A Devilish Dish

50 years ago, The Rolling Stones treated their fans to a magnificent Beggars Banquet

The Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet, ABKCO, 1968

With their seventh album, Beggars Banquet, The Rolling Stones achieved their first consistently conceived masterpiece, an album that became the band’s definitive statement and the effort that best represents them both then and now. Granted, Between the Buttons and Aftermath might also have vies for that distinction, but given the consistency in both mood and melodies, it’s hardly a stretch to say Beggars Banquet takes top prize.

That said, it also helps to consider the timing that informed its circumstances. It followed on the heels of Their Satanic Majesty’s Request, an album widely panned at the time for taking the band out of their wheelhouse with what was perceived as an attempt to emulate the Beatles’ and Sgt. Pepper. While time has vindicated the group’s left turn to a great degree, the fact that the Stones felt obligated to chart their way through psychedelia could be considered a a betrayal of their roughshod roots. Beggars Banquet did in fact find the group going back to its early origins, given that several of its numbers — “No Expectations,” “Dear Doctor,” “Parachute Woman, “Stray Cat Blues,” and the album’s only non-original, “Prodigal Son” — were rudimentary traditional country blues songs at their core.

While it was also the first in a string of several superb Stones albums — Let It Bleed and Exile on Main Street in particular — it was also the last Rolling Stones effort to benefit from the services of Brian Jones throughout the making of the entire album. (By contrast, Jones played only on a handful of songs on its successor, Let It Bleed) Even so, it indicated just how far Jones had fallen, offering Jagger and Richards all the more cause  to later oust him from the band. According to those involved, he only showed up sporadically, and then when he did, he insisted on brandishing a sitar or some other exotic instrument that really didn’t fit the feel of the proceedings.

Film poster for the Jean-Luc Godard film on the Stones when it was called One + One

As the recent re-release of Jen-Luc Goddard’s Sympathy for the Devil shows during its sequence of scenes depicting the creation of the title tune, there were times when Jones was simply too out of it to capably contribute. Often, he’d simply sprawl out on the floor or nod off during the session. Producer Jimmy Miller later said that they would sometimes situate Jones in a isolation booth and only pretend to record him.

That’s not to say Jones was entirely useless; as always, the textures he added to certain songs again enhanced the album’s overall imprint. His harp playing on “Parachute Woman,” “Dear Doctor “ and “Jigsaw Puzzle” in particular were appropriate additives, as was his slide guitar on “No Expectations” and “Jigsaw Puzzle” and the acoustic guitar he strummed on “Parachute Woman.” Likewise, the sitar part he played on “Street Fighting Man” gave it a similarly sinister feel to his work on “Paint It Black” two years before.

Naturally, there was also controversy. The Stones presented their record label with a cover that depicted a graffiti-strewn lavatory, which the company quickly rejected. That delayed the album’s release by several months, and when it finally did hit the racks, it was housed in a simple beige sleeve, similar in style to the plain white cover accorded the Beatles eponymous effort otherwise known as “The White Album.”

The censored cover of Beggars Banquet

Once again, the Stones found themselves trailing their eternal rivals and coming out wrongly convicted.

Happily then, ABKCO’s current reissue of Beggars Banquet boasts an outer sleeve that recreates the beige cover and an inner cover that replicates the band’s original cover concept.

Of course, most critics recognized Beggars Banquet for the triumph it was. Three of its songs — “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Salt of the Earth and “Street Fighting Man” — were instantly elevated to the highest plateau of enduring signature Stones classics. There they remain, and the album which brought them to life is well recognized for the timeless triumph it is.

No sympathy for these devils is needed, especially now.

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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