“Beggars Banquet” by the Rolling Stones (1968)
I. Torn and Frayed
At nearly four centuries old, Swarkestone Hall Pavilion offers visitors to England’s Derbyshire County in England an opportunity to spend the night with history.
The structure, now offered for accommodations, dates back to 1632, when Sir John Harpur commissioned pioneering architect John Smythson to build a recreational building on the grounds of the family residence. The main house has been in ruins since around 1750, but the pavilion has endured, most recently assisted through efforts by the British building conservation charity Landmark Trust.
The building had stood for more than 330 years when it had its most enduring brush with fame.
In June 1968, photographer Michael Joseph chose the locale for a shoot involving five long-haired, rather scruffy young men from London. They’d been photographed countless times before, and would be so exponentially more in the future. But this session would prove to be among the most memorable, and bittersweet, occasions.
Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Billy Wyman, Charlie Watts and Brian Jones met with Joseph in their hometown of London before moving to the more picturesque location in Derbyshire, providing a wealth of images that ended up illustrating two Rolling Stones albums, that year’s “Beggars Banquet” and the 1970 anthology “Hot Rocks.”
By the time Decca Records was preparing the packaging for the latter, one of the subjects no longer was available. Lewis B. Jones, as was his proper name, died July 3, 1969, setting the precedent for the unfortunate spate of rock superstars who have succumbed to the lifestyle at age 27.
The back cover of “Hot Rocks” shows the Stones at Swarkestone, Watts standing front and center on the ground, and the rest of them perched on the massive window sills. Jones is reclining rather precariously, as if he were about to plunge downward, a position that fairly accurately represents the trajectory on which he found himself the last few years of his life, especially with regard to his band.
The “Beggars Banquet” motif that would up being portrayed on the inside of the album jacket shows Brian in a seemingly helpless position, pinned to his chair by a large dog, his facial expression bemused, his hands held skyward in a gesture of surrender. He was only 26 at the time but had the general appearance of a much-older man.
The Joseph sessions represent one of the final glimpses of Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. True, he’d appear with the rest of the band on a would-be TV special, “The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus,” filmed in late 1968 but pretty much hidden away for the better part of three decades afterward. By then, he had become but a footnote in the band’s history, with latter-day fans often wondering, “Who’s that guy?”
Those participating in recording sessions for “Beggars Banquet” might have wondered the same thing, considering Brian’s contributions to the project, or lack thereof. He’s credited with playing slide guitar – stunningly, as usual – on one track, harmonica on a few others, and a few assorted, more exotic instruments here and there. But for the most part he had little input toward what turned out to be his last album, save for incidental appearances on a couple of tracks on the followup, “Let It Bleed.”
In another bittersweet twist, critics at the time regarded “Beggars Banquet” as the first truly solid Rolling Stones album, a viewpoint that persists nearly half a century after its release. That’s because Keith Richards stepped up in a big way to fill the void left by Brian, once the band’s showcase instrumentalist, and his slow, steady decline, one that didn’t necessarily have to be irrevocable.
II. Come On
In mid-1962, the late Ian “Stu” Stewart was an easygoing 24-year-old piano player looking to hone his boogie-woogie style with a band of likeminded individuals in his adopted hometown of London.
“So when a little advert appeared in Jazz News – a character called Brian Jones wanted to form an R&B group – I went along and saw him,” Stewart told author Stanley Booth for his landmark biography, “The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones.”
I’ll never forget. He had this Howlin’ Wolf album goin’. I’d never heard anything like it. I thought, Right, this is it. He said, “We’re gonna have a rehearsal.”
Gathering with Jones and Stewart were an assortment of motley characters, among them 18-year-old guitarist Richards. He persuaded his acquaintance Jagger, who was singing with Alexis Korner’s Blues Inc. while studying at the London School of Economics, to drop by one of the rehearsals.
