15 March, 2011

Album Review - The Rolling Stones, Their Satanic Majesties Request

I guess it wasn't surprising that I was late with these reviews.  For me, it has been a difficult time when it comes to scheduling these things, and while I may get creative fulfillment from writing these, they don't pay the bills (yet, anyways).  With that apology and defense, I humbly move into my discussion of one of the most rightfully maligned albums in the history of rock n' roll. 

It is impossible to talk about the Rolling Stones objectively, at least at this point in their career.  They’re living legends, and we’re practically running into the spawn of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’s loins whenever we go anywhere.  I’m not sure that there’s not a kid worth his or her rock and roll salt (of the earth) that doesn’t know how to play the riff from “Satisfaction” on his guitar, and that everybody thinks of them as the last living dinosaurs of the greatest era (I don’t qualify the Who as existing anymore, it’s really the Pete and Roger show at this point).  Let’s not mince words: the Stones are the quintessential rock n’ roll band, and they earned this title by seeming more dangerous than the Beatles, as well as releasing one of the best streaks of albums in rock history.  From 1968 to 1971, the Rolling Stones cranked out epochal album after epochal album.  Can you name me another band that had another great quartet of albums ranging from Beggars Banquet through Let It Bleed to my favorite (Sticky Fingers) and the second-best double album in history, Exile on Main Street?  (For the record, my favorite rock band – The Who – is the only band that I consider doing them any better; The Who Sell Out, Tommy, Live at Leeds, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia - the best double album in history - is the best run of albums in history, and the absolute pinnacle of rock n’ roll as an art form.  Come at me, Beatles and Zeppelin fans!)

But there was an album that came before that hot streak that most Stones fans would wish was forgotten by history, and it may be the biggest aberration in any rock band’s catalog, unless you count Kiss’s paean to Dungeons and Dragons (Music from the Elder).  

Picture this:  You have grown up listening to the Rolling Stones thanks to your father, your uncle, your brother, and classic rock radio.  You’ve seen the Stones’ mouth and tongue logo on your brother’s jacket, heard that cute girl in school rocking out to “Brown Sugar,” and tried to dance like Jagger when you’re not doing air guitar to the sweet licks of Keith Richards.  It’s time for you to get your first Stones album, and you ask your parents for an album for your birthday.  As you receive your gifts on this blessed day, you come across a record-sized/CD-style gift that you know is the answer to your prayers.  At last, you can finally begin to get serious about your music because you know that what you’re getting is a ticket to the musical life of debauchery that’s been promised by “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Shattered.”  You unwrap the present, hands quaking in anticipation of the glorious twin-guitar stomp that awaits your eardrums, and you look for the album cover to symbolize the journey that you will take to an audio paradise.  You look at the album cover, and, blinking twice, this is what you see:

What is this?  No, seriously, what is this?  The Rolling Stones look like unhappy clown wizards that just stumbled from a Renaissance Faire after being rejected for being too dour.  And is that a clay castle behind them?  Mountains of Antarctica under a cutout of the planet Saturn?  This seems like a horrible prototype for the Smashing Pumpkins’ video for “Tonight, Tonight.”  This isn’t the Stones, it’s Herman’s Hermits wrapped up with the hippie/Summer of Love movement.  Make no mistake, this is a total ripoff of the Sgt. Peper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, and everybody involved knows it. 

But one can’t judge an album by its cover, or else we’d never give great albums with terrible covers a chance (I’m looking at you, Tiny Music…Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop).  Smiling wanly, you take the album and put it on the player, hoping that the album’s treasures are not indicated by the weak quality of the album cover. 

It takes a special album to make you reconsider everything you thought you knew about an artist, but this is the album to do it.  If you are a true Stones fan, I urge you to do everything in your power to avoid hearing this in its entirety, it will only disappoint you.  It’s one thing to chase trends in music, and most bands will do this, but it’s another thing entirely to mess with the vital stomp of this band to half-heartedly attempt to ape the psychedelic sounds of your nearest competitors.  Their Satanic Majesties Request is probably the strangest thing you’ll ever hear as a fan of rock music because of how little the Stones truly rock during this, their most creative period in creation.  The problem isn’t that the music is bad (though it mostly is); the fact that Mick and Keith seem to be going through the motions and not really pushing any boundaries is what’s most disappointing about this album. 

