Friday, 4 July 2008
Rolling Stones "Beggar's Banquet" (1968) (Revised Review 2015)
On which the Stones deliver a musical feast cheap at half the price…
Track Listing: Sympathy For The Devil/ No Expectations/ Dear Doctor/ Parachute Woman/ Jig-Saw Puzzle// Street Fighting Man/ Prodigal Son/ Stray Cat Blues/ Factory Girl/ Salt Of The Earth
‘There’s 20,000 grandmas wave their hankies in the air all burning up their pensions and shouting ‘it’s not fair!’
By the end of 1968 the summer of love was clearly over and no band seemed to be more relieved about that fact than the Stones. The band no longer had to pay lip service to Indian mystics, wear flowers in their hair or believe in peace forever after and could get back to what they had always done (murky swampy blues about how awful the world was). Only this time with the added bonus of a suddenly newly improved Decca sound (thankyou Moody Blues, the band who’d encouraged the label to finally record rock and roll properly!), the band writing their own songs without recourse to the Chuck Berry songbook (thankyou Glimmer Twins!) and a weary world that was suddenly realising that the Stones might have been right and the world did kinda suck after all (hallelujah!) The darkest, most shadowy year of the 1960s saw the pendulum swinging immediately away from love and peace, full of general violence, mass protests, assassinations (Robert F Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jnr), an escalation of troops in Vietnam and America’s shadiest president (till Trump) in Richard Nixon getting elected. The world had seemed for a few precious months there as if it had signed a pact with the angels, but them Stones were right all along – the world had actually made a pact with the devil. The Stones weren’t immune either: they’d nearly been imprisoned, Keith was hitting harder and harder drugs, Brian was a walking zombie who barely turned up to sessions anymore and the year of psychedelia had seen a slowing of sales as the world went crazy for their rivals The Beatles. However 1968 was the victory lap despite all this: the Stones were scarred but unbeaten, free rather than imprisoned, on top of their game and had been proved ‘right’. The world was right to be wary. The world wasn’t done with the 1960s kids just yet and Armageddon was always just a year away.
The Stones were in the perfect position to pickup on the revolution in the air (or not, in the case of the much misunderstood 'Street Fighting Man') and ended the confusion of the will they/won't they atmosphere of 1967 with a damning album that ignored summer of love purity and instead explored everything that was wicked and evil and dark in all of us ('Because every cop is a criminal - and all the sinners saints!’) Married to an updated, louder and more aggressive version of their pre-psychedelia sound that will be the template Stones sound for the next forty years and counting (swamp rock, played twice as hard but twice as slow as their rivals), this is where the Stones finally shed their record-public-pleasing living-up-to-a-manager’s-ideal skin and truly become themselves. After all, the darker world of 1968 needed a band like The Stones to tell the truth behind the whimsy and the band adapt to this as if they had never been involved in psychedelia at all. After taking a slight step backwards while the heat was on them in the end of 1967 the Stones figure they really are free to live up to the satanic majesties the world assumed they were, with ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ by far the band’s naughtiest album full of things you couldn’t have got away with in 1967. There are songs about underage sex with groupies ('It's no hanging matter!), the Devil hanging around every street corner waiting for our immortal souls every time mankind gets too cocky (has there ever been a more damning or absolute comment on the death of the hippie dream than 'Sympathy For The Devil'?), where love and marriage is a cruel joke (literally on 'Dear Doctor') that always leads to goodbyes ('No Expectations'), where the fact that only a bloody violent revolution will change things for the good - and everyone's too apathetic for that to happen, in 'sleepy London town' at least ('Street Fighting Man'); where even the hardworking 'Salt Of The Earth', the only people who ever deserve the Stones' respect, get mocked just the same because the joke of being alive is on all of us, hippie businessman parent and child alike. Even the band themselves are no longer ‘super wizards' the way they were on the cover of their last album - 'Jigsaw Puzzle' sings about the band one by one and has them depicted as being 'damaged...they've been outcasts all their lives'. If 'Satanic Majesties' is a world where great and ghastly things happen side by side, then this is the Stones vision of hell, unadorned and uncensored. It was good to have them back, for one record at least, with 'Beggar's Banquet' made with all the relief of a werewolf who no longer has to fit back into human clothes or the Mr Hyde who has seen so much cruelty he can never again go back to being Dr Jekyll. Coming in the wake of their drug convictions and then their eventual reprieve, this album also finds the Stones at a curious place in their career, half-humble and half-defiant, unsure of whether to provoke the powers that be and taunt them with their acquittal or shut up and play the pop game quietly from now on.
Most albums from 1967 feel as if they've passed on by unseeing hands on a giant scroll for the benefit of mankind. 'Beggar's Banquet' is, tellingly, scrawled all over a toilet wall - or at least it was on the band's intended cover, which broke one of the few remaining censorship rules still left intact by 1968 and gave Decca their annual fit for another year. In fact this time it was a fit that lasted for six months with neither side giving way; the fact that the band caved in first, worried that they hadn't released much at all across 1968, rather than the record company shows how worried Decca were still about the idea of 'taste' back in 1968 and how nervous the Stones still felt post-bust (even though as the label’s biggest sellers they were hardly in danger of being dropped however much controversy they courted). Replaced by an almost pure white cover, with an RSVP message attached, it brought unnecessary comparisons to The Beatles' White Album released mere weeks earlier. But this is a colourful album that deserves it's graffiti cover (restored, thankfully, to the CD release) because it's an act of the most beautiful artistic vandalism, pinpricking the pomposity that had begun to grow in popular music (even rock and roll in the wake of hippiedom) and reminding us of our base earthly needs rather than any idea of a 'higher calling'. The original cover is a very Stones way of spoofing the 'hidden messages' other bands (and they themselves) had had fun getting into album packaging previously, with the band joining photographer Michael Joseph in daubing all over the toilet walls that appear all over the front and back sleeve in amongst the band credit, song titles and – the doodle that probably incurred Decca’s real wrath – a naked female figure with an overabundance of pubic hair (a selection of the hard-to-read messages and toilet humour for you: ‘Music From Big Brown’ ‘My Kingdom For A Horse’ ‘Rent A Cop Now’ 'God rolls his own! 'Bob Dylan's Dream!' 'John Heart Yoko' ‘Wot no paper?’ and most mysterious of all 'Strawberry Bob For President!')
