Counterbalance No. 30: The Rolling Stones’ 'Beggars Banquet'
With a blood-curdling “tally-ho”, Counterbalance’s Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn charge into the ranks of The Big List. This time they hit upon No. 30 -- Beggars Banquet, the Rolling Stones’ 1968 escape from psychedelia.
Klinger: While it’s hard to believe that it’s taken this long to get to another LP by the Rolling Stones, it makes sense that the album in question is Beggars Banquet, the bookend to Exile on Main St and the starting point for one of the most incredible runs in rock history. In fact, part of me wants to say that what came to be known as “rock” in the 1970s starts right here. Bluesy without necessarily being the blues, lascivious, libidinous, and always about an arm’s length from both the advancements and the trappings of the ’60s -- Beggars Banquet marks a decided shift in rock culture.
Mendelsohn: Beggars Banquet also has the best song about the devil -- ever. I mean, by definition, most rock and roll is about His Most Evilness (some of it you have to play backwards to receive the satanic message), but nothing as wonderfully overt as “Sympathy for the Devil”, which by 1968 standards was way ahead of its time. Also, as you mentioned, Beggars Banquet also marks the Stones' return to bluesier, rootsier tone. So it would make sense that they would pay homage to the guy who invented (or helped invent) the blues. If Lucifer hadn't bought Robert Johnson's soul all those years ago, where would we be?
Klinger: I shudder to think. But you know, “Sympathy for the Devil” is one of those songs that I’ve heard so many times that I really have to force myself to pay attention and not just woo-woo my way through it (those are some awfully infectious woo-woos, though). It’s one of the drawbacks of my Midwestern classic rock education that songs like that tend to dissolve into the background for me. But even excluding “Sympathy” and the other warhorse track here, “Street Fighting Man”, though, Beggars Banquet still has a lot to offer.
Is that OK that I’m sort of wishy-washy on those two? I know that they’re big important songs and I’m just some schmuck who has no business dismissing them so cavalierly. It’s just that I’ve heard them so stinking much over the last four decades, from every Labor Day Top 500 Classic Rock Countdown to the general AOR playlist. Meanwhile, I could dig in to “Factory Girl” any day of the week.
Mendelsohn: I checked with the Counterbalance board of directors and they OK'd your wishy-washyness in concern to "Sympathy" and "Street Fighting Man". The one stipulation they had was that you must occasionally get kind of soused, and sing along—off key—to these songs should they ever come on the radio. After the song finishes, you must also drape your arm around the nearest person and tell them how much you love that tune.
Klinger: I’m on it. Way on it.
Mendelsohn: Look, I feel the same way most days, but I think that has more to do with the fact that classic rock radio refuses to play anything that the listening public doesn't find immediately recognizable. It's a symptom of the simultaneous over commercialization of rock and perceived idiocy (real or not) of the people it serves. And let's be honest, as good as "Factory Girl" is, with its folk influence and percussion track to rival "Sympathy", it doesn't fit neatly into the classic rock playlist that panders to the sleeve-less shirt wearing, missing tooth-having, chaw-chewing, tobacky-spitting, "Free Bird"-loving redneck who most classic rock stations seem to court as their preferred listener.
Klinger: Or at least who they think constitutes their primary audience. Still, I can’t help wishing that there was a little more latitude toward hearing some of the lesser-known tracks on Beggars Banquet. We as a culture might have a different perspective on the Stones and their surprising breadth.
Of course, some of that breadth comes from Brian Jones. And while Brian’s sitar, tamboura, and mellotron go a long way toward rounding out the sound and achieving the distance from standard blues forms on this album, he was by all accounts well on his way to obsolescence by 1968. He apparently slopped around the studio a bit during the making of 1969’s Let It Bleed and was sacked not long after, paving the way for the two-party system that is Jagger/Richards.
