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever,” both of which had been recorded during the sessions for their yet-to-be-named, months-in-the-making and still unfinished album.
McCartney’s “Penny Lane” owes its simple structure to English music hall — a self-contained variety show — but one with vignettes that at first seem nothing more than a nostalgic recollection of a time and place, but become more dream-like and surreal with each verse. Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields” is likewise a remembrance of things past, but structurally it turns the traditional song-form on its head by beginning with chorus, and alternating with verse through the remainder of the song, with lyrics that become more opaque as the verses progress, and vocal distortions (aided by Lennon singing them while flat on his back) giving a strained, seemingly drug-induced timbre to Lennon’s voice. As brilliant as these tracks were, neither would be part of the forthcoming new album — a sign that the tracks to be included on it might be even more impressive.
The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band just prior to the Monterey Pop Festival. The timing was both coincidental and fortuitous. Although it has been viewed by revisionists as actually a lesser work than its predecessor, Revolver, it was seen at the time of its release to be the high-water mark of mid-20th century popular music. Again with hindsight, it can be seen as roughly equal to another previous recording that largely inspired it, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966). While the Beatles may have explored the darker regions of 20th century life compared to their California counterparts, the relative merits of each in terms of inventive songwriting, vocal and instrumental arrangements, and creative use of modern (for the time) recording technology can be debated endlessly without finding one ultimately superior to the other. But in June 1967, The Beatles were far and away the critical and popular darlings of modern popular music and culture. ”Sgt. Pepper” set the bar seemingly higher than anything that came before. And now it was their friendly rivals’ turn.
To say that The Rolling Stones were unready for the challenge would be a monumental understatement. It was already difficult, if not unfair, to compare the two bands. Both had begun as “singles” bands at a time when album sales were viewed as secondary to hit singles in the industry. Albums were merely a way to draw extra revenue from the buyer who was a true fan of a particular artist. They frequently contained little more than filler in addition to one or two of an artist’s most recent hit songs. The Beatles, both commercially and artistically, led the way in creating and promoting the album as a unified work in itself. They even went so far as to exclude their most recent hit singles from albums released on their U.K. label, EMI (unlike the American releases on Capitol Records).
The Beatles were creating albums as singular works of music, songs that were integrated and complemented each other: Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966) and now Sgt Pepper were individual works not tied to or dependent upon the success of a hit single. And with Sgt Pepper, The Beatles actually eliminated the blank spaces between the grooves of individual tracks to essentially force the listener to play all the tracks together, consecutively. There was an overall artistic intent at work here, regardless of how anyone viewed the music’s quality.
The Stones on the other hand, were still firmly a singles band, and had recorded only two albums of all-original material, the aforementioned Aftermath (1966) and Between the Buttons (1967). If musical ability and songwriting skills were all that were in contention, then one could at least expect a healthy competition between friendly rivals, in the absence of outside distractions. But “outside distractions” would cause the Stones’ creativity to come to a virtual halt at a time when it was most needed.
While The Beatles were sequestered at Abbey Road, the Stones had been promoting Between the Buttons in January and early February, 1967, then began their first tentative recording sessions the second week of February on their next as yet untitled album. Brian Jones’ growing drug and alcohol abuse, in addition to his asthma (and possibly a seizure disorder as well), and his lessening interest in the guitar and in the music being written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, had made him a distinct liability on tour and a frequent no-show at recording sessions. Yet surprisingly, Jones was now busy with two projects. Unfortunately for his band mates, neither had much, if anything, to do with the Rolling Stones.
Jones had been preparing a soundtrack for a film directed by German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff, Mord und Totschlag (eventually released in the U.S. as A Degree of Murder in 1969), starring Jones’ current (and Keith Richards’ future) girlfriend, the German-Italian actress-model Anita Pallenberg. In late summer of 1966, Jones began recording at IBC studios in London with session players Jimmy Page and Nicky Hopkins, among others, a project that continued intermittently the following winter with the now legendary recording engineer Glyn Johns at Olympic Sound studios, while the early sessions for the Stones next record were being held. Interspersed were trips to Morocco for another pet project for Jones, field recordings of the master musicians of Joujouka for a proposed album. Jones was inspired by the Moroccan musicians but his myriad problems – physical, psychological, legal – would prevent him from completing this work, and kept this music from having the major impact that Jones may have originally intended on the Stones’ new album-in-progress. (The field recordings Jones made of the musicans of Joujouka were eventually released as an album, Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka, on the Rolling Stones record label in 1971, and rereleased in the mid 1990s on CD.)