The biggest 'clue' on the original cover though is the tiny sentence on the back sleeve in the middle of yet more graffiti: 'It's all a lie!' 'Beggar's Banquet' is ten tracks of telling us that the world we're living in is not what were think it is, a more focussed delivery of the 'Satanic Majesties' plot but slightly less fun by taking the direct rather than scenic route there (well, eight at least: I'm not sure blues cover 'Prodigal Son' or wannabe blues original 'Factory Girl' ever really fitted this theme). On this album mankind is doomed to bounce from one revolution to the next, drawn on by the devil inside all of us, sheep led by devils out to gobble us up and destroy everyone who shows hope and humanity. In 1968 this album must have seemed so perfect for the age (and curse the album cover delay or it would have been more perfect still a few months earlier!): whenever something good happens the devil is there to fuck it up, while life is too short for petty rules about protesting and, err, the age of consent. The world is doomed and far from being solved by wizards or Beatles or Gompers we’re on our own – and because we’re messed up as a species the world is always going to be messed up too. Even the ‘Salt Of The Earth’ types, who on these sort of albums usually save us all, ‘look so strange’, hippies ineffectual against the weight of the establishment. It’s almost as if the Stones are saying ‘out the way people, let a professional rebel take them on instead!’
'Beggar's Banquet' is also very much the Stones' 'working class' album, which goes hand in hand with the idea of the band getting back to their 'roots'. That implies some kind of solidarity though, some understanding and sympathy and some taste. But The Stones make it clear their sympathies are not with the honest working class man but with 'the devil', with the corrupt powers that be because at least they tried to pull themselves up from their lot in life. Mick waits impatiently for his lowly Factory Girl as if he has better things to do, the 'poor boy' in 'Prodigal Son' is doomed to failure because he doesn't know his 'place', 'Stray Cat Blues' takes advantage of the young and vulnerable, lured into a rock star's lair by the bright lights of fame and the naïve assumption they can be rich too despite their lowly birth and 'Salt Of The Earth' itself is the nastiest, most sarcastic kiss-off in the Stones canon: a class that are a 'faceless' bunch 'who don't look real to me - in fact they all look quite strange!' If this was any other group at any other time I'd feel insulted, but in the context of the Stones' story 'Beggar's Banquet' somehow makes perfect sense: they've turned on authority figures on our behalf before ( 'Something Happened To Me'  'We Love You') and very nearly lost their freedom to it; oddly enough it was the establishment press who helped release the Stones, not the working class masses who don’t seem to have protested at all (this might be why the ‘real’ reading of ‘Street Fighting Man’ – and not the version the establishment assumed and promptly banned – is that London is too sleepy and Britain too lethargic a place to ever truly riot for any cause; the band probably have a point, at least compared to near neighbours France who get itchy if they don’t have a revolution twice a generation). In the same way that 'We Love You' isn't quite sure if it's paying tribute or sticking a great big ugly trademarked tongue out at the world 'Beggar's Banquet' is both an attack on and an understanding about a toothless crowd who know that something isn't right but won't walk down sleepy London town with the band to protest about it. The Stones feel sure that the huddled masses ought to be asking for so much more - and they're fed up of asking on their behalf - so they make an album that’s as anti the everyday man in the street as it is the Kings, Queens, judges and policemen of the world (pointedly the inner sleeve of the aptly titled 'beggar's Banquet' feature the Stones as pampered royalty, albeit with looks of such distaste and scorn they'd never dare put on a stamp even though The Queen looks just as grumpy all the time).
Thankfully 'Banquet' isn't a mere intellectual exercise, however enjoyable that detour was on 'Buttons' and 'Majesties', but a return to their warm-hearted music whatever the cold-hearted rhetoric. Though Brian Jones is still hanging around, adding the unlikeliest of instruments to the band's streamlined tracks low in the mix (there's a sitar on the fade of 'Street Fighting Man' which shouldn't work but does so, brilliantly!), by and large his colleagues have learnt how to cope without him (he didn’t turn up for most sessions and when he did he nearly always had the ‘wrong’ instrument in tow). Losing Brian's extra musicality and multi-talents is a blow, but on the plus side it gives Keith more space than ever before to stamp his authority on the band. For while the psychedelic years were Mick’s peak with the group, so 1968 through to 1971 are Keith’s. Many of Richards' definitive guitar solos are on this record, from the big fat howl of pain that's somehow big enough to weep for the whole of civilisation in the middle of 'Sympathy For The Devil', to the inner grunge groove of 'Parachute Woman', the purr of decadence on 'Stray Cat Blues' that practically has a cigarette hanging out of its mouth through to the ragged acoustic guitar part on ‘Street Fighting Man’ that helplessly tries to gee up a lethargic band that drowns it out with a yawn. Brian too gets his last sublime moment, the slide guitar on the haunting ballad 'No Expectations' - the saddest, most vulnerable Stones song yet, turning a string of clichés taken from every Stones song about leaving into one of the purest and least affected Stones recordings. There are surprisingly few rockers even so, at least the way future fans will come to recognise them: no equivalent of  'Rocks Off'  'Brown Sugar' or  'Respectable', not yet. Instead most songs come mid-tempo with a swagger, coolly walking round the room while taking their time. Songs like 'Stray Cat Blues' and 'Devil' are the ultimate power trip, chilling because of how nonchalantly they change the lives of the characters around them forever while the central narrator doesn’t seem to notice or care for the feelings of those around him. Even 'Street Fighting Man', the fastest song here by a country mile, hangs on a see-saw vocal part that can't make its mind up whether to go for the kill or give the whole thing up and go home, too disheartened to truly rock. Considering that I'm not the first Stones fan to call this one of their classic albums - even at the time it was hailed as their masterpiece and is usually seen as somewhere up there despite the famous albums that come next - there are relatively few of these songs that have ever been played live, perhaps for that reason ('Devil' and 'Street Fighting' and all too briefly 'Stray Cat Blues' are about all, compared to most of 'Let It Bleed' a good half of double album set 'Exile On Main Street' and recently the whole of ‘Sticky Fingers’ – you could never imagine the Stones doing the same for this album somehow).
