1968, Decca Records. Producer: Jimmy Miller.
In My Collection: CD, 2003.
(Five minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL: Beggars Banquet is a record of three gorgeous diamonds set amongst seven smaller gems. It’s mostly acoustic blues, with Keith Richards giving a masterclass on guitar. Mick Jagger’s vocals stand out, as he yelps and seethes, but also puts on other voices to sell each song completely. Even stronger than Mick’s voice are his lyrics. He’s a deeper guy than his decades-long persona would indicate. And let’s not forget drummer Charlie Watts, who always manages to liven up even the most straightforward numbers.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 20
The dearly departed exist in our minds, where they are fixed forever. My dad died two years ago and I think of him regularly. In my mind, he remains about thirty-three years old, making his family laugh, fixing anything that breaks, working on cars, and getting ready for hunting season. There was so much more to him, and he lived for 45 more years, but most thoughts that pop up are of him as a young father. I generally only consider his many other attributes when my own kids ask me questions, and he becomes a character in one of my answers. I’ll say, “I totally forgot about this, but …” and then share a little tidbit.
Even those still with us are subject to this compressed perspective. My 80-year-old mother continues to grow and change, but in my mind she’s stuck as the young auburn-haired mom, baking cakes, running the PTA, taking us to the pool, and watching The Guiding Light.
Similarly, we tend to remember historical figures and artists for small parts of their lives and their work. As we approach 2021, it’s very easy to go online and dive into the details about everyone, so it may seem useless to remember more than The Big Stuff. But I think it’s worth knowing that Thomas Edison didn’t just invent the lightbulb. Nina Simone did a lot more than Little Girl Blue.
And if we remember The Rolling Stones merely as the guys that played “Satisfaction” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” or “Miss You” and “Start Me Up,” or released 16 number-one hits in the US and UK, recorded 25 (or thereabouts) albums over 58 years, and up until the pandemic of 2020 were annually among the highest-grossing live acts in the world … well, if you only think of those things, you may overlook Beggars Banquet.
There are many terrific Stones albums. From 1966 (Aftermath) to 1981 (Tattoo You) the Stones released 13 albums. Not all were classics (ahem, TheirSatanicMajestiesRequest, ahem), but none of them sucked. Not even the much-maligned Emotional Rescue, from 1980, which I’d argue (perhaps in a future blog post) is actually a standout album of the era. Three of these records are already on my Official 100 Favorite Albums List: Sticky Fingers, Some Girls and Exile on Main Street. Several others nearly made the list. Beggars Banquet just missed.
Beggars Banquet is a subdued, acoustic blues album with a few startling spikes of power, grit and even whimsy. It starts off with a number that is among the band’s most-popular, and that sounds like nothing else on the album. Or anywhere else.
“Sympathy for the Devil” is a straight-up, no-questions-asked classic. It starts perfectly, with conga drums, by guest Rocky Dijon. Together with the yelps and background laughter, it sounds rather sinister. Initially, Mick Jagger’s vocals, on top of longtime side man Nicky Hopkins’ piano chords, sound restrained and, well, refined. When Keith Richards’ beautifully sloppy bass line1 begins halfway through the first verse, about 0:37, the song really kicks into high gear. Jagger gradually becomes more menacing with each verse. Not much changes in the song, except for the intensity, which continually ratchets up. The lyrics of the song are really brilliant. On first pass, they’re a rundown of Satan’s deeds through history2, the sort of thing that my 14-year-old self thought was really cool. But the last verse makes the real point of the song clear: “Just as every cop is a criminal/ And all the sinners saints …” Jagger’s saying that “Satan” is in all of us, we all have the capacity for both good and evil. If we don’t have a little respect for that evil residing in ourselves, we’ll see this shit happening forever3.
Anyway, the song is fucking amazing. Keith on bass is always terrific, his guitar solo, beginning at 4:48, is a classic, and the “hoo-hoo” backing vocals are catchy as Covid. (Sorry.) The song’s so good that I even liked it when World Party (basically) re-did it in 1990 as a song called “Way Down Now.”
