Sunday, July 25, 2010

January 25, 2010: Track by Track: ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ by The Rolling Stones

In this new feature on Psychobabble, I’ll be taking a close look at albums of the classic, underrated, and flawed variety, and assessing them track by track.

For the first installment of Track by Track, I’ve chosen The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, probably the most controversial and misunderstood album the guys ever released. Largely dismissed as a misguided Sgt. Pepper’s rip-off that betrayed The Stones’ blues and basic Rock & Roll reputation, Their Satanic Majesties Request is undeniably symptomatic of Mick Jagger’s yen for trend-hopping, yet I personally find it to be a far more intriguing and complex album than Pepper. As we’ll see, there is still a great deal of blues and basic Rock & Roll beneath the Mellotrons, strings, horns, synthesizers, sitars, bells, and whistles of Their Satanic Majesties Request, and The Stones hardly relinquished their trademark nihilism in favor of flower-power platitudes. Rather they cagily adapted their established sound to psychedelia, injecting bluesy elements into the Moroccan-influenced jams, vaudevillian larks, space rock excursions, and baroque ballads that dominate the album. Not everything is completely successful, but it’s all interesting and greatly deserving of reassessment by any listener who isn’t too blinkered to accept The Stones attempting anything other than unadorned blues and Rock & Roll.

Today The Rolling Stones tend to speak of Their Satanic Majesties Request through embarrassed smirks, justifying it by saying that no one can work outside of the zeitgeist (Dylan didn’t seem to have a problem with that, though). But had the album not received such a pitiless critical drubbing you can bet your ass that the band would have embraced it with greater enthusiasm. Instead they all seem to have a rather ambivalent relationship with Satanic. In 1972, Mick Jagger told the New Musical Express, “At the time I kinda liked the album, and then I went through a period when I really hated it. Now I find that it’s good to listen to.” Just two years later, he would say, “I’m rather fond of that album, and I wouldn’t mind doing something like that again.” In the interim, 1973's Goat’s Head Soup contained a track called “Can You Hear the Music”, which sounds like a relic from the Satanic days. “Continental Drift”, from 1989’s Steel Wheels could also be interpreted as a tribute to this maligned oddity, and the subsequent “Urban Jungle” tour featured the first ever live performance of a Satanic Majesties number: “2000 Light Years from Home”. In 1995, Jagger told Rolling Stone, “It's a sound experience, really, rather than a song experience. There’s two good songs on it: ‘She's a Rainbow’ and ‘2000 Light Years From Home.’ The rest of them are nonsense.” At other times he unconvincingly suggested it was actually a comedy album. 

Keith Richards basically shared Jagger’s opinion that most of the album was crap, while tossing in “Citadel” among the good tracks. Jagger and Charlie Watts at least admitted it was fun to make (and it sounds like it was). Other members of the band, particularly Bill Wyman and unofficial Stone Ian Stewart, have been less equivocal about their dislike of the album, yet it has enjoyed something of a critical reassessment in recent years, Kurt Loder labeling it “unjustly underestimated” in 2002 and the All Music Guide calling it “unfairly undervalued” in its four-star review. I, for one, rate Their Satanic Majesties Request as my personal favorite Rolling Stones album, even though I’ll admit that Beggars Banquet (which places many of the themes and a good deal of the instrumentation of Satanic in a less otherworldly environment) is their best. Their Satanic Majesties Request solidified both my love of psychedelia and my love of The Rolling Stones, and while I’m a fan of most phases of the band’s career, none fascinate me like that fleeting period when they donned a bunch of goofy Merlin hats, cranked up their sitars and Mellotrons, and conjured the most exotic, most spellbinding music of their seemingly endless career.

(Instead of embedding audio clips, which slows down this site considerably, I’ve included links to the appropriate clips instead).

Their Satanic Majesties Request by The Rolling Stones
Originally released December 8, 1967 on Decca Records
Produced by The Rolling Stones