Bill and Charlie are having a good album too. Without so many overdubs they're both far more intrinsic to the band sound than they were across 1967 and though this album had as many overdubs as certainly 'Aftermath' if not the psychedelic pair, Banquet 'feels' as if it's a 'live' album somehow. Charlie always seemed a little lost in the peace and love era musically, too loud and heavy for paranoia and pretty pop, but he hurls himself right back into the band's music here with some of his best performances. Bill too finds a new way of playing what he used to in the pre-psychedelia days to keep the band moving and had clearly been listening to the current trend for more melody and less rhythm. We haven't mentioned 'Jigsaw Puzzle' yet because as a song its less complete or revealing as the others here, but as a band performance it's the Stones at their best, Bill and Charlie latching onto a groove that cooks so well it's all Mick, Keith and Nicky Hopkins on piano can do to keep up ('Street Fighting Man' too is a fierce old band performance, though Keith has since claimed that's him playing everything but the drums and piano). Hopkins is the album's other unsung star, continuing his strong run at the end of ‘Satanic Majesties’ by adding the sort of twinkly bits original member Stu could never be bothered with, sliding in and out of the arrangements with a contrast to what the rest of the band are doing - the roll to their rock, more often than not. Soft spot as I have for both Stu and Billy Preston (under-rated players both), this treasured and much-featured AAA session player regular really was the best fit for the Stones, giving the most basic era of the band a delightful lick of paint a year after doing the same to the Kinks and a couple before doing the same to The Who. Mick too is rarely better than here, nailing the sudden twist a verse into 'Sympathy For The Devil' when it stops being a novelty song and grows into a song about life and death, all the more chilling for his increased passion or acting out the comedy lothario on 'Stray Cat Blues' caught between laughing at the groupie and laughing at himself or singing 'straight' on 'No Expectations', the one track here without a trace of bitterness or irony (though he and Keith mess up 'Salt Of The Earth' between them big time, it has to be said, the most unnecessarily smug of all Stones recordings).
The biggest round of applause, though, surely must go to the band's new producer Jimmy Miller who somehow manages to stay sufficiently inside the madhouse to win the band's trust while without it enough to get the album made comparatively easily and quickly. The Stones had spent 1967 without a producer and felt, rightly or wrongly, that their wok had suffered; finding a producer who could keep up was a problem though until the Stones had a look through their record collections and debated names back and forth. One that kept coming up was a New York drummer turned producer and engineer who'd won the respect of the Stones after his work with Stevie Winwood - first in the Spencer Davis Group and then Traffic – and 'Beggar's Banquet' shares more in common with those band's records than you might suspect, certainly more than the Stones' slightly blurry former recordings. Part of this is simply that Decca have sharpened their act, new signees like the recently reformed Moody Blues pushing their sonic understanding to the limit and allowing the Stones an extra sense of scale and clarity. But Miller's gift is that he's also able to do what Loog Oldham never could: he makes the Stones sound huge despite the fact that there's even less of them here than usual what with Brian half-gone. For all their best efforts, especially Jagger's, the band always sounded small until 'Satanic Majesties' and only then sounded epic by virtue of piles of overdubs. The Stones on 'Beggar's Banquet' are streamlined but still sound like giants, with the bass and drums captured better and used more centrally in the mix than ever and with Jagger somehow placed on top of the rest of the band in the mix rather than simply plonked down in the middle, sounding like he's singing over the top of them rather than through them (a small difference but a key one; compare 'Devil' to  'Satisfaction' or  'Get Off My Cloud' and you might have a better idea what I'm banging on about). Miller will in time become a bit of a joke for the Stones, worn out and used up and strung out in a few albums’ time, but all the albums the Stones will go on to make themselves will use these same templates, though never again quite as well as the one they made with ‘Mr Jimmy’. Ignoring all other clients when the Stones come along, Miller will only ever work with Motorhead and Primal Scream after they leave - a waste of his talents, quite frankly as he was a musician’s producer who knew exactly how difficult it was to make albums on the run and get the maximum out of everyone’s ideas. Though some fans point towards the blurred haze of 'Exile' or the energy of 'Sticky Fingers' to come, I still claim that 'Banquet' is his finest work, busy and interesting but clear and never cluttered with some amazing sounds the band never find again (especially Bill's bass and Keith's loudest guitar solos).
Well loved and revered by many, this record often comes high in ‘top favourite album’ polls and is regularly acclaimed as the best by the Stones’ large fan base. Yet just as most Beatles books still acclaim Sgt Pepper’s as the fab four’s best, with ‘Abbey Road’ and recently ‘Rubber Soul’ propping up the rear, so does the general consensus among critics rate this album below later efforts like ‘Let It Bleed’, ‘Sticky Fingers’ and ‘Exile On Main Street’, with this signature sound a little hot off the press. That seems to me a little unfair: ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ had to invent the wheel and does so spectacularly even if other future Stones albums have better (forty?) licks of paint. Heavier and rockier than most tracks on those albums to come and yet more varied too, Beggar’s Banquet is one of the Stones’ most accomplished albums, full of the sort of provocative, swampy, up-tempo rock-blues fusions most non-fans think fill up all their records, but actually only make up a fairly small proportion of the Stones’ complete catalogue. Even with more than its fair share of ballads, however, Banquet is also the last great uptempo record the band did before their 1970s-lethargy set in, a sound which is equally thrilling but somehow has the effect of making the band’s rockers sound like they’re playing at a slow speed and their ballads sound positively spaced out. Whether you celebrate the loud gutsy Stones that fills up about half this record or the last remnants of the experimental, wonder-what-we’d-sound-like-with-a-bag-over-our-heads? Stones that make up the other half, this album has enough for everybody packed into its tight little 10 grooves. The last time the band’s every statement really seemed to matter to the world at large, rather than just to fans and to the Stones themselves, this album is amongst the best they ever made, full of those seminal moments that every Stones album ought to have but often don’t and featuring some of the band’s most important, well known songs. It's hard to quite put your finger on why this album works - it's by turns dismissive of the very people buying it, celebrates ruining the lives of underage girls losing their virginity, murder and mayhem and pours scorn on the idea of anything changing for the better - contradicting what even the Stones had been hinting on songs like  'Let's Spend The Night Together' and  'Ruby Tuesday' (though  'Paint It Black' was quite a downer by 1966 standards it has to be said).
