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The Rolling Stones' Satanic psych-out

A little more than 50 years ago, The Rolling Stones went from producing sure-hit singles to bravely exploring a musical direction known as psychedelia with the strangely titled album, 'Their Satanic Majesties Request.'
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By Dave Thompson

It may, or may not, be one of the banner releases of 2017. The 50th anniversary of the release of The Rolling Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request” LP was never a nailed-on certainty for celebration; indeed, while the string of albums that bookended it — “Aftermath” and “Between the Buttons” beforehand, and the imperious sequence that ran from “Beggars Banquet” to “Exile on Main St.” thereafter — are all guaranteed a spot in any “best of the Stones” poll, “Their Satanic Majesties Request” lurks resolutely amidships, a cult favorite to be sure, but scarcely one of their finest.

And yet… Perhaps it is that cultism that appeals. Everybody likes those other albums; to actively enjoy “Their Satanic Majesties Request” is to step outside of the fan club norm, to raise oneself into the realm of the Rolling Stone superfans, an exclusive band of renegade dilettantes who might also prefer “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man” to its U.S. A-side, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”; or rate “Dick,” as opposed to Mick Taylor, as the greatest guitarist the band ever had.

Certainly it would be close to another decade before the Stones released another album as uniquely divisive as “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” in the form of “Black and Blue”; and no matter how many people jabbed that as the Stones’ attempt to “go disco,” many more poked its predecessor as their stab at “going psychedelic.” Or, worse still, at out-Peppering “Sgt. Pepper.”

 The Stones in the photo studio taking album images for “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” Courtesy of ABKCO Music/Michael Cooper Collection

The Stones in the photo studio taking album images for “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” Courtesy of ABKCO Music/Michael Cooper Collection

Indeed, Keith Richards admitted as much when he told Life in 2010, “none of us wanted to make it, but it was time for another Stones album and ‘Sgt Pepper’ was coming out, so we thought basically we were doing a put-on.” And again, in 2015, when he told Rolling Stone, “Some people think (‘Sgt. Pepper’) is a genius album, but I think it’s a mishmash of rubbish…” and then revealed the Stones’ response to it. “Oh, if you can make a load of shit, so can we.”

Mick Jagger has been no less dismissive. “There’s a lot of rubbish on ‘Satanic Majesties,’” he said in 2003. “Just too much time on our hands, too many drugs, no producer to tell us, ‘Enough already, thank you very much, now can we just get on with this song?’ Anyone let loose in the studio will produce stuff like that. There was simply too much hanging around. It’s like believing everything you do is great and not having any editing.”

Yet there remains a vast army of fans for whom (for whatever reason) “Satanic Majesties” is a peak in the Stones’s development — as an album, as a concept and, most of all, as a declaration of independence.

 Mick Jagger (left) and Keith Richards in Olympic Studios, London, England, May 23, 1967. They were in the process of recording the album 'Their Satanic Majesties Request.' (Photo by Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns)

Mick Jagger (left) and Keith Richards in Olympic Studios, London, England, May 23, 1967. They were in the process of recording the album 'Their Satanic Majesties Request.' (Photo by Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns)

Andrew Oldham, the band’s manager and producer since the outset of their recording career, ignited the initial sessions for the album between February 9-24, 1967, the first date falling just days after the release of “Between the Buttons.”

The sessions were scrappy; although a new album was on the band’s mind, only the roughest rudiments were on hand at the time — “Get Yourself Together,” a Jones-led cover of Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom,” an early stab at “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and a handful more songs, largely untitled at the time, that common sense suggests would ultimately develop into “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” “Loose Woman” certainly became “2000 Light Years from Home,” while it has also been suggested that Wyman’s “Acid In The Grass” — better known now as “In Another Land” — was first attempted at this time, despite Wyman’s own insistence that he did not write the song until early July.

The sessions were necessarily brief; the band was back on the road in March-April, for a European tour would take the quintet as far afield as Sweden, West Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France, Poland and Greece. But the band also had other preoccupations, after the heavy hand of the British constabulary descended upon Jagger and Richard.

A drugs bust at Richards’ Redlands home on February 12, and a preliminary court appearance in May, did not initially hamstring the band’s activities. The day after he and Richard appeared at Chichester Crown Court to plead not guilty of possession of drugs, Jagger was at Olympic Studios, adding backing vocals to the next Beatles’ B-side, “Baby, You’re A Rich Man.”

