Cosmic Christmas – ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ at 50

 ‘Satanic Majesties’ documents a traumatic year in which the Stones went from edgy pop stars to Public Enemy Number One.

‘Behind The Buttons’ photo shoot, Primrose Hill, London (Photo: Gered Mancowitz).

Something happened to the Rolling Stones in 1967. Something big, and life-changing.  The transformation is writ large on the sleeves of the two albums the band released that fateful, tumultuous year. The first, from January, is a fairly standard (albeit bleary) group shot of the band in their dandified mod finery on Primrose Hill, shot by Gered Mankowitz through a vaselined lens. The second, from December, is startlingly different. It’s a big production number, a riot of colour showing the Stones sat cross-legged in what looks like a tacky hippie gift shop, dressed in psychedelic minstrel gear, with a gaudy Taj Mahal-like building, mountains, and what looks like Saturn in the background. The inner gatefold, a splurge of collaged images, contains an unsolvable maze with the legend “IT’S HERE” in the middle.

Michael Cooper’s cover shot is a cute gimmick, a lenticular ‘3D’ hologram with the Stones fuzzily moving before your eyes when tilted. The cover is also a thinly-disguised bit of one-upmanship on the Beatles, whose world-conquering Sgt Pepper also featured an elaborate sleeve shot by Cooper, which this pastiches. In fact, if you look in the flowers at the Stones’ feet, you’ll see the faces of the Beatles are hidden.


As for the Stones themselves, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts remain unchanged, looking as indifferent as ever, despite the indignity of their pantomime outfits, but the rest of the band look like they’ve been through it. Keith Richards looks slightly alarmed, a rabbit in the headlights. Brian Jones, in unflattering pink, appears baggy-eyed and wasted. A sulky-looking Mick Jagger is sat dead centre, dressed as a wizard, complete with a pointed hat emblazoned with a crescent moon. They look older, raddled, harassed. Jones in particular seems to have aged years in the space of months. The title of this album? Their Satanic Majesties Request.

What happened to the Stones that year would change them forever. A combination of substance abuse, a wave of unwanted attention from the authorities and media, inter-band rivalries, collapsing business relationships, and the clanking of prison doors.  After several years on top of the world, in 1967, the world fell on in on the Rolling Stones.

At first glance, the Stones’ lifestyle in 1967 could be compared to that enjoyed by the moneyed divs from Made in Chelsea. The frantic cycle of record-tour-record that they’d pursued since the release of their debut single in 1963 had began to slow down in late ’66 after an Autumn tour of the UK. A frantic show at the Royal Albert Hall – captured on film by Peter Clifton and used in all its riotous glory in his promo film for Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby? shows the band at the height of their original incarnation’s powers, ducking hysterical teenage stage invaders in all their modish finery. The tour represented the last gasp of the Stones’ R&B garage band period. The next time the Stones attempted a big tour, the world would noticeably have changed.

From here on, the Stones ascended to the higher echelons of Swinging London society.

Having already assimilated stygian London members clubs beloved of their musical peers, and  tastemaker haunts such as Warhol’s Factory, they began increasingly to hob-nob with a coterie of gallery owners, film-makers, models, Labour peers, and slumming aristocrats. The front line Stones – Jagger, Richards, and Jones presided over plush salons, with equally glittering female company in tow. The rhythm section of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, both married and neither into the fuss and drama that surrounded their bandmates, opted for suburbia – although Wyman continued to fly the flag for hanging around clubs and picking up women.

Jagger, after a long pursuit, had recently taken up with Marianne Faithfull, whose poise and breeding helped him further ascend the social ladder. Jones was a year into a tumultuous, often violent relationship with the dazzling German-Italian model-actress Anita Pallenberg. Richards, currently single due to his recent split with girlfriend Linda Keith was basically the gooseberry of the group at the time. This would soon change, with dramatic and far-reaching consequences for inter-band relations, but as wolf packs go, the Stones were a close-knit one for a time, their collective fame and debauchery attracting an growing entourage of dealers and hangers-on as 1966 turned to 1967. With their foot off the brake for the first time, Dionysian partying aside, the band’s time was increasingly spent jetting off to foreign climes and hazily browsing in antique shops. Little did they suspect the year of drama that was about to unfold.

