We live in fast times. In an information age where technology changes at such an accelerated rate, we have little time to think about the ramifications of each advance. We adopt new tech just as a matter of course.
Given the blinding rate of technological development that we are living through, it’s confounding to consider that our culture, specifically our music, hasn’t really changed very much since the post-grunge 1990s, a time when rap moved into the mainstream and started directly affecting every other genre, when rock bands started blending sampling technology into their sound, when R&B started merging with hip hop, and when pop started to emerge as a dominant force in the guise of boy bands, pop princesses powered by American Idol and later, The Voice. Nostalgia for 80s, then 90s fashion keeps recurring. The only new category at The Grammys is a throwback genre called Americana; it’s as if we’re trapped in a cultural vortex.
While it might be discouraging to think too hard about our current plight, it makes it that much more impressive to behold how quickly and steeply music developed through earlier eras, specifically, the breathless decade of the 1960s.
At the dawn of the decade, pop music was still kind of stuck in the 50s — firmly rooted either in doo-wop and early rock and roll — and its primary delivery system was via harmless, anodyne teen idols like Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and the film star version of Elvis Presley. In the soul and R&B arena, singing groups still dominated the charts as they did in the doo-wop era, some of them carry-overs from the 50s. There were many undeniably great songs that emerged from this period (just as there is a lot of great music to find in our current era) but I think it’s safe to say that 1960-1963 was a bit of a holding pattern purely in terms of musical development.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that all of that changed in January of 1964 when The Beatles landed in America and took the world by storm with their new brand of rock and roll.
And with six different number one hits in their breakout year alone, I don’t think it’s too much to say that every guitar group were looking to The Beatles as a guiding light (as was the whole musical world). As Danny Kortchmar (aka “Kootch,” guitar player for James Taylor, Carole King, etc.) explained in a recent interview, The Beatles provided the template for how to present to the public all of the music that musicians loved. Soul, R&B, rock and roll, and even American country music. The blues-obsessed Rolling Stones were no different.
The Beatles provided the template for how to present to the public all of the music that musicians loved
It may be surprising to learn that despite their perceived rivalry, The Beatles and The Stones were actually strong allies. Lennon and McCartney wrote the Rolling Stones’ first hit single, “I Wanna Be Your Man,” selling them on the idea one day in a chance meeting on the street going on to finish writing it in the studio at a Rolling Stones rehearsal (The Beatles later recording their own version of the song for their 2nd album, With the Beatles). The press likes to stoke the idea that they were enemies but in fact, the two groups worked together for their mutual success, even delaying their releases so that each could have their shot at the top of the charts without interference from the other band.
From the very beginning, The Beatles’ sound and approach to songwriting grew and evolved from single to single, from album to album, and like every other rock and pop artist in the mid-60s on both sides of the Atlantic, The Stones took their cues from the phenomenal Beatles and changed right along with them. The marketplace demanded it.
While The Beatles were taking the world by storm from England, another force was creating seismic shifts in the 1960s music world.
Simultaneous with the growth of the Beatles and their artistry was the phenomenal advancement of Bob Dylan who began the decade as a scruffy Woody Guthrie impersonator covering old man folk blues songs, but who quickly grew into a songwriter with such wit, power and pure intellect that he changed the very act of songwriting single handedly. His influence was pervasive, felt across the board, and a new genre, folk rock was created to accommodate and capitalize on the more mature, Dylanesque approach to pop, first by The Byrds and soon after by The Beatles and across all of rock. By that time, 1965-66, it was impossible to separate out and track just who was influencing who, but the music of The Stones certainly reflected the omnipresence of Bob Dylan in the form of more and more mature lyrical subject matter, rhythmic complexity (“Get Off My Cloud”), put down songs (“Under My Thumb,” “Stupid Girl”), and the pervasive folk rock influence. All through their first era, The Rolling Stones were a melting pot, continually evolving and consistently put out compelling hit songs highly influenced by the sounds they heard all around them, Chicago blues, R&B, soul music, Dylan, folk rock, and especially their closest peers, the titanic Beatles.
Formed in 1962 by slide guitarist Brian Jones and pianist Ian Stewart as part of the British Blues movement that produced Alexis Korner, Graham Bond, John Mayall, and later Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and the original Fleetwood Mac, London’s Rolling Stones revered and studied American Blues, R&B, and soul music and performed their best approximations for young British audiences. Under the urging of manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham, however, the band moved from merely performing blues covers to writing their own chart-seeking material and, in the mold of Lennon-McCartney, the Jagger-Richards songwriting partnership was formed (blues purist Jones didn’t want any part of this endeavor). Crude and slapdash at first, the pair quickly developed and started scoring hits with their high-energy, tightly focused singles strong with hooks, great beats, and lyrics that strutted with an angst-ridden, antagonistic point of view, cresting with 1965’s sensational “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” their first number one on both sides of the Atlantic.
