Classic Music Review: Their Satanic Majesties Request by The Rolling Stones

Rolling_Stones_-_Their_Satanic_Majesties_Request_-_1967_Decca_Album_cover

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.

 

11 responses

  1. Michael Chaney | Reply

    Wow, do I disagree with this review. I see where you’re coming from, but I think you’ve taken it a little too far. You want to think of The Stones as ass-kickin three chord blues-based rockers, and I can understand that, but when Satanic Majesties was released, almost no one (as far as I recall–haha) was disappointed or pissed off. Everybody bought it and everybody was into it.

    In terms of providing context, The Stones have always been, and still are, followers. Their first muses were black American blues players. From 1963 on, up to and after the release of Satanic Majesties, The Stones were straight up Beatles followers, or at least took their cues about what to do next from what The Beatles had done last. A couple examples: The Beatles stopped doing covers and wrote their own songs. As soon as Mick & Keith watched Lennon & McCartney finish off I Wanna Be Your Man in a pub and hand it to them they got serious about trying to be songwriters themselves. Epstein had given The Beatles had a clean image. In reaction, Oldham had The Stones projecting a dirty and dangerous one. Lennon used feedback on I Feel Fine and the Stones released Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby. Harrison played sitar on Norwegian Wood, and The Stones put out Paint It Black. There are many many examples.

    So… Pepper came out, and naturally The Stones tried their hand at psychedelia (unlike those with real integrity, like Dylan [John Wesley Harding] and The Kinks [Something Else & Village Green], and we got Satanic Majesties.

    Imitative though it was, however, and crap-laden as it is, the album still has at least four terrific songs, and was preceded by a pretty decent single (We Love You). Those four, in ascending order, are Sing This All Together, 2000 Light Years From Home, 2000 Man, and She’s a Rainbow. No, they’re not close to as powerful as most of the tracks from the Beggar’s Banquet—->Exile period, but they’re a lot better than a good 50% of the band’s gross output. I still listen to them.

    You wrote that Satanic Majesties is The Stones worst album. I disagree. I’d put Black & Blue (with three good tunes–Hand of Fate, Cherry Oh Baby, Crazy Mama), Undercover (two good songs–She Was Hot, All The Way Down), Dirty Work (two good songs–One Hit To The Body & Winning Ugly) below it. And I’d rather listen to the crap songs on Satanic Majesties than most of songs that fill out those albums.

    The Beatles broke up and The Stones went back to their roots, a mix of Chuck Berry-based straight-up RnR along with blues numbers, with mostly originals this time around. Then Marley came along and The Stones wrote reggae tunes. Disco came along and we got one of the most cringe-worthy and overrated Stones tunes ever in Miss You. (And now we have corporate Mick and the 18 piece backing band. As my Australian buddy Nick would say, The Stones are now a terrific Stones tribute band.

    Notwithstanding all that, motive aside, the four tunes I listed above still work, for me anyway. But we’re talking about art, so I fully understand how music like this could piss off a Stones fan, especially those who caught up with their catalogue well after the fact.

    (Just for fun, here’s the original RS review of the album: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/their-satanic-majesties-request-19671208)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When you say “everybody bought it and everybody was into it,” that’s not much of an argument for excellence. I think “everybody” is into Beyonce these days but that doesn’t mean she has artistic merit. Plus, there was a lot of music from that particular year that “everybody” was into but which sounds incredibly dated and almost silly today. This may be a case of “you had to be there” to appreciate it; an irresolvable generational gap. That said, if music can’t appeal to multiple generations, then it hardly qualifies as art, does it?

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    2. Their Satanic Majesties was the last great Stones album. The critics didn’t get it (but they didn’t get its brilliant predecessor – Between the Buttons – either). I loved Majesties at the time of its release: so much better than the Beatles’ shiny, lightweight faux music hall Sgt. Pepper, with which it has absolutely nothing in common. I still play it often and marvel at what they might have done if they hadn’t parted company with Andrew Loog Oldham and fallen off the wall. But we’ve had 50 years of excruciating self parody since then.

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  2. Michael Chaney | Reply

    By “everyone” I meant the people I was hanging out with, the same people who were buying Disraeli Gears and Blonde On Blonde, etc. (as opposed to Tommy James & The Shondells and The Ohio Express). Anyway, again, most of Satanic Majesties is crap, I agree, but I also still like the four tunes I mentioned.

    P.S.–It’s music, of course it’s art.

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    1. Art is generally considered to have the quality of timelessness. I address this and generational differences in my upcoming review of Surrealistic Pillow.

      I like 1 1/2, you like 4. We’re in the ballpark.

