The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet

Beggars Banquet

After the confusion and grappling for identity shown by Their Satanic Majesties Request, it was crucial for the Rolling Stones to find themselves. They had gone through being a blues band, an R&B band, a soul band, a pop band, and a psychedelic band, all with varying degrees of success. But with Beggars Banquet, the Stones found their real identity: they would take all the blues and country elements that they loved and synthesize them into a brand of bluesy rock and roll the likes of which hadn’t really been heard before.

The transformation started with a single, but what a single it was. “Jumping Jack Flash” tweaked the riff of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and added a myth-making blues rock lyric (“I was born in a crossfire hurricane/And I howled at my ma in the driving rain” is easily as good as anything Muddy Waters came up with) to define the sound of the Rolling Stones once and for all. Now, over 40 years later, it remains the definitive Stones song, if not the best.

The B-side was a holdover from the Majesties sessions, but far superior to almost everything on that album. “Child Of The Moon” was tinged with holdover psychedelia, but played tougher than anything except “2000 Light Years From Home.”

As good as the single was, it was just a foretaste of the album that followed. Beggars Banquet is an anomaly among Stones albums. It is a mostly acoustic album, with only snatches of snarling electric guitar. Brian Jones, who played so well on the previous albums, was a drug casualty at this point. He managed to rouse himself enough to contribute the masterful slide guitar on “No Expectations,” but is largely absent from the rest of the album. In practical terms, this meant that the experimentation Jones loved and the diverse instrumentation he had brought to the albums starting with Aftermath, was gone. The new sound was stripped down, lean, and ferocious.

Before its release, the album was already marked with controversy. The cover desired by the Stones featured a graffiti-covered toilet stall. The record company refused to release this cover, substituting a simple white cover with an elegant script, as if it was an invitation. Normally, I tend to side with the artist, but the record company-approved cover is beautiful and proper, while the Stones’ choice for the cover was simply tacky. Unfortunately, with the release of CDs, the Stones’ original cover replaced the “invitation” cover. Too bad.

If “Jumping Jack Flash” was myth-making from Mick Jagger, the myth became set in stone with the opening track, “Sympathy For The Devil.” Played as a samba, with heavy use of light percussion (congas, tablas, maracas), Jagger assumes the persona of Satan himself, casting himself as a major player in the long parade of history, from the Russian Revolution through the World Wars and up to the assassination of John and Robert Kennedy, all while the demonic chorus chants “woo hoo” behind him as if part of an invocation. Keith throws in a harsh, discordant guitar solo that seems pasted together from disjointed licks while Jagger scats and screams like a tribal shaman. Forty years has blunted the impact of the song, but I can still remember where I was when I first heard it and the mind-blowing impact it had on me.

And yet, “Sympathy For The Devil” is completely atypical of the songs on Beggars. The stunningly gorgeous “No Expectations” follows the voodoo ritual of "Devil." The slide guitar is one of the only things added to the album by Brian Jones, but it is among the finest examples of slide guitar in the long history of rock music. Over a soft acoustic backing, Jones’s slide cries real tears and adds a depth of feeling to Jagger’s brilliant lyrics of a love gone wrong. Bill Wyman comes close to stealing the show with his understated bass, on prominent display in the perfect mix, and session man extraordinaire Nicky Hopkins contributes a stately piano solo. “No Expectations” is possibly the finest ballad in the Stones discography, and one of the finest ballads in rock’s history. It is a new kind of acoustic blues, rooted in the past but sounding completely contemporary.

From the new blues to the new country, “Dear Doctor” provides some much-needed laughs after the sinister “Sympathy” and the heartbreaking “Expectations.” Over a surprisingly good, pure country and western backing track, Jagger camps up the story of a young man being forced into a wedding with a “bow-legged sow.” It’s nearly an irresistable sing along, as Keith proves by chiming in on prominent backing vocals at seemingly random intervals. The music is excellent, but the song itself is still somewhat of a parody of country music, as if the Stones were uncomfortable expressing their love for such an “unhip” style of music (in British rock circles, at least), so they compensated by performing the song in a jokey fashion. Whatever the level of seriousness, the song works perfectly as both parody and country song, and the lyrics are clever and funny without ever turning into the punch line of a joke.

The Stones returned again to the acoustic blues with “Parachute Woman,” a more straightforward 12-bar blues than “No Expectations.” Jagger plays a haunting harmonica at the fade out. The song is, if anything, the “weak spot” on Beggars, if one exists. As weak spots go it’s terrific, a loping acoustic blues with unusual, sexually charged lyrics (“Parachute woman/Land on me tonight”).