In mid-May, the full Stones line-up was back at the same studio, recording what would become“She’s A Rainbow,” together with the ultimately-junked (and still unheard) “Manhole Cover” and “Telstar II.” They also made their first approach at a song that was destined to become both their next single, and the soundtrack to the entire judicial witch-hunt that was building around their ears, “We Love You.”

The establishment wanted the Stones — or, at least, what it perceived as the most dangerous Stones — behind bars, and conspiracy theorists are more or less convinced that, although the drug bust was engineered by the News Of The World, the scurrilous Sunday tabloid that built its entire reputation, and readership, on its crusade against the barbarians assaulting the bastions of British decency, the story (or the seeds for the story) were planted from higher up the authoritarian chain.

It was within the halls of government that feelings ran highest concerning the behavior of “modern youth,” and the arrogant pop stars who pointed the way. In their eyes, the Stones, though their long hair and unwashed demeanor had long ago ceased to excite the rage of the nation, remained the uncrowned princes of revolution and disarray, and the harbingers of the end of civilization.

The newspaper was simply following its own nose for sensation when it named Jagger in an article on drug-taking pop stars, and the singer responded with characteristic grace, announcing that a writ for libel was already being prepared. The following week, however, Richards’ home was raided by his local police force, and Mick and Keith were charged with possession. The pair pleaded not guilty at their first hearing; they would be returning to court on June 27.

In the meantime, they had that new single to make and, though “We Love You” would not ultimately be released until August, by which time Jagger had been both found guilty and jailed, then bailed and granted leave to appeal, still it is impossible to hear the pounding, staccato piano line that heralds the song without feeling the walls closing in around the embattled band, and the lawmen running to celebrate their catch. The clanging cell doors that were added to the record on the eve of its release, and the backing vocals of a passing Lennon-McCartney, are simply the icing on the cake.

In early June, the Stones’ U.S. label, London, released what is now regarded as the closing installment of the band’s English Summer trilogy, the compilation album “Flowers.” And, so richly does it compliment the two discs (“Aftermath” and “Between the Buttons”) that preceded it that the term “compilation” scarcely does it justice, as producer Andrew Loog Oldham explains. “‘Flowers’ has come to be regarded as… the natural follow-up to ‘Between The Buttons.’” Even at the time, however, he lavished attention upon it. “Lou Adler gave me the title, and I used the Monterey (Pop Festival) graphics team for the cover.”

It would also become the last “new” Stones album to credit Oldham as producer, just as “We Love You”/”Dandelion” would be his final single with the band, and mid-June’s “Lady Fair,” which may or may not have been an attempt to improve upon the already-completed “She’s A Rainbow,” became their final out-take.

Recent months had seen a growing distance between artist and management, founded around what the Stones perceived as Oldham’s lack of concern for Mick and Keith’s legal problems, but also a natural consequence of the band’s own sense of self.

Ian Stewart, the Stones’ pianist and road manager, mused, “There must have been some sort of bust-up with Andrew, ‘cause, all of a sudden, they really wanted to get rid of him… At the time I didn’t understand what was going on.”

In fact, the feelings were mutual. The producer ran a tight ship in the studio; they were there to work, and that’s what he intended they should do. His belief in the band was unwavering, but his expectations were sky high.

Oldham knew that the Stones, when pushed, could move musical mountains. But they were also easily and readily distracted, not only by the legal problems that were threatening to tear the entire edifice apart, but by other, more nebulous, fascinations. And now those fascinations were taking over.

Bill Wyman: “Every day at the studio it was a lottery as to who would turn up and what — if any — positive contribution they would make when they did. Keith would arrive with anything up to 10 people, Brian with another half-a-dozen and it was the same for Mick. They were assorted girlfriends and friends. I hated it… (and) so did Andrew.”

On June 9, the band spent an entire day working on a single song, “Citadel,” without ever truly resolving it; other sessions that month saw work on the upcoming B-side “Dandelion” and the aforementioned “Lady Fair.” But the cracks were widening, among them the band’s decision to bring in Michael Cooper as photographer for the new album’s sleeve — effectively sideliningGered Mankowitz, who had offered such sterling service over in the past, and who was also a close friend of Oldham’s. “(It) meant Mick was not listening to me anymore,” Oldham mused.

