Psych album of the week: The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)

How badly did the Rolling Stones want to be the Beatles in 1967?

The front cover to the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request (left), and a detail of the interior art.

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How badly did the Rolling Stones want to be the Beatles in 1967?

It’s a fair question. After the Fab Four released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in May of that year, every rock ‘n’ roll band in the world wanted to be the Beatles.

The Rolling Stones, of course, owed a bit of their initial success to the Beatles. After all, Paul McCartney and John Lennon had written “I Wanna Be Your Man”, which became the Stones’ first single to crack the U.K. Top 20.

By ’67, mind you, the Rolling Stones were no doubt perfectly content being the Rolling Stones. That January, they released Between the Buttons, which hit number 3 on the British album chart and number 2 on Billboard. If that LP—the U.S. version of which included “Ruby Tuesday”—was the band’s first dip into psychedelia, they were about to dive in headfirst.

After a falling-out with their manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham, the Stones opted to produce their next album themselves. This was no small challenge. Thanks to drug busts, three of the five members of the band were in and out of courtrooms and jail cells while making the record.

A disjointed, brilliant mess

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the end product is a disjointed mess. It’s also fucking brilliant.

Well, okay, not all of it. “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” is over eight minutes of shambling noise that occasionally threatens to coalesce into an actual song. Elswhere, “Gomper” is a five-minute reminder that being stoned and pretentious is seldom a recipe for good music. Put more succinctly, it’s an argument that Brian Jones should never have been allowed to bring his recorder and sarod into Olympic Sound Studios.

At its best, though, Their Satanic Majesties Request is sublime. Built around a Baroque-lite piano figure played by Nicky Hopkins and swelling string arrangements courtesy of future Led Zeppelin (and Them Crooked Vultures) member John Paul Jones, “She’s a Rainbow” is chamber-pop wonder. Arguably the prettiest thing Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have ever written, the tune could have been a hit for the Beatles, had the Stones felt inclined to return the favour. (Not that the Beatles needed any help in this department.)

“2000 Light Years From Home”, meanwhile is a rare foray into space-rock for the Stones. Drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman lay down a solid groove. This gives Jones plenty of room for his Mellotron and Theremin soundscapes.

Those Beatles connections

The critics gave Their Satanic Majesties Request a lukewarm reception. The consensus was that it was the Stones’ half-baked, drug-fueled attempt to create a Sgt. Pepper‘s of their very own.

At least one of the Beatles agreed with this assessment. In a 1970 Rolling Stone interview, Lennon opined “Satanic Majesties is Pepper. ‘We Love You’…that’s ‘All You Need Is Love‘.” Lennon, of course, had an insider’s perspective. Just as Jagger and Richards had sung on “All You Need Is Love”, Lennon and McCartney provided backing vocals for “We Love You”. The Stones recorded the song during the Satanic Majesties sessions but released it as a single three months before the LP. The video’s courtroom imagery reflects the band’s legal woes of the time:

There was, in fact, one other Beatles connection, and this was a big one. The cover photo for Satanic Majesties was taken by Michael Cooper. If you recognize that name, it’s probably because Cooper is best remembered today as the photographer behind the lens of the icon cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

In fact, the Fab Four themselves are on the cover of the Stones LP. Of course, you have to look for them, Where’s Waldo? style. (Cooper had also included the Stones on the Pepper cover, via a Shirley Temple doll clad in a sweater embroidered with the groups’ name.)

“A load of crap”

The harshest critiques of Their Satanic Majesties Request have often come from the Rolling Stones themselves. Richards has dismissed it as “a load of crap”. As for Jagger, he told Rolling Stone that the LP has two good songs on it. “The rest of them,” he said, “are nonsense”.

After ’67, the Stones largely turned their backs on psychedelic music. Had it not been rejected by the label, the cover photo of their next record, Beggars Banquet, would have signaled to all who saw it that the Stones were coming back down to earth. It was a picture of a graffiti-strewn toilet stall.

Trippiest lyrics

“Why don’t we sing this song all together/Open our heads let the pictures come/And if we close all our eyes together/Then we will see where we all come from” (“Sing This All Together”)

Sonic psych-out

“2000 Light Years From Home” opens with dissonant piano crashing over nightmare-inducing swells of reversed sound. Then Richards’s guitar enters and introduces the song proper, and we’re off on a mind-expanding trip through the cosmos.

In their own words

“There’s a lot of rubbish on Satanic Majesties. Just too much time on our hands, too many drugs, no producer to tell us, “Enough already, thank you very much, now can we just get on with this song?” Anyone let loose in the studio will produce stuff like that. There was simply too much hanging around. It’s like believing everything you do is great and not having any editing.” (Mick Jagger, quoted by Philip Dodd in According to the Rolling Stones)

“Every day at the studio it was a lottery as to who would turn up and what – if any – positive contribution they would make when they did. Keith would arrive with anywhere up to ten people, Brian with another half-a-dozen and it was the same for Mick. They were assorted girlfriends and friends. I hated it! Then again, so did Andrew and just gave up on it. There were times when I wish I could have done, too.” (Bill Wyman in his book Rolling With the Stones)

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