Most Rolling Stones fans who received Their Satanic Majesties Request as a Christmas present back in 1967 would have had something of a shock over the band’s new album. The record, which had a working title of Cosmic Christmas, was nothing like the sort of bluesy rock that had made them such a global success since their 1964 debut album.
Their Satanic Majesties Request, which came out on December 8, 1967, is probably the most unusual of the Stones’ 20-plus studio albums, and perhaps the one that still polarizes opinion the most.
But the end product is more coherent than might have been expected, given the semi-chaos that surrounded its making. The album was recorded between February and October 1967, during a turbulent time in the Stones’ career. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones all had their own personal problems, some of which involved criminal trials over drug offenses (an issue they directly addressed themselves with the promo video for non-album single “We Love You”). The band’s manager and producer, Andrew Loog Oldham, quit during recording, fed up with their haphazard schedules and the fact that, when they did manage to turn up at Olympic Studios in Barnes, West London, they brought large entourages of hangers-on who disrupted the creative flow.
When the album was finally completed, it was the first Stones album to be released on both sides of the Atlantic with the same running order and inside the same record sleeve. The title was a satirical take on the words inside a British passport: “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary Of State requests and requires…”
The album came during a transformative year in music. The summer of 1967 had been dominated by The Beatles’ pop art masterpiece Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced, and Pink Floyd’s The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Bands the world over wanted to be part of a psychedelic revolution that was changing pop music. And The Rolling Stones were no different.
Their Satanic Majesties Request was a tangle of psychedelic sounds and influences, complete with iconic 3D artwork. Keith Richards later recalled, “We made that set ourselves. We went to New York, put ourselves in the hands of this Japanese bloke with the only camera in the world that could do the 3D. Bits of paint and saws, bits of Styrofoam.”
The 10-track album perplexed fans back in the day, but how does it stand the test of time? The mix of songs is eclectic, with the odd debatable moment (“Gomper”), but it has more than its fair share to recommend it. “Citadel” abandons psychedelic trickery for guitar riffing, while “In Another Land” is not just the only Stones song to feature Bill Wyman on vocals, it was also a way to vent his frustrated creativity on an evening when he was the only band member to turn up at the studio. The song, which features Small Faces Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane as backing musicians, memorably ends with the sound of Wyman snoring. Jagger and Richards had recorded him sleeping and tagged it on to the end of the song as a joke.
“She’s A Rainbow” is a sweet chorus-based pop song that features Brian Jones on Mellotron and deft string arrangements from future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. Another success is “2,000 Light Years from Home,” while the haunting “The Lantern” is arguably a forerunner of “Shine A Light” from 1972’s Exile On Main St.
Their Satanic Majesties Request entered the US charts on December 22, 1967, and reached No. 3 in the UK. It remains a charming curiosity. Though the band went straight back to their rock- and blues-based roots the following year with Beggars Banquet, their foray into flower power was a bold and fruitful attempt to branch out.
The 50th-anniversary deluxe box set reissue of Their Satanic Majesties Request can be bought here.