It was right around 1968 when things were starting to get really bizarre in pop music. While the psychedelic movement was at its peak in British and American music, many groups were shying away from psychedelic music entirely. The Kinks recorded the whimsical, nostalgic Village Green Preservation Society, The Beatles threw out every expectation with the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach of The White Album and The Rolling Stones traded in their sitars for slides on the bluesy, stripped-down Beggars Banquet.
Beggars Banquet was the first in a long series of albums that would characterize The Stones as the blues-based rock `n’ roll band we’ve come to know in the last 35 years. Yet, the album begins with the least conventional of the ten songs, “Sympathy For The Devil.” No strangers to controversy, The Stones stirred up even more ill ease with this track, a six-minute, tribal anthem rife with Satanic imagery. Mick Jagger’s devil (never addressed as such), introduces himself as a charming gentleman (“Allow me to introduce myself/ I’m a man of wealth and taste“). Throughout the song, Jagger rattles off many historical events he had witnessed, from Christ’s crucifixion to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a crime he blamed on “you and me.” In “Sympathy for the Devil,” Jagger wasn’t singing about a physical incarnation of the devil, per se, but rather the manifestation of evil in everyday life and how evil can be seductive. It wasn’t a hymn to Satan or even anything on the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead, it was a poetic, dark and strangely fun piano tune with one of Keith Richard’s greatest solos and no shortage of primal howls.
Once you get through “Sympathy,” however, the rest of the album goes into really bluesy territory. “No Expectations” is a slower, sadder song with gorgeous slide leads, while the following track, “Dear Doctor,” is much sillier, containing some falsetto vocals by Jagger, imitating a woman. “Parachute Woman” is a fairly short, yet straightforward tune with a basic blues structure that grooves rather than rocks.
But The Stones certainly don’t shy away from rocking on Beggars Banquet. “Jig-Saw Puzzle,” which closes the first side of the album, gets things going much louder, with an unforgettable slide riff that opens the song. It’s here where we see a strong Dylan influence on the band, as Jagger’s lyrics see him taking on the role of a narrator, telling of chaos surrounding him while he remains calm, tending to his jigsaw puzzle. The most well-known of the “rock” songs on the album, however, is “Street Fighting Man,” which is one of the loudest on the album and one of the catchiest as well. In the context of many of the riots that had happened around the world at the time, the song seemed to contain some of the most overtly politically-themed lyrics, though they are a bit ambiguous.
“Stray Cat Blues” is my personal favorite, a trademark Stones blues-rock anthem with overseuxalized lyrics that soon became the norm, almost to the point of self-parody. But Keith Richards’ hard-driving riffs are what truly propel this song. Jagger used the lyrics to push people’s buttons, telling of sexual escapades with 15-year-old groupies, though he took it even further in concert, often trading in 15 for 13, causing even more of a stir. Though the song, in this case, was probably intended to be self-parody in how absurdly raunchy it is.
The album closes with “Salt of the Earth,” a hymn to the “hard working people” and sort of a nod to The Stones’ strongly working class fan base. It’s a sweet song, particularly on an album that contains such debauchery as heard on “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Stray Cat Blues.” It continues with the bluesy touches that the band was using, though takes it a step further, adding a gospel choir as well.
The Stones experimented quite a bit in the sixties and took on many a persona. But Beggars Banquet is the quintessential Stones album, and the first instance of the band settling into a sound they were comfortable with and would soon perfect into the end of the decade and the beginning of the seventies.