The Stones explore a different, sadder dark territory on the acoustic blues of “No Expectations.” Mick’s voice is in fine form on a hangdog song about a breakup. Original Stone Brian Jones plays acoustic slide, on what Jagger would later say was his last real contribution to the band. (He’d be excused from the band a year later and drown within days at age 27.) They lighten the mood considerably on the near-parody “Dear Doctor.” I always love hearing Keith sing, and his harmonies here are fun, drawling alongside Mick. It’s a jokey song about a hick who’s left at the altar.
Beggars Banquet maintains its full-on, acoustic blues direction on the swampy “Parachute Woman,” a double-entendre-laden ode to Mick’s horniness. I really like Charlie Watts’ drumming on this one. It’s simple, but he throws in more stuff than a slight, three-chord blues number would normally have. His creativity is also on display on the strange, cool “Jigsaw Puzzle.”
It’s a rambling, dreamy, Bob Dylan-ish number that gives us the amusing imagery of the posh, sophisticated Mick Jagger on the floor engaging in the pedestrian humdrummery of completing a jigsaw puzzle. (I don’t know why he wants to complete it “before it rains anymore,” as jigsaw puzzles are known to be a delightful rainy-day activity.) This is one of my favorite Bill Wyman bass lines, as he travels up the neck, hiccuping alongside Keith’s terrific slide guitar. It’s not perfect, as Brian Jones nearly ruins the song with a high-pitched, whiny mellotron, and it could’ve been shortened by 90 seconds, but I like it.
If you want a perfect track, along with “Sympathy for the Devil,” Beggars Banquet presents to you the incomparable “Street Fighting Man.”
It’s got one of the strongest acoustic guitar openings of any rock song. It’s a declaration, immediately taken up by Watts’ bass drum. Mick’s voice impersonates a wailing siren, dismayed at the fact that the street fighting happening in ’68 isn’t happening in London. He does, however, offer to kill the king – which must have been pretty shocking in 1968 UK, the lack of a king notwithstanding. The song struck a chord with me again this past summer, as I drove my kids to rallies and protests where – thankfully – no street fighting occurred while they participated. (Like their dad, neither of them is a street fighter.) The song has a driving energy, and the sitar behind Mick provides a sense of dread. I like Bill Wyman’s descending bass line after the chorus, but it’s Keith’s acoustic and Mick’s vocals that make the song.
The band returns to traditional blues on the Rev. Robert Wilkins number “Prodigal Son.” Mick’s affected voice is terrific on the retelling of a parable of Christ. It’s one of my favorite of the band’s straight blues numbers. “Stray Cat Blues” is a druggy, swampy number that could’ve come off Exile on Main Street. As good as the song sounds, the lyrics are some of Mick’s most disturbing, perhaps even beating out “Brown Sugar” for that prize. Keith’s guitar solo stands out. Up next is “Factory Girl,” an acoustic folky number, featuring Ric Grech on violin. In this song, Jagger is waiting for another girl. She works at a factory, so, unlike the character from “Stray Cat Blues,” she’s presumably older than 15.
Beggars Banquet is three brilliant diamonds surrounded by seven smaller gems. And the third diamond, after “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man,” is “Salt of the Earth.”
It’s a touching ode to the working class, and as a childhood member of that class, I’ve always connected with it. I absolutely love Keith’s warbly singing voice, and he sings the first verse with gusto. He then supplies harmony vocals throughout, and they sound great. Charlie Watts has several rumbling fills, after entering about 1:20. The band’s always loved gospel music, and the Watts Street Gospel Choir beautifully joins in at 2:35. Then they help turn it into a stomping Ray Charles number after 3:50. The song’s a brilliant, sentimental anthem that turns into an uplifting celebration. Mick and Keith sang it on stage after 9/11, at the Concert for New York City. There aren’t too many better album-closers.
The entire album really shows off Keith’s acoustic guitar playing. He’s never been a flashy, guitar-hero type guitarist, but he’s always creative. His Glimmer Twin, Mick, is also on fire, both as lyricist and singer. There’s a lot to remember when we think of The Rolling Stones. Let’s not forget Beggars Banquet.