With Beggars Banquet, the album with which the Rolling Stones found their artistic footing, everything came into play, from the ambience of the studio to the street protests outside.
Beggars Banquet was the Stones’ first true tour de force. It was recorded between February and June 1968 at Olympic Studios in Barnes, London. It’s worth lingering on that studio, which was, in its way, just as important as any single musician. You can’t listen to Beggars Banquet without imagining the smoky rooms, the people hanging out, sleeping it off, or rousing themselves for one more take. Olympic began as a vaudeville house early in the last century and was later fitted for recording. It was home base for the Stones by 1966, where they were most at ease, where nothing could touch them. One evening, as the band recorded “Dandelion,” the cops burst in. “Mick was smokin’ a big joint,” Glyn Johns said. “Mick was so brilliant. He puts this joint behind his back and says ‘Andrew, what we need on this are two pieces of wood bein’ hit together in unison. Like claves.’ ‘What about these,’ offered the bobbies as they voluntarily pulled out their truncheons. So [Mick] escaped by puttin’ ’em on the record.”
Not long ago, I spent a day at Olympic with Chris Kimsey, who began working there when he was 15. The studio had been remade by the late ’90s. It’s since been renovated into a movie theater and a private club. The hallways are lined with pictures of Mick and Keith—they hover over the place like benevolent deities. Kimsey, burly and kind, pointed out everything with the melancholy of a man who has watched the kingdom fall. He seemed slightly lost as he led me through the theater, which had been Studio A. He talked about the artists who recorded there, Mick and Keith jamming in the bathroom for the echo. “When you listen to the great records, it’s this place you’re hearing,” he told me. “It’s a unifying element. It gives everything that Olympic sound.”
Most sessions began with the Stones sitting in a circle on the floor playing through a tune on acoustic instruments—this was the methodology of Glyn Johns, a famed producer and sound engineer who collaborated on many of the Stones classics. Charlie Watts pounded a kind of pillow drum. Like a read-through for a play, it established tempo, delineated groove, and gave each player time to absorb the mood and the message. In these years, the Stones achieved a seamless correlation between their music and their lives. As the vibe grew out of the studio, the songs grew out of the moment.
Take that signature tune “Street Fighting Man.” In New York, London, and Paris, crowds were protesting the Vietnam war. Jagger joined a throng that marched on the American embassy in London. If you go there today, you will see high walls and narrow windows, barricades, wire, and statues of Eisenhower and Reagan, but on March 17, 1968, you would have seen thousands of people demanding change. For Mick, this flirtation with dissent was an anomaly, a moment of action punctuating an indolent life. A rock star is a status quo figure. He does not want struggle, but its aura. “Street Fighting Man” is not about revolution—it’s about…. read full excerpt
From the Book: The Sun & the Moon & The Rolling Stones by Rich Cohen. Copyright (c) 2016 by Tough Jews, Inc. Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Rich Cohen, a co-creator of HBO’s Vinyl, is the author of The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones.