2000 LIGHT YEARS FROM HOME: One of the most misunderstood and underrated albums in the Rolling Stones' vast and vaunted catalog, Their Satanic Majesties Request celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in 2017. For the occasion, ABKCO Records has released a deluxe box set, featuring CD and vinyl reissues of this landmark release in the stereo and monaural configurations. Blitz Magazine Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell takes a closer look at this project below.

By Michael McDowell

The month of May 2017 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the original release of one of the most impacting, ground breaking and game changing albums in the history of recorded music.

The album in question was Headquarters by the Monkees, which was released on RCA Victor’s affiliate Colgems label. That album (their third) came in the wake of their legendary and so called “palace revolt”, in which the band took the unprecedented step of demanding creative autonomy in the recording studio and emerged from the unlikely confrontation victorious. In the process, the Monkees went on to pave the way for such emerging and influential sub genres as country rock and psychedelia.

Ultimately, Headquarters got the nod from Blitz Magazine as Best Album Of The Twentieth Century. To be certain, every artist signed to a major label in the wake of this release owes the Monkees a tremendous debt of gratitude for opening the door for artistic freedom for them.

However, another album released at the end of May 1967 has to date stolen the spotlight from Headquarters in the mainstream media, largely because of the participants involved. That album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles was issued on Capitol in the United States at the end of that month, and ultimately became the Liverpool quartet’s most successful LP release.

For most of the past half century, opinion on that album has been greatly divided. Some hail it as the most visionary album in history (although within the twenty-first century, there have been many who have instead shifted their allegiance in that respect to the Beach Boys’ 1966 Pet Sounds album), while others have gone as far as to refer to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as, “The album that ruined rock and roll”.

This year, Apple and Universal Music took a decisive step in shedding light on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for the benefit of both camps with the release of a multi-CD fiftieth anniversary reissue of the album, which includes a highly detailed commemorative book and numerous bonus tracks. In the process, perhaps the most telling results are not only the heightened ability to discern some of the subtle nuances of the complex arrangements to be found in some of the most seemingly straightforward tracks on the album, but (even more so) the undeniable fact that the band’s long time producer, Sir George Martin played an enormous role in bringing the what was often a collection of four individuals with personal (and occasionally incompatible) mission statements up to speed and on the same page, both technically and creatively.

The problem with the latter position in May 1967 was the fact that the growing so-called “counter culture” movement, with its lockstep perspective and intolerance for any other viewpoint but its own, took great pains to deny voice to any dissenting opinion. To be certain, both artist and/or observer alike would have to come from a position of tremendous and irrevocable influence to weigh in otherwise on the subject.

And at the end of 1967, that is exactly what the Rolling Stones did.

Originally released on London Records in the United States in December 1967, Their Satanic Majesties Request was, on the surface, an attempt by the band to further immerse themselves in the burgeoning psychedelic movement. Indeed, their previous two albums, Flowers and Between The Buttons remain timeless hallmarks of the genre.

However, the successes of Flowers and Between The Buttons were arguably due primarily to the extraordinary level of songwriting coming from lead vocalist Michael Philip “Mick” Jagger and lead guitarist Keith Richards. Whereas the venerable quintet’s earliest material focused primarily on the blues and rhythm and blues covers common to the repertoires of many bands of similar intent, by the time of the release of their fourth album, Out Of Our Heads in 1965, Jagger and Richards had firmly emerged as one of the most gifted songwriting partnerships in all of music.

But then came the release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Admittedly more psychedelic in imagery than in musical substance for the most part, the album nonetheless drew considerable praise from a variety of factions.

However, there were some who saw this development as detrimental in some respects to the betterment of the music itself. Not that the likes of Being For The Benefit Of Mister Kite (which had been inspired by a mid-nineteenth century circus poster) was as over the top as (for example) the sound pastiche that comprised Revolution 9 on the Beatles’ White Album at the end of 1968. But the audience that responded with unconditional slavish devotion to it often mixed it with their own socio-political agenda to create imagery around Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that was even beyond the intent of its creators.

Not everyone was on board with such changes. Music in general became unprecedentedly divisive. Radio responded in kind with the so called “AM/FM wars”, which ultimately led to the medium’s downfall as the go to source of worthwhile new music. And while the Rolling Stones had made tremendous strides by that time in avoiding the “one trick pony” path that their first three albums could have led to if left unchecked, they were also astute enough to be able to discern between vision and pretense.

