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Album Of The Week Club: Beggars Banquet – Rolling Stones

The album that reinvented the Stones and kicked off the purple patch that had them crowned as 'The Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band in the World'.

In the words of the Stones own website, “Beggars Banquet is the album that changed everything for the Rolling Stones.” Released in December 1968, it went to no.3 in the UK – the same chart position as the band’s last album, Their Satanic Majesties Request – but it represented a huge step forward for The Rolling Stones. Where Satanic Majesties suggested a band trying to follow the Beatles (its daffy psychedelia coming six months after Sgt Peppers), Beggars Banquet seemed like a more authentic representation of what the Stones were about and a defiant response to the world around them.

BACKGROUND

‘And my name is called Disturbance…’

Mick and Keith’s drugs bust, the Vietnam war, the student protests on the streets of Paris in May ’68 – all of those things informed Beggars Banquet. Which is not to say that the album is all political anthems – second track No Expectations is much more representative of the mood of the album than the Satanic samba of opener Sympathy For The Devil. For a band that began when blues fans Mick Jagger and Keith Richards got talking about Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry records on a Dartford train station platform, it seemed appropriate that they found their second wind by going back to basics: acoustic country and blues.

‘Well what can a poor boy do/ Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band’

It was a transitional album for another reason: it was the last album to truly feature Brian Jones. The former leader of the band, Jones had been becoming more and more estranged from his bandmates, through a combination of substance abuse, mood swings, legal troubles – and the small matter of his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg leaving him for Keith, after Jones beat her one time too many. The time, as Jagger sang on Street Fighting Man, was ‘right for a palace revolution’. Power shifted from Jones to Jagger and Richards – this was their album.

Jones’s last meaningful contribution was on No Expectations: “That’s Brian playing [slide],” Jagger told Rolling Stone. “We were sitting around in a circle on the floor, singing and playing, recording with open mikes.

“That was the last time I remember Brian really being totally involved in something that was really worth doing. … He had just lost interest in everything.”

JIMMY MILLER

‘Please allow me to introduce myself…’

And there was a new influence on the band. In his autobiography, Life, Keith Richards says that producer Jimmy Miller is the guy who turned the Stones around – as well as a little discovery he made with an acoustic guitar and a cassette recorder.

Satanic Majesties, says Keith, had been a “bit of flimflam. And this is where Jimmy Miller comes into the picture as our new producer. What a great collaborator. Out of the drift we extracted Beggars Banquet and helped take the Stones to a different level. This is where we had to pull out the good stuff. And we did.”

Miller had produced the Spencer Davis Group, then Traffic and Traffic-related acts Spooky Tooth and Family’s Music In A Doll’s House before he met the Stones. According to Richards, Miller had “a natural feel for the band” that came from his being “a damn good drummer. He understood groove. He’s the drummer on Exile’s Happy; he was the original drummer on You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

Miller’s first production for the band was the single Jumpin’ Jack Flash. “That song and Street Fighting Man came out of the first sessions with Jimmy at Olympic Studios for what would become Beggars Banquet,” wrote Keith. With both songs he’d “discovered a new sound I could get out of an acoustic guitar. That grinding, dirty sound came out of these crummy little motels where the only thing you had to record with was this new invention called the tape recorder… Playing an acoustic, you’d overload the Philips cassette player to the point of distortion so that we it was played back it was effectively an electric guitar. You were using the cassette player as a pickup and an amplifier at the same time.

“In the studio, I plugged the cassette into a little extension speaker and put a microphone in front… That was the basic track. there are no electric instruments on Street Fighting Man at all, apart from the bass which I overdubbed later. All acoustic guitars. Jumping’ Jack Flash the same. And Jimmy was onto it immediately…”

Keith talked about this – and the anti-establishment vibes that fed Street Fighting Man – in this video for Apple Music last year:

SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL

‘I rode a tank/Held a general’s rank/When the blitzkrieg raged/And the bodies stank’

The most startling song on Beggars Banquet is the opener, Sympathy For The Devil. Written by Jagger as a Dylanesque ballad, the band tried it many different ways. “In the end,” said drummer Charlie Watts, “I just played a jazz Latin feel in the style Kenny Clarke would have played on A Night in Tunisia – not the actual rhythm he played, but the same styling.” The end result is over six minutes of hypnotic ‘woo-woo’s (according to a key scene in the 2015 Will Smith movie Focus, there are 124 ‘woo-woos’ in the song), brutal whiplashing guitar licks and brilliant religion-baiting lyrics from Jagger as he imagines himself/the devil at key moments in history and implicates us all (‘I shouted out, “Who killed the Kennedys?”/ When after all, it was you and me’).

But for all the controversy caused by Sympathy, it’s probably Stray Cat Blues that’s the album’s most transgressive track these days. ‘I can see that you’re fifteen years old/No I don’t want your I.D.,” sings Jagger, who was 25 at the time. ‘But it’s no hanging matter/It’s no capital crime.’ As Album Of The Week Club member Sam Paul Martin commented: “You couldn’t get away with a song like that nowadays.”

