Wednesday, 27 July 2016
Revolver was very nearly the first LP I ever bought. If it had only been 49 pence cheaper, it almost certainly would have been the first LP I ever bought. Or if it had had just two extra tracks on it...just two... But it wasn't and it didn't. Because A Collection of Beatles Oldies (....but Goldies) was only £2.50 you see. And it had 16 tracks. And 2 of them were on Revolver anyway...
Such were the economics of record buying back in....when exactly was it? 1974? 1975? I'm not exactly sure. But whenever it was, this agonising at the local Woolies over which of those two 1966 LPs would kick start my collection was bang in the middle of one of those glorious English summers that seemed to be the preserve of the mid to late 1970s, in my memory at least. Weeks would be spent lying for hours in the municipal splendour of Twickenham's outdoor swimming pool, no doubt absorbing the occasional splat or two of vitamin D along with even vaster quantities of far more harmful rays through my completely unprotected (and very pale) skin. Only the occasional swim through the fly-filled and over-chlorinated but still beautiful blue water would distract me from what seemed to be one long, protracted daydream about the racks of shiny Beatles LP covers that I'd insist upon leafing through and gawping at for as long as familial patience would allow on our way back home from the pool. One day, evidently, my saucer-eyed, Oliver-esque pleading must have finally shamed my parents into allowing me to buy one of the mystical cardboard squares that had begun to exert such a magnetic pull upon their son. And there began a life dominated by vinyl records and, consistently it would seem, me buying the wrong LP.
Oh, Oldies (...but Goldies) is a pretty good place to start with the Beatles for a 9 or 10 year old. In fact, given that I spent the next 18 months or so playing little else but that record and invariably accompanying the listening with an impressive knitting-needles-upon-leather-upholstered-armchair barrage of Ringo Starr impressions, it's probably just as well that the strains of 'Tomorrow never knows', 'Here there and everywhere', 'For no one' and 'I'm only sleeping' weren't disfigured by my enthusiastic but maladroit poundings. It's got most of the first batch of Beatles' singles, plus 'Yesterday' and 'Bad boy'. Indeed the latter track, until later reissue campaigns tidied up the various odds and ends of the band's catalogue, you could only get on the Oldies LP (well, that and some ridiculous rip-off, 10 tracks that last less than 20 minutes, US album like Beatles VI or something). So at the time, I didn't feel at all hard done by.
But I doubt there will be many street parties later this year to mark the 50th anniversary of the release of A Collection of Beatles Oldies (....but Goldies). No mention of it, even in the numerous earnest documentaries celebrating Revolver and asking if there was ever a moment of such great cultural import as the year that also bought us Blonde on Blonde, Pet Sounds, and the Rolling Stones' Aftermath. I watched one such programme last night. It's interesting stuff, but I'll restrict myself to personal history here as I'm sure far wiser and more knowledgable heads out there can tell exactly why a simple piece of mass produced plastic with 14 songs on it and a funny collaged cover is still worthy of talking about 50 years after its release. All I know is, this LP has been with me pretty much every step of the way since that summer day when I overlooked it for a get-it-in-the-shops-for-Christmas compilation album with a gaudy faux-flapper-era illustrated cover.
I can't remember exactly when I did, finally, get what is in many people's opinions the finest of all the Beatles' albums. Around the same time that I jibbed Revolver for Oldies, my Mum got a job working in the accounts department of a local security alarm firm called AFA Minerva. As an enlightening 'sign of the times' aside, I seem to remember that she lied on her application form about her place of birth - Belfast - for fear that it might prejudice her employers against her. I'm guessing this was around the time of the Birmingham bombings so, yes, probably 1974 or thereabouts. Anyway, despite this terrible (and I'm sure needless) mendacity, Mum got the job and within a short period of time AFA had been bought up by EMI. This turned out to be pretty good news as not only did she come home one day with copies of Band on the Run and The Very Best of Roger Whittaker because her team had reached some target or other, but was also able proudly to inform us that she would hence be able to get a discount on all EMI records.
This helped enormously with what became my all-consuming and abiding passion between the ages of about 9 and 13. I can't remember the exact chronology, but over those 4 years, through a combination of Christmas and birthday presents, increasingly convoluted swaps, wranglings with the amused owner of the Jive Dive (a local vintage record collectors shop specialising in rock'n' roll and rockabilly) and judicious use of Mum's discount, I managed to assemble the complete set of Beatle studio albums. I'm pretty sure my copy was brand new when I got it, so it seems safe to assume that it was courtesy of the AFA connection - probably brought home by Mum to her ridiculously over-excited offspring on a Friday night (it seems they always dished the records out on a Friday) sometime in 1977-78.
