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Coming in Colour

Revisiting the Rolling Stones' flawed masterpiece

Opinions have long been divided over the merits of the Rolling Stones' 1967 psychedelic semi-masterpiece, Their Satanic Majesties Request. Upon first listen, I thought it was a worthless affair; there was far too much sitar. But the same fascination with failure that inspired me to buy the album in the first place also forced me to spin it a few more times. It's a patchy record with some overly indulgent bits. I don't think it holds as much water as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (also released in '67), but the tracks that do stand out, stand out well.

Looking back (which may be difficult for those of us who weren't even a zygote then), 1967 was a fecund strawberry field of psychedelic ballyhoo. The aforementioned Sgt. Pepper's kicked up a wake of contenders for the Beatles' throne. Their Satanic Majesties Request glorified the overindulgence of the period: the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle, recorded in 1967 (but not released until the band broke up in 1968), is another relic from the time. There were also the Monkees. In 1967, the Prefab Four released Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (featuring the gloriously dippy "Star Collector") and, a year later, jumped feet-first into the movie scene with the release of the Jack Nicholson-penned Head, which simultaneously began and ended their Hollywood careers.

This willingness to experiment is the one thing the Stones nailed with Their Satanic Majesties Request, far and away the oddest album in their catalogue. While it lacks the cohesiveness of Exile on Main Street (a poorly reviewed album in 1972 but a landmark of excess and alienation for succeeding generations of musicians and music hacks) or the urgency of Beggars Banquet (1968), each track on Satanic Majesties attempts to broaden the band's bluesy rock roots.

The album was an unstructured experiment for Brian Jones, the Stones' reigning multi-instrumentalist and amateur ethnomusicologist. The arrangements only really worked when the band took the time to fashion some structure around the song. "Sing This All Together" is an inauspicious beginning to the album-the equivalent of the Beatles' famous "All You Need Is Love" TV performance, broadcast live via satellite to 350 million people in 1967. (During the televised sing-a-long-cum-love-in, a foreboding Jagger can be seen gloomily sharing the room with the Beatles in their feel-good prime.)

Weird sound bites, lunk-headed imagery and the weeniest piano line ever prevent "She's a Rainbow" from being a pop gem. Jagger croons, "She comes in colours everywhere / She combs her hair / She's like a rainbow / Coming colours in the air." In a world where "Start Me Up" is now used to endorse Microsoft, one can only assume that "She's a Rainbow" would be perfect for a K-Y Jelly advertisement.

Conversely, "2000 Man" echoes the narrative structure of a Wes Anderson movie, heading off in one direction and then changing course as soon as you think you've got it pegged. Guided by Voices may have perfected the art of creating a collage of melodies with Bee Thousand (1994), but the Stones had them beat by twenty-odd years. And danger permeates "2000 Light Years from Home," which begins with a collusion of Mellotron noodlings that builds into a haunting exploration of the furthest reaches of a Jack Kirby-inspired universe. It's one of the few songs on the album that lives up to the pretence of the 3-D cover.

While the cover art on Sgt. Pepper's blended pop cultural and historical icons with the Beatles-already icons in their own right-Satanic Majesties' cover depicts the Stones as the freakiest Sea Monkeys in the tank. (Despite this, Sgt. Pepper inspired more parody covers than Satanic Majesties.) The Stones are certainly colourfully represented-in a Vincent Price circa Hilarious House of Frightenstein kinda way-but if this is what they thought the hippies and hipsters of 1967 would dig, then it is hard to say if they were being condescending or if they were just dangerously out-of-sync. It also raises the question-did Their Satanic Majesties Request suffer from too many drugs or not enough?

The Stones' take on the zeitgeist has always been a little off. One could imagine that their newfound love of product endorsement speaks volumes-not about the Stones as sell-outs, but about the corporate world's own ambiguous morality. It's worth mentioning another instance of the Stones misjudging the cultural winds; that of their concert at the Altamont Raceway Park, where their slapdash security team-a batch of Hells Angels-stabbed an audience member to death. I mention this incident not to dwell on the obvious horror, as detailed in the film Gimme Shelter, but to point out that the Stones approached the Altamont festival as if it were another Woodstock and missed the point entirely. Perhaps the Altamont incident-with its four dead, bad drugs, permit issues, etc.-did represent the violent upheaval of the era more accurately than the druggy escapism of Woodstock, but that's an essay for another time.

Taken as a whole, Satanic Majesties' flaws only serve to highlight its successes. Perhaps if Mick, Keef and the increasingly addled Brian-already spiralling toward his 1969 death-were able to focus on Their Satanic Majesties Request rather than fighting drug charges, they might have pulled it all together. Amongst a stew of songs like "Citadel" and "Sing This All Together (See What Happens)" (a rehash of the album's tepid opener)-songs so misguided that they make you question whatever logic informed their inclusion-"2000 Man" and "2000 Light Years From Home" offer a glimpse of what could have been had Satanic Majesties not succumbed to its own bloated weight. Their next album, the Brian Jones swan-song Beggars Banquet, kicked off with "Sympathy for the Devil." I've often wondered if that wasn't a subtle request for clemency during a period of excess that was yet to peak.

Francis Joseph Smith reports on unpopular and underground culture from behind the sofa. His column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Francis Joseph Smith.