The Great Psychedelic Face-off: Sgt. Pepper vs. Satanic Majesties

Now We’re 64!  column by Jay Jay French

1967. The year conjures up the bedrock of what is generally considered “classic rock” and this magazine’s epicenter of existence, in particular.

It also is the year that psychedelic rock captured the hearts and minds of teens around the world. I was one. I was 14 when the year started and turned 15 in July of 1967.

Astonishing releases that year were (in no particular order) the debut albums of Pink Floyd, The Doors, Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, Fleetwood Mac, Traffic, Cat Stevens, The Velvet Underground & Nico. And notable artists releasing albums in 1967 were The Who, Moody Blues, Bob Dylan and The Monkees. The Monkees — four albums over the course of a year, each going to No. 1 and holding on cumulatively to that position for a total of 37 weeks!

However, as important as these albums were, they all tend to exist in the shadow of the 800lb gorilla of all 1967 releases: The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (hereafter referred to as SPLHCB).

One album that tends to get obscured by all the nostalgia on the 50th anniversary of SPLHCB is The Rolling Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request” (TSMR), released just before the end of 1967.

It should be noted that both The Beatles and the Stones released two albums each in 1967 but neither tends to be examined in the prism of their history as 1967 releases.

The Stones released “Between the Buttons” in January of ‘67 and is very much an album with a 1966 vibe. The Beatles technically released “Magical Mystery Tour” in late ‘67 but it didn’t enter the Billboard charts until January 1968.

With nowhere near the hype and fanfare of the 50th anniversary of SPLHCB, ABKCO (the Stones catalog label) felt that TSMR deserved the same kind of attention to detail and historical analysis, with an expensive 50th anniversary package aimed right at the heart of Stones completists such as myself.

With The Beatles’ 50th anniversary re-release of SPLHCB, EMI (and Apple) — knowing how important this anniversary was and fully understanding the demand of their audience — created many different configurations and options to satisfy fans and collectors alike. EMI offered increasingly more expensive packaging configurations depending on how much you wanted to spend to get into the minutiae of The Beatles’ SPLHCB music. On vinyl, the 2017 stereo re-mix plus a full album of selected alternate mixes in correct song order. The CD versions, as stand alone or in deluxe packages of new remixes, original mono version plus two discs of alternate tracks from the album at various stages of development — plus Blu-ray and multichannel music options.

Guide to Sgt. Pepper 50th Anniversary editions

With the Stones, the ABKCO package for TSMR, while impressive, just gives one option in a single deluxe package. You get a total of four items: two vinyl album versions, one in stereo, one in  mono (not re-mixed) and two CDs, one stereo, one mono, both in hybrid SACD.

The Rolling Stones’ Satanic psych-out

The Beatles have never been released in SACD. EMI are not believers in the format but have released the entire Beatles catalog in FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) on a USB stick.

This audio comparison between SACD and FLAC may, one day, be the subject of another article. Suffice to say, as I have the capabilities to play music in many formats in my home studio, I will tell you that if you are a Stones fan and have as SACD player, ABKCO has done the Stones a great service by releasing their music this way.

How that relates to this article will become apparent soon.

I have very distinct memories in 1967 of the first time I heard both albums. I heard SPLHCB with a large group of friends on June 2, 1967. I probably played it a hundred times that summer and a couple of hundred times afterward. Such was, and remains, the importance of that album in my life and millions of others around the world.

In December 1967, I was in the East Village in NYC visiting a friend who lived on 10th Street & Avenue A. There was a head shop around the corner from his apartment and it was there that I bought TSMR on Saturday, December 9. Unlike the release of SPLHCB in which all the record stores and radio stations blared the release date for weeks, the release of TSMR was a complete surprise. I also bought Cream’s “Disraeli Gears” at the same time. I did not play these albums at my friend’s house as his record player was not as good as mine so I waited until I got home later that night.

So, here then was the difference between the two albums at the time. First off, in June 1967 I had yet to smoke weed so I listened to SPLHCB totally straight until September when I started getting high. Many of the songs on the album, especially “Within You Without You” and “A Day in the Life,” took on a much greater perceived heaviness and significance when stoned.

I listened to the TSMR album totally wrecked from the onset. At first I was impressed by the trippiness and scattered nature of the music but that lasted a very short time and soon it just went into rotation with all the rest of the incredible releases from that year.

Why?

Because, quite simply, it was not a Stones album to me. There was no blues. Anywhere.

First, the cover…really? Trippy in 3D (and they had to put Beatle heads slightly hidden on it, after the Beatles put “Welcome The Rolling Stones” on the cover of SPLHCB) with each band member wearing psychedelic costumes. Jagger in a magician’s hat…really?

Then the music. Parts of it sounded like The Kinks (“2000 Man”), The Moody Blues (“2000 Light Years from Home”) or even Pink Floyd (“In Another Land”). It was way too disjointed and seemed like a desperate attempt to try to keep up with the entire psychedelic music scene and, of course, their seeming nemesis, The Beatles.

I listened to it enough at the time to decide that it wasn’t worth my time in later years to go back.

Until now.