Worse, though, that conversation highlighted for Oldham the sheer waste that the sessions had proven. “We’d recorded nothing in three weeks. The studio bill was £18,000 and here we were discussing the f**king sleeve. I felt redundant.” John Paul Jones, recruited as an arranger for the sweeping “She’s A Rainbow,” recalled, “I did one session for Andrew and the Stones for ‘Satanic Majesties…’ I just remember waiting for them forever. I just thought they were unprofessional and boring.”

Neither was Jones’ discomfort an isolated incident. Almost every session either started late, or fizzled out early. The Stones were deliberately pushing Oldham out of the exit, and making no attempt to disguise their intentions.

They knew what he wanted from them, and they knew what would anger him. They chose the latter course every time, and the fact that they simply didn’t have (or hadn’t shown him) any material that he considered album-worthy was only the most outward manifestation of their rebellion. Behind the scenes, too, Jagger and Richard were at work — including making a surreptitious trip to New York to visit Oldham’s partner, Allen Klein. Once he okayed their machinations, nothing could stand in their way.

For the Stones themselves, shedding Oldham was more of a personal statement than a musical decision. They wanted to stand on their own feet, and be seen to do so. After four years of having decisions made by one manager, they wanted to start making them themselves. After four years spent making records with one producer, they wanted to try doing that themselves as well.

Maybe they could have gone through legal channels, but that was not the Stones’ way. As Jagger later explained it, “We wanted to unload him, we decided to go on this path to alienate him. We forced him out.” However, he also concedes (and Oldham agrees), “he wanted out anyway.”

Finally, at the beginning of July 1967, Oldham had had enough. After one more chaotic and unproductive session, he simply walked out of the studio, got into his car and drove away. A few minutes later, he made his driver stop at a nearby phone booth and he called Jagger at the studio. “I’m not coming back. I think it’s time we called it a day.”

Jagger tried his best to sound diplomatic. “Well, if that’s how you feel...”

The Stones were on their own.

The sessions continued with the Stones opting to produce themselves for the first time ever, and reveling in the freedom. For the first time, there was nobody to tell them what to do. Oldham would have pushed the band to complete their songs, finish the lyrics, get things done. But, with the exception of the songs that he was around to oversee (“She’s A Rainbow” being the most obvious example), the sessions — and the album as a whole — drifted into absolute indiscipline.

One example. According to Bill Wyman, his “In Another Land” “was only recorded because Mick and Keith weren’t there. The session was booked, and either everyone (Wyman, drummer Watts and pianist Nicky Hopkins) was going to go home, or we were going to do something. So we did something.”

George Chkiantz, an engineer at Olympic, recalled, “the tracks were being done with no idea of what the vocals were even likely to be. (They) were largely composed in the studio, and there was an enormous amount of time-wasting.”

The album’s out-takes offer ample evidence of this, across the no-less-than eight CDs full that materialized on a mid-1990s bootleg. Symptomatic of the sessions themselves, few of the attendant takes were ever completed; rather, they usually break down after just a minute or so and, while one initially feels privileged to be sitting in on such private and rarely heard moments, the thrill swiftly dissipates, somewhere around the umpteenth run through of the intro to “2000 Man” — all the more so since the vast majority of performances are instrumental only, with the only vocal action coming from the control room, announcing the next take number.

True, the bones of “Child Of The Moon” were first rattled during the sessions, but nothing more would be done with them until the following year. Neither should one become too excited over the apparent presence of some hitherto unknown titles. While “Majesties Honky Tonk” could have slotted seamlessly into the finished album (take three is the most highly recommended), “Gold Painted Nails” was simply a grandiosely-titled jam which didn’t go far despite consuming most of one well-stuffed disc. At five minutes in length, take 17 is the most rewarding, but it ain’t “She’s A Rainbow” (aka “Flowers in Your Bonnet”) by a long chalk.

Elsewhere, “Five Part Jam,” “Blues #3” and “Jam” are exactly what their titles suggest; jams and blues sequences that could as easily be the band relaxing between takes, as the genesis of some future Stones classic. Ditto “Title 15,” which arouses interest only because “Title 12,” earlier in the cycle, eventually resolved itself into “2000 Light Years From Home.” No such luck this time.

It was late October before the myriad disparate jams and interludes had been rounded off, edited and filed into their respective places on the album, and the finishing touches were put to the final mixes. And the end result was released to crushing disappointment at the beginning of December.

