On the surface rock and roll changes at an amazing pace. The influence of a figure like the Maharishi can appear and disappear in a matter of months. Talk about old fashioned rock and roll finds itself dead before it begins. Yet some things do remain, while others maintain enough of their former selves so that the logic of their growth at least makes itself obvious.
An example of someone who doesn’t change is Elvis Presley. His recent TV special was a testimony to the vitality of his original style. How many rock stars of today might be able, ten years from now, to do an hour of the songs of 1968 and make it come alive as a contemporary experience? Presley at his best is about as eternal as rock and roll can ever expect to be.
The Rolling Stones are constantly changing but beneath the changes they remain the most formal of rock bands. Their successive releases have been continuous extensions of their approach, not radical redefinitions, as has so often been the case with the Beatles. The Stones are constantly being reborn, but somehow the baby always looks like its parents.
In many ways 1968 has turned into another one of those blues revival years. The Stones were into that when it was still verboten to show up at Newport with an electric guitar. It wasn’t until five years after they recorded “King Bee” that Slim Harpo finally made it into a white rock club. Happily, even back then, the Stones never got bogged down in the puritanism that mars so many of the English blues bands. They were from the beginning a rock and roll blues band. They may have mimicked Harpo note for note, Keith Richards may have played a straight Chuck Berry bag for three-quarters of their first album, but it always wound up sounding like rock and roll: loud, metallic, and trebly. The Stones were the first band to say, “Up against the wall, motherfucker,” and they said it with class.
Since that beginning the Stones have tried their hands at a lot of things: arrogance, satire, social commentary, “psychedelia,” lewdness, love songs, you name it. Each phase seemed to flow naturally from the one that preceded it and none of their phases ever really changed their identity as a band. In every album but one it seemed to me that they managed to feel the pulse of what was happening now and what was about to happen. For example, “Satisfaction,” that classic of the rock and roll age, both expressed the feelings of a moment and foreshadowed what was about to unfold: the elevation of rock and roll to the primary cultural means of communication among the young. There we were in the early summer of 1965 with folk music dead and nothing really exciting going on. And then there were the Stones sneering at the emptiness of what so many people saw all around them, not telling you to do anything about it, but letting you know that they feel it too. The music, with its incessant, repetitious, pounding guitar and drums, and that tension filled voice, was so permeated with violence that just listening to it was cathartic.
And the Stones live. If the violence of their music was cathartic, how to describe their concerts? I saw them several times during their early American tours, most memorably in Lynn, Massachussetts, in the spring of 1966. The Stones had their usual major dates lined up on their itinerary and the Lynn gig was not one of them. Lynn is a suburb of Boston and they must have decided to do a quickie number for less than their usual fee in order to fill in an open night. The concert was held in an open air football field that held 10,000 people. It rained that evening, a steady drizzle, and when they finally came on there was a lot of tension and movement.
Everyone wanted to get the show done so that they could put the money into the bank. There was no possibility of a makeup date. Jagger emerged in a tee shirt and spread his hands out like Jesus. He thanked everyone for being there and the band went into “19th Nervous Breakdown.” The instruments were out of tune, as well as nearly inaudible. Watts had trouble keeping the beat. Everything was a mess except for Jagger, who miraculously managed to deliver. He filled the song with drive and energy and it was enthralling to hear him ringing out through the drizzle over practically no instrumental support. The band went on its disjointed way for the entire set unable to worry about the sound while the rain was pouring down on them, and Jagger continued to go his.
The crowd that night was filled with high school kids and the were very restless. A group of them had massed in front of the stage and the local DJ who had presided over the show decided to come on stage and tell the kids that the concert wouldn’t go on until they all pulled back. The Stones ignored him and went on with “The Last Time.”
