Inside the Rolling Stones' 'Beggars' Banquet' - Rolling Stone
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Inside the Rolling Stones’ ‘Beggars’ Banquet’

The band’s latest album is also its greatest

The Rolling StonesThe Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones at the launch of 'Beggars Banquet' in 1968.

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The Rolling Stones have returned, and they are bringing back rock and roll with them. They have finished their next album — titled Beggars’ Banquet — and it is the best record they have yet done. In all aspects it is a great album; great Rolling Stones’ material and performance; a great rock and roll album, without pretense, an achievement of significance in both lyrics and music.

Beggars’ Banquet marks the comeback of the Stones from the disastrous Their Satanic Majesties Request, a recording episode as unfortunate as any for any group in the world. Their new album will mark a point in the short history of rock and roll: the formal end of all the pretentious, non-musical, boring, insignificant, self-conscious and worthless stuff that has been tolerated during the past year in the absence of any standards set by the several great figures in rock and roll.

Beggars’ Banquet should be the mark of this change, for it was Their Satanic Majesties Request which was the prototype of junk masquerading as meaningful. In Satanic Majesties, the Stones fell hook, line and sinker into the post-Sgt. Pepper trap of trying to put out a “progressive,” “significant” and “different” album, as revolutionary as the Beatles. But it couldn’t be done, because only the Beatles can put out an album by the Beatles.

And only the Rolling Stones could put out Beggars’ Banquet. The music is characterized by its assertion of rock and roll: strong, dynamic lines from the bass and the drums. With these come an overlay of Keith Richards on acoustic guitar; Brian Jones on steel guitar and piano, much of it directly from the country and western tradition in rock and roll. In feeling– — and in some of the lyrics and phrasing –— it is also reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61:

There’s a tramp sitting on my

Trying to waste his time;
With his mentholated
He’s a walking clothesline.
Here comes the Bishop’s
On the other side;
She looks a trifle jealous,
She’s been an outcast all
her life.

Both Mick Jagger’s singing and his writing are his best yet. The lyrics above, from a track titled “Jigsaw Puzzle,” show the strong Dylan influence.

The gangster looks so
With his luger in his hand;
But when he gets home to his
He’s a family man.
But when it comes to the
nitty gritty,
He can shove in his knife;
Yes he really looks quite
He’s been an outlaw all his

“Jigsaw Puzzle” features Brian Jones on slide guitar, and the piano playing of Nicky Hopkins, a young Englishman who has played on several of the Stones’ records before, but really excels in the new album. On this song, he plays in the chorded Dylan style. The song begins with these instruments in a slow ballad style, and then goes into an extended instrumental break, with powerful bass punches — –a whole rock and roll scene.

Oh the singer he looks angry,
At being brought to the line;
And the bass player he looks
About the girls outside;
And the drummer, he’s so
Trying to keep the time
The guitar players look
They’ve been outcasts all
their lives.

Mick Jagger brought the unmixed master tapes for the new album to Los Angeles in the middle of July. With him came Jimmy Miller, a 27-year-old American, who has been the producer of every group Stevie Winwood has been in (such tunes as “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m A Man”) and whom the Stones signed to help them with this album.

With him, Mick also brought the artwork for the album, to show around and consider. It follows the idea of the title. The best shot, for a double spread photo on the inside of the album, is a picture of the Stones dressed ragamuffin style at this huge eating table in some castle, with a fantastic spread before them. The photo will be printed in dark brown, approximating the old daguerreotype photograph and just a few things, like cherries in a bowl, will be tinted a rose color like the postcards of the 1920’s.

Although the record itself was recorded at Olympic Studios in London during the Spring, they brought it to California for the final touches. It had already been mixed once in London, but they were so dissatisfied with it that they called Glyn Johns, their regular engineer, to re-do the mix.

Johns, a 26-year-old English schoolboy imp, was in Los Angeles, producing the Steve Miller Band’s second album, and so Mick brought the tapes there, where they were mixed in the middle of July from midnight to four or five in the morning for about a week, after the Miller Band sessions in Studio 3, located in Hollywood.

Studio 3 stands right around the corner from the giant RCA studios on Sunset Blvd., where, two and three years ago, the Stones were recording parts of their earlier albums. In RCA in 1968, the cavernous studios where orchestras are recorded are now vacant but for two guards and an unknown group who will try but never get there. Two or three years ago, hundreds of girls waited for days to see the Rolling Stones, and it was one of the prototypical scenes of the British Invasion, as it was called then.

Today, Mick Jagger quietly came and went at midnight, sitting for hours with Johns, Miller and two guests, playing each song at least ten times each, at full volume, to find the right placement, level and tonal value for each instrument on a track. Again and again it went on, the tedious workmanship of the very precise craft of rock and roll recording.

Today, Mick Jagger, a thin, modish Oscar Wilde figure, is the object of a bizarre variation on the same sort of manhunt. One night, someone left the door ajar and several girls on their way somewhere spotted Mick and hung around the outside entrance for a half hour, gathering a little crowd until it was apparent that nothing was going to happen.

A young man with cat eyes and his hair pulled back into a braid like that of a Tibetan temple keeper, re-appeared with his friends night after night to wait. The first night he threatened to pound on the door until he was let in. The look of his eyes, as he was told “no” was frightening; it seemed a matter of life for him to be inside. In the early morning he followed Jagger driving where he was staying in Beverly Hills.

There were just a few people on the first days, but the reaction to the famous– — and in this case, almost what one could call the “spiritually famous” — –was as intense as ever. Jagger was also seen at places like the Hollywood Bowl and the Whiskey A Go Go, and his presence caused wave-like spreading of recognition. He is still Mick Jagger.

