A Trifle Too Satanic

How the Rolling Stones made the perfect psychedelic artifact

Nothing annoys a diehard Rolling Stones fan more than telling them that far from being a psychedelic relic, Their Satanic Majesties Request showed the band at their most adventurous and dangerous and they should've made more records like it. I know, as I have been telling Stones fans this for years, coupled with other surefire crowd-pleasers like "It's got way less filler than Exile On Main Street," which I don't actually believe but when you want to make someone's forehead turn 12 shades of road rage, it's what you do. 

In December of 1967, technically the Autumn of Love, The Stones came late to the lovefest and were roundly criticized—OK, crucified—for trying to tried to outspice Sgt. Pepper, an unfair charge which has stuck to this very day. It's hard to know what else they could have released in that climate where everyone was suddenly expected to make a bold artistic album statement. If they turned in an album that was only slightly more cosmic than Between the Buttons, it would've been just as much of a letdown. Much of their efforts to outdo Sgt. Pepper boils down to rivalling its groundbreaking artwork. Keith Richards approached friend and photographer Michael Cooper (who also photographed Pepper) and gave him the directive to "make ours better." Cooper had the idea of making the cover three-dimensional and the Stones had to travel on their own dime to Mount Vernon, New York, where one of the few 3-D cameras in the world resided. In a cost saving measure, the Stones constructed the album collage themselves because Decca Records was already in a tizzy over the cost of the 3D reproduction, probably 20 times more expensive than Out of Our Heads, which they didn't even bother to wash for. And considering the few times all five Stones turned up at a recording session for this album, the cover remains the most concentrated effort made by the group for Satanic Majesties, and certainly was the focus of Decca's ad campaign, which made no mention of the music. Well, they never liked the music anyway.

Now in 2017, the Stones are getting flack for copying the Beatles' wildly successful Sgt. Pepper 50th anniversary blowout by coming out with a Satanic Majesties 50th anniversary edition of an album that didn't get a tenth of the love Pepper did. And despite being there first with the lenticular cover, it still looks as if the Stones riding Sgt. Pepper's day-glo coattails because the Beatles went 3D on their anniversary edition four months ago. This is also patently unfair since this release is instigated by ABKCO, the company Allen Klein created when he swindled all the Stones' Decca masters out from under them. The Stones have mostly wanted you to forget this album; witness the 22 years and dozens of world tours it took before they even had the collective balls to play any song from Satanic Majesties live.

Maybe that's why I've been fascinated for close to 50 years. From the first time I saw its lenticular cover in a record store and felt nauseous, I was hooked and every year I pull it out of the rack and peruse its improbable contents much the same way Jerry Lewis fans pour over the script of The Day The Clown Cried and can't believe it got made. Majesties has a similar forbidden fruit aroma about it, sticking out like a sore thumb when stacked against all other Stones albums. Straying 2000 light years from their rhythm and blues agenda was the aim, a point the cover hammers home with every glance. Jagger once said around the time of its release: "It's not really meant to be a very nice picture at all. Look at the expressions on our faces. It's a Grimm's fairy tale—one of those stories that used to frighten as a young child."

So let's give the Stones some belated credit for making a scary psychedelic album right up there with The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, an album that sets up a mood more sinister than Beggar's Banquet and its sympathizing with the devil and druggier than Sticky Fingers, with Mick trying to score with "Sister Morphine" and cash in on Keith's habit by putting at least one junkie reference in every song. Satanic Majesties is nowhere near either Stones album in quality, but just think of how the self-produced Majesties ushered in an era where Stones albums were great from beginning to end. Satanic Majesties is the kind of music Lucifer probably plays at home to freak out newcomers to hell who think all music made south of heaven is gonna sound like "Gomper."