In between that early failure to buy it and finally owning a copy, I had a couple of pleasant dalliances with Revolver, courtesy of a junior school friend - Adrian - whose youthful seeming parents had a copy. I'd go round to Adrian's and we'd listen to that and The History of the Bonzos, seemingly on a loop. Adrian's parents - who if this were the 1980s were what I suppose you would have called 'young, upwardly mobile', a teacher (Mum) and an architect (Dad) - had a pretty nice (we'd have called it then) music centre and so those listening sessions were probably among the few times I'd ever heard music in anything remotely resembling 'high fidelity'. I can still remember the astonishing sensation of hearing so much bass on a record when 'Taxman' sparked into life from the large (probably Wharfedale) speakers sat on either side of the bay window.
Back home, my early experiences with Revolver would have been via a Fidelity record player that was my Christmas present in (probably) 1977 (possibly the year after). Before that, I'd been listening to records on a Bush box style player that had been handed down to us by my Mum's younger sister, Alison. Ali and her husband were huge music fans and, as well as the turntable, she was also kind enough to donate a couple of Beatles treasures to the ever-expanding archive I was assembling, no doubt eventually submitting to those pauperized saucer eyes again. The Bush was probably a better player than the Fidelity, which even though it had a fairly good turntable and cartridge had ridiculous plastic speakers that would start to rattle at the tiniest excuse. But because it was a box player, the Bush just didn't *look* like a state of the art 70s bit of hi-fi equipment. A shame, because I'd probably really appreciate it now. It had a very warm sound and you could have, if you'd had the wit to track one down in those days, added a second speaker to it and had a really good bit of kit. If I knew then....etc.
The terrible inadequacy of its speakers meant that I probably listened to music most often through headphones. As anyone will know who grew up as I did discovering the Beatles' music through the stereo mixes that seemed to predominate in the 1970s, they often make a for a very strange listening experience 'in the cans'. This was probably not aided by the deficiencies of the pair - again, seemngly made exclusively from plastic - of phones that I'd managed to obtain, probably also from Woolies. Indeed, I'm not even sure there was anywhere else in Twickenham to get what I guess you'd have to call 'entry level' music equipment, which was certainly all that our family could afford at that point, and for some time after.
That same AFA-discount copy stayed with me through to the mid 1980s. Then came CDs. Twickenham had one of the first CD only shops - Earthshaker - run by a strange balding, bearded litle chap who seems now in my memory to personify the misguided smugness of the early CD era. It was in Earthshaker that I first heard the Beatles on CD, s.b.b.l.c. playing me, at my request, 'Tomorrow never knows' from the then newly issued digital version at full volume through his incredibly large wall-mounted speakers. To ears that had really never had the opportunity to explore the rich depths of a properly set up and cared for analogue set up, it sounded very good. But even then not so earth shaking as this guy's 'look at me, I've just discovered the cure for cancer' demeanour seemed to suggest. Sadly though, like many, I took an extensive detour down the digital route and, as a result, gave my girlfriend of the time a lot of my vinyl collection as I replaced them on CD.
Around the millennium, I started getting back into vinyl again. I'd managed to keep about half of the Beatles studio albums and listening to these again and discovering that, you know what, these actually still sound a lot better than the CDs, I found myself back in 1974-78 mode once more. I probably got in at just about the right time. You could pick up nice pristine copies of the 70s and 80s stereo albums for about a tenner and I managed to get hold of a really nice copy of Revolver that way on Amazon for, I think, £11.99. The heart still skips a little beat when you see the tan square sat on the doorstep and peeling away the cardboard it was, despite this being another, slightly later copy entirely, like being reunited with a long-lost friend. This copy had clearly been well looked after - the protective plastic sleeve was even folded over to cover the opening to preserve the contents from dust. It plays very well.
