It was the psychedelic sixties, and for a brief period, rock and roll was hippy, spacey and trippy. Actually, one could say that psychedelic music continued well into the seventies, if you count the offshoot into space-rock, fusion and funk-rock – but who’s counting? My point is that what we commonly refer to “psychedelic rock” is most identified with the mid to late sixties.
The Beatles are often credited with popularizing the psychedelic rock genre, but in fairness, there was a lot of it about. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band might be the first big psychedelic rock album. Certainly, that album was a game-changer, and it’s influence cannot be overstated. Sessions for the album were held 6 December 1966 – 21 April 1967, with a release date of 26 May 1967. However, to get new music out, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were released as a double A-side single in February 1967. These songs would re-surface on the U.S. release of Magical Mystery Tour, in November of the same year.
Before we move to The Rolling Stones, let’s take a step back. Prior to Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles released Revolver on 5 August 1966, the true start of their psychedelic period. Or was it? The Beatles had been experimenting on several fronts that are directly related to their music that would follow. First, they were using pot and LSD, which contributed to their lyrical imagery and interest in mind-expanding pursuits. Second, the Beatles embraced Eastern religions and philosophy, and questioned their own beliefs and cultural foundations. Third, the Beatles devoured studio recording technology, challenged accepted musical structures and sought to change the recording process to fit their creativity. One has to look no further than “Tomorrow Never Knows,” from Revolver. I will defer to Wikipedia to explain the potpourri of recording techniques, philosophy, instrumentation and that produced a song like no other.
Okay, now let’s look at Their Satanic Majesties Request by The Rolling Stones. I love this album, always have. With the exception of the single, “We Love You,” the Stones quickly moved back to their British blues genre. Certainly, there is a dash of psychedelia on their “Rudy Tuesday” / “Let’s Spend the Night Together” double A-side single in January 1967. Flower-power and societal norm-busting themes.
Their Satanic Majesties Request was recorded 9 February – 23 October 1967, and released 8 December 1967. The album was their first self-produced effort. Without the aid of a producer, the Stones were left to their own devices, thankfully they had the assistance of arranger John Paul Jones (soon to become part of Led Zeppelin), the incredible Nicky Hopkins on piano, organ and harpsichord, and recording engineer Glyn Johns. The contributions of these three were essential to the beauty and completion of this album. Even Mick Jagger admits the difficulty of bringing this album to a creative and completion of recording.
The other person who deserved special recognition is Brian Jones, the forgotten Rolling Stone. This would be the last album to fully embrace his talent, although he played on Beggar’s Banquet, released the following year. Jones’ drug and other problems eroded this enormous musical talent. Although not a credited songwriter, Jones had mastery over pretty much any musical instrument. On Their Majesties Request, Jones contributed Mellotron (1–3, 5–7, 9, 10); saxophone (1, 2); vibraphone, jew’s harp and flute (5); organ (7); electric dulcimer (4, 8, 9); recorder (8); backing vocals (1) harp (10). Jones gave the songs their spiritual vibe and trippy quality.
- “Sing This All Together” 3:46
- “Citadel” 2:50
- “In Another Land” 3:15
- “2000 Man” 3:07
- “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” 8:33
- “She’s a Rainbow” 4:35
- “The Lantern” 4:24
- “Gomper” 5:08
- “2000 Light Years from Home” 4:45
- “On with the Show” 3:40
“Sing This Song Together” is a decent start to the album, the horns and percussion make this a fun song. It immediately segues into “Citadel,” which I’ve never figured out what it means, but the electric guitar is wonderful as it rocks along with Mellotron and other spacey sounds. It’s actually one of my favorite Stones songs.
“In Another Land” is I believe Bill Woman’s only songwriting credit on a Stones album, and he sings lead. It’s not a great song, but the arrangement makes it better. “2000 Man” has great guitar playing including Jones on dulcimer. The lyrics was lightweight, but the music is rocks out. “Sing This Song Together” is a psychedelic jam, with lots of sound effects, and variations of the song, which seems puffed out to fill the side. This is no epic composition, just quirky noodling in the studio.
“She’s a Rainbow” is easily the best song on the album and one of the top ten Stones songs. It’s Nicki Hopkins who plays the instantly identifiable piano intro. This is a timeless song, it elevates the album. “The Lantern” has a jangly piano and echoing guitar which sound cool, but the lyrics provide very little. It’s a lightweight song, saved by the guitar and piano work. “Gomper” is another nonsensical song with a decidedly Eastern sound. Organ, a sitar sounding dulcimer and recorder, along with Charlie Watts on tabla, add up to Eastern mystique, or something close to it. “2000 Light Years From Home” starts off like a psychological thriller with scary sound effects and minor piano notes, followed by spacey Mellotron. It’s interesting, not great, but give the band credit for a melodic soundscape. The Moody Blues and King Crimson would do this kind of thing better in the coming years. “On With the Show” closes out the album, with Jagger as the announcer, trying to entice people to the show. The music, is fairly basic and repetitious, but melodic and features Richards with some swanky guitar. Crowd noises and tinkering piano end the song.
So, is Their Satanic Majesties Request the Stones version of Sgt. Pepper? There are certain similarities: conceptual, Eastern textures, the rock show theme, the cover album design, to possibly name a few. Musically, it has more in common with the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour album, which has a looser and trippier feel than Sgt. Pepper. There are hits and filler on Magical Mystery Tour, not one the Beatles best efforts, built around an unimpressive television film. Both the Beatles and the Stones were in uncharted territory, caught in the moment and experimenting. Like the Stones, the Beatles in 1968 were back in a more traditional rock groove, the psychedelic phase concluded.
Their Satanic Majesties Request is an overlooked part of the Stones discography, a departure, not really an advance in their evolution. Sgt. Pepper dwarfs anything of the period: Stones, Beach Boys, even Dylan, in my view. To compare the Beatles and Stones during 1967 is slippery, but if we must, look at Their Satanic Majesties Request and Magical Mystery Tour, as complimentary, as there are far more similarities. Now, on with the show!
2 thoughts on “Their Satanic Majesties Request: The Rolling Stones’ Answer to Sgt. Pepper?”
Nice post! From “Their Satanic Majesties Request” I really only know “She’s a Rainbow”, which I love, and “2000 Light Years from Home,” which I find charmingly trippy. The same applies to most other Stones albums where I only tend to know a few tunes – unlike The Beatles. I own all of their regular studio albums (British versions) and obviously have listened to all of them.
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Thanks, I always liked this detour into psychedelia!
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