Not all of the songs are as good as they could be, with 'Prodigal Son' and 'Factory Girl' amongst the band's most obvious filler material since 'Out Of Our Heads', while 'Dear Doctor' is wretched, an unfortunate start in unfunny country song parodies and the much celebrated 'Salt Of The Earth' sounds rather more like a rude unmusical assault to me too. Only 'Sympathy' has the intelligence and 'No Expectations' the heart of the band's best work from their under-sung year of 1967 when their work was at its most emotionally resonant and complex. But somehow that doesn’t matter: ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ is the perfect album for the times the way polar opposite ‘Sgt Pepper’s was only eighteen short months before and really all the Stones needed to do to make this album a hit was to turn up and be themselves. ‘Banquet’ isn’t necessarily great for what it is but more for what half the album represents and the template it creates for the next run of Stones albums for at least the next decade to come. Also the performances make up for a lot and the vastly improved production makes up for even the bits the performances can't liven up, with some moments of pure genius casually scattered across the record too. Music followers may regard Banquet highly already, in contrast to my beloved 'Buttons' and 'Majesties', but surely they don’t rate it anywhere near highly enough. 'Beggar's Banquet' may be low budget and streamlined, but it's still a musical feast and one of the band's most enjoyable, original records, a real meal for listeners and collectors with discerning ears.
 Sympathy For The Devil is perhaps the most important song in this whole book, a trailblazing moment that really taps into the sudden anarchic spirit in the air and goes to places no other band would ever dare go. The song is a triumph for the whole band, with one of the greatest band performances they put together (even with Keith demoting Bill from a bass part he would have played better) but especially Jagger. Hearing the news reports of 1967 when the band tried to put him away would have left many fans confused: ‘don’t you get the joke?’ they’d wonder. ‘They’re just scruffy kids like us, a musical band of Just Williams. Why are you all so scared of Mick in particular?’ Suddenly, though, Mick lives up to his image as the devil incarnate and grows into a character so believable it’s still a shock today when you see him in person and he doesn’t have horns and a forked tale. Just the title of this song is brave: the band aren’t proclaiming to be the devil like some bad heavy metal band. No, they sympathise with the devil because he might be right: mankind is a pushover and the darkness always wins. And of course the devil was always there at our happiest moments to take it all away – in the morning after the summer of love that seemed like a fact so obvious it didn’t even need to be up for debate anymore. Saying this in 2018 still feels like a frisson of danger no future generation, however mad bad or ugly, has never caught up with; in 1968 it must have seemed like the very end of the world.
Like many a Stones song of the late 1960s, ‘Devil’ runs close to parody at the beginning when you half expect Jagger to give in to the chuckle in his voice as he sends up the establishment’s image of the Stones’ connections of the underworld of death and destruction. Yet even though the song sounds as if it was started as a joke, somehow the key changes make everything more intense suddenly the whole band feel the drama of the moment and play it straight, somewhere around the line ‘Stuck around St Petersburg when I saw it was a time for a change’. Nicky Hopkins’ twinkly piano fills suddenly become more desperate and relentless, Keith’s bass runs suddenly increase the tempo and the rattled drums and congas from Charlie and one of the Stones’ greatest guest spots from Rocky Dijjon grow and take over, a cancer that spreads slowly over the record until everyone is at the point of death. Jagger, meanwhile, scales up through the keys with every verse, every ounce of parody gone from his voice, as he gets into character and instead of simply likening himself to the devil he slowly becomes the devil, asking us to chant his name with the cutting comeback that ‘you’re afraid!’ You bet! Tapping into both the personal (the band’s recent brush with the law) and the universal (the feelings of unrest that seemed to be growing amongst the world at large in 1968, following the murder of civil rights leaders and the increase of troops in Vietnam), Jagger paints himself much like the Stones themselves, hiding in the shadows throughout history, quietly manipulating events for his own evil ends and seemingly denying mankind the peace and harmony they seek. There at the death of Christ, at the Russian Revolution and at the first and second world wars and at the death of JFK (changed to ‘Kennedys’ when Robert died the very week this song was being recorded!), with the tension raising each time some new turning point in mankind’s fate is mentioned off-handedly by Jagger. It’s obvious what the band are saying here: that dark always comes after light and that the next few year’s might see the worst bloodshed of all now the devil is back out of his bottle post-1967. To a generation who were born either in, just before or just after the most devastating conflict the world had ever seen (WW2) and who were watching their summer of love’s cry for peace get pretty much squashed by the powers that be, this is a devastating track to listen to, tapping into all the unexpressed fears about mankind’s future that until 1968 pop had largely filled with escapism or genuine optimism about how the future was going to change once mankind saw the light. The hugest shift in music since 1962/63 was taking place at the time (in basic terms the general theme of ‘pop’ songs went from ‘we love the world’ to ‘we hate the world and the world hates us’ in a matter of months from late 67 to early 68) Jagger-Richards are right at the forefront of that feeling with this song.