Echoing the creative arc of the Lennon-McCartney partnership, the historic string of killer Jagger-Richards singles continued, each one an advancement in music and lyrical themes. On the production side, bluesman Brian Jones kept his dwindling interest in the band by dabbling in new instruments and, keeping pace with The Beatles and often surpassing them (“Paint It, Black”), helped to widen the musical palette of their sound to include sitar, marimba, and dulcimer. For promotion, Oldham employed the pretty brilliant strategy of marketing The Stones as the nasty counterpoint to the loveable moptops — pushing an angle that created such widely-seen headlines in the press as “Would You Let Your Daughter Marry a Rolling Stone?” — the indisputable quality of their output aside, it’s clear that, even more than most groups Oldham and The Stones shaped much of their early career as a direct reaction to the pop phenomenon that was The Beatles.
Musically, the string arrangement on The Stones version of “As Tears Go By” (it was originally written for Marianne Faithfull) and sophisticated ballads such as “Lady Jane” and “Ruby Tuesday” have long been considered to be Jagger-Richards ripples of the Lennon-McCartney evolution, the folkier and more eclectic Between the Buttons album a reaction to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Revolver — a trend eventually culminating with the final Stones album produced by Andrew Loog Oldham, 1967’s Their Satanic Majesty’s Request, widely seen as The Stones’ weak and somewhat confused psychedelic response to the seismic event that was The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.
Events conspired and by late 1967, manager/producer Oldham was out. The infallible Beatles meanwhile suffered their first two major setbacks with the death of Brian Epstein and the epic failure of their maiden voyage without the guidance of a manager, the ill-advised, weirdly abstract, and universally panned Magical Mystery Tour TV film, inexplicably aired on the BBC in dismal black and white. By early 1968, tapes started to trickle out of Woodstock, NY where Bob Dylan and The Band had holed up in the infamous Big Pink house creating the back to basics homemade recordings that would become known as The Basement Tapes, a move away from the ornate pop of the Beatles and toward roots music that would quickly filter through the songwriting community and upend the psychedelic movement in very short order.
1968 would see a major shift for the group away from the sway of The Beatles and the birth of The Rolling Stones as their own band, a musical force that would have a generational influence over rock music all their own.
By mid-1968, the music of the tumultuous 60s had shifted again, with the surging Rolling Stones emerging at the forefront, first with the signature “Jumping Jack Flash” single, followed by Beggars Banquet, the first of four masterwork albums that, along with the arrival of Led Zeppelin and later The Who’s landmark Who’s Next album, helped establish a new and lasting post-Beatles template, the timeless sound of 70s rock.
A few factors worked together to spur The Stones’ great leap forward.
In his must-read autobiography Life, Keith describes this crucial period where the band came into their own by first mentioning their extraordinary relationship with new producer, Jimmy Miller (Spencer Davis Group, Traffic), the American son of a Las Vegas talent booker. Keith and Jimmy clicked immediately (Mick and the band got on with him well too). Miller, a drummer himself, a good one, understood groove and sound and, with this new leadership in the studio, a “whole new idea” for the band started to blossom inside the walls of Olympic Studios in the Spring of 1968, as Keith tells it, one based in jamming, grooving, finding the perfect tempo for each song, and creating a conversation between Keith’s guitar and Charlie’s drums (and occasionally, Jimmy’s too).
The second major contributing factor to the rebirth of The Stones is Keith’s discovery of new ways to tune his guitar. Growing tired of the standard E-A-D-G-B-E tuning, Keith started experimenting around Beggars Banquet with various open tunings (tuning the guitar to play a major chord when strummed without fretting any strings), specifically open-D and open-E tunings, a new way of looking at the fretboard that Keith says helped to revitalize his interest in playing the guitar. The lightning bolt struck soon after work was completed on Beggars when guitarist Ry Cooder showed Keith his open-G tuning, especially when it occurred to Keith to remove the lowest string on his guitar, yielding the magic G-D-G-B-D tuning that, according to Keith in his memoir, transformed the guitar into a whole new instrument for him. But where Cooder used the open tuning for his slide work, Keith developed his own style with this new fretted instrument. It’s a wonderful passage in the book, hearing Keith talk with great affection about how crawling around the neck with the new tuning produced a new wealth of riffs, how those open strings create “drone notes” when left to ring against other chords besides G, how the guitar is simplified to its essence with this 5-string tuning, its ties to the 5-string banjo (which used to be a much more popular instrument than the guitar), and especially how the 5-string open-G guitar tied him spiritually to the early blues guitarists who tuned their inexpensive Sears Roebuck mail-order guitars to the familiar banjo tuning. Once he figured out how to voice other chords on the open-G guitar, the songs started to pour out, starting with “Honky Tonk Woman.” The 5-string Telecaster instantly became the main Keith Richards axe and list of open-G Stones songs is long, stretching out decades into the future, and each one shimmering with the essence of Keith.
Another major factor that helped transform the band was Keith’s close friendship with country rock supernova, Gram Parsons starting in the summer of 1968. Apart from bonding over hard drugs, the two communed over a shared love of music. The two met during Parsons’ short but historic stint with The Byrds where he was the main force behind the legendary Sweethearts of the Rodeo album and the band’s sudden move into country from their native folk rock (a lynchpin for a whole country-rock movement). Leaving the band after Richards and Jagger warned him off of an upcoming South African Byrds tour because of something called “apartheid,” Parsons stayed at Richards’ house and they spent their time getting high and educating the other on each musician’s deep knowledge of music, Keith showing Gram the hidden corners of blues and rock, Gram steeping Keith in the subtleties of American country music, teaching him the difference between the Bakersfield sound and the Nashville approach and everything in between. This exposure to country music in 1968 and the band’s internalizing of its different aspects was vital to the shift it was about to undergo; country songs would provide a constant and needed foil to Stones rock classics all through this fertile period and beyond.
And finally, 1968 itself was a determining factor in the evolving persona of The Rolling Stones. Political assassinations. Race riots. The foreboding of Vietnam turned to real horror with the Tet Offensive. Student demonstrations. As Keith says in his book, politics were coming for the Rolling Stones whether they wanted it or not.
Beggars Banquet kicks off with the indelible, explosive “Sympathy for the Devil,” a groundbreaking Stones song that went through a transformation in the studio, starting as a Dylanesque folk song, ending up as a sped-up percussion-heavy rock and roll samba (as suggested by Keith). Written mostly by Jagger, it’s a lyrical tour-de-force, essentially a work of historical fiction, told from the point of view of an ironically sympathetic figure, Satan himself, as he recounts his role in various violent uprisings and human atrocities. “Just as every cop is a criminal/and all the sinners saints…” Sympathy for the Devil is full of ironies and insights, as quotable as any Dylan song, and even more relatable and specific. “I shouted out who killed the Kennedys/When after all it was you and me.” And as triumphant and brilliant as Jagger is here, equally stunning and original is that Keith and Charlie locking groove, Keith contributing the insistent, active bassline against Charlie’s jazz samba beat (reinforced by Bill Wyman on maracas and Brian Jones’ strumming acoustic), but against Nicky Hopkins’ heavy downbeat piano chords and Jagger’s virtuoso vocal this is not jazz in the slightest. It’s a harrowing rock and roll tale, and Keith brings it home with the most urgent, unforgettable guitar solo of his career. We are in new territory — the sound of a band fully committed, breaking out, taking risks, and scoring on every level.
The band follows the fiery opener with a chill country blues with a heavy vibe, one of their best, the spooky “No Expectations.” Again, the lyrics are pivotal; it’s a song about loneliness and loss, being left behind by a lover and facing the end with dignity and self-reflection, evoking the mythic American imagery of trains and stations. Musically, Keith and the band are in the hushed, rarified zone that will one day yield “Wild Horses.” Recorded in a circle with the mics open, Brian makes his last real contribution to a Stones record, and it’s chilling. His bluesy atmospheric slide guitar marrying perfectly with Keith’s soulful acoustic strum and the country feel evoked by Nicky Hopkins’ beautiful Floyd Cramer-type piano licks, each verse climbing an octave. It’s The Stones’ at their prettiest, but the beauty is undercut with a sadness, a patience, and an authenticity of feeling that is the hallmark of American country music, and now, a hallmark of the band.
The following two tracks are both comedic vignettes. “Dear Doctor” is a satirical country waltz about a disastrous wedding day to a “bow-legged sow” with a twist happy ending — she leaves the thankful groom standing at the altar, while “Parachute Woman” is a too-short vibey blues recorded on lo-fi cassette and double-tracked in the studio. Side A ends with what sounds to me to be an overt Dylan rip, “Jigsaw Puzzle,” the one retrograde move on the album into psychedelic folk rock, but with a fun, slow fade out as we hear the band cavorting on an uptempo acoustic slide blues groove.
