The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet

Beggars Banquet (1968)


1. Sympathy For The Devil 2. No Expectations 3. Dear Doctor 4. Parachute Woman 5. Jigsaw Puzzle 6. Street Fighting Man 7. Prodigal Son 8. Stray Cat Blues 9. Factory Girl 10. Salt Of The Earth


If 1967 was the year of hippie bullshit and the Stones dropped acid and behaved accordingly, then in 1968, one of the darkest years in modern history, the Stones were not merely following along – they were leading the way. Just imagine – you’re living in a world rife with riot, assassination, war and protest, and you lift your head and hear the Stones, fresh out of their wizard costumes, blaring out of a radio somewhere with their new single, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” released just five months after Satanic Majesties. It’s mean, it’s evil, it’s raw, and it captures all the strife and tension going on in the world just in one insanely powerful four-note guitar riff. Your reaction would be obvious: the Stones are BACK, baby. “Flash” doesn’t appear on this album, which wasn’t released until seven months later in December of ’68, but never fear, because “Sympathy For The Devil,” only one of the most brilliant and awe-inspiring songs in the history of rock music, does. Originating as Mick-penned Dylan-y strummer, it eventually morphed into the mad samba we know today. The build up is just incredible… it starts off with pulsating bongos and the faints sounds of what appears to be a cocktail party in hell. Then comes Nicky Hopkins’ masterful piano, and Keith, playing one of the greatest basslines ever. And Mick, playing the devil. Of course, that sealed his fate so far as being called a Satanist for the rest of his life and beyond, but the Sphinxian riddle he weaves here turns a mirror on humankind and demands we stop blaming Lucifer for all the atrocities we ourselves commit. Good advice. A good next step would be to recommend that we stop thanking God for everything good that happens. I’d do it myself, but I think there are already enough “Sympathy For Jesus” songs in the world. However, nothing Mick sings in this song equals the power of the message sent by Keith’s shrieking, lightning bolt guitar licks. I hesitate to call it a guitar solo; guitar solos are things that Eric Clapton does to exercise his fingers and make old people give him money. Keith’s playing here is so much more than that… I’ve never ever heard a guitar make those kinds of sounds or convey that kind of emotion anywhere else. If you ask me, the leads on “Sympathy” constitute the electric guitar’s greatest accomplishment. Except maybe this.

“Sympathy”’s complexity and exotic arrangement, however, are the exception on Beggars. This is the album where, with the help of new producer Jimmy Miller, who they picked up on from his work with Traffic, the Stones got back to where they once belonged and started playing poor people’s music again. Or, to put it in less diplomatic terms, the music of hicks. Guys with no shoes, mason jars of moonshine and straw in their hats who sit around on their back porches strumming homemade guitars. And not just the black ones who play blues, neither – the boys have now embraced redneck country music wholeheartedly, thus taking one step closer to completing their mastery of the music of the American South. And they’re even better then the real thing, too – you could’ve told me that the loveable yelp-along redneck marriage saga “Dear Doctor” or the woozy mandolin and fiddle-adorned, Celtic-sounding “Factory Girl” were recorded by my impoverished ancestors in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia in the 1920s and I wouldn’t have known the difference. And, damn, honkys don’t make country blues any more authentic than the cover of Robert Wilkins’ “Prodigal Son,” which is just Keith on acoustic guitar and Mick singing in blackface. If there was ever proof that Keith is a worthy disciple of his blues heroes, it’s his playing on this tune. It might sound like any other blues pickin’ to the untrained ear, but listen closely at the end and you’ll hear Keef exhale out of relief, releasing the sheer intensity he needed to harness in order to play the song. That shit ain’t easy. But the finest non-“Sympathy” guitar moment on the record actually belongs to the quickly fading Brian Jones, who lends gorgeous, lilting slide guitar to the already gorgeous “No Expectations,” one of the Stones’ best ever ballads.

Admittedly, I had a bit of trouble with this album when I first heard it, back in my naïve early teenage years, when I didn’t have much of an appreciation for the roots of rock n’ roll and all I wanted out of anything I listened to were classic rock radio staples. Where were all the rockin’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”-type riffs? What was up with all the goddamned country songs and acoustic guitars? Sure, I had “Sympathy” and the totally badass, brooding rocker “Stray Cat Blues,” notable as much for its lyrics about Mick fucking 13-year olds as for Keith’s super-crunchy orgy of guitar licks, to subsist on, but what about everything else? What I didn’t realize at the time, of course, is that I would one day grow to love country music, and Mick and Keith have written some of the greatest country songs of all time, and second, that acoustic guitars are wonderful, wonderful tools. Keith rediscovered himself during the Beggars sessions, and for the first time explored not only the open tunings that would soon become his signature, but also new sonic textures. He tried overloading multiple acoustic guitars into a rudimentary tape recorder, which resulted in the distinctive, guttural tin can acoustic sound you hear on both the otherwise basic blues “Parachute Woman” and the hit “Street Fighting Man,” which is probably the angriest and rawest the acoustic guitar has ever sounded. It’s another one of those “soundtrack of ‘68” songs – “Summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy.” But, like “Sympathy” and, indeed, most great Stones song, the music tells the story.

Boy oh boy, do I love me some hick music. When combined with the rock, the gospel (“Salt Of The Earth”) and the Dylanesque (“Jigsaw Puzzle”), it’s a hard recipe to beat. Choosing my favorite between the Stones’ Big Four classic studio LPs is, for me, a bit like a mother picking a favorite child, but I will say that Beggars is probably the most important of the four. The Stones needed to make this album. And we needed them to just as bad.

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