Side one concludes with “Jigsaw Puzzle,” which is nearly as long as the epic “Sympathy For The Devil.” Once again acoustic guitars provide the main riff, with overdubbed slide (this time by Keith). The blues here is once again the “new” blues the Stones were crafting. The song avoids becoming a standard blues song on the strength of the lyric, a lengthy dissertation in the style of Bob Dylan’s character studies. Over Bill Wyman’s prominent bass, Charlie’s rock steady backbeat, Nicky Hopkins’ piano chords, and Keith’s acoustic riffing and stinging slide runs, Jagger sings about the outcasts of the world, from the tramp on the doorstep to the bishop’s daughter to the “family man” who is also a ruthless gangster. Jagger observes these characters from a disinterested, jaded perspective, waiting patiently for some revelation that will help it all make sense. The persona of the Stones is set in this song, as Jagger turns his lyrical attention to the band itself, defining them just as much as the film A Hard Day’s Night defined the Beatles for their fans. “Oh the singer he looks angry/At being thrown to the lions,” sings Jagger, likely remembering his recent drug bust and subsequent prosecution. “And the bass player he looks nervous/About the girls outside/And the drummer he’s so shattered/ Trying to keep on time/And the guitar players look damaged/They been outcasts all their lives.” The Stones encapsulated in a single verse: notorious ladies’ man Wyman, solid backbeat machine Watts, and wasted guitarists. It is the lyrics and Jagger’s performance of them that makes this song so extraordinary, with much credit going to Wyman’s rumbling bass and Richards’s stinging leads.

Side two begins with the furious acoustic strumming of “Street Fighting Man,” inspired by a peace march in London that turned violent. The song is so loud and propulsive it’s difficult to believe that it’s not a full-on electric guitar assault, but the primary riff is played by acoustic guitars that are pushed way into the red. With Watts playing an elemental drum pattern, really little more than just holding the beat steady, and Wyman once again stepping up and playing extraordinary bass guitar, Jagger sings one of the defining rock lyrics of 1968. In a dreadful year of war, violence, riots, assassinations, Jagger’s “Summer’s here and the time is right/For fighting in the street, boys” was a call to arms while the following lyric was a more jaded “What can a poor boy do/But sing in a rock and roll band?” Jones even contributes a few odd sitar drones, but they’re largely buried under that rocket-fuelled rhythm.

For the first time since December’s Children, the Stones included a cover song as the followup to “Street Fighting Man.” Unlike their earlier cover choices of Chuck Berry, fifties rock and roll and blues, and contemporary soul, the Stones dug back to the 1920s country blues for the Reverend Robert Wilkins’s musical retelling of the Bible story, “Prodigal Son.” The Stones play it straight, with Keith playing beautiful acoustic guitar and Jagger singing in a slurred voice that suits the music perfectly. It’s among the best Stones cover songs ever, sounding like a loose jam in the basement.

Considering that one of the obsessions of the Rolling Stones from even their earliest days was sex, Beggars Banquet is largely a sex-free zone. There’s the fun wordplay of “Parachute Woman,” and then the absolutely salacious raunch of “Stray Cat Blues.” Jagger sounds more sinister on this song, being himself, than he does playing the Devil on “Sympathy.” “I can see that you’re just 15 years old/But I don’t want your I.D.” sings Jagger, promising his nubile young friend that there will be “a feast upstairs.” Even as the girl promises to be a wild cat, right down to scratching and biting, Jagger one-ups the ante: “You say you got a friend/That she’s wilder than you/Why don’t you bring her upstairs?/If she’s so wild, she can join in, too.” Keith plays wild electric guitar leads over Watts’s rolling drums before the song ends with an extended jam.

After the sexual fury of “Stray Cat Blues,” the acoustic blues of “Factory Girl,” with its Dave Mason-played Mellotron simulating a wildly strummed mandolin, and fiddle played by Family and future Blind Faith bassist Ric Grech, comes almost as a relief. The sister song of “Parachute Woman,” there is a down-home country feel to the song, but an almost Celtic underpinning. The congas (played by Rocky Dijon) and tabla (played by Charlie Watts) add a distinctly un-country sound to the background, but it all works beautifully. Jagger’s lyric of waiting for his blue-collar lover to get home is the icing on the cake.

Which brings the listener to the conclusion. A soft acoustic guitar introduces Keith Richards on lead vocal for the first verse before Jagger takes over. “Salt Of The Earth” is a classic workingman’s drinking song on first listen, but really is about how powerless the “common people” really are. Jagger’s refrain “When I search a faceless crowd/A swirling mass of grey and black and white/They don’t look real to me/In fact, they look so strange” seems to dilute the rousing verses until you listen more closely. While the verses seem to salute the “salt of the earth” with a series of toasts, prayers, and thoughts, the reality is quite different.

