What does it sound like?:
Having endured their annus horribilis in 1967, The Rolling Stones consolidated in 1968, regrouped and hit on the formula that would fuel their imperial phase and provide them with the style and attitude that keeps them as a major draw as a live act fifty years later. Beggars Banquet and its single, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, define the rock phenomenon that is The Rolling Stones.
This remaster, by Bob Ludwig, the only extra being a mono Sympathy For The Devil, improves on the previous marginally. However, its release is an ideal opportunity to re-evaluate an iconic Rock album.
The album is beautifully recorded. Most of the credit should go to their regular engineer, Glyn Johns, but they’d also found a producer who could bring out their best. Andrew ‘Loog’ Oldham had deserted them in their hour of need, running away to America when Jagger and Richards were arrested on drug charges. Jimmy Miller became their comrade in arms as opposed to their organiser.
Keith Richards was revitalised. He ‘discovered’ 5 string open tuning and was inspired. He also started messing around with the latest technology, cassette recorders, using them as a pick up for his acoustic guitar to change the sound. In the studio, he was a work horse, doubling up his effort to compensate for Brian Jones’s decline.
In most people’s minds, Beggars Banquet is a squalid, depraved Rock album. However, its fabric is more Country and Folk than Rock. For half the tracks, the only instrument powered by electricity is the bass. The weapon of choice for Street Fighting Man, the track that rocks hardest, is an acoustic guitar. The electric guitar only makes three telling contributions across the whole album: an excoriating solo on Sympathy For The Devil, providing the guttural filth for Parachute Woman and squealing with unrestrained lust on Stray Cat Blues.
Mick Jagger found his voice, that of a chameleon, changing from track to track, adopting different characters from whirling dervish, tender lost soul, comedian and woman impersonator, a man demented by lust, one riven with indignation, a growling delta sage, a brazen leche to a cold manipulator. He is completely convincing in every role.
Charlie Watts’ drums have never sounded better, even if it takes until track four, Parachute Woman, before he is free to rattle round his kit. Jimmy Miller, a drummer himself, understood the rhythms and noises of rock music and captured Charlie perfectly. Remarkably, the huge sounding kick drum on Street Fighting Man is a toy.
Bill Wyman plays melodic bass throughout (his counter-melody on Jigsaw Puzzle is especially impressive) but the seeds of his disgruntlement were sown in 1968. He felt he deserved a writing co-credit for the opening melody of Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Keith usurped him for the two headlining tracks, justifiably so for the driving funk line on Sympathy For The Devil but Bill could easily have improved on the relative simplicity in Street Fighting Man.
Beggars Banquet is the last album released in Brian Jones’s lifetime. Sadly, the brilliance of his musicianship only occasionally flickers into life: down-home backyard harmonica on Dear Doctor, menacing sitar on Street Fighting Man and tender slide on No Expectations.
Nicky Hopkins made himself indispensable. At no point does his piano take centre stage as it did on She’s A Rainbow but his flowing lines and judicious fills are essential to the album’s sound. Sympathy For The Devil, just as one example, wouldn’t be the same without him.
Ry Cooder is a ghost at this feast. Although Keith doesn’t admit it, fingers point to Ry as the teacher of five string open tuning that changed his life. Some credit him for mandolin on Factory Girl, others say it was Dave Mason or Nicky Hopkins playing a mellotron on mandolin setting. Also, there is a take of him playing slide for No Expectations but The Stones say it’s the version with Brian that’s on the album.
This simple remaster, with no bonus discs, focusses on illuminating the ten songs on the album. They have grown in stature over the years. The Jagger-Richards songwriting partnership had sharpened up its game. These songs are pithy, hard-hitting and take no prisoners. They concentrated hard at all the details, working away at them in the studio, sometimes for days on end. Fifty years on, Jigsaw Puzzle no longer sounds like an annoying pastiche of Dylan, Dear Doctor is finally amusing and the affection in Salt Of The Earth is more easily heard. Sympathy For The Devil, Street Fighting Man and Parachute Woman are still as exhilarating as ever but no-one, not even the most outrageous Rap star, could release a Stray Cat Blues today (“It ain’t no capital crime” may still be legally inaccurate but lynching is a risk). There is a delicacy of tone in No Expectations previously unheard on a Stones album. The song with the harshest chill in its heart is now Factory Girl, while sitting quietly in the midst of all the sinful behaviour is the Bible parable of the Prodigal Son to give us all a glimmer of redemption. Its ten songs are perfectly sequenced, so well, in fact, that they followed its template almost to the letter for Let It Bleed, right down to having a choir on the concluding track.
For the vinyl edition, the mono Sympathy For The Devil is on a 12 inch single and there is a Flexi disc of an interview with Mick Jagger. It looks very smart in the original ‘wedding invitation’ cover, the one that looks a bit like the White Album, but the graffitied toilet image is retained inside.
What does it all *mean*?
Sometimes, less is more.
In all the excitement over new mixes for 50th anniversary box sets, The Stones provide a timely reminder that Beggars Banquet is a masterpiece, one that precious few have bettered.
Goes well with…
Rock And Roll Circus is getting a revamp but the best match is with Jean-Luc Godard’s film, One To One, as it captures The Stones creating Sympathy For The Devil in Olympic Studios while Brian’s physical and mental collapse is painfully clear to see.
Might suit people who like…
Rock music at its very best.