What does it sound like?:
1967 wasn’t a great year for The Rolling Stones. It started well enough with the January release of Between The Buttons and a satisfyingly controversial appearance performing the related single on The Ed Sullivan Show, even though the chorus had to be changed to Let’s Spend Some Time Together. A week later, they topped the bill on Sunday Night At The London Palladium, adding to their carefully choreographed notoriety by refusing to participate in the traditional farewell wave from a revolving podium. Instead, they stood at the side and waved with obvious sarcasm and disrespect. The Rolling Stones were firmly at the centre of attention and all set for a third successive bumper year.
However, on February 12th, after a tip off, the police raided Keith Richards’s mansion in Redlands Road, West Wittering. West Sussex police didn’t have a drug squad at the time. Chief Inspector Gordon Dineley led his eighteen strong party, dressed in full regalia complete with white braiding. They interviewed eight men and one woman and found various substances and tablets they sent for laboratory examination. The woman was Marianne Faithful who wore nothing but a fur bed cover. On the 10th May, at Chichester Magistrate’s Court, Mick Jagger submitted a plea of not guilty to a charge of illegally possessing four tablets containing amphetamine sulphate and methylamphetamine hydrochloride. Keith Richards was charged with allowing his house to be used for the purpose of smoking cannabis. Meanwhile, later that same evening, Brian Jones’s flat was raided and he, too, was charged with possession.
On the 29th June, both were found guilty, Jagger sentenced to a three months prison sentence and Richards a year. They were released on bail after one night pending an appeal. If you believe all the claims, Mick had a very busy night, writing We Love You, She’s A Rainbow and 2000 Light Years From Home.
The public support and that from fellow musicians was overwhelming. William Rees-Mogg, no less, wrote a famous editorial in The Times pleading their case, with the headline, “Who Breaks A Butterfly On A Wheel?” On 31 July, the appeals court overturned Richards’ conviction, and Jagger‘s sentence was reduced to a conditional discharge.
The Brian Jones trial took place in November. He, too, was found guilty and his appeal reduced his prison sentence to a£1,000 fine and three years probation. However, his conviction remained and that meant he could no longer travel to the U.S. The Stones weren’t able to tour there until he left the band.
Imagine, then, at the age of 24 as both Jagger and Richards were, having to make an album in the midst of all this. It was a long ordeal, dragging on from early February right through to November. The sessions were disorganised, populated by distracting hangers-on and fuelled by lots of drugs. Andrew ‘Loog’ Oldham soon had enough, exiting the producer’s stool and leaving them to it. It was worse than children let loose in a sweetie shop. It was more like a bunch of delinquents breaking into an off-licence in the middle of the night. In the absence of a responsible adult, Bill sang a song, Brian happily made weird noises with a theremin, Keith smoked as many ‘cigarettes’ as he could and Mick pretended to be English gentry. They often forgot to write an actual tune and if they had bothered to listen to the previous night’s recordings when sober the next morning, the resultant product might have been very different. Their Satanic Majesties Request limped out in the December greeted by critical disdain but welcomed by enough loyal fans to push it to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Fifty years on, all that is ancient history whose rightful place is in a dusty Internet archive. However, we are treated by an anniversary edition, consisting of new stereo and mono Rob Ludwig remasters on two pieces of vinyl and two hybrid SACDs. The famous lenticular 3D cover is expanded into an eight part fold-out. There is a twenty page booklet with an essay by Rob Bowman and additional photos from the original cover session by Michael Cooper. The pack is individually numbered and is billed as an ‘audiophile edition’. There are no extras, not even the contemporaneous single, We Love You, nor its B side, Dandelion.
As soon as Nicky Hopkins strikes the opening piano chords, it is clear that these masters sparkle. Hopkins’s piano has a tone, a resonance that rings like a bell on these sessions, probably the most beautiful piano sound in Rock, and now it is extra gorgeous. There are lots of instruments on these tracks, a cacophony of percussion, horn fanfares, harpsichord, mellotron, jazz flute, glockenspiel and a multitude of human voices, makeshift choirs, fairground casinos and snoring. What comes across best, though, is The Stones rhythm section. Keith’s acoustic guitars are enchanting, Charlie’s kit zings and Bill’s bass is super powered. The space, separation and balance is far better than any previous master, the stereo surpassing the previously imperious mono. The mono here is miles better than on the recent mono box set and that sounded astonishing.
