In Defence of Their Satanic Majesties Request

20170924_164812 (2)Their Satanic Majesties has been unfairly maligned over the fifty years it has existed, by fans, critics and the band who created it, The Rolling Stones. In my view it is a classic album which deserves to be held in the same esteem as the four albums which followed it and are universally regarded as the Stones’ ‘Golden Run’: Beggar’s Banquet; Let It Bleed; Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street.

 

It is easy for criticism to become received wisdom over the years and one bad review, reprinted by lazy critics and journalists, unable or unwilling to actually listen to an album and make up their own minds, can assume the mantle of fact. It is my intention to argue the case for Their Satanic Majesties Request, which I believe to be not only the equal of the albums in the Golden Run, but also of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, often regarded as the high watermark of English psychedelia.

 

Satanic Majesties is not really a Stones album, the accepted position holds; it’s an aberration, a misfire, an ill-judged attempt to jump on the psychedelic bandwagon which Sgt Pepper had put into motion.

 

To understand the album you need to look at the time in which it was made. To enjoy it, you simply have to put it onto your record player and drop the needle! Or, of course, insert it into your CD player and press ‘Play’.

 

In 1967 the UK music scene had exploded into Technicolour, along with clothing fashions and graphic design. Paisley prints and bold, colourful designs were the order of the day and even people like Cilla Black released albums with psychedelic cover art. Everyone wanted in.

 

The driver of this new scene was LSD, with a little marijuana on the side; The Stones, like other bands including the Fab Four, tuned in and turned on. They had released Between The Buttons in early 1967 which featured several very psychedelic tracks and it could be argued that ‘Paint It, Black’, recorded as early as March 1966 and released in May of that year, was an overtly psychedelic song, with its sitar and Eastern scales. The Stones weren’t bandwagon jumping; they were right there in the vanguard.

 

Brian Jones, already unravelling due to his ingestion of drugs and his perception that the band he had started was being taken away from him, had become the experimenter in the Stones and had, as early as ‘Lady Jane’ and ‘Mother’s Little Helper’, been bringing increasingly exotic instruments into the studio to see what he could do with them. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Satanic Majesties bristles with unusual sounds and textures and heavily features the Mellotron, then in its infancy as a rock instrument.

 

Another oft-repeated claim is that there are only two songs on the album which are worth talking about; 2000 Light Years From Home and She’s A Rainbow. This is to entirely miss the point and to show an unawareness of the musical climate into which Satanic Majesties was finally released, in December 1967, after the summer flowers had wilted.

 

Engineer Glynn Johns, who basically took over production duties when Andrew Loog Oldham walked out, dismissed some of the tracks as ‘utter drivel’. I disagree. The tracks usually singled out for the most vitriolic attacks are ‘Sing This Altogether’ and its eight and a half minutes long reprise ‘Sing This Altogether (See What Happens). Stories abound of a box of percussion instruments being upended on the studio floor and the various stoned hangers-on being invited to grab something and shake or bang it. Experimentation was the order of the day in 1967 and The Stones were simply joining in.

 

Melodically and harmonically, Sing This Altogether is a great song. Dressed up in its psychedelic threads it becomes even greater, with its lyrics of optimism and free thinking. ‘Open our heads, let the pictures come’ is right in tune with the Spirit of ’67. It sets the scene for what is to follow. That the theme is restated and developed later in the album is another device in common usage in classical music which was beginning to seep into pop.

 

Between these two tracks we find three tracks often dismissed as having no weight or value in the Stones’ canon. Not true. ‘Citadel’ is propelled by a great riff from Keith, distinctive percussion from Charlie, and some lovely keyboard textures. It’s a great song by anyone’s standards, but it’s not a Blues song.

