The Rolling Stones Lp "Their Satanic Majesties Request" was doomed to be a failure, because the whole concept was unnatural, i.e. contrary to the very nature and image of the group. The Rolling Stones stood for anger and rebellion, not for love and peace.
London kids travelled to Richmond to enjoy themselves by dancing to the beat of an unknown but exciting type of music produced by a bunch of ambitious amateurs called The Rolling Stones. One year later, their concerts were attended by thousands of fans all over Europe. The fans no longer came to dance, but caused riots, fought with the police and damaged the venues instead. The Rolling Stones had become the Bad Guys.
It was their manager, Andrew Oldham, who wanted the Stones to be more than a group of musicians. He wanted them to be an attitude and he wanted that attitude to stand for bad, ugly, unconventional and evil. It was a daring marketing move and contrary to prevalent practice with regard to the promotion of the ever-smiling pop artist.
On the other hand, the risks were limited and well calculated. Oldham perfectly saw that the youth market was now ripe for such an idea.
First of all, youth had become synonymous to revolt, although it was a very general and often unspecified anti attitude which could include anything from personal battles against Victorian family values to mass demonstrations against the Bomb.
Secondly, the early sixties saw the development of a specific youth culture.
THE FIRST REAL POST-WAR GENERATION
was going to change it all. They knew exactly what they wanted to leave behind (practically everything), but they had no clear picture of the road ahead. Based on fifties movements such as existentialism in Europe (e.g. French writer and Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus and the Ban the Bomb movement), the Beats in the USA (Kerouac and friends) and general attitudes of juvenile discontent that swept the Western World (James Dean, rock’n’roll music), the anti attitude of the early sixties was gloomy, pessimistic, violent and aggressive. Moreover, it was about personal anger, anxiety, frustration and wishes. Finally, it was a typically male affair, comparable to the literary Angry Young Men movement.
In Holland, for instance, the so-called Provos challenged the establishment by causing riots in the street and fighting the police. Their name said it all: they provoked society. And that was it.
Following Oldham’s marketing plan, The Rolling Stones symbolised this type of revolt. The use of music, lyrics and the dress code as acts of revolt as such was not entirely new (remember Elvis), but the Stones took it one step further and added some ingredients. In fact, they crossed every possible barrier and abolished all conventional codes.
Not only was their hair long, they simply looked repulsive. They expressed radical opinions on society and politics, did not care about playing perfectly and had fun when the audience smashed another row of chairs. Their concerts - in fact, happenings - were interrupted or ended in a shambles.
Whereas the Pacemakers and other Dreamers were still singing about love affairs, Jagger and Richards composed biting, critical songs about mass manipulation, the affluent society (Satisfaction), the boredom of everyday life (Mother’s Little Helper), no future-feelings (Paint it, Black) and the perverse effects of traditional values (19th Nervous Breakdown).
Knocking everyone down, they were knocked down by everyone. Except for their growing league of fans.
Every marketing image is a blow-up, but a quality blow-up remains faithful to the original. Similarly, the Stones’ image could only work on condition it was tuned to the basic characteristics of the people concerned.
Basically, the early Rolling Stones had the correct (and useful) looks, stage behaviour, attitude and type of music. Particularly Jagger, Richards and Jones were perfect vehicles to symbolise and to communicate this anti image. Oldham’s master plan, therefore, fitted the Stones like a glove (and Ian Stewart’s degradation only proves that Oldham talked marketing and attitude rather than music).
THE TIMES THEY WERE A-CHANGIN’
and Oldham and his boys failed to see it. Growing numbers of young people turned away from this anti type of revolt. They were constructing an alternative and their methods and aims were radically different. Their topic was society, not the individual. Their aim consisted of changing the world, not just abolishing one or two typical examples of the establishment. Their method was called love and peace. And Women’s Lib was on its way. It was the time when Martin Luther King asked The Black Panthers to give up their anti type of revolt (violence, revolution) and advocated non-violence instead. The hippie movement was just one offspring of this pro attitude (read King’s I Have a Dream again), but it was soon going to conquer youth everywhere.