Of course, once you start, there's no stopping. I cut down my paid work hours a few years ago and having arranged to meet a friend up in town thought I'd pop into one of the Soho vinyl shops and treat myself to an original mono copy of Revolver as this was possibly, for all I knew, the last time I'd be able with any certainty to afford it. Sure enough, it was! And lo and behold, there were several copies there - first, second and later presses with attendant differences in price according to their age. Seeing as this is meant to be a treat, I figured, in for sheep in for a lamb, I'd pay a wee bit more and get a genuine first press (well, a second press of side two...but that's another story....*) I don't know why, but for someone with so many records, I really don't *like* record shops. It always feels like you're somehow on trial, being examined and judged. Maybe it's just my shy English reserve or something, but I always feel like a bed-wetting child in what I'd call 'proper' record shops. So, shaking and nauseous, I take the sleeve up to the counter.
"Ah, Revolver..." says the bearded hoodlum behind the desk, as if I've come up to him and handed him a note confessing to several decades of industrial scale paedophilia and the odd unsolved murder. He hands the sleeve to a Johnny Marr lookalikey who is as cool as he is skinny and who returns from the boundless shelves behind the counter with a record in its inner sleeve. Mr. Bearded Hoodlum turns on an interrogation room-strength white light which feels as if it should be pointing in my face not, as it is, down onto the now grey, brilliant white-pock marked lunar surface of the record itself. It's at moments like this that I completely freeze - exam conditions. Everything I thought I knew about record collecting - and I've read up and researched what to the sane must seem an almost lunatic and obsessive amount - just vanishes from my head. I'd read something somewhere about the early pressings of Revolver having been withdrawn so there are very few -1 matrix pressings in the public domain (don't worry, I'll explain all the matrix stuff later if you don't know it all already). So I see a -3 matrix and think, yeah that makes sense, even though deep down I'm thinking (if you can describe the anguished jelly in my brain as being capable of anything resembling an actual thought) that surely this should be a -2 if it's a genuine 'first' pressing...
But you know how it is....or maybe you don't. Maybe you're American and you *do* actually *like* making a fuss and you *don't* tell shop assistants that you don't need any assistance thank you very much when you patently *do* need assistance. But regardless, that's what I'm like. For most people, the transaction isn't completed until the money and the goods are exchanged. But I seem to feel that just walking into a shop, crossing the threshold and hearing the little tinkling of the bell above the door has already compelled me - *doomed* me - to make a purchase, even if they don't actually have what it is I want. And thus, having already put these two poor gentlemen to *so* much trouble already, forcing them to saunter a yard or two and break a sweat to slide a record sleeve out of the shelves like that and then bring it *all* the way back and use all that electricity on the brilliant white light....how can I *possibly* equivocate *now*? So I leave the store, £40 lighter but with a mono copy of Revolver that is probably the one intended for the sleeve marked up as a second pressing that would have cost about a quarter of the price less...
So now I have 4 vinyl copies of the album - they re-released all the Beatles studio LPs a couple of years back, in mono and stereo editions. The new mono sounds very good, but I tend to stick with the £11.99 and £40 jobbies I referred to earlier. The more you clean them, the more you chip away the dirt of time to get right to the heart of those almost invivible black seams, the more you realise that's where the real gold is. Pick up a black and silver label 70s or early 80s pressing if you can find one for less that twenty quid nowadays. It's still good value. The recent stereo remastering - cut from digital tapes, not direct from the original analogue tapes like the most recent mono - will set you back about that anyway. And, yes, those recent re-issues are still nice records - very nice at times. There's an almost forensic quality to them and they do bring out nuances you may not have picked up on before. But there's just something about those old black and yellow label Parlophone LPs and the later black and silvers, also cut by Harry T. Moss, the quiet, unsung genius whose work has silently and unassumingly transformed the lives of so many people, most of whom remain oblivious to his having ever existed.
But however it comes at you, the music on this record will leave an indelible mark. I can't count the number of times I've sat or lain completely enthralled and possessed by the strange, fluid rainbow beauty of Harrison's backward guitar solo on 'I'm only sleeping'. It still sounds impossible, a miracle-like miasma, an oasis in what must immediately on hearing it have appeared the desert of sixties pop. I remember a bargain bucket shop opening up next to the Midland bank, by what we always called The Junction. They sold incredibly cheap C120 tapes there. 'Fantastic!' we thought. You could probably fit a couple of LPs on each side. And indeed, you probably could. The trouble was that these tapes were so cheap, the spools themselves pulled so thin in order to accomodate the extra quarter hour's playing time per side, that you could actually hear what you'd recorded on the other side, played backwards. Still, it's an ill wind...Thus began a concerted campaign to hear, for instance, if the crowds really are shouting "you sappy bastards" at the end of 'Revolution #9' and, of course, what the guitar solo on 'Sleeping' really sounded like before they flipped the tape back to front. (Spoiler alert - preserve the magic of the released version and skip this experiment. You're really not missing anything - it's hard to equate the awkward-as-fuck-sounding quasi-C&W riffs that Harrison actually played with the spellbinding backwards sound that you hear on the LP...)
