Any band with a history as long as that of the Rolling Stones is bound to have a wide evolutionary arc.  The Stones I first heard when I was 8, for instance, are very different from the band of the 60s. In ’89, Mick’s swagger and showmanship was in its decline, no longer a compelling force but instead a nostalgic one. But in the mid-60s, the power and sexuality of the Stones was an alarming thing. Their trials and tribulations, while not as well documented as the Beatles’, were no less life-changing, or more importantly band-changing. After so much attention, adulation, and hyper-focusing from the media, any band will undergo fast changes. In just a few short years, the Stones were a different band.

Beggars Banquet shows the changes they’ve gone through, but more notably shows the place they came from, which isn’t necessarily where their listeners thought it was. It’s a grimy, unapologetic record, leaving the polish and sheen of the Stones’ past behind them. Keith Richards says being in prison really gave him time to think, and as a result, he and the Stones stripped everything in their sound down to its bare essentials. What was left is what we hear on Beggars Banquet; it turned out to be the first truly great record they ever made.

When you pop the CD in on track 1, it’s already in a groove. The light hand percussion gives hints to a darkness and sleaze that last throughout the entire 6 minutes of “Sympathy For the Devil.” The vocals have suaveness and arrogance, the bass playing is funky and soul-infused, and the guitar skitters in a mad dance of chaos. In the hands of some other bands (like Guns ‘N Roses, Ozzy Osbourne, Tiamat, and Bon Jovi), it doesn’t seem to have the same sinister, slithering tone. I think the Stones, with their original recording, glimpsed something primal, something true, something diabolical.

“Sympathy For the Devil” is a first-person narrative from none other than Lucifer himself. He lists his deeds and misdeeds through history, taking credit for events such as Jesus’ crucifixion, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Crusades, and the assassinations of both JFK and RFK. The genius of this song lies in the way it lays Lucifer bare. It shows with accuracy that the biggest danger we face from the devil comes not from the devil, but from ourselves. Satan can only act when we fail to act. His work is not directly in the evils of this world, but in the hearts of humans who perpetrate those evils all by themselves. Like The Screwtape Letters, it features dead-on characterization of a fallen angel caught up in his own pomposity. I think this is one of the most instructive and useful songs for Christians, and anyone interested in the nature of evil should study it very closely. Perhaps the most insightful lyric is this: “Just as every cop is a criminal, and all you sinners saints…”

Brian Jones

The next song promotes the stripped-down feel of the whole album and informs the listener of what’s to come. “No Expectations” could easily have been written by Robert Johnson, and fits right in with the Stones’ down-and-out musical motif. Jagger recalls this as the last significant contribution of Brian Jones, one of the founders of the Rolling Stones. They were all sitting around in a circle on the floor, and Jones did the slide guitar part that forms the backbone of the song. Drugs and sex distracted Jones from his band duties, hamstrung him in both his professional and personal lives, and ultimately undid him. He drowned in a pool at the age of 27, about six months after Beggars Banguet was released.

Brian Jones is a member of the prodigious 27 Club, a group of musicians who died at the age of 27. Arguably, the founding member was the rock and roll icon and mythological figure Robert Johnson, and they include Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, just to name a few. Most deaths are alcohol or drug-related, but some are from car accidents, diabetes and falling off a horse, with one member even being raped and murdered. The latest member is Amy Winehouse, whose misadventures and odyssey with alcohol were well-documented both in her music and by the celebrity media.

“Dear Doctor,” another song with little adornment, is next. It tells in simple terms the story of a young man forced into a marriage but saved from it by his fiancé’s wayward ways, and his joy and relief upon hearing of her infidelity. The goofiness and comedy of it are not shied away from or apologized for. For some reason, Jagger sounds authentic even in this exaggerated, song-and-dance setting. That’s one of his special powers; the ability to sell almost any song despite its character.

More on Beggars Banquet on Thursday!

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