Their Satanic Majesties Request
The Rolling Stones have been the best of all possible worlds: they have the lack of pretension and sentimentality associated with the blues, the rawness and toughness of hard rock, and the depth which always makes you feel that they are in the midst of saying something. They have never impressed me as being kitsch.
Their Satanic Majesties Request, despite moments of unquestionable brilliance, put the status of the Rolling Stones in jeopardy. With it, the Stones abandon their capacity to lead in order to impress the impressionable. They have been far too influenced by their musical inferiors and the result is an insecure album in which they try too hard to prove that they too are innovators, and that they too can say something new.
The album is marred by poor production. In the past there has been a great gulf between production styles of the Beatles and the Stones. The Beatles production is often so "perfect" that it sounds computerized. Sgt. Pepper really does sound like it took four months to make. The Stones have never gotten hung up on that kind of thing. There is far greater informality to their sound and they probably have recorded more mistakes than any other group in pop music: vocals out of key, out of tune twelve strings (December's Children is loaded with them), forgetting lyrics, you name it.
In the past such mistakes all made sense because it was part of the Stones' basic statement, their basic arrogant pose. With the shift in pose to something quite different, something nearly "arty," the weak guitars and confused balance merely become annoying. Instead of tightening up the rudiments of their production, the Stones confuse the issue with their introduction into the instrumental tracks of countless studio gimmicks.
These production gimmicks create the aura of newness which surrounds this album. It gives the listener the feeling that he is hearing something that the Stones haven't done before. However, shorn of all extraneous artifacts, the songs that comprise this album are nothing new. We get simple folk chorus type stuff, ("Sing This Song All Together"); English folk melodies a la "Lady Jane," as in "In Another Land"; occasional attempts at the old audacity and guttiness. ("And I awoke/Is this some kind of joke?"), all of this in combination with the ever-present intent of proving that they are poets, like John Lennon or Donovan, and all that.
THE STONES MISCUE
What is missing from all this, and what is so obviously and desperately needed to turn the whole thing into good Stones, is the instrumental and vocal style that has made the Stones so potent in the past, right down until Between the Buttons. But, those styles have been replaced by the kind of amorphous and aimless instrumental styles characteristic of American freak-outs (at least if they had borrowed from the Who . . . ). Thus we get oscillators and vacuum cleaners, pathetic doodling on the guitar, fuzz-tones without end, and we get the mandatory eight minute freak-out. Groovy.
The Stones were always exemplary of one of the best of all rock qualities: tightness. They have always been economical, the opposite of ornamental. Having a very clear idea of what they wanted to say they could go into a studio and make it all up on a three minute cut.
One song which best illustrates the virtues of this approach is "Connection," from Buttons. It contains all of the Stones' virtues, but particularly the tightness. It is stark: just staring at you absolutely naked, no embellishment, no pretense, no apology. That is what the Stones have done, to varying degrees of effectiveness, on all of their former recordings. They were the exemplars of telling it like it is.
But, like everyone else, the Stones' heads do not stand still. They are a little less certain now. They are unhappy with their old style but they lack the artistic certainty to create a wholly new one. The result is that Satanic Majesties is necessarily a transitional album and, as such, it contains few of the old virtues. The new ideas are presented in such an undeveloped state that they do not achieve a valid identity of their own.
The basic motive of this album is a kind of meandering undercurrent of production effects and electronic gimmicks, meandering instrumental breaks which do not follow the songs they are a part of, and an attempt at either creating, or possibly satirizing, Sgt. Pepper type unity. In substance, the songs and much of the instrumental style used in the body of the songs offer very little which is new, and much which is inferior to what they have done previously.
"Sing This All Together" has a pleasant enough melody combined with its idiotically pretentious chorus. The horn riff they use at the end of each verse is a variation of the horn riff on Otis Redding's "Love Have Mercy" (Dictionary of Soul, Volt 415).
What bothers me about the cut musically is the archetypical (for this album) instrumental break which, in a word, is the superficial masquerading as depth. The quick guitar runs in the middle are brilliant. Unfortunately, no meaningful musical context has been created for them. They lie suspended over some musically irrelevant piano doodling and an absence of directed rhythm. For those who want to tell us that this cut contains anything startlingly new, I would point out that the break ends with the oldest rock cliche in the book, a single chord repeated first in half notes, and then accelerated into quarter notes, as in "Hang On Sloopy." And for those who wish to argue that the Stones make brilliant use of the rock cliche, they clearly don't as the absence of a related context virtually precludes it.