“Sea Change” is a series that discusses album or albums in a band’s discography that signify a brief or career-long change in the group’s sound or style.
On June 1, 1967, the Beatles changed the face of popular music when they released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of the first “concept albums” and an album that was certified platinum eleven times, meaning it sold eleven million copies. As one might expect, the release of this revolutionary record changed the course of rock history and began, or at least pushed into the spotlight, the “psychedelic” sound that would soon go on to define the late 1960s. Shortly afterwards, a string of other British Invasion bands emulated the move that The Beatles had made in hopes of finding greater success. Bands such as The Moody Blues, The Kinks, and The Zombies moved from pop, garage rock, and blues to a new sound forming in Britain.
Six months following the release of Sgt. Pepper and almost a year after their album bluesy pop record Between The Buttons, amidst a string of incarcerations and their producer’s abandonment of the project, The Rolling Stones released their own attempt at a Sgt. Pepper: Their Satanic Majesties Request.
First, let’s discuss the idea of a “concept album.” With Sgt. Pepper’s, even though the album isn’t a “rock opera,” when studying the lyrics as well as listening closely to each song, one finds that the entire album ties together rather nicely, if not perfectly. For example, the opening track, “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” transitions seamlessly into “With A Little Help From My Friends,” creating the illusion that all of the songs are related to each other. As for the overall concept, one can interpret the album as being one live performance by The Lonely Hearts Club Band themselves and illustrating the varying styles that they play while also examining the ideas of each member of the band.
In Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Stones seem to have thrown everything they had against a wall, saw what stuck, put it in some kind of order, and called it a concept album. The album starts with around thirty seconds of free jazz and sounds of an orchestra warming up, an idea taken directly from the Beatles that signifies that this is either a live performance or the beginning of a long, strange trip. For the Rolling Stones, it’s both.
In the opening song, “Sing This All Together,” the listener is invited to sing along with the band and open up their mind in order to join everyone in a unified sound and world. From here, the album is a journey around the world and around the galaxy as the band combines various styles from folk to jazz to classical to experimental. For each song on the record, one finds a dreamlike or otherworldly quality to them. This is accomplished through the late 60s standards: a mellotron, a synthesizer utilized to replicate orchestral sounds, echo-heavy vocals, stereo separation, and distorted instruments.
In the final track, “On With The Show,” the Stones set the entire record inside of a mysterious, wild cabaret where the band has been performing this entire time. Sound vaguely familiar?
Second, and most importantly, let’s discuss the the sound of the album. While The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed and The Zombies’ Odyssey and Oracle successfully blend a multitude of genres in order to embrace the eclecticism of the psychedelia movement, Satanic Majesties combines a plethora of different styles together but fairly unsuccessfully. Copying the Indian influenced “Within You Without You,” “Gomper” is meant to be the meditative and most peaceful piece on the album. The Stones, however, do not seem to understand the point of “Within You Without You” on Sgt. Pepper; the Stones’ interpretation seems more influenced by The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” with its pulsing, heavy backbeat and a four minute instrumental section that ends up sounding like nothing but noise.
In the “magnum opus” of the album, “Sing This All Together (See What Happens),” the Stones manage to craft a practically unlistenable avant-garde piece, incorporating shouts and screams, out of tune guitars, and incoherent jamming, that goes into a dark, hellish soundscape and ends in a stripped down, peaceful melody.
The only real pop number on the album is “She’s A Rainbow,” which consists of the stereotypical psychedelic bouncy and flowery melody and lyrics, which discuss a woman who brings color with her wherever she goes. The song, however, isn’t without its touch of experimentalism as the song ends with an orchestral piece played in reverse accompanied by a cacophony of sound. Other folk-pop and psych-pop tunes appear on the album, but “She’s A Rainbow” stands out as the best, which should tell you something about the overall quality of the album.
When it comes to making a psychedelic “concept album,” Their Satanic Majesties Request has the right idea; the album contains several traditional late 60s pop songs as well as a variety of experimental and genre-bending elements; however, it becomes abundantly clear to the listener as the album continues that The Rolling Stones are out of their element. While they understand how to make killer blues, R&B, and country tunes, they had absolutely no idea how to make a psych album; the distortion is placed in the wrong spots, the experimental aspects of the album are too “out there,” and the combination of different genres feels forced and, oftentimes, doesn’t work. Heck, even the cover of this record looks like a ridiculous rip off of Sgt. Pepper.
A year after the release of Satanic Majesties, recognizing that psychedelia wasn’t the right style for them, the Stones released Beggars Banquet, a return to blues and R&B which would
further evolve into Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers, both of which are heavily influenced by American roots music.
Considering that they returned to their previous styles, one wonders why did the Rolling Stones ever make Their Satanic Majesties Request? In my opinion, the Stones were trying to ride on the coattails of The Beatles and create their own version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Stones’ version catered more towards their persona, a group of ruffians who don’t play by the traditional pop rules. As you can tell, they were wildly unsuccessful.
I will admit, however, that this album is important to the history of the Rolling Stones. Satanic Majesties different direction, creating a string of albums that stand out as masterpieces. Without this terrible record, these later albums may have never existed; The Rolling Stones could’ve continued to experiment with different styles, unsuccessfully trying to fit in with the new culture rather than pursuing more traditional music and fusing it with their own sound.
Thank you for reading this first installment of “Sea Change.” If you have any album recommendations, questions, or comments, please don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by: George LaBour