The Stones’ itinerary during this period also included a European tour from late March to mid April, including a historic first concert behind the “Iron Curtain,” in Warsaw, Poland on April 13, 1967. Following the tour, his last with the Stones, Jones flew to Berlin to attend the premier of Mord und Totschlag with Pallenberg. But when the rest of the Stones returned to England in late April, Jones was not the major hindrance to completion of a new Stones record. It was something that had happened before the recent tour, something almost forgotten.
In February, police had raided Keith Richards’ country home, Redlands, and questioned those attending an all-day party there: Mick Jagger, his girlfriend the singer Marianne Faithfull, art dealer Robert Fraser and Richards. The police were looking for drugs, and found them (although some were planted, and others such as Jagger’s amphetamines had been purchased legally out of the country). Legend has it that a journalist from the British tabloid, The News of the World, had been feeding information to police after having interviewed Brian Jones at a London nightclub where Jones was liberally consuming various illegal, mind-altering substances. Having thought the reporter had interviewed Jagger, the police, intent on nailing the Stones’ frontman, set up the raid at Richard’s residence after learning Jagger would be present.
Not sticking around waiting for charges to be filed, the Stones’ completed their European tour before heading to Morocco for rest and relaxation. Upon their return, Jagger and Richards were formally charged. On the very same day, Brian Jones’ apartment in London was raided. Police found hashish and Jones was charged with possession. Jagger and Richards pled not guilty and trial was scheduled for June 29th. While Jagger and Richards were awaiting trial, Jones flew to California to attend the Monterey Pop Festival, June 16-18, where even as a non-performer he still attracted crowds and served as an informal M.C. for several acts, including the introduction of Jimi Hendrix, who Jones had befriended and championed in London the previous year.
At trial, Mick Jagger was found guilty of possession of amphetamines, and Richards guilty of permitting cannabis on his property. Both were sentenced to jail terms — Jagger 30 days, Richards 12 months. Richards clearly did himself no favors by uttering a now legendary courtroom riposte to his prosecutor. When asked if it were not unusual to have a woman lounging in his living room nude except for a fur rug, Richards testified, “We are not old men. We are not worried about petty morals.” Jagger and Richards each spent a night in jail before being released on bail pending appeal of their convictions.
Those convictions were overturned in July, with a rather hefty assist from a strongly sympathetic editorial in that storied British institution, The London Times, headlined, “Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?” In it, Times editor William Rees-Mogg argued that the harsh sentences given Jagger and Richards were due solely to their notoriety, and not the nature of their crime or any prior violations. Brian Jones on the other hand pled guilty to the charges against him, expecting a lesser sentence of fines and probation. Instead, he received a sentence of nine months in jail and fines. Out on bail, his appeal process dragged on until the following year when his sentence was reduced to probation. Brian’s conviction effectively finished his career as an international touring musician, and set him firmly on a path that led to the end of his association with the Rolling Stones.
During this period of turmoil, studio logs show that various members of the Stones attended recording sessions at Olympic Sound Studios — four days in mid-May and four more in June. But the bulk of the work on the new album occurred in three weeks during July, though Jones missed the first ten days, presumably due at least in part to his legal issues after he had returned from Monterey.
It was during these July sessions that Jagger and Richards, having gone through the British legal system and survived, penned and recorded “We Love You,” a song inspired by the events. A brief excerpt of the lyrics give an idea of the overall theme, and it’s not your garden variety “flower power:”
“You will never win ‘we’
Your uniforms don’t fit ‘we’
We forget the place we’re in
‘Cause we love you!”
Set to a frenetic clash of drums and piano, the song is capped by Jones’ harmonic minor scale riff on Mellotron. The presence of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who were invited to provide backing vocals, indicates that this was considered much more than a throwaway number by Jagger and Richards. Though recorded during the same sessions that eventually produced the new album, “We Love You” seems not to have been intended for inclusion, though musically (if not lyrically) it could have fit into the scheme of the album-in-progress. Rather, it appears to have been fast-tracked for a quick and timely summer release on August 18, 1967, as was the promotional video that accompanied the song.
