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The New, Weird Britain:
Some Reflections on Colin Liddell’s “Sympathy for Their Satanic Majesties”

2000lightyears [1]1,593 words

I’m very happy to take WN’s suggestion [2] and add a few words to Mr. Colin Liddell’s excellent article [3] on the Rolling Stones’ classic Their Satanic Majesties Request [4] — which I was glad to see since, for some reason, I seem to have not done Satanic Majesties justice in my own past ruminations, although on reflection, inspired by Mr. Liddell, it seems to have a large enough role. 

In particular, regarding Sgt. Pepper, I’ve mentioned before that this supposed epoch-making classic simply did not exist for us, in the Boy’s Own Whitopia of late ’60s Detroit. Satanic Majesties, however, did, most assuredly; it was in constant rotation on the turntable in Ricky Devereau’s shag-carpeted basement pot den. I suppose it was the Stones’ imprimatur that made it acceptable, for while we were certainly into drugs, we hardly considered ourselves hippies:

mc5 [5]

Commenter WN is correct to bring up the Animals as well, another band that I failed to mention before; they, along with the Stones and The Who (“The Rolling Who” as Saffie’s gran would say), loomed large in the playlists of the bare-chested, bathtub-shrunk blue jeaned barbarians of Detroit. For some reason they don’t seem to have played much of a role in my own personal playlist, but they were definitely seem as fellow working class mates.

For an excellent example of how Detroit musicians absorbed the influence of the Animals, consider this 12-minute jam from The Frost’s Grande Ballroom live set, which eventually morphs into “We Gotta Get Outta this Place.”

Mr. Liddell writes that SM is “. . . suffused through a veil of psychedelia and English whimsy with which the band were seldom associated.”

One caveat I would make is that the “whimsical” touches on SM were not unprecedented in the Stones’ discography; Between the Buttons [6], a kind of proto-psychedelic LP that preceded it, ends with the music hall stylings of “Something Happened to Me Yesterday,” which is kind of a vaudevillian take on, I suppose, dropping acid.

Most British bands seemed to fall back on music hall when dealing with psychedelia, which unfortunately doesn’t really travel well across the pond, and certainly not in Detroit. It seems to be, to speak typographically, the fey, poppy McCartney side rather than the working class aggression of Lennon (“Penny Lane” vs. “Strawberry Fields”).

One might also cite the previous single, “We Love You [7]” (backed with “Dandelion”), which was also as un-successful in the US (even with the A/B sides flipped) as SM (and, in a hat tip to Sgt. Pepper, features Lennon/McCartney on backing vocals).

Dylan nervously deals [8] with the challenge presented by Donovan.”

I’ve seen that referred to before as “Dylan deals ironically with annoying British copycat” so I guess it depends on one’s pre-assumptions. I’ve mentioned before that the music of “the old, weird America” as Dylan would say, as found on, say, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music [9], is most notable for how little difference can be found between supposedly white (hillbilly) and black (blues) music. While Lefist Folkies cite this as evidence of “we’re all the same,” I would account for this by observing that both, of course, go back to Scottish/Irish roots (“Black Irish” indeed).

One of the few bands to recognize this and run with it was Led Zeppelin, who almost always mixed up Scottish folk songs with “stolen” blues riffs, with the sovereign indifference of true Aryan musical overlords; hence, their being arguably the “greatest” blues/heavy metal band. It’s telling that unlike cringing imitators like Clapton, Zeppelin marched into the offices of “black” label Atlantic,[1] dictated their own, unprecedented terms (no singles, no interviews), and proceeded to become their biggest selling act ever; while Cream and, briefly, the Who were relegated to their down-market Atco label.

What the Stones were experimenting with here, was a rejection of American simplicity and directness, as typified by the blues or R&B song, which was, in its own way, as much an expression of mid-twentieth-century American bourgeois efficiency and expansiveness as the pick-up truck, fast-food, pop art, and body count warfare in Vietnam.

The songs on Their Satanic Majesties Request strive to escape this narrow time-and-motion, cost-benefit world, and reach out further and deeper. The elements of deconstruction that seems like the results of studio disorganization are instead invocations of the primitive and celestial. In the context of the mid-twentieth century this is rebellion indeed.

In this way the familiar world of American musical genres are warped into weird echoes and odd sounds, giving them the flavor of decontextualized detritus, which are then washed away by the strains of a sitar or an African or Indian polyrhythm.

