Simon Frith

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1684

My Stones pose was weariness, a pose I've feigned pretty well ever since. But it's a pose that's taken effort to maintain and reflects a furtive obsession. Making sense of rock has meant making sense of the Stones and when Beggars Banquet came out in 1968 I changed my usual habits—bought this white album, left the Beatles' white album on its parallel shop floor pile. The Beatles still made more comfortable music but Beggars Banquet was the most interesting record I'd ever heard.

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Most rock records aren't difficult to understand. They draw on commonplaces of community and adolescence: easy listening, good dancing, simple emotions, and sharp images. From this point of view Beggars Banquet isn't difficult either, just a mainstream Stones LP, party music with a sneer and a leer. But its cleverness makes the difference. The Stones, as intellectual, share an acute, almost contemptuous grasp of their own paradoxes: British makers of American music, white romancers of black culture, middle-class triflers with working-class urgencies, adult observers of youth, aesthetes of body music. Beggars Banquet is the celebration of the contradictions of British rock culture. (p. 30)

[As] writers Jagger and Richard are efficient but self-conscious. Their songs rarely take the breath away—no images to haunt like Bob Dylan's, no language as beautiful as Smokey Robinson's, none of John Lennon's plain talk. The Stones tend to vulgarity, to the slyly pounding use of rock clichés. The magic of the Stones lies in their transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary and if this transformation is hard to grasp analytically, it clearly rests on their awe-inspiring commitment to rock and roll itself. (pp. 30-1)

[The] Stones' pleasure in sex is notorious. Beggars Banquet includes one of Jagger's most explicit sexual performances, "Stray Cat Blues." Over a seedy blues backing he slurs a smug commentary on young groupie sex: "Bet your mother don't know you can scratch like that!"

What's erotic about this track is not its abandon but its detachment. Jagger isn't wheedling these girls up to his rooms, he's taking their presence for granted. (p. 31)

The Stones' own sexual morality is expressed not in "Stray Cat Blues" but in "Parachute Woman," a clearer statement of sexual need. It's solid again, R&B thrust and chorus, but Jagger is deeper-voiced, uses his harmonica to make the traditional demanding sound and says matter-of-factly what he wants. Lyrically, the song is unimpressive—standard blues metaphors without much resonance, wit or point—but emotionally it makes clear the Stones' claim to adult status. Their case is made without musical rhetoric, teenage self-pity, or male drama. "I'm in for a spell of paradise" is an assertion, not a dream; life on the road and the morality of the moment. A sexist song but without sexist consequence, because what is being expressed is not sexual pride but emotional disinterest.

Most popular songs are love songs, but love is too sociable a concept for the Stones. They've made love songs, but they're atypical. "Angie," for example, is dependent on the language and sentiment, the pretty tune and vapid rhythm, of pop convention. The best Stones songs about love are non-love songs, statements of non-involvement, no commitment. "No Expectations" is the Stones' finest non-love song. In an acoustic blues of great tenderness, Jagger never once pulls back from his argument that "love is like water, that flashes on a stone." Spells of paradise are conveyed now by a stately but inexorable musical movement. The emotional point is that a traveler's life is incompatible with domesticity: no ties mean no expectations, no expectations mean no ties. The argument is descriptive, not moral: the road and the home each have their own decencies, loyalties, and self-respect, neither life is better than the other. The music is dignified, the slide guitar adds pathos. What is involved here is not hedonism, or even self-indulgence. (pp. 31-2)

The dumbest track on Beggars Banquet is "Sympathy for the Devil." Jagger as Satan wends his way through famous dark events from the Crucifixion of Christ to the assassinations of the Kennedys. Lyrically, the song is idle in the extreme. The images are strung together with little rhyme or reason—is the Russian Revolution really equivalent to a Kennedy assassination? Jagger indulges in some surprisingly glib moralizing. "After all," he smirks, "it was you and me."

Bullshit. It wasn't him or me that killed the Kennedys. Any interesting point the song might make about popular obsessions with evil and violence is lost in the swirl of "ooh oohs," in the falsetto riffs. Any sense of doom is undercut by the song's jolly beat; lyrical portentousness is punctured by the chirpy percussion. "Sympathy for the Devil" has been heard as the Macbeth of rock music, a song with the mysterious power to impel new dark deeds, but that's not how the Stones play it. If "Stray Cat Blues" is a cosmic commentary on their supposed sexual appetites, "Sympathy for the Devil" is a comic comment on their supposed outrageousness. (pp. 32-3)

The Stones' problem in 1968 was … that their reckless living had exhausted their resources. They needed to go home again and going home, in this context, meant a grappling with a notion of collectivity. Politics was much more of a challenge than psychedelia. The counter-culture had given the Stones another version of individualism and indulgence; counter-politics posed the problem of joining.

