Last week I talked about the Beatles’ 1968 masterpiece, The White Album; this week, I’m talking about the Rolling Stones’ masterpiece from the same year, Beggars Banquet. A good deal of credit for the album’s feel needs to go to its producer, the late Jimmy Miller. Banquet was actually one of the first albums he produced, and would be the first of the four consecutive records he would helm which also formed the peak of the band’s career (along with Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street), in the years proceeding Mick in Keith’s full transformation to the Glimmer Twins, and eventual full parody of themselves from the 1980s onward.
Back in 1968, though, the Stones were a different band, fully absorbed in American blues and country, and Miller helped generate a sound that played to those strengths. And actually, he helped create a sound that also played to their greatest weakness at the time: namely, that the band’s founder and multi-instrumentalist, Brian Jones, was in bad shape. Heavily into drugs by this point, Jones was as much a band liability as a contributor. Film footage of album sessions show him out of it at times, and limited to the most minimal levels of participation: slide guitar on one track, harmonica on three others, and a bit of keyboard here and there. Thus, Miller often had only a four-piece combo to work with, and the arrangements that could be brought out of them play directly into the final mix: Stripped down to something more acoustic, murky and lo-fi throughout much of the proceedings, the album sounds at times like it could have been recorded after hours at a Louisiana gin joint.
(An added serendipitous reason that the album may sound as menacing as it does is that it was originally mastered at a speed just slightly slower than it was recorded. This made the record in total only 30 seconds longer than when it was finally corrected for a CD re-release in 2002, but did set things just off-key enough that things would not seem quite “right” to the listener’s ears.)
The live, after-hours feel also lends an aura of menacing spookiness to almost all the disc. While the three most well-known tracks on the album — “Sympathy for the Devil”, “Street Fighting Man”, and “Salt of the Earth” — are capable of bringing the spook both musically and lyrically (especially “Salt,” which begins withÁ‚ Keith’s first solo vocal for the band, in a voice that makes you go “what the hell?!”), it’s the deeper cuts on Beggars Banquet that are more likely to creep into your dreams. On a cover of Robert Wilkins’ “Prodigal Son,” for instance, Jagger has never sounded more like the 70-year-old black bluesman that he’s wished his whole life he was. The effect of his slurred words, the almost washtub-like percussion, and the stifling “murk” of the production, in additional to lyrics about “kill[ing] the fatted calf” — among the few that can usually be picked out the first time through — are good enough to give one the creeps.
Jagger, still far away from his “creepy old man” years, also comes off just as menacing on “Stray Cat Blues,” in which he declares that it’s “no hanging matter” that he’s going to take a fifteen-year-old girl he’s discovered so “far from home,” bring her upstairs and…well…behave like Mick Jagger, for lack of a better term. He sings (or rather, snarls) that what’s about to occur is no “capital crime,” but his growls and laughter at the beginning of the song seem to say that maybe that’s not the case — though he doesn’t care.
One of the other effects Miller played with in the album’s sessions was the use of echo. Sometimes it was used subtly, and focused only on select portions of a track, like Jagger’s vocal and Charlie Watts’ drums on “Parachute Woman,” which then stand in sharp contrast to elements like the bass-like percussion, which is placed so up front that when listening on headphones, you might think that someone is banging on your wall or floor. Other times, the entire track (or at least portions of it) is drenched in echo, such as the final portion of “Jigsaw Puzzle,” which takes a song which started as a more Dylanesque bookend to “Sympathy for the Devil” and blasts it into another vortex: shouts bleed into guitars, guitars bleed into keyboards and are transformed into sounds that seem like an ill breeding of the two. Instrumental lines pop out for minor moments and take the forefront, then sink back into the mire.
Like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones 40 years ago were a band in disorder. Within a year, Brian Jones would actually be fired from the group he created. Weeks after that, he would be dead, found floating in his swimming pool. The circumstances surrounding how he died have still not been 100% resolved. What was soon to come in the history of the Rolling Stones assist in giving Jones’ last full album with the band even more an aura of creepiness. But, even separated from future tragedies, Beggars Banquet is able to make one’s flesh crawl a bit just through what’s in the grooves.