Oh there’s 20,000 grandma’s
Waving their hankies in the
And burning up their tensions,
Shouting “It’s not there.”
There’s a regiment of soldiers,
Standing looking on;
And the Queen is bravely
“What the hell is going on?”
With a blood-curdling
She charged into the ranks,
And blessed all those
Who with their dying
Wave “Thanks.”

“Jigsaw Puzzle,” more or less the story of the band, was recorded with eleven other tracks at Olympic Studios in London during the period February to July. Two of the others — –”Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Child of the Moon” — –were issued on a single (“Jack” got to number two in the charts) and are not planned for release on the album, although Jagger says their American record company may put them on, even if their English company doesn’t.

The recording sessions stretched from February of this year to the end of June, with plenty of three week vacations during that time. The sessions were booked from 7:00 PM in the evening and sometimes lasted till daybreak, depending on who was getting flaked out, when, where and how, and why. It was the fastest album that the Stones have ever done.

A month before they went into the studios, they rented a rehearsal hall in Surrey and played there every day, not formally practicing for the album, but just blowing for fun, for getting together and losing the rust that accumulates when you are not working for months and months at a time. Each basic track on the album took from three or four hours to eight or nine hours. Most of the songs were written before hand, so that studio time wasn’t taken up with a lot of fussing around. One track remains untitled at the moment, but was originally called “Silver Blanket.” Mick did the vocal while in Los Angeles.

One of the interesting things that characterized the sessions was that Mick did a lot of live singing, that is, he did the vocal track at the same time that the instrumental tracks were being done, rather than overdubbing the vocal onto an already recorded number. Just this little thing improves the feeling and sound of the record intangibly but very definitely.

Beggars’ Banquet is a cohesive work in style and spirit, yet the tracks are all easily identifiable on their own, each with its own distinction. “Factory Girl” is a simple one, with very basic lyrics about a cat who is waiting in the rain for his chick, a factory girl, and he describes how she looks. There is a country fiddle on the number. “Parachute Woman” is a moderate blues, a R&B number really, with a strongly echoed harmonica.

“Prodigal Son” is almost literally the story from the Bible, about the son who leaves home and then returns. It is done in modern phrasing although some of the things, like killing the fatted calf, are taken right from the Bible. Mick does it in a deep, Southern voice, accompanied by a mouth harp and acoustic guitar.

“Street Fighting Man” and “Stray Cat” are what would be called “ravers.” They are very strong, hard bluesy numbers with heavy guitar chording and pace, reminiscent of what the Stones must have felt like a long time ago when they were unknown and trying to make it in the cheap clubs and bars around London. “Stray Cat” is about a 15-year old chick with an older sister, both of whom are invited up for a little fun. Mick sings “Bet your mama don’t know you can bite like that.” The solos on the electric guitar are a little disappointing, but the excitement of the 12-bar structure, turning around and around again with harder and harder punches (and accompanied by a mellotron) is superb. They are great numbers.

“Dear Doctor” is a hokey, countryish song. Mick said that it wasn’t intended to be a laugh, of in any way light, but that it came out that way and it makes a good change of pace. The song sounds like some bizzarre jugband with a string-bass and a washboard. The refrain is “Help me, please, doctor, I’m damaged.” In the middle, Mick reads a “letter” spoken over the bridge, in a high-pitched, cracked country voice, a la the Diamonds in “Little Darlin!”

“No Expectations” is probably the best of songs, in the classical meaning of song. It is very together, a ballad in the country style, but a very smooth one. The lyrics are plain but elegant: “Take to me to the airport, Put me on a plane; I’ve got no expectations to pass through here again.” Nicky Hopkins on piano dominates the cut with a Floyd Cramer style. In fact, the song as a whole could be described as what Floyd Cramer might have written were he leaving “Desolation Row.”

“Sympathy for the Devil,” is bound to be the most ‘significant’ of the songs on the album. It is a complex piece, about five minutes long. It was originally done in a very Dylanish style, but two nights later, in London, they cut a second version of the song, and made it a stone heavy. Keith plays bass, Bill plays maracas, some West Indian cat plays conga drums, and everyone in the studio at that time contributed yelps, “ooh-ooh’s” and Mick did the grunts.

The first version of the song — –then called “The Devil Is My Name”– — contained the lyric “I shouted out, ‘Who Killed Kennedy?’ After all it was you and me.” The next day Bobby was shot. The second version of the song, the one which will be on the album, recorded the next day, has this line instead: “I shouted out, ‘Who Killed the Kennedys?’ After all it was you and me.”

The chorus is “Pleased to meet you/Won’t you guess my name?/ What’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.” This is not a “protest” song as they have come to be called, but it makes most everything recently done in that bag look pretty pablumish. Mick opens the song with these lines: “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.”

The record will probably not be released until the end of August, unless things are speeded up a bit. It is the Stones’ best record, without a doubt, and one that is immensely pleasing after Satanic.

People who are always trying to spot trends have been talking about the “rock and roll revival” in England, and forecasting a country and western period here. These things inevitably become faddish and worn-out, but after a dozen groups have recorded country albums in Nashville and another dozen have re-made “Blue Suede Shoes,” what will remain is, among other pieces, this new album by the Rolling Stones which uses country and western music as it traditionally has been used in rock and roll: an album which is also an example of the basic musical esthetic values of rock and roll that have been present in all the great rock and roll records of the past, are present here and probably will be in the future.

Writing about another subject entirely, Kathleen Cleaver said something which probably describes this album– — and the best of rock — –excellently: “The perfect art which conceals art, that satisfying spontaneity which can be achieved only by taking intense thought.”

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