I recently rediscovered how good the Rolling Stones ‘Their Satanic Majesty’s Request’ is. I was on the treadmill at the time, ‘The Citadel’ booming in my ears on shuffle. Mind you, anything sounds good on the Treadmill, apart from, perhaps, Hildegarde de Bingen.
What’s fascinating is the initial reaction to it from some critics, pontificating as though they had tablets of stone up their backside and the voice of God on their tongue. Rolling Stone (the magazine) saw it as a sad aberration from what the Stones did best – combining the ‘lack of pretension and sentimentality of the blues with the rawness and toughness of hard rock.’ I love that aspect of the Stones but abhor an ‘orthodoxy’ that suggests they should do nothing but that. Have you ever listened to ‘The Best of Chuck Berry’ where after twenty minutes you realise every track is essentially the same? How on earth could you sustain a fifty-four year career on that?
Other critics seek to make excuses, like social workers, or lawyers for the defence trying to ‘get off’ a dodgy client. They point out that 1967 was a very bad year for the Stones, citing their drug busts, Mars bars, the increasingly unstable Brian Jones and interpersonal rivalries made worse, no doubt, after Keith Richards seduced Jones’ girlfriend Anita Pallenberg. Jagger later claimed the stones went wild on Satanic Majesties: ‘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.’ Jagger was referring to their manager Andrew Loog Oldham. One suspects there were more than musical differences involved. Jagger would not have been unaware that Oldham was making five times as much money than he was – as good a reason as any to offload him. Satanic Majesties was the means. Their contract with Oldham stipulated that he paid all recording costs and studio time. Is it merely coincidence that the recording of Satanic Majesties stretched from February to November (admittedly with drug busts in between)? It also explains the appalling ‘Gomper,’ which must have convinced Oldham to pack up and run.
But enough of the excuses. Satanic Majesties doesn’t need any. Charlie Watts’s drumming as much as anything else, gives it a groove contemporary psychedelia lacked. It’s what you get when you combine the power rhythms of R&B with the more ornate textures of ‘Flower Power’ sound. In this respect it is very much an artefact of its time and at the same time unique. In contrast, Sergeant Pepper is trapped in its time, its very success and memories evoked untranslatable to the present. This is not so true of Satanic Majesties.
Stand out tracks for me are: ‘Citadel’ where Richards punches and thunders on guitar and provides, perhaps a foretaste of Jumping Jack Flash
The Lantern with its snappy drum and acoustic guitar
The acoustic guitar driven 2000 Man, where Jagger anticipates aspects of the present day:
'Well my wife still respects me
I really misuse her
I'm having an affair with a random computer
Don't you know I'm a 2000 man'
She's a Rainbow with Nicky Hopkin's beautiful ascending motif on piano and strings arranged by Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones.
And last but not least In Another Land, sung and composed by Bill Whyman. The snore may be his too.
The eulogy is over, though mercifully the Stones are not yet dead.