The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request (50th Anniversary)
Despite (or perhaps because of) the outside pressures the Rolling Stones faced in recording Satanic Majesties, it stands 50 years later as arguably the most experimental, tongue-in-cheek, and underappreciated album of their long history.
“Where’s that joint?” The phrase is heard amidst laughter and group chatter before embarking on the eight-and-a-half-minute foray into chaotic experiments with African and Eastern percussions and timbres on the Rolling Stones’ “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)”, closing out the A-side of their historically disregarded 1967 release, Their Satanic Majesties Request. It was disregarded for many reasons: because the R&B-based Stones had supposedly fallen into the rabbit hole of psychedelia; because Sgt. Pepper’s had just been released and largely overshadowed the record; and because what was to come next for the Stones much more importantly shaped the direction of modern rock for the next decade.
But what’s captured in the candid remark and the Eastern-inspired jam that follows is the real-life chaos the Stones lived in 1967. The year found Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones in and out of court for drug possession during the recording process. Broken relationships between Jones and Richards, the departure of long-time producer Andrew Loog Oldham, and terrible bouts of exhaustion also plagued the group who had already released two albums the same year. But despite (or perhaps because of) the outside pressures the Rolling Stones faced in recording Satanic Majesties, it stands 50 years later as arguably the most experimental, tongue-in-cheek, and underappreciated album of their long history.
Thus the 2017 remastering and special edition re-release of the album from ABKCO Music is only appropriate. The release includes the album’s entirety, remastered for a second time by Bob Ludwig, in stereo and mono formats on vinyl and SACD. The bundle allows audiophiles to dig into the idiosyncrasies of the recording process, whether it’s dissecting the dense musique concrète of “Gomper” in stereo or experiencing the punchy drum and acoustic guitar performance of “The Lantern”, best heard in mono. The release is additionally accompanied by the original 3-D artwork by Michael Cooper (the first of its kind) and a 20-page booklet illustrated with photographs from the sessions and an excellent essay from Grammy award-winning musicologist Rob Bowman.
All these pieces add value to the beautiful set. But more important is the re-evaluation of the Stones’ output on Satanic Majesties. To merely write this album off as a response to Sgt. Pepper’s is about as silly as writing off Sgt. Pepper’s as a response to Pet Sounds. Sure, elements of those albums work their way into the Stones work, much like any other record that came after them. But the Stones’ album has its own character and nuance that must be appreciated on its own.
For starters, the tongue-in-cheek pun of an album title and cover art poke fun at the British government, the Beatles, and the psychedelic hysteria the Stones never really found themselves interested in. Similarly, the snoring found at the close of Bill Wyman’s trippy contribution “In Another Land” and the group laughter on “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” add to the almost parodic nature of the album.
That is not to say that the Stones were not on plenty of hallucinogens themselves during this process. They were. In 1968, Jagger admitted the album’s recording process took almost a year because they were “so strung out". Additionally, Charlie Watts reminisced in 2003, “It was so druggy -- acid and all that.” That atmosphere brought about an enormous amount of experimentation as Jones, in particular, messed around with a large variety of Mellotron settings as well as an extensive collection of acoustic instruments. These noodlings are most notable on the jam tracks like “Gomper”, which ultimately came out as the least listenable part of the record, despite laying some transitional footwork for the excellent percussions found on “Sympathy for the Devil”. The lyrics also take a “Summer of Love” tone. The opening track begins “Why don’t we sing this song all together / Open our heads and let the pictures come / And if we close all our eyes together / Then we will see where we all come from.”
But despite the freeness and druggy nature of some of these experiments, there is plenty of focus and good old rock and roll to be found throughout. Richards’ guitar punches and thunders on “Citadel”, which stands as one of the most underappreciated tracks in the Stones discography and a foreshadowing of rockers to come like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. The acoustic guitar-driven folk rocker “2000 Man” could easily be mistaken for a Beggars Banquet track, while Jagger sings with eerily prophetic insight into today’s world, “Well my wife still respects me / I really misused her / I am having an affair with the random computer / Don’t you know I’m a 2000 man.”
Most memorable is the side B opener “She’s a Rainbow”, a colorfully picturesque love song in the tradition of the likes of “Ruby Tuesday”. Non-Stones performer Nicky Hopkins takes the starring role on the song’s gorgeous ascending piano motif accompanied by strings arranged by none other than Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.
These unremembered, but very memorable tracks demonstrate that, counter to original writers’ opinions, the Rolling Stones did have a sense of where they were going and the identity they wanted to have as a group. 50 years later, Their Satanic Majesties Request stands not only as a step towards Beggars Banquet and beyond but a testament to the Stones’ resilience in the midst of chaos and real excellence in crafting their art.