CK Retro Review: Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones

The “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” single was the first indication that The Rolling Stones had quickly shaken the hangover from Their Satanic Majesties Request. Beggars Banquet, released at the end of 1968, doubled down on that song’s purpose and fire for the band’s finest full-length to that point, and, perhaps, from that point on as well. Not that they were done experimenting; Keith Richards was still up to his musical tricks and Mick Jagger was still in a provocative, questing lyrical mode. The difference was that it was all much more tangible, gritty, and real, and it was focused, with a big assist from new producer Jimmy Miller, into an overpowering attack. Here is a song-by-song review:

THREE STARS

10. “Factory Girl”- Being the weakest song on Beggars Banquet carries not an ounce of shame. This one is just a tad less ambitious than the rest, but the combination of down-home (fiddle and mandolin) and exotic (congas and tablas) makes for a charming curve ball.

9. “Parachute Woman”- If at times the album sounds like it was recorded in the commode featured on the cover (which is apropos considering the nature of the songs), that’s a byproduct of Richards’ use of a cassette recorder to lay down several of the tracks. It makes his guitar here sound like it’s resiliently sounding off despite being partially choked off, turning what could have been just another innuendo-laced blues into a sonic thriller.

8. “Prodigal Son”- It’s almost shocking how antiquated they sound on this blues, making you believe that the recording was made in the 30’s when the song was written. There’s a maturity to the performance that separates this from even the blues songs they had attempted just a few years previous. Which figures; considering the wild times the band was experiencing during that period, the hard-earned experience that breeds the authenticity necessary to put across material like this was flying at them.

FOUR STARS

7. “Dear Doctor”- The Stones had a complicated relationship with country music, sometimes overdoing it to the point of insulting caricature. They don’t exactly play it straight here, but you don’t sense any contempt for the music or the people who generally make it either. After all, some country songs are meant to be funny too, and this one can certainly make you chuckle. Jagger’s falsetto is part of that, and so is the relief shown by the narrator once he’s inadvertently rescued from his scheduled wedding to a “bow-legged sow.” By contrast, the music is played lovingly, with assists for the band from Dave Mason, who joins Richards on acoustic guitar, and Nicky Hopkins, who plays tack piano. It all adds up to tongue-in-cheek back-porch melodrama played with a mischievous wink and a loving nod.

FIVE STARS

6. “No Expectations”- One last time, Brian Jones adds a sensitive side to a Rolling Stones recording, only this time he’s not working against the grain. The slide part he plays here piles on the tender sorrow already found in Jagger’s tale, one that’s summed by the title’s utter capitulation to a bad end. A wise arena band once said that lovin’ a music man ain’t always what it’s supposed to be, but this song contemplates what happens when the music man gets the short end of the bargain. No train or plain is ever going to get him far enough way to avoid the pain.

5. “Stray Cat Blues”- Jagger once claimed that The Velvet Underground influenced this brooder laced with bad intenitions. Maybe so, but The Stones’ bottom end quickly transcends that comparison, swaggering nearly out of control each bar before Charlie Watts pulls it back into place like he’s manually return a typewriter to the left margin. Richards gets his shots in during the colorfully chaotic outro. The whole thing is nasty, yet irresistibly so, providing a blueprint for all future Stones songs that you can’t help but love despite your better self’s objections.

4. “Jigsaw Puzzle”- This one flies in the face of the whole “Stones-return-to-roots” storyline, unless their roots include rambling, quasi-jazzy, Dylanesque epics. Bill Wyman’s hepcat bass line is contrasted by Richards’ askew slide interjections, and then the whole thing gets washed away in Jones’ mellotron haze. But not before Jagger paints random character sketches brought together in “Desolation Row”-style fashion by the bemused narrator. He wins points for including his band members in his wild tapestry, something the ever-hiding Dylan would never dare to do. One of the band’s most experimental tracks in a lot of ways and it holds together, maybe most thrillingly when it barely does.

3. “Salt Of The Earth”- Jagger has actually claimed that this song is cynical, that the people he’s addressing in the song will never actually have any power, so at least they deserve a toast. The way that message is delivered changes its meaning though; there is undeniable uplift in the chorus, in Richards’ yearning vocal (his first lead on a non-novelty song), in the acoustic simplicity of the musical approach, the the gospel fade-out. And in the bridge, Jagger admits his strangeness to these “wavering millions,” and, if you twist a head a certain way to the stereo, you might swear his voice contains some envy toward their unsung lot in life as well.

2. “Sympathy For The Devil”- Again, the narrative doesn’t fit here. Never before had the Stones taken on anything so ambitious; there’s no getting back to basics in this at all. In spite of that, it came to define the band, inaccurately in terms of the Satan stuff, but accurately in terms of their willingness to get inside the darkness so that they could best enlighten their audience about it. The band’s ability to coax this song out of its folk song shell into something so vibrant and inventive should not be overlooked, nor should Jimmy Miller’s ability to keep it going off the rails. And speaking of rails, that “whoo-whoo” refrain suggests a train, one conducted by Jagger’s mysterious narrator right into the black heart of what was supposed to be a loving decade.

1. “Street Fighting Man”- Man, have acoustic guitars ever sounded this intense anywhere else? The song indirectly becomes a commentary on the band’s dynamics; every time Jones enters the picture at the end of the refrain with the exotic instrument of the month, Richards acoustic armada sweeps it all away like so much debris. Jagger meanwhile manages to sound forceful while equivocating. He essentially says that he’s as powerless to affect change as any of the “Salt Of The Earth” folks, no matter how much of a ruckus he raises. The force of the music is such that the intelligence of his words almost get lost in the shuffle. The Beatles couldn’t decide whether “Revolution,” a product of the same year, should be sung like a lullaby or screamed like a call to arms. The Stones’ surer hold of the era’s tumult is one point in their favor in the debate for the ages.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a much more in-depth look at the Stones, my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, arrives in a few weeks. Preorder it at the link below.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-The-Rolling-Stones/dp/1442254467

 

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