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The Rolling Stones: Beggar's Banquet

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It was 1968 and the stakes couldn’t have been higher. The world of rock music was caught up in a fervor and transition that both suited the times and matched them, upheaval for upheaval.

The Rolling Stones, after years of hit singles that hewed to radio formula, were in something of a creative cul-de-sac. Her Satanic Majesties Request, released in 1967, was a blatant attempt to ride the psychedelic coattails of the broad appeal of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The work of prog-rock explorers like Pink Floyd, and the release of Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience were changing the vocabulary of music.

It was time for something new.

cover art

The Rolling Stones

Beggar’s Banquet

(Decca; US: 7 Dec 1968; UK: 6 Dec 1968)

That something new—created in a world in utter disarray, and growing instability within the band itself—was Beggars Banquet, the Rolling Stones album that is one of the band’s three or four best recordings. To these ears, it’s the best work of the original Stones lineup: culturally grounded but sonically adventurous, literate, passionate and, with the death of the Stones’ brilliant original guitarist Brian Jones less than a year after release, tragically moving. Here the Stones helped change rock music as heard on the radio, breaking with the three-minute diktat that largely imprisoned rock during the 1960’s.

But Beggars also showed the Rolling Stones willing to play against the prevailing trend: As grandiose, multitracked psychedelia made its assault on rock culture, the Stones pivoted back to basic American roots music—a cultural anchor in the face of swirling change. Beggars Banquet was the anti-Sgt. Pepper.

The opening track, “Sympathy for the Devil” was an experiment in both length and subject. Mick Jagger was said to have been inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a novel that posits Satan’s return to our world in a number of guises. Jagger’s acid first-person statement of the human condition, an indictment of the cult of personality—the same one that imprisoned him in an evolving celebrity culture—remains one of rock’s lyric masterpieces.

With tracks like “Prodigal Son” and “Dear Doctor”, the Stones ventured into country and blues like never before. “Prodigal Son”, a blues song by Mississippi bluesman Rev. Robert Wilkins in the 1930s, was reworked by the Stones as a folky shuffle, a hallelujah romp straight from the Delta. “Dear Doctor,” a wry tale of nuptials gone awry, borrows from the hill-country music of Appalachia.

For all its wry humor and surreal comic turns, there’s a shadow over this record. You hear it on the plaintive ballad “No Expectations”. It’s there we’re witness to the twilight of Brian Jones, by this time a man near the end of the rope. Jones, a drug casualty on a long downward spiral, performs slide guitar work here that’s harrowing in its emotional honesty. Forty years on, it can still break your heart.

His lead work on “Parachute Woman” and “Jig-Saw Puzzle” is as lean and inventive as anything he’d recorded before. And listen closely to “Street Fighting Man”—in some ways the song that embodied the year 1968. Inspired by the student protests in Paris, it captures the spirit of chaos that made the song possible… and throughout, you’ll hear the sinewy thread of Brian Jones’ sitar, the kind of singular, inventive touch that confirms again his singular contribution to the Stones.

There’s a before-Beggars version of the Rolling Stones and an after. As much as anything, it was Jones’ slow fade from his role as the band’s visual symbol and musical polymath—a process made permanent when Jones died on July 3, 1969—that marks the dividing line between one iteration of the Rolling Stones and those that followed.

There were later high points in the Stones career: Let It Bleed, the first Stones album with Jones’ able replacement, Mick Taylor; Exile on Main Street, the sprawling tribute to soul, gospel and the rhythms of New York City; Tattoo You, a testament to the jaded but vulnerable creatures of rock’s demimonde.

But Beggars Banquet is that first point of departure—the pivot point that separated the Stones from being just another British Invader and being a group to be reckoned with, on its own creative terms. As a musical statement of simplicity in the face of complexity, order in the face of turmoil, with lyrics Oscar Wilde might have appreciated and music that still moves you, it more than holds its own—a document, a soundtrack for an era.

Michael E. Ross

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