EVERYBODY MUST GET STONED

Satanic MajestiesI came up with a new variation on the ‘drinking game’ concept the other day after hearing an overused entry in the Woke dictionary once again uttered on Radio 4. I call this fresh twist on the format ‘the slavery game’. One doesn’t need to have the station on all day to play this game; indeed, I heard the word ‘slavery’ within a mere fifteen minutes of listening this morning. It so got me in the mood that I almost switched the radio off and stuck ‘Brown Sugar’ on the turntable. As a song, ‘Brown Sugar’ is now half-a-century old, but the fact it takes the topically triggering subject of slavery and plays with it in a salacious manner characteristic of the turn-of-the-70s Stones means it’s fallen under the spotlight of 2021’s moral watchdogs. The moral watchdogs of 1971 were no more amused by its themes either, so it’s not as if the song hasn’t been criticised before. 50 years back, however, they were the middle-aged conservative right and found the young Stones an affront to all they held dear; their contemporary equivalents are firmly on the left, and young where the Stones are old, but their determination to take offence – especially at any art that predates their new world order – is so far-reaching that even the artists themselves cower under their power.

Along with ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, ‘Brown Sugar’ is one of the guaranteed certs in a Stones set-list – or always has been. No more. The decision has been taken to drop the number from Stones shows, and even if the reasons given evade accusations of self-censoring capitulation to the critical consensus, I can’t help but feel the Stones of ’71 would’ve responded to calls for ‘Brown Sugar’ to be banned with a couple of sticky fingers aimed in the direction of Mary Whitehouse. The Stones have far less to lose now than they did 50 years ago, when a cross-Channel flight from the taxman to stave off bankruptcy meant they were in a considerably more vulnerable position; but today’s financially secure incarnations have decided to give an inch in the hope no mile will be taken. Dream on. Expect ‘Stray Cat Blues’ and ‘Under My Thumb’ to be next on the hit-list. Oh, well; anyone who wants ‘Brown Sugar’ can still access it, and I’d rather hear the original 1971 record than see the remnants of the band play it live in 2021, anyway.

Purely by coincidence, I’ve recently been augmenting my ongoing reliance on Classical as an in-house soundtrack by revisiting the Stones back catalogue, specifically the period which is for me their ‘golden era’, covering the five years from 1966 to 1971. Some of their most celebrated singles and albums emanate from this remarkable run, including what remains an unfairly maligned and misunderstood LP – more than any other in the band’s lengthy canon; it also happens to be the one I can’t seem to stop playing. It’s become something of a tradition on here to follow a heavyweight story with a post looking back at a vintage TV series that happens to be my box-set of the moment; but I don’t often apply the same tactics to my listening habits. Why not, though? Today, I’m talking about a 1967 LP by The Rolling Stones called ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’.

Firstly, I love the title; ‘Satanic Majesties’ soon became a clichéd description of the band to summarise that bleak era at the end of the 60s when an apocalyptic aura seemed to surround them, but the title of this album is of course a play upon the ‘Her Britannic Majesty’s’ segment of the old British passport. A sense of humour was actually quite a strong element of the band at this time, something that the subsequent descent into darkness shortly thereafter tends to obscure. Anyway, this was a record that had a very difficult gestation, for 1967 was not an easy year for the band. It opened with a mixed reception to the album ‘Between the Buttons’, swiftly followed by the infamous Redlands drug bust and the very serious prospect of long-term prison sentences for Jagger and Richards; the ramifications of this raid were to dog the band for the rest of the year, but they clearly found solace by retreating to the recording studio and…well…getting stoned. It was the Psychedelic high summer, after all. Mick and Keith were in attendance at Abbey Road when The Beatles recorded ‘A Day in the Life’ and Jagger was also present during the live TV broadcast of ‘All You Need is Love’ as well as dragging Marianne along to a Maharishi summit; Lennon and McCartney returned the compliment by singing backup vocals on the Stones’ superb ‘We Love You’ single, which was released ahead of (though sadly not included on) ‘Satanic Majesties’. The rivalry between the two bands was largely press-generated, for there was a genuine sense of kinship, an ‘Us and Them’ attitude that the pursuit by Scotland Yard solidified.

The undeniable influence of the Fab Four on the Stones during this period isn’t really reflected in ‘We Love You’, which is an exhilarating if scary journey into the dark heart of acid-infused paranoia via Brian Jones’ mastery of the mellotron; the band even filmed a brilliantly sardonic promo video in which Mick and Marianne were portrayed as Oscar Wilde and Bosie. By the time the Stones’ second album of 1967 was finally ready for release at the end of the year the Beatle influence was mostly evident in the front cover of the LP. Whilst The Beatles had been portrayed as Carnabetian bandsmen on the ‘Sgt Pepper’ sleeve, the Stones came across as slightly seedy pied pipers surrounded by all the gaudy trimmings of the dressing-up box. The original front cover idea of a nude Jagger being crucified was deemed a step too far even for them, so they settled for their own novel 3D take on the brand – and even hid the individual Beatles’ faces amidst the lysergic foliage. The criticisms levelled at the album tend to begin with the sleeve, yet the actual contents bear little resemblance to John, Paul, George & Ringo’s cultural landmark.