Perhaps the key line of the song is ‘just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints…’, an idea that not only pokes fun at the often hypocritical law-enforcers of the day (the policeman who busted both Lennon and George Harrison in 1968 went to prison himself a few years afterwards for planting fake evidence in rock stars’ houses; even the Stones’ policemen admitted they found nothing at the Redlands bust and made up the stuff about a naked Marianne Faithful with a mars bar sticking out of her private parts out of spite) but also conjures up the helpless idea that, whatever hippie-loving sentiments the younger generation have, their fate is out of their hands. You can’t trust the police and even the best of us has a dark side – all that peace and love stuff was denying out real selves and now its coming back to bite us. ‘We are all the devil’ says Jagger in this song, ‘and we are all responsible in some way for our fate’ – and after songs like  ‘The Lantern’ hoping that someone (our future selves?) will come along and save us, it feels like a real slap in the face that mankind caused this, a sentiment that makes this one of the scariest songs in the Stones’ pretty scary canon. There’s one of the best Stones grooves behind this song too, particularly thanks to all the percussion, that gives it an unstoppable voodoo vibe. Angry, frightened and almost gleeful in its laid-back incantations on behalf of Beelzebub, Richards puts the icing on the cake with his devilish, tormented guitar solo. Missing out most of the notes one would normally expect him to play, and cranking up his amp to distortion levels, Keef taps into the song’s nasty vibe by playing an almost random series of notes that only crank the tension up further, suggesting some unknown force is tugging at his guitar strings as his hands move over the body of his guitar, preventing him from going anywhere pretty anymore with so much at stake. It’s an extraordinary moment in an extraordinary song.
‘Sympathy’ is also an important song for the Stones because of its presence in three extra-curricular projects the band were involved in at the time and have each in their own way fuelled the Stones’ dark reputation no end. The first, a film variously known as ‘One Plus One’ and ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ directed by Jean-Luc Goddard, juxtaposes the Stones rehearsing and recording this song (and developing it from laidback pastiche to devilish fury) with images of student unrest and protests specially filmed for the project. Boring as it is for the most part (as the Stones are largely seen singing the ‘ooh ooh’ backing vocals several times over), the fact that Goddard randomly turned up on the day the Stones decided to record this key work which so fitted in with his already decided-upon themes is nothing short of spooky, a sign that the devil was pulling the strings all the time, perhaps? The second key work is the originally unreleased Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus show from December 1968, now out for the whole world to see on DVD. Menacing as later versions of this song can be, this is surely the definite performance as Jagger – only just remaining on his feet after a long sixteen-hour recording day – stops stumbling through a tired set and changes into an energetic jumping jack (flash) in a matter of seconds at the start of this song. Unable to take his eyes off the camera for a second for this eight-plus minute performance, Jagger really taps into something in his psyche like never before or since, pointing his fingers at and taunting the audience behind the camera lens as if he really has been taken over by a demon (he even has a devil tattoo painted on his tummy which he gleefully shows off halfway through the song – the fact that sixteen hours’ worth of sweat under the hot studio lights has caused the image to resemble only the vaguest outline of a devilish blob only slightly dilutes the best performance he ever gave). The third extra-curricular appearance of this track is the harrowing film of the Altamont concert at the end of 1969 (barely weeks after the hippie heaven of Woodstock). Legend has always said that the Stones were playing ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ at the time of the murder and that the bad vibes opened up by this song somehow caused the incident to happen when it did (actually the Stones were playing the even meaner-spirited  Under My Thumb at the time, but the legend somehow stuck). The band did however have to interrupt an earlier performance of the piece when the first major skirmish broke out in the crowd. ‘Something funny always seems to happen when we play that song’ mused Mick. He’s not kidding!
The rather gentler  No Expectations is the perfect balm for troubled waters, a slow blues in the  Little Red Rooster mode with some simply gorgeous pedal steel playing from Brian Jones – his most audible cameo on this album – and a sensitive accompaniment from Keith Richards’ guitar. Showing just how accomplished the band became in this period (unlike the Beatles they were still touring and growing as musicians, albeit less and less often given the fragile state of Jones at the time), this is among the most gorgeous and moving songs in the Stones’ canon, with a strangely humbled performance by Jagger equally as strong and in character as on the last track. Although we never find out why the singer is so lonely and heartbroken, the obvious regret in the song and the narrator’s lonely trudge alone to the train station, reflecting on all the things he is turning his back on, are magical indeed. He used to be rich ‘and now I am so poor’ and that he’s angry at an ex who dumped him to ‘cast your pearls at swine’, but somehow the loss is bigger than that – Mick comments that ‘never in my short sweet life have I felt like this before’ and it’s true in song; his narrators have usually been in charge, reckless, aggressive; even the few ‘loser’ characters we’ve had have never lost quite so badly before. It could be too that this is a song written during the dying days of hippiedom, when the band are feeling left behind and cut off from everyone. There is after all a fantastic last verse that basically shrugs its shoulders and asks what the point of even the Stones’ career is: ‘Our life is love our music, it’s here – and then it’s gone’. There’s also the possibility that the narrator’s musings, reflecting on other people moving on and being left behind, is a metaphor for the Stones’ worries about Jones’ struggles at the time (Jagger’s couplet ‘like our music it’s here and then it’s gone’ especially, one of his best lines of the 60s). If so, the fact that this song is so beautifully played in traditional bluesy style by Brian – pretty much for the last time before his still largely unexplained death in the swimming pool of a house once owned by AA Milne in July 1969 – is the best epitaph the founding Stone could have had. Trust them to resort to the blues to sing a song about feeling lost but the difference between this and the band’s earliest cover versions is that the band sound as if they mean this song – every note feels authentic, without the usual tongue-in-cheekness in their performance.