This new mood of letting it all hang out was reflected in the sessions for Between the Buttons, released on 20th January 1967. Recorded mainly in London, and lacking the tough, widescreen sound (conjured by engineer Dave Hassinger in LA’s RCA studios) that distinguished their imperial run of albums and singles through 1965-66, it was an oddly muted affair. Its grooves featured a fatigued Stones who were behind the curve, and aping recent trends like the music hall moves of the Kinks on Cool Calm and Collected, or Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde elusiveness on Who’s Been Sleeping Here. The thin sound wasn’t helped by the fact that Richards, in the studio, had become pretty much the sole guitarist. His foil, the gifted but wayward Jones had lost interest in playing guitar, and now, when he did turn up to studio, preferred to dabble, with mixed results. (“I don’t like guitar anymore. I want to play marimbas” quoted Richards in his 2010 autobiography, Life.) The exotic sprinklings of dulcimer, sitar, and marimba that had given the previous year’s Aftermath its edge had been replaced by the stoned Jones messing around with saxophones and kazoos. The band all but disowned Between the Buttons after release, with Jagger dismissing it as “more or less rubbish” in an interview with NME. The album also served to deepen an emerging rift with Producer-Manager-Svengali Andrew Loog Oldham, who was suddenly beginning to look a little more expendable.

The two best tracks of the sessions, the driving, lusty Let’s Spend The Night Together and gentle, lyrical Ruby Tuesday weren’t even on the UK version of the album, coming out instead as a double A-side single. Ruby Tuesday, written almost exclusively by Richards, featured Brian Jones on his best form of the Buttons sessions, spotlighting the current closeness between the pair.

Its lovely chamber-pop arrangement of piano, bowed bass, and recorder was worked out between Richards and Jones – to the exclusion of Jagger, who was relegated to the vocal booth with a sheet of Richards’ lyrics.  Let’s Spend The Night Together would prove controversial on release for its mildly risqué subject matter. In fact it almost sparked the Stones first police raid before it was even out. Oldham had to think on his feet one evening in November 1966 when a pair of truncheon-wielding policemen wandered into Olympic Studios whilst he was mixing the track with engineer Glyn Johns. Oldham leapt up to greet the officers, enlisting both to rhythmically bang their truncheons together as a percussion overdub, before eventually bundling them out, none-the-wiser to the weapons grade weed and speed just feet from the vocal booth.

This near-miss would be but the first brush with the establishment. The Stones had been on the radar since the 1965 arrest of Jagger, Jones, and Bill Wyman for urinating on a garage forecourt flagged the band up as undesirables. Their notoriety only grew from there. The early part of 1967 saw the band only winding up the establishment further as they promoted the new single. Arriving in New York to record the Ed Sullivan show on January 15th, the grumpy band were nearly trampled outside the studio by hysterical fans when the doorman didn’t recognise them, panicked, and held the door shut, earning Jagger a haircut from a scissor-wielding fan and the doorman a punch from Richards.

On admission there was then a row when Sullivan insisted on censoring the lyric to Let’s Spend The Night Together, leading to an eye-rolling Jagger singing Let’s Spend Some Time Together instead.  Returning to England, a similarly ill-tempered performance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium a week later saw Jagger refuse to take the famous revolving stage for the finale, and quarrelling with Oldham, who was showbiz to the core and sided with the TV producers.

With the Stones immediate promotional duties over with, and the rift with Oldham growing, Jagger hired journeyman publicist Les Perrin for future engagements, and the partying resumed. Richards and Jones’s bromance was in full flow, with both eagerly consuming LSD on a regular basis. The more reserved Jagger was more circumspect about trying acid, but eventually agreed to join in the collective psychedelic experience at a weekend party at Richards’ Sussex pile, Redlands, where a large group of revellers (excluding Jones and Pallenberg, who cried off) gathered on February 11 to lysergically inspire themselves.

Jagger’s decision to turn on at Redlands might have been down to peer pressure, but may have had another cause, pure annoyance. Hostilities with the media had escalated on February 5 when the News of the World published a story (incorrectly) claiming that Jagger had used LSD and used drugs to lure women home with him. Appearing on the Eamonn Andrews Show the same day, the livid singer announced his intention to sue for libel.

Weekend of the bust, Keith clad in Afghan coat at Redlands.

What happened when the Police raided Redlands on February 12 1967 needs little introduction. Acting on the likely tip-off of American guest ‘Acid King’ David Snidermann (who Richards fingered as the informer in Life), the Redlands bust amounted to arrests for Mick and Keith on variously amphetamine possession and allowing cannabis to be smoked at a residential home (the charges didn’t quite peg  Keith for actual possession), the infamous story of Marianne-In-A-Fur-Rug, and the beginning of a lifetime of busts and police harassment. A collusion between the News of the World and the police, the former gleefully broke the story prior to the latter’s official announcement. They’d have had an even bigger story and bagged a Beatle into the bargain, had George Harrison and wife Patti not left prior to the bust. Although the Redlands bust was for diet pills and pot, harder drugs were already entering the Stones periphery through osmosis. Keith’s infamous heroin habit was about a year around the corner, but gallery-owner Robert Fraser was busted for the drug at Redlands. With drug use an increasing issue, and other extracurricular activities getting in the way, the stage was set for an unsettled year for the Stones.