The video, audacious for its time, was both a loose adaptation of the late 19th century sodomy trial of Oscar Wilde and a condensation of the drug prosecution of Jagger, Richards and Jones. Marianne Faithfull portrays both a defendant (possibly Jones?) and a witness for Her Majesty. Richards is the judge and jury, complete with wig made of rolled newspaper headlines; Jagger is both prosecuting attorney and the real “girl in the fur rug,” a commentary on the police report of the woman at Redlands, Ms. Faithfull, nude except for the already legendary animal skin. (The film made no representation of the mythical “Mars Bar” in Faithfull’s vagina, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on the depth of your depravity.)
The remaining album sessions were recorded at Olympic in roughly ten days interspersed throughout October. The album was finally released, but not after further delay caused by minor controversy. Apparently not quite through venting their anger at the British authorities who had set them up for imprisonment, the band gave their new album the acrimonious and wicked title, Her Satanic Majesty Requests and Requires. It was a corruption of the Queen’s standard official government directive for someone to appear: “Her Britannic Majesty Requests and Requires, [your presence . . . etc.].” The Stones’ UK label, Decca Records, was not amused. After brief protestation, Jagger and Richards relented. After all these were the same Stones who caved in to Ed Sullivan’s demand the previous winter that they sing their latest hit as, “Let’s spend some time [not "the night"] together . . .”
The album with the “compromise” title was released on December 8, 1967, as Their Satanic Majesties Request. If nothing else, the title was the source of myth for maybe half a decade that Jagger and Richards (and Jones while he lived) had entered into the proverbial pact with the devil, and that their involvement in the black arts had been the source of both their successes and their various travails. Would that it had truly been so. It would have been so much more interesting than what lay ahead for the band from the late-seventies onward.
* * *
So what to make of the finished product? Stones’ lore has it that it was the worst record of their career, or that it was a “mistake” made in an honest effort to measure up to the standard of Sgt Pepper, or that it was an unfortunate, unnecessary bow to “flower power” and the 1967 “summer of love,” or that it marked a transitional phase where the band went from being a hit-making machine to one that crafted unified albums, works that were based upon the band’s blues roots, rather than the fashions of the moment. It is this latter interpretation that comes closest to the truth.
“Satanic Majesties” contains ten tracks (not counting the synth snippet at the end of side one, following track 5). Four of them rank with the best of the Rolling Stones’ previous 1960s work, two more are close, and the seventh is a more than serviceable album track. The remaining three are, at best, merely oddities, part and parcel of their times, with good moments done in by a lack of production discipline. For this, blame the band themselves. It was their first self-produced album: original manager and producer Andrew Loog Oldham had been essentially forced out sometime before the sessions began in earnest in mid-1967. That explains a lot, especially for a project plagued by the kinds of problems experienced by the band’s most visible members.
The opening track, “Sing This All Together,” is neither serious nor insincere, a drum-circle sing-along with everyone banging on whatever is available in the studio, while disconnected riffs of guitar (Richards), trumpet, trombone and Mellotron (all Jones) and piano (session player Nicky Hopkins) float in and out, both during and between verses exhorting us to “open our minds, let the pictures come.” But with Paul McCartney and John Lennon on backing vocals (along with various wives and girlfriends), any seriousness is skewered hilariously by Lennon’s exaggerated, froggy singing of the song’s final line,
“And if we close all our eyes together
then we will see where we all
That line is followed by a braying brass section – the kind of musical statement that mocks a comic’s lousy joke or an amateur stripper’s stumbling exit.
Almost immediately, we are jerked back into reality by Richards’ heavy three chord intro to “Citadel,” a grim depiction of an unhappy but brave new world where “screaming people . . . in their shining metal cars” screech “through their worlds of steel and glass.” Told in the form of an invitation to friends to “please come see me in the citadel,” the bleak Orwellian description of this urban jungle (“here, the peasants come and crawl”) would likely result in any invitation there to be promptly declined. The heaviest guitar and bass sound yet heard on a Rolling Stones’ record is complemented by shimmering harpsichord (Hopkins) and Mellotron (Jones). If there is a definition of psychedelic rock, this is it, and done as well as anyone of the era could do it. The band would top even that before the last track on the album.