I have a theory that the last two songs started off as comedy songs and got knocked into shape past their first verses when the band realised how great they would sound done straight. Sadly the opposite seems to be true of  Dear Doctor – there’s a great versions still sitting in the vaults where the band mean every word and sing the song in the manner of  ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’. Alas what we get on the record is one of the band’s unfunniest songs ever, right up there with  ‘Faraway Eyes’. While Keith for one was a big fan of country music (especially since the Stones were spending so much time in the States) he never fully understood the genre I don’t think, the fact that this close cousin to the blues needed to be just as ‘real’ but far more overly dramatic. It won’t be till Byrd Gram Parsons befriends him at the turn of the decade that he’ll really start recording proper country tunes with the band. This one is a country hoedown dress rehearsal that got badly out of control. The lyrics tell the simple story of a bride and groom who secretly don’t want to get married at all but feel forced into it by family and expectations. Mick complains that his bride is a ‘bow legged sow’ and gets drunk on Bourbon all morning, his mother pushing him to ‘comb your long hair down’. There’s a twist at the altar though when she leaves him a note that calls the wedding off (read off by Mick in the first use of his alarming falsetto, which has to be heard to be believed here! It’s much better in the first take when he sings it as if he means it, ‘down in Virginia with your cousin Lou!’) The ‘joke’ then is that the narrator isn’t seeing his doctor for heartbreak at all but seems to be feeling relief – unfortunately though the choruses in the doctor’s office and the verses at the church jump around so much the story is hard to follow. The shame is that this song sports a lovely tune, perfectly in keeping with the softer blues covers like the Jimmy Reed songs the band had been doing earlier in their career. By far the weakest song on the album, I think it’s us who need the doctor after sitting through this mess!
Though Brian sadly isn’t on the track at all, I’d like to think that  Parachute Woman was a sort of last farewell to the direction he wanted the Stones to follow on their records. This is much more typical Stones material, combining the early sounds of the Stones circa 1963 - harking back to  Walkin’ The Dog and the other blues covers on the Stones’ first album - and the equally back-to-basics but slightly more polished sound of the band circa 1968. The difference really is in the confidence and the innuendo count as Mick spends a whole song with the extended metaphor of asking a ‘parachute woman’ to ‘land on me tonight’ while Mick admits to ‘overspilling’ in ‘New Orleans’ and that ‘I’ll make my blow in Dallas’ as ‘my heavy throb is itching!’ (did Marianne just discover being on top, one wonders? And are they making love on a map?!?) The words to this song are dumb then and here purely to see how much rudeness can be got past the censor of 1968, but you can’t hear them properly anyway thanks to a temporary return to the ragged murky world of earlier Decca recordings and Mick singing with his most authentic blues voice of all. Jagger’s squealing mouthorgan work is a real treat too and the chugging backing track is the most r and b the Stones have recorded in a while with Bill’s pinging bass keeping things moving, but Richards’ guitar-work is unashamedly late 1960s, riffing in a gruff husky tone that dominates the entire song. The best part is the fade, when Mick stops, ahem, blowing along and starts riffing, eking out the notes on the harmonica like he’s suddenly lost in the moment, away with the fairies (or at any rate his girlfriend). Like The Beatles, even the Stones’ throwaways in this period have a strange class and magic about them, although this isn’t the sort of track you’d find yourself recommending to a newcomer.
 JigSaw Puzzle has the feel to me of the one song left over from the psychedelic sessions of the year before – whether it genuinely was or whether the drugs were still coursing through Mick’s system though is anybody’s guess. The Stones have been slowly edging to surrealism across the past two years via  ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby?’ and  ‘The Lantern’ but this is the Stones’ most oddball song. Mick is ‘waiting patiently’ for his girlfriend on a nothing day, filling in time by doing a jigsaw puzzle and people gazing. Along the way he sees a tramp eat a ‘mentholated sandwich’, a bishop’s daughter whose ‘been an outcast all her life’, a gangster who robs and steals because it’s the only way to make money for his family and –weirdest of all – ’20,000 grandmas’ who are murdered by the Queen while protesting something (we don’t know what) and deferentially saying ‘thanks!’ as they lie dying. Oh and the best verse, as Mick dissects the whole band in a series of in-jokes that sum up the band’s public image which seems to bear no connection with reality at all: the singer is ‘angry’, the drummer is ‘shattered’, the guitar players are ‘damaged’ (ok that one might be true!) and the bassist is ‘nervous of the girls outside’ (are they bringing a paternity suit with them?!?) The link between all these people? They’ve been ‘outcasts all their lives’. Most people dismiss this song as gibberish (especially the ending) but my take is that this song is a further re-action to the isolation Mick and Keith felt as they were nearly put away inside for years with no great public outcry (just the Times editor and The Who). They felt cut off from the rest of the world, outcasts, as ignored in society as old age pensioners and tramps. The difference, though, is that while everyone else seems to be waiting for the blessed release of death Mick is spending his time teasing out clues, puzzling over why the world works the way it does and why the band have been cast out for telling the truth. The absolute end of the song is rather sweet too: Marianne (for surely its she?) has finished whatever it is she was doing and now they’re working on the jigsaw, ‘on the floor’, enjoying themselves during one brief fleeting moment of connection ‘before it rains anymore’ (another reading is that ‘jigsaw puzzle’ is more naughty fun with the pair slotting their pieces together, but that wouldn’t make sense of Mick doing that to himself in the first verse – or does it?!?) A song that many people think is stupid I find rather sweet – all the more so given the lovely Keith tune that Mick’s lyric went with, which manages to sound questioning and powerful all at the same time. There’s another fine band performance too, with see-sawing guitars and an intriguing, gulping bass part by the always under-rated and under-used Bill Wyman (more often than not its Keith playing his bass parts on these mid period albums – but not here!)