“Sing This All Together” could have been the only song from this project, tacked onto one of Beggar’s Banquet’s singles as a B-side where it probably belongs.  Instead, it becomes a misguided attempt at what the band would perfect years later with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want:” a generational statement with pathos.  The treacle of the lyrics bogs the listener down with its uncomfortable juxtaposition of horns and out-of-tune piano.  The music isn’t terrible, but it seems to be an approximation of a travelling minstrel show where the band is attempting to create collage art from a half-remembered dream.  There are so many laggard periods where you can hear the band attempting something profound, but they don’t know how the Beatles got the sounds that they did from “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and the sleepy guitars of Brian Jones and Keith Richards seems to indicate that lack of focus.  Apparently psychedelic music is a lot of harpsichord, at least according to the Stones.  I wanted to bash out my brains when I heard that music come on because I knew that it would be followed by a lazy lyrical couplet and fake-important statement from the band.  

It’s not all bad, though.  “2000 Man” seems to strike all the right notes with a gently strummed acoustic guitar lick taking Mick’s story of a man out of place in the world to new heights, until the lyrics and music break down midway through, and you’re left with the bad taste of wasted potential there.  “Citadel” also promises a good thrust of musical excellence with a Pete Townshend riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on Tommy, but the harpsichord and boring backwards tape noises signify that the banal lyrics about “candy and toffee” will not improve music.  It definitely has a killer groove laid down by Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, yet it wastes it whenever it can, barely recovering for a great ending.   “The Lantern” has a decent idea at the heart of the song, it just never really takes off on its own. “She’s a Rainbow” is also a keeper since it eschews many of the trappings that the rest of the record uses, instead focusing on the verse-chorus structure that seems ripped from the schoolyard.  It’s an admittedly catchy tune for the generation of the Sixties, and a fine achievement that would stand out on any Stones mix. 

But you can hear that Richards is just bored throughout the whole of the recording, letting others do the legwork while he begins to think of furthering his drug habit.  Charlie Watts doesn’t sound like he had much to do here, either.  And who let Bill Wyman record a song, anyways?  He sings the lead on “In Another Land” like he’s playing with his throat.  When Mick appears to sing “Was this some kind of joke?” you get the feeling that he’s talking about Wyman’s lead vocals and the fake flower power that he was spreading.  The man sounds god-awful on this one, and it’s probably because he was off playing with flower children when he wasn’t recording.  

The apotheosis of this record is the reprise of “Sing This All Together (See What Happens),” which is 8:34 of dross where absolutely nothing happens.  I don’t know anybody that could hear this without getting the urge to go on a murder spree just to make it stop.  The song goes nowhere for the entire duration of the track, with a half-sung reverie set up in between the jamming that had to be confusing to put down.  I have sworn off all forms of the pan flute after hearing it abused on this track.  It hurts to listen to this for reviewing purposes since I can’t turn it off, but what’s even worse is the knowledge that this could have been somebody’s first Stones track.  It’s obvious that the band is making this up in the studio as they play this, with no direction at all from Mick or Keith; I can imagine poor Charlie Watts was trying to do anything to get back to beer, rather than the acid they must have been taking at the time.  Why am I writing so little about the song?  It sucks, that’s why.  Listen for yourself and see how far you can get.  I will say that you will greet the return of structured instrumentation at the end as though it’s the Second Coming.

Luckily, the record recovers for a stronger second half.  “She’s a Rainbow” and “The Lantern” are great and solid Rolling Stones songs, respectively.  If the rest of the record had used those two tracks as inspiration, then we would be discussing a much different album.  Sadly, we are not.  Right after “The Lantern” gets things interesting again, “The Gomper” shows up to ruin things.  I know Brian Jones sounds really great on that sitar, but for God’s sake he ain’t Ravi Shankar.  I don’t even think Keith Richards showed up on this track, and good for him since he has always known more about what it takes to make a classic rock track for the ages.  It’s obvious that Jagger and crew were trying to go for something enlightening – or at least appearing to be enlightening – but instead they only achieve that level of annoyance that accompanies listening to these songs without any chemical assistance. 

