The Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet 50 years on: the first injection of cool

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The Rolling Stones recording Sympathy for the Devil

The Rolling Stones recording Sympathy for the Devil

The Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet is 50 years old in 2018 and Getintothis’ Simon Kirk celebrates a catalysmic moment in rock and roll as we know it.

To be fully immersed in The Rolling Stones, the one caveat that is truly essential is time.

Lots of it. Sadly it’s something that a lot of people can’t seem to afford, and in a shape-shifting fast moving society, it feels as though younger music fans find it easier to discard The Rolling Stones as opposed to spending time getting to know the legend.

Is it because they now look like a bunch of old wash-ups and, dare I say it, a parody of themselves? Or is it because their legacy has been tarnished by their output post Some Girls? Like many things in this passage of ramblings, it’s all subjective. Ultimately, it’s what one wants out of music and there are many terrains to cross in one’s quest to reach their desired endpoint.

The experience I’ve had with The Rolling Stones is this. After endless hours of trawling through their discography, reading biographies and generally piecing together the intricate puzzle, their music starts to seep into your pores, coursing through your blood stream and from there that’s it! You’re sold. For life.

From the first time of listening to Beggars Banquet and revisiting it time and time again, it feels like it was the first dangerous record that The Rolling Stones made. It can also be argued that it’s one of the first dangerous records ever made. Again, all subjective of course, and while their early sixties output was spent appropriating Chuck Berry and Little Richard like a bunch of plagiaristic fops merely coming in on the coattails of their R&B originators, there was still a dangerous exterior to The Rolling Stones that few of their peers could emulate.

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In a post-war Britain where a combination of suburban limitations and rigid conservatism were commonplace, The Stones made few friends from the outset in 1962. Brian Jones’ “lewd gestures” onstage sparked a national outrage from the masses. Following their band mate, The Stones’ onstage persona didn’t waver. So too the press’s derision, basically marginalising The Stones as a bunch of degenerates in suits. These early impressions tainted the band and have very much stayed with them ever since.

While those early stages of playing music halls around Great Britain could have been perceived as superficial flashy bravado, internally this solidified the band’s arrogance and overall tenacity. It proved the catalyst for the indoctrinated us versus them mentality. Fabric of The Rolling Stones patchwork. Their DNA.

After the band traded in their suits for bohemian garb, whether Their Satanic Majesties Request was seen as a direct rival to The BeatlesSgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band is another debatable facet in the history of music. Aside from Michael Cooper’s artwork (which, comparing the two is yet another debate entirely), there’s little doubt that the two albums are worlds apart.

In The Stones’ case, Their Satanic … was their bridge album. The band struggling to navigate through the haze and destruction of one Brian Jones. Beggars Banquet was Jones’ final involvement with the band before his untimely slip from the mortal coil eight months after its release. In taciturn fashion, the beast that is The Rolling Stones sauntered on, but not without further drama.

Along with the erratic behaviour of Jones, there was the severing of ties with long-term manager and producer, Andrew Loog Oldham. Amid Jagger and Richards’ drug possession charge in 1967, Oldham performed his finest Houdini act, flitting off to the United States and leaving co-manager, Allen Klein, under the proverbial high ball with the impending legal proceedings. The episode ended Oldham’s reign with The Rolling Stones. Despite the persistent turbulence, The Stones, perhaps unbeknownst to themselves at the time, were still very much on the upward trajectory.

Creatively, the self-portrait had begun to take shape. On the back of single and one of their biggest hits, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, on December 6, 1968, the sounds of Beggars Banquet filled the living rooms of many.

The first album that truly illuminated the magic of Michael Phillip Jagger and Keith Richards. A partnership in song writing that will forever be at the summit of music, right alongside Lennon/McCartney, Dylan, Bowie, Young, and … well, you get the picture.

While Jagger’s performance at this point was his first real demonstration of genius, finally removed from the British Invasion, it was equally Richards’ watershed moment, too. His discovery of open tuning transformed The Rolling Stones into a new animal of immeasurable possibilities. Charlie Watts’ swing from behind the skins and Bill Wyman’s cutting bass – other features that feel as though musically, a new chapter and concept had emerged.