As the set drew to a close they went into “Satisfaction.” I had seen them do it under ideal circumstances a year earlier and it had been superb. They had gone through the song then with full energy and intensity and then quieted things down a little. Jagger had taken off his jacket and put it near the drums. Then he had picked up a tambourine and walked around the different sides of the stage, talking to the chickies. Towards the end, the band had picked up to full volume, Jagger had thrown the tambourine into the audience, draped his jacket over his shoulder, and done a Frank Sinatra exit. As soon as he had vanished, the band followed him. It had been an altogether beautiful and tragic spectacle.
Jagger attempted the same bit that night and got as far as picking up the tambourine. The audience broke the police line and completely surrounded the stage. Brian Jones signalled to Jagger, who was in a trance, that they had better split. The cops did their best to clear a path but by this time there were literally hundreds of kids milling around what was supposed to have been the Stones’ exiting area. When the Stones got into their limousines the cops started exploding tear gas. Idiots that they are, they neglected to put on masks to protect themselves from the gas and were soon incapacitated by their own tear gas cannisters. A great deal of commotion ensued but presumably the group made it out of there safely.
Violence. The Rolling Stones are violence. Their musc penetrates the raw nerve endings of their listeners and finds its way into the groove marked “release of frustration.” Their violence has always been a surrogate for the larger violence their audience is so obviously capable of.
On Beggar’s Banquet the Stones try to come to terms with violence more explicitly than before and in so doing are forced to take up the subject of politics. The result is the most sophisticated and meaningful statement we can expect to hear concerning the two themes — violence and politics — that will probably dominate the rock of 1969.
Politics has not been fashionable since Dylan left it among musicians. There have always been the few hold-outs left over from the folk music period, but despite the mass media’s continually mistaken references to rock and roll as “protest music,” rock musicians have done remarkably little protesting. Protest is a hallmark of the liberal. It is an appeal to the conscience of the majority to remedy some injustice being done to the minority. It presupposes a belief that meaningful change can be worked out within the system. Rock and roll musicians, for the most part, don’t buy that. They don’t take things like government seriously unless they are forced to. They find the whole political process something worthy of contempt.
Protest singers in the past were most often ideologues who set pallid verse to semi-musical melodies. The idea that it is the music that should convey the brunt of their meaning never occurred to them. There were words and there were notes but there wasn’t any music.
The people who are turning to political themes in their music now are different. They don’t do it a as luxury, or for moral reasons. They are doing it because it is part of their lives and they have to express themselves in terms of how what is happening in the streets is affecting their lives.
Personal feelings are becoming increasingly related to political ones and political problems are becoming inextricably bound up with personal ones. In the United States the band which has best come to terms with these connections is the MC 5. That band isn’t protesting anything. They are giving orders: “Kick out the jams, motherfucker.” They are offering advice. “It’s time to get down with it, brother.” And they are asking questions: “Are you going to be the problem or the solution?” Their idea of politics includes balling, dope, eating, drinking, fighting, and music.
The 5 are young and they are seeking youthful ways to express their feelings. The Stones are a bit older, have been through a lot more, are far better musicians, and are more sanguine about their roles. But in the larger sense they are part of the same thing: there is no way they can separate themselves as human beings from what is going on “out there.” It isn’t a question of feeling sorry for people in India, as Paul McCartney seems to think. The point is that the things that keep those people in a state of near starvation are the same ones that may force John to take a drug rap, that almost sent Brian Jones to jail, and which has forced Elridge Clever into hiding. Sooner or later, something brings that home to each of us.
Beggar’s Banquet is not a polemic or manifesto. It doesn’t advocate anything. It is a reflection of what goes on at the Stones house, with a few pictures of the house itself thrown in for good measure. Part of what that house looks like has to do with what it’s surrounded by and the most startling songs on the album are the ones that deal with the Stones environment: “Salt of the Earth,” “Street Fighting Man,” and “Sympathy for the Devil.” Each is characterized lyrically by a schizoid ambiguity. The Stones are cognizant of the explosions of youthful energy that are going on all around them. They recognize the violence inherent in these struggles. They see them as movements for fundamental change and are deeply sympathetic. Yet they are too cynical to really go along themselves. After all, they are rock and roll musicians, not politicians, and London is such a “sleepy town.”