 

Next comes ‘In Another Land’, written and voiced by Bill Wyman and featuring a psychedelic tremolo effect on the voice. Having a different lead vocalist on a song was again true to the spirit of the day, and In Another Land ramps up the psychedelia with its haunting harpsichord, howling wind effects and detached backing vocals from Mick during the verses. Steve Marriot also sings on the chorus. Because Bill was in the studio on his own he laid down this track so people will say ‘it’s not really a Stones song at all’. It sounds just like a Stones song to me!

 

‘2000 Man’ is next and again features a strong riff from Keith, this time on acoustic guitar. It has a very unusual rhythmic feel supplied by Charlie’s drums and another great melody. The sudden switch in feel after the second verse is pure 1967.

 

Listen to music from the same period by Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and The Red Crayola and you will hear echoes of the ‘free-form freak-out which makes up the bulk of Sing This Altogether (See What Happens). It’s not the Stones as we know them but it’s never less than entertaining. The stereo version on headphones is a psychedelic experience which stands with anything released around the time by any of the aforementioned acts.

 

‘She’s A Rainbow’, which opened the original side two, is carried along by the superb piano playing of Nicky Hopkins and is as good a song as the Stones ever wrote. Never mind that they nicked the chorus line ‘She comes in Colours’ from the Love song of the same name.

 

Another pair of much-maligned tracks follow; the moody and atmospheric ‘The Lantern’ and the Eastern raga-rock of ‘Gomper’. I love both of these songs; if you can listen to them just as two pieces of period psychedelia and divorce the Rolling Stones of ‘Satisfaction’ from them, then you may just start to realise what a couple of gems they really are.

 

The segue from Gomper into ‘2000 Light Years From Home’ is one of the first truly terrifying moments in sixties psychedelia. Written by Mick whilst incarcerated after the notorious Redlands bust, this song perfectly captures the alienation, removal and sheer otherness of the experience which inspired it. For me it stands alongside any of the other much-lauded anthems of the day, including anything Pink Floyd, The Pretty Things, The Doors and The Beatles produced in this landmark year.

 

The closing track ‘On With The Show’ is another one which comes in for unfair criticism. Lampooning the gentlemen’s club culture still very prevalent in Soho and set to a curiously anachronistic soundtrack, On With The Show has its tongue very firmly in its cheek.

 

The cover art, featuring the lenticular picture on the front, again invites criticism of those who say the Stones were simply trying to outdo the sleeve of Sgt Pepper. This is to forget that all the usual strictures had been removed and that anything was possible. Inside the gatefold sleeve the mind-blowing collage of Sci-fi landscapes juxtaposed with Renaissance art and the pop-art maze which proclaims ‘It’s here’ at its centre screams 1967 way more loudly than the sleeve of Sgt Pepper.

 

I bought my first copy in early 1968 from a second-hand shop in Hull; at the time I think lots of Stones fans had been given it for Christmas in 1967 but found it was too ‘far out’ for them, so it began cropping up in the second-hand shops almost immediately.

 

If you are one of those people who dismissed it at the time, or just believed what the critics have continued to recycle ever since, then I urge you; go to it again but this time with an open mind. It will reward you in ways you have not previously imagined.

 

 

 

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The Manband

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In the very early seventies I was a musical snob; The Who were the best band in the world – end of, and no amount of pleading on behalf of Led Zeppelin or The Rolling Stones would shift me from this position.

I remember when I was in my first band, Bone, and Hawkwind’s eponymous debut album was released; hippies everywhere were softly intoning “far out, man” and other such clichés. I was quite excited to hear this ground-breaking weirdness and duly did so at a squat where we rehearsed. However, when it started, I heard clean electric guitar and barre chords being moved around with the occasional squeak and squiggle – at the time I considered that we, Bone, were a pretty far-out band and these guys were nowhere near us in the weirdness stakes! So I duly dismissed them; their big hit ‘Silver Machine’ (Status Quo with white noise!) only served to confirm my disparaging opinion of them and it wasn’t until I heard ‘Live ’79’, courtesy of my good buddy Andy Scott of Wasted Youth, that I realised I had done them a grave disservice and spent the next several months catching up on what I’d missed out on!