Track 1: Sing This All Together

The Rolling Stones took a lot of heat for aping The Beatles on Their Satanic Majesties Request, and while no one is going to argue that The Stones would have created anything so weird had they not felt pressured to compete with the era-defining psychedelia of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, they drew on decidedly different resources than The Beatles. Whereas George Harrison’s fascination with Indian music was one of the key components of The Beatles’ sound in 1967, Brian Jones brought some interesting Moroccan decorations to The Stones’ music after an extended vacation in the country during 1965. Brian, who was reticent to admit the merits of the band’s psychedelic musical excursions, was so enchanted by the traditional sounds of Moroccan music that he produced a record of it called Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka (released posthumously in 1971). The majestic, droning sounds of Moroccan music provide the inspiration for “Sing This All Together”, the opening cut of Their Satanic Majesties Request. The track begins as a withered response to the brass fanfares that add a regal touch to the title cut of The Beatles’ latest record; a brooding piano scale is answered by a brass band running out of wind before the players can blare out their intended tune. Mick enters (allegedly accompanied by Lennon and McCartney on the chorus) and glibly invites the listeners to “sing this song all together, open your heads, let the pictures come.” This seemingly simple-minded hippie sloganeering is actually a reference to Lu Yen’s Tao tome on the methods and benefits of meditation, The Secret of the Golden Flower, which Jagger was reading at the time.

The lyrics of “Sing This All Together” primarily serve as something to sing over the verses. Composed in the jazz structure (head / improvisation/ head) that so many groups appropriated during the heyday of psychedelia, the chaotic mid-song jam is the main focus of “Sing This All Together”. Building on a driving combination of percussion, wobbly trumpet swells enter in a convincing approximation of more exotic Moroccan horns. Nicky Hopkinss piano tinkles and twists like a sky speckled with very strange stars. Richards plays a snaky amalgamation of blues riffs and raga licks until the brass leads the track back to the vocal verse. “Sing This All Together” may not sport one of Jagger’s most timeless or insightful lyrics, but it remains a bracing brew of sounds, Keith’s gnarly riffing making it identifiable as a Rolling Stones song even though it doesn’t sound like anything the group ever recorded.

Track 2: Citadel

Built on a simple heavy guitar progression and composed in rudimentary verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure, “Citadel” is the closest thing to a straight hard-rock song on Satanic Majesties. The rhythmic shape of the song is less common; striding in 4/4 time for the verses but stuttering into an exaggerated 3/4 on the chorus before evaporating completely, only to coalesce again with the shuddering chord sequence. The song owes its bizarre sound to abundant studio experiments in both instrumentation and effects. Keith’s guitar seems to be drenched in (at least) tremolo, overdrive, and monstrous echo. Wyman’s thudding bass helps to distinguish the chord progression behind the over-effected guitar. The accompaniment is similarly extreme, making more use of Brian’s Mellotron and a piercing “pinging” noise that sounds like an industrial truck backing up (actually Jagger striking an over-effected glockenspiel). Halfway through the song, Jones’s downward spiraling Mellotron (impersonating a saxophone) riff floats in with all the mysterious menace of a snake charmer’s flute. The chorus includes more Mellotron in the guise of mandolins (in the mono mix, these odd elements are much less pronounced, making “Citadel”sound like a much more conventional Rock song).

The kitchen sink production of “Citadel” compliments its lyric cleverly. Inspired by Fritz Lang’s dystopic masterpiece, Metropolis, “Citadel” projects a future overrun by religious zealots “armed with bibles”, violent political oppression, dehumanizing technology, and unbridled capitalism. The Stones illustrate a cluttered, terrifying future with a cluttered wall-of-sound recording. The results are incredibly powerful. “Citadel” creates a fully developed world through sound. The song is also the closest The Stones ever came to heavy metal, with Charlie Watts’s plodding drumming and Richards’s massive chords. His overlaid blues riffing, which draws the track to its inevitable fade, proves, yet again, that The Stones were still The Stones even while they were pretending to walk on Mars.

Track 3: In Another Land

On its surface, Their Satanic Majesties Request seems to revel in lysergic indulgences, but the core theme of the album is the alienating effects of fantasy and acid-experimentation, which contrasts The Beatles’ gleeful indulgences on Pepper starkly. Originally titled “Acid in the Grass”, Bill Wyman’s “In Another Land” illustrates the dichotomy between druggy escapism and the inevitable harsh crash back to Earth more explicitly than any other song on Their Satanic Majesties Request. The hero drifts through a tranquil, medieval fantasyland, attempting a romance with a damsel only to wake up from his sword and sorcery nocturnal emission to discover that it has all been a dream and a “joke.”