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      1. Michael Chaney | Reply

        Yes, we’re as close as we’ll get on this one, I think.

        As for the ‘what is art?’ issue, I define it broadly to encompass any creative effort perceivable by the senses. Obviously, a record album is an artistic effort. Whether its good art or bad art, failed art or timeless art, is a desperate matter. But even art that’s vilified by the masses is still art.

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  3. […] of rock poetry that it almost wipes the memory clean of every unintelligible snippet they wrote on Their Satanic Majesties Request. I also love the use of Los Angeles Watts Street Gospel Choir on this song . . . but like […]

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  4. I can understand why people dislike this album – and that includes the Stones themselves – but for me, it’s the last album of theirs that I find genuinely “interesting” – most think that “Beggars Banquet” ushered in a golden era for the Stones and I respect those who believe that but that’s when they cease to be interesting… the moment they began to bask in their self proclaimed “greatest rock and roll band in the World” attitude which… well… I can’t agree with that since most of what they’ve done since then sadly bores me to tears.

    “Satanic Majesties” is definitely patchy… it can’t be regarded as their best album because it is too uneven, but what I enjoy about it is though they were genuinely clueless as to what to do and which direction to head in, it was a brave bold step for them to take and if they hadn’t had done it, the “great” music that followed might not had happened the way it did. There is the element of “everything including the kitchen sink” contained within that… well.. yields patchy results, but I enjoy the journey all the same. I’m one of those who believes the journey is more important than the destination (I’m creative myself and think most of my work is junk, but can enjoy recalling the journey involved) and that’s the way I approach this album. When it works, it’s superb. Sure, the lyrics of “Citadel” make no sense but I enjoy that riff and chaotic uncertain feeling it exudes. “2000 Man” is interesting with it’s stops and starts, but then you have “Gomper” and that rambling version of “Sing This All Together”… oh dear… boredom central where they’re chasing their own tail and never getting anywhere. Yep – those two tracks are… well… crap.

    I enjoy “The Lantern” and “2000 Light Years From Home” because for me, they’re two of the darkest doomiest tracks the Stones ever did. Oh yes… bad acid trip territory, but I like that since it acts as a total contrast to the flowery stuff on “Sgt Pepper” and The Pretty Things were to trump it a year later with “S.F. Sorrow” probably the ultimate bad trip album!

    The Rolling Stones were lost in 1967… too much drama going on in courtrooms and TV studios which ensured they lost their focus not helped by Brian on his one way trip to oblivion… it’s amazing they managed to come up with anything at all. What they did come up with is clearly the most unique album they ever did – it stands alone and isolated in their catalogue, the album guaranteed to divide the fans down the middle. So, in many ways, “Satanic Majesties” is an accurate snapshot of where the band were at in 1967 – lost, confused, paranoid, uncertain, yet… it is interesting.

    I think for most Stones fans “She’s A Rainbow” and “2000 Light Years” are the only worthy tracks here and I can accept and understand that… the whole thing is a little dark for comfort and sounds totally out of character. Once they got back into character with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (which I do love) it starts getting a bit predictable and cliched for me and they’ve gone around in circles ever since… odd worthy songs do jump out but considering I was born in 1972, what they’ve put out in my lifetime has never been able to hold a candle to their classic 60’s work and that makes me feel sad.

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    1. That is a very generous and sensitive perspective: it was part of the journey they had to take, if only to find out it was not who they were. Looking at it in that light, I can be more forgiving . . . even if I choose to limit my exposure to it! Thank you!

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  5. […] Their Satanic Majesties Request […]

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  6. I’ve been surprised by how much revisionist criticism one can find about this record, ranging from “This isn’t as bad as they say” to “It’s actually really good!” But I’m with you (and Mick and Brian and Keith) on this one. I think it’s garbage. I can’t even enjoy “She’s A Rainbow” because the catch-phrase (“She comes in colors”) was ripped off from Love. Usually I’m okay with artists ripping off other artists, but it’s hard to take when the only decent thing on the whole album was ripped off.

    I also agree with your low opinion of the “We Love You”/”Dandelion” single (from your Dad’s 45s section). Right now I’m putting together my very own two-CD collection of singles and B-sides culled from the London Years compilation, and although I’m very liberal about what I’m including, there is a gap where 1967 should be. (Keeping in mind that Between The Buttons and its accompanying singles were recorded in 1966.) They did release one psychedelic-type song in 1968, “Child Of The Moon” (B-side of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”) that I like, but that’s because it has some drive and direction, unlike the material they recorded in 1967.

    You make a very good point about how psychedelics cut the Stones off from their rhythm and blues foundation. Thankfully, they backed out of that dead end and went on to record the best music of their career over the next few years.

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