Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1255
The Rolling Stones are constantly changing but beneath the changes they remain the most formal of rock bands. Their successive releases have been continuous extensions of their approach, not radical redefinitions, as has so often been the case with the Beatles. The Stones are constantly being reborn, but somehow the baby always looks like its parents….
Since [the] beginning the Stones have tried their hands at a lot of things: arrogance, satire, social commentary, "psychedelia," lewdness, love songs, you name it. Each phase seemed to flow naturally from the one that preceded it and none of their phases ever really changed their identity as a band. In every album but one it seemed to me that they managed to feel the pulse of what was happening now and what was about to happen. For example, "Satisfaction," that classic of the rock and roll age, both expressed the feelings of a moment and foreshadowed what was about to unfold: the elevation of rock and roll to the primary cultural means of communication among the young. There we were in the early summer of 1965 with folk music dead and nothing really exciting going on. And then there were the Stones sneering at the emptiness of what so many people saw all around them, not telling you to do anything about it, but letting you know that they feel it too. The music, with its incessant, repetitious, pounding guitar and drums, and that tension filled voice, was so permeated with violence that just listening to it was cathartic. (p. 11)
The Rolling Stones are violence. Their music penetrates the raw nerve endings of their listeners and finds its way into the groove marked "release of frustration." Their violence has always been a surrogate for the larger violence their audience is so obviously capable of.
On Beggar's Banquet the Stones try to come to terms with violence more explicitly than before and in so doing are forced to take up the subject of politics. The result is the most sophisticated and meaningful statement we can expect to hear concerning the two themes—violence and politics—that will probably dominate the rock of 1969….
Beggar's Banquet is not a polemic or manifesto. It doesn't advocate anything. It is a reflection of what goes on at the Stones house, with a few pictures of the house itself thrown in for good measure. Part of what that house looks like has to do with what it's surrounded by and the most startling songs on the album are the ones that deal with the Stones environment: "Salt of the Earth," "Street Fighting Man," and "Sympathy for the Devil." Each is characterized lyrically by a schizoid ambiguity. The Stones are cognizant of the explosions of youthful energy that are going on all around them. They recognize the violence inherent in these struggles. They see them as movements for fundamental change and are deeply sympathetic. Yet they are too cynical to really go along themselves. After all, they are rock and roll musicians, not politicians, and London is such a "sleepy town."
They make it perfectly clear that they are sickened by contemporary society. But it is not their role to tell people what to do. Instead, they use their musical abilities like a seismograph to record the intensity of feelings, the violence, that is so prevalent now. From the beginning they themselves have been exponents of emotional violence and it's hard to imagine any group more suited to voicing the feeling of discontent we all share in these most violent of times. Wherever they wind up themselves, they are writing songs of revolution because they are giving-powerful expression to the feelings that are causing it.
Musically the Stones express themselves through three basic elements: rhythm, tension, and energy. "Street Fighting Man" is prototypical of the approach. (p. 12)
The beat is constantly being pushed, the guitars constantly re-emphasizing the basic movement of the song, the bass providing the perfect floor to the arrangement. And then the voice; Jagger is the source of the tension. At his best (definitely on this track) he sounds like he's fighting for control, fighting to be heard over the din of the instruments. For all its simplicity it is an amazingly complex style of arranging and a perfect vehicle for expressing the lyrics.
The words are beautiful. Notice how Jagger emphasizes them: "Ev-ry where I hear the sound of charg-ing, march-ing peo-ple." The Stones obviously revel in the images of charging people: they've sure seen enough of them at their concerts. (pp. 12-13)
"Salt of the Earth" continues in the same vein and serves as Jagger's tribute to the "other half." Lyrically, the song's point of view is again ambiguous. Jagger obviously wants to empathize with the "common foot soldier," the working man, the man who is forced to throw his life away on "back-breaking work" without ever achieving satisfaction. On the other hand, when he looks into their "faceless crowds," they look "strange." He has gotten to a point where he can't really come to terms with their way of thinking….
"Sympathy for the Devil" rounds out the group of ambiguous, socially aware songs. To me, it is the most distinguished song and performance of the year. Lyrically, it is a striking picture of a world gone mad. Cops are criminals. Saints are sinners. God is the devil. Whoever is on top makes whoever is beneath him the enemy; actually, it is always the men on top who are the enemy. Those who claim righteousness for themselves are only interested in perpetuating their own power. Those they vilify are really the righteous ones, until they achieve power for themselves. Then they imitate their predecessors and the process repeats itself through history. The narrator, Lucifer, was there when "Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt, of pain." He was there when "the blitzkreig raged and the bodies stank." And he lays "traps for troubadors who get killed before they reach Bombay." And who is telling us all this? A man of wealth and taste. Sounds like what a lot of people would like to become….
The rest of the album is made up of largely conventional Stones styled songs. There are some mediocre ones among them, but then that is part of the Stones. Consistency is not their bag….
"Stray Cat Blues" is easily the best of the lot and is pure Stones. It deals with their favorite subject: naughty boys and girls. The lyrics are about a groupie and Jagger comes up with some very tough lines: "I've heard you're fifteen years old / But I don't want your ID" and signs off with "I'll bet your mother don't know you can bite like that."….
Beggar's Banquet is a complete album. While it does not attempt Sgt. Pepper type unity it manages to touch all the bases. It derives its central motive and mood from the theme of "revolution" but isn't limited to that. Over at the Stones house there's plenty of room for groupies, doctors, jigsaw puzzles, factory girls, and broken hearts as well. Yet even these subjects are colored by the impact of "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Street Fighting Man." Beggar's Banquet ought to convince us all that the Stones are right. By putting all these different themes on the same album the Stones are trying to tell us that they all belong together. They do. (p. 13)
Jon Landau, "'Beggar's Banquet'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1969; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 25, January 4, 1969, pp. 10-13.
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