Since its release, Their Satanic Majesty’s Request has been criticized as nothing but a Beatles’ rip off. While Sgt. Peppers’ is hailed as the one of the most influential albums ever it seems if you’re one of those who was influenced by it you’ve committed a crime. What the sine qua non?
I loved the Beatles but was obsessed with the Stones. The Beatles wanted to hold your hand but the Stones aimed for a more intimate portion of the anatomy. The manroot of it all may be in Keith’s observation to Paul: “yours was a songwriters’ group, ours was a musicians’.”
When you strip away the lonely hearts veneer from Satanic Majesty’s, there are some excellent songs. Citadel alone is worth the price of admission. Its great riff highlighted by Charley’s shimmering cymbals is one of the Stones’ best ever. The curious break after the second chorus is nothing but reverb. A reviewer at the time said those five seconds summed up “the entire history of The Who.”
When it was released I wondered who they were singing about in the chorus, “Candy and Taffy, hope you both are well.” Twenty five years later I discovered that, while I was a gawky teenager in Grandmother’s kitchen, humming The Old Rugged Cross and baking Sugar Cream pies, Mick was in Manhattan hanging out with Candy Darling.
Satanic Majesty’s is not the catastrophe it’s been made out to be. It was the product of an experimental time when being innovative meant more than to just produce good music. You couldn’t get too weird for the 60’s.
There is footage from that period of Yoko Ono in the Beatles recording studio asking for her own microphone. (I’m not sure if this was before or after she demanded a bed be placed in there too.) The band members are non-confrontational and let her have the mic. Then they just ignore her.
As they work out a credible version of Get Back, she intermittently screams onto the recording “John!…..John!……John!” It’s annoying and makes no sense. The scene exemplifies the Petri Dish that was Swinging London and may explain where Gomper came from.
After decades of listening, 2000 Man has become my favorite track on the album. It starts off as a jaunty, acoustic folk song. Then the chorus adds a jaw dropping (but only on a good sound system) rhythm section with some astrological lyrics: “Oh Daddy, be proud of your planet, Oh Mummy, be proud of your sun.” A sarcastic clue that maybe they weren’t into the psychedelia thing as much as they were putting on.
In the Joan Rivers documentary, A Piece of Work, she’s booked into a seedy dive in the Bronx. To maintain her edge and polish her craft, she felt the need to work a live audience often. And she didn’t care where it was. In this case she finds herself in a backstage area that gave every indication of being just inches away from the city’s sewers. She was as comfortable there as she was in her own Upper East Side Penthouse with its ormolu and furs.
Backstages in night clubs are the great equalizers. It doesn’t matter how exalted you feel on stage, you enter from and exit through a dressing room that’s a gas station toilet. Maybe it’s an economy move by management to maximize profits. Or it could be a way to remind the talent they are the continuation of a centuries-old lineage of carnival folk engaged in an ignoble profession.
Grandmother enjoyed theater but would never have considered associating with those kind of people. You’re going to befriend someone whose professional skill set is based on deceit? That would have been only one of her many objections to my act.
Whenever I found myself in one of those shitholes, surroundings were the last thing on my mind. I was so consumed with fear, so terrorized about being in front of an audience, I would sit in stony silence and plot ways to bolt from the club without being seen. It always seemed like a viable option. I’d end up going on anyway but performing happened on such a primal level. I was riding a wave of blind faith.
The last cut on Satanic Majesty’s is On With the Show. It’s a mash-up of ambient lounge chatter, Brecht like melodies, dissonant piano and Jagger’s vaudeville banter. His phony concern is mixed with uninspired strip show spiel. Then, in a moment that is anything but majestic, Mick herds the girls onto the stage with a tawdry aside, “Regina, start the show.” One can only imagine the magic they created.
Not only does Their Satanic Majesty’s Request give us The Who in a nutshell but it also captures, in one phrase, the essence of Show Business.