They make it perfectly clear that they are sickened by contemporary society. But it is not their role to tell people what to do. Instead, they use their musical abilities like a seismograph to record the intensity of feelings, the violence, that is so prevalent now. From the beginning they themselves have been exponents of emotional violence and it’s hard to imagine any group more suited to voicing the feelings of discontent we all share in these most violent of times. Wherever they wind up themselves, they are writing songs of revolution because they are giving powerful expression to the feelings that are causing it.
Musically the Stones express themselves through three basic elements: rhythm, tension, and energy. “Street Fighting Man” is prototypical of the approach. Drummer Charlie Watts lays down an elementary drum pattern, the same one he has been using since “Route 66.” He strikes the high-hat with a near compulsive regularity and hits the snare drum with such a wallop it’s hard to believe the sound is coming out of only one drum. The rhythm guitar is layed over the drum and is characterized by a violent attack which emphasizes the “on” beat. The bass pattern is simple and restrained. Like the guitar it serves to magnify the impact of the beat. The collective effect of the instrumental track is of fantastic thrust forward.
The beat is constantly being pushed, the guitars constantly re-emphasizing the basic movement of the song, the bass providing the perfect floor to the arrangement. And then the voice: Jagger is the source of the tension. At his best (definitely on this track) he sounds like he’s fighting for control, fighting to be heard over the din of the instruments. For all its simplicity it is an amazingly complex style of arranging and a perfect vehicle for expressing the lyrics.
The words are beautiful. Notice how Jagger emphasizes them: “Ev-ry where I hear the sound of charg-ing, march-ing peo-ple.” The Stones obviously revel in the images of charging people: they’ve sure seen enough of them at their concerts. But they are too mature and too realistic to fall into the trap of slogans and easy answers. All they can really do is sing in a rock and roll band.
“Salt of the Earth” continues in the same vein and serves as Jagger’s tribute to the “other half.” Lyrically, the song’s point of view is again ambiguous. Jagger obviously wants to empasize with the “common foot soldier,” the working man, the man who is forced to throw his life away on “back-breaking work” without ever achieving satisfaction. On the other hand, when he looks into their “faceless crowds,” they look “strange.” He has gotten to a point where he can’t really come to terms with their way of thinking. Nonetheless, the tribute goes on and begins to sound a bit like a drinking song. At one point I expect them to all be standing around the bar toasting the veterans of the Spanish Civil War. The double time at the end pushes the song past that stage and helps it regain its movement and vitality. It is typical of Jagger’s honesty that he was unafraid to use a soldier as symbol of “The Salt of the Earth.” They are as much victims as anyone else.
“Sympathy for the Devil” rounds out the group of ambiguous, socially aware songs. To me, it is the most distinguished song and performance of the year. Lyrically, it is a striking picture of a world gone mad. Cops are criminals. Saints are sinners. God is the devil. Whoever is on top makes whoever is beneath him the enemy; actually, it is always the men on top who are the enemy. Those who claim righteousness for themselves are only interested in perpetuating their own power. Those they vilify are really the righteous ones, until they achieve power for themselves. Then they imitate their predecessors and the process repeats itself through history. The narrator, Lucifer, was there when “Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt, of pain.” He was there when “the blitzkreig raged and the bodies stank.” And he lays “traps for troubadors who get killed before they reach Bombay.” And who is telling us all this? A man of wealth and taste. Sounds like what a lot of people would like to become.
