Graded on a Curve:
The Rolling Stones,
Their Satanic Majesties Request

Remembering Brian Jones, born on this day in 1942.Ed.

Few albums have been as vilified or written off as colossal missteps as The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request. There’s Taylor Swift Sings the Songs of Captain Beefheart, and Arnold Schwarzenegger Sings Barbra Streisand, but neither of these albums can hold a candle to the Stones’ 1967 answer to the Beatles’ acid-influenced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Their Satanic Majesties Request was quickly dismissed as a shameless attempt to keep up with the psychedelic Jones’s, and the critical blowback was so negative that the Stones promptly hopped to it and followed Satanic Majesties with Beggars Banquet, an LP so down to earth a filthy toilet graces its cover.

Aside from “She’s a Rainbow” and “2000 Light Years from Home” you’re highly unlikely to hear any of Satanic Majesties’ songs anywhere, and the Stones themselves haven’t had much good to say about it over the years. Keith Richards called it “a load of crap,” while Mick Jagger said “there’s a lot of rubbish” on it. But it has its fair share of cultists, whole heaps of them in fact, and they love it to death. And their waxing enthusiastic over the LP finally got the better of me. Just how bad could it be, after all?

Not bad at all is the short answer. Strange, far stranger than Sgt. Pepper for that matter, Their Satanic Majesties Request has more than its fair share of fine moments, along with a few dubious tunes that don’t quite make the grade. Me, I’ll take it over Sgt. Pepper any day, and I think the Stones should be commended for putting out an LP that was even more experimental than its Beatles counterpart. Mick and the boys took real chances on the LP, and if they didn’t always work, at least the Stones tried.

The album’s problems have been variously attributed to there being too many people in the studio, and there being too many hallucinogens in the studio (Mick Jagger once told me, “We were eating whole sheets of acid, just cramming them into our mouths and washing them down with brandy spiked with DMT”). Then there was the desertion of the band’s disgusted producer and manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, which left the band to produce the album themselves. Oldham’s decision to jump ship hurt; Jagger attributed the LP’s shortcomings to the lack of a producer who would say enough is enough, let’s get on with it lads.

But ultimately the LP’s fate rode on the band’s decision to go the hallucinogenic route, and whether they pulled it off. It’s easy to submit that the blues-oriented Stones were simply not the right bunch to pull off a psychedelic album, but that’s Monday morning quarterbacking. Besides, they had a one-man hallucinogenic band in the form of Brian Jones, who could play virtually any instrument, the more exotic the better, including the instruments required to give the LP its Middle Eastern flavor.

With an album as chaotic as this one, it makes sense to start at the end, namely “On with the Show,” an English music hall number that is very very Beatles. So Beatles, in fact, that I thought Ringo Starr was singing it. But as it turns out Mick Jagger can do one hell of a Ringo Starr imitation. I mean, who knew? Meanwhile the song segues into Nicky Hopkins playing a brief snippet from the Paraguayan song “Pajaro Compana” on muted harpsichord, there’s lots of crowd chatter, and Hopkins returns at the end to play some piano. I wouldn’t call it a success; it’s the only tune on the LP that is too indebted to Sgt. Pepper, and its music hall trappings. “Citadel,” on the other hand, is a hard rocker boasting a great guitar riff, and might have fit on “Flowers.” It’s a very good song and as stripped to the basics as any cut on the LP, and features a badass guitar solo that takes it out.

“In Another Land” has an interesting back story; bassist Bill Wyman (not a hallucinogenics guy) wrote it as a parody of the band’s acid-drenched proceedings and sings it in a voice redolent with hippy-dippy echo, like Donovan only even wimpier. It’s Spinal Tap funny until you get to the choruses, which are great, and include backup vocals by Ronnie Lane and Steve Marriott. Its original title “Acid in the Grass” should give you an idea of where Wyman was coming from, and the fact that the song was actually released as a single should tell you how mixed up the band must have been by the time the LP was completed. It’s ultimately not a success, although I appreciate Wyman’s taking the piss, and if it were up to me I’d completely rework the verses while keeping the magnificent choruses. Oh, and it ends with some snoring!

