On Sept. 22, Abkco will release a lavish 50th anniversary boxed set of “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” an album that some, including members of the Rolling Stones, feel is the band’s worst.
Lambasted as a “Sgt. Pepper” knock-off at the time of its release in December 1967, the album has always been an outlier in the Stones’ catalog: The group was trying to align itself with the exploding psychedelic movement, and it fit them like an ill-cut kaftan. After all, psychedelia was about peace and love and flowers, and with earlier songs like “Stupid Girl” and “Play With Fire” and “Paint It Black,” the Rolling Stones’ mystique was (and in some ways still is) menacing and moody and disdainful. So when a paisley-bedecked Mick Jagger pranced in singing about universal love and togetherness, it seemed so off-brand that he couldn’t have been serious.
Yet while “Satanic Majesties” is subpar by the Stones’ very high standards, this beautifully packaged and sonically pristine set, which includes stereo and mono versions of the album on both vinyl and hybrid SACD, shows that some long-overdue historic revisionism is in order.
For starters, as Rob Bowman points out in his excellent liner notes for this edition, a likely reason for the Stones’ antipathy toward the album is because it was recorded during a year that almost destroyed them. In 1967, Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones all were arrested on drug charges and spent a night (or, in Jagger’s case, three nights) in jail. Jones’ longtime girlfriend Anita Pallenberg left him — for Richards. Soon after, Jones — already hobbled by the drug and alcohol abuse that contributed to his death two years later — suffered a nervous breakdown and checked into a medical facility for three weeks. As if that weren’t enough, during the recording of this album the group split with Andrew Loog Oldham, the manager and producer who’d guided them to stardom; they ended up producing themselves for the first time. And perhaps most of all, they were creatively, psychically and physically drained: Over the preceding three years they’d recorded and released approximately nine albums’ worth of material while gigging an average of five nights a week.
But the group always put a vast amount of care into their albums, and “Satanic Majesties” is no exception. That became clear over the past couple of years, as the ace team of Abkco chief engineer Teri Landi and veteran mastering engineer Bob Ludwig went back to the original tapes and meticulously remastered the album. Earlier this month Landi gave Variety a sneak peek at the results at Abkco’s Manhattan studio. There, she played the entire album, alternating between a mint original British vinyl stereo pressing of the album, a 2002 remastered hybrid SACD, and the new remaster. Each has its charms — the original vinyl sounds impressively crisp and full — but broadly speaking the new remaster has more defined instrument separation and a warmer, vinylesque sound, where the 2002 CD is more shiny and digital-sounding.
“In 2002 we were paying a little more attention to finding a middle ground between what the master sounded like and what was cut for release,” Landi says. “This time, we opened it up to let everybody know what the master sounds like.”
Consequently, the album’s three gems — “She’s a Rainbow,” “Citadel” and one of the group’s all-time greatest songs, “2,000 Light Years From Home” — shine brighter than ever. The last-named track shows in stark relief just where the Stones got psychedelia wrong and where they got it right. A dark and menacing song about an astronaut traveling increasingly farther from Earth, it finds the group’s vibe actually fitting into a psychedelic sonic template, with Jones’ haunting Mellotron, a driving rhythm from drummer Charlie Watts and some suitably lysergic effects on Jagger’s vocal.
Conversely, “She’s a Rainbow” — essentially an update of their hit from earlier that year, “Ruby Tuesday” — is an uncharacteristically jaunty love song, with Nicky Hopkins’ marzipan piano and an appropriately flowery string arrangement from future Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones offsetting Jagger and Richards’ sometimes pitch-challenged vocals. And “Citadel,” one of the few songs on the album driven by a vintage Richards riff, has greater clarity when its trippier sonic effects abruptly come barging in.
While remastering cannot make a middling song into a good one, the album’s less-great tracks benefit enormously from the sonic polishing. Both “2,000 Man” and “The Lantern” feature stop/start rhythms and stylistically different sections, and the new mastering makes the transitions smoother and lifts a curtain from the individual instruments, which are mashed together on previous versions. The same is true on the experimental songs for which the group was so roundly criticized at the time, “Gomper” and the two versions of “Sing This All Together.” At first listen they sound like offhand, directionless, stoned jams (the second version of “Sing This All Together” even opens with someone, possibly Jagger, saying “Where’s that joint?”), but here are revealed to be carefully arranged and densely layered; the group may have been trying compensate with craft what the songs lack in art. Even a goofy jape like the closing “On With the Show” — sung by Jagger through a megaphone effect to make it sound like a 1930s showtune — got an elaborate arrangement and a signature riff that towers over the entire song.
“They were very dedicated to making this a consistent record,” Landi says. “It’s amazing, under the circumstances, that it flows as well as it does.”
The distinctions between the stereo and mono mixes reveal even more details. While many pre-1968 albums, including the Stones’ and even “Sgt. Pepper,” sound remarkably better in mono than stereo (because that’s how they were intended to be heard), nearly all fans agree that the stereo “Satanic Majesties” is superior: There are so many instruments and so much detail that the mono mix tends to flatten the kaleidoscopic sound. Having said that, as with most mono recordings, the rhythm section is louder and punchier in the mix, shining a brighter light on the understated, masterful work of Watts and especially bassist Bill Wyman.
Fifty years on, it’s easier to see this flawed yet fascinating album for what it is: a transition into what came next. Over the next five years, the Stones would release “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Honky Tonk Women” and the grand slam of the “Beggars Banquet,” “Let It Bleed,” “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile on Main Street” albums. In its way, “Satanic Majesties” paved the way for all of them.
“It’s such a vast departure from what they had previously done that it seemed like they were just jumping on the psychedelic bandwagon,” Landi says. “But really, it’s a natural bridge between what came before and what came next.”