The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet – London Records (1968)/ ABKCO Records 0018771953913 180-gram audiophile stereo vinyl, 39:44 *****:
(Mick Jagger – vocals, harmonica); Keith Richards – guitars, slide guitar, bass, vocals; Brian Jones – guitar, slide guitar, sitar mellotron, harmonica, percussion, vocals; Charlie Watts – drums, table, vocals; Bill Wyman – bass, percussion, vocals; Nicky Hopkins – piano, organ; Dave Mason – mellotron, shehnai; Ry Cooder – mandolin; Jimmy Miller – vocals; Ric Grech – fiddle; Rocky Dijon – congas; with The Watts Street Gospel Choir)
Psychedelic music exploded onto the music scene in 1967. Spearheaded by Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Doors, Surrealistic Pillow, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn and White Light White Heat, many groups followed suit. Even The Rolling Stones shed their rough exterior and released Her Majesty’s Satanic Request. Just as the group was creating separation from Beatle comparisons, this half-hearted project was spurned by critics and alienated some fans. When they went back into the studio in 1968, it was evident that a statement needed to be made.
Beggars Banquet made such a statement…and then some! With a new producer (an American, Jimmy Miller) they embraced their roots-based inspirations and refined the trademark sound that would endure for decades. The Jagger/Richards writing tandem flowed with raw elegance. Side One gets off to an explosive start with the inimitable “Sympathy For The Devil”. A subtle vocal yell and congas (Rocky Dijon) establish a menacing samba-like rhythm as Nicky Hopkins chimes in on piano. Richards (who doubles on bass) executes a blazing guitar riff, and Jagger’s vocals have never been stronger (including falsetto at the end). This song is not merely one of the greatest Rolling Stones songs… it’s one of the greatest in rock history. Despite the misconstrued context (the devil reference was symbolic), the “bad boy” persona became associated with the occult. These were Brian Jones’ final sessions as a full-fledged contributing member of The Stones. And his bluesy countenance shines through on “No Expectations”. Accompanied by Keith Richards’ open-tuned acoustic guitar, this moody piece is elevated by Jones’ slide guitar. In retrospect, his death a year later only adds to the poignancy. The group offered an unforgettable performance at the Hyde Park Free Concert in 1969 as a memorial testament.
Hits aside, Beggars Banquet has more than its share of minor gems. Reflecting more of the Americanization of the sound, “Dear Doctor” is pure country blues. With tack piano, 12-string guitar and harmonica, this waltz-time jam has those raunchy, terrific harmonies, and Jagger’s strange twang. Reverting to straight blues, traditional narratives (most notably, sexual) are explored. Never too serious, “Jigsaw Puzzle” is intended to make fun of themselves (“…been outcasts all their lives…”).
Another classic opens Side Two. “Street Fightin’ Man feels like a blue collar call to arms. Richards sets things up with his string-breaking acoustic guitar lines, as Charlie Watts unleashes his thundering drum beat. Quite possibly, the line “…But what can a poor boy do, but sing in a rock and roll band” may be the quintessential rock lyric of the sixties. For trivia buffs, Dave Mason plays shehnai on this track, and Jones adds sitar (again, the ‘60s). There is always conjecture and rumor about contributors to Stones records (which only adds to the mystique). A glimpse into the core late ‘60s and seventies Rolling Stone vibe can be heard on “Stray Cat Blues”. Distorted electric guitar, inappropriate sexual context and Watt’s hi-hat drumming are in perfect synchronization. They never drift from their American folk/blues muses for too long. “Factory Girl” draws on Appalachian themes, but maintains up tempo finesse (congas, again). A fitting climax is heard on “Salt Of The Earth”. A rare Keith Richards lead vocal on the first verse culminates in a heartfelt tribute to the working man. The swelling gospel arrangement combines the band’s dynamics with a penchant for attempting extended compositions. All of the essential characteristics (including slide guitar and thick vocal chorus) are present.
This audiophile re-mastering is superb. No group devotes more time than The Rolling Stones in making polished studio mixes sound as loose as one-take recordings. The dense (almost muddy) texture is there, but the stereo separation is more evident. It is interesting to note that this re-release has the original artwork consisting of a graffiti-covered bathroom wall (previously rejected by the label). Additionally, the clear plastic vinyl disc is stunning.
Side One: Sympathy For The Devil; No Expectations; Dear Doctor; Parachute Woman; Jigsaw Puzzle
Side Two: Street Fightin’ Man; Prodigal Son; Stray Cat Blues; Factory Girl; Salt Of The Earth