One may quibble with the heavily processed tremolo on one of Bill Wyman’s double-tracked vocals on “In Another Land.” But in addition to being recorded and sung by Wyman and friends Ronnie Lane and Steve Marriott of the Small Faces while Jagger, Richards and Jones were often no-shows at Olympic Studios, it is the only song written by a Rolling Stone not named Jagger or Richards to be recorded and released during the band’s original incarnation. It was also the first track released as a single from the album. (Released in the U. S. only, and backed with “The Lantern,” it reached no. 64 on the Billboard charts, according to Wyman, without any promotion by their record company.) The song is Wyman’s morning remembrance of a disjointed dream of his lover and of things both pleasant and not, clear and cloudy as dreams are:
“We heard the trumpets blow,
and the sky turned red
when I accidentally said –
but I didn’t know.
How I’d hate to be here,
not fast asleep in bed,
I stood and held your hand.
And nobody else’s hand would ever do,
nobody else’s hand.”
But it is a dream, even with its unpleasantness, from which the dreamer awakes angrily in the song’s chorus — reality is much worse:
“Then I awoke.
Was this some kind of joke?
Much to my surprise,
when I opened my eyes.”
Three genteel verses are dominated by keyboards: organ, harpsichord and Mellotron by, respectively, Ian Stewart, Nicky Hopkins and Brian Jones. The chorus is underscored by acoustic guitars by Marriott and Keith Richards, who along with Jagger adds backing vocals. Fittingly, the track ends with an apparently candid recording of a very loud, deep snore by Wyman (probably catching a few winks whilst waiting for his band to show up at the studio).
The next track, “2000 Man,” may be least known gem of the Stones’ entire canon, an upbeat, folk-rock tale of a thoroughly modern man and a prescient view of the similar future for his children and theirs as well. It opens with a twin acoustic guitar figure in a sprightly A major ringing with open fourths and fifths, played by Richards and Brian Jones without apparent overdubs. It is likely the last or next-to-last example of the band’s two original guitarists in an acoustic duet on record (“No Expectations” from the following year’s Beggar’s Banquet is the other).
Jagger’s plaintive vocal following the guitar intro wastes no time explaining his world — a time set in the very near future (from 1967, of course), where his “name is a number” on a piece of microfilm. In the second verse he describes a lifestyle already defined by all things digital:
“Well, my wife still respects me –
I really misuse her.
I am having an affair
with a random computer.
Don’t you know? I’m a 2000 man.
And my kids they just don’t
understand me at all.”
In the chorus, as the acoustic guitars and Hopkins’ organ vie for dominance, his children mock their parents in a punning, nursery rhyme fashion,
“Oh daddy! Proud of your planet!
Oh mummy! Proud of your son!”
The children turn accusatory in the bridge as Richards launches into a blistering classic blues-rock riff:
“Oh, Daddy, is your brain still flashing
Like it did when you were young?
Or, did you come down crashing
Seeing all the things you’ve done?”
His final admonition is to us, his listeners:
“And you’ll know who’s a 2000 man
and your kids they just won’t
understand you at all.”
Following “2000 Man,” the second of the three weakest tracks of the album concludes side one, a tedious reprise of the opening track, this one titled, “Sing This All Together (See What Happens).” Unlike the preceding three tracks, nothing of note “happens” (with one exception, and that is Keith Richards for the first time on record exploring riffs made with open tunings). Eschewing even the silly vocals that made the opening track bearable, the Stones prove conclusively that The Grateful Dead had no need to worry about competition when it came to improvisation. The fractured riffs that floated in and out on the opener do so again, only for about 5 minutes longer. As this all grinds to a halt, the opening track’s melody reappears, and almost rescues this reprise, as Jagger intones,
“Pictures of us spin the circling sun,
Pictures of us show that we’re all one,”
abruptly, the brass and a lone piano key end it. (As if to punctuate the pointlessness, Bill Wyman’s uncredited synthesizer noodling follows. It is often referred to as “Cosmic Christmas,” as if that was what the distorted whispering says, based on “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” I don’t hear it.)
Side Two, Track 6, begins with what at first seems like a dreary extension of the noise that closed out Side One, a field recording of some carnival competition: “Any prize, take what you like. Are you ready?” Instead, “She’s A Rainbow” segues into a piquant piano introduction by Nicky Hopkins, followed directly by the chorus consisting at first of Jones’ Mellotron and a small string section arranged by session musician and future Led Zeppelin co-founder John Paul Jones. Jagger and Richards break into song with lyrics that can best be described as a celebration of a particularly beautiful and colorful woman and her psychedelic orgasms.