Side B ignites with immediacy and portent. Using the same recording technique as “Jumping Jack Flash,” driving an acoustic guitar through a consumer-grade cassette recorder — the distorted sound that ignited Keith’s imagination and got him excited about recording again. There are no electric guitars on “Street Fighting Man” but the sound is positively electric nonetheless and the inspired arrangement is meticulously constructed around a few essential elements. Keith’s overdriven 5-string acoustic, Charlie’s driving offbeat drums, Hopkins’ creative piano part, and the underpinning of the ever-present droning tamboura and occasional sitar courtesy of Brian Jones. Lyrically, the song is another one of the band’s masterworks. Inspired by the violent student uprising in Paris’ Left Bank in early 1968 (along with student protests in America and the UK), it’s the shift from the external bombast and calls for revolution of the verses to the internal ambivalence of the choruses that humanizes and elevates the song. Jagger dismisses the lyric as being too topical and tied to the late 60s but that is also its strength. Listen to the band’s contrast between the rousing, anthemic verses and the introspective feel of the choruses — the fusion of music and lyrics that makes “Street Fighting Man” one of their greatest artistic achievements.
Side B continues with “Prodigal Son,” an authentic sounding, oddly-structured country blues written in 1929 by Reverend Robert Wilkins under the original title, “That’s No Way to Get Along.” A close retelling of the biblical parable of the prodigal son, it’s the only cover song on Beggars Banquet and it fits right in with the sound and feel of the album. For years, Stones fans were unaware that it was a cover song because when the banned “bathroom wall” original cover art was replaced with the familiar plain-white cursive cover, the songs were all credited as Jagger-Richards. This has now been rectified in all versions, but it’s easy to see why fans thought it was an original. The band’s rendering feels like an authentic country blues and Jagger’s vocal really shines.
Pointing the way to future Stones classics like “Monkey Man” and “Live With Me,” “Stray Cat Blues” slinks along menacingly and is a good representation of Jimmy Miller’s lean, groove-oriented production style. Musically, the song is a stone jam with Keith’s guitar leading the way. The single-entendre underaged groupie-sex lyrics, however are certainly a relic of a bygone era and might be off putting to modern ears. As the Stones would probably say, “it’s no hanging matter,” but you can judge for yourself.
Rounding out the album are two odes to the working class. “Factory Girl” is a funny Appalachian love song to a dreamgirl this side of destitute who doesn’t put on airs, who wears “scarves instead of hats.” Musically, the band overshoots the target of country music and settles into a mountain jam with hand percussion, acoustic guitar, fiddle, and mandolin (Nicky Hopkins using a Mellotron patch). Rather than sounding like parody, “Factory Girl” instead has the feel of authenticity and fits right into the fabric of Beggars Banquet and provides the perfect antecedent to the album’s finale, the majestic toast to the humble worker, “Salt of the Earth.” The vocals here are shared between Mick and Keith, Keith taking the opening line, his rough tenor setting the perfect tone for the song. Musically, the band provides a stirring folk anthem, based in Keith’s soulful strumming, Charlie’s supple groove, Brian’s slide acoustic and support from Nicky Hopkins’ piano and a warm gospel choir, the whole band sliding into a big, rousing double time jam at the end to fill the run-out grooves of the album.
The Rolling Stones are one of a handful of the most influential bands in rock and have been since even before they started tearing up the charts. Their bad boy stance and their famous dark side have had a huge impact on other groups since the very beginning and their string of early singles, “Play with Fire,” “Satisfaction,” “The Last Time,” “Get Off of My Cloud,” “Paint It, Black,” “Under My Thumb,” are all aspects of their enduring genius. There is a reason the ultimate question for any rock fan has always been “Beatles or Stones?” They represent the punk-edged flip side to the ultra-musical Beatles and despite their eclecticism, often teased out by keeping pace with The Beatles, The Stones have always been pure rock and roll. So, when it was time for The Rolling Stones to emerge as their own force in the world, it was a major page turn in the history of rock. An argument can be made that the release of “Jumping Jack Flash” was in effect, the beginning of the 1970s era in rock music because what was to immediately follow, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street, the murderers row of rock albums are often taken as a piece and constitute, together, a major milestone in 70s rock. Every Stones fan has their favorite of the four, but they are generally seen together as parts of a brilliant whole.
Beggars Banquet is the first of these four consecutive masterpiece albums by The Stones, and a first for them in many respects. The first album in their catalog where the goal seems to be musical authenticity and true lyrical substance. The first with Jimmy Miller at the helm, the producer that sought to find the band’s own unique voice, a mission from which the band has never turned back. The first album where American country music plays a significant role and provides a foil to the band’s basic rock fare. The first album where the band finds a tie back to authentic country blues and not pastiche. And most significantly, the first album where the specter of The Beatles was not hanging over the head of the band, where they endeavored to find their own voice, their own mission — to be The Rolling Stones, the world’s greatest rock and roll band and it’s a point in rock’s timeline from which music will be forever changed.