The answer lies in the verse “Spare a thought for the stay-at-home voter/His empty eyes gaze at strange beauty shows/And a parade of the gray-suited grafters/A choice of cancer or polio.” Jagger will raise a glass to the hard-working people and drink a toast to the uncounted heads, but his real statement here is that the people no longer have power over their own lives, and that politics has failed (“they need leaders but get gamblers instead”). As the album closer, “Salt of the Earth” is breathtaking in its construction. The acoustic blues are there, but so is a gospel chorus, and a rave up finale that suggests that maybe there’s life in the people yet.

Beggars Banquet, released the same day at the Beatles’ White Album, was the peak of 1960s Rolling Stones. It marked the beginning of a five-year stretch where the Stones could seemingly do no wrong in the recording studio. It remains one of the best Stones albums ever, if not the best. It remains one of the greatest albums in the history of rock music.

Grade: A+

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Children Of Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The Second Psychedelic Era, 1976-1995

Children Of Nuggets

I love Rhino Records. The packages the good folks at Rhino put together are beautiful to behold, and provide great listening experiences. Their crowning glory are the Nuggets compilations. The first, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 compiled the original Lenny Kaye two-record set Nuggets onto one disc, and then added three additional discs of mostly American garage rock. The box set was a goldmine of one- and two-hit wonders from the 1960s. It was a fascinating listen from the first song (the Electric Prunes’ classic “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night”) through the last (“Blues’ Theme” by Davie Allan and The Arrows—who??). The box was a cornucopia of kids playing in garages with fuzztone guitars, three chords, and one shining moment of inspiration. This box set was followed by Nuggets, Vol. 2: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire & Beyond, four more fully-packed CDs pulling the same sort of one- and two-hit garage rockers from all over the globe, from Australia’s Easybeats to Brazil’s Os Mutantes. Far from scraping the bottom of the barrel, this second box was, if anything, better than the first.

Then came Children Of Nuggets. While the title boasts the songs as coming from the “second psychedelic era” the fact is that there was no second psychedelic era. What this box set includes are the bands who drew some or all of their influence from the bands compiled on the first two box sets. These are the acts who grew up listening to the original Nuggets album, and bands like The Remains, The Sonics, and The Standells.

Overall, the album is a great collection. The main difference between this box and the two preceding volumes is that the bands on the first two collections were earnestly forging their own path. There was no real psychedelic garage rock before them. On Children of Nuggets, we have the bands who are following the trailblazers.

Because this is second-generation, most of the bands here can be boiled down to one of three categories.

The first of these groups are the imitators. These are the bands who are trying their best to copy the sound and feel of the original garage rockers. Farfisa organs, fuzztone guitars, phased vocals, psychedelic subject matter…all the elements are there. Sometimes these bands succeed. Their mimicry is so adept that the song sounds like a lost classic from 1967, like The Last’s “She Don’t Know Why I’m Here” or The Pandoras’ “It’s About Time.” This would also include The Dukes of Stratosphear, the nom de psych of XTC. These are also the bands most likely to fail. Vibrasonics’s “Kingsley J” sounds like a song from 1967, but it practically screams out “imitation.” It’s not a bad song, but it sounds like a copy of something better and more original.

The second group contains the bands who were heavily influenced by the garage rockers, but who mix the primitive sound with their own take on it. These are the bands that assume many of the trappings of garage rock, but don’t sound like they’re imitating anyone. Here you’ve got odd surf bands like The Untamed Youth and The Mummies, keyboard-centric bands like the great Lyres, and jangly guitar rockers like The Funseekers.

The third group is the best. These are the bands who capture the spirit of the garage rockers but who don’t feel bound to imitate the sound. Unsurprisingly, this is the group that features the most “famous” names: The Posies, Primal Scream, The Bangles, Teenage Fanclub, The Church, Julian Cope, The dB’s, The Smithereens, Hoodoo Gurus, Screaming Trees, The Plimsouls, The Fleshtones—all common names for those who listened to “college radio” in the 1980s.