Accusations of bandwagon-jumping and being too late to the Psychedelic party to make an impact don’t take into account the pressures on the band throughout its drawn-out recording. The album probably would have appeared far earlier had these pressures not got in the way, but in retrospect it’s a miracle they managed to produce anything at all. Endless court appearances, the overhanging threat of prison, the internal trauma of Keith Richards stealing Brian Jones’ girlfriend (Anita Pallenberg), and Jones’ own slide into addiction can’t have helped, yet the end product sounds nothing like ‘Sgt Pepper’ and indeed nothing like any of 1967’s other British Psychedelic milestones by the likes of Pink Floyd or the Jimi Hendrix Experience. ‘Satanic Majesties’ exists in a uniquely exotic and mesmerising sonic bubble that places it in a field all of its own, one that the Stones themselves never ploughed again and few others have emulated. Personally, I think it represents the high watermark of the period in which the band were eager to spread their wings and were brave enough to venture into uncharted territory.

Bar a couple of extended jams that reflect both the spirit of the age and the consumption of the substances that went with it, the album is far stronger than popular opinion would have anyone believe. The space rock excursion of ‘2000 Light Years from Home’ and the adorable melodic riches of ‘She’s A Rainbow’ make it worth investing in, but the likes of ‘Citadel’, ‘2000 Man’ and ‘Lantern’ are wonderfully underrated songs that really work in the context of the blissfully rewarding earworm of a trip that playing the album from start to finish adds up to. There’s even evidence of that aforementioned humour in a hidden track known as ‘Cosmic Christmas’ – a nightmarish slowed-down instrumental of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ – as well as in the music hall-meets-cabaret club finale of ‘On With the Show’. The band themselves routinely dismiss the LP and write it off as a self-indulgent exercise, yet I don’t know many people who don’t love it. It may well be the runt of the litter, but it stands up as the last glittering, risk-taking example of the Stones being prepared to throw caution to the wind and spurn the whole crippling notion of pop music as a rigid, restrictive series of genres and categories in which everyone stays in their lane. Over half-a-century on, I think the record-buying public didn’t know how well off they were.

© The Editor

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A PROPER CHARLIE

Charlie WattsUntil today, the last time a member – or former member – of The Rolling Stones passed away was well over 30 years ago. He was Ian Stewart, who’d been the casualty of Andrew ‘Loog’ Oldham’s brainwave to package the Stones as the ‘Anti-Beatles’; a six-piece was too close to a jazz ensemble, whereas five worked on the pop scene (as Dave Clark had already proven). And if anyone clearly couldn’t be moulded into the image Oldham had in mind, it was the tall, burly Stewart. It helped that a permanent keyboard player was deemed a superfluous luxury; besides, it was quickly evident the band’s sound didn’t need augmenting on stage, for the volume of screaming that began to greet each performance once the Stones progressed from R&B club to provincial theatre drowned the sound out anyway. However, Ian Stewart was no Pete Best; he was shifted sideways to road manager and remained a permanent member of the band’s entourage up until his death. I recall his passing provoked one of the all-time great so-tasteless-it’s-brilliant headlines in Melody Maker, ‘Key Stone Cops It’.

Behind the scenes, Ian Stewart was an important figure; but as far as the public were concerned, he was a footnote in the Stones story. Not so Charlie Watts, whose death at the age of 80 has been announced. Watts was the urbane jazzman who somehow found himself the drummer in the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band when his detached demeanour often implied he’d have been happier playing before a few hundred punters at Ronnie Scott’s rather than thousands in some vast arena. If Mick Jagger is the celebrity salesman for the band and Keith Richards is the keeper of the musical flame, Charlie Watts has always been the solid rock outside of the spotlight, the Stones’ equivalent of the old Arsenal back four.

In the middle of the 1970s, when the band was beginning to make serious money for the first time thanks to the growth of stadium rock and astronomical album sales, they were actually on the brink of collapse. Mick Taylor, replacement for Brian Jones, had quit; Jagger had joined the coke-snorting jet-set with Bianca; Keith was sleepwalking his way through the day doped-up to the eyeballs; and Ronnie Wood had yet to become a permanent member, still being best known as Rod Stewart’s sidekick. The band’s public image as decadent tax-exiles provided the best excuse for the arrival of Punk Rock, and if it hadn’t been for Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, the drum ‘n’ bass team keeping the train on the tracks, chances are the Stones would’ve been derailed for good around this time. The two of them were that important.