Now, this is a fine description of the musical significance of SM and the effects of it on the listener, but it brings up the interesting fact that there is someone conspicuous by his absence, here and throughout the essay: Brian Jones. Now, while the album is often dismissed as a failure due to “the results of studio disorganization,” the fact is that it was the last album on which Brian had any real influence, and he is the one responsible for the “invocations of the primitive and celestial” as well as “the strains of a sitar or an African or Indian polyrhythm.”

Brian Jones and Mick Jagger [10]

Brian Jones and Mick Jagger

Paul Trynka, in the biography of Brian[2] I previously reviewed here [11], dislikes SM and gives it scant attention — “The sessions were a meandering, unfocused mess” — and even suggests that Mick’s grudging acknowledgement of Brian’s role was (perhaps) an attempt to foist the blame for the disaster on him. Yet he adds:

In this context, it was Brian who as much as anyone pulled the music together. In particular, along with session pianist Nicky Hopkins . . . Brian transformed the future single “We Love You” into a half-decent song. ‘The part Brian added on the Mellotron was absolutely brilliant’ . . . . Indeed, that summer Mick would comment that the upcoming album was largely electronic, and was based on Brian’s experiments.

Brian continued to be the most consistent and imaginative contributor to the album the band was attempting to complete, pulling together songs like “2000 Light Years from Home.”

And so, as Mr. Liddell concludes, after Brian pulled things together, the Stones

. . . soon pulled back to the plough and a musical furrow that would spiral inwards in ever decreasing circles.[3] This prepared the way for their next album Beggars Banquet [12], which is notable for the smell of rubber and the screech of brakes that its U-turn trajectory evokes. This was a rapid retreat back to their Americana roots, although it retained some of the irony and sophistication of Majesties, most particularly on the album’s stand out track “Sympathy for the Devil.”

We should see this retrenchment as the effect of Brian’s expulsion from the band, and the reassertion of the anti-Brian management style pioneered by Andrew Loog Oldham, held in abeyance while, as Mr. Liddell notes, the Stones struggled to produce an LP without him. As Trynka says:

Brian was finally free of Oldham, the man who’s turned his guitar down in the mix ever since “I Wanna Be Your Man,” . . . but in the interim, Keith had learned all Brian’s’ tricks. Brian had made meaningful contributions to Satanic Majesties, [but] with Mick and Keith back in control, that era was at an end.[4]

Mick and Keith could see that the path to fame and riches lay with a return to “American simplicity and directness, as typified by the blues or R&B song.” I’ve previously noted, in the review cited below, that Mick and, especially Keith essentially stole Brian’s talent and personality (“Keith had learned all Brian’s’ tricks”) to ensure their own, Faustian success, which now rather reminds me of the exchange I recently quoted[5] from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America:

“I took away your whole life from you. I’ve been living in your place. I took everything. I took your money. I took your girl.”

Speaking of music hall, or “vaudeville” as the Yanks say, perhaps the epitaph for the America-friendly Stones should be the same as Leone’s ironic valedictory tune: “God Bless America.”

Notes

1. See Elizabeth Whitcombe’s “The Mysterious German Professor [13]” on Theodor Adorno’s role in setting up Atlantic to promote “socially destructive behavior.”

2. Paul Trynka, Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones (New York: Viking, 2014)

3. Trynka: “What Brian could do was simple but all-important: [not write like Mick and Keith but] “make Keith and Mick’s song sound better,” as in ‘The Last Time’– “the spiraling insistent guitar melody that made sense of the song . . . .” I have, of course, frequently mentioned the musical/metaphysical significance of the spiral, versus the circle; I would rather say that Brian’s path was a spiral up and out of the blues, rock, fame, and life, while Mick and Keith plow the never-ending circles of the same field.

6. Liddell calls “Sympathy” the “stand out track” and Trynka notes that in Goddard’s film of the sessions, you can see Mick painfully teaching the riff to Brian, their roles now completely reversed.

5. “Essential Films . . . & Others, here [14]. Today I found a fashion mag on the subway and while leafing through an article on Bjork, found this large pull-quote: “She creates a circle around her which is her universe, and before each circle closes, she jumps outside [like Danny in The Shining] to create a new circle.  So each album goes into a new direction regardless of the success of the previous one.”  As always, traditional wisdom today is found only in ephemera and junk.