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.
A SAVING GRACE OR TWO
Citadel” further illustrates the point that the Stones are not creating a genuinely new sound on this album, as melodically, vocally, and in intent, there is nothing new about this cut. What is new is the unnecessarily distorted guitars and the noisy instrumental track, as a whole. The old Stones would have done this cut very much the same way, except that the sound would have been tighter and more to the point.
To this end, Charlie Watts deserves great recognition. Of all the Stones, he seems to be least impressed with himself and he consequently turns in what is clearly the most consistent and best instrumental performance on the record.
In fact, Charlie hasn’t changed very much since Heads, nor has there been much reason for him to do anything more than refine his style. Unfortunately, the two best examples of Watts in full bloom are not included in this album, “Dandelion” and “We Love You”. The former was recorded well over a year ago and the latter was of more recent vintage. Even if you didn’t dig the songs, (I think each is significantly better than anything on this album, “We Love You” being the most advanced, sophisticated, and musically coherent thing the Stones have recently done) dig the power, brazeness, and guts of Charlie’s elemental style. In any event, “Citadel” is certainly one of the more passable cuts on this album, due largely to Watts’ drumming.
Bill Wyman’s debut as a vocalist and a songwriter is fairly inconspicuous. The song, “In Another Land,” is typically Stones, with the chorus resting comfortably in the Aftermath mold. Bill’s solo voice, deliberately obscured by the tremolo effect, is of no consequence in any event. The nicest thing about the cut is the transition from the verse to the chorus. Watts continues to drive things and the acoustic guitars create solidarity and tightness. The lyrics to the chorus are among the few that recall the toughness of the past.
“2000 Man” is one of the strong points of the album. The rhythm change is quite nice, Watts drumming is very strong, the acoustics guitars are more effective than usual, and the contrast between Jagger‘s weak voice on the verses and his gutsier style on the chorus is quite effective. However, the mix could have been better, particularly with reference to the bass, and the long organ chord that ends the song is stupid.
“Sing This All Together,” round two, is the most annoying cut on the album by virtue of the fact that it includes some absolute strokes of genius which are lost by the totally inadequate arrangement and lack of musical direction. Particularly brilliant is Keith‘s guitar sound. The high of the track comes after two minutes of random doodling, when Richard gets into a lovely riff and is slowly joined by the horns. For about thirty seconds, it sounds like they are going to pull the whole thing together. They don’t. The whole thing dies. There are a couple of other similarly isolated spots that occur during the cut, before Jagger gives the whole thing his kiss of death by singing the lyrics in a voice even more pretentious than the words call for, with the aid of an unbearably vulgar use of echo to make his voice and the words sound “deep.” It is embarrassing.
The best cut on the album is easily “She’s A Rainbow.” Happily, Jagger abandons his wispy, small voice pose. He allows no doubt about what he wants to get across and his voice carries a positiveness and forcefulness lacking on most of the other cuts on the album. Even so, it is a remarkably asexual love song for the Stones and as such does not approach the power of the earlier Stones’ singing on the same subject.
The performance is startlingly strong, with those rhythm guitars right up front and some very nice piano and strings, which I presume, they have nothing to do with. The dissonant instrumental break that comes before the last verse is excellent in this case because it gives the chorus added force when the band comes back in. It is short, succinct, and economical, the very qualities which are missing from so much of the rest of the album.
“Lantern” is another comparatively successful effort in which some excellent instrumental efforts help transcend a rather boring tune and a poor lead vocal. Particularly of note are Wyman’s guitar runs on the bass and his syncopated playing over extended chords at the end of each chorus. Watts’ performance is again exemplary, particularly during the verses where he leads off each line with those tight little rolls.
Richard’s guitar playing on “Lantern” is his best on the album. Richard has always been my own favorite lead guitarist in rock and he is certainly the best hard rock lead around. But after the first three Stones’ albums I never felt he got into the groove again. On Buttons he showed he was moving in some new directions, and on this cut he turns in a beautiful performance, crowding into a few small runs a great deal of musical force.
ART FOR WHOSE SAKE?
The duration of the record motion is downward. “Gomper” is a total loss, the instrumental break having nothing whatever to recommend it. The vocal is unbearable. One thing Jagger is not very good at is trying to sound innocent. The cut simply does not cohere and was produced horribly.
By the time we get around to “2000 Light Years From Home” it is possible that even enthusiasts of the sound effects and production gimmicks, and that is what I think they are, will begin to tire of them. The song itself is fine – the drumming holds a comparatively good instrumental track in place – but the continuity is murdered by oscillators and what have you. Jagger just cannot sing consistently well in this kind of restrained voice and his attempts at whispering the line, “It’s so very lonely, you’re two thousand miles from home,” are again embarrassing. He isn’t much as a poser in the image of “teller of truths.”
In a review of Between the Buttons I wrote “The Stones make you feel their presence in a way that is so immediate, so essential, so relevant, that one can’t turn his mind away from what they’re doing.” At the time I believed that the Stones were best of all our white groups, even superior in several respects to the Beatles. And I still think that.
The current album is an obvious detour in which the Stones manifest an understandable insecurity. With everyone getting into seemingly new things and other pop groups cutting huge prestige albums it is reasonable for the Stones to have felt the need to try to say something different, if for no other reason than to please their friends and the cultists.
Unfortunately they have been caught up in the familiar dilemma of mistaking the new for the advanced. In the process they have sacrificed most of the virtues which made their music so powerful in the first place: the tightness, the franticness, the directness, and the primitiveness.
It is largely a question of intent. The old Stones had the unstated motto of “We play rock.” And there was always an overriding aura of competence which they tried to generate. They knew they did their thing better than anyone else around, and, in fact, they did. The new Stones have been too infused with the pretentions of their musical inferiors. Hence they have adopted as their motto “We make art.” Unfortunately, in rock there seems to be an inverse ratio between the amount of striving there is to make art and the quality of the art that results. For there was far more art in the Rolling Stones who were just trying to make rock than there is in the Rolling Stones who are trying to create art. It is an identity crisis of the first order and it is one that will have to be resolved more satisfactorily than it has been on Their Satanic Majesties Request if their music is to continue to grow.