Tag Archive: Beggars Banquet


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.

Rev. Robert Wilkins

“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.

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“hey baby… wanna see my guitar pick?”

Beggars Banquet starts with a narrative from Satan, sort of an invocation of the devil. Then there’s a song about “fighting in the streets,” just the type of violent chaos that would tickle Lucifer pink. A little later, we get what I think is one of the places you can see the influence of Satan most clearly, or at least is one of the human enterprises that most makes him quiver with delight.

“Stray Cat Blues” is a deliciously sleazy song, crawling with decadence and sexual debauchery. It’s about a rock musician who has sex with an admittedly underage groupie, and considers it “no hanging matter” and “no capital crime.” It’s spoken in the second person from the rock star to the girl. Now, it’s not a story of the two having sex, and then the rock star finding out after the fact that the girl lied about her age, the rocker regretful that he’s landed in jail. The fact that the girl is only 15 is out in the open. It ups the sleaze to about five times its normal amount.

Mick Jagger, while no doubt having had a very similar experience (probably multiple times), was writing this song as a reaction to all the puritanical parents who were sure that the Rolling Stones were a bad influence on their impressionable teenage daughters. He was going, “yeah, well how ‘bout this?”

He might also have been making a comment on the true nature of those teenage girls, which was very different that the picture their parents had of them (“I bet your mama don’t know you can scream like that!”). According to the theory, teenager’s hormones are spewing all over the place in a confused, chaotic mess; all it takes is the tiniest catalyst to make a girl completely ditch all her morals (if she even had any). Enter Mick. She goes to a show, she meets him, and stuff just happens. According to the narrator, whose fault is it really?

Here’s my position. If you want to have sex with someone, that’s human. If you’re not in a very committed relationship with them (i.e. married), that’s unwise. If you’re both underage, that’s normal, but still unwise. If she’s underage and you’re not, that’s Creepy McCreeperson! If you actually have sex with that underage girl, then congratulations; you’re a child molester. And if you don’t already, you should know that it’s punishable by law.

“Stray Cat Blues” is nothing more (and doesn’t pretend to be anything more) than an example of a child molester molesting a child. It’s a down-and-dirty blues song about a down-and-dirty subject, one blues music has explored before. The lyric “it’s no hanging matter” proves that he really is a pedophile in the diagnosable, “something is psychologically wrong” way. Not only does he regularly do something that any rational person would consider morally wrong, but he doesn’t see the wrong in it.

Alternatively, he may be saying the “it’s no capital crime” thing to the girl herself. It fits right in with the all-too-common cliché of talking circles ‘round the girl ‘til she’s too confused to resist. “C’mon, baby, I know you want to” and “you love me, don’t you?” become “she was begging for it” and “she got what she deserved” after the fact. It’s all there in “Stray Cat Blues.”

For the live performance on Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!, Mick makes it even more provocative by changing the groupie’s age to 13. The tune rocks hard and has a better groove than most of the Stones material over 4 decades, but you sometimes feel like you need a shower after listening to it.

Tomorrow the conclusion of Beggars Banquet.

The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet – 12/6/1968

My fandom of the Rolling Stones is a latter-day thing. The reason I never got into them as a kid or teenager – besides the fact that when you’re a teen, nothing made before you were born has any value, including your parents – is that there was always some sneaking naughtiness to them. It was just barely within my consciousness, but I was just sensitive enough that it gave me pause. It still appealed to the curious side of me, but at a young age, that part wasn’t very big. I wasn’t a curious child; I didn’t want to open that drawer, watch that movie, or smoke that cigarette. With a few exceptions, I was a good little boy.

Thusly, the Stones were something I was wary of until I reached adulthood. When I was still living under my parents’ roof, I kept them at arms’ length. Ironically, the impulse that kept me away from the Stones didn’t stop me at all from getting into Aerosmith. That caused contention between me and my parents, let me tell you. One time they actually sat me down in our living room, took out the liner notes from my two Aerosmith CDs and read me every word of the lyrics out loud. Some of it was pretty embarrassing. They made a point that THAT was what I was choosing to “fill my head with.” From then on, I kept my listening choices more to myself.

It is that subtle undercurrent of something good little Christian kids don’t do that permeates much of the Stones’ material. This was in a bygone age, before profanity had become the valueless thing it is today. Back in the Stones’ day, innuendo and euphemism ruled the day rather than crassly obvious statements. There was kind of an art to what bands like the Stones and Aerosmith did; they talk about sex in a way that you could miss if you don’t pay attention. That takes more effort that just coming out and saying it.

“Parachute Woman” has that going on more than any other song on Beggars Banquet. The innuendo is dirty and funny at the same time. It’s a slow blues song with a lazy groove, and it features a bit more of an echoing, un-produced quality than other Banquet songs.

“Jigsaw Puzzle” floats by despite its 6 minute length, featuring monotonously strummed acoustic guitars and a lilting electric. It’s stylistically similar to certain Bob Dylan songs, but doesn’t have the lyrical depth or intricacy, though it sure tries. There’s a verse towards the end that talks about members of a band (a guitarist, a bass player, a drummer, etc.) that is possibly about the Rolling Stones themselves.

The vinyl flip starts off with “Street Fighting Man,” the first moment on the entire record where the Stones pull out all the stops and turn up the volume. This song can definitely be appreciated at a greater level when your volume knob is cranked to the maximum. It’s been called the band’s most political song. That march on the U.S. Embassy in London that happened when the Beatles were in Rishikesh was actually attended by Mick Jagger. He found contrast in the generally quiet, “sleepy” character of London and the huge event that was happening in the heart of it. But inspiration for “Street Fighting Man” came from not only that, but the hippie protests in America about the Vietnam War, but more strongly the near-revolution in France.

What makes this song more interesting than a straight-up protest song is that it’s really not a protest song. There’s talk of all the unrest and discord going on in the world, but not as particularly negative things. At best, Jagger is reporting on it in an observational tone like Lou Reed reports on drugs, but it very easily tips over into glorifying the violence. At times, he even seems to revel in it. I think the narrator of “Sympathy For the Devil” would approve.

Tomorrow: Statutory rape, and other fun stuff…

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!