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How The Rolling Stones Found Themselves on 'Satanic Majesties Request' by Getting Lost

Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns
The Rolling Stones photographed in 1968. 

The Rolling Stones. It’s a name synonymous with rock’n’roll. Those rough and tumble, bar bruisin’ bad boys with the gritty blues-rock guitar riffs and the sassy frontman. It’s hard to imagine them as anything else. But in 1967, in the twilight of the Summer of the Love, they tried to be just that — and, well, those pants didn’t fit quite right.

But, like most things, it’s complicated.

The popular storyline of Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Stones’ eighth U.S. LP which turns 50 years old today (Dec. 8), is that it’s a cheap knockoff of the Beatles’ uber-successful, artistic breakthrough Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The psychedelic sound was in—the Zombies, Love, Donovan, etc.—and the Stones wanted to cash in and prove to their arch rivals that, yes, they could create arty, highbrow music, too. So the band — the same lads who had already released menacing, moody rockers like “Play With Fire” and “Paint It Black” — donned colorful paisley shirts and funny hats and sang about universal love. It was painfully off-brand. But there’s more to the story.

The year 1967 was a rough one for Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. There were a lot of drugs. A lot of drugs. They nearly destroyed the band. The group’s leading men — Jagger, Richards and Jones — were all arrested on drug charges and spent the night in jail (Jagger actually did three nights). Jones’ longtime lady love, fashion it-girl-of-the-moment and rock muse Anita Pallenberg, left him for Richards (she’d later have a tryst with Jagger, too).

Jones had a mental collapse and spent three weeks in a medical facility. It was a mess. And to boot, Andrew Loog Oldham, the band’s manager and producer who’d ushered them to stardom, was himself wasted. He soon quit (or was fired, depending on whose memoir you read) amid the chaos, making the LP their first self-produced release. Between the court appearances and jail stints, the entire band was rarely in the studio together all at once, and when they did arrive to work that summer, it was usually with an entourage and a load of dope.  

“It was a lottery as to who would turn up and what — if any — positive contribution they would make when they did,” Wyman wrote of the sessions in his 2002 book Rolling with the Stones. “There was simply too much hanging around,” Jagger said in 2003’s According to the Rolling Stones. “It's like believing everything you do is great and not having any editing.”

“None of us wanted to make [Satanic Majesties],” Richards wrote in 2010’s Life, “but it was time for another Stones album, and Sgt. Pepper’s was coming out, so we thought basically we were doing a put-on.” He was more to the point in his 1994 book, In His Own Words: “The album was a load of crap."

The band was exhausted — between 1964-1967 they’d recorded and released over nine albums’ worth of material while performing an average of five nights a week. Now stardom was taking its toll. Combined with drugs and emotional trauma, it was a recipe for disaster. Oddly enough, it could’ve been worse — the Stones originally wanted to call the LP Cosmic Christmas and have its cover featuring Jagger naked and nailed to a cross, Jesus-style. The band’s label, aka the only parent left in the room at this point, nixed it.

But the album does have its moments. In their attempt to mimic the Beatles, the band employed new instrumentation and sounds, including the Mellotron, theremin, African rhythms, guitar loops, radio static and string arrangements from future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. This alone expanded their musical language.

There’s the ill-fitting, hippy-folk nod to Donovan (opener “Sing This All Together” and its more psychedelic sibling “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)”) and blatant imitations of the Zombies (the harpsichord-laden “In Another Land”) and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s (“On With the Show”). But there’s also a pair of stone cold Stones classics. “She’s a Rainbow” is one of the most-recognizable moments from the Stones’ early career — and certainly one of their most beautiful songs, ever. It’s a baroque, whimsical piano riff by collaborator Nicky Hopkins, with strings courtesy of JPJ that fracture under Jagger’s trippy lyrics: “She comes in colors everywhere! She’s like a rainbow!”

It’s the closest the Stones ever got to nailing their own brand of 1967 psychedelia. And “2,000 Light Years From Home” is a druggy, droning jam with a killer groove courtesy of Watts (the unsung hero of the LP, who applies a solid beat throughout, despite shortcomings in the songwriting department). It has an ominous vibe, dialed up by the high-pitched strings and low-end guitar twangs: “Sun turnin' 'round with graceful motion / We're setting off with soft explosion,” Jagger sings. “Bound for a star with fiery oceans/ It's so very lonely, you're a hundred light years from home.”

The Stones, as it turned out, were the ones far from home. While the album reached No. 3 in the UK and No. 2 in the U.S., sales quickly declined — and the music press was unforgiving. The sound just didn’t stick. For a hard-charging blues-rock band, the psychedelic thing just wasn’t their style. The band learned that the hard way. But it’s a valuable lesson in identity. Everyone wants to see and hear the bad boys of rock play the role of hippy vagabonds, regardless of its quality. But after Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Stones took a hard look in the mirror. They soon abandoned the psychedelic sound and returned to their roots in stripped-down blues and rock’n’roll.

Beggars Banquet, their next album dropped almost exactly a year later in early December ’68, would deliver classics like “Sympathy for the Devil” and Street Fighting Man.” And over the next five years, the Stones would offer Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and the gritty blues-rock masterstroke, Exile on Main Street. A trip-up led to a hot streak.

While the band members have spent the past 49 years distancing themselves from it, let’s remember that Their Satanic Majesties Request actually has a pivotal role in the band’s sound and trajectory. Because sometimes you have to lose yourself to find yourself.