Sing This All Together is actually a jolly tune almost matching Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club’s Band as a prelude and bettering Magical Mystery Tour as a call-to-arms. Citadel rocks hard, a dirty disjointed blues riff held together by a freshly revealed thunderous fuzz bass. It is the song that most clearly references the band’s legal troubles, Mick imploring a couple of young maidens to visit him in the citadel, as almost riotous scenes play out outside. Nicky’s harpsichord explosion of colour draws us into Bill’s dream inside a dream, In Another Land. It’s clear The Stones really like the song. Their playing and Mick’s singing for the chorus is fully committed. Steve Marriott and Ronnie Laine also support Bill’s step up to the microphone. 2000 Man further develops the melody of Back Street Girl but is a remarkably prescient song that could have been written today. Mick imagines himself as an older man in a future world, in love with a computer and misunderstood by his children. The strings on the acoustic guitars are exquisite. Side One closes with a long reprise of the opening track, subtitled See What Happens. It’s telling that after a bit of party noise, Mick can be heard imploring, “Where’s that joint?” These masters unravel some of the chaos of what is essentially a free-form jam, bringing out little melodies and interesting detail in the plethora of instruments, including bells and whistles. It is more tolerable than Goin’ Home on Aftermath and more disturbing than Revolution #9.
She’s A Rainbow, adorned as it is with Nicky’s elegant piano lines and John Paul Jones orchestration, has always been The Stones prettiest song, Now, it is utterly ravishing. The Lantern, a song about passage to the afterlife is heavy with the portent of Keith’s electric guitar. The problem with The Stones foray into Indian music, Gomper, is that they obviously enjoy the sound palette but don’t authentically buy into the philosophy as George did for The Beatles. As a result, it comes across as noodling, too languorous for its own good. 2000 Light Years From Home is even more otherworldly. Brian’s spooky mellotron sets a cinematic tone, Bill’s bass remains firmly rooted in the blues, Charlie almost thwacks the skin off his kit and Mick muses on loneliness and separation but it’s Keith’s guitar licks that steal the show, given extra space to roam in the new mix. Finally, On With The Show is a fond farewell from a Soho strip club. It’s a track often likened to Sgt Pepper but, in fact, it more resembles the very English sounding finale to Between The Buttons, Something Happened To Me Yesterday. The Americans go wild for an English accent. Appropriately, the album final notes are a Nicky Hopkins piano flourish.
In 1967, you might have been happy just buying the two stand-out, groundbreaking tracks released as a single; 2000 Light Years From Home was the B side to She’s A Rainbow. However, you would have missed out on the emergence of The Stones signature sound well before Jimmy Miller became their producer. Both Citadel and The Lantern would sit very comfortably on Beggars Banquet. On In Another Land and 2000 Man, Keith sets the rhythm with an acoustic guitar, Charlie follows with aplomb and Bill’s bass practically purrs, a combination that would reach its apotheosis on Street Fighting Man. Of the ten tracks on Their Satanic Majesties Request, only one can be described as weak and another as self-indulgent. The trouble is those two tracks combined last more than thirteen minutes, over a quarter the album’s entire running time.
There is much to savour on Their Satanic Majesties Request and these remixes illuminate its inner workings anew. The only real problem is that the album lacks focus and a sense of direction, perfectly understandable under the circumstances. Strip away the psychedelic veneer and you will find the heart of The Rolling Stones beating strongly, an inner strength that continued to sustain the band throughout its imperial phase and beyond.
Their Satanic Majesties Request is probably the most misunderstood and under-appreciated Rolling Stones album. It’s time for another listen.
What does it all *mean*?
Rob Ludwig has done a great job. The packaging is excellent but its format is somewhat exclusive, being just vinyl and SACD, not to mention very expensive (around £70). Hopefully, ABKCO will do the decent thing and make these masters more readily available soon.
Goes well with…
A good memory or a non-existent one. Drugs might help.
Might suit people who like…
Between The Buttons, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Beggars Banquet.