Bill Wyman earned his eventual notoriety during another fallow period in the 80s and finally departed the band in the early 90s, whereas dependable Charlie Watts was always there whenever the remaining members reconvened for a tour or album. As the decades flew by and the Stones adapted to their advancing years by fleshing out the sound on the road with additional musicians, Charlie Watts’ reserved parking space behind the drum-kit was as vital to the band’s composition as Jagger’s breathless gymnastics and Keith riffing away with a fag hanging out of his mouth. It may have taken his impressive staying power for his long-term contribution to the band to be belatedly recognised, but Charlie keeping time at the back, just as he always had, was as necessary a part of what made the Stones work as any of the more celebrated factors. But then, a man who was married to the same woman from 1964 until his death was evidently in possession of something special his bandmates lacked.

The manner in which hit records were recorded in the early 60s often relegated the rhythm section to a place so low in the mix that they seemed to emphasise the hierarchy within a musical unit. Improvements in the recording process and the high profile afforded the likes of Keith Moon and Ginger Baker both on record and on stage dramatically changed all that by the end of the decade, yet Charlie Watts – not unlike Ringo Starr – remained defiantly un-showy; one could never imagine Charlie indulging in a ten-minute drum solo, for example. He knew what his job was and he did it. Only when listening closely to the classic run of Stones singles and albums from the mid-60s to the early 70s can one really discern just how quietly inventive a drummer Charlie Watts really was. Following the lead of their genre-crossing rivals from Liverpool, the Stones flirted with a wide range of sounds and styles during this invigorating period; the eclectic musical gifts of Brian Jones helped expand the band’s horizons, presenting Charlie Watts with constant challenges in finding the right rhythm; but he always managed it.

Watts and Wyman appeared content to concentrate on the music and let their more extrovert bandmates dominate the spotlight for the first 20 years of the Stones; but whereas Wyman finally made his way onto the front pages in a way that didn’t necessarily reflect very well on the bass-player, Charlie continued to shy away from the gossip columns. Even when he unexpectedly developed a serious drug habit in the 80s, he didn’t do so in the tabloid glare, keeping it within the family and successfully getting through what he himself referred to as his midlife crisis. He certainly didn’t fit the stereotype of the rock star that Keith Richards had copyrighted as a public image – even if Keith eventually allowed his considerable erudite side to become more well-known; instead, Charlie Watts’ laconic, self-deprecating humour helped keep the band as grounded as it was possible for such an institution to be. Rock scribes might still like to experience a vicarious thrill telling tales about the on-the-road excesses of old, but without Charlie heading up the rear, the whole circus could easily have disintegrated into an almighty mess.

Like many of those belonging to the generation of Brits whose creativity shaped the 60s, Charlie Watts was from a working-class background (son of a lorry driver) and benefitted from the-then educational system by progressing to art school; his post-college career as a graphic designer ran parallel with his sideline drumming for jazz and blues combos, though even after joining the embryonic Rolling Stones as their permanent drummer at the beginning of 1963, he continued to dabble in art. His cartoons could be seen on the back cover of the 1967 Stones LP, ‘Between the Buttons’, and he later helped design many of the band’s stage sets. He also stayed loyal to jazz and blues, regularly playing with musicians specialising in such sounds whenever the Stones took one of their extended sabbaticals. These sabbaticals have become ever more extended in recent years and Charlie even had to admit he wasn’t physically capable of fulfilling another touring schedule pencilled-in for the back end of this year and had pulled out. His health had previously been a concern in the mid-2000s when he was diagnosed with throat cancer, but he went into remission and the band resumed business once he was well again.

A uniquely sharp dresser even when other members of the Stones were succumbing to some of the worst sartorial crimes of the 80s, Charlie Watts’ distinctive visual style remained rooted in the sharp-suited jazz era that was always his first love, and his wry detachment from the tiresome mythologizing that goes hand-in-hand with the heritage rock industry was always a breath of fresh air. In the best British tradition, he never took himself too seriously; but when it came to his profession he was, in the words of a friend on Facebook tonight, ‘a pro’. Damn right he was.

© The Editor

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THE SWINGEING SIXTIES

A couple of anniversaries worth marking, I thought; a regular feature of this here blog, but always a welcome break from contemporary concerns, what with most of them being pretty grim. Today marks a decade since the UK smoking ban came into force; but firstly, fifty years ago today, the Times published an editorial that remains one of the few (if indeed the only one ever) to impact considerably on pop culture, as well as marking a significant turning point in the Us and Them battle that divided young and old in mid-60s Britain. The emergence of Teddy Boys, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Beatlemania and Mods Vs Rockers all gave rise to the belief amongst the generations that had fought in two World Wars and then ran the country that the country was falling apart at the seams.