“2000 Light Years From Home” benefits from a clear emphasis on tried-and-true structure, which allows the instrumentation to actually boost the song rather than detract from the meaning of the track.   It actually helps accomplish the goals of sounding like it was coming from deep space.  However, it’s a case of too little, too late with this album.  “On With the Show” is a copy of the last great moments of Sgt. Pepper, where the overall British nature of the band is mocked by Mick as he plays around with the idea of being Sgt. Pepper himself.  It’s a decent laugh, but nothing more.  A total disappointment of a concluding track, and one where the audience is glad that the band is finally ending this set, awaiting patiently for another set. 

No band should be expected to remain beholden to one sound or style, and the Stones would go on to master punk ferocity, disco’s glam-beat and stuttering reggae during their time.  But I can only imagine the disappointment one would have felt if they had this experience as their first Rolling Stones album.  Their Satanic Majesties Request is a lifeless experiment gone awry, yet holds flickers of potential throughout the album.  That potential would be realized in a bold way over the next five years, culminating with Sticky Fingers and the jungle groove of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.”  Here, they’re a joke band with no idea of how to get there.  I get that there was money to be made from all the flower children and hippie poseurs out there, but puh-leeze, Mick and Keef, at least SOUND like you care when you’re making this dross!

This week's second album review (I know, I know, I was late!) also deals with stepping out of the shadows of one's competition and trying to find your own voice.  Beady Eye really does reference the Beatles and the Stones, but do they reference their biggest influence of all:  Oasis?  (Spoiler alert: yes, they do


Justin said...

the question posed is whether or not the rolling stones album, 'their satanic majesties request' is a good album. given the band, no, this is not a good album. however, if you ask whether or not 'their satanic majesties request' as a stand alone album with no band attached is a good album, my answer is a resounding yes.

this album is daring, bold, and yes, really fucking weird. a sgt peppers ripoff? probably. this album was released about six months after sgt peppers and does have quite a likeness. but why isn't it ok to be influenced by an album immediately after its release? bands are still influenced by the beatles and zeppelin and everyone else now, so why is immediacy such a travesty?

the album starts with a sing along, gets weird, has a few more sing alongs, goes back to weird, and ends. could i go without hearing an 8 minute reprise of sing this all together? or the acid trip at the end of gomper? sure. but the album would suffer without it. the stones were still in its infancy when this album dropped. it appears they made a little money and got into some higher grade acid and they made a concept album. the concept? a day in the life of sgt peppers. would i like to live that life for one day? you better believe it. one day in '67 with these guys would make charlie sheen look like al roker.

now the best part of this album is the band doesn't give a shit what the music actually sounds like. this is evidenced by the wild and nowhere-near-the-beat drumming of charlie watts on 2000 man. or the meltdown of the regular songs like she's a rainbow and the aforementioned gomper. the album is an experiment in experience. you jump on the coke train and ride until you start to get the feeling back in your extremities.

instead of sgt peppers, this album really reminds me of syd barrett's pink floyd. listen to bike from 'the piper at the gates of dawn' and tell me you would even blink an eye at its presence on satanic majesties. i dare you.

i can't help but like it when a band tries something new (for them). this album is just too entertaining with all the 'what the fuck???' moments to hate. call it a guilty pleasure. i dig it.

do i prefer this album over exile, sticky fingers, some girls? i won't even dignify that with a response. i just can't help liking this album though. give it to someone (who, grant it, must have an open mind to music) but don't tell them who it is and i bet you will be surprised with a positive response. either that, or i am just fucking weird. could go either way with that one.

Justin said...

i was wondering what the hell happened...by the way, whenever it pops up as justin, it's actually jake. apparently my google account has my name as justin. i will be looking into that asap. thanks for reposting though.