“She comes in colors ev’rywhere
She combs her hair
She’s like a rainbow
Coming, colors in the air
She comes in colors.”
One imagines that it is Jagger who wrote the lyrics as a tribute to Marianne Faithfull, a strikingly gorgeous example of English womanhood with pale complexion, “cornflower blue” eyes, and hair of rose gold, who was far too good for him or his cohorts. It certainly wasn’t inspired by Anita Pallenberg, who may at the time have just recently switched from Brian Jones to Keith Richards. Spectacular in her own right, Anita doesn’t fit the lyrical description:
“Have you seen her dressed in blue?
See the sky in front of you
And her face is like a sail
Speck of white so fair and pale
Have you seen a lady fairer?”
And rapturously more follows:
“Have you seen her all in gold?
Like a queen in days of old
She shoots colors all around
Like a sunset going down
Have you seen a lady fairer?”
“She’s a Rainbow” closes with a harsh, electronically distorted, bell-like sound. The next track, “The Lantern,” opens with bells, but much darker and ominous as Brian Jones’ Mellotron sneaks underneath, leading to a Keith Richards acoustic guitar intro that is quickly slapped into the background by Richards’ overdub of electric guitar heavily processed with tremolo. Jagger’s snakelike reading of the lyric coils up alongside the guitar to begin a curious, serio-comic vignette, one still slightly creepy in a tongue-in-cheeky manner. It is a comically macabre take on a Poe-like tale of death and promises of a return from the grave. The barrelhouse piano by Hopkins competing with Richards’ screeching three note riff between verses, and Wyman’s nimble bass throughout, keep the track from becoming turgid.
The singer beseeches his love to return and get him if she dies before he does:
We, in our present life,
Knew that the stars were right.
That if you are the first to go,
You’ll leave a sign to let me know,
Tell me so.
Please, carry the Lantern lights.
The lyrics get eerily more specific as we realize he is attempting to reach an already dead lover, a conclusion supported by the following verse,
You crossed the sea of night,
Free from the spell of fright.
Your cloak it is a spirit shroud,
You’ll wake me in my sleeping hours,
Like a cloud.
So please, carry the Lantern high!
Horrifically (to us anyway), his dead lover finally appears as patiently anticipated:
Me, in my sorry plight.
You, waiting everynight.
My face it turns a deathly pale,
You’re talking to me through your veil,
I hear you wail!
So, please – carry the Lantern light.
In the final verse, the singer describes his own welcome demise:
The servants sleep,
The door’s are barred.
You hear the stopping of my heart –
We never part.
So, please — carry the Lantern high!
A four note organ intro begins the last truly undisciplined exercise on the album, “Gomper.” The title, to my knowledge, has no explanation — just as well. Unfortunately, the track wastes a very serviceable, even catchy, guitar riff by Richards which Wyman doubles on bass. The vocal by Jagger and Richards follows the melody set up by the organ, underpinned by the riff, and the lyrics seem to describe someone silently watching a woman bathing nude in a woodland setting. After one verse and a partial chorus (or is it the remnants of a potential bridge?), the songwriters seem to have lost interest, and the track degenerates into a pseudo-eastern raga of recorders and electric dulcimers by Brian Jones. Fortunately, Jones would MORE than redeem himself on the next track.
A buzzing synth crescendo gives way to the crashing chords of an electronically processed grand piano, followed by Bill Wyman’s insistent bass riff. The intro then explodes with Charlie Watts’ tympani roll into Jagger’s vocal, mirrored by Jones on Mellotron:
“Sun turning ’round with graceful motion,
We’re setting off with soft explosion,
Bound for a star-fiery ocean.
It’s so very lonely . . .”
Thus begins the album’s stellar track, “2000 Light Years From Home.” Ostensibly an account of routine interstellar space travel, it is describes the sheer magnitude of distance that produces both loneliness and foreboding — humans aren’t meant to be this far apart. It is a notion underscored by lyrics that paint a bleak, stark description of alien landscapes:
“Freezing red deserts turn to dark,
Energy here in ev’ry part.”
The only human interaction is with an interplanetary spacecraft controller:
” ‘Bell Flight 14, you now can land.
See you on Aldebaran
Safe on the free desert sands.’