By establishing and then deconstructing the dream, “In Another Land” displays a wry distrust of the illusory world the hippies celebrated, and its lyric and music (not to mention its original title) can’t be read as anything other than a mockery of psychedelia. The verses (taking place in the “dream”) percolate with fantastical sounds: gusts of wind, a courtly harpsichord, dulcimer, Wyman’s vocal treated with a tremolo effect. The choruses (the waking from the dream) bash in impudently with heavy drums, thrashing guitars, and a howling chorus of vocals. This sounds like the Rolling Stones crashing a “love-in” and revealing how they really felt about the whole flower power scene. Significantly, Bill Wyman professed that he neither understood nor agreed with the band’s current musical direction, so the song could have been a subtle slam against Mick and Keith’s insistence that The Stones follow contemporary musical trends. Actually, if Mick and Keith hadn’t played hooky from the studio (Wyman and Watts were the only Stones in attendance), “In Another Land” would not have been recorded at all. In lieu of Keith, Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane of The Small Faces supplied the guitars and backing vocals (Marriott’s patented yowl can’t be missed on the choruses).

Track 4: 2000 Man

In contrast to what’s come so far, “2000 Man” is a pared down number that see-saws between acoustic folk and a hard-rocking, electrified sing-along. Without the exotic instrumentation of “Sing This All Together” or the electronic effects of “Citadel” and “In Another Land”, “2000 Man” is as basic an arrangement as can be found on Satanic Majesties. The opening acoustic guitar figure is essentially a sixteen-bar blues. Charlie Watts’s syncopated drumbeat (he play a 3/4 beat while the rest of the band strums in 4/4) would have been unexpected on an earlier cut like “Good Times, Bad Times”, but harmonically, there is little difference between that 1964 B-side and the first movement of “2000 Man”. The song also flaunts one of the wittiest lyrics on the record as Mick plays the role of a futuristic father lamenting that his kids “don’t understand me at all.” Like Lennon and McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home”, “2000 Man” appropriates the voice of the parent rather than the child, but in an ironic (and rather prescient) twist, Mick is the hellion dad, who misuses his wife by “having an affair with a random computer.”

The folky opening section comes to an abrupt rest following the second verse, which makes way for the exhilarating refrain of “Oh, daddy, proud of your planet / Oh, mommy, proud of your son.” To the accompaniment of blaring organ and flailing guitars, The Stones take on the positions of the kids, who seem to understand the value of seeking thrills in old age better than their old man may surmise. As a dialogue between child and father, “2000 Man” is oddly poignant, and the parting line offers a valuable warning to the (probably) young listener: history will repeat itself.

Track 5: Sing This All Together (See What Happens)

Bootlegs (particularly the exhaustive 4-disc Satanic Sessions box set) reveal the unorthodox composition of “Sing This All Together”. The song was improvised in the studio with Keith Richards leading the band and valued session keyboardist Nicky Hopkins through its dynamic ups and downs. The piece ran an epic fifteen minutes before the group edited the most musical moments down to 3:40 to be adorned with ample overdubs. This constituted the opening track on Satanic Majesties. Much of the rest of the improv was used to create “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)”, the most contentious track on the album and unquestionably the weirdest thing in the entire Stones catalogue. With its meandering structure and lack of melody “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” is the track that most repels Satanic-haters and probably doesn’t appeal to a good deal of fans either. Although Richards’s unmistakably bluesy guitar work weaves through the majority of this eight-minute-plus piece, there is nothing else that defines it as a Rolling Stones recording. Taken on its own, it is only remotely listenable. As another piece of the Satanic jigsaw puzzle, it provides the album with its necessarily orgasmic centerpiece. It’s kind of like the musical equivalent of the stargate sequence in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: overlong, dizzying, and self-indulgent, but integral to the pacing, tone, and arc of the piece. It also serves as the album’s tartest aural mockery of the love generation and was probably the main basis for Jagger’s Satanic Majesties-as-comedy-album theory.

“Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” starts with the sounds of a session in progress. A musician coughs while beginning a take. A gentle Mellotron pattern based on “Strawberry Fields Forever” enters, making the proceedings sound like a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions. Voices in the background casually converse, and embarrassingly dated off-the-cuff lines like “Flower power” and “Where’s that joint?” are what one would expect to hear during the creation of a trippy masterwork. But the meditative opening strains are suddenly raked by Keith’s aggressive, wiry distorted guitar, and a free-floating phantasmagoric jam with brass and woodwind parts built and arranged around Keith’s melodic ideas ensues. Voices run through a wordless string of pagan chants, moans, coos, and shrieks. Having reached a climax of sorts, everything peters out, leaving Keith’s guitar and Nicky’s piano drenched in dreamy echo as Mick revisits the “Why don’t we sing this song all together” refrain and the brass plays the half-step figure from the opening version of the song, before everything halts with a final, booming piano chord. Just as soon as that chord decays, a howling synthesizer enters for a minute of indistinguishable melody accompanied by steamy industrial sounds. Actually, if you play this brief coda on 45 rpms, the melody becomes quite distinguishable as the holiday carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”. One of the album’s working titles was Cosmic Christmas, and this was probably intended as a little joke on that theme. Thus concludes Side A of Their Satanic Majesties Request.