Side two kicks off with the album’s other well known song  Street Fighting Man, which is one of the most misunderstood Stones songs of all. This track came out just weeks after the Beatles’ Revolution and follows a similar course of unrest. Both songs were full of enough terror imagery and urgency to get themselves banned by some radio station somewhere (hence the fact that poor sales blighted this song’s appearance on many Stones best-ofs, despite it being a popular fan favourite), but study both songs closely and you’ll find the two recordings aren’t your typical rallying cries at all (Lennon even sings ‘count me out’ [of a revolution] on the second version of his track, after hedging his bets on the first by singing ‘out…in’). The establishment are against us and the time is right for fighting in the street boy! In a line everyone else seemed to miss, Jagger’s character sounds desperate to join in the revolution going on in the rest of America and Europe as youngsters took to the streets…but he can’t because the Brits in ‘sleepy London town’ and elsewhere seem too bone idle to do anything. Mick is furious but not surprised – there’s a revolution in the air and things could be so good for everyone at last, but he knows people are too bone idle to do the things they need to do to push things through. The only thing he has left to do is ‘sing for a rock and roll band’ and make change the long-way round because he knows his homeland will never have a revolution the way the French do every other week. Once again Mick turns into his devilish character, imagining a fiery future where he ‘kills the King and rails all his servants’, with the ’name of God, disturbance’. But even this dark deity can’t raise people into doing what they aren’t built to do. Regretting the chance to raise his fist in anger for most of the song, we leave Mick at the end wondering whether it isn’t actually a quiet blessing that he didn’t do anything after all as he’s also seen people get hurt. One of Mick’s most thoughtful lyrics works really well with one of Keith’s greatest guitar hooks (which may well have inspired it), angry and mad but also held back and less immediate than usual Stones tunes, played on acoustic which has more of a link to folky protest songs than an electric. This is beefed up by another big fat bass line (played by Keith on a song he was very fond of) and some classic Charlie powerful drums but even these seems to be stuttering, held back from going on a full attack all the way through the song. Best of all, Brian chose this of all days to turn up at the studio, sitar in hand. ‘We can’t put a sitar on this song, it’s a rocker!’ the others replied but producer Jimmy Miller, who’d grown fond of Brian and wanted him to feel he was contributing something, took him to a booth and let him out down whatever he wanted just to keep him quiet. While most times what Brian added to this songs was incongruous and wrong, on this track it really works, the drone that ebbs and flows throughout the song linking this a bit more to the summer of love vibe with the feeling that peace and love is receding into the distance, it’s rallying cry going unheeded. The result is a gloriously dark song which is also the polar opposite of what everyone else assumes – far from calling for violence and bloodshed, the Stones discuss why they feel this could never ever happen and why the world’s hands are tied. Perhaps too tied to its period in both sound and subject matter to impress as much nowadays, it’s nevertheless easy to see why this strident anthem has become one of the Stones’ most covered songs in recent years, with Oasis’ wall-of-sound version particularly in keeping with the original guilty-conscience-anarchist theme.
 Prodigal Son is the start of another long-standing Stones tradition: the lone blues cover. Unlike the generally sweet, sometimes catchy blues songs of the past though this line of material will seek to be authentic, a breathe of fresh real air to counteract the occasionally posing feel of the Stones’ own material. Though a mistake by Decca credited the song to Mick and Keith on the song it’s actually a piece by blues singer Robert Wilkins. Far from being a century old and out of copyright, Wilkins was still going and in his sixties when the Stones’ version came out and his lawyers had to get involved asking for royalties (the original of this song, which is basically the same but a bit slower and without the drums, was titled ‘That’s No Way To Get Along’). It’s a poverty-stricken re-telling of the Bible story and is significant because it goes against all the past Stones songs seeking to widen the generation gap. Here the dad forgives his son for taking a loan and trying to make a living before ending up penniless and bankrupt. He’s pleased enough to have his son back that he ignores the lost payment and kills a fatted calf. It is, as blues songs go, pretty happy-go-lucky, but what you take most from the Stones’ Delta Blues arrangement is the sour notes that Keith’s guitar keeps hitting and the hookline ‘that’s no way to get along!’ The recording is, though, a little dull by Stones standards: there’s no room to re-write the track the way the band will a few future covers, Keith’s guitar does much the same throughout and Mick sings in his own impression of a blues singer which isn’t half as convincing as if he’d sung it in his ‘real’ voice. Sadly Brian, who’d have loved the band to have recorded songs like this in their early days, isn’t here at all and he’s what’s missing: there’s no moment of colour, no unexpected sitar or dulcimer overdub to make this song come alive. Sadly that will be a sign of things to come. And that ain’t no way to get along!
Mmmm. Ahhh. Ooh. Giggle!  Stray Cat Blues is the Stones all over, however: skirting the lines of taste back in 1968, never mind in 2008 (actually sitting here for the re-writes in 2018 this song seems further away than ever, the most taboo of all the Stones’ songs). A tale of an underage groupie doing – literally – anything to get close to her favourite band (the Stones aren’t mentioned by name, but whatever band it is that’s featured in this song their behaviour is obviously quite close to the real thing) set to another boogie guitar riff, this is perhaps the band’s most mischievous song despite all their defensive claims that ‘it ain’t no hanging matter!’ Jagger still somehow manages to make us sympathetic, both to the girl (who seems to delight more in being away from home than anything sexual that might be going on) and the narrator (who protests ‘it’s no capital crime’ so many times during the song that it’s obvious such thoughts are playing on his mind). Like a slower version of Sympathy, Jagger starts out in parody and somehow switches voices gradually partway through the song, sounding almost - but not quite - as concerned about the girls’ plight than his own conquest. Well sort of. Along the way Mick does make mischief by inviting a ‘friend’ along if she’s ‘wide’, tells the girl ‘I bet your momma don’t know you can screw like that!’ and admires her biting skills. While hardly a defence in this age and time (Mick stumbles over the line but eventually tells us that she’s ‘fifteen years old’ and too young to be culpable for her actions yet),what’s great about this song and what makes it still just about work is that Mick isn’t just sleeping with her mindlessly or oblivious to his actions. Defensively he asks why society has such a downer on a girl whose clearly sexually aware already: he finds the ‘lick-clack of her heels’ sultry, asks her if she misses her mother to find her looking aghast and looks to see if she’s scared but finds she’s more into the orgy than he is! Perhaps this is reading too much into what is, after all, only a simple song (not that that’s ever stopped me!!), but it’s almost as if Jagger-Richards are questioning the same worried revolutionary zeal of the other numbers on Beggar’s Banquet all over again here: should we really be doing this? It’s great fun now and the worst of the elder generation’s hang-ups should definitely be dead and buried but – how long can we really get away with this and not pay the price somewhere? In the end, though, his list takes over and stops him thinking, the song ending in the very epitome of lust as Keith see-saws at his guitar as if he’s humping it while an overdubbed guitar break soars off into the distance and the bass and drums get ever more intense while Mick gets primal and no longer needs lyrics to convey his feelings and desires. You could never do a song like this today and the Stones, now in their seventies, dropped this troublesome song from their repertoire a long time ago. Even so it still feels more playful and less cruel than other more celebrated Stones songs such as rape attack  ‘Midnight Rambler or slave song  ‘Brown Sugar’ as at least ‘Stray Cat’ is fully consenting and thinks of herself as an adult. It all adds to the Stones’ growing reputation for danger too. A fascinating glimpse into the Stones’ psyche in 1968, after almost three-fifths of the group went to prison in a disgraceful ‘scapegoats-of-society’ trumped-up drugs charge, this song is as if the band are saying ‘you want to put us away? We’ll really give you something to be scared of then. Lock up your daughters!’