While The Beatles were all about the love song, The Stones pushed that concept to the wayside in favour of lust. Both rock ’n’ roll at heart, but where The Beatles were comfortable taking the world by storm in the pop realm, despite The Stones’ abilities to pen a stirring pop ditty, it was obvious that they wanted to distance themselves from this parish where they had become less and less comfortable. While Beggars Banquet was many things, it was also a reactionary album.

In a sense, listening to Beggars Banquet for the first time somewhat reduced expectations. Not because it felt dull, but because of the nature of past exposures. As a kid growing up in the ’90s, you inadvertently experienced a dalliance with The Rolling Stones, whether it be via snippets on the radio or through television advertisements. They’ve dipped in and out of your life, becoming particles of your sub-conscious. The opening chord of Street Fighting Man. Parts of Jigsaw Puzzle. Then there’s Sympathy for the Devil.

Had my parents been enthusiastic about music I can’t help but think that this band would’ve been shoved down my throat. Alas, my journey with The Stones has been of a backtracking nature, piecing together the puzzle which involved the realisation that many of my favourite bands have pilfered riffs out of Keith’s back pocket.

As Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash were using their music almost as ruse for political messaging, Beggars Banquet was The Stones’ own entrance point into the world of politics.

Opener, Sympathy for the Devil, inspired part by Charles Baudelaire and the exceptional novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, was written from the devil’s point of view. Jagger’s satanic references navigate alongside afro rhythms and Nicky Hopkins’ bouncing piano. While tongues wagged in the press, Jagger was quick to point out that the song was about the dark side of man, and indeed not a celebration of Satanism. Either way, it was a brave sequence of social commentary from Jagger.

Trailer for Jean Luc Godard‘s film with The Rolling Stones – One Plus One: Sympathy for the Devil 

Then there’s the album’s first single, Street Fighting Man – a blatant cut inspired by the United States race riots and the protests which followed not only in the U.S. but around the world. Undeniably The Stones’ largest political number and together with Sympathy for the Devil it caused the relevant stir. On the subject of relevance, it was Richards’ first noticeable binge with open tuning, as well. That opening chord, etched firmly in the memory of the masses and with the benefit of hindsight, a shrewd choice for lead single.

Nicky Hopkins’ inclusion in The Rolling Stones seems like a footnote of sorts. Having worked with the band during Their Satanic Majesties Request and with The Kinks and The Who beforehand, Hopkins’ touches on Beggars’ are one of my favourite facets of the album.

Sympathy for the Devil and No Expectations wouldn’t have had anywhere near the impact had it not been for Hopkins’ piano. His sprinkling of cosmic dust over the keys added another dimension to The Stones’ revamped opened-up sound. So stirring is his performance that quite simply, again with the benefit of hindsight, Hopkins was as important as any additional member in The Rolling Stones during their glory years, including saxophonist Bobby Keys.

Hopkins’ work behind the piano is simply unique. His tone pricks your senses from a mile away, and along with The E-Street Band’s Roy Bittan, there’s not many keys-men you can say that about. Hopkins went on to work with the likes of George Harrison, John Lennon and Marc Bolan to name a handful, but his time in The Stones captured his greatest moments.

Although Beggars Banquet’s success can be attributed to facets such as Richards’ open tuning wig-outs and Hopkins’ melody dripping pianos, the most potent weapon in the The Rolling Stones arsenal arrived in the form of Jimmy Miller. The American architect from behind the studio glass.

Like ships passing in the night, Andrew Loog Oldham’s departure was an entrance point for new ears and fresh perspective. From Beggars Banquet up until Goats Head Soup, Miller’s proficiency in front of the soundboards undoubtedly harnessed, carved out and continually refined the signature Rolling Stones sound.

Like George Martin and The Beatles, Martin Hannett and Joy Division, Jimmy Miller’s association with The Rolling Stones will always been remembered in the Broadchurch of rock music and it all started with Beggars Banquet.