LP opener “Sing This All Together” opens with some big jazz blurt, then the vocalists (who include Paul McCartney and John Lennon) sing a melodious tune flavored by tabla, lots of percussion, and one snaky guitar riff. The song then goes into a long instrumental interlude before the singers return to take the song out. “She’s a Rainbow” hardly needs an introduction; everybody knows it, although most don’t know future Led Zepper John Paul Jones did the string arrangements. In any event it’s the song the LP will be remembered for, thanks chiefly to its great melody and wonderful piano, to say nothing of its strange ending.

“The Lantern” is a middling tune with a so-so melody, but it features some tremendous piano, a killer guitar riff, and great drumming by Charlie Watts. A mid-tempo number, it just doesn’t hit home with me due to its lack of hummability (a word I just made up). Nor does follow-up “Gomper,” which is long on the Middle Eastern instrumentation but short on melody. Listening to it, I now know where Brother JT copped his sound, so it’s educational, and the song is almost redeemed by its great instrumental ending, which includes flute, tabla, some stringed instrument I can’t recognize, and in general everything but the kitchen sink. It’s a great jam and will have you thinking Ravi Shankar on STP, and that’s a good thing.

The wonderfully melodic “2000 Man” opens with some acoustic guitar, then picks up tempo, only to take an abrupt left-hand turn into rave-up territory, only to return to its original melody. In short this one’s all over the place, but works in large part thanks to its organ, some great tortured guitar work, and Watts’ fantastic drumming, Meanwhile, “2000 Light Years From Home” opens with some mysterious Twilight Zone sound effects, only to burst into the best melody on the LP. Very atmospheric, this one, full of zooms and a twisted organ, to say nothing of Jagger’s hushed vocals. I love the very dissonant guitar solo at the song’s midpoint, which is followed by some cool mellotron squiggle. Then the song stops only to start again, and the organ and drums dominate as Mick sings about how you’re so very lonely and Watts’ plays some cool drum thump and the song fades out.

Which leaves “Sing This All Together (See What Happens),” perhaps the strangest (and longest) song the Stones ever recorded. It opens with some coughing and a flute or a recorder, then bursts into a gutbucket tune fired by a rawboned guitar, lots of weird percussion, and more flute. This one’s a jam, pure and simple, with Jagger throwing in a few huffs and puffs while that great guitar is joined by the horn section. God, I love the guitar tone on this one! It carries the song along, while Mick lets loose with a couple of screams and the tempo reaches for the breaking point and then slows. At which point you’re listening to a dissonant jam that the Beatles would never have dared releasing. Voices echo here and there, the flute goes in and out, and the tempo picks up again, to a roar this time, while that great guitar lays down the law. This is some wonderfully fucked up music, people, and I didn’t think the Stones had it in them. At the end the original song returns and Mick sings about singing it all together, before what sounds like a mellotron and a shaken sheet of aluminum take the song out.

Their Satanic Majesties Request will never figure as a distinguished part of the Stones canon. The LPs that came before and after it are simply too great, and it sticks out in the midst of those LPs like Hitler at a Bat Mitzvah. But it has its rewards, plenty of them in fact, especially if like me you like music that wanders off the beaten path. It has its weak links, but it treads ground that very few supergroups would ever dare traverse, and the Stones deserve credit for losing their minds and taking things too far, to where the wild things are. “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” is one of the freakier rock tunes I’ve ever heard this side of early Pink Floyd, and it works, at least to my ears.

So what if it sticks out of the band’s body of work like Vin Diesel would a Broadway production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot? It will ultimately please, perplex, and perturb you, and all that adds up to daring rock’n’roll. I no longer consider Their Satanic Majesties Request an embarrassing attempt to beat the Beatles at their own game, although it is obviously that. But it’s so much more, and if like me you’ve never been a big fan of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (I consider it the worst of their later LPs) to begin with, Their Satanic Majesties Request may just be your bowl of magic mushroom soup. It comes in colors like a box of hallucinogenic crayons, dig, that you can use to draw rainbows in your mind, and if that’s not enough there’s the crazy cover, which originally came in 3D and in which the band members are all wearing goofy magicians’ robes and silly hats and Bill Wyman looks particularly unhappy. Poor Bill. He didn’t want to come in colors. He wanted to come in spurts.


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