Alas the deeply uneven ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ really falls down for the final ‘pudding’ course.  Factory Girl is another of the album’s curious, uncharacteristic songs, with Jagger singing some nursery-rhyme type lyrics at the bottom of his range. Though it is rightly credited to Jagger/Richards, this song was also based on an old blues tunes back from the Appalachian Mountain days (just the tune obviously – they didn’t have factories back then!) The theme returns us back to the working classes again, but what might have started out as a genuine ode to a couple who have nothing except their bus fare and ‘the curlers in her hair’ soon becomes a parody again. Mick’s narrator impatiently waiting for her to clock off tells us everything wrong with her: she can’t afford a hat so wears scarlet ribbons in her hair, she’s too fat from not being able to eat all the best foods and she gets drunk with him every Friday night. A brave experiment, seemingly for the sake of experimentation itself rather than any great end result, this song is ultimately one of the biggest clangers on the album, although the presence of yet another historical Jagger character, this time a street urchin, does suit him and his ever-changing accents better than some other songs. Factory also features some of the strangest instrumentation the band ever used – there’s even a solo by a Zydeco-like violin instead of the normal Keith Richards ringing guitar special! The Stones unexpectedly revived this song for their 2013 tour, re-naming it ‘Glastonbury Girl’ when performing at the festival!
Keith gets his own back by singing his first ‘proper’ lead vocal on a Stones record (his first ever lead, on  Something Happened To Me Yesterday, is even briefer), overlapping with Jagger throughout the closing track  Salt Of The Earth. One of those typical are-they-laughing-at us-or-praising-us? lyrics that half celebrate and half mock the masses responsible for buying this album (hedging their bets they recorded both a ‘straight’ and a ‘sarcastic’ version of this track to end the Stones Circus concert; only the latter has so far been released) the end result is downright peculiar. Though celebrated at the time as a really important song, actually it says nothing more than ‘the working classes should get some recognition…even though they’re all, like, weird man!’ Irritating for the most part, the song’s middle eight rescues things somewhat and almost gets emotional, as if the band are paying homage to the fans they see at their concerts (‘And when I look into the faceless crowd, a faceless mass of grey and black and white, they don’t look real to me…’) – before they decide to laugh at everybody again with the unexpected line ‘they all look so strange!’ Mick and Keith feel cut off from the people he once thought his own, which further adds to their feelings of being outcasts from across the rest of this troubled LP. My take is that the Stones are still angry that the working classes weren’t outside their prison cell with burning torches and that after attacking the rich and authority figures across so many albums The Stones figure they may as well attack everyone else too! Down to earth and boring the ordinary people’s characters may be in this song, but there’s more than a little Satanic Majesties incense hanging over this track in its use of a near-hysterical mass chorus, surreal lyrics and general freak-out at the end. Most overblown of all is the presence of the suitably named ‘Los Angeles Watts Street Voice Choir’ (no relation!) The song tries hard to be something of an epic and the use of said choir on the song’s coda is a trick the band will use again much more impressively several times on the next few albums, but unlike, say, Sympathy For The Devil, the Stones’ hearts aren’t in it and the song ends up being just a little too dismissive and nasty for its own good. After all, it’s us ‘two thousand million’ who bought this record and kept you in drugs and skull-based guitar picks Keith and Mick!
Despite the disappointing ending, though, for the most part Beggar’s Banquet is the sound of a band reclaiming their muse, getting back to developing their own sound after a bit of a psychedelic sojourn and most of all enjoying themselves playing music together again. Despite the chaos going on in their lives, something that both strengthens and weakens the albums recorded in this most turbulent period, the Stones judge it almost perfectly here, making several of their best tracks using their tried and trusty rock and formula and going for something just a little bit unusual at times as well. There are some truly cracking important songs on this album with ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ and ‘Street Fighting Man’ which were rightly hailed from the moment of release as some of the band’s best work joined by songs that only come alive after repeated hearings, tracks like ‘No Expectations’ and ‘Jigsaw Puzzle’, while ‘Stray Cat Blues’ is at the band at their most dangerous and predatory. While the rest of the album can’t live up to these moments or the Stones’ growing reputation as the scariest most devilish band in rock and in truth this album is their most inconsistent since ‘Aftermath’ there’s a feeling here that the band are on the right path at last, that after six earlier albums of playing catch-up tp everyone around them The Stones are at the front of the pack at last. The difference is that the world already had a load of ‘Satanic Majesties’ hanging around in 1967, but the world of 1968 needed a ‘Beggar’s Banquet’, even if so many songs in truth fall more than a little short of standard. A feast for sore ears, there’s no paucity of food on offer at this banquet, which remains the first of the band’s celebrated and famous four classic album run for a reason.