The Stones organisation went into shock. Oldham flew to the States, leaving his charges as essentially Public Enemy Number One. This was a major nail in the coffin for the Stones’ Kingmaker. “That was the death knell for me” Oldham would concur in later years. “Basically I lost my bottle.” The Stones, still in shock, reacted to Oldham’s desertion with cool disdain, but would serve cold revenge before long. For now though, with everything up in the air until their court date in May, and paranoid about wire taps and police surveillance, they opted to continue the party in sunnier climes.

With a Spring European tour imminent, Jagger, Richards, Jones, Faithfull, and Pallenberg fled for Morocco. The group trip that followed was an edgy one, despite some enjoyable hobnobbing with the likes of Cecil Beaton and Brion Gysin. It would culminate in a dramatic change to the always fractious group dynamic one night, when Jones flew into a rage and badly beat Pallenberg, who, at the end of her rope with his abuse, left him for Richards. The new couple abandoned the furious Jones in Marrakesh and headed home to London. They would stay together until 1980.

On their return to Blighty, the band packed their bags and gritted their teeth through the European tour, with Richards and Jones sharing a stage and the odd TV interview, but otherwise no longer speaking.

Jagger, Richards, and Robert Fraser appeared in court on May 10, and were bailed for a princely £100, pending trial in June. The same day, Jones, by coincidence was busted for possession of pot and cocaine, appearing at magistrates court the following day.

Jones’s bust did him few favours, his erratic behaviour and simmering feud with Richards had further weakened his position within the band. It also meant that acquiring visas for overseas work would become harder. Rather than sit on their hands and wait for the outcome of their cases, the Stones continued the sporadic recording sessions they had started around the February Redlands bust.

The initial sessions had mostly comprised instrumental jamming and off-key blues noodling, chiefly, it seems, to annoy Oldham. It seemed to work. Picking up the sessions in May, Oldham, suffering from his own personal issues, had thrown in the towel, and stopped coming into the studio. The band, for the first time, was without a producer. Without Oldham’s influence, and with engineer Glyn Johns watching the clock, the studio became an unfocused circus, full of hangers-on, as the band abandoned their hard-nosed R&B sound altogether and went full-tilt into psychedelia.

For Mick and Keith, their high profile trial, brief incarceration, and subsequent release on bail in late June would pass in a traumatic blur. Returning to the studio once released, their fangs were out as they cut the imperial, sinister groove of We Love You. A powerful tangle of tumbling drums, an insistent piano line from session musician Nicky Hopkins, and Jones’s mellotron arabesques, it was topped off by sneering, sarky non-sequiturs from Jagger, and uncredited harmonies from a moonlighting Lennon and McCartney.

Released as a single in August, it was a firm middle finger to the authorities, coupled with a near-unbroadcastable promotional film, pointedly spoofing the trial of Oscar Wilde in clear reference to the Redlands bust and trial. It cast Jagger as Wilde, a short-haired Marianne as Wilde’s lover, Bosie, and a bewigged Keith as the Marquess of Queensbury, ending with a nude Jagger wrapped in a sheepskin rug. Cutaway studio footage showed a red-eyed Brian Jones looking absolutely out of his gourd. It was later revealed that he had to be propped up by cushions to perform his tricky part.

The focus and energy devoted to We Love You waned a little in the ensuing sessions. Jones was getting further and further out there, but still contributed the occasional bit of instrumental virtuosity. Richards dominated in the studio, drilling the band through take after take of various instrumentals he piloted, but wasn’t always there, lying back and forth to join Pallenberg in Italy on the set of Barbarella. Jagger, now over his initial reluctance to take acid, had become a zealous convert, babbling to friends about “Fiery oceans!”

This unsettled atmosphere led to a bored Wyman, Watts, and Nicky Hopkins recording Wyman’s song In Another Land on their own one night, borrowing Small Faces frontman Steve Marriott from the studio next door to guest on guitar and backing vocals. When Jagger and Richards eventually showed up, they gave the track a cool reception, but allowed it a place on the album (possibly because they’d finished so few songs) after contributing backing vocals and ordering Wyman to put a stuttering effect on his dour vocal. In Another Land was released as a US single under Wyman’s name. The track ends with the sound of Wyman snoring in the control room.

Amid all the chaos, Decca anxiously eyed a year-end release date, as the band threw album titles around, including Cosmic Christmas, at their most protracted set of sessions yet. As the producerless Stones dithered in studio, the material taking shape was hit and miss as they awkwardly tried to jump on the gravy train of psychedelia. The electric dulcimer-goosed Gomper was a slightly baggy bit of flower power whimsy, the vaudeville pastiche On With The Show was fairly forgettable, and the clueless singalong of Sing This All Together aimed for a hippie anthem but missed the mark by some margin. Its much-maligned, discordant jammed reprise (opening with a snatch of mellotron flute and a voice asking “Where’s that joint?”) at least showed the band’s mordant sense of humour at work. A remnant of the Cosmic Christmas idea, it ended with a terrifying coda of an atonal rendition of We Wish You A Merry Christmas played on a theremin and voices hissing “We Hate You.”