In the visionary category of course was the likes of saxophone virtuoso and master improvisationalist, John Coltrane, who ironically succumbed to liver cancer in August 1967 at age forty, while all of these developments were taking place elsewhere within the music industry. But a number of the bands who took the release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to the extreme responded in kind by noodling more as a profession of being in solidarity with the moment, rather than lending their talents to the creation of deftly structured and impeccably executed original material, as Coltrane did.

Among those who recognized the dichotomy and who had the authority to respond in kind was of course the Rolling Stones. While the band did much to avoid the onset of genre myopia in their early days, they nonetheless also believed in the unlimited potential of the verse, chorus and bridge template, when utilized with the intent to produce a unique and cohesive vision. And while rhythm guitarist Brian Jones seemingly did much to vacillate between the two perspectives throughout that phase of the band’s career, Jagger and Richards’ world class compositional acumen countered by keeping the band’s forward momentum in progress. To be certain, bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts also contributed significantly in that respect.

With a title once believed to have been a tongue-in-cheek commentary on record label politics but which in reality was a play on words inspired by prerequisite verbiage found in British passports of the time, Their Satanic Majesties Request was, both then and now, a hallmark of artistic vision tempered with satire so subtle that it was often lost on the target demographic. The first Rolling Stones album to have been produced by the band itself, Their Satanic Majesties Request is on the surface an ambitious and delightful mix of psychedelia, garage rock and playful improvisation. From the otherworldly imagery of bassist Bill Wyman’s In Another Land (with guest backing vocals from the Small Faces’ Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane) and the multi-genre tapestry of Sing This All Together (See What Happens) to the engaging, fairy tale-like single, She’s A Rainbow (with arrangements and instrumental assistance from former Parkway Records recording artist John Paul Jones) and the Kinks-like prissiness of 2000 Man, Their Satanic Majesties Request is arguably one of the most listenable, immersible and consistent albums in the Rolling Stones’ vast recorded canon.

Conversely, just as the exponential impact on many of its listeners may have even escaped the creators of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the studio, it can likewise be asserted that much of the Rolling Stones’ taking that project to task in their response was lost on their own audience. But when dissected on a track by track basis, the evidence is overwhelming.

To wit, consider the opening numbers of each release. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band begins with the first of two takes on its title song, a clarion call to unity that nonetheless defers lyrically to the disenfranchised. Conversely, the lead off cut on the Rolling Stones’ album, Sing This All Together makes a more solid case for unity over isolation, and drives the point home with the enticement of adventure to come. In turn, the hard rocking and essential Citadel reverses course by a profession of solidarity with the Monkees’ ambitious stand for creative autonomy; flying in the face of its Beatles’ counterpart, the inter-dependent With A Little Help From My Friends. That Joe Cocker before decade’s end turned With A Little Help From My Friends into a desperate cry for help and companionship merely underscores the point.

The seemingly deliberately eerie The Lantern takes the concept a step further, professing clarity of vision in the wake of George Harrison’s Within You, Without You (and ultimately inspiring an even more astute perspective on the seeming standoff with the Monkees’ brilliant, “We were speaking of beliefs” scene in their landmark 1968 motion picture, Head). Likewise, the sci-fi flavored 2000 Light Years From Home does much to highlight the despondent elements of such musical adventure before counter-punching the, “We’re sorry but it’s time to go” finality of the deceptively upbeat Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) with the endless party atmosphere of On With The Show (which drives the point home with its subtle and judicious use of the nineteenth century music hall imagery that characterized much of the Beatles’ project). The three dimensional cover photo (featuring the Beatles drifting in and out of a flower display) and the mind boggling inside cover motif seal the deal accordingly.

Assessment of this project from within the band itself has varied widely in the ensuing years, as noted in Chronicle Books’ autobiography, According To The Rolling Stones.

“There’s a lot of rubbish on Satanic Majesties”, Jagger observed.

“There was simply too much hanging around. It’s like believing everything you do is great and not having any editing”.

Charlie Watts maintained a slightly different perspective on the issue.

“We had a go at anything we wanted to do, and most of the time we did it ourselves”, he noted.

“It was actually a lot of fun, rather than a musical revolution. It wasn’t one of our great records, although it was a very interesting time”.

For this essential fiftieth anniversary reissue, ABKCO has provided a twenty-page commemorative booklet with an insightful essay by historian Rob Bowman, together with monaural and stereo editions of the album in both the CD and vinyl configurations. And while monaural by December 1967 was well on its way to being phased out of the mission statements of most record labels, this collection in either format nonetheless represents a much needed and most welcome state of the art look at one of the most misunderstood yet key albums of not just the Rolling Stones’ recorded legacy, but of music as a whole. On With The Show indeed.