❉ Not to mince words, this is the most Brexit package of extras for a major album reissue in living memory
1968: Year of the psychedelic hangover. A year of violence, rioting, and protest. It’s also hard-wired into rock history books as the year The Rolling Stones stopped dithering with dulcimers and wizard hats and got on with Them Ole Chelsea Devil Blues. While their ‘68 return to form, heralded by the irresistible two-fisted salute of Jumpin’ Jack Flash is undeniable, the truth is more complex. Beggar’s Banquet is perhaps the Stones greatest, most uniform statement, but it was hard-won – eventually emerging after a long genesis and arguments with Decca and each other at the end of the year. Lining up alongside the Beatles own freshly-released ‘White’ album, the Stones never really lived down their embarrassment at the very similar sleeve they’d ended up with after Decca vetoed their original choice of sleeve art – a graffiti’ed toilet wall.
Even before Bog-gate, Beggar’s Banquet was the product of a band that were cruising on low engine power. Despite the rich purple patch Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were experiencing as songwriters, there was a big hole in the band due to Brian Jones being either absent or rarely in much of a condition to contribute. The gulf was plugged by various friends and hired hands, as Keith, left to his own devices on guitar (barring Jones’s gorgeous, woozy slide on No Expectations) took over. Burning on a diet of cocaine and his latest discovery – heroin, Keith piloted the Stones through Beggar’s Banquet, with Charlie Watts gunning at the rear.
Another misconception is that the psychedelia and world music that the Stones mined on ill-starred psych opus Their Satanic Majesties Request the previous year was banished as soon as Mick’s wizard hat was removed. There are still buzzing indian drones, strange flutes and ornate piano (Referred to by Keith Richards as “Fairy dust” ) all over Beggar’s Banquet, but it’s artfully suspended in the background by new producer Jimmy Miller, who uses it wisely as exotic set-dressing.
What Beggar’s Banquet IS, is tough, inspired dirty work. Musically it’s also one of the Stones’ most diverse efforts. it combines mad sambas, blues of the libidinous and sad/earnest varieties, a touch of folk, traditional rags, The Velvet Underground, and a touch of Dylan. Jagger, after a year-long ’67 wobble where he couldn’t decide whether to write sci-fi lyrics or ape Ray Davies is on his best game as a lyricist.
Whether wearing the guise of Satan himself on Sympathy For The Devil or that of some poor sap due to marry a ‘sow’, who then stands him up at the altar after a better offer on Dear Doctor, Beggar’s Banquet is the work of a man who’s finally figured out how to stir the soup. The deliberately distasteful underage groupie rock theatrics of Stray Cat Blues don’t get any easier to listen to with age, but it’s clearly another mask for Jagger.
Mick’s hidden triumph is the angry, frustrated Jigsaw Puzzle. A coded rant at the Stones’ problems over the last year or so, nobody is safe from Mick’s angry gaze – taking withering aim at Marianne Faithfull (“The bishop’s daughter”), business manager Allen Klein (“The gangster looks so frightening”), and the Stones themselves. The drummer is “so shattered”, bassist Bill Wyman, (recently separated from his wife) looks nervous “about the girls outside”. Keith and Brian “look damaged, they’ve been outlaws all their lives”. And Mick? He’s angry, “at being thrown to the lions”.
Beggar’s Banquet is also arguably Keith’s peak as a guitarist. Without his wingman Jones to bounce off the human riff experimented with open tunings, sounds and textures in ‘68. He’s but months from succumbing to his preferred straightjacket of that 5-string open G he discovered a year later and has hung onto ever since, but is arguably never better here. His clarion acoustic riffs are thunderous on Street Fighting Man, his gnarly lead break is viciously squawky on Sympathy For The Devil, and his astonishing solo on Stray Cat Blues is pure agitation – sounding like a feral, caged animal. The core sound of Beggar’s Banquet is the raw-as-fuck lo-fi sound that underpins Street Fighting Man and Parachute Woman – both built around Keith and Charlie playing acoustically through a small tape recorder that Keith enjoyed overloading (possibly altogether, there’s no sign of it again after this album).
We do have to talk about the presentation of this 50th anniversary edition of Beggar’s Banquet. Not to mince words, this is the most Brexit package of extras for a major album reissue in living memory. Whilst the decades-long impasse between ABKCO and the Stones continues there was never much chance of seeing the official release of any of the copious outtakes and alternative versions from the Beggars sessions. This seems inevitable, (despite the Stones sneakily smuggling a couple of doctored studio sketches from the Satanic Majesties and Let it Bleed sessions onto the expanded Exile on Main Street a few years back) but at least give us the mono mix guys. Not even period material like Jumpin’ Jack Flash and its spooky flip Child Of The Moon make the cut here. Even officially available tracks from these sessions on Klein’s infamous Metamorphosis compilation like Family and Wyman’s Downtown Suzie are absent. What we do get is a flexi-disc of a period interview with Jagger (not included in WAC’s version, alas) and a 10” single containing a subtly different mono mix of Sympathy For The Devil, but as packages go it’s a missed opportunity.
Perfunctory presentation aside, one thing we can celebrate is how good it all sounds. As a remaster it’s not quite to the standard of the A-grade clean-up of the White Album, or Rob Caiger’s painstaking labour-of-love restoration of The Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake – but it’s both warm and sharp, and does a wonderful album justice. The evil stew of Beggar’s Banquet is as pungent and pokey as it was half a century ago. May it never run cold.
❉ The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet (50th Anniversary Edition) out on CD/LP/Digital on November 16 From ABKCO Records. Pre-order now:
❉ CD – https://abkco.lnk.to/BeggarsBanquet50th1CD
❉ BoxSet – https://abkco.lnk.to/BeggarsBanquet50th
❉ Martin Ruddock has written for ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, ‘Shindig!’, the ‘You And Who’ series, and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.