Mendelsohn: I think the most people are more familiar with the Jagger/Richards Rolling Stones than they are with the Brian Jones Rolling Stones. The music that Jagger/Richards made after Jones left, the songs that would come to typify the Stones' catalog, are a bit more accessible and straightforward. Beggars Banquet's cache of acoustic blues found on "No Expectations", "Dear Doctor", "Prodigal Son", "Factory Girl", and, to some extent, "Salt of the Earth", don't seem to jibe with the mainstream view of the band. It's only on songs like "Street Fighting Man" and "Stray Cat Blues" that you find the electric guitar-driven, high energy Stones that have turned into the classic rock radio staples.
Klinger: Yes, “Salt of the Earth”—this appears to be the origin story of the Jagger-Richards two-party system I mentioned earlier. The song starts with Keith issuing his plea that we “drink to the hard working people”, and continues on as a pleasant enough duet between him and Mick. But then it takes a turn. Jagger suddenly takes the bridge, and we see that his populism is little more than a sham. The masses before him are little more than “a swirling mass of grey and black and white”. At this point the dichotomy becomes crystal clear: Mick’s got his eyes on a different prize, and it involves champagne with Princess Lee Radziwill.
Of course, in much the same way as our current political landscape is a curious blend of social and fiscal conservatism and liberalism, so too is it for Jagger/Richards. There are musical and social dynamics at work here, and Mick and Keith bring both to light. To make it easier, I’ve prepared a chart:
Throughout the early days of the Stones, Brian Jones played the role of the third-party spoiler. As a blues purist, he tipped the balance for the Rolling Stones to the left of the grid. In his later incarnation as a psychedelic dandy, he tipped it to the right.
Mendelsohn: That's an interesting take on a tongue-cheek plea for appreciation of the common man's plight. Quite frankly, I like it. It gives the song more depth. Also, having a chart helps. I'm glad you've finally embraced the wonder of graphical representation and all that it can accomplish.
I always thought the Jagger/Richards relationship was a bit more fluid, a give-and-take if you will—symbiotic even. I would have an easier time plotting the likes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney on the above graph than I would Jagger/Richards.
Klinger: Well, it’s always easiest to place the Beatles at the center and see what flows from there. Mick and Keith’s Apollo and Dionysus relationship is indeed symbiotic—without it, the Rolling Stones would be Status Quo and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Over the years, there have been shifts in the power dynamic that have led to some excellent work (Richards took over Exile while Jagger was swanning about with Bianca, while Mick birthed Some Girls as Keith lie in a puddle of vomit). But much like our own two-party system here in the U.S., it’s has all too often led to do-nothing finger-pointing and watered down specters of former greatness. But for one brief moment, there was Camelot. A filthy, filthy Camelot with songs about shtupping 15-year-old groupies.
On the other hand, Beggars Banquet also has moments of curious grace. The cover of “Prodigal Son” is a straightforward retelling of the Bible’s most awesome parable that even Jagger’s possibly ironic drawl doesn’t subvert. And “Jigsaw Puzzle” offers up a more compassionate portrait of the lowlifes and tramps that surrounded the Rolling Stones (and/or were Rolling Stones) than we’d see on later albums. Any theories on the delicate balance that is Beggars Banquet, Mendelsohn?
Mendelsohn: The dichotomy between decadence and grace falls close to the heart of blues music that the Stones so loving repurposed. Because, in the end, isn't that what the blues is all about? Treading that fine line in life, the one between happiness and sadness, carnal lust and righteous love, birth and then death. I'm not sure the Rolling Stones understood this, but they lived like they did, moment to moment, drinking it all in, throwing it back up . . .
Klinger: And one of the things they threw up here was the sunny optimism that had marked the previous couple of years. As sketchy as some of the tracks on Beggars Banquet get, and as cynical as some of the lyrics can seem, it all sounds positively Pollyanna compared to what’s right around the corner for them. Whether they want to admit it or not, Brian’s death (and the rest of the collateral damage left behind as they boogied their way through the ’70s) took a heavy psychic toll. So it’s not a bad idea to look for the fleeting moments of sympathy that they offer here—for the devil and for everyone—because the Rolling Stones aren’t going to be offering up much more as we go along.