“The album as a whole suppresses any vestige of the liberal category of ‘Protest’ music” – Perry Anderson on the Rolling Stones’ Beggars’ Banquet
In 1968 and again in 1970, a certain “Richard Merton”, AKA Perry Anderson, known for his “frenetic dancing” according to Tariq Ali’s memoir – wrote two spectacular essays in the New Left Review on the Rolling Stones. These essays stand as perhaps the most rigorously theorized, insightful works written on popular music. The first of the two, in early 1968 (when perhaps not coincidentally, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were fellow travelers of the IMG) is all the more impressive in that it was written – in my opinion – before the Stones’ “Greatness” and concentrates mostly on the transitional material from records like Aftermath and Behind the Buttons, on themes like sexual exploitation (“Backstreet Girl, “Yesterday’s Paper”), mental illness (“Mother’s Little Helper”, “Paint it Black”) and the will (and inability) to orgasm (“Satisfaction, “Going Home”.) “Merton” is worth quoting at length
It is incorrect to say that the Stones are ‘not major innovators’. Perhaps a polarization Stones-Beatles such as Adorno constructed between Schoenberg and Stravinsky (evoked by Beckett) might actually be a fruitful exercise. Suffice it to say here that, for all their intelligence and refinement, the Beatles have never strayed much beyond the strict limits of romantic convention: central moments of their oeuvre are nostalgia and whimsy, both eminently consecrated traditions of middle-class England. Lukács’s pejorative category of the Angenehme—the ‘pleasant’ which dulls and pacifies—fits much of their work with deadly accuracy. By contrast, the Stones have refused the given orthodoxy of pop music; their work is a dark and veridical negation of it. It is an astonishing fact that there is virtually not one Jagger-Richards composition which is conventionally about a ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’ personal relationship. Love, jealousy and lament—the substance of 85 per cent of traditional pop music—are missing. Sexual exploitation, mental disintegration and physical immersion are their substitutes.
In the 1970 piece, Anderson is taking part in discussions as the very possibility of a “rock aesthetic” and also writes beautifully on The Band (to whom I’ll return in a subsequent post). But the main focus is the Stones, and in particular, Beggar’s Banquet. Now since this is a blog mainly focused on the music itself (or at least that’s the plan), let me offer a few words on this near-perfect record. It is 1968 rolled into one, from the standpoint of the relative lack of a real social movement in England. It is explicitly proletarian with a hint of aristocratic satire, encapsulated by the photo of the Stones “banquet”, found on the inside of the original gatefold LP cover.
Starting with the now-familiar but still jarring percussion, followed by primal yelps, we are brought into the Stones’ layer with “Sympathy for the Devil” – itself such a historically specific – yet in its own way universal – song that JL Goddard made a film of its recording. The narrator, Lucifer, a “man of wealth and taste” stands in for the demiurge of neccessity, who “stuck around St. Petersburg” to be a participant in the Bolshevik revolution, vividly recalling “Anastasia screaming in pain”. Yet this revolutionary role allowed him to ride a tank and hold a general’s rank when the blitzgrieg raged and the fighters stank. Before that he had “watched with glee” while kings and queens fought for a century in the name of this or that deity. Evoking the very recent assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the listener is placed on the hook for “killing the Kennedies”. Finally a declaration that “every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners, saints.” All of this is accompanied very sparsely by Nicky Hopkins’ piano, around five or six percussionists and one of Keith Richards’ best recorded guitar solos.
Having entered the banquet, we come to “No Expectations”, ostensibly about a failed romance, but also on one level of generality, the eclipse of Brian Jones as a Rolling Stone (his slide guitar on this song has a sadness that is hard to quantify) – and also about the repeated theme on the record – the lack of fighting capacity among the English at the time. It is a foreboding song of defeat, but not completely hopeless, just melancholy. Side one continues with the jaunty “Dear Doctor”, a country send-up and “Parachute Woman”, a Chicago-blues style song. The culmination of the first side comes with “Jigsaw Puzzle” with another mournful slide guitar performance from Jones. The song is the most direct statement of how the Stones – perhaps millionaires, but exploited cultural producers targeted by police and intelligence services – saw themselves. Introducing a series of Dylanesque characters who have been outcasts all their lives. Embedded in this is a description of a band that by description seem remarkably like the Stones, before the song ends with a sardonic verse about a popular uprising of “Grandmas” who have had their pensions frittered way, get attacked by a regiment of soldiers under the watchful eye of the queen, who the dying grandmothers don’t hesitate to thank. .
Side two starts with one of the most recognizable guitar riffs ever recorded, that of “Street Fighting Man”. Technically, this song is quite novel – as “hard” as the guitar sounds, it is actually a layering of a number of recordings of the riff itself played by Richards on an acoustic guitar – there is no electric guitar at all on the track, save a lick at the end that may or may not actually be a mellotron. “The time is right for palace revolution,” sings Jagger, “but where I am, the game that’s played is compromised solutions…so what can a poor boy do but to sing in a rock and roll band”. Perhaps defeatist, but with an optimism of the will, the song was reportedly dedicated to Tariq Ali. It’s impossible to overstate how scared this song made the authorities – it was banned from radio stations all over the world, on both sides of the “iron curtain”. One must recall that however overly optimistic, in 1968 millions of people felt the world was on the brink of revolutionary change. Ironically, as noted, the song expresses pessimism (like with the Grandmas of “Jigsaw Puzzle”) as to the capacities of the English in sleepy London town, compared with Prague, Paris or Chicago, Anderson/Merton is again worth quoting at length..
The most obvious track here is, of course, Street Fighting Man. Released virtually simultaneously with the Beatles’ lamentable petty bourgeois cry of fear Revolution, its ideological credentials were certified by Mayor Daley in person. For our purposes, the most important element of the record, which situates it well beyond even, say, the Doors—is the nonequation of music and politics in it, and the parallel non-assimilation of the usa and Britain. All facility is here rejected (rock = revolution: Doors/Airplane). The theme of the number is precisely the lack of revolutionary traditions in England (In sleepy London town, the game to play is compromise solution) and the necessarily surrogate role rock may play in the absence of them (What can a poor boy do/except play in a rockand-roll band?). The composition is thus an exact musical statement of the destiny of music in a society which blocks any political prolongation of the people’s art..
The rest of the second side, as opposed to the melancholy jauntiness of side one, replicates the narrative in a delving into the muck of proletarian life in “sleepy London town”, the milieu in which rock stars want to drink “to the Salt of the Earth” while fearing the “faceless crowd”. A cover of Robert Johnson’s “Prodigal Son” is followed by the problematic, disturbing and captivating “Stray Cat Blues”, a song that if made today could very well land the band in legal trouble, given the frank depiction of teenaged sexuality and the business-like, even aristocratic guitar crunch. This finds its antithesis in “Factory Girl”, a fantasy of meeting an archetypal working class woman. Thirty years before Pulp, Jagger wanted to sleep with Common People. We come to a finale with the aforementioned “Salt of the Earth”, with a final twang of the slide guitar from Brian Jones and Keith Richards first solo lead vocal on the first verse, doing his best Chet Baker imitation, drinking to the good and the evil. The limitations offered in British society are laid bare…
Spare a thought for the stay-at-home voter
His empty eyes gaze at strange beauty shows
And a parade of the gray suited grafters
A choice of cancer or polio
This is all followed by a gospel choir coming in, the drums becoming double-time and the song exploding into a cacophony. A fitting close to what still stands today as the record of its’ times.