Tuesday, August 25, 2020

50 Years On - Beggar's Banquet

"We were starting to find the Rolling Stones," Keith Richards said during the Beggar's Banquet sessions — it's a pretty bold statement from the man who created the single most iconic guitar riff in rock music with "Satisfaction" in 1965. And yet, if one takes the remark to mean "We were carving in stone the dictionary definition of the Rolling Stones," then it's fairly accurate. Despite the myriad of hits from the mid-sixties incarnation of the band, the Stones had always been in The Beatles' shadow.

Several factors converged together by early 1968 to ensure that transformation. First, music was evol­ving, and the Stones — Mick Jagger in particular — were anxious about missing those precious relevant trends that would ensure their remaining on top. "Englishness," à la Ray Davies, was not one of those trends: the Kinks were beginning to lose their commercial appeal (and of course were particularly unknown in the U.S.), and Mod culture in the U.K. was dissipating. The flower power thing, having peaked in The Summer of Love, suffered the same fate. On the other hand, the roots revival, exemplified by Dylan and the Byrds, seemed to be gaining the upper hand. And once Hendrix and the Who opened the floodgates for experimental electric guitar, successful hard rock acts began pouring in. It didn't take long for the Stones to learn which way the wind was blowing.

By 1968, Brian Jones was no longer a vital presence in the band: drugs coupled with psychological issues reduced him to a ghost of his psychedelic self, even as Keith, whose own drug problem was hardly any better, found the discipline to hold the rudder. Although there's little doubt that Mick and Keith cheated Brian out of songwriting credits, he was still an integral part of the band's sound with all the exotic instrumentation and psyche­delic flavor. "No Expectations" would have been bland without Brian's slide; "Parachute Woman" would be less haunting without his har­monica; "Street Fighting Man" less tense and ominous without his sitar. These elements offer vital links with the Stones' recent past, turning Beggars Banquet into something larger than just a "roots-rock" album and adding enough mystery and psychologism to suggest that even at this point, it may not yet have been too late for Brian to clean up his messy act and reassert his place in the band. Beggars Banquet is the one album, out of the big four of 1968-72 to ap­peal the most to all those who typically prefer the pop era of the Stones. Novice Stones fans would be wise to start with Flowers, the Stones' pop compilation, and Beggar's Banquet.

Some of you are asking, Why now? Indeed, the LP is 52 years old and the box set reissue came out in 2018. My philosophies have evolved since the pandemic. Time has given me the ability to more fully experience my new equipment. I'd always gone vintage and still have my Magnavox turntable from 1961, but I listen now on my U-Turn turntable and my PS Audio receiver. It's midrange audiophile with the system costing less than $2500. For us, that was an extravagance and I waited a long time. With the new system and the time, I am appreciating new vinyl more and more. I love my collectibles, but despite the shoddy craftsmanship of some new pressings, I've found that many, if not most, newly pressed LPs from solid labels, make a remarkable difference. I started this trend because of Bowie whose 70s pressings on RCA were of substandard quality. I got new pressings of Low, Hunky Dory and Ziggy on Polydor and the difference is phenomenal. My most recent purchases are the Doors L.A. Woman and Beggars Banquet.  The box set is gorgeous and sounds incredible.

On Beggars Banquet, the Stones laid down an amazing mix of acoustic and country flavors atop a sturdy and weathered blues and rock foundation to create a splendid album; not as good as Let It Bleed, but getting there. The recording is chock-full of FM radio classics but it's the less popular tracks where the band shines. "No Expectations" features one of Brian Jones most meaningful and, sadly, last contributions to the band's history with his easy going and smooth slide work. "Jigsaw Puzzle" shows some of the Stones' Dylan influence, and "Parachute Woman" is a chugging acoustic blues exercise. As for the staples, "Street Fighting Man" has some of the most disquieting acoustic work ever laid down and "Sympathy for the Devil," well...what can you say? I

Among some of the greatest Stones' songs included herein, Beggars Banquet demonstrates how vital Keith Richards is as a guitarist. He may not play with lightning speed and his lead is limited at times, but a unique and hypnotic rhythym style and an undeniable gift for melody and song-crafting are second to none. 

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