Saturday, August 19, 2017

Their Satanic Majesties Request

The hippie era encompassed a myriad of musical styles that ebbed and co-mingled, venturing into psychedelia and country, the blues and the war. Were we to take the folk hippie vibe at face value, those artists like Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, the Laurel Canyon crowd, it continues today (and in Laurel Canyon as well) with alternate folkies like Boy Named Banjo and The Roosevelts. The same can be said for the bluesy contingency that begins with Zeppelin and Joplin (today we have the Black Keys and Gary Clarke). But if there was a component that pulled everyone under the same umbrella, it was probably the acid. LSD brought forth a psychedelic faction that lasted from 1966 well into the 70s. 

Over the past several days we've briefly explored the genre and sociological aspects, culminating in the Christmas acid drop over Laguna in 1970. In between, seemingly every recording artist ventured into psychedelia, from the obvious (Sgt. Pepper, Days of Future Passed, Love’s Forever Changes) to the forgotten (The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow, and to some degree, The Zombies' Oracle and Odessey (sic)). One such contender for over the top psychedelia is The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request. From the lenticular album cover to the spacey lyrics and arrangements, the LP, not very well received in 1967, is today viewed as a cornerstone of the genre (and I’ll take it any day over half the stuff in the 70s).

Recording of the LP, beginning in January 1967, was marred by arrests and court hearings; the Stones were on a roll, so to speak. On February 12, 1967, police were tipped off to drug use at the country home of Keith Richards. Richards and Mick Jagger were subsequently arrested. Both received harsh sentences for possession of marijuana (three months for Jagger, a year for Richard), charges that were later dismissed under appeal. On May 10, Brian Jones was arrested in his apartment home under similar charges. Studio time was therefore limited and it wasn’t often that all of the band was able to appear at the recording sessions as a whole. But despite the police and court issues, The Stones experimented with new instruments and sound effects, including mellotron and theramin, short wave radio static, and string arrangements by John Paul Jones (at the time a session/solo artist before his tenure with Led Zeppelin).  Andrew Loog Oldham, the LP's initial producer, already fed up with the band's lack of focus, distanced himself from The Stones following their drug bust and finally quit, leaving what turned out to be the Stones' only self-produced album. Jagger was quoted as stating: "There's a lot of rubbish on Satanic Majesties. Just too much time on our hands, too many drugs, no producer to tell us, 'Enough already, thank you very much, now can we just get on with this song?'" Bill Wyman said, "The making of this album was THE rock 'n' roll circus, well before we had the idea of a real one. Every day at the studio it was a lottery as to who would turn up and what - if any - positive contribution they would make when they did. Keith would arrive with anything up to ten people, Brian with another half-a-dozen and it was the same for Mick. They were assorted girlfriends and friends. I hated it! Then again, so did Andrew (Oldham) and just gave up on it. There were times when I wish I could have done, too."

With 1967 overrun with brilliant LPs, and after The Stones' epic Between the Buttons, it's hard to disassociate Satanic Majesties, yet 50 years on the LP is refreshingly different from the fairly standard blues covers and cocky rock 'n' roll with which The Stones kickstarted their career, and a natural progression from their baroque pop phase. Here we get the Stones' interpretation of psychedelia — essentially their normal style of rock with sound effects and exotic instruments.

There's all kinds of stuff to hear (stuff you should hear), like the claustrophobic riff-based "Citadel"; the trippy and catchy "In Another Land" (the only song by Bill Wyman to be included on a Stones album); heady campfire chant "Sing This All Together"; another riff-based rock song ("She's a Rainbow"), this time with Mellotron and slightly off-kilter piano - plus it's catchy as hell; and the spacey "2000 Light Years From Home," which sounds exactly as hopeless and fearful as it sounds.

It's a polarizing album among the Stones faithful to be sure.  I align myself more closely with the camp that believes it unfairly maligned.  I'm a fan of seven of the ten tracks here and only find one of the other three unlistenable.  That, of course, is the overblown unfocused psychedelic freak out "Sing this All Together (See What Happens)."  Unfortunately, there’s no defending that joint and it's by far the longest track on the album.

Conversely, though relatively inaccessible, there's so much to like on Their Satanic Majesties Request.  "Citadel," for instance, is one of my favorite little known Stones songs. "In Another Land" works too with its dreamy treated vocals. "2000 Man" sounds more like the Kinks than the Stones and I’m not much of a Kinks fan, so I appreciate it of its own accord. 

After the unfortunate already mentioned detour, "Sing This All Together," side two opens with one of the era’s great baroque pop singles (surpassed only by "Walk Away Renee"), "She’s a Rainbow."  That song and "2000 Light Years" prove that the Stones' psychedelic experiments were quite successful.  The closing track, "On with the Show," is of the weaker ilk and seems more like the Stones' boozy answer to "Yellow Submarine" than anything on Sgt. Pepper.

Their Satanic Majesties Request is far down the list of Stones LPs; the core canon including Flowers (if you allow yourself to include an American compilation), Beggar's Banquet, Let it Bleed, Aftermath, Exile, Sticky Fingers and Between the Buttons. But remove the sensibility that this is a Stones album and quickly the title fits itself nicely under the psychedelic bumbershoot.