'And your bird can sing' is the other track that's grabbed me by the throat on first listen and still seems to show no sign of wanting to release its grip. It's hard to believe that Lennon virtually disowned this song, writing it off as a potboiling piece of hack work. One suspects that perhaps it is a more personal piece than Lennon remembered it. Besides, here was a writer who, whatever disguises or veils he may have been hiding behind, always seemed incapable of *not* revealing something of himself. Informed critics opine that the song refers to a (grotesque-sounding) mechanical stuffed bird John's then wife Cynthia is supposed to have given him as a gift. It's hard to think of a worse present for John, or indeed a better symbol of the distance between the couple. The stretched, clearly *meant* lead vocal and the urgency of the track alone would suffice to suggest that there's a definite emotional purpose to the song. But the sedate yet blistering harmonised twin lead guitar lines (Paul and George?) that adorn the arrangement are what clinches it. But hey, even if it is only a throwaway potted pop symphony as Lennon complained, sounding like this, who's complaining?
I'm listening to it now, for the God-only-knows-how-many-thousandth time. And looking at the sleeve, the sleeve that seems to fit the music as snugly as a well-worn shoe. Looking at the brilliant, weird little details - the guy in the suit of armour perching on John's funny black ear, the Paul reclining in and bound by the spaghetti of Ringo's hair, the John, effiminately mincing towards the cowboy Geoge in his skinny checked trousers. Like the music, you can lose yourself in it for hours, days and still come away with a fresh perspective on it.
I still prefer listening to the stereo mix I grew up with, but I think you do get more of a sense of the extraordinary sonic extremes and textures that define the record in the mono version. The domineering bass and harsh guitar chops on 'Taxman'; the massive presence of the brass and relentlessly compressed tambourine on 'Got to get you into my life' - the latter featuring one of my all-time favourite pieces of Beatle music when the electric guitars that have been barely audible through the rest of the track suddenly leap up in joyous harmony, as if they've just got fed up with the wait and seized control of the fader themselves. And has any album run such an incredible gamut of emotion in just its first four tracks? George's sardonic anger on the opener 'Taxman' bleeds into Paul's taut, bleak and desperately sad 'Eleanor Rigby', who's barely passed away unmourned than we're under the duvet, resisting the daylight immobilised by the sheer acid lethargy of John's magnificent 'I'm only sleeping' before George returns, calmer and more philosophical now, to invent a whole new West/East fusion of sitar and fuzzed guitar drones on 'Love you to'. They could have released just those four tunes and left the rest silent and this would still be a most remarkable record.
But fortunately they didn't, so we still get to bathe in the warm billing and cooings of one of Paul's most beautiful ballads, 'Here, there and everywhere'. It's so good, even John loved it and producer George Martin somehow manages to varispeed Paul's double tracked vocals and make them sound unbearably tender rather than ridiculous. And even the record's most throwaway moment, the moustache on the Mona Lisa that is 'Yellow submarine', is hard to lift the needle off to avoid - and God knows we've all heard it about a million times more than we ever should have.
But to cut it off is to miss one of the most savage changes of mood ever put to record. As probably the most often sung along to sea shanty in the history of music subsides, the glorious guitar peels of 'She said, she said' snarl into life. It's a rollicking tale of acid exploits with Hollywood's young aristocracy. Lennon sings as if he's still embarked upon the same trip he's actually singing about while George steps into McCartney's bass playing shoes - someone had somehow done something that so wound Paul up that he'd skipped this session, possibly the first time the keenest Beatle had been so moved to absent himself while the others worked on. But the rest of the band is so on fire you'd scarcely know the difference. Harrison and Starr, the former doubling up with John on some extraordinary lead guitar as well as driving it on with his bass, the latter giving one of his best turns behind the kit, jointly supply the anger and spleen that Lennon's vocal normally would were it not for the LSD pacifying him, as it would go on to do so extraordinarily for the next couple of years.