Thus marked the beginning of the Rollin’ Stones, before they added the “g.” The band came close to falling apart right away, though, as Richards recalled:
Brian was living right in the middle of where all the spades live here, in a basement, very decrepit place with mushrooms and fungus growing out of the walls, with (girlfriend) Pat and his kid. Now sometime this summer something really weird happens. One night Mick, who’d been playin’ a gig with Korner, went ’round to see Brian, if I remember rightly, and Brian wasn’t there but his old lady was. Mick was very drunk, and he screwed her.
This caused a whole trauma. At first, Brian was terribly offended. The chick split. But what it really did was put Mick and Brian very tight together, because it put them through a whole emotional scene and they really got into each other, and they became very close.”
Jagger, in fact, was more serious about his education than a music career, until Jones convinced him otherwise. When Bill Perks (Wyman) and Charlie Watts joined the band – originally it was the Rollin’ Stones – it became the vocalist’s going concern.
“At the start of the Stones it was Brian who was the monster head,” Korner told Booth:
Brian was incredibly aggressive in performance. … He used to jump forward with the tambourine and sneer at you at the same time. The aggression had a tremendous impact. Also, he was a very sensitive player. Brian, at his best, could play slow blues exceptionally well. But what I remember him most for is his ‘I’m gonna put the boot in’ attitude.
At the start, Brian was the image of aggression in the Stones much more than Mick.
Jones was the de facto leader of an energized sextet with a sound and stage act that attracted a multitude of customers to London’s Crawdaddy Club, along with a teenage entrepreneur named Andrew Loog Oldham. He and business partner Eric Easton took over the Rolling Stones’ management and signed them to Decca Records. On May 10, 1963, the band cut two songs for its first single, Chuck Berry’s “Come On” and Willie Dixon’s “I Wanna Be Loved,” and soon after the Stones played the former on a TV show called “Thank Your Lucky Stars.”
“They wore matching houndstooth check jackets Oldham had provided to make them look more like a group,” Booth wrote, “and there were only five of them.”
“This is where Brian starts to realize things have gone beyond his control,” Keith said. “Before this, everybody knows that Brian considers it to be his band. Now Andrew Oldham sees Mick as a big sex symbol, and wants to kick Stu out, and we won’t have it. And eventually, because Brian had known him longer than we, and the band was Brian’s idea in the first place, Brian had to tell Stu how we’d signed with these people, how they were very image-conscious, and Stu didn’t fit in. …
“By now, the Beatles have seen us play, and we’ve been to see them at the Albert Hall, and we’ve seen all the screaming chicks, the birds down in front, and everybody can’t wait, you can’t wait to hear the screams.”
That’s what Jones wanted, and as the band started traveling throughout England, that’s what he got, albeit in a rather raucous manner. Stewart, who’d been relegated to roadie after Oldham’s intervention, told Booth about the general atmosphere of an early Rolling Stones concert in the hinterlands:
“No dressing rooms, no stages, no electricity, no security, fuck-all, used to be a hell of a bloody fight every night. They all said, ‘We’ve had the Beatles here; we can handle anything.’ You’d say, ‘Well, you haven’t had the Stones yet. You wait,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, we can handle everything,’ so everything used to get destroyed.
“The boys themselves never used to help matters much, because they resisted for a while the idea of all traveling together. Brian had something to do with this. Nobody wanted to be in the same car with Brian for any length of time. He began to feel he’d been eased out. He became difficult to live with.”
On Aug. 27, 1963, during a whirlwind tour of England, the Rolling Stones performed at the Star and Garter pub in Windsor. Richards was the only guitarist that night; Jones was ill and sat that one out.
His status as the group’s leader already was eroding. In the beginning, he handled the cash and paid the other band members. Eventually, they received their money from the management office.
Also eventually, Jagger and Richards starting writing songs together, “though we didn’t like anything we wrote and we couldn’t get anybody else in the band to play it,” Keith recalled. But after other artists started scoring hits with their material, most notably Marianne Faithfull’s “As Tears Go By,” the Stones started recording more Jagger-Richards material, solidifying the partnership when “The Last Time” hit No. 1 on the UK singles charts.
