A Rolling Banquet


After the kaleidoscope swirls of Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Rolling Stones entered 1968 with a much more grounded approach to their music. The first manifestation of this was the single “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, released in April. The album that followed on 6th December took the strutting, rocking spirit of the single and cooked up a record that laid down a blueprint for the band’s next decade. Ladies and Gentlemen, you are invited to the Rolling Stones seventh album, Beggars Banquet.

Beggars Banquet boasts two killer singles, each leading off a side of the record.

“Sympathy For The Devil” was arresting both musically and lyrically. Never averse to stirring the pot, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards cooked up a lyric with something to offend everyone. Yet from the pattering percussion through to the gospel-parody “Woo-Hoo” backing, “Sympathy” is a commanding single that pulls you into its dark, menacing world with unerring magnetism. It is unique and a stone classic.

“Street Fighting Man” opens side two with simmering discontent licking at the edges of violence and chaos. Both thrilling and intimidating, “Street” has the timeless bravura of the best rock songs.

There is an uncomfortable and tragic irony that these two songs—one pointing a sneering finger at religion by having Lucifer sing in the first person, the other baying for anger-driven anarchy—are the key tracks on an album whose UK release coincided with the infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival in California. This was the concert where security was provided by the Hell’s Angels, who intervened fatally when drug-affected fan Meredith Hunter appeared to be drawing a revolver near the stage. Many see the death (and indeed, the general mayhem of the event) as the end of the Woodstock dream. But social history is not our focus here; we came for the music, right?

So, the rest of the album. 

There’s rock, blues, even a little country—Beggars Banquet is a record deeply influenced by American music. On the “Sympathy” side we have “No Expectations”, an acoustic folk-blues ballad; Jagger/Richards nailed this style a couple of years later with “Wild Horses”. “Dear Doctor” drops in some dress-up country while “Jigsaw Puzzle” has the rhythm section of Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts laying down a tight blues-rock base under a rambling lyric. 

The “Street” side is consistently strong. “Stray Cat Blues” is a standout, showcasing the blues-rock swagger the Stones pump out to this day. 

Visually, Beggars Banquet looks strikingly different from the prevailing aesthetic of 1968. The original cover (now re-instated) was a photograph of an unsavoury public toilet. The record company was horrified, and the ensuing battle of wills delayed the LP’s release for months. Eventually the company won and a plain white ‘Invitation’ cover was substituted. As The Mamas and Papas had discovered two years previously, US record companies don’t like lavatories.

Despite the delays and the controversies, Beggars Banquet was well received. No lesser authority than TIME magazine (11 October, 1968) observed:

“The album bristles with the brand of hard, raunchy rock that has helped to establish the Stones as England’s most subversive roisterers since Fagin’s gang in Oliver Twist.”

Fifty-plus years on, Beggars Banquet is still a feast.

© Bruce Jenkins 2019

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