The 12 days that changed the Rolling Stones forever

ARTISTFILM

Think of the groups considered major threats to Western civilization and you’re likely to single out scourges like ISIS. Nowhere on that list would you put the Rolling Stones who, today, seem about as threatening as the Boy Scouts of America. Yet, 50 years ago, many in the old guard viewed them as nothing less than a metastasizing cancer on the moral order. More specifically, they were seen as Satan-worshipping, drug-promoting, gender-defying sexual omnivores, with a bent towards political anarchy. It was an image the band gleefully seeded — as well as one they greatly amplified right at the end of 1968.

Over the course of three key projects, released late that year, the Stones transformed from their teasing, earlier guise as rock ‘n roll “bad boys,” into something far more potent, deep, and new. Between Nov. 30 and Dec. 11 of 1968, the Stones starred in the avant-garde movie Sympathy For The Devil, directed by the French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard; issued their most defiant work, Beggars Banquet; and filmed a legendary, and long shelved, all-star TV special, Rock n Roll Circus. With those three moves, the Stones morphed from mangy rock stars into what seemed at the time like cultural revolutionaries. They became bell weathers of a new philosophy that gorged on hedonism and luxuriated in creativity. In short, they became the Rolling Stones of myth, an act worthy of the tag they subsequently concocted for themselves: “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Band.”

The upgrade came at a crucial time. The year before, they made one of the rare bum moves in an otherwise sterling career, as Their Satanic Majesties Request found them exploring a flouncier, fussier sound than their blues-rock muse. A psychedelic reach, Satanic was widely seen as their answer to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, a flawed strategy from the start. Instead of countering the Beatles’ sweeter sound with something rougher, as they had done up until that point, now it seemed they were trying to mirror them — and clumsily at that. With Beggars the band both returned to a rawer sound and created a wholly fresh one. Their instrumentation, subject matter, even the essential vibe of Beggars, broke with their earlier patterns. It all felt looser, freer, wilder — yet, at the same time, ruthlessly honed.

Throughout the show, there are strong and rare performances, including one featuring Taj Mahal’s classic band, which boasted the wily guitarist Jessie Ed Davis, and another by Jethro Tull, which offers the only physical evidence of the fleeting time guitarist Tony Iommi spent with them, one year before he formed Black Sabbath. There’s also a one-time-only superstar band operating under the name Dirty Mac, which corrals John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell, and a shrieking Yoko Ono. It must be heard to be believed.

Ten years later, the Stones would release a song named “Respectable,” whose lyrics wryly admitted that they had, by then, been utterly co-opted and neutered. That’s hardly a surprising turn. It’s the inevitable fate of all artistic outlaws who suffer, and enjoy, the culture’s embrace. Regardless, what the Stones created on Beggars set a template for menace and joy that anyone, at any time, can revel in, and, hopefully, one day re-invent.

Written by Jim Farber for Entertainment Weekly