Jones wrote songs, too, but none ever would be recorded by the Rolling Stones, which had become almost on par with the Beatles as a top rock ‘n’ roll attraction. Their American tour in late 1965 grossed $2 million in a month and a half, and their string of hit singles continued into 1966 with “19th Nervous Breakdown,” which contained what appeared to be a reference to mind-altering drugs: “On our first trip I tried so hard to rearrange your mind/But after ‘while I realized you were rearranging mine.”
Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival, June 1967
The lyrics have applied to Jones.
“He had to outdo everybody, do more,” Richards recalled. “If everybody was taking a thousand mikes of acid, he’d take 2,000 of STP. He did himself in.”
He still could be the band’s premiere instrumentalist, when he wanted to: Jones “sat for hours learning to play sitar, put it on ‘Paint It, Black’ and never played it again,” Watts recalled. In early 1967, on “Ruby Tuesday” – containing the line “Lose your dreams, and you will lose your mind” – Jones played “ethereal, not to say haunting, flute. The last thing, Stu said, Brian ever did for the Stones,” Booth wrote.
That summer, the Rolling Stones went to work on the album that eventually arrived as “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” a psychedelic mishmash that seemed to be highly derivative of such work as the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” Jones, who was enduring court proceedings related to drug arrests, was pictured on the LP cover, but that may have been the extent of his involvement.
In the spring 1968, the Stones finished work on a new single, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” that went on to score the band its first No. 1 hit in two years. On May 12, the Stones gave a surprise performance at the New Musical Express Poll Winners’ Concert at London’s Wembley Stadium. Booth wrote:
It was just like the old days, girls screaming, cops with linked arms holding back hysterical fans. The Stones did “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Satisfaction,” and Mick threw his white shoes into the crowd.
Nine days later, four days before “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was released, Brian was again arrested for drugs. He had heard the screams for the last time.
IV. “Beggars Banquet”
When the Rolling Stones gathered in March 1968 to start work on a new album, one of the first songs to emerge was “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and its success seemed to give the band a renewed sense of energy in the wake of Jones’ musical inactivity. He did contribute to some of the tracks that eventually surfaced on “Beggars Banquet” – chief among them is his bottleneck slide on “No Expectations” – but the album stands as a testament to the band’s ability to soldier on without its founder.
The opening track, “Sympathy for the Devil,” is at once a startling foray into an adventurous musical direction and a lyrical challenge to pop conventions. It starts with guest percussionist Rocky Dijon joining Wyman on maracas to create a tribal motif, over which Jagger provides echoed, ethereal yelps before he launches into his narrative:
Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year, stole many a mans soul and faith
I was around when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that pilate washed his hands and sealed his fate
That’s strong stuff, even 44 years after the fact.
The song, of course, became one of the best-known in the Stones’ extensive canon and became the band’s unofficial theme for a while, until the Satanic overtones clashed with events at the Altamont concert in December 1969, when a man was stabbed to death directly in front of the stage.
Following the raucous jam of “Sympathy for the Devil,” which lasts more than 7 minutes, the Stones turn down the volume for the acoustic ballad “No Expectations.” Influenced by Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain,” which the band later recorded, the song probably represents Jones’ last musical stand:
“We were sitting around in a circle on the floor, singing and playing, recording with open mikes,” Jagger said in a 1995 interview for Rolling Stone magazine. “That was the last time I remember Brian really being totally involved in something that was really worth doing.”
“Dear Doctor” draws its influence from country music, resulting in a tongue-in-check tale of a young man who’s about to marry, against his will, “a bow-legged sow.”
“There’s a sense of humour in country music,” Jagger explained, “a way of looking at life in a humorous kind of way, and I think we were just acknowledging that element of the music.”
