Thursday, July 12, 2007

No. 57: Beggars Banquet

Band: The Rolling Stones
Album: Beggars Banquet
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The return to the Stones' roots was a huge success and has one of the best -- and controversial -- songs in "Sympathy For The Devil." The addition of different instrumentation to the band's traditional blues rock doesn't change the vibe of the song, it simply adds to it.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: In my opinion, this is the Stones' best work. I'd rate it above "Exile On Main Street."
Best song: "No Expectations," "Sympathy For The Devil" and "Street Fighting Man" are all excellent songs.
Worst song: "Stray Cat Blues" is just OK.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

"Beggars Banquet" is my favorite Rolling Stones album, though not only on the strength of the record's two most famous songs ("Street Fighting Man" and "Sympathy For The Devil"). The album, released in 1968, was seen as a return to the band's famous blues rock sound after the psychedelic "Their Satanic Majesties Request."

Those two famous songs are great, though mostly misinterpreted. For one, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were children of the middle/upper class upbringing, so the idea that Jagger was a "poor boy" who was also a "Street Fighting Man" is pretty much garbage. "Street Fighting Man" also had the inopportunity of being released around the time of the post-MLK assassination riots in 1968. It became something of a rallying cry for the young left (despite the Stones' mostly decided silence on political issues). In reality, the song was written after Jagger attended a rally of Trotskyist Tariq Ali.

"Sympathy For The Devil" was, at the time, wildly misinterpreted. written from the point of view of the biblical devil (the trickster who made humanity fundamentally flawed), the song lists varying atrocities throughout history with Lucifer giving himself credit for them. At the time, reactionary squares and authority figures claimed the Stones were indeed Satanists.

Even today, the song is horribly misinterpreted. The National Review's list of the greatest conservative rock songs lists "Sympathy" as the third-greatest conservative rock song ever, citing a line here or there that give the devil credit for communism.

Here's the problem: It's the Stones' smartest song because the whole of the song relies on the evil of man. The lines "I rode a tank, Held a generals rank, When the blitzkrieg raged, And the bodies stank" can be thought to say that the Nazis were the devil (or evil), when Milgram's experiment shows pretty clearly that those people were human and that what we consider to be good people can do horrible things. This is the same nature of the bit where Jagger sings "I shouted out, Who killed the Kennedys? When after all, It was you and me."

This is backed up by one of the better quotes from Richards. In Rolling Stone magazine, Richards addressed the Satanist charges.
"What is evil? Half of it, I don't know how much people think of Mick as the devil or as just a good rock performer or what? There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer and others who think we are Lucifer. Everybody's Lucifer."

It appears to be the main point of the song: We have sympathy for the devil, because evil lurks in all of us.

The most major problem, of course, with the thesis of "'Sympathy' as conservative song" is my favorite segment of the song: "I watched with glee, While your kings and queens, Fought for ten decades, For the gods they made." That bit is an atheist's dream and one that I firmly believe. We created "God" and "The Devil" in our image because we have each in every human.


That's not to say that those two songs are the only part of the record, because they're not. "Salt Of The Earth" is a wonderful cynical tribute to the working class (complete with Richards' vocals!) white "Parachute Woman" is mildly dirty. "No Expectations" is classic old time blues and probably my favorite non-single Stones song. Brian Jones' slide guitar is as good as it gets.

In fact on the strength of the non-singles, I'd suggest that "Beggars" is the best Stones album. They don't try to do too much (like, say, the wacky country of "Country Honk".

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