The second side is, if anything, even better. 'Good day sunshine' fills the room with love, warmth and light using precious little more than a couple of pianos and Ringo's foot scorched drumkit. 'For no one' takes a beautifully treated piano vamp and Paul's chromatic bass to carve out an icy vignette of domestic stalemate. 'Dr. Robert', with that marvellous harmony vocal from Paul so brilliantly described by Ian MacDonald as 'huckstering', another seemingly slight Lennon piece that grows more potent with each listen - and listen to the lovely early Beatles-style C&W pastiche George sneaks in at the end. George, George, George. He weighs in with another great tune in 'I want to tell you' - was he ever as influential on the sound and writing of a Beatles LP as he is here? McCartney again excelling on BVs, this time with some wonderfully committed eastern-influenced ululations. And where would you inevitably go after a song like that? Of course, a beautifully precise Motown homage.
And then it all goes weird for a couple of minutes, all you can hear is a thunderous drum track, deep droning bass and a Tibetan monk singing through a Leslie cabinet at the top of the Himalayas, all this while the whole shooting match is being attacked by a squadron of alien spacecraft and various harpies and all of a sudden you're back in Earthshaker, or lying on your bed with a cheap pair of plastic headphones on and time present and time past and time future have all coalseced and you're sucked into the maelstrom of drums and drones and space craft and harpies and you imagine that this is either what the end of the world or the beginning of the universe must have sounded like and just as you're starting to wonder if you're already dead or if you've never been born and you're starting to feel a little bit panicked by the thought, the pub pianist turns up out of absolutely nowhere and starts up on a little Mrs Mills medley, the harpies and the spacecraft recede and you realise that everything's OK and in the end, it was
*The very first -1 pressings of Revolver were withdrawn almost immediately as they had used the wrong mix of 'Tomorrow never knows'. Look out for -1/-1 copies, they're *very* valuable!
PMC 7009 - side one; XEX 605-2, side two XEX 606-2. This is actually a third pressing according to yokono.co.uk's excellent Beatles collection site. They date it to late 1966, early 1967 which feels about right. The £40 I paid is starting to look quite good as original sixties Mono and Stereo copies are going for quite alarming sums now on eBay, considering how many millions of copies were originally pressed up back then.
PCS 7009 - side one; YEX 605-3, side two; YEX 606-4. This a sixth pressing of the stereo mix and has 'HTM' etched into the deadwax - Harry T. Moss (to name but three...) I think this series was probably reissued in about 1976. Look out for anomalous copies of this pressing with Columbia rather than Parlophone labels... Sleeve has no stereo marking in top righthand corner.
PCS 7009 - stereo remastered album from the digital 2009 remasterings as released on CD 9/9/09.
PMC 7009 - released as part of the 'Beatles in Mono' series in 2014. All analogie remastered by Sean Magee.
Wednesday, 11 May 2016
As was our wont in those days, as soon as was deemed remotely seemly - anytime after 11 am, basically - we'd all retire to the nearest hostelry and as the consoling fluids began to work their magic, 'Abe' would take us back to a world of pre-swinging London carnality, of improbable and uncormfortable back seat couplings with hobble skirted Judys, their feet imaginatively stirruped by the versatile gripping handles of some Zephyr or Wolsey that, if indeed they weren't, looked as if they should have been made of bakelite. Somewhere on this booze-fuelled odyssey down memory lane he must have alighted briefly on the subject of Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones, because several pints later he'd agreed to loan me his original 1956 HMV label copy of the first Elvis album, the one with the green and pink lettering, and I would reciprocate with my copy of Banquet which, presumably, he either didn't have or hadn't heard.
I guess this must have been before the days of all day drinking - or possibly a Sunday? - because I seem to recall the transaction involving swooping back to his place to pick up the Elvis album and then dropping me at mine, swapping LPs and agreeing to meet up again at the same pub that evening to return each other's stuff. So presumably in between eating something to soak up the afternoons booze and no doubt at some point passing out, I had just about enough time to make a cassette copy of the Elvis before rushing back such a valuable possession to its owner at opening time. Needless to say, I dutifully arrived, returned his album to him only to find the guy had completely forgotten to bring my Beggars Banquet but promised faithfully to 'drop it in some time'. Of course, I never saw him or the album again.