Inside the Satanic gatefold...

Track 6: She’s a Rainbow

Side B opens with a bit of noise presumably called “Fairground”, a short snatch of crowd sounds with the voice of Jagger rising above to play carnival barker, leading the listener into the next tent of Satanic Majesties’ disorienting freak show. “She’s A Rainbow” provides a welcome respite after the harrowing “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)”. It is the most musical track on the album and rightfully became a minor Stones classic. As a love song, “She’s a Rainbow” may be The Stones’ least cynical, not even displaying the trace elements of skepticism present in “Ruby Tuesday”. “She’s A Rainbow” is a celebration of romance, and one of the few Stones songs that address a woman without raking her over the coals, though the cutesy focus on her appearance is not exactly the stuff feminist revolutions are made of. Nevertheless, Satanic Majesties is the least sexist album the Stones ever recorded, but that may just be down to its relative lack of songs about women. 

The music-box piano hook is particularly nice and achieves its childlike allure by sticking closely to the basic major scale. Masterminded by future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, the string arrangement is exquisite, while Watts’s thunderous drumming and a robust Mellotron simulating a trumpet provide plenty of pep on the choruses. “She’s A Rainbow” is overflowing with both lyrical and aural colors. The “ooh la la” choruses, accomplished by speeding up Mick and Keith’s voices à la Alvin and the Chipmunks, are charming and slightly creepy. In one of the few instances on the record where The Stones could rightfully be accused of ripping off The Beatles (such as the “Strawberry Fields” quote in “Sing This All Together”), the grand finale is a variation on the orchestral discord that concludes “A Day in the Life”, but the song’s greatest debt is the lyrical one it owes to Love’s “She Comes in Colours”... possible payback for Love having already heisted the Stones’ “What a Shame” for their “Cant Explain”or the similarities between the StonesGoin’ Home and Love’s Revelation.

Track 7: The Lantern

A typical complaint of Satanic Majesties is that The Rolling Stones’ production is murky and indistinct, yet passages of “In Another Land” and “2000 Man”, and “The Lantern” as a whole breathe more than much of the earlier work by recently ousted producer/manager Andrew Loog Oldham. “The Lantern” is also distinguished as the track that makes the most use of blues riffing on Satanic Majesties. Though more structurally developed than “Citadel”, it is rooted in the same basic Rock and blues tradition. Opening with the tolling of a forlorn bell and a dissonant diminished ninth chord, “The Lantern” then relaxes into a lazy blues lick fingered on acoustic guitar. Trippy, heavily delayed electric guitar blasts answer the acoustic lick to keep the track from establishing too much terrestrial footing. Harmonized vocals slowly skid in from the darkness as the blues progression shifts to a casually ascending structure that spills into a rolling honky tonk piano line. Over later verses, Richards whips out some choleric blues riffs that tear through the listlessness of the track and a regal brass melody adds extra color (unfortunately, both the guitar and horns are muted in the mono mix) . Like “Sing This All Together”, “The Lantern is another bit of cod-spiritualism with its references to the transmogrification of souls through a “sea of light,” but Jagger maintains a Stonesy darkness by imbuing his lyric with morbid images worthy of a Hammer Horror movie (“You’re talking to me through your veil, I hear you wail!”). “The Lantern” is the slightest track on Satanic Majesties, even though its vocals and brass are pleasing enough, the lyric is evocative, and Richards’s guitar work is tremendous. If nothing else, it provides yet another example of Satanic Majesties’ push and pull struggle between earthly blues rock and cosmic fantasies.