Whatever groups the bands belonged to, the bottom line is the quality of the songs. Children of Nuggets is not as consistently great as Nuggets, Vol. 2, and it seems like there was some sort of desire to put a couple of instantly recognizable “hits” on it (this was also done on the first Nuggets box). Still, the quality of the songs is pretty consistently great. There are a few real dogs here (“New Kind Of Kick” by The Cramps sounds timid compared to the Swingin’ Neckbreakers’s ferocious, similarly-themed “I Live For Buzz,” Revolving Paint Dream’s “Flowers In The Sky” goes nowhere, “Psycko [Themes From Psycho and Vertigo]” is a cheesy surf-style instrumental by Laika and The Cosmonauts, The Unknowns are featured with the annoying “Not My Memory,” and Plasticland’s “Mink Dress” is a one-note idea, and not a good idea). These dogs are more than compensated for by the truly great songs (“Help You Ann” by Lyres, the early Bangles gem “The Real World,” “We’re Living In Violent Times” by the Barracudas, the power pop gem “The Trains,” from The Nashville Ramblers, “There Must Be A Better Life” from Biff, Bang, Pow!, “I May Hate You Sometimes” from The Posies, Hoodoo Gurus’s “I Want You Back,” the Godfathers’s “This Damn Nation,” “Everyday Things” by The Plimsouls, The Soft Boys’ classic “I Wanna Destroy You,” and “Ahead of My Time” by The Droogs—and that’s just the great songs from the first half of the box.

The good news is that most of the rest of the songs are closer to being great than they are to being dogs. It is these very good songs that make up the bulk of the four discs. Out of 100 songs, more than 90% run the range from good to great, with the vast majority of those falling solidly in the very good to great category.

Children Of Nuggets is also an important history lesson. Rock radio was arguably at its nadir in the 1980s. It’s easy to forget now that hugely famous bands like R.E.M. toiled in obscurity for most of the 1980s, and even U2 were little more than a cult act until their fourth album. At a time when commercial rock radio was dominated by bands like Mr. Mister, Simple Minds, and The Hooters, it was college radio that provided a different venue and gave play to bands like the ones collected here. Alternative rock exploded into the mainstream in the early 1990s. Children Of Nuggets shows what it was like in the underground before Nirvana.

Grade: A

The Listening Post: October/November 2009

Rockin’ the Pod the last couple of months:

