In December 1968 the Rolling Stones released “Beggars Banquet”, their 7th LP. A new record from the group was always a big deal but this was an important time for them. Exactly a year earlier their preceding LP, “Their Satanic Majesties Request”, met with less critical acclaim & commercial success than was customary. Now tracks such as the baroque “She’s A Rainbow”& the cosmic “2000 Light Years From Home” are essential to your Best of the Stones playlist but in 1967 all new music was judged against the seismic “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. The Stones, dealing with drug busts, drug use, a lack of focus & productivity in the studio which saw Andrew Loog Oldham check out on his producer/manager duties, undoubtedly reacted to this Beatle blast with an increase of experimentation & added psychedelia. The group had always been leaders in rock & roll innovation, there were plenty of followers of the Fab Four already & the Stones had always been tougher than the rest.
We were still processing the 30 tracks on the Beatles new “White Album”, released 2 weeks before, when “Beggars…” came around. The signs were good. In the summer “Jumping Jack Flash” had enough gas, gas, gas to propel it to the top of the world’s charts. The classic 45 was the first with new producer Jimmy Miller whose work with Stevie Winwood in the Spencer Davis Group & Traffic had caught the ear. The outer wrapping of the LP was almost as plain as the other lot’s after cover art showing a graffiti covered toilet was rejected. The important stuff, the music, hit the spot from the very first track.
“Sympathy For the Devil” Woo-Woo ! Everybody knows it. Mick Jagger’s lyrics, a collision of Baudelaire, Bulgakov & Dylan on the enduring, alluring nature of evil set to an hypnotic samba groove. Film maker Jean Luc Godard was at Olympic Studios to capture the creative process, the construction of an intense, instantly iconic piece of Art. The final version convinced many that the group had fallen in with a bad lot. In the early 1970s we met an American girl (raised on promises ?) who believed that Jagger was the Devil. It would have disappointed her if we had passed on our opinion that he was just a bloke from Dartford with a very acute way with words.
The Attack were around from 1966 to 68 just as the Mods turned psychedelic. They released 4 singles on Decca which pinged about from Freakbeat to camp whimsy. A combination of bad timing (Mickie Most nicked “Hi Ho Silver Lining” from them for Jeff Beck), a revolving door line up & the lack of a consistent style on record conspired to deny them success. Guitarist David O’List had left to join the Nice before this cover, replaced by John Du Cann, later of Atomic Rooster. It’s a no-frills version, the vocal lacking Jagger’s menace & malice, the muscular backing giving it plenty. This track was remained unreleased until 2006, the Attack had had their shot. A pity because it’s a fine example of the British Beat in 1968.
“Sympathy…” has been much covered since then. Laibach released a whole LP of versions. In 1969 shoeless songstress Sandie Shaw, her credibility severely battered by winning the lame Eurovision Song Contest with a lamer song, gave it a good go in 1969. In the same year Arif Mardin, Vice President of Atlantic Records, included the song on a solo album. It would take finer tuned ears than mine to explain the attraction of Bryan Ferry’s 1973 version (I’m sure I will get that explanation).
“Street Fighting Man” had been a US single, though not in the UK, in the Autumn. It was not a big hit because in 1968 rock & roll was still considered to be subversive & radio stations were reluctant to air what seemed to be an exhortation, an invitation across the nation, to rioting in the street. The incendiary, ambiguous lyrics are matched by a marching, charging Keith Richards riff, thunderous drums from Charlie Watts & Brian Jones’ tamboura drone. Events in Paris, Prague & Chicago, even “sleepy London town”, had widened the generation gap & shaken governments. The Rolling Stones captured this energy & confusion in a pop song just over 3 minutes long. It was expected that a commentary on a changing world would be provided by musicians. It seemed a more reliable way of getting information than most. A great song from different times.
When Rod Stewart & Ronnie Wood left the Jeff Beck Group to link with the 3 remaining Small Faces their rambunctious, uplifting take on rock & roll had an instant appeal. The Stones, the Who & Led Zeppelin were conquering the world leaving Faces to claim the title of best live band in the UK. Rod’s solo LP “An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down” was already in the shops before the band’s debut. This arrangement worked fine until his 3rd album “Every Picture Tells a Story” went stratospheric & his colleagues were not inclined to be his backing band. “Street Fighting Man” seemed a risky choice to open that 1st record but one of the most appealing facets of those early releases was Rod’s astute selection of songs to cover. Another was that despite Rod having made his reputation in both the Rhythm & the Blues there was always a place for Folk music in his heart.This version is less portentous than the original though drummer Micky Waller drives it along. There’s sterling contributions from Facemates Ronnie Wood, on guitar & bass & Ian McLagan on keyboards. Rod Stewart’s early LPs are to be ranked with the best British music of the time.
“Beggars Banquet” is a return to what the Rolling Stones knew, Blues-based music. It wasn’t a retreat from psychedelia, nor giving the people what they wanted, it was what they did better than anyone else. The record is a springboard & a template for their run of LPs that established them as “the greatest Rock & Roll band in the world”, music that fans still want to hear when they show out to see the Stones almost 50 years along. “Salt of the Earth”, the closing track, is a proletarian anthem to the “uncounted heads”. It’s a simple song filled out with a gospel choir, Nicky Hopkins’ piano & the sure hand of producer Jimmy Miller who was to stick around for the next 5 LPs.
Johnny Adams was from New Orleans. He had worked with Dr John & Eddie Bo before having a peripatetic career throughout the 1960s. By 1971 he was with staff producers Dave Crawford & Brad Shapiro at Atlantic Records. There was no LP, just 4 singles one of which was “Salt of the Earth”. What a terrific version it is too, great Blues-Soul vocals, classic horns & who can resist that sitar-guitar ? I’m sure that Keith Richards approves of such a sympathetic take on one of his songs.
The Rolling Stones were not entirely back on track with the release of “Beggars…”. In the same week they filmed “The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus”, a TV special where a tired performance (particularly on a self-conscious “Salt of the Earth”) was eclipsed by supporting acts including the Who & Taj Mahal. It would be 1996 before ringmaster Jagger invited us to see the show. There were increasing concerns about Brian Jones.The founder of the Stones had first become isolated by the developing songwriting partnership of Mick & Keith. His musical imagination & multi-instrumental talent added texture to many of their songs but his contributions were becoming sporadic, his behaviour made more erratic by drug use & emotional problems. The estrangement was complete when a projected tour was complicated by his legal problems & his health. In June 1969 Brian was fired from his group & just a month later was unfortunately found dead in the swimming pool at his home in Sussex. The Stones rolled on.