Behind The Album: The Rolling Stones, ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’

A Look Back at the Rolling Stones’ Beautiful Disasterpiece

For Christmas 1967 my father bought me a set of big, clunky headphones. Not because he hoped to enhance my listening pleasure but so he didn’t have to hear “that crap” I was always playing on the family Hi-Fi. So I spent the holiday on the living room couch entranced by the Kinks’ Face to Face, Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Flake, Cream’s Fresh Cream, and The Doors, the self-titled debut by The Doors, while Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced, The Stones’ Satanic Majesties and the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour were absolute sonic revelations.

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Despite everyone’s initial disappointment and all the disparaging comments in the press, Satanic Majesties helped changed the way I listened to music. The Stones were no longer just recording songs with a few surprise musical touches from their resident multi-instrumental genius, Brian Jones. For one brief album, the Stones created a series of sonic dreamscapes which transported you from your familiar surroundings to “Another Land.” The album was closer to a talisman, a sonic souvenir capturing the atmosphere of a psychedelic midnight voodoo ceremony (Dr. John’s Gris-Gris would be released a month later in January, 1968 while Miles Davis’ steamy Bitches Brew didn’t see the light of day until 1970).

Hounded by the police throughout 1967, Mick Jagger, Keith Richard and Brian Jones were regularly hauled before the courts and into prison in a series of sensationalized drug busts designed to punish and destroy the band.  

By the album’s delayed release in December of that year, the spirit of Flower Power had already wilted on the vine. The Stones, despite their shaggy hair and exotic togs, had made lousy hippies. If they were indeed any sort of “Flowers,” they were Venus Flytraps!

Listening back to this beautiful mess is always a rewarding and frustrating experience. The hits – “She’s A Rainbow” with its elegant string arrangement by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones is nothing short of radiant, while “2000 Light Years from Home” takes me down into the dark dungeon of despair that Jones, Jagger and Richards undoubtedly experienced after being thrown into the dreaded Wormwood Scrubs Prison on drug charges (mostly for cannabis).

“2000 Light Years from Home”  features a classic Keith Richards grungy guitar hook, with great drumming from Charlie Watts and atmosphere galore courtesy of Brian Jones, who conjured sonic magic with backwards piano and synthesizer instead of his usual arsenal of exotic folk instruments, which included dulcimer, recorder and sitar.

Bill Wyman’s bass growled like a demented tiger with a snoot full of absinthe while Keith and Charlie laid down a monster groove on “Citadel.” Not to be overlooked is Wyman’s brief moment in the spotlight with “In Another Land,” undoubtedly recorded while his fellow Stones were doing battle with magistrates. Over a sinister harpsichord, Bill’s voice, drenched in vibrato, perfectly fit the tune’s loopy lyric.

It’s interesting to note that Wyman’s echo-laden valentine beat Tommy James & the Shondells “Crimson & Clover” to the punch in showcasing the latest trippy studio technique. While backup vocals were provided by Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane of Small Faces, Jagger was later added to the song’s chorus, spitting “Was this some kind of joke?” giving it the Stones’ distinct stamp.   

Speaking of jokes, while “Sing This All Together” resembled the Stones’ own shabby version of the Hair soundtrack, the reprise of “Sing This All Together – See What Happens” remains to this day their most enigmatic recording – like some strange late-night shamanic ritual taking place in Keith’s basement.

“The Lantern” is a gloriously mystical moment, as Mick sings, “If you are the first to go – leave a sign and let me know.” Featuring great guitar work from Keith and flutes from Brian, it’s Nicky Hopkins’ piano that holds it all together. And pop music scholars can argue whether the fluttering flute/swirling organ/tabla-driven jam of “Gomper” invented World Music, or maybe George Harrison’s sitar, or, as Donovan claims, the conga-driven island groove of his “There Is A Mountain.”

Speaking of conjecture: How much better would this album have been had the Stones substituted their most recent single “Dandelion/We Love You” or perhaps “Child of the Moon” – a great Stones “lost track” recorded at this time (and later used for the B-side of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”) – for “Sing This All Together – See What Happens?” But there wasn’t much in the way of clear decision making taking place between the haze of drugs and the abrupt departure of their manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham.

Needing something catchy to wrap their psychedelic misadventure in, the Stones tapped Michael Cooper, the same photographer responsible for shooting the Beatles’ brilliant cover of Sgt. Pepper. But unlike the Beatles (who merely chose the personalities which comprised the colorful set and then posed for the famous photograph), the Stones actually built their own fantasy land over a three-day period, constructing a flimsy magic castle, shimmering mountain peaks and a dangling Saturn from, as Keith recalled, “bits of Styrofoam and God knows what… millions of bits of sequins, rhinestones and beads.”

Photographed by Cooper with a 3-D camera, the image, when tilted, caused the band’s faces to turn and look at one another, except for Jagger, who sat stationary, center stage in his peaked wizard’s cap.

Originally dubbed The Cosmic Christmas, (listen carefully to the end of side one, you’ll hear strains of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” played on a woozy synthesizer by Brian Jones), the title Their Satanic Majesties Request was originally a play on a phrase found within all UK passports, asking that the document be accepted on “Her British Majesties Request.” But the satanic bit frightened the superstitious and the album was retitled Rolling with the Stones in many countries worldwide.

Whatever it was called, the album was mercilessly skewered by the press, as well as by John Lennon (who, along with Paul McCartney, sang harmony on a track or two). While Lennon slagged the Stones, complaining that “Satanic Majesties was just Pepper,” they, in turn, thanked their “rivals” by hiding images of all four Beatles within the copious mounds of flowers that engulfed the band on the stunning album cover.

One also has to wonder if the album’s closing number, the loose, boozy “On With The Show” wasn’t McCartney’s cue to write the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour,” the title track of their follow-up album to Sgt. Pepper.

But no one was more brutal in their assessment of the Stones’ brief dalliance with psychedelia than Keith Richards, who later dismissed the album as “a load of crap.” Even Charlie Watts’ mother, Lilian, took a shot at the record, claiming “It was at least two weeks ahead of its time.”

Despite its sloppier and more unfocused moments, I love Satanic Majesties and don’t give a feather or a fig what Keith or Charlie’s mum thinks.

John Kruth is a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist with eleven solo albums to his name. The author of three wonderful musical biographies, including To Live’s To Fly – The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt (Da Capo Press), the recipient of the 2007 ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award, and Rhapsody in Black – The Life & Music of Roy Orbison (BackBeat/Hal Leonard Books, 2013), his book Rubber SoulThis Bird Has Flown was published in 2015, followed by A Friend of the Devil – The Glorification of the Outlaw in Song from Robin Hood to Rap, (2017). He’s also contributed music writing to The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Wire (UK), No Depression, Sing Out!, Wax Poetics, and Folk Roots (UK).

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