I was so intrigued over ABKCO’s decision to deluxe market the album that I bought it.

Well, now I get it. I get it in ways that only time helped to put in perspective.

There is a booklet in the package, with stories about the making of the album, and the band’s observations are actually priceless. While the press at the time created the fiction that the The Beatles and Stones were bitter rivals, the truth was that they were very close, especially in 1967 when they were frequently at each other’s recording sessions. Mick, Keith and Brian played and sang on various Beatle tracks and John and Paul sang backup on Stones songs.

Yes, they were competitive but The Beatles had the enormous advantage of better timing. “Sgt. Pepper” came out and ushered in the Summer Of Love, bright, sunny and with songs like “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “When I’m Sixty-Four”; in short, very Beatle-y and very poppy sounding.

Sgt Pepper 50th Celebration – Who’s on the cover?

TSMR came out in the winter. It was dark, cold and the band themselves had not only spent the better part of ‘67 trying to make a follow up to “Between the Buttons,” but members were arrested and their lives were as disjointed as the album now appears. There really wasn’t continuity to the recording process hence the scattered nature of the music, and the drug combinations went past LSD and weed, venturing into heroin which only enhanced the darkness and foreboding nature of the final product.

And now, in 2017, after listening to the re-mix of SPLHCB about 50 times over the last two months I had the opportunity to finally settle down to listen to TSMR (in SACD) and possibly re-evaluate my initial reaction to it.

First disclosure, there was no weed (okay, maybe a non-opioid prescription drug or two, but hey I’m now 65) involved in this relistening. Here is the first big insight: even though SPLHCB had no official single released to promote the album, there was much for the newly minted FM free-form radio stations to play. The title track going into “A Little Help From My Friends”, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “She’s Leaving Home” and “A Day In the Life” ruled the FM airwaves.

On TSMR, not only did I have no clear memory if any of the songs were played much on radio, the commercial nature of the album was not then, nor now for that matter, apparent. Strange, as The Beatles and Stones seemed to at least compete with each other for hit radio dominance.

Probably thanks to George Martin, who always seemed to be the creative cartilage between the band and EMI, the band’s corporate entity, The Beatles always had to have a commercial target to aim for. The Stones, on the other hand, had their manager and producer Andrew Loog Oldham to keep them focused. Interesting then that TSMR was the first album produced by Mick and Keith after the firing of Oldham. This could have been kind of like the inmates running the asylum.

But was it?

The most commercial songs (actually released as singles) on TSMR were the Bill Wyman written (and sung) “In Another Land” (very Syd Barrett/Floyd-sounding during the verses) and “She’s a Rainbow,” which, along with “2000 Man” and “The Lantern,” could have easily worked on 1968’s “Beggars Banquet.”

Songs like “Citadel” and “2000 Light Years From Home” are, in retrospect, great classic Stones track.

This leaves the opener “Sing This Song All Together”, “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” “Gomper” (a boring and indulgent attempt to evoke the Eastern influenced “Within You Without You”) and “On with the Show” as silly experiments and  bookends.

That makes six out of 10 tracks that truly can stand alongside almost anything The Rolling Stones ever created and, in the final analysis, I find the album does hold together much better then I remembered. I have had it on repeat for the last week.

Also here is where SACD comes in. If you are lucky enough to have this capability on your CD player, the sounds originally recorded are much fuller and realized, or remembered. I found the production of TSMR remarkably sophisticated for being Mick and Keith’s first production outing. Not dated-sounding at all.

We all know the story of the production of SPLHCB. The new re-mix is outstanding. When analyzing SPLHCB for me, in 2017, the question remains: How many great tracks are there? To me, the only track I really don’t care for (and one which almost no one ever mentions) is “Good Morning Good Morning.”

Now with both albums freshly minted and re-released in 2017, I can say that, while SPLHCB deserves all the accolades it has received, The Rolling Stones — under tremendous pressure of both external and internal forces — rose to the occasion with TSMR; and shedding their blues roots for the only time, came surprisingly close (in my opinion, after much re-listening) to a masterpiece.

So then, how should we finally look at these two albums, now 50 years later and with all the perspective that comes with time? In the case of The Beatles’ SPLHCB, it’s release upended the music business (as they had a habit of doing!) and set a bar so high that they may have equalled it (with “Abbey Road”) but never surpassed it as the ultimate artistic statement by the greatest pop/rock band on earth.

As for the Stones, having then gotten psychedelics out of their system, they went back to basics and over the next four years released in succession four of the most consistently incredible albums in the history of blues-based rock ‘n’ roll: “Beggars Banquet,” “Let It Bleed,” “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile On Main St.”

In either case, we the fans have the luxury to sit back an astonishing 50 years later and submerge ourselves, once again, in the musical atmosphere created by both of these remarkable albums, now frozen in time, that will continue to remain potent and important from generation to generation.

We, the children of the ‘60s especially, are truly the lucky ones.


Jay Jay French is the founding member, guitarist and manager of Twisted Sister. This is French’s first Now We’re 64 Beatles-related column for Goldmine. French is also a motivational speaker and writes a business column for Inc. com.

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