Almanac Music: Fun and Feasting at the Beggars Banquet

Geelong Grammar School. c1968 Pic: Anson Cameron

 

 

Who forgot the apostrophe? Mick or Keith? Should it be Beggar’s Banquet or Beggars’ Banquet? I prefer the latter, imagining a mythical party hosted by Rolling Stones somewhere like, say, Tangier in Morocco.

Punctuation marks denoting possession aside, this 1968 release is the most fun of their career with sitars, LA’s Watts Street Gospel Choir and a polite devil all prominent. Forgetting the psychedelic swill of Their Satanic Majesties Request, this album’s ambitious but also homage to their American influences.

The music of Satan is not, as many might attest, heavy metal or any of its more ridiculously camp variants. His accompaniment, of course, is something much more seductive. Opening Beggars Banquet is “Sympathy for the Devil” which is narrated by Lucifer himself.

Underpinned by congas the music is a samba: hypnotic, sexual, inescapably charismatic. And there’s the Devil, resplendent in a sharp suit, drawing you in over a cocktail with his allure, but also his invisible menace. Indeed, the opening to this dramatic monologue is a deferential “Please allow me to introduce myself…”

In the days after its release, I imagine God-fearing folk from places like Lynchburg, Virginia quivering at Mick’s vocals, but I reckon it’s now fanciful fun, fetching theatre.

*

In Keith Richards’ autobiography Life my favourite vignette centres upon the young author and his grandfather in Soho, during the austere 1950s. Upon seeing a poor urchin, the elder asks, “Keith, have you got a shilling?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now go and give it to that boy. He needs it more than you.” Keith does.

“Well done,” praised granddad, “That’s very kind.” He pressed his fist into Keith’s paw.

Keith opened his hand. In it were two shillings.

*

“Dear Doctor” is the third track and takes us musically and narratively to the American south with the mawkish tale of a doomed boy, trapped to his betrothed.

The melodramatic context is clunky, but it’s one of the record’s fine acoustic songs that could be dismissed as irreverent; making fun of the genre. However, this would misjudge the band’s deep admiration for this music, as they deliver us to their beloved blues and country destinations. Worship, and not cheap parody is driving the pick-up. Such is the authenticity of Mick’s vocal characterisation that the finale is a relief for us all:

It read, “Darlin’, I’m sorry to hurt you.

But I have no courage to speak to your face.

But I’m down in Virginia with your cousin Lou

There be no wedding today.

*

In February 1965, my Mum and Dad saw the Rolling Stones at Centennial Hall. It was part of the Showgrounds, but the building is now demolished. A short Par 4 from where I work, and commuting past, I envisage flickering black and white footage and screaming. Shrill, teenaged, screaming.

Roy Orbison took the stage beforehand and with his voice like “the cry of an angel falling backward through an open window” the crowd adored him. But then, Mum and Dad both remember the Stones being booed and jeered. What? They played eight songs with competent energy, but it was too late. Adelaide loved the Big O, and gave the boys from Dartford the Big A.

*

The Rolling Stones are now popularly connected to the electric guitar, but on Beggars Banquet the acoustic songs generate much of the fun. “Prodigal Son” is a country blues, Bible-infused number that on the record’s early pressings was wrongly attributed to Jagger and Richards. It was by the Rev. Robert Wilkins, a Memphis gospel singer and herb medicine specialist whose first recording was “Rolling Stone Blues, Parts I & II.” It dates from 1928.

It’s a reminder that they still loved the blues and regarded themselves as belonging to Memphis as much as London. “Prodigal Son” is a terrific driving song, and the Mississippi swims into widescreen view as Mick’s harmonica eddies and swirls across the speakers.

*

The album is colonised by rich characters and the richest here is the “Factory Girl.” It’s a curious amalgam with violins, South Asian congas or tablas giving it a Hindustani feel and Mick’s mid-Western vowels providing a pilgrimage too. The girl is irrepressible: catching buses, sporting “curlers in her hair” and loving a weekend fight. Even with the “stains all down her dress” she’s attractive. It’s my pet track.

Opening the batting for the band’s astonishing run of form which witnessed consecutive centuries through Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St, it’s a whirling, boisterous set. While it doesn’t gather the acclaim of its successors, it’s their most fun record.

*

And I’m not sure that the title’s absent apostrophe is rock’s greatest grammatical crime. This surely belongs to Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” for its maddeningly redundant preposition, which if you’re not vigilant, sticks in your head like a rusty nail:

But if this ever changin’ world

In which we live in.