It’s so very lonely:
You’re 2000 light-years from home.”
The Rolling Stones appear to master, in just one attempt, the kind of space-rock Pink Floyd would spend decades making and refining. They also anticipate both the awful emptiness of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Buzz Aldrin’s 1969 description of the moonscape, “magnificent desolation.”
In “2000 Light Years From Home,” the desolation is provided by Jones’ magnificent Mellotron track, just five notes on a minor scale, it might have been a giant leap for the Rolling Stones. However, they could not and would not repeat it, with or without Brian Jones.
Undoubtedly, in the best tracks of “Satanic Majesties,” Jagger’s lyrics reach a level poetic, yet uncompromisingly and characteristically direct. One senses that this may have been the wrong band for an outlet for this side of his writing talent. Many of the tracks on the next several albums by the Stones give ample room for Jagger to explore the less banal side of rock ‘n roll lyricism. But none would give Jagger the free rein to create and produce the kind of results that tantalize the listener of “Satanic Majesties.”
How does one follow “2000 Light Years From Home,” and close out the most experimental work of one’s career? With a throwaway number that is comical and momentarily entertaining – and subtly interesting beneath its sardonic surface. Jagger is no longer the space traveling raconteur or the interplanetary flight controller on another world. He is the MC of a London strip joint, exhorting his dancers and his gray-flannel business clientele, “On With the Show!”
The track opens with another “field recording,” this time of a strip-club “barker” trying to reel in prospective customers from the street, “They’re naked and they dance!” Once we are in “the bar downstairs,” and inside the club, Jagger’s half-drunk MC takes over:
“Please pour another glass,
It’s time to watch the cabaret.
Your wife will never know
that you’re not really working late!”
As if to skewer the pretensions of The Beatles or Bob Dylan and the perceived societal “importance” of Rock with a capital “R” by the media and audiences of the late Sixties, the Stones pay lip service to intellectual concerns while providing what the people really want – entertainment:
“Oh, we’ve got ALL the answers!
(and we’ve got LOVELY DANCERS, toooooo!)
There’s nothing else you have to do.
On with the show –
‘Good health’ to you!”
The Stones’ musical explorations from here on in would no longer be of an experimental nature, and would stay firmly within the limitations of what was now the established convention for R&B or rock ‘n roll song form, one in which they had already played a huge part in creating between 1962 and 1967. They would find, as did Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home.” Certainly a home closer than 2000 light-years, at that.
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Having spent about 6000-plus words describing the music of Their Satanic Majesties Request and the era in which it was created, it is certainly appropriate to consider what those who created the record have to say about the subject, with many years of hindsight as well. But I do think it is wise to keep in mind that artists are not always the most accurate judges, ultimately, of their work or its importance, and are often understandably reluctant to speak at length or in great detail of their past work.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are typically hard-pressed to recall what tracks were on particular records, usually relying on the interviewer or outside sources to fill in the details. In my opinion, they generally seem to absorb whatever the generally held opinion was of a particular work at the time it was created. And they are not revisionist historians, nor should they be and risk appearing self-obsessed and ultimately tiresome to their audience: the last thing a performing artist needs or desires.
Be that as it may, Their Satanic Majesties Request went gold in America before the first copy was physically shipped, and eventually reached no. 3 on the British charts and no. 2 in America, with one top ten single, “2000 Light Years From Home,” backed with “She’s A Rainbow.”
In 1995, Mick Jagger gave a lengthy interview to Rolling Stone Magazine founder Jann Wenner. This is an excerpt from that interview in which Wenner asked him specifically about the album and his recollection of its making:
WENNER: You then did “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” What was going on here?
JAGGER: I probably started to take too many drugs.
WENNER: What do you think about “Satanic Majesties” now?
JAGGER: Well, it’s not very good. It had interesting things on it, but I don’t think any of the songs are very good. It’s a bit like “Between the Buttons.” It’s a sound experience, really, rather than a song experience. There’s two good songs on it: “She’s a Rainbow,” which we didn’t do on the last tour, although we almost did, and “2000 Light Years From Home,” which we did do. The rest of them are nonsense.
WENNER: I listened to it recently, and it sounds like “Spinal Tap.”
JAGGER: Really, I know.
WENNER: Was it just you trying to be the Beatles?