The band returns to its blues roots for “Parachute Woman,” which also kind of returns to the band’s sonic roots: It was recorded onto a cassette recorder and double-tracked, to give it a bit of depth. The song puts Jagger’s penchant for not-too-subtle sexual innuendo on display: “Parachute woman, will you blow me out? Well, my heavy throbber’s itchin’, just to lay a solid rhythm down.”
On “Jig-Saw Puzzle,” Jagger’s lyrics are willfully obtuse, perhaps his take on a Bob Dylan epic, as he introduces a variety of characters: a tramp, bishop’s daughter, family-man gangster and 20,000 grandmas, along with the queen who kills them. And then there’s his telling portrait of the Rolling Stones, themselves:
Oh the singer, he looks angry
At being thrown to the lions
And the bass player, he looks nervous
About the girls outside
And the drummer, he’s so shattered
Trying to keep on time
And the guitar players look damaged
They’ve been outcasts all their lives
For an album that contains “Sympathy for the Devil,” it would appear to be difficult to top that as far as generating controversy. But “Street Fighting Man” did the trick, with lines like this: “Hey, said my name is called Disturbance/I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the King, I’ll rail at all his servants.” The student uprising in France during the spring of 1968 inspired the song, but Jagger admits about his own country: “in sleepy London Town there’s just no place for a street fighting man.”
Jones contributes sitar and tamboura to a relatively muddy mix, which subsequent remastering jobs haven’t been able to correct too much, for good reason. As Richards recalled in a 1971 Rolling Stone interview:
The basic track of that was done on a mono cassette with very distorted overrecording, on a Phillips with no limiters. Brian is playing sitar, it twangs away. He’s holding notes that wouldn’t come through if you had a board, you wouldn’t be able to fit it in. But on a cassette if you just move the people, it does. Cut in the studio and then put on a tape. Started putting percussion and bass on it. That was really an electronic track, up in the realms.
Mississipi-born Robert Wilkins wrote “Prodigal Son,” originally titled “No Way to Get Along,” back in the 1920s, and the Stones tackle the song as a primitive blues, with sparse instrumentation. In 1969, Jagger and Richards performed the song as an impromptu duet during a power outage at the band’s concert in Oakland.
“Stray Cat Blues” owes a debt to the Velvet Underground’s early catalogue, in its sustained introduction, which Jagger said was influenced by the VU song “Heroin,” and in its subject matter: The protagonist propositions a 15-year-old girl – on the live version released on “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out,” she’s 13 – to “just come on upstairs.” And then he ups the ante:
You say you got a friend, that she’s wilder than you
Why don’t you bring her upstairs
If she’s so wild then she can join in, too
The song’s conclusion is a lengthy, modal drone that also is reminiscent of the Velvets’ work, demonstrating the then-obscure New York City band had won some fans in high places.
“Factory Girl” is a folk-oriented offering, with the recording featuring an unusual assortment of musicians: Dijon on congas, Ric Grech of Family on violin, Dave Mason of Traffic on Mellotron (sounding like a mandolin) and Watts on tabla. As Charlie noted in Dora Loewenstein and Philip Dodd’s “According to the Rolling Stones”:
On “Factory Girl,” I was doing something you shouldn’t do, which is playing the tabla with sticks instead of trying to get that sound using your hand, which Indian tabla players do, though it’s an extremely difficult technique and painful if you’re not trained.
The album closes with “Salt of the Earth,” which the Stones apparently intended as the band’s grand epic: They concluded “The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus” with a performance that included a sing-along with everyone in attendance. The studio version features the Los Angeles Watts Street Gospel Choir adding a dramatic flair, an effect the band would repeat on its much better-known “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” the following year.
The release of the album was delayed because of a dispute over the cover art, which the Stones delivered as a graffiti-covered bathroom wall. An invitation to a “Beggars Banquet” was substituted, and the original art didn’t surface until the CD version became available in the ’80s.
Brian Jones, of course, wasn’t around to see it.