The Rolling Stones went back to basics as their creator faded away. Their seventh album, Beggars Banquet, released on this day (Dec. 6) in 1968, marked the beginning of the end for their founding guitarist, Brian Jones.
Their subtlest, mellowest work is being commemorated by ABKCO Records, who released Beggars Banquet (50th Anniversary Edition) this week. The package contains a fresh remastering of the album on CD and gatefold vinyl.
Beggars Banquet was their last album made within Jones’ lifetime; he’d dreamed up the band himself in 1962. When a venue owner called and asked the name of his then-untitled group, he panicked, looked at a Muddy Waters record sleeve on his floor and rattled off a title: “The Rollin’ Stones.”
Over time, he established himself as the quiet, arty counterpart to his outrageous bandmates, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. As the band gained steam, so did Jagger and Richards’ songwriting abilities, and they swiftly hogged the spotlight from their old leader. By 1968, Jones’ rock n’ roll creation had taken over the world — and he became a shell of himself with a nasty drug habit.
Musically, the rest of the Stones were ready for a change. Their last album had been 1967’s Their Satanic Majesty’s Request, a zonked detour into psychedelic rock. It reflected Jones’ eccentric sensibilities; Richards dismissed it as “flimflam.”
As they worked on its follow-up, Jones began to be a liability. “He’d show up occasionally when he was in the mood to play, and he could never really be relied on,” producer Jimmy Miller remembered of the Beggars sessions at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. “And the others, particularly Mick and Keith, would often say to me, ‘Just tell him to piss off and get the hell out of here.’”
With Richards, a student of American folk and blues, mostly running the show, the Stones achieved more with less. They dropped the psychedelic façade and picked up acoustic guitars; the results were bare-bones gems like “No Expectations,” “Factory Girl” and “Salt of the Earth.”
It’s not just the Rolling Stones unplugged; their fiery hits “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man” both appear here. But rather than anchoring the album, both singles feel like outliers. Drop the needle on any other song, and you hear the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Band barely rocking at all.
Beggars Banquet also marked the Stones’ first transitional period. The following year, Jones would be found dead in a swimming pool at 27.
The rawer, filthier approach here foreshadowed their ‘70s classics, like 1971’s Sticky Fingers and 1972’s Exile on Main St. It can all be traced back to Beggars, in which they stretched out, recalibrated and got back to their roots. The Stones’ second wind begins here.
To celebrate the release of Beggars Banquet (50th Anniversary Edition), here’s a track-by-track retrospective of the original album.
“Sympathy for the Devil”
Over a clattery, ominous samba rhythm, Jagger hands the mic to Satan on “Sympathy for the Devil.” It’d take on a second life both in cinema and myriad cover versions: it could be the only song championed by both Martin Scorsese and Axl Rose.
Fifty years on, this Stones classic remains daring and enveloping; almost nothing sounds like it. This even goes for the rest of Beggars Banquet — “Devil” is a strange opener for this otherwise spare, minimal album.
Quibbling aside, Jagger’s portrayal of the Morning Star as a rakish debonair still elicits grins; the lyrics about shooting the Kennedys and Christ’s agony in Gethsemane, gasps.
This Banquet certainly begins with a bang by means of “Sympathy for the Devil.” But “No Expectations,” a melancholic folk song with a lovely bottleneck slide part from Jones, is the true entryway into its world. Jagger’s terse with the details, singing about how he has to board a flight to leave his lover, who “throws pearls before swine” to his detriment.
The result is one of the most gorgeous ballads in the Stones’ catalog. And from Jagger’s hangdog delivery to Nicky Hopkins’ sparse, plaintive piano, “No Expectations” practically invents early Wilco.
The breakup theme of “No Expectations” continues with “Dear Doctor” — albeit in a tongue-in-cheek setting. It begins with Jagger detailing his broken heart — not poetically, but literally, and so much so that it needs to be physically removed and preserved in a jar.
It gets even sillier from there: Jagger compares his fiancee to a “bow-legged sow” before getting nerves at the altar: “I put on my jacket / It had creases as sharp as a knife!”
As with folk, blues and rock n’ roll, the Stones were downright academics of country music. Their dedication shows: “Dear Doctor” is a dead-on, endearingly corny parody of country wedding drama.
On “Parachute Woman,” Jagger works the only way he knows how: blue. “I’ll make my blow in Dallas / And get hot again in half the time,” he yowls. As usual, you can’t accuse him of being too subtle.
The music is far more interesting; the Stones tracked “Parachute Woman” in an experimental fashion. Ever since Richards had famously demoed “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” literally while asleep in a hotel, he’d fallen in love with the “grinding, dirty” sound he could get when using consumer-grade cassette recorders.