On the plus side, the thunderous riff-fest of Citadel successfully welded Jagger’s dystopian city tales of “Candy and Taffy” to Keith’s biggest guitar work-out of the album. The intriguing, start-stop 2000 Man turned its simple folk strum on its head by getting Watts to play deliberately out of time as Jagger sang of “Having an affair with a random computer”.  The mournful The Lantern featured Richards bluesily layering storm cloud guitars up against Watts’ cacophonously echoing drums.

Best of all were the two tracks put out as a double A-side single in December. She’s a Rainbow was a gorgeous paean to Marianne Faithfull, driven by Nicky Hopkins’ music box piano and a string arrangement from future Led Zeppelin man John Paul Jones. It was the last gasp of the pretty, melodic Stones of Lady Jane, Back Street Girl, and Ruby Tuesday, topped off with Mick’s most committed vocal, and an endearing munchkin choir of sped-up backing vocals.

2000 Light Years From Home was equally as lavish, but the polar opposite, the Stones’ sole voyage into space rock. An icy, alienated tale of a lonely space traveller exploring the stars, its lyric was penned by a depressed Jagger during his brief stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Its restrained groove was brought to life by another star turn from Jones on Mellotron, who turned a middling, brooding backing track into a dark-eyed psych classic.

With the album pretty much put to bed by mid-September, the band headed for New York to shoot the elaborate 3D cover photo. Several days were spent building the set, with Jagger later admitting “We were on acid doing the cover picture. It was like being at school, sticking on the bits of coloured paper and things. It was really silly, but we enjoyed it. Also, we did it to piss Andrew off. The more we decided to unload him, we decided to go on this path to alienate him.”

It worked. Oldham’s final split with the Stones was announced that month, with all business responsibilities passed to shark-like American Business Manager Allen Klein. Disinterested in the soap opera surrounding the band and what he saw as psychedelic navel-gazing, Oldham focused on his own Immediate label, and treating his demons with ECT, his relationship with his charges gone forever.

‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ – Original US 3D Cover.

Their Satanic Majesties Request, a snarky pun on the text inside a British passport, was released on December 8 1967 to a mixture of bemusement and derision from a record-buying public that knew the Stones had jumped on the bandwagon of flower power, to considerably less success than most British Invasion bands. As with Between the Buttons, Jagger would be dismissing Satanic Majesties publicly within weeks. Satanic Majesties was universally seen as a misstep. Within two months of release, the Stones would have stopped dressing like wizards, to be hammering away at a hayseeded back-to-basics R&B groove and the blues, with psychedelia purged as a temporary blip. That’s the received wisdom, anyway.

In truth though, the Stones had something to prove with Satanic Majesties. Its grooves document a traumatic, transitional year in which they went from mildly notorious pop stars to the scourge of the establishment, with the bite marks on show. The world music tinges, the new relationships, the dark textural touches – all are a powerful document of their terrible year. All would find their way into the more well-regarded material that followed – the majestic late-60s Chelsea-Devil-Blues of Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Beggar’s Banquet, and Let It Bleed. The music is a mixed bag, but the duff tracks are but a handful, on one of the band’s most sonically interesting records. If you add it all up, its abiding sentiment is that of “Fuck You!” to Decca, to Oldham, and to the establishment that gave them an almighty bloody nose.

The last word should go to Mick Jagger, who, years later, would turn to Richards with the deathless insight “Flower power was a load of old rubbish, wasn’t it?” 

 Martin Ruddock has written for ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, the ‘You And Who’ series, and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He lives in Bournemouth with a beautiful, very patient woman and teetering piles of records and nerd stuff. He loves writing, and may write something for you if you ask nicely.

 Martin Ruddock was recently a guest on Tim Worthington‘s podcast Looks Unfamiliar. You can find the episode here.

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  1. That was an awesome read – “with the bite marks on show”, stuff like that makes reading a joy (unlike some barely literate review pages).

    As for the album itself, it’s one I’ve always loved, despite being a it of an off-ramp detour from the Stones’ regular trajectory. It helps that it’s also a bit darker and less chipper than its obvious inspiration, Sgt Pepper, or the psychedelic whimsy that also followed that album’s lead. Personally, I’ve always liked “Sing This All Together”, even though I can see why most haven’t. Kiss did a shockingly decent version of “2000 Man” for what it’s worth.

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