I did a similar thing with Man around ’69 – ’70; one of my mates enthusiastically invited me to “listen to this”, which I did, and announced myself to be singularly unimpressed; aimless jamming on one riff, again confirmed by a TV spot which failed to ignite my passion!

Fast-forward to 2014 and I bought the ‘Original Album Series five-pack, containing studio albums 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8, for a small amount of cash, thinking maybe I could give them a re-evaluation. It sat on my shelf for months until I heard Man perform ‘Ain’t Their Fight’ on one of those BBC4 compilations on a Friday evening; this lead me to think “maybe I should give that box set a listen”! From the first chords of ‘Romain’ I was interested, but not moved – as the album unfolded my interest was piqued and I moved on to ‘Do You Like It Here, Are You Settling In?’; I worked my way through all five albums whilst driving to and from work, and realised I’d done it again – Man were indeed a mighty force to reckon with!

From here I found out that all their stuff had been re-mastered and expanded by the Esoteric label, so I set about acquiring more Man – ‘Live at the Paget Rooms’ came first, and I began to realise just how mighty the Manband in full flow were; add to that the brilliant sleeve notes from Deke Leonard and I was well hooked! Their entire output up until the split in 1976 found its way through my door, then the Marquee reformation gig and ‘The Twang Dynasty’, all lovingly re-mastered, expanded and re-packaged by the nice people at Esoteric and the history filled in by the great Deke Leonard! I have experienced many moments of bliss courtesy of the Manband; the first time I heard the live version of ‘C’mon’ from ‘Back Into The Future’ being a particular highlight. I am now most definitely “along for the ride and the view”!

If only my judgemental and dismissive teenage self had been more patient I would doubtless have seen them live several times. Alas, with the passing of Micky Jones (RIP) in 2010 that will never happen.

Thank goodness their legacy has been so lovingly and carefully managed by the Esoteric label – and I wonder how many more great bands I am yet to discover!

Physical Graffiti remastered!

In the late 60s and early 70s three bands vied for the title “the world’s greatest rock and roll band”; The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin. For me, it was a no-brainer; The Who were unarguably the best.

In those days there was almost a gang culture around the music scene, inasmuch as we developed allegiances that were absolute; who do you like, The Beatles or The Stones? Clapton or Hendrix? Led Zep or The Who? In my view Hendrix was so far ahead of Clapton that it simply wasn’t debatable, but the tussle for the title of best rock and roll band was another matter.

The Who had been my favourite band since 1965 when I Can’t Explain leapt out of our tiny black and white 425 lines TV and I wasn’t about to brook any challenge to their unassailable position at the top of the rock tree; this lead to me dismissing all pretenders such as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. For years I wouldn’t even listen to their records, unless round at a mate’s house and being obligated to hear them out of politeness.

When Presence was released in 1976 I heard Achilles Last Stand on the Old Grey Whistle Test; I began to think that maybe I’d been missing out on something……

A friend then lent me a copy of Physical Graffiti and the redefinition of my musical taste began. I played it to death in my small bedroom in Stoke Newington, where, as a member of Dead Fingers Talk, I was then living. It led to me investigating more of the Zep back catalogue and gradually admitting to myself that these guys were pretty good!

Physical Graffiti is now remastered and reissued on its fortieth anniversary with some revealing early mixes and alternate versions and it continues to stand as a monumental achievement, and certainly one of the best “double albums” ever released.

Some people will say that there are “filler” tracks and that the quality isn’t consistent; heck, there are even a handful of songs which were already several years old when the album was released. I disagree; I think it stands as a cohesive piece of work in the same way that Electric Ladyland does. Both these double albums display a wide stylistic sweep, with “experimental” pieces, dynamite ensemble playing, outstanding songcraft and virtuoso performances.

