Discover more from Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins
Rolling With the Psych Stones
Their Satanic Majesties Request, Revisited
You may have heard that the Rolling Stones have a new single and video called "Angry," a little taste before the release of their first studio album of new material in 18 years, since A Bigger Bang, or at least big enough bang, in 2005.
What our beloved codgers are angry about remains to be seen: I will withhold opinion until the album, Hackney Diamonds, will be released circa Oct. 19 or 20, 2023. Actually, hackney diamonds is East London slang for breaking glass, especially the kind in which car windows are smashed for the purpose of stealing your cassette deck or CD player, or just good old hooligan fun.
There was a time when we learned most of our British slang from those gorgeously matched pepper and salt shakers, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. A man in a "mac" was wearing a raincoat; a "block" was a collection of apartment buildings.
I guess the Beatles would be the pepper shakers, and the Stones would soon being singing about "Salt of the Earth" on Beggar's Banquet, released almost exactly a year after Their Satanic Majesties Request, the unicorn in their recorded repertory. The title of the album is a play on the words in a British passport at the time: "Her Britainnic Majesty...requests and requires the bearer to be allowed to pass freely" and all that jazz.
Their Satantic Majesties Request was released in December 1967, recorded before, during, and after the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It's the Stones' psychedelic album, more famous for its inventive 3-D cover, mounted on the original vinyl release, a photo shot by Michael Cooper, who also shot the Sgt. Pepper's cover. In 2017, an exhibition at New York's Morrison Hotel called "The Making of an Album Cover" showed photos from the Stones sessions. (Each of the Beatles is portrayed on the TSMR cover, meant to stop the silly gossip that the two bands were rivals rather than friends.)
In an interview in Vulture in 2017, filmmaker Adam Cooper, the late Michael Cooper's son, said that according to Jagger, “We weren’t in the right place at the time. There were too many problems, too many personal things going on, too many problems with the authorities, doing drugs and everything else.”
Keith Richards, in his autobiography Life, wrote: "Much of that year  we struggled haphazardly to make Their Satanic Majesties Request. None of us wanted to make it, but it was time for a new Stones album, and Sgt. Pepper's was coming out, so we thought basically we were doing a put-on. We did have the first 3D record cover of all-time. That was acid too."
While the Beatles always had George Martin to bring their ideas, no matter how far-fetched, to fruition, the Stones were leaving producer-manager Andrew Loog Oldham, and produced TSMR themelves. Not a great idea if you're not only trying to "sound" like you're on acid, but actually taking the stuff.
I have one of the cover mounts, no doubt hidden in my theoretical vault of vinyl oddities; I also have a later album pressing that sounds bad enough that I got much better fidelity through Spotify. The album itself is a curiosity. I remember Paul Williams writing about it in Crawdaddy! when I was a senior in high school, and his verbal riffs about the album are contained in his 1969 compilation Outlaw Blues. (Williams was just a year and a half older than I was and a student at Swarthmore when he started the magazine.) What made me want to be a music critic was Williams' stance that albums could be written about not just by intellect, but by our emotional responses. He's on surest ground writing about science-fiction elements of songs such as "2000 Light Years from Home" and "2000 Man. " Williams, who died in 2013, was such a sci-fi buff that he later became executor of Philip K. Dick's literary estate, and was an early advocate of Theodore Sturgeon.
It's a little amazing to recall how far away the year 2000 seemed from 1967. To paraphrase a discussion I had in 2010 with T Bone Burnett: "They promised us jetpacks, and all we got were apps."
The 10 tracks on TSMR are carried by the piano of Nicky Hopkins, who is really the featured musician: probably the least stoned of the Stones inner circle at the time. The beginning and end of side one, and the final song of the album, are more or less chaotic sound collages that echo something fashionable about Beatles 1967: "Sing This Song Together" is the glue that holds together whatever any theme might be ("All You Need is Love," sort of), to open the record. But by the end of side one, reprise "Sing This All Together (See What Happens)" is eight minutes of carelessly tossed sound salad, although I admit it seems better arranged the more you listen to it. I don't know if I can recommend you do that.
The album's closer, "On With the Show" is Peppery vaudeville. I'm going to borrow Paul Williams' reaction here: This closing song, he wrote, "tells you you don't have to take it all too seriously ("Sgt. Pepper Reprise" told you you don't have to take it all too seriously except 'A Day in the Life'.)"
So that leaves five songs, four worth saving: "She's a Rainbow," with its refrain "she comes in colors everywhere") is borrowed from the January 1967 Love album Da Capo, which featured the one of Arthur Lee's greatest songs, "She Comes in Colors," later covered by the Hooters. This was the only possible hit single from TSMR and it still sounds great on a car radio, but the culture at the end of 1967 was already moving from rainbows to a darker place.
"The Lantern" illuminates that dark place, and if you stripped it down further, it could be British folk head music, like Incredible String Band. Like the other keepers from the album, the mysterious "Citadel," and Bill Wyman's best song as a Stone, the dreamy "In Another Land," it benefits from the essential Rolling Stones musical trope: the Charlie Watts drum-roll-thrust-kick that breaks through the haze, when the band is coming out of a pause, a percussion hook that is Watts' signature. (It is much cleaner on the earlier "All Sold Out" from Between the Buttons.
There is one straggler here. "Gomper" allows Williams to be perhaps misinformed by England's New Musical Express, so often informative and just as often fanciful. He quotes NME as saying "Gomper" has something to do with a Tibetan monk's trance state. Maybe? But current online dictionaries say it may refer to someone with a Cro-magnon level of intelligence, an idiot. "Gomper," perhaps the Stones' worst-ever track, reminds me of the cover photo, in which Mick Jagger is uncomfortably wearing a wizard hat, no doubt foreseeing a future in which Albus Dumbledore is the headmaster of Hogwarts.
Glitch in the editing software. Pay no mind. On with the show.