Heading for the tail end of the 60s the Stones, despite their success and fame, were in trouble. Their attempt at pyschedelia – Their Satanic Majesties Request – had been a critical and financial flop. Manager Allen Klein was beginning to embed himself in their financial affairs in ways that went beyond taking the usual manager’s commission. There had been a string of high profile busts that given Mick Jagger and Keith Richards a brief taste of jail. Brian Jones (two busts) was increasingly erratic as his drug use deepened. And with Jones so reduced they were unable to tour.
But you can’t keep a good band down! The Stones would emerge triumphant again, would commence one of the hottest streaks in rock ‘n roll history and by the end of the decade would emphatically be “the greatest rock ‘n roll band in the world”.
The first ray of the new dawning was their 1968 single “Jumping Jack Flash”. Instantly they were dangerous again – and famous as the song topped charts on both sides of the Atlantic. That late into the 60s singles and albums were still being kept apart and so “Jack” never made it onto the album that followed.
Beggars Banquet was a telling regrouping with the Stones eschewing 60s fripperies and making a tough, rootsy album that was a critical and commercial success and a return to top form.
Jones still made it onto the final disc, but his role is reduced here with Keith playing the lion’s share of the guitar parts and even taking over Bill Wyman’s bass chair on occasions (as he had done on “Jumping Jack Flash”). This is the beginning of the legend of Keith Richards the human riff, the engine room of the Stones. And he did work hard on this album and the one that followed.
What’s surprising looking back and if, like me, you mostly knew the Stones via their singles, is how rootsy much of it is. The Stones, like many a 60s British Band had originally been motivated by their love of American blues music. On “Banquet” they refocussed on those roots, and a good chunk of this album is fairly categorised as acoustic country blues.
The most notable deviations from that sound are the two hit tracks from the album: “Sympathy For The Devil” marries Mick’s daringly distasteful lyric to a voodoo-spattered samba beat and a terrific bass part from Keith. “Street Fighting Man” kicks off with a seducing acoustic guitar part and Charlie Watt’s massive sounding drums and is one of the hardest rocking tracks the Stones ever laid down. Keith is on bass again. Just as your favourite George Harrison solo might turn out to be played by Paul McCartney, there’s a good chance that your favourite Bill part might actually be a Keith part.
It is Bill on “Stray Cat Blues”, a celebration of jail bait and a further warning to parents to keep their daughters safe at home and away from a band who would want to do a bit more than just hold her hand. This is, I think, a very good example of the Stones late 60s studio sound with Mick’s vocals fighting for dominance over the guitars and the drums well up in the mix.
I wonder how influential this album has been in the long run – in ways that certainly weren’t obvious at the time. Apart from Jimmy Miller’s production tactic of letting the instruments and especially the vocals fight for space in the mix, there is the trick that Keith was making increasing use of – recording an acoustic guitar through a cheap cassette recorder deliberately turned all the way up so that it would distort and which resulted in a guitar sound that was somewhere between acoustic and electric and which packed a punch.
I’ve heard several more recent albums where artificial layers of grunge have been added during production or where acoustic guitars are plugged into electric guitar amps to get a dirtier sound. Clearly it’s an attempt at a retro sound, but are the late sixties Stones albums the model for all of this?
And then there’s the American roots music influence which is substantial here. “Americana” is a popular style these days (certainly in my house). The Americana Music Association defines Americana as “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band”. That’s a pretty good description of Beggar’s Banquet which, to drive the point home, was recorded decades before anybody dreamed up the term “Americana”.
Despite the success of this back to basics album the Stones still had troubles, mostly around Jones. He was the founder of the band and had assembled the original line up, but now he was a liability. The much publicised drug busts mean difficulties in getting work permits, especially in the USA where they could earn big money. Even without the red tape he was too erratic to consider touring with and was pretty much a passenger in the studio. Engineers learned to forget to turn on his amplifier or to stick him in a booth with whatever instrument he felt like playing and then discard his track.
He was present for the sessions of their next big single “Honky Tonk Women” but whatever he played never made it onto the record that was released. He was fired shortly thereafter – which would remove a significant impediment to the band’s plans to tour the USA – and replaced by the young hotshot Mick Taylor, another graduate from the John Mayall school of blues guitar. Taylor overdubbed his parts on “Honky Tonk Women” and he and Jones are largely absent on the next new album Let It Bleed.
Keith runs the show again, and is in tremendous form from the very first notes of the album – his menace-laden intro to “Gimme Shelter” This time the fab, rumbling bass part actually is Bill Wyman.
Again there’s a long streak of rootsiness running through the album, and Jagger and Richards pay homage to one of the founding fathers of the blues with a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain”. They rework “Honky Tonk Women” into the acoustic “Country Honk” (with fiddle part by Byron Berline).
But there’s more rockers too – and they still stand up well. “Monkey Man” is built around a terrific Keith guitar part, and “Live With Me” seems like a prototype for the Stones’ near future.
To finish this story neatly we now need to back track a little. Jones was sacked. The Stones arranged to play at a free show in Hyde Park, which would mark their return to live work and also serve to introduce their new guitarist. Jones died the day before that show, and Jagger read an eulogy to him.
Later that year, and just before Let It Bleed was released they hit the road in the USA. They sold out everywhere they played. They booked strong supporting acts in BB King and Ike and Tina Turner. They fired Allen Klein and pioneered a new financial model for touring bands, making financial demands that were then viewed as something beyond excessive. Set lists show that they played very little that pre-dated “Jumping Jack Flash”. And every night tour manager Sam Cutler would introduce them as “the greatest rock ‘n roll band in the world.”
I knew the Stones primarily from their hits and their reputation and the “best of” albums. I don’t think I’m alone in that. But there’s a lot more to the Stones, as an examination of the records they cut during their hot streak from ’68 to ’72 will show. A really potent, creative band who made satisfying and substantial long players.