For some of you what I’m about to say will be heresy, so sit down and take a deep breath before reading on.
The Rolling Stones only made one album worth listening to: Their Satanic Majesties Request. Well, that and their very first compilation album, Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass), which only a few of the more ardent Stones fans will be familiar with. Big Hits was the very first album I bought with my pocket money as a young teenager back in 1966 or 1967. For the price of four or five singles you got 14 tracks and even if a few turned out to be disappointing (they didn’t) it was good value. But I digress…
Between May 1965 and September 1966 the Stones had a flood of hits: Satisfaction, Get Off of My Cloud, 19th Nervous Breakdown, Paint It Black and Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow? These were up-tempo pop/rock songs with a rhythm & blues heritage, and pretty good examples of the genre. In those days, singles were much more important than albums and, surprisingly, none of those early hits featured on either of the two albums released in the UK during that period.
Then came a year of transition. There was a double A-sided single in January 1967: Let’s Spend The Night Together and Ruby Tuesday. The first continued the up-tempo R&B-influenced theme but Ruby Tuesday was very different – quite slow, melodic and with a sad and wistful lyric. This wasn’t the loud, subversive Stones that we knew and loved; something had changed.
Shortly after Ruby Tuesday three members of the band were charged with drugs offences and became embroiled in court cases that dragged on for the rest of that year. The litigation became the focus for the perennial tussle between a disdainful, sometimes rebellious youth and a stuffy, conservative establishment. Personal differences within the band surfaced at this time, too. While all this was going on the Stones parted with their producer (Andrew Loog Oldham) and recorded Their Satanic Majesties Request.
With Satanic Majesties, like many of the underground bands at that time, the Stones experimented with sound in all sorts of ways: using unusual instruments and electronic effects, borrowing ideas from oriental and African music, deliberately juxtaposing contrasting styles and textures. They were the Andy Warhol of music: bold, innovative, challenging.
The critics, however, were split. Some thought Satanic Majesties was simply the unfocused ramblings of drugged-up musicians let loose in a studio with few ideas and no-one to provide sanity and direction. Others found the variety stimulating, the tunes memorable and the musical patchwork pleasing.
In a way, both camps were right. The fifth track on the album, Sing This All Together (See What Happens), is mostly a mishmash of uncoordinated sounds – a failed attempt at creative improvisation. The other nine tracks, though, are intricate musical mosaics of genuine originality and beauty. Each element is carefully considered and precisely positioned to complement the others. The album as a whole is, in my opinion, a triumph of production.
After Satanic Majesties the Stones returned to their R&B/rock roots. They continued to have enormous commercial success but, for me, that fresh spark of creativity had gone. I’m still waiting for a new Stones track that makes me stop and listen, one that will make me want to hear their next album. Perhaps I missed it. Perhaps there are gems in their later albums – precious rocks among the rock music – I confess I haven’t bothered to find out. Until that shake-me-up track comes along I shall remain convinced that Satanic Majesties is the only Stones album worth listening to. Except, of course, for Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass).