Frank Kofsky

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1246

I call [Their Satanic Majesties Request] "interesting." I could just have appropriately said "intriguing," "provocative," "esoteric," even "obscure"; not to mention "fascinating," "delightful," and "ominous." (p. 12)

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[Traces] of Beatlery on the album itself are few in number and for the most part superficial; other influences—those of Frank Zappa and, conceivably, Bob Dylan—strike me as being of considerably greater significance….

[Though] their musical means may be different, the Stones are evidently concerned to make a statement indicating their solidarity with the Beatles, as indeed they had already begun to do with We Love You. More than that, the Stones attach enough importance to the idea of the unity of mankind that they make it the subject of both the opening and the finale of the album's frontside.

But while the Stones share a common ideology with the Beatles, the musical expression of that ideology … is handled in a radically different fashion. (p. 13)

[Earlier] in this essay I mentioned that one could detect the influences of Frank Zappa and Bob Dylan on Their Majesties: it is time now to make good that claim.

Zappa first, then, since his influence is the more obvious. To anyone who has heard the Mothers of Invention parody the debauchery of Saturday night in any good, clean, heterosexual, middleclass bar, in America Drinks and Goes Home (Absolutely Free), it will immediately be clear from whence has come the inspiration for the Stones' On With the Show—even right down to the fact that each track occupies the closing position on its respective album. Naturally, not having access to the Stones' mental processes, I can't prove that this is so; but the parallels are certainly suggestive: the M.C. (in the case of the Mothers, an M.C.-singer—rather, "crooner") who exhorts the audience to drink, while promising to have their favorite songs played (Mothers: Bill Bailey; Stones: Ol' Man River, Stormy Weather); the drunken babbling of the crowd (done somewhat more clearly by the Stones), in which you can hear fights starting, girls fending off lecherous advances, calls for more drinks ("Bourbon and soda!"), etc.; the rinky-tink, pseudo-barrelhouse piano. Despite mountains of publicity given to their prospective joint ventures (so to speak) with the Beatles, it would appear that the Stones have been equally taken with the Mothers.

The case for Bob Dylan is not so clear-cut. In all probability, it would never even have occurred to me to think of him in this connection, had not the Stones previously given the game away with their Dylanesque Who's Been Sleeping Here? (Between the Buttons). The Dylan esprit is less blatant and more diffuse on Their Majesties, but a plausible argument for its presence can nonetheless be constructed. For example, the lyric to Citadel. From the first verse and the chorus, one would tend to conclude that the song refers to the recent experiences of various Stones in being imprisoned and tried for alleged "offenses" against Britain's drug laws…. From the second verse on, however, the words become increasingly surrealistic, in a fashion we have come to associate with Dylan (e.g. Desolation Row), with a corresponding attenuation of the trial and prison imagery….

Besides the obscurity of the words themselves, the Stones have added to this track another element of mystery, a subject alluded to above, by mastering the record in such a way that at points, particularly in the second verse, the lyric is only partially intelligible above the instrumental background…. This happens often enough throughout the album, moreover, to make me suspect that it is intended. For when the Stones want to be understood, as in Sing This All Together and with the fellow who asks "Where's that joint?" in the introduction to the reprise of that piece, they take great pains to ensure that the words emerge with utmost clarity. On the other hand, there are some lines, particularly in 2000 Man and The Lantern, that, regardless of how many times I may listen, how loud I turn the volume, where I place the speakers, continue to escape me. Whether this be deliberate or no, it definitely does add to the generally esoteric quality that Their Majesties possesses. (p. 14)

The dimension of mysteriousness, of deliberate, even ominous obscurity, is not confined to Citadel: The Lantern is not "about" a lantern, any more than Citadel is "about" a citadel; and for all the science-fictiony electronic effects of 2000 Light Years from Home. I have an intuitive feeling that I can neither support nor justify that more is involved here than a simple journey in space. Surely there is a point, a "moral" if you will, to 2000 Man—but the difficulty of getting the words right makes me reluctant to hazard a guess. As for Gomper … if that lyric isn't sheer DaDa, then I am about ready to throw up my hands and go into something pleasant and uncomplicated—selling insurance, say. You see, I trust, why I regard the album as dark and esoteric. Satanic Majesties indeed!

Another element which serves both to heighten the effluvium of mystery and to unify the album is the persistent recurrence of imagery relating to voyages or journeys. Recall, for instance, the first verse of Citadel, which mixes prison and trial symbolism with an explicit mention of a journey:

           In the guardtower: "Who goes there?"
           We have journeyed far from here
           On the Bible make us swear.

It could be that "journeyed," in this context, refers to a drug or marijuana trip. Likewise for The Lantern…. The tolling of a bell, such as might be found at the site of a prison tower, at the beginning suggests a further connection with Citadel, as do the third and fourth verses of The Lantern….

Finally, what may be (or, with equal plausibility, may not be) another reference to drug-induced journeys or visions occurs in the injunction of Sing This All Together to "open our heads ["minds" in the reprise version], let the pictures come."…

If the "drug" references on Sing This All Together are ambiguous, that is much less the case with another kind of journey dealt with in the same song. I am thinking here of two lines to be found at the end of the first version, "Pictures of us beating on our drum / Never stopping 'til the rain has come" which seemingly imply a voyage backwards through time to the era of pre-history, when we "can see where we all come from" and "see that we all are one." This, of course, is not the only instance of time-travel in the album: 2000 Man takes us a third of a century into the future, while 2000 Light Years from Home (is there something particuarly significant, or satanic, about the number 2000?), with its vivid depiction of inter-stellar travel—another voyage, please note—goes further still in that direction. Bill Wyman's In Another Land offers yet a different variety of travel: the sleeper, through his dreams, journeys to "another land."

At the moment, I am at a loss to offer any additional explanation for the prevalence of travel metaphor, which is woven like a red thread through the fabric of this album. [Another notion has] struck me, however. If Their Majesties are truly satanic, then wouldn't that involve one more journey, one to the nether regions? (p. 15)

Frank Kofsky, "The Rolling Stones, 'Their Satanic Majesties Request': An Exegesis," in Jazz & Pop (© 1968 by Jazz Press Inc.; reprinted by permission of the author), Vol. 7, No. 4, April, 1968, pp. 12-15.

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