The Rolling Stones were not ready for the pro movement, and their decision to jump the bandwagon was a serious miscalculation from the very beginning. Brian Jones probably was the only Stone to be able to relate to the new age and even then it may have been for drugs and fashion rather than politics. “Flowers” (Summer 1967) was a shameless cash-in and as far removed from the peace movement’s principles as the UK prime minister’s. “We Love You” (August 1967) was a nice song, but so what? Their only real effort was the “psychedelic” album Their Satanic Majesties Request (Winter 1967). The fans didn’t understand, but bought the album anyway. Considering comments and sales, hardly anyone else did. The Stones failed to convince they had contributed to the new movement and deep inside they knew they were not a part of it and would never be. The new movement was so rich and varied it included Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Buddhism, analyses of capitalism, radically new ideas about sex and male-female model roles and anti-authoritarian education to name but a few, but the Stones shrunk it to something “psychedelic”. Psychedelic was just one possible adjective to label the new era, but it was the only one Jagger, Jones & Co could possibly identify with because it could refer to drugs and drugs could be seen as part of the Anti Attitude. The Stones had a strong image and one that reflected their personalities, so no-one actually believed they had entered the Age of Aquarius.
Besides, what cynicism (or self-mockery?) to include a word like “satanic” in the title of an album supporting Flower Power.
Apparently, the Stones thought that Love and Peace would take over for ever and felt that joining the New Movement was imperative. It was their second serious miscalculation. Half a year after releasing their “psychedelic” album, the May 68 Revolt would prove otherwise.
STICK ‘M OUT!
The Stones soon forgot about the album and so did everyone else. Regretfully, everyone also forgot about the music and for a long time it was not to done to say that Satanic” contained some good music. Listen to it again and you will find out that it does contain some very nice tunes and some wonderful musical passages (probably Brian’s) . Then listen to some other Stones albums (Let it Bleed, Aftermath, Exile, Beggars Banquet...) and to real psychedelic music by other artists, and you will readily admit that Satanic is not our nor the Stones’ cup op tea.
After that, the Stones found back their senses, readjusted the marketing plan and took two decisions.
First, they went to back to the basics (and that included the image and attitude that Oldham had created from these basics in their Richmond days) and wrote some fine songs to match. The mighty Jumpin’ Jack Flash was released in May 68 and Street Fighting Man in August of that year. We hadn’t heard anything like it since Let’s Spend Night Together in January 1967.
Second, they went back to their musical roots and recorded acoustic (!) blues classics like Prodigal Son (Beggars Banquet, December 68) and Love in Vain (Let it Bleed, one year later).
This process would soon result in two fine products (1) the song that represents their image best of all, Sympathy or the Devil (on Beggars Banquet) and (2) the unique tongue logo, a well-known, simple and therefore most effective “Fuck you”-symbol representing the Anti attitude it had all started with.
From now on, the Stones would systematically exploit this image and connect to voodoo, decadence (Babylon) and lack of security – at least in their album titles. Stanley Booth was well aware of this when he titled his book Dance with the Devil.
On one or two occasions, Jagger forgot the lesson Satanic had taught him and tried to be fashionable. Again, he failed miserably and made no impression at all. The disco cash-in produced music that no-one wanted to hear or associate with thése guys. “Miss You” may have been successful in a number of discotheques for a while, but at a Stones concert it is reduced to its true value and serves as a sing-along tune that gives dear old Mick a physical break. Jagger’s first two solo albums flopped completely for similar reasons.
In other words: the Stones have such a strong image that dropping , changing or – worst of all – swapping it, is both frustrating for the fans and wholly unconvincing for the general public.
However, time and repetition have reduced their image to a brand, a product. As with every product that has had the consumer’s consent for years, a number of characteristics are expected and the producer must comply to this rule. Such a product becomes predictable and, therefore, reliable. We do not necessarily believe that Mick Jagger is an angry young man and we are all happy that Keith is no longer addicted to heroin, but Keef wears a skull-shaped ring and Ol’ Mick still shakes his ass while looking for those honky tonk women, the albums and tours refer to the devil (Voodoo Lounge) or decay (Babylon) and the Fuck You tongue was even equipped with spikes.
The failure of Their Satanic Majesties Request is there to remind us that it cannot be otherwise.
© Eddy Bonte
Originally written for some Rolling Stones fanzine, I can’t actually remember it being published… so here’s the world première then (January 2007).