Physical Graffiti explodes from the speakers with the double whammy of Custard Pie followed by the majestic The Rover, surely one of the most under-appreciated tracks in the Zep canon. The Rover is a megalith slice of raw rock, full of killer riffs propelled by Bonzo’s drums and JPJ’s brilliant pedal notes; Jones shows just how devastating playing one note can sound!

The original vinyl side one is rounded off with In My Time Of Dying, the longest track on the album, which shows the band mining and then mangling their blues heritage with utter verve and aplomb.

The original side two follows with a sequence of three songs which bear comparison in terms of quality and sheer impact with any other single side of music, including the original side D of Electric Ladyland. Houses Of The Holy into Trampled Underfoot into Kashmir is one of the most sublime sequences of songs I can imagine in rock. By the time Kashmir fades away you are left feeling exhausted and elated in equal measure, as if you’ve just landed in an oasis after a magic carpet ride over the desert sands.

The mystical theme continues with In The Light, another tour-de-force of creativity, composition and sheer power, then we are taken back to the Welsh countryside with Page’s acoustic guitar. Completing the original side three are two pearls in the shape of Down By The Seaside and Ten Years Gone, each full of wistful charm, yearning and longing, painting sonic pictures that linger long after the album is finished.

Side four is where some people think the quality begins to slip, but no! We have more killer songs, like Night Flight, The Wanton Song and Sick Again, where the rock blueprint is twisted slightly out of shape to reveal more facets. Black Country Woman and Boogie With Stu serve as counterpoints to the heavier tracks and again show the dazzling versatility and stylistic breadth for which the band had become noted.

This album still sounds as vital as it did back in 76 when I first heard it and deserves a place in any music lover’s collection. As to the debate about the world’s greatest rock and roll band? Led Zeppelin certainly have a strong claim to the title, as do the Stones and The Who; but if you watch the performances of The Song Remains The Same and Rain Song from the film TSRTS, you will see a band who at the time were, I believe,  completely peerless, and who have rarely been seriously challenged since.

Times change…..

For the first time in my life, music has given way to another form of entertainment as my favourite way to relax; cinema is now my main passion! I never thought I’d see the day, but here it is!

Recently my love for cinema has been rekindled by the enthusiasm of one of my media students, Lewis, who has an almost boundless interest in film, especially Disney and animation. Although I’ve always been a (fairly) regular visitor to the cinema, I was moved to attend more regularly after Lewis told me about his watchlist on the imdb.

I used to visit the local art cinema, Hull Screen, with my partner Maria, at least once a week, until its unfortunate demise about six years ago. We would see international films regularly, together with the best of new British cinema, and visit the local multiplexes every now and then for a more mainstream hit.

Until recently, we had become a little irregular in our (cinema!) habits, but now we are back into it, and also building up the Blu-ray and DVD collection in a frenzy which used to be reserved for CDs and vinyl!

I’ve discovered some great directors; Lone Scherfig, Atom Egoyan, Julie Taymor, and re-acquainted myself with some others; Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Lasse Halstrom, and the Coens.

I’ve seen classic films which I’d missed out on first time around (The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Fight Club, Paris, Texas) and revisited some old favourites (Repo Man, Apocalypse Now).

I’ve also been disappointed by so-called iconic films like Rumble Fish and enthralled by films which I went to with low expectations (Boyhood, Seven Years In Tibet, Wild).

I’m actually interested to see where the Oscars go this year – and hoping Eddie Redmayne picks one up for his sterling performance in the Theory Of Everything!

Yes folks, cinema is the new rock and roll!

Today is the day I started my WordPress blog!

I’ve been thinking about doing this for some time, and finally I’ve taken the plunge. I arrived at the decision to start the blog after watching the film Julie and Julia, in which a young woman decides to start a blog about working her way through all the recipes in Julia Child’s The Art Of Mastering French Cooking.

Film plays a big part in my life, as does music, and both will feature heavily in my blog, as well as general musings on life, the universe and everything!

I hope you will find something to provoke thought, or simply to entertain!