Their response was "Street Fighting Man," their finest single and the cornerstone of Beggars Banquet. On the surface, "Street Fighting Man" is an ironic commentary on the Stones' own position in 1968: their detachment from everyone else's passions, their doubts about the effectiveness of such passions in sleepy London town, their own cop-out—"What can a poor boy do, but to sing in a rock and roll band?" But beneath the lyrical commentary is a more subtle musical commentary. "Street Fighting Man" makes a direct link between rock and roll and politics that qualifies the wry alternatives of the lyrics. Rock's beat is made military, its steadiness and uniformity are emphasized, its power and vigor become ominous…. The transformation of rock language into militaristic marching music reverses the point of the lyrics: the argument is not that rock is a source of revolutionary energy and solidarity … but that revolution in its 1968 youth expression had no more solid basis than the community of rock and roll consumers. Politics, the Stones concluded, is just a matter of style. If marching in the streets was collective behavior, it was still no more meaningful than any other form of rock and roll behavior. (pp. 34-5)

The Stones' most touching 1968 song was "Jigsaw Puzzle," an all-purpose Bob Dylan-style number, instant pop in which Jagger tries to persuade us that he does have a social critique, that he too has been an outcast all his life. It's the jigsaw puzzle of life—the Stones' imagery is from a bad sermon, a series of familiarly resonant pictures: the tramp on the doorstep, the bishop's daughter, the queen shouting, "What the hell is going on?" Desolation Row again and just as meaningless but less literate and not as witty. Funnier, though….

As sociology, however, "Jigsaw Puzzle" is silly—the Stones don't need to make their political points through poetry. (p. 36)

The Stones return to the theme [of the working class] in Beggars Banquet's closing track. "Salt of the Earth" is a drinking song. It combines the militaristic musical references of "Street Fighting Man" with the music hall references of "Factory Girl" and comes straight from a pub. A hearty melody, a solid sound, and Jagger ringing the changes, drinking to hard-working people and uncounted heads and backbreaking men and common foot-soldiers and stay-at-home voters. The music builds up the sense of jolly community and only slowly does its irony seep through—this emotion is false, these are the emptily patronizing phrases the ruling class has mouthed through the ages. When Jagger steps out of the chorus it is to make a different point about the people: "They don't look real to me, in fact they look so strange …" And still the music builds, the chorus soars, until, as the populism peaks, the Stones have achieved the maximum distance between what the music feels like and what the music means. The references as they echo back across the album—references to marching in the street, to working-class power, to styles of collectivism—are plain and sour.

Which is why I've never really been a Stones fan. I've always heard them as petit bourgeois jesters, who've taken delight in standing morality on its head but retained a touchy egotism, a contempt for the masses that they share with any respectable small shopkeeper. Their rebellion has been a grand gesture, an aesthetic style without a social core. (p. 37)

The Stones' best music remains the source of rock's greatest energy and joy, and even for the punks—especially for the punks—the Stones remain the greatest symbol of rock and roll possibility. It's back to my own Stones problem: bad politics, good rock and roll—how to reconcile them? The punk cliché is that the Stones were politically okay once, but got rich and famous and irrelevant. This is nonsense. The Stones haven't changed their position from the day they started; their rock and roll may have got worse but their politics were never any better. Which leaves only one other possibility: good rock and roll equals bad politics. Don't the grace and power and dignity of Beggars Banquet depend on its social detachment?…

Beggars Banquet is constructed around a series of paradoxes but all its puzzles rest on the central ambiguity of the Stones' history: are they earnest, hard-working craftsmen or dilettante, pleasure-seeking playboys? This ambiguity isn't unique to the Stones. All popular entertainers work at our play, dedicate themselves to our relaxation. The importance of the Stones is that they take pleasure completely seriously. (p. 38)

Simon Frith, "'Beggars Banquet'," in Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, edited by Greil Marcus, (copyright © 1979 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1979, pp. 29-39.

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