The music is brilliant. The cut opens with just the percussion—a sort of syncopated Bo Diddley, precisely the kind of thing Watts excells at. Then they add Nicky Hopkins’ rhythm piano, perfectly understated. Wyman’s simple bass line matches Watts syncopation perfectly. Throughout the cut he adds color to the basic rhythm pattern by throwing in some very pretty, loopy bass lines. After two verses of Jagger’s singing, the background voices add that ultra simple “oo-oo” accompaniment which continues to grow for the duration of the cut. By the time they reach the end, they sound like a plane taking off, accelerating at an inexorable pace until it finally reaches its normal flight speed, at which point it levels itself off.
Jagger sings with tension and control, constantly pushing himself as far as he can go, but never crossing over that line between power and excess. The guitar solo by Richard is among the finest rock solos I have heard recently. He only uses about five of the simplest rock lines around but he plays them with such finesse they seem to be oozing out of the guitar. His style is pure eroticism and he seems to linger over each note, making sure it comes out exactly like it’s supposed to.
Watts, with Jagger, provides the energy. He keeps his little riff going like a computer. Towards the end he expands his part by a bit: he starts throwing out cymbal smashes on the first beat of each measure. It provides just that extra bit of rhythm and drive.
The rest of the album is made up of largely conventional Stones styled songs. There are some mediocre ones among them, but then that’s part of the Stones. Consistency is not their bag. Among the really fine cuts are “Doctor, Doctor,” “No Expectations,” “Factory Girl” and “Stray Cat Blues.” “No Expectations” is noteworthy for its sentimental melancholy. It has a lovely country feel to it, without actually being an attempt at country music. “Factory Girl” is more of the Stones interest in the working class (remember “Backstreet Girl”) and has a New Lost City Ramblers-type accompaniment, complete with old-timey styled fiddle.
“Stray Cat Blues” is easily the best of the lot and is pure Stones. It deals with their favorite subject: naughty boys and girls. The lyrics are about a groupie and Jagger comes up with some very tough lines: “I’ve heard you’re fifteen years old/But I don’t want your ID” and signs off with “I’ll bet your mother don’t know you can bite like that.”
Musically, it is one of the songs that make use of the rhythm, tension, energy pattern mentioned earlier. The verse is in the form of one of those great Between the Buttons cuts, “All Sold Out.” That is followed by a simple chorus. Later, a second chorus is added on top of that, (“Oh yeah, you’re a stray, stray cat . . . “) Each element of the structure adds to the tension of the body of the arrangement. But at the end of each chorus the energy level drops back down to that of the more restrained verse part of the song. It provides the listener with a perfect release. Instrumentally, Keith Richards’ performance is again brilliant.
Beggar’s Banquet is a complete album. While it does not attempt Sgt. Pepper-type unity it manages to touch all the bases. It derives its central motive and mood from the theme of “revolution” but isn’t limited to that. Over at the Stones house there’s plenty of room for groupies, doctors, jigsaw puzzles, factory girls, and broken hearts as well. Yet even these subjects are colored by the impact of “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man.” Beggar’s Banquet ought to convince us all that the Stones are right. By putting all these different themes on the same album the Stones are trying to tell us that they all belong together. They do.
The art work in this album is quite nice. The center spread is a particularly appealing depiction of the Stones acting out the album’s title. However, it continues to grate on me that the cover of the album is not what the Stones intended, and that the Stones were forced to abandon the one they had originally intended to use by London Records. The idea that a record company executive should have the right to tell the Stones what is a suitable cover for their album is an outrage. It is typical of the Stones that they held out against the new cover for quite a while and then gave in. It just wasn’t worth the continued hassle. Nonetheless, giving in doesn’t solve the problem. As long as record companies are run by businessmen, artists will never achieve full control over how their art is presented to their public. There has been too much glib talk lately about the power of musicians. Unless musicians organize themselves more effectively, and unless journalists give them all the support they can, things like this will happen again and again. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech but it doesn’t forbid a record company from censoring the artists it controls via an exclusive recording contract.
The next time New York’s East Side revolutionary contingent wants to shake somebody up (besides Bill Graham), why don’t they head uptown to London Records? I’m sure the President of London Records could use the education.