So hearing Beggars Banquet for the first time on vinyl in about 30 years, I realise I'd forgotten how much of a personal touchstone of the Stones work this is for me. Of their Sixties stuff I think I only ever had this and Their Satanic Majesties and maybe a couple of singles. I suppose being nearer to 'my era', I initially responded more to their 70s output - although I probably already had the complete Beatles discography by this point. Maybe I'd got swept up in all of that Beatles v Stones rivalry? Anyway, my aunt had made me cassette copies of Exile on Main St and Goat's Head Soup, both much played and loved, and I had Some Girls, Love you live (both pinched from a bazaar on Oxford Street during a brief and shameful shoplifting phase) and It's Only Rock n Roll on record, so for a long time that was my Stones world.
This reissue is, as hard as it is to credit it, pressed from the same digital master used for the much-heralded 2002 SACD remastered series that really started me off exploring the band's 60s albums. Hard to believe because the vinyl itself looks, feels and sounds like a hefty, unyielding piece of original late 60s plastic. Only a look at the dead wax and a quick Google search at the ever-reliable and exhaustive (occasionally exhausting!) Steve Hoffman audiophiles forum confirms that this is a direct metal mastering of the 2002 DSD master made by Bob Ludwig and cut to disc for this record by Bob's former protege at Masterdisk, Don Grossinger. I had to check this because the music on this LP sounds so much as I remember it from my long lost copy, and in the case of the fade outs of 'Steet Fighting Man' and 'Stray Cat a Blues' slightly different to the SACD version, that one could easily suspend disbelief that they'd used one of the original Decca lacquers for this after all.
So if, like me, you're the sort of person who gets bent out of shape when classic albums get reissued and mucked about with in the process, don't worry in this case. It's so good that, for the first time in a long while, I actually really *listened* to the music - it sounds good enough to jerk you out of the rut of familiarity it's easy to fall into with much-loved and listened to works. So once you get beyond the astonishing presence of the sound, the fact that it's apparently now been pressed at the correct speed for the first time (!?), the natural, unboosted bass, the crisp plectrum snap of the acoustic guitars and the sheer oomph of this band, even when captured on cassette as some of the rhythm guitar and tracks were, it starts dawning on you what sublime and immortal music you're listening to. The Stones at their best tap into sources so primal that you are surprised less by the fact that they're still around after all these years than that they haven't actually been going since the very dawn of history.
That Ur musical energy is here harnessed by Jagger and Richards to shape a sequence of songs that are as compelling and as unified as any of the more overt (for want of a better word) concept albums alongside which it can happily sit in the pantheon of classic rock albums. Great and bold though the album artwork the band originally submitted is, as used on this reissue, the RSVP invitation version that replaced it back in 1968 is perhaps more appropriate to the song cycle inside. To horrifically oversimplify things, the album unfolds as a series of guests arriving at the banquet of the title and you're reminded that, however much they may have warred and bickered since, this music springs from one of pop history's great partnerships.
Sadly that's partly because this record marks the last substantial contribution to a Stones album by the band's founder, Brian Jones. And what there is of that is confined to a few tasteful cameos - most notably the elegiac slide on 'No expectations' and some exotic Moroccan fanfares and percussion at the end of 'Steet fighting man'. Charlie Watts' painstaking congas and Nicky Hopkins' piano might dominate the album opener, but from then on, musically, this is very much Richards' record. The breadth of his playing alone on this album would be a career high for most - it's his bass that drives 'Sympathy', his incendiary cassette wobbled rhythm guitar that so thrillingly contradicts the ambivalence of Jagger's lyric on 'Street fighting man' and makes you want to run out and become just that. Jagger may have gone to the LSE, but in terms of groove, feel and sheer expressive power, Keith's intelligence is every bit as fierce.
But though he's become somewhat overlooked in the general (and understandable) latterday Keith worship, it's Jagger who is at the very top of his game here. On a single record, perhaps only Bowie has since exhibited a greater range of vocal performance - and that's performance in the widest, most theatrical sense - so much so that it doesn't seem to be stretching things too far to see a nod to Brecht and Weill in the LP's title. Jagger shifts shape throughout, varying his narative persona with incredible dexterity; from Beelzebub himself ('Sympathy') to straw-in-mouth deep southern yokel gimp ('Dear Doctor'), the dry anomie of thedetatched LSE student voyeur of society's collapse ('Jigsaw puzzle'), armchair revolutionary ('Street fighting man'), Delta evangelist ('Prodigal son') to louche, paedophile provoacateur ('Stray cat blues').
