I’ve said before that the hallmark of Beggars Banquet is the sound being stripped down like a flying gas can. Producer Jimmy Miller does an exceptional job of making this record organic and gut-based rather than contrived. The Stones are honest here, but not the emo kind of honest that makes you squirm in your seat. The honesty here is more brutal and cold, but delivered with a breezy, sleazy smile. With Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Rolling Stones had ceased their teen heartthrob aesthetic, but with Beggars Banquet, they replaced it with no-frills free will. Doing that, they became a fully fleshed out, fully adult band.
“Prodigal Son” reveals that they’re no longer playing to a teenage crowd; teens wouldn’t have any interest in a blues guitar piece originally performed by a preacher that draws its lyrics straight from the Bible. If you want to talk about stripped-down, “Prodigal Son” is quintessential. There’s really nothing more to this song than a quickly strummed acoustic guitar and a straight-up recital of the story of (you guessed it) the prodigal son. If you’re not familiar with it, read Luke 15.
Written by Robert Wilkins in the 1920s, it was originally called “That’s No Way to Get Along.” When Wilkins found religion in the ‘30s and became an ordained minister, he changed the “unholy” lyrics of the song to the similarly themed parable from Luke’s gospel, and changed the name to “Prodigal Son.” “Unholy” seems like the Rolling Stones’ stock in trade, but the cleaned-up, Biblical version is the one the Stones cover. I listened to the original, and I honestly don’t know what’s so unholy about it, but mostly because the recording is so bad that I can’t understand a blessed word of it except the refrain of “that’s no way for me to get along.”
“Factory Girl” continues the stripped-down theme; it’s an honest-to-God country Appalachian ballad. I appreciate the homey, community-based setting that generated it. It features guest musicians Dave Mason of Traffic, Ric Grech of Family, and frequent Stones percussionist Rocky Dijon. I can imagine all of them sitting in a circle, all very laid-back and mellow, playing their instruments laconically while groupies and hangers-on pass around a joint, the sweet smell of marijuana clouding the air. In truth, it’s a pretty groovy image.
The cap is “Salt of the Earth,” which has all the elements of a final flourish before bedding down for the night. In it, Keith Richards – who has an atrocious turn at lead vocals before turning it over to Jagger – proposes that the listeners “raise a glass” to the common folk who live ordinary lives every day. As the song progresses, it becomes clear that the tone of the entire song is derisive and sarcastic. It’s disarming because the music and vocal delivery is played relatively straight. Whether he’s doing it intentionally or not, Jagger reveals here that he’s really out of touch. He’s looking down from an ivory tower on the masses assembled at his feet; from his lofty perch, they all blur together and become meaningless, no longer human individuals. But there is a self-awareness in this song, too. Use of clichés like “two thousand million,” “till the earth,” and even “salt of the earth” let you know that Jagger knows full well that the reason he looks on those people with derision is that has to crane his neck down to even see them. He knows this, but the question is whether he has the motivation to change his view.
It reminds me of an episode early in the first season of The Big Bang Theory, when super-genius Sheldon goes with Penny to the supermarket. He has just lost his job as a prestigious researcher at Cal Tech, and until now has never worried himself with such mundane matters as grocery shopping. Interacting with people at the market, he looks on them with fond condescension. “And thank you, ordinary person!”
The Rolling Stones make a very good case here for becoming the best band in the world. That promise is more than lived up to in the next few years. They’d been held up from the beginning as a contrast to the Beatles; that band was already showing signs of tearing at the seams, so it’s only natural that the Stones would swoop in. Beggars Banquet puts them in swooping position; sloughing off the dead weight of Brian Jones (another bad pun…)served them well, even if the sloughing had a tragic end. But they would only stay there until they themselves started to break down. By 1980, they stopped significantly contributing to rock and roll and became a parody of it. But for a few years, the Rolling Stones were actually residing in that ivory tower “Salt of the Earth” said they were.