Inspired by the blown-out atmosphere of his hotel demos, Richards ran his acoustic guitar part through a tape deck, intentionally tracking “Parachute Woman” in cheapo low-fidelity. Pulled off a decade before punk and two before Guided by Voices, this was one prescient studio trick.
Musically, “Jigsaw Puzzle” isn’t much, just a grooving country-blues jam. But lyrically, there’s a lot to unpack. When he’s not singing hilarious Joni-isms (“There’s a tramp sitting on my doorstep / With his mentholated sandwich / He’s a walking clothesline!”) he’s calling out every individual member of the Rolling Stones.
“The singer looks angry at being thrown to the lions,” he sings. “The bass player, he looks nervous about the girls outside.” If that line is a dig at bassist Bill Wyman’s womanizing nature, it takes one to know one.
“Street Fighting Man”
Released as a single just as Vietnam War protesters clashed with the cops at the Democratic National Convention, “Street Fighting Man” was a social unrest anthem for the ages. The music’s more interesting than usually given credit, too, from Jones’ droning sitar and tamboura to guest Dave Mason’s bass drum and Indian shehnai.
Despite its appeal, the song has at least one hater: Jagger himself. “I don’t really like it that much,” he admitted to Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner in 1995. “I’m not sure if it has any resonance for the present day.” Whether this was a fair assessment of its message, or if it even really fits on Banquet, Richards’ grinning two-chord riff is a language anyone can understand.
With Richards at the helm, the Stones would begin to emphasize his encyclopedic knowledge of early blues. “Prodigal Son” was originally by Reverend Robert Wilkins, a Memphis bluesman who was a senior citizen by the time the Stones got rolling.
The first cover of Beggars Banquet portrayed a grimy, graffiti-strewn men’s room on the front, with Wilkins accurately credited on the back; when Decca rejected and replaced the sleeve, the new version featured a careless typo of Wilkins’ song as being by “Jagger/Richards.”
Although their attempt to shine a light on a lesser-known influence ended up backfiring, by all accounts, the Stones covered Wilkins in good faith.
“Stray Cat Blues”
When it comes to the Stones’ lyrics, Jagger would spend the following decade testing the limits of raunch. 1971’s “Brown Sugar” and 1978’s “Some Girls” were both filled with racially charged references to illicit sex; how those two got past the censors is anyone’s guess.
If those songs were the furthest Jagger pushed the envelope, “Stray Cat Blues” came pretty close. Even if he’s singing in character, his icky ideations about a 15-year-old (“You look so weird and you’re so far from home / I bet you miss your mother”) didn’t age well.
On “Brown Sugar,” Jagger buried offensive lyrics under the Stones’ most kinetic groove, but “Stray Cat Blues” is just plain lecherous.
In he and Watts’ revealing 2001 book According to the Rolling Stones, Jagger would explain the Stones’ approach to country music on Beggars Banquet. “There’s a way of looking at life in a humorous kind of way,” he wrote of the genre. “I think we were just acknowledging that side of the music.”
Over a parody of an Appalachian jig, “Factory Girl” finds a crestfallen Jagger waiting in vain. He’s got his sights on a working-class gal, pleading and begging her to clock out of her industrial day job and be his.
Musically, it’s another loving tip of the hat to country music, with a few twists: Watts strikes a tabla with his drumsticks; Nicky Hopkins plays a Mellotron in a mandolin setting, and Ghanaian percussionist Rocky Dijon slaps a conga.
The beauty of the Stones was never their reverence, but their cheek at genre conventions. On “Factory Girl,” the Stones knew country and western so well that they weren’t afraid to play it with Eastern, West Indies, or any other kinds of instruments.
“Salt of the Earth”
When Brian Jones checked out from the band during the Beggars Banquet sessions, Richards stepped up to preside over the album. And true to form for Banquet, which was purely his baby, Uncle Keef himself sings a rare lead vocal for the finale.
“Salt of the Earth” is a stellar ode to the working man, hung on an idiom from the Sermon on the Mount about reliability and strength of character. He pumps up the “hard-working people” with encouragement and zeal. “Say a prayer for the common foot soldier,” he declares. “Spare a thought for his back-breaking work.”
Until the rocking backing track suddenly drops out, leaving Jagger to deliver a startling line. “When I look in the faceless crowd,” he sings, “A swirling mass of grays / They don’t look real to me.”
Richards is standing for the ham-and-eggers, Jagger is suspicious of the straight world. From there, “Salt of the Earth” begins to rip apart, as if holding two opposing truths in the same song. The two finish the song together as if they’re fighting for the microphone.
Fifty years ago, the Stones’ old leader was on his way out; for the rest of their band’s history, Jagger and Richards’ conflicting personalities would fuel the fire. It all began at this Banquet.