It is taken for granted by most Rolling Stones aficianados that their 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties' Request is not one of their major achievements. It's seen to be a turgid, botched response to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper- a misstep on the road back to blues, roots, and solid rock. This may or may not be the case; but whether Satanic Majesties is taken as a period piece or an achievement, it is, in and of itself, a unique anomoly in the Stones catalogue. In 2012, it sounds more clearly parodic than it did in its time- rather than an imitation of Sgt. Pepper, Satanic Majesties satirizes the communal ambience that made Sgt. Pepper an instant countercultural monument. But one question Sgt. Pepper has always begged to begin with is, how communal is it? What does it, as a gestalt, espouse? It is easy to forget (as the counterculture was eager to) that Sgt. Pepper ends in tragedy- the show over, a depressed Everyman (rather than a countercultural participant) dying or committing suicide. What does Lennon/McCartney's Everyman have to do with the counterculture? Nothing. Is his depair and ennui the result of not participating in peace, love, and pot? Or is what the Beatles are showing us that this is what life on earth is reducible to- the conflation of dreams and waking states into an ultimate and horrifying banality? Whatever way you choose to construe it, "A Day in the Life" is a work of tragic art that topples whatever momentum the communal vibe accrues on the slab of vinyl that was Sgt. Pepper in '67.
Satanic Majesties has its own "Day in the Life" moment- "2000 Light Years from Home." The key to Mick Jagger's lyrical stance in this song is the split he creates between first and second person approaches- the song presents an "I" speaking to a "you." What is important is that the Stones steered around the communal vibe that intermittently shows up on Sgt. Pepper- "2000 Light Years" creates an image in which the Stones (or at least Mick Jagger) are on one side, the counterculture on the other; the Stones stand alone, rather than joining; the Stones stay grounded while everyone else (their peers and audience) flies into space. Along the lines of the higher echelons of popular culture, you could draw a line from the '67 Stones to Marlon Brando in "The Wild Ones"- rebelling against everything, including the countercultural rebels who constituted one of the back-bones of their fan-base. In '67, a premium was put on "trips," and sci-fi/space metaphors were all the rage. Jagger's sarcasm implied the bare human truth of the situation- hippies on "trips" were not exempted from the discomfort, anxiety, and alienation that have always been attendant on the rest of the human race. Just as the Beatles' Everyman, Jagger's "trippers" have to confront the ultimate banality of human emotions and human nature. Even in '67, it's worth noting that the Stones couldn't give up "groove"- it breaks in the middle, but "2000 Light Years" has a beat and you can dance to it. The Stones physicalize what the Beatles abstract.
Other points of interest on Satanic Majesties make it clear that Mick Jagger's lyrical m.o. is sarcasm, satire, and innuendo. Even in '67, sex was never far from the surface for the Stones- "She's a Rainbow," with its provocative lines about a princess who "comes in colors" and "shoots colors all around/ like a sunset goin down," drowns its overtones in baroque, ornate production tricks and fey lyrical mannerisms. It's a porn vignette disguised as a psychedelic love song. If there's an analogue on Sgt. Pepper, it's "Lovely Rita," another porn vignette coyly disguised as a McCartney "slice-of-life." Satanic Majesties is cohesive in a way that the Stones other major albums aren't- it's a reaction, not only to Sgt. Pepper but to the counterculture at large. Because it opens with "Sing this all Together," which is so broad and blunt in its appeal to the communal ethos of '67 that it's difficult not to take as satire (especially from a lyricist known for barbs), and because "Sing this all Together" reprises at the end of the first side, Satanic Majesties actually has more of a claim to cohesiveness than Sgt. Pepper does (in which a line is drawn, for most of the album, between musicians and audience). When Jagger decides to play the psychedelia poker-faced, as in "Gomper," he does so in such an arch fashion that the result is more kitsch and camp than it is authentically flower-power. The sci-fi/futuristic imagery that shows up in other songs ("2000 Man," "Citadel"), balanced with dream pieces (Bill Wyman's "In Another Land," "The Lantern"), creates a mood and an ambience of foreboding, that finds its culmination in "2000 Light Years."
Satanic Majesties ends with "On With the Show," which undercuts the foreboding with pure goonishness. Like Sgt. Pepper, Satanic Majesties is "staged"; but it ends with derisive laughter, rather than death. One of the subtexts of the Stones in '67 is that they weren't merely symbolic renegades, but actual criminals- they were arrested and tried for drug possession, and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were both briefly imprisoned. By the time Satanic Majesties was released, many doubts were in the air about the Stones possible continuing relevance. Rather than placing them back at the top of the heap, Satanic Majesties sunk the Stones down even further- critics chose to ignore what was unique and cohesive, and focus on what was borrowed from the Beatles. It says something about the shallowness of the rock press and rock audiences that no one seemed to see Satanic Majesties in its true light. Musically, the album is as excellent as anything else released in rock that year- "2000 Light Years" eerie introduction and spicy mellotron (courtesy of Brian Jones), the Stones' fliration with baroque chamber-pop (not just "She's a Rainbow" but "In Another Land"), even the bizarre proto-metal hard rock of "Citadel" were the product of the Stones' unwonted will-to-experiment, to stretch the parameters of what they were willing to do musically.
By the spring of '68, the Stones were "back on track" with "Jumpin' Jack Flash," a slab of solid riff-rock that made clear that the Stones could still be commercially viable. Beggar's Banquet, that followed. was a lyrical step forward, even as the music was pared back to rootsy blues and country rock (with occasional detours thrown in). If the making of Satanic Majesties was uncomfortable for the Stones, it was a discomfort that produced a record with more interesting twists and turns than is generally suspected. Artists who are in the process of stretching or groping to find some new terrain will often produce something more novel than those who feel sure of their steps. In an important sense, Sgt. Pepper and Satanic Majesties are twins- though one was perceived as a masterpiece and one as a misstep, both are equivocal responses to an all-consuming counterculture, from young British musicians who were intelligent enough to know how it all might end up. Sgt. Pepper, in rock culture, has been canonized; Satanic Majesties deserves a re-listen. It is the only Stones album that could conceivably be called avant-garde- if it is "satanic," it is because it rebels against the confines of avant-garde earnestness as well.