Blogs > Cliopatria > Kirk Bane: Review of Alan Clayson's The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet

Jan 26, 2009 7:54 pm

Kirk Bane: Review of Alan Clayson's The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet

On May 12, 1968, five long-haired lads—Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts—known collectively, of course, as the Rolling Stones, appeared onstage at the New Musical Express Poll Winners Concert at the Empire Pool, Wembley, for a surprise two-song set. In front of a boisterous, worshipful audience, they performed the 1965 smash “Satisfaction” and their newest single, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” In The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet (New York: Billboard Books, 2008), pop chronicler Alan Clayson perfectly captures this delirious moment in rock history. “Walls trembled…and the place exploded,” he relates, “as the majority of girls in the crowd of ten thousand went berserk, tearing their hair, bursting into tears, rocking fetally, wetting themselves, flapping scarves and programs in the air, and sometimes fainting with the thrill of it all.” Satisfaction, indeed.

Beggars Banquet, released seven months after the band’s Wembley triumph, stands as one of the Sixties’ landmark albums. The LP, which boasted two classic cuts in “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man,” reached number three in Britain and number five in the States. It was the first in a string of four sterling studio albums; Let it Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971), and Exile on Main St. (1972) followed. The raw, dark, stripped down album is also important because it featured the last major contribution of Brian Jones, the central figure in Clayson’s book, who played striking bottleneck guitar on “No Expectations.” Jones, supremely talented but severely tormented, led the Stones early on, but fell victim to alcohol and drug abuse, police busts, a doomed romance with actress-model Anita Pallenberg, and the emerging alliance between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Burned out and worn down, he left the group in June 1969 and was dead the following month.

A genuine rock star, Jones was both a musical adept who played such diverse instruments as the sitar, flute, harpsichord, trombone, and bottleneck guitar, and a fashion trendsetter. “As narcissistic as any Regency dandy,” the blonde Stone treated “his appearance as a work of theatrical art…

Disenfranchised as a composer for the Stones by the near-monopoly of Jagger and Richards,” Jones channeled “much of his creative energy into being the best-looking member of the group.” He frequented exotic boutiques and antique markets, and, with his numerous purchases, “made himself resplendent in old-time lace ruffles, frock coats, costume jewelry…and trousers that…looked as if they had once hung round the legs of an Edwardian sailor.” Moreover, Clayson explains, Jones “took to wearing floppy, wide-brimmed hats that were a little bit femme. By contrast, there would be later experiments with dundreary whiskers and, briefly, a beard.” Jones clearly influenced later pop fashion. “The impact…was to spread over the decades. Just as the widest river can be traced to many converging trickles, so a source of glam-rock, New Romantic, Gothic and beyond must lie with Brian Jones,” Clayson contends.

In late 1968 Jones purchased Cotchford Farm, author A. A. Milne’s former estate. Brian died in the swimming pool there on July 2, 1969; he was twenty-seven. Adhering to the traditional view of Jones’s demise, Clayson asserts that the ex-Stone simply drowned. Death claimed “Brian Jones without effort. He had sunk into a blue oblivion at the tiled bottom of the deep end. The heat, the alcohol, the drugs, the oncoming drowsiness had combined to bring about his body’s final rebellion after a lifetime of violation.” Of course, a number of other Stones historians have insisted that Jones died of foul play. (See, for example, Geoffrey Giuliano’s Paint It Black, A. E. Hotchner’s Blown Away, and Terry Rawlings’s Who Killed Christopher Robin?)

Beggars Banquet was recorded during a turbulent period. The Stones labored on their disc from February to July, 1968, a tumultuous hour of war, protest, political instability, and assassination. On March 17, Mick Jagger joined a crowd of anti-Vietnam War demonstrators outside the U.S. Embassy in London. The Paris protests in May helped inspire him to write “Street Fighting Man.” And in its initial version, the infamous line from “Sympathy for the Devil” read, “I shouted out, who killed John Kennedy.” Jagger altered this line to “I shouted out, who killed the Kennedys” after the tragic murder of RFK in Los Angeles in June. Beggars Banquet, then, is both a timeless album and an album of its time.

In addition to the individual band members, Clayson vividly describes other key participants in the Stones’ story. For example, he depicts Allen Klein, the group’s tough, savvy business manager, as a “hard-talking New Yorker…with a brain that spewed forth estimates at a moment’s notice.” Klein, Clayson continues, was “paunchy, short-cropped and an observer of a routine ruled by the clock…he wasn’t to succumb to kaftans, joss sticks, meditation…or any other paraphernalia indicating a bedazzlement with flower power.” And Clayson leeringly observes that the alluring, “honey-blonde” Anita Pallenberg, lover of Brian Jones and, later, Keith Richards, had a “wasp waist, firm breasts, [and] flawless complexion.”

Clayson has authored a host of pop texts including Backbeat, Hamburg: The Cradle of British Rock, The Yardbirds, Jacques Brel, and Jimi Hendrix: As It Happened. The Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet joins Colin Irwin’s Bob Dylan Highway 61 Revisited (2008) as the early installments in Billboard Books’ Legendary Sessions Series.

Students of Sixties pop culture, particularly those interested in rock history, will appreciate Clayson’s admirable study. Keith Richards once said, “I don’t think rock’ n’ roll should be analyzed or even thought about deeply.” Sorry, Keith.

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