It’s pretty ballsy to call yourself the world’s greatest rock and roll band, but the Rolling Stones have got the talent, and the back catalog, to back such a boast up. They began their careers as eager teenagers with a love for American blues music and found themselves, upon tasting their first success, being compared to the Beatles because the Beatles had tasted success first. However, the Rolling Stones were more than just another British band to crash through in the Beatles’ wake. From 1968-1972, they were the world’s greatest rock and roll band. They were masters of the form who recorded what could quite possibly be the four best successive rock albums released by any band in the history of rock and roll, four discs that became blueprints for generations of aspiring rock bands to follow: Exile on Main St., Sticky Fingers, Let It Bleed and the album that started the impressive run, Beggar’s Banquet
In 1967 the band had not perfected “the Stones” sound. Like many of their contemporaries, they found themselves being compared to the Beatles in the year of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If the band was trying to avoid such criticism they certainly didn’t do themselves any favors with the release of that year’s Their Satanic Majesties Request. However, in 1968 the Stones started to become “The Stones”. In the midst of everybody still trying to reproduce Sgt. Pepper’s, they released Beggar’s Banquet an album of simple, straightforward songs. It was an album of grit. It was an album with dirt under its nails. At a time when bands were producing the cleanest, most polished music they could as a means to appeal to a pop audience, the Stones decided it was time for them to get dirty. The Stones decided it was time for a “return to form”.
The Rolling Stones experienced their first “return to form” (a phrase that was basically invented to describe their work and was used by writers whenever the group released a decent album. Some Girls was a return to form, then Tattoo You was and later Voodoo Lounge) with the release of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in 1968. However, this wasn’t a return to form at all. It was the work of a band that was establishing its form, mastering its form. It was a step towards the perfecting of an unmistakable sound. They took an even bigger step, by far their biggest step, when Beggar’s Banquet dropped at the end of the year.
Beggar’s Banquet was the first real Stones album. This isn’t to lessen the impact of the great singles they released previous to it; some of the best in rock and roll history. I mean it may be a cliché to say that “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is great, but it certainly doesn’t make the song any less seminal. The group had released two great albums of original material prior to Their Satanic Majesties Request, Aftermath and Between Buttons, both of which, for all their great music, suffered from a lack of focus and tended to be a bit all over the place stylistically. The albums also found the band leaning away from the blues music they had favored in their earlier releases (quite honestly, the only thing blue about Their Satanic Majesties Request was the color of its cover). They lacked power. They weren’t “Stonesy”; Beggar’s Banquet was.
Why is Beggar’s Banquet so powerful? Simplicity. It was an album stripped of the trappings of most pop recordings. “Street Fighting Man” was not aimed at a pop audience and the opening riff, as classic as any Keith Richards has ever written, sounds muffled by a bit of audible static and the vocals sound as though Mick Jagger is shouting between two hands that he’s cupped in front of his mouth because there simply wasn’t a microphone available. “Stray Cat Blues” is as dirty as the Stones had ever sounded. The song crawls like a cat from the gutter, padding along with sly sexiness before finally attacking in a fit of ferocious guitars and a story about a girl who, “can bite like that!” Even the beauty of “Salt of the Earth” is a ragged beauty that’s perfectly summed up in the vocals of the first chorus which sound like a bunch of buddies singing together over a pint. The choir that ends the song only brings the song further down to earth giving it a “real music by real people” feel.
That’s really what is at the root of the entire Beggar’s Banquet album. The theme that ties the whole work together is American roots music. This is the album that found the Rolling Stones embracing their love of American blues (“Parachute Woman” and the cover of Robert Wilkins’ “Prodigal Son” are more authentic than they have any right to be) and country music (“No Expectations” was far and away the best country song the band had written to date and was a preview of greater songs to come). Again, the album didn’t sound as though it was recorded by rich rock stars. It sounded like it was recorded by real people with real fatigue, real anger and real lust. It sounded haggard and out of breath. It sounded “Stonesy” and that’s why Beggar’s Banquet is the band’s first concise statement of who they actually were, the first example of them being masters of the form. Then they recorded Let It Bleed...