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Dear Doctor and Parachute Woman are rusty-hinged honkytonk barnyard stomps. Products from a dusty whiskey barrel in a shed somewhere in the hills of Kentucky. Robert WilkinsProdigal Son is the only cover on the album, which is in a similar vein to the aforementioned cuts, despite the fact that Jagger is giving his best impersonation of John Lee-Hooker. Jagger’s greatest art is shedding skins, morphing to the moments and here, once again, it works.

Jigsaw Puzzle and Stray Cat Blues are two tracks that form the framework of the new embodiment of The Stones’ sound. Courtesy of Miller’s sonic gold dust from the soundboards, the pair of ditties would have propped up any of their albums during their greatest creative period, up until Goats Head Soup.

Then there’s Factory Girls and Salt of the Earth. A one-two combo ode to the working class. As mentioned above, The Stones’ were restless in the pantheon of pop and while Aftermath and Their Satanic Majesties Request loosened the shackles, Beggars Banquet was their statement of breaking free from the British Invasion and Beatlemania.

With that being the case, however, any of those bands could have only dreamt of penning a pop number as great as Salt of the Earth. The album closer and a moment where the world stopped, took stock, then realised that the boundaries of blues music had been redefined during the thirty-nine minutes and forty-nine seconds which encompassed Beggars Banquet.

Blues, honkytonk, country, roots rock, samba. It’s all here on Beggars Banquet. You could argue that is an album feels like the first true flurry of, by pure definition, pub rock. Where a drink and cigarette perfectly went hand-in-hand. The only thing that could have encroached on this marriage of hedonism was The Rolling StonesBeggars Banquet.

Over the years, as particular genres and scenes become in vogue then slowly fade, many bands have attempted to imitate the swinging country blues-rock sound of Beggars Banquet. Naturally, few have conquered, barely reaching the boundaries let alone breaking them. This will continue for years to come.

Even now, and although I detest the word when used in association with music, you get the feeling that this was one of the first albums to inject cool into rock music.

Fans of The Doors may have something to say about that, thanks to the band’s bourgeoning psychedelic acid-rock of their eponymous debut. So too The Velvet Underground with their debut. Both albums arrived in the previous calendar year.

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To counteract, however, in the case of acid-rock, The Rolling Stones had conceivably ticked the box a year earlier, albeit fleetingly, with Paint it Black. Where The Velvets are concerned, though, the argument still stands, with Jagger even admitting that Stray Cat Blues was inspired by The Velvets greatest song, Heroin.

While The Doors at times was a bit too out there and The Velvet Underground & Nico was music tailored towards the high-brow bourgeoisie, from the ’60s, Beggars Banquet was arguably the first rock ’n’ album that spoke to working class people, whereby the possibilities of a coexistence between danger and music were entertained.

Beggars Banquet doesn’t sound visceral but what it hinted towards was the possibility of a looming allegiance between the two worlds. It planted the seed which got working class people thinking. A crosspollination between radical otherness and the mundane.

This cultural shift on the back of Beggars Banquet coincided with Harold Wilson’s tenure as Great Britain’s Prime Minister – the country’s first Labour leader for thirteen years. Taking office in 1964, it seemed as though Wilson’s political influence had begun to take shape.

For me, with Beggars Banquet, The Stones found the perfect balance of danger whilst still remaining true to the genre that made them take music seriously from the outset. They finally mastered a symmetry between their own inward and outward essence. Most bands up until 1968 didn’t strike gold at their first time of asking and The Stones were no different. Ironically, the two bands that did are mentioned above (The Doors and The Velvet Underground).

The attitude of The Rolling Stones through Beggars Banquet paved the way for many acts to follow shortly thereafter. The roaring crescendo of Led Zeppelin and the complete hysteria they left in their wake. The sheer aggression and the birth of punk courtesy of The Stooges. And let’s not forget the complete bastardisation of the blues demonstrated by Black Sabbath.

Beggars Banquet isn’t The Rolling Stones’ finest album, for me that honour rests with the irrepressible Sticky Fingers, which followed after Let It Bleed in the April of 1971.

However, it was the band’s most important one, for it was the undeniable catalyst for their greatest creative period and, along with several others, effectively formed one of the clouds which gathered prior to the greatest storm the world has ever seen: rock ’n’ roll music as we know it.

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