The last word goes to the only song on Beggars Banquet that’s not a Jagger/Richards original. Prodigal Son by Reverend Robert Wilkins was originally recorded in 1964 but based on a track he’d first recorded in 1929 called That’s No Way To Get Along. Wilkins recorded his first song the year earlier in September 1928 for the Victor label. Its title? Rolling Stone Blues, Parts I & II.

What they said:

Beggars Banquet is a complete album. While it does not attempt Sgt. Pepper-type unity it manages to touch all the bases. It derives its central motive and mood from the theme of “revolution” but isn’t limited to that. Over at the Stones house there’s plenty of room for groupies, doctors, jigsaw puzzles, factory girls, and broken hearts as well. Yet even these subjects are coloured by the impact of Sympathy For The Devil and Street Fighting Man. Beggars Banquet ought to convince us all that the Stones are right. By putting all these different themes on the same album the Stones are trying to tell us that they all belong together. They do.” – Jon Landau, Rolling Stone

“There is much to enjoy. Street Fighting Man conflated Jagger’s imaginary hard-done-by blues man momentarily confused and out of step with the political climate of 1968. The self-referencing and mocking Jig-Saw Puzzle is a treat; Factory Girl is folky and pastoral; Salt Of The Earth, made poignant by its performance in the Rock’n’Roll Circus film, closes the album.” – Daryl Easlea, BBC

What you said:

Jim Linning: No need to re-listen to this one, I must play it at least once a month. Easily my favourite Stones album containing my favourite Stones track, No Expectations. For me it is the first album to crystallise the “classic” Stones sound, and it covers most of the bases as well, rock, blues, country and ballad. OK, they’re plundering those genres for inspiration but it has seldom, if ever, been done so stylishly! 1010

Olav Martin Bjørnsen: It is not, generally speaking, a rock album – but if you like your roots music, Americana and Country, then this is a classic album that merits a check.

Mike Bruce: Here the Stones not only wrote the template for their own subsequent purple patch, but for countless other acts from The Black Crowes to Mumford and Sons and laid down the building blocks of Americana while they were at it. It’s also a turning point in terms of the way it felt. Blue Oyster Cult said it eight years later, but it’s clear in every note of Beggars Banquet that This Ain’t The Summer Of Love. The whole album simmers with an uneasy tension.

Chris Weir: This is the record where they stopped trying to compete musically with The Beatles and just play the music they know best, blues based music. The start of a great run of albums from the late 60s to the end of the 70s. Great album.

Pete Mineau: The start of their Golden Period from 1968-1972. (I actually think that period extends to 1973, as I have a soft spot for Goat’s Head Soup.) Makes me wonder if Paul McCartney had listened to Beggars Banquet when he proposed The Beatles’ back to basics project Let It Be? I would rate Beggars Banquet 55 – a true classic rock masterpiece!

Brian Seeley: This is the album that put The Stones back on the right path. Lots of acoustic bluesy guitar on it. The album wasn’t very upbeat, dealing with a lot of darkness. Stray Cat Blues is my favourite song on the album. Just a great riff and groove – but the lyrics! No way you could get away with those in 2018.

Lisa Lodsun Vanden Heuvel: What can I say… Hail hail the Rolling Stones.

Julien Thomas: It may not be the radical breakout album it is generally [thought] to be. What I mean is that, whereas Beggars Banquet shows an undeniable return to their basic roots, it also displays various moods and inspirations quite reminiscent of their [previous album]. I think Sympathy For The Devil or Jig-Saw Puzzle would have fitted remarkably well on Their Satanic Majesties Request.

Stan West: No Expectations is a stunning ballad with beautiful slide guitar by Brian Jones. It’s sad, gorgeous and you don’t really appreciate it until it’s gone. The same can be said about Mr. Jones himself during his too brief career. Factory Girl showcases the Stones’ range, they easily master a rootsy country/folk vibe here with beautiful fiddle work courtesy of Ric Grech. This is one my friends are always surprised by when I tell them it’s the Stones! [And then there’s] the final track, the sublime Salt of the Earth. Keith opens [the singing on] this one before Jagger takes over. I’ve always loved it when they harmonise together and when they do it during the chorus it’s such a wonderful sound. By the time the background singers kick in, the song feels like an old friend. Great album closer to a great album. Overall an 1110!

James Utvandraren: I realise the Stones did not make a name for themselves by being virtuosos on their instruments (let’s be honest – a raccoon playing in a trash can would find the beat faster than Charlie Watts could), but on this album that actually didn’t bother me so much. By dialling-in their focus on the blues basics, sounding more American than British for sure, they come off a little more accomplished in that respect. Having said that, I would still rather listen to Keith Richards throwing his guitar and amp down a flight of stairs than have to suffer the abusive guitar solo on Sympathy For The Devil one more time. Not a fan. Sorry. [And could] somebody, please, travel back in time and tell Jack Sparrow’s dad to tune his acoustic guitar. Maybe it’s just me (and that is entirely possible), but I get a very warbly vibe from the whole album when the acoustic guitars mesh (clash) with the rest of the band. Then again, when you play it a little dirty, some dissonance is OK. I like the heart.

Final Score: 8.6 (2106 from 244 votes)

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Buy Beggars Banquet here.