Slowly, then, we zero in on what is indisputably the Stones’ greatest sequence of albums — the run that commenced with 1965’s Out Of Our Heads; continued on through Aftermath (1966) and Between The Buttons (1967); suffered a passing bout of psychedelic hiccups at the end of that year, and then returned to solid ground for the next four albums, five years, and ten sides of vinyl … Beggars Banquet (1968) was followed by Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971) and the double Exile On Main Street (1972), and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. You can also add what is generally regarded among the greatest live LPs ever made. 1970’s Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, plus at least another two album’s worth of primo bootleg real estate and, finally, a dose of imagery whose power, beauty and darkness still overshadow the group’s reputation today.
It’s a remarkable run. What is even more remarkable is the knowledge that, across a series of sessions that stretched between May 1968, as they put the finishing touches to Beggars Banquet, and June 1970, with Sticky Fingers all but complete, the Stones recorded no less than 70 different songs, material that would wind up being placed across a total of five different LPs and still leave some 30 songs on the cutting room floor, to haunt future collectors and archivists.
The fact that, at its best, this includes some of the finest material the group would ever record only amplifies their achievement. Most bands could spend their entire career struggling to write songs the caliber of “Gimme Shelter,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses” and “Tumbling Dice.” The Stones banged them out in no more than two years. To this impressive tally can then be added the off-the-cuff Jamming With Edward, close to one-half of the Metamorphosis outtakes collection, and a brace of non-LP 45s (“Honky Tonk Women” and “Memo From Turner”) as well.
Heart of darkness
With and without the benefit of hindsight, the late 1960s saw the Stones driving straight into the heart of rock ‘n’ roll darkness, invoking imagery and, for those who believe in such things, powers whose only outlet was in the mounting personal cost to the band. Pop star-turned-author Gary Valentine is not alone when he describes (in the excellent “Turn Off Your Mind” memoir) the Stones’ court of the day as “one of splendor, sorcery and decay, a dizzying blend of drugs, magic and sexual excess,” while history records the 1967 drug busts, the break with long-time manager Andrew Loog Oldham and the slow departure and sudden death of Brian Jones as little more than curtain raisers for the final denouement of Altamont.
It was there, with Jagger decked in a hat he aped from Mansonite Bobby Beausoleil, with the Greek symbol Omega – “The End” – splashed on his chest, that the ’60s met both their chronological and their spiritual end. And the music that the Stones recorded in the months leading up to that still tolls a resounding death knell.
“Sympathy For The Devil,” the song that, for many listeners, most exemplifies the band’s flirtation with what Valentine calls “dissolute black magic,” was recorded during the summer of 1968 and eventually led off that year’s Beggars Banquet. But Jagger’s involvement with cult movie director Kenneth Anger’s “Lucifer Rising,” and the entire band’s live contributions to his “Invocation of my Demon Brother” readily proved that “Sympathy” was simply the Stones’ opening shot.
Beggars Banquet itself might well rank as the most important record the Stones ever made. They were scrambling, after all, to make up the ground (both musical and critical) that they lost with Satanic Majesties, and a handful of critics had already suggested that they had finally reached their sell-by date. Instead, the Stones hooked up with producer Jimmy Miller to craft an album that would both reconfirm the band’s blues traditions, and dismiss their (and everybody else’s) psychedelic meanderings as simply a passing aberration. And they succeeded with a collection that, though it was again too late to avoid comparison with others, not only restated the Stones’ roots, it reinvented them.
The Stones were not the only band to react against the excesses of Psychedelia during 1968. The Beatles’ double White Album and Dylan’s John Wesley Harding had already flagged rock’s launch into darker, heavier, rootsier territory, and the Stones were simply following their lead. But whereas Satanic Majesties always hung awkwardly on the shoulders of the band’s reputation, as though they were simply trying it on for a laugh, the 10 songs that made up Beggars Banquet fit them like a glove.
Nobody ever believed the group had traveled 2000 light years from home. But the brutal sexuality of “Stray Cat Blues,” the urban violence of “Street Fighting Man,” the badlands hoedown of “Prodigal Son,” these songs merged so perfectly with the Stones’ public persona that their sentiments became utterly inseparable — a process that reached its terrifying apogee with “Sympathy For The Devil,” a lyric that Jagger wrote after reading Soviet author Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” but which was far easier to view as unadorned autobiography. Even today, as many legends and myths adhere to “Sympathy For The Devil” as the rest of the band’s output put together.
“Sympathy For The Devil” leads off Beggars Banquet, but by no means does it dominate it. The scratchy lilt of “No Expectations,” the country pastiche “Dear Doctor,” the chugging blues of “Parachute Woman,” with every passing number, the aura of menace builds and builds, until the valedictory “Salt Of The Earth” croaks it to a close that is all the more haunting for its lack of the expected climax. Beggars Banquet sounds like it wanted to end with the apocalypse. Instead, it leaves you hanging on the brink, wondering what could ever, possibly, follow it up.
Continue to Part 2!