None invoked such Blimp-ish rage in establishment circles as those shaggy-haired scruffs The Rolling Stones; their appearance alone was deemed offensive enough, but the thought that these 12-bar wonders might have any kind of influence over the young beyond simply cajoling them into buying their records seemed symbolic of the decline and fall of western civilisation. Things got worse as the Stones began to adopt a more erudite, cultured persona when the arty influence of girlfriends like Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg stretched their ambitions and aspirations beyond merely recycling the Blues. They appeared to be encroaching into the Highbrow, which was bad enough; and then they began extolling the virtues of chemical mind-expansion, something previously reserved for revered (and safely dead) intellectuals like Aldous Huxley.

Fining the band for peeing against a garage wall when the petrol pump attendant refused them access the loos was one thing; but in order to stop this repulsive revolution in its tracks, there needed to be something bigger that could bring about the desired effect. In 1967, the opportunity presented itself and the cohabitating coterie of press, police and judiciary seized upon it. The loose lips of Brian Jones in a London club, unknowingly endorsing LSD to an undercover journalist, led to said Stone being mistakenly identified in print as Mick Jagger; Jagger sued the News of the World but, like Oscar Wilde’s legal action against the Marquess of Queensberry, this response then provoked the enemy into making its move, which it did a week later.

The raid on Keith Richards’ Redlands home, interrupting the aftermath of a ‘drugs party’, has long been woven into both Stones and Rock mythology – with poor Marianne Faithfull still dogged by the utterly fabricated ‘Mars Bar’ rumour; but the outcome for Mick and Keith at the time wasn’t quite so entertaining, the former charged with possession of four amphetamine tablets and the latter with allowing cannabis to be smoked on his property. They were tried at the Chichester Assizes in June 1967 and were both found guilty, with Jagger sentenced to three months’ imprisonment and Richards to a year. They both immediately launched appeals and were released on bail after a night behind bars.

The severity of the sentences and the dubious collusion between Scotland Yard and the News of the World raised many questions. The Stones’ contemporaries reacted with a show of support, with The Who rush-releasing cover versions of ‘Under My Thumb’ and ‘The Last Time’ as a single; but the most unexpected show of support came not from Us, but Them. Sensing an injustice had been done simply to teach these loutish upstarts a lesson, none other than William Rees-Mogg (yes, father of Jacob) intervened. Rees-Mogg was the editor of the Times – viewed as a bastion of the same establishment intent on persecution and punishment where the Swinging 60s were concerned – and he made an eloquent, passionate plea in the Times’ editorial on 1 July 1967, under the title ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?’

‘If we are going to make any case a symbol of the conflict between the sound traditional values of Britain and the new hedonism,’ wrote Rees-Mogg, ‘then we must be sure that the sound traditional values include those of tolerance and equity. It should be the particular quality of British justice to ensure that Mr Jagger is treated exactly the same as anyone else, no better and no worse. There must remain a suspicion in this case that Mr Jagger received a more severe sentence than would have been thought proper for any purely anonymous young man.’

Coupled with the widespread outrage amongst the young over the sentences, the Times editorial prompted the authorities to bring the appeal hearings forward and a month after being sentenced, the sentences were quashed. Mick and Keith walked away from court free men again and Jagger was more or less immediately flown by a helicopter hired by ambitious Granada producer John Birt to take part in a special ‘World in Action’ debate with three members of the establishment (chaired by Rees-Mogg), who seemed to look upon Jagger as elderly scientists would look upon a fascinating new species of butterfly. But Jagger’s easy-on-the-ear middle-class accent and reassuring, unthreatening demeanour charmed both his inquisitors and the television audience.

The intervention of William Rees-Mogg and the belated realisation by the Great British Public that maybe these demonised heroes of the young weren’t quite as great a threat to the future of mankind as the atom bomb marked a sea-change in the way the transforming society was perceived by its elder statesmen. The same year as the cause célèbre of the Mick & Keith trial, homosexual acts between consenting adults in private were decriminalised, abortion was legalised, and ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was embraced by young and old alike as Art. The affair also gifted Keith Richards, previously overshadowed in the media spotlight by Jagger and Brian Jones, the outlaw image he’s maintained ever since as the ‘soul’ of the band. There were casualties, however.

Brian Jones, targeted by the drugs squad in a separate raid and increasingly isolated within the band, embarked upon a rapid downward slide that culminated in his mysterious premature death two years later; Marianne Faithfull, denounced from the pulpit as a harlot and mercilessly mocked over the Mars Bar myth, then embarked upon her own downward slide that led all the way to being a homeless heroin addict in the 70s. But the Times stepping back from the great divide to look at it with objective sagacity was the first step towards acceptance of youth culture as a valid and relevant force within society by those too old to participate. Bar the odd moral panic over Punk Rock and Acid House, it has been recognised as such ever since, as thousands of books, documentaries and humble little articles such as this will testify.

© The Editor