Wednesday, August 25, 2010

'Beggars Banquet' is the Rolling Stones greatest album

Released in December 1968, Beggars Banquet was a return to form for the Rolling Stones. Coming off 1967's ill-fated Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Stones returned to their rhythm and blues roots and kicked off their greatest period of music.

Their Satanic Majesties Request was the Stones attempt to jump on the bandwagon created by the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Though not a bad album, it seemed more like an attempt to cash in on a fad. In its aftermath, the band bounced back and made remarkable albums from 1968-72. Beginning with Beggars Banquet, the Stones produced Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street during this period. All these albums appear on lists of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time. However,
Beggars Banquet is the greatest.

The album begins with the powerful and provocative 'Sympathy for the Devil.' By this point in their careers, the Stones had already been branded as rougher trade than the Beatles. Songs like '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' and 'Let's Spend the Night Together' developed the public perception that they wanted to do more than hold a girl's hand. The title of Their Satanic Majesties Request and drug arrests further developed the Stones dark persona.

So, does 'Sympathy for the Devil' add to that persona? It does only if a person ignores the words of the song. 'Sympathy for the Devil' is definitely an attention grabbing title, but even a casual study of its lyrics reveals that it is not an anthem glorifying hell.

The song is a fictional narrative in which the devil sings about his role in major events of history. Beginning with Jesus' crucifixion, the song takes us through the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the murder of John and Robert Kennedy. The song ends with a threat as the devil says to treat him with respect or he will 'lay your soul to waste.' Would anybody expect less from the real devil?

If people use this song to brand the Stones as Satanists, then they conveniently overlook the inclusion of 'Prodigal Son' on the album. A song written by Robert Wilkens, it is a bluesy retelling of the parable of the prodigal son that appears in the New Testament. Because of its subject matter, does this make the Stones good role models? I have no idea. Good music is good music, but my advice is to look away from rock and roll when determining good or bad role models.

The bulk of the album is dominated by Mick Jagger's vocals and Keith Richards' acoustic guitar. Songs like 'Dear Doctor,' 'Factory Girl,' and 'Parachute Woman' all grind forward in an entertaining fashion.

Jagger and Richards were consolidating their control of the group as guitarist Brian Jones was continuing his slide toward death. This was the last album that he fully participated on, and his contribution was sporadic. However, his lovely slide guitar on 'No Expectations' is one of the most beautiful aspects of Beggars Banquet.

'Street Fighting Man' is a rocker that communicates the violence and protest taking place in 1968. At its release, it was considered quite a controversial song, but now its subject matter seems tame though well performed.

The album closes with 'Salt of the Earth.' It is primarily notable because Richards sings the first couple of lines and is one of his first recordings as lead vocalist. The song itself is a salute to the workers of the world. Jagger has said that his lyrics were meant in a cynical way because the people being sung about were the ones with no power. Basically, the song is meant as a hymn for the suffering masses.

There is no denying that Beggars Banquet is a great album. It was an album of resurgence for the Rolling Stones. If it had failed, the band might have faded into the sunset instead of becoming a musical corporation.

I do not know which fate is worse.

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