There were some great songs on board, that is true, but there was also a mish-mash of the same unfocussed jams and sound effects that marred so many other self-consciously “psychedelic’ albums that year and, with the exception of “In Another Land” and the still-effervescent “2000 Light Years from Home” and “She’s A Rainbow” coupling, the album’s most vocal supporters tend to be the people who regard songs as an impedance to a listening experience. Especially when they could be listening the sound of Brian Jones snoring in one channel (perhaps symbolically, the last element of the album to be recorded!), while Mick demands to know who’s got the joint. Cheeky boy!

If the music disappointed some, however, the artwork delighted almost everybody. The world’s first 3D sleeve, designed by Michael Cooper, shaded any other album art of the year, while the intricate maze that devoured one half of the inner gatefold at least pre-empted the title of The Beatles’ still-forthcoming “Magical Mystery Tour.” How ironic, then, that the sheer cost of that cover quickly persuaded both London and Decca to abandon its production very early on, and revert to a regular photograph instead.

Early suggestions that the album (in its original packaging) flattered to deceive are, equally ironically, revived by the recently-released 50th anniversary numbered, limited edition of “Their Satanic Majesties Request” by ABKCO Music.

 REQUESTED REISSUE: To commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” ABKCO Music released a limited edition, deluxe double vinyl/double hybrid Super Audio CD package. The set contains both the stereo and mono versions of every song, all newly remastered by Bob Ludwig.

REQUESTED REISSUE: To commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” ABKCO Music released a limited edition, deluxe double vinyl/double hybrid Super Audio CD package. The set contains both the stereo and mono versions of every song, all newly remastered by Bob Ludwig.

Again, it is an absolutely beautiful package — a heavy-duty four-way gatefold initially duplicates the original gatefold, 3D picture and all, then opens further to reveal the band members’ own thoughts on the album (not all of them complimentary), a 20-page, 7-inch booklet and, of course, the music. Which is where the faithful might well succumb to a little sob.

There are no out-takes included, no previously unissued snippets to cherish. No 5.1 mixes… nothing, in fact, to raise the pulse even slightly. Rather, the album’s mono and stereo incarnations are simply duplicated across two slabs of vinyl and two hybrid SACD discs, with only the mono latter representing anything we could not have purchased separately at some point in the past.

In fact, it’s not even apparent whether the discs were remastered for the occasion — Teri Landi (restoration producer) and Bob Ludwig/Gateway Mastering take the same credits here as they did on both the 2002 SACD reissue and the 2016 mono box set. In 1967, critics unanimously declared that, in the latest battle of the musical giants, The Beatles had soundly defeated their long-time rivals. Fifty years on, in terms of celebratory reissue packages, the same scenario has unfurled again. And while one could argue that, in artistic terms, a disc or two of out-takes ultimately serves only to diminish the mystique of the original albums (points proven by both Pepper now-available left-overs, and “Satanic Majesties”’ still archived oddments), few collectors will accept that rationale, no matter how much dust has accumulated over their copies of “Anthology,” et al.

Yet still the anniversary edition of “Their Satanic Majesties Request” is a thing of beauty, visually and musically; still, if it’s an album you love, it’s a package worth reaching out for. Indeed, how fitting it is that an album of such unresolved promise, but still sporadic brilliance, should be commemorated by a box set that echoes those same qualities all these years on.

It did not require remixing; it did not demand extra weight. It is what it is, an album that unquestionably features some of the Stones’ finest period compositions, and — for all the tumult that attended their birth — their finest period performances.

Would “She’s a Rainbow” have been improved if it had been included on “Between the Buttons”? Could “The Lantern” have been more plaintive if it had been saved for “Beggars Banquet”? And would the Stones have even attempted “2000 Light Years From Home” had they not been in that precise frame of mind which conjured the remainder of “Their Satanic Majesties Request”?

If you answer “no” to even one of those questions, you not only need this album, you need it in every available permutation. The mono SACD has a depth that even the vinyl cannot emulate; the stereo LP out-performs any mint pressing you will find for less than the cost of the box.

Given all the discord and uncertainty that marked its span, many Rolling Stones fans probably regard “Their Satanic Majesties Request” as an album they would rather forget, and one of the last they would want to celebrate. For those of us who have loved it for so long, however, it might be the most unique they ever made.