  • Is This Real?Wipers. Coming from out of the Pacific Northwest, Greg Sage’s punk band Wipers were an enormous influence on the alternative rock scene that exploded out of Seattle in the early 90s. Kurt Cobain was a huge fan, and Nirvana covered two Wipers songs (“D-7” on Incesticide and “Return Of The Rat” on the With The Lights Out box set). One listen and it’s clear to see the influence. The album sounds very much like what you might expect Nirvana to sound like in 1980. Thick, sludgy guitar tones that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in 1991, plus some really catchy melodies. The subject of alienation and despair play their part as well. It’s unfortunately easy to picture a young Cobain listening to “Potential Suicide” on his headphones in his bedroom. Still, this is a remarkably good album and it’s easy to see why the Northwest alt-rockers took this band to heart. Had they come on the scene eleven years later, Wipers might have been huge. Grade: B+
  • Little MoonGrant-Lee Phillips. At this point, I’m not sure it’s possible for Grant-Lee Phillips to write a bad song. Pretty much everything he puts his golden voice to is meticulously crafted, lush, and strong. The problem, for me, is this: in my mind, Phillips is a prisoner of his former band, the spectacular Grant Lee Buffalo. Back in the mid-90s, the Buffalo were releasing brilliant albums filled with epic rock songs full of invention, drama, and intricacy and ballads in the finest traditions of American folk music. Since going solo, Phillips has released several albums of adult contemporary rock. Gone is the howl that sent shivers down the spines of listeners, gone are the bombastic hard rock songs with lyrics full of literary and historical references. In their place are vocals delivered in a half-whisper over a strummed, mostly acoustic background. His two most recent albums, Strangelet and Little Moon, contain a few songs that might charitably be described as rockers or, at least, “up tempo,” but for years I’ve waited and hoped that Grant would put down the acoustic 12-string and strap on the electric 6-string. On Little Moon, almost all the “rockers” are front-loaded on the album, leaving the second half sounding like he’s singing his child to sleep. My preference for rockers aside, the first half of the record is the best, from the feel-good opener “Good Morning Happiness” through the tough “Strangest Thing” and the folky title track, and peaking with the one-two knockout punch of “It Ain’t The Same Old Cold War, Harry” and “Seal It With A Kiss.” “Nightbirds” is a lovely acoustic ballad that closes out the first half. The second half is much more problematic. “Violet” is another acoustic ballad, not particularly interesting. “Buried Treasure” has the feel of a ballad from Buffalo’s Mighty Joe Moon, but “Blind Tom” is a ballad too far, a story-song where the story isn’t very interesting. “One Morning,” the fifth consecutive ballad, is also the best, managing to get some blood flowing again in the chorus. It’s brilliant. Unfortunately, it’s followed by another ballad, “Older Now,” which comes complete with a string section. By the time the album closes with the jaunty sing-along, “The Sun Shines On Jupiter,” it seems like the second half is twice as long as the first. There is no denying that almost every song on Little Moon is a stand-alone gem. Listened to in sequence, they leave you kind of sleepy and wondering whatever happened to the guy who sang “Lone Star Song.” Grade: B
  • Lady SoulAretha Franklin. Many moons ago, I had an Aretha Franklin compilation called 30 Greatest Hits. Despite my long-held admiration for Franklin, I could never get into the album. I think now that it was because it was simply too much. The best way to appreciate Aretha Franklin is to listen to her original albums, the way they were intended. Lady Soul, released in 1968, contains the singles “Chain of Fools” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Let’s face it: for those two songs alone, the album is going to rate highly. Add in great album tracks like “Money Won’t Change You,” “Niki Hoeky,” “Since You’ve Been Gone,” and the tough blues “Good To Me As I Am To You,” and you’ve got one of the best soul albums ever recorded. The album does have one or two flaws. Franklin’s got an unbelievably great voice, and once or twice succumbs to the temptation all truly great singers face: oversinging. She oversings Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” but still delivers a great version. Much less successful is her version of the Rascals’ song, “Groovin'”. I don’t think this soul girl had the hang of the laid back hippie “groovin’ on a Sunday afternoon” vibe. While she does a passable job throughout most of the song, she’s hampered by Mamas and Papas-like backing vocals and at the end sounds like she’s commanding her lover to “GROOVE!!!” after she tells him that life would be ecstasy with “you and me ENDLESSLY!!” Those minor quibbles aside, this is Sixties Soul at its best. Grade: A+
  • Dusty In MemphisDusty Springfield. As if to prove that soul wasn’t relegated to America, Ireland’s Dusty Springfield released her masterpiece in 1969, with the timeless “Son Of A Preacher Man” the centerpiece. Springfield’s got a great voice, though it’s nowhere as commanding as that of Franklin. The soul vibe coming from Springfield is decidedly mellower, with strings and a sympathetic backing replacing the grit of the American soul players. Dusty in Memphis plays like a more soulful version of the classic Bacharach/David songs that were brought to life by Dionne Warwick. Mostly, this works. “Just A Little Lovin,'” “Don’t Forget About Me,” “No Easy Way Down” and “I Can’t Make It Alone” are magnificent, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with “Preacher Man.” Nearly as good are the two songs she shares with Child Is Father To The Man, the début Blood, Sweat and Tears album from 1968: “So Much Love” and “Just One Smile.” Once or twice, the style fails her. “The Windmills Of Your Mind” sounds schmaltzy and “In The Land Of Make Believe” borders on easy listening, despite an engaging melody. Grade: A
  • Oh, Inverted WorldThe Shins. I’ve never seen it, but in the movie Garden State there is apparently a scene where Natalie Portman tells Zach Braff that The Shins will “change your life” before playing the song “New Slang.” Well, I wouldn’t go that far. “New Slang” is unquestionably a killer song and the highlight of a very good album, but on a “change your life” scale it doesn’t really measure up. The oddest thing about the record is that the sound of it reminds me of 1980s indie rock, and I wasn’t even aware that “indie” was a sound. This may be simply because they carry a lot of R.E.M. in their guitars. There are also elements of classic rock, from the opening of the first track, the magnificently-titled “Caring Is Creepy”, which channels the Beach Boys, to the Raspberries vibe of “Know Your Onion!” The first half of the album is the best. The songs that follow the centerpiece of “New Slang” are good but unremarkable, the two exceptions being the excellent power pop “Pressed In A Book” and the unlistenable “Your Algebra.” All told, this is a fine album with moments of brilliance. Grade: B+
  • Fleet FoxesFleet Foxes. This is a strong and fascinating début full-length album from these guys. Unlike many début albums, Fleet Foxes sounds like a fully mature band creating a fully mature work. The harmonies are stunning while the rootsy music is sympathetic and beautifully played. Songs like “White Winter Hymnal,” “Your Protector,” “Blue Ridge Mountains” and “Oliver James” have a timeless feel that makes them sound as ancient as they are contemporary. Only “Heard Them Stirring” and “Meadowlark,” while good, are not up to the level of the rest of the album. The biggest obstacle Fleet Foxes will face in their career is the need to expand. The sound of this album is the sound of a band on their third or fourth album, not their first. It will be interesting to see where this band goes in the future. As good as this album sounds, another one just like it would suffer more than most from familiarity. As it is, even on this album many of the songs blend together in their sound. But the sound is great. Grade: A.