Ladies and gentlemen, Beggars Banquet!

 

 

About Mickey Randall

Late afternoon beer, Exile on Main St playing. Sport like cricket, most types of football, golf, squash, horse racing. Travel, with Vancouver my favourite city, but there’s nowhere I’ve not happily been. Except Luton. Reading. Writing about family, sport, music, the stuff that amuses me. Conversation. Wit. Irony. McLaren Vale cabernet sauvignon, Barossa shiraz, Coopers Sparkling Ale. Jazz and especially Miles Davis. Lots and lots of music. I live in Adelaide with my wife Kerry-ann and our boys Alex and Max.

Comments

  1. Peter Flynn says:

    Cheers Mickey,

    And then there’s Parachute Woman!

  2. Tony Tea says:

    It beggars banquet down to a sandwich and a glass of milk.

  3. Thanks PF. Parachute Women was on my shortlist for discussion. Love the image, but I reckon some of the other songs have got more going on lyrically and musically, as it were! I’d be sure it’s autobiographical though, if not confessional.

  4. * woman. Not sure MIck was that greedy, but I wouldn’t be surprised!

  5. So that sign was the end of brother Guy’s academic career. Expelled days before year 12 exams. Seems harsh, only one kid’s life was endangered in the making of… He was about my third-wildest sibling. I think I wrote this before, but you can see how the fire brigade could get to BANQUET but were stymied by BEGGAR’S. The father of he guy who painted wanted him to go over the edge and scrub it off. The school declined his offer.

    As to the album itself… Street Fighting Man… that guitar

  6. Earl O'Neill says:

    Great album, thanks Mickey. I’m gonna listen to it now cos if I started writing a comment I’d be here for hours.

  7. Thirty Seventy says:

    I always heard the line in Live and Let Die to be:
    “but if this ever-changing world in which we’re living”
    which is, of course, grammatically correct.
    Have another listen and see if you agree.
    Recall as a 16 year old in the late 70’s that Beggars Banquet was the first Stones album I really loved (having previously heard the hits but having no older sibling not had access to the albums).
    All other albums released before and since have been measured against that lofty standard and as much as I love Aftermath and the three albums that followed Beggars Banquet (four if you count Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out) only the live one and Sticky Fingers came close to equal rotation time for me.

  8. Tony- As many might attest among the best meals in life often include a sandwich (cheese) and a glass of milk (full fat).

    ajc- that photo is worthy of its own fully realised recount. Many of us would love to read it! Was “Exile on Main St” painted on Moorabool Street outside Kardinia Park a couple years later?

    Thanks Earl. As I’ve not heard from you here since, it’s clearly going well. A nice Thursday evening.

    Thirty Seventy- good theory on the McCartney song; no doubt an acoustic scientist could resolve this, but that’d be disappointing…I’ll invest some time on this.

    It’s just a remarkable run of form and there’s a huge range of songs, a galaxy no less, across these records. Of course, Beggars Banquet turns fifty next year, and to my ear, it’s timeless and still invigorating.

    Thanks everyone.

  9. Earl O'Neill says:

    Hey Mickey, Sticky Fingers spinning now. Los Angeles 1972 beats hell outa Ya-Yas.

  10. Agreed Earl, but as a document of a band in rare form, Ya-Ya’s goes well, especially with Mick and the audience’s commentary between songs: “You don’t want my trousers to fall down, do you?” and “Charlie’s good tonight.” Then there’s “Paint it Black, you devil.”

    But that offered, Moonlight Mile is an excellent Thursday evening selection.

  11. Luke Reynolds says:

    Mickey, I must admit I’d never listened to this album. Had a listen via Spotify at work today after reading this last night. Must say I really enjoyed it on first listen.
    My Mum had several Stones records that I heard many times growing up, though ‘Sticky Fingers’ was the earliest one in her collection.
    Is there a better Stones song than “Sympathy For The Devil”??

  12. Thanks Luke. Glad you enjoyed it at work.

    When I was growing up people across the road had Stones’ albums and I was intrigued by the Ya Ya’s cover and as an eight year old, or thereabouts, I knew there was something decidedly adult about the Sticky Fingers name and cover.

    I reckon “Gimme Shelter” goes close, but to think that they wrote “Sympathy” when they were about 26; wow.

  13. Mickey

    Great stuff

    With you on Gimme Shelter

    Sean

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