This last is perhaps the most troublingly powerful piece on the record for the contemporary, post-Savile listener. Taken out of the context of performance, of theatre, that's been carefully built up in the tracks that precede it (and which would be reinforced in Jagger's first acting role, appropriately enough in a film called and about Performance) it's easy to read this as a tastelessly lascivious, self-aggrandising throw away. In my view, that's overly simplistic and self-deceptive. If Jagger's voicing of the Devil allows him to survey the travesty of human history as a diabolical blight upon the planet, here his lens zooms right close-up, into the here and now of the late sixties hipster bedsit.
Richards' guitars, one a stiff pronged cock crow blues bend the other an ominous rhythmic throb, rouse Jagger into leering chortles. And here comes 'the click-clack of [her] shoes on the stairs'. 'No scare-eyed honey' - no doubt because she's too young to know what she's letting herself in for - Jagger tempts this poor Lolita upstairs with the 'feast' that awaits her in his room. There's no ambiguity here, no moral grey area. He 'can see that [she's] fifteen years old' and that doesn't matter a jot. He knows that she's a little girl pretending in those heels to be all grown up, that she's 'restless' for the impending release of adulthood, a frightened runaway, 'so far from home' and parental disapproval and he's going to take full advantage of all those things:
it's no hanging matter, it's no capital crime.
So up she goes, poor Lolita, 'so weird...so far away from home'. She's a younger version of Jane Asher's northern runaway to Michael Caine's Alfie. And don't let those eyes deceive you - she is scared after all. Desperate, she conjures up an 'even wilder' friend. Maybe he'll want to do it with her instead? But no, he's on a roll now: 'if she's so wild she can join in too'. But 'don't be scared - [he's] no mad brained bear...' She scratches, she spits, she bites and she screams, but that just turns him on even more...
it's no hanging matter. It's no capital crime.
Almost as if in a parody of those old romances where the camera would discreetly pan away to leave the two lovers to their intimacy, Jagger's narrator retreats - scratched, bitten, screamed and spat at - leaving the rest to our imaginations, which is probably worse than actually seeing it all unfold.
And now we're back in the jungle of human infamy that we came in with on 'Sympahty for the Devil'. Charlie's congas and Hopkins' piano offer a brief musical reprise of the album opener, a reminder of the dark satanic presence who's overshadowed the whole of this banquet and must, we assume, be thoroughly enjoying this little 'feast'. On and on it goes until everything grows weary exept Richards' guttural, rutting guitar. And then, finally, that finises too and it's all over. It is dark. It is troubling. But it's also unflinchingly, and sadly, true to life. This music that feels as old and real as sin itself, so much so that it's beyond human politics and morality, is telling us something quite profoundly basic about what and who we are. This is the same brute, jungle 'politesse' as that laid bare in 'Sympathy for the Devil' only here it's the everyday kind that gets hidden away but still happens, is happening, somewhere, to someone, right now. And if you're still in any doubt as to their intent, take another look at that title: this is a blues, man. They tend to end unhappily.
But elsewhere, as always with the Stones, there is also transcendence and light; the tender farewell to Brian Jones that it's hard not to read 'No expectations' as being; the touching, gentle Christian allegory of 'Prodigal son'; the sheer thrill of the opening to 'Street fighting man', a near cinematic snapshot of the time that produced it that is so thoroughly engaging it seems to arouse every single cell in one's body. And the album closes with two tributes to the humble and down-trodden. The factory girl, who 'wears scarves instead of hats', 'has stains all down her dress' and 'gets me into fights' is so close to being a caricature... but so delicately rendered that, and in pointed contradiction to the massed ranks of common humanity depicted in the closer 'Salt of the Earth', she seems 'so real to me'. Their out-sized tongues may be somewhat in their cheeks at the end, but the 'it's not church, it's gospel' fervour of the fade to 'Salt of the Earth' that brings things to a close is a long, long way from the diabolic primal stew from which we and the record first slithered.
It's hard to pin down precisely what great art is, but if it can be defined at all then surely it's a piece of work that both describes and transcends the circumstances that produced it. Beggars Banquet certainly does both those things. Give it a listen, and raise a glass to it.
Buy Beggars Banquet remastered on vinyl here