Track 8: Gomper

On the heels of the bluesiest track on Satanic Majesties Request is one of the few numbers that does not acknowledge blues or basic Rock in any way. “Gomper”, its title a garbled English translation of gompa (a Buddhist monastery), finds Jagger dropping his R&B yowl to overdub a dense arrangement of placid, radiant harmonies. The fine tapestry of organ, guitar, and dulcimer lines is devoid of bluesy pentatonic scales. Keith’s impressionistic lyric describes a nymph’s lakeside idle, and is speckled with the kind of natural imagery— flowers, birds, sun—pictured on the rear of the album cover (the front features a hilarious 3-D photo of the guys in sword and sorcery garb). The melodious opening passage of “Gomper” drifts off rather quickly, making way for a lengthy, chaotic improv. As in “In Another Land”, dreamy revelry inevitably curdles. As in “Sing This All Together”, the jam is Moroccan-influenced, but the sounds here are less whimsical, more claustrophobic and anxious, conjuring images of an animal pursued through a dense jungle. The keyboards that catapult the chase contribute vastly to the song’s aura of trance-inducing alchemy.

Track 9: 2000 Light Years From Home

Aside from “She’s a Rainbow”, “2000 Light Years from Home” is the only track on Satanic Majesties widely acknowledged as a classic (and the two songs made up the A and B sides of a single in the U.S.). Even those who are suspicious of The Stones’ forays into psychedelia tend to admit that “2000 Light Years” is a dynamic cut. Bill Wyman, who generally disliked the Satanic album, deemed the song “great.” What makes this song so effective is that it fits into the psychedelic genre without forgoing any of the grittiness that made The Rolling Stones so powerful in the first place. It is basically a blues song with some clever chord substitutions and a creative arrangement: Mellotron, moog synthesizer, and backward tape-loops contribute to the celestial quality of the song while snarling guitar, rock-solid bass, and hip-shaking percussion keep it grounded in Stax soul.

If “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” is an attempt to aurally recreate a bad trip then “2000 Light Years From Home” is a dissertation on such a trip couched in a sci-fi fantasy. Amid references to Aldebaran and stars with fiery oceans is an expression of profound isolation. Jagger wrote the lyrics while in jail on a drug charge, which surely contributed to that sense of isolation, but it may also have been inspired by the increasing drug-fueled alienation of Brian Jones (“2000 Light Years” evokes recent work by Pink Floyd, whose Syd Barrett was on a similar slippery slope). Still, Brian makes his presence felt in a profound way on this track, contributing massive, ominous Arabesques on the Mellotron. 

In a brilliant production stroke, “2000 Light Years From Home” opens with backward piano chords superimposed over real-time piano chords, creating a sense of simultaneous coming and going, like shadows cast both East and West but emanating from the same object. These spooky introductory sounds lead into a haunting guitar riff resolving on a disharmonious augmented fifth, which is resolutely pummeled by an elephantine kettle drum fill rolling up to the band’s full entry in unison. Wyman’s pulsing bassline locks into Watts’s primal beat as Jagger wickedly whispers the lyric. An abrasive guitar crackles in the mix, and if it were not for the quavering Mellotron melody, the track would sound about as progressive as “19th Nervous Breakdown”. But then peculiar burbling noises invade the murky groove, and the whistles and shrieks exploding from the moog synthesizer further propel the track into outer space.

As the song progresses, so does the distance: 100 light years becomes 600 then 1000 and, finally, 2000. There is no refuge in The Rolling Stones’ psychedelic environment. There are no “Newspaper taxis waiting to take you away” as in The Beatles’ fanciful universe; there is only a distancing from the world and the self. The Beatles may have said “I’d love to turn you on,” but they were only providing escapist fantasies. The Stones contended that these chemically induced fantasies would have to come crashing down eventually and the prolonging of them could only lead to tuning out from the world.

Track 10: On With the Show

The concluding track is a slight return to the vaudevillian mannerisms of The Stones’ previous album, Between the Buttons, but it is augmented with overtones of Tropicalia: Brazil’s answer to psychedelia, which melded the kitchen-sink cacophony of Sgt. Pepper’s with Latin percussion and rhythms.  It isn’t as pretty as “She’s a Rainbow”, as imaginative as “Citadel”, as scary as “Gomper”, or as all-around magnificent as “2000 Light Years From Home”, but “On With the Show” has a generally ignored wit and a beautiful arrangement of steel drums, harp, bells, and percussion. And though “On With the Show” does have many superficial similarities to The Mothers of Invention“America Drinks and Goes Home” (the cacophonous recreation of a noisy pub, the ironic nostalgia), it is an infinitely better piece of musicThe Mellotron compliments Mick’s soothing vocal during the third verse exceptionally, and Wyman’s bass swoops on the bridge and Richards’s arpeggios that link the verses brim with personality. The party atmosphere of the song provides evidence that the guys were having a blast during these sessions, and “On With the Show” serves as a fine conclusion to a most unusual and underrated record.

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