Sunday, April 13, 2008

Peak: Fever in the funk house, Pt. 4 - Beggars Banquet

Or: How I fill up 2 GB

(Being the continuing alphabetical series of the contents of my iPod)

Album: Beggars Banquet
Artist: The Rolling Stones
Released: 1968

Track listing:
1. Sympathy for the Devil
2. No Expectations
3. Dear Doctor
4. Parachute Woman
5. Jigsaw Puzzle
6. Street Fighting Man
7. Prodigal Son
8. Stray Cat Blues
9. Factory Girl
10. Salt of the Earth review:
The Stones forsook psychedelic experimentation to return to their blues roots on this celebrated album, which was immediately acclaimed as one of their landmark achievements. A strong acoustic Delta blues flavor colors much of the material, particularly "Salt of the Earth" and "No Expectations," which features some beautiful slide guitar work. Basic rock & roll was not forgotten, however: "Street Fighting Man," a reflection of the political turbulence of 1968, was one of their most innovative singles, and "Sympathy for the Devil," with its fire-dancing guitar licks, leering Jagger vocals, African rhythms, and explicitly satanic lyrics, was an image-defining epic. On "Stray Cat Blues," Jagger and crew began to explore the kind of decadent sexual sleaze that they would take to the point of self-parody by the mid-'70s. At the time, though, the approach was still fresh, and the lyrical bite of most of the material ensured Beggars Banquet's place as one of the top blues-based rock records of all time.

I can admit it: I was late to the party with the Rolling Stones. In fact, I would probably say that I’ve only truly come to appreciate how good the Stones are in the past few years, and Beggars Banquet has been a big part of that appreciation (as I’m sure it has for many a Stones fan). The album opens auspiciously enough with “Sympathy for the Devil,” probably the record’s most well-known song and arguably one of the Stones’ best-constructed tracks, from the tribal-esque use of congas and the slightly eerie backing vocals to the increasing level of self-aware rage in Mick Jagger’s rage and Keith Richards’ distorted punk-scat solo. And behind it all is the backbone of “Sympathy” in the piano work of Nicky Hopkins: driving, melodic, and substantial, the recurring deep echo of the grand piano turns a very good recording into a great one, and its constant presence heightens the impact of every other instrument’s entrance.

“Street Fighting Man” is probably right behind “Sympathy” in terms of well-known Beggars Banquet tunes, and it contains one of the more interesting rhythmic arrangements, as the acoustic guitar provides the flowing beat, akin to what you would expect from a hi-hat or ride cymbal; conversely, Charlie Watts’ drums beat out a sparse, occasional pattern replete with the rhythm of a street fight.

“No Expectations,” one of the record’s highlights, has a certain exhausted-with-life appeal in both its lyrics and its music; “Dear Doctor” and “Stray Cat Blues” both bristle with humor (the former being flat-out funny; the second proudly marching over the line of pedophilia with darkly comic results); “Parachute Woman,” “Prodigal Son,” and “Factory Girl” all have the American blues feel that is so often associated with the album; and “Salt of the Earth” was allegedly a “highlight” of the 9/11 NYC tribute concert back in 2001, although that seems slightly clich├ęd to me, especially considering that the song, while toasting the “hard-working people,” views that particular class of folks as “faceless.” (It bears mentioning, though, that there exists on youtube at least one video of the Stones performing “Salt of the Earth” with Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin sitting in; it’s worth watching that clip just to see two quintessential rock frontmen share the stage as Rose and Jagger do.)

To me, the overlooked track on Beggars Banquet is “Jigsaw Puzzle.” Sure, it’s a bit Dylan-esque in its character descriptions, but rather than being simply a surreal mismatch of unconnected phrases in juxtaposition, the song seems to be much more a reflection of its recurring pre-chorus talk of misfits: the people portrayed in the song (even the 20,000 grandmas waving their hankies in the air) are pieces in a puzzle, while the narrator tries to make sense of it all. Jagger wants to know how this varied group of humanity fits together in a world where all the pieces don’t necessarily match up. And I think the song’s ascending intensity makes it a worthwhile listen, too, not to mention the (once again) excellent piano work from Hopkins.

I won’t get into talk of “importance” or “influence,” because I think everyone knows that the Rolling Stones (and Beggars Banquet) were important and influential. All I’ll say is that this record is a strong start-to-finish collection of tunes that, maybe more than anything, reflect the fun of making music: Jagger, Richards, and the rest were clearly having fun when they laid down the ten tracks on Beggars Banquet. And none of that fun is lost on the listener, either; whether it’s your first listen or your 1,000th listen, Beggars Banquet is a good time.

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