JAGGER: I think we were just taking too much acid. We were just getting carried away, just thinking anything you did was fun and everyone should listen to it. The whole thing, we were on acid. We were on acid doing the cover picture. I always remember doing that. It was like being at school, you know, sticking on the bits of colored paper and things. It was really silly. But we enjoyed it. [Laughs] Also, we did it to piss Andrew off, because he was such a pain in the neck. Because he didn’t understand it. The more we wanted to unload him, we decided to go on this path to alienate him.
WENNER: Just to force him out?
JAGGER: Yeah. Without actually doing it legally, we forced him out. I mean, he wanted out anyway. We were so out of our minds.
WENNER: After it came out and it was kind of a chunk record, how did you consider it?
JAGGER: A phase. A passing fancy.
WENNER: You followed up with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
JAGGER: We did that one as a single, out of all the acid of “Satanic Majesties.”
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In his autobiography, “Life” (Little, Brown, 2010), Keith Richards describes the difficult creative climate of the times, during and after Satanic Majesties:
“Much of that year  we struggled haphazardly to make Their Satanic Majesties Request. None of us wanted to make it, but it was time for another Stones album, and Sgt. Pepper’s was coming out, so we thought basically we were doing a put-on. We do have the first 3-D record cover of all time. That was acid too. We made that set ourselves. We went to New York, put ourselves in the hands of this Japanese bloke with the only camera in the world that could do the 3-D. Bits of paint and saws, bits of Styrofoam. We need some plants! OK, we’ll go down to the flower district. It coincided with the departure of Andrew Oldham — dropping the pilot . . . Andrew wasn’t concentrating on the Stones anymore. Added to that, we could no longer create [media] coverage in the way Oldham had done; we were no longer writing the headlines, we were ducking them, and that meant another of Oldham’s jobs had gone. His box of tricks was exhausted.
“We’d run out of gas. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but that was a period where we could have foundered — a natural end to a hit-making band. It came soon after Satanic Majesties, which was all a bit of flim-flam to me. And this is where Jimmy Miller comes into the picture as our new producer. What a great collaboration. Out of the drift we extracted Beggars Banquet and helped take the Stones to a different level. This is where we had to pull out the good stuff. And we did.”
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In his first book of memoirs, “Stone Alone,” (Signet, 1991) Bill Wyman recounts the almost daily difficulties with legal entanglements, not only drug-related, but with disputes among their management as well, that caused the making of “Satanic Majesties” to drag out from February through the fall, and finally to its release in December, 1967:
“Still, the recording sessions rumbled on, with Brian intermittently going for consultations with a psychiatrist and to the Priory (courthouse). The rest of us often arrived at the Olympic [recording studios] never quite knowing who would be present . . . It was all getting very spaced out, and a lot of the old disciplined thrust had left the band. I think there was a realization by Mick and Keith at the time that this wasn’t just a rock ‘n roll band anymore, but also an important part of western youth culture. They’d won a critical battle against authority.
“Stones performances [in the studio sessions] were frequently affected by the influence of drugs, and it was a wonder there wasn’t a bust at the Olympic studios. At the time, they thought they played better, as people do when they have had too much, but when they listened to the playback next day, they realised it was bloody awful . . . and no matter how well Charlie or I played, we were stuck with the consequences.
“Despite all the [critical] battering our album received, after only ten days in the American shops, it had passed the $2-million sales mark, outselling the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. It entered the Billboard chart and stayed there for twenty-three weeks, rising to number two. In Britain it [reached] a highest position of three. Not bad performances for what many regarded as our most non-commercial record.”
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Wyman’s book also quotes Brian Jones from an interview Jones had given the press after the release of “Satanic Majesties,” wherein Jones, as was his wont, strikes an intellectual chord, and looks at the greater picture of the 20th century evolution of popular music in western culture:
“The album is a very personal thing, but the Beatles are just as introspective. You have to remember our entire lives have been affected lately by social-political things that come out in our work. In a way, songs like ’2,000 Light Years from Home’ are prophetic, not at all introverted. They are the things we believe will happen. Changes in values and attitudes . . . Because of the [world] wars. Just as people began to look at life and their values, a war would break out and nothing destroys culture, art or the simple privilege of having time to think, quicker than a war. And once you get the horror and terror of a war people have to escape from it. They need the escapist pop cultures that croon about moon and June and romance. I’ve never had to go through those times and I thank God I have not.”