Unlike Pepper's deluxe edition, which unearthed a treasure trove of outtakes, the Satanic Majesties half-centennial only contains mono and stereo remixes of the original album. You don't really think you can handle Satanic Majesties outtakes, do you?  Isn't it tough enough seeing the photo outtakes, where the Stones trying all kinds of minstrel hats and kerchiefs, looking more out of place and clueless than anywhere they'd land until Altamont?

Actually, some choice outtakes here will probably give you a better understanding of the album, how far the Stones went with their ideas and how far they could've still gone if they didn't leave it till the last minute (like a biology term paper) to crib it all together to see what happens.

Gold Painted Nails (Take 17)

Although the Stones had released quality tracks like "We Love You" and "Dandelion" by summer's end, by that time they had already driven away their producer Andrew Loog Oldham by playing lousy blues jams whenever he'd show up to the studio. You will note that there is no honking harp or anything remotely bluesy on Majesties except for the acoustic delta blues intro to "The Lantern." This gives you some idea of how The Stones began exploring the room-clearing properties of music which would later culminate in "Cocksucker Blues," Jamming with Edward and She's the Boss.

5 Part Jam

This assemblage of variations on a theme demonstrates that the Stones, taking a cue from The Beach Boys, were recording music in sections, with an idea of joining them up later. Mostly, these tracks demonstrate what a great piano player Nicky Hopkins was and how much of his playing holds together the disparate bits of these sessions, culminating with the album's lone hit, "She's a Rainbow." One of these passages sounds so much like circa 1967 Kinks that you'd think the tapes at Olympic Studios may have been mislabeled.

Majesties Honky Tonk

More Nicky Hopkins demonstration discs. Although with all the drug busts, it was a crap shoot who'd turn up for a session, it seems Hopkins had a perfect attendance record and this Procol Harumish bit of baroque pop got put down without any involvement from Mick or Keith or Brian. Stones fans on YouTube are having none of it though. Take this sample comment: "NOTHING TO DO WITH STONES, SOME MISTAKE. PLS CHECK."

Child of the Moon (instrumental v2)

A future B-side to "Jumping Jack Flash," this track was not quite there yet in June and July of 1967. Had they gotten it close to what it became in 1968, it could've lifted the Majesties album considerably, supplanting the 18 or so minutes occupied by "Gomper," "On With the Show," "Sing This All Together (See What Happens)" and Bill Wyman's snoring.

Sing This All Together labeled 1. Jam One (takes 1-7) 2. Jam One (takes 8-9) 3. Jam One (takes 10-15)

Far from being the slickly produced Pepper, much of Satanic Majesties is about following the Stones down a musical rabbit hole they have no idea how they're going to get out of. No splendid time is guaranteed for all here.  And that explains the abundance of filler but that should be expected. Before 1968, Stones albums were riddled with filler. Remember on their debut album how they managed to cover "Can I Get a Witness" twice and how they marred an otherwise brilliant Aftermath by sticking a boring 11-minute ejaculation like "Goin Home"? "Sing This All Together (See What Happens)" is only slightly less annoying, like a drum circle that doesn't want to leave your living room after the party.

Much like The Beatles' "Revolution No. 9" would become a sprawling exposition of musical concrete from the studio jam that evolved from "Revolution No. 1" the following year, The Stones manage to crib two LP tracks out of "Sing This All Together."  In its three-minute trimming, "Sing This All Together" is a pleasant enough hippie singalong at the three-minute mark, but stretched out over 14  minutes, you can feel the desperation of the Stones doing the speeding up rush of the Velvet Underground's "Heroin," trying to connect with this formless, rootless jamming that gives an actual audio demonstration of "Baby, baby, baby, you're out of time." One would hope that this was one of the nights that Charlie didn't feel good and went home early because whoever's banging the African drum here is dropping more beats than Dr. Dre. On one of these jams—not on YouTube, unfortunately—you can hear Keith playing the Chuck Berry lick from the beginning of "Around and Around" and over at the 13-minute mark, almost to console himself that there is light at the end of the psychedelic tunnel.