In my essay on Chuck Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight, I recounted the story of my dad’s offer to let me have five albums from his voluminous LP collection as a get-the-fuck-out-of-the-house-kid going-away present. As narrated, I spent nearly a full day culling through his collection, which numbered in the thousands.
I spent a long time doing something my flower-child parents called “tripping” to the cover of Their Satanic Majesties Request. I tilted it sideways and back-and-forth to see their faces (except Jagger’s) change direction and likely shortened my corneal lifespan trying to find the images of The Beatles. When I finally shook myself out of the trance, I started to put the album on the pile of possible keepers . . . then suddenly and violently snapped my arm away.
“This album sucks!” I exclaimed, and flung it into the reject pile.
In preparation for this review, I re-engaged with this psychedelic relic, and I’m proud to say that it not only continues to suck, but is easily the worst thing The Stones ever did.
Looking at this disaster in the context of their history and their true talents, you might ask, “What the fuck were they thinking?” Well, they weren’t. While use of psychedelics failed to knock The Beatles off their game during Sgt. Pepper, those same substances turned The Stones into completely different people, cut off from their fundamental foundation of rhythm and blues. The playfulness of Between the Buttons gives way to meaningless druggie meandering (see “tripping,” referenced above). The outcome of this orgy of undisciplined experimentation is something that the band members themselves described as “rubbish” (Jagger), “chaos” (Jones) and “a load of crap” (Richards).
You can’t help but suspect body snatchers as soon as you hear the first verse of the opener, “Sing This All Together.” Sounding very much like it was recorded at a picnic where the iced tea was laced with Golden Sunshine, the song is so stupendously weak that it takes your breath away . . . and then they reprise the sucker later in the album for a gag-inducing eight-and-a-half minutes!
The next track, “Citadel,” at least has the virtue of opening like a Stones number, with a nice little chord riff on a good old-fashioned electric guitar. Suddenly the song is mercilessly ambushed by glockenspiel, mellotron and saxophone, crushing the last faint heartbeat of the groove with deadly finality. Lyrics? Muddleheaded mush:
Flags are flying, dollar bills
Round the heights of concrete hills
You can see the pinnacles
Candy and Taffy, hope we both are well
Please come see me in the citadel
We tiptoe with great caution to arrive “In Another Land,” Bill Wyman’s contribution to the mess. One of the more coherent songs on the album, it has a certain anthropological charm as a piece of fairytale psychedelia along the lines of Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play.” It ends with Wyman snoring, no doubt in anticipation of “2000 Man,” which begins life as a rather nice acoustic number then suddenly undergoes a series of tectonic shifts that could only have come from the minds of the terminally spaced. That turkey is followed by the reprise of the aforementioned exercise in spaced out silliness, “Sing This All Together (See What Happens).” The parenthetical addition to the title is literal, as The Stones pretty much left the studio doors open to let people in on the “happening,” allowing them to trip out on the funny instruments or cough or laugh or pass around joints.
Through the invisible rivers of time, I can feel the anger of those who had retained their sanity during the 60’s and bought this album based on The Stones’ track record. “I paid $3.99 for this shit?” I hear them groan through the ether of the time continuum.
Lucky for them, a far more successful adventure of musical experimentation comes next, salvaging 39 cents of their investment. “She’s a Rainbow” may be one of the more un-Stones like songs in their oeuvre, but it’s a lovely mélange of piano, strings and lush harmonies with a strong theme supporting the more experimental, offbeat and off-key passages. It’s also one of the few tracks on Their Satanic Majesties Request that is performed with some degree of energy and commitment.
Sadly, any rekindled hope that you hadn’t pissed away your money on this turkey is snuffed out rather quickly with “The Lantern,” a silly song with no idea what it’s supposed to be. “Gomper,” on the other hand, knows what it’s supposed to be and fails miserably as a sort of Eastern-influenced piece designed to charm those who were fond of Nehru jackets.
“2000 Light Years from Home” begins sort of like the music to a hippie horror flick, then lumbers on to describe the visual wonders of space travel. Why? Who the hell knows? Perhaps this song was “far fucking out” for a generation living in the time just before men walked on the moon, but for a generation who’s been there, done that—and oh, by the way, The Enterprise went to far more interesting places—it’s as boring as Astronomy 101. At this juncture I am so ready to blow up that fucking mellotron that I can hardly muster up the courage to listen to the next track, “On with the Show.” The only good thing about this pathetic attempt at English Music Hall is that it’s the last track on the album.
Whew! Didn’t think I was going to make it!
If you’ve read my reviews, you know that I generally support artists who explore new ground beyond the tried and true. That said, great art never emerges from mindless experimentation justified by a naive and childish impulse to break the boundaries. All great art is a combination of creative spark and discipline, of magic and structure. While you can go seriously overboard with structure and remove any signs of life from an artistic effort, it’s just as disastrous to believe that you can create meaning without form.
As physicist Freeman Dyson once wrote, “Without discipline there can be no greatness.” The Stones cast discipline to the wind in Their Satanic Majesties Request and the results were disastrous.
Lucky for us, they would get their heads screwed back on pretty quickly.