Why don't we sing this song all together?
Open our heads let the pictures come.
And if we close all our eyes together
Then we will see where we all come from.
Pictures of us through the steamy haze.
Pictures of us painted in our place.
Pictures of us beating on our drum.
Never stopping till the rain has come.
[Chorus][At the end of the vinyl's A side is a reprise of this song with the following concluding verse]:
Pictures of us spin the circling sun.
Pictures of us show that we're all one.
Their Satanic Majesties Request is the most unusual of all the albums in the Rolling Stones’ repertoire, and is certainly their only psychedelic album from start to finish. It is quite evident that the Stones were competing with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with this album; people are still torn as to whether it was a successful effort or not. In many ways it pushed beyond the Beatles’ album, risking harsh dissonance far more often, evoking the cosmic and the future instead of a rock vaudeville show. John Paul Jones’ orchestration compares well with that of George Martin, and Brian Jones comes up with as many sounds out of this world as John Lennon. But the album has two long noisy and wandering instrumentals that are difficult for a mass audience, and have an effect like that of Revolution #9 on the Beatles’ White Album. Only an audience schooled by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention could sit through them.
I remember loving the album upon its release, but I also remember being dismayed that a great many rock critics, most of whom had just arrived on the scene in 1967, wrote unfavorable reviews of Their Satanic Majesties Request. I believe these negative reviews expressed a tiredness with the accelerating pace of technical wizardry, for the Beatles too, once considered the gold standard, were also experiencing their first critical disapproval for Magical Mystery Tour. These reviews quite likely had an influence on the direction that popular music was going to take in 1968. It seemed that psychedelic music (especially with Satanic Majesties and the Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s, both released the same month) was reaching the limits of its experiments with sound.
Part of the competition between Sgt. Pepper and Satanic Majesties was in the album art. Initial releases of the album featured a three-dimensional picture of the band on the cover by photographer Michael Cooper. When viewed in a certain way, the lenticular image shows the group members' faces turning towards each other with the exception of Jagger, whose hands appear to cross in front of him. Looking closely on its cover, one can see the faces of each of the four Beatles. Later editions replaced the glued-on 3-dimensional image with a standard photo, due to high production costs.
One of the principles of the psychedelic aesthetic was to let the imagination play without inhibition, like children. For many artists of the period, it was literally a time of “dress up”. (Ironically, though purportedly uninhibited, this aesthetic was most embodied in artists that also engaged in intense competition with others.) The conceptual premise behind Sgt. Pepper was that the old Beatles were “dead”, and the new Beatles were free to create as they pleased without answering to anyone. The title has sometimes been reported to have been the product of Paul McCartney’s wordplay on the popular soft drink Dr. Pepper. The Rolling Stones, already the most popular of rock's bad boygroups at the time, are reported to have arrived at the title of their album from the British passport statement Her Brittanic Majesty Requests, essentially changing the name Brittanic to Satanic. Mick Jagger has always liked shock value. It was perhaps a gesture to the fact that the album had been composed during imprisonment of group members and legal fights about drug use (see We Love You). But the album was often perceived as “playing at" being bad, black magic, etc. Though the Doors and the Experience also had a dark side, so far as I know, this was the first time there seemed to be a proclamation of Evil in the title of a pop record. I believe this might also have had something to do with the album’s critical reception at the time. That, and the fact that lyrically, the songs contained in the album usually participated in “flower power” idealization, an innocence quite at odds with the devils the Rolling Stones purported to portray. The title’s concept actually bore its fruit in the group’s next album, Beggars’ Banquet, with the opening cut, Sympathy for the Devil. By that time, the Stones had shed their psychedelic aesthetic, and were no longer “playing at” evil, but enacting it as Jim Morrison had in The End and Unknown Soldier.
Tony Sclafani in his website Beat Patrol wrote: “This isn’t your classic Stones album. It sorely lacks classic guitar riffs, snarling vocals and hard-hitting rhythms. Instead, it resounds with trumpets, strings and enough percussion to make Santana jealous. And even if you altered the arrangements, the ten songs that make up this album wouldn’t sound anything like classic Stones songs anyway. And that’s why Satanic Majesties is arguably the boldest piece of work the Stones ever conceived. Despite its flaws, it’s a radical departure from the norm that few artists have ever attempted. For one time only, it seems, the Stones ditched their monochromatic sound and worldview for a multihued, anything-goes mindset that really was “like a rainbow,” to paraphrase the disc’s only major hit song…the R&B drive that fuels almost every other Stones LP is completely missing. Songs don’t plow over you; they slowly seduce you with art rock arrangements. Brian Jones purportedly plays no guitar at all on this album…. On Satanic Majesties [Mick Jagger’s usual misogynist] aggression is dissipated. Instead, he seems to channel poetry and short stories from (presumably) the English books he read in his youth. He pulled this off with more imagination than most people gave him credit for.”
The song Sing This All Together serves a somewhat similar purpose to the song Sgt. Pepper, as the album's introduction and concluding reprise. But the effect of the two songs is different. Whereas Sgt. Pepper sets the stage for a variety show, with a brief reprise as a summation of the show before an encore (A Day in the Life), the beginning track of Satanic Majesties, though surely an introduction to the dreamy cosmic climate of the record, finds its “reprise” near the end of the platter’s first side. Sing This All Together (See What Happens) reconstitutes the original as a significantly longer piece (eight minutes) of instrumental cacophony, and an additional verse appended to the initial lyric, followed by an industrial interpretation of I Wish You a Merry Christmas that sounds as if expelled from the steam engine of a train. The song Sgt. Pepper tries to charm its audience, (“sit back and let the evening go”); while Sing This All Together sounds as if a primitive magical moment is being conjured that must endure tolerance of chaos. It’s a little scary. Of course Day in the Life had a cacophonous crescendo, but the audience knew that this approximated the feeling of an LSD “rush”; the noise of the reprise to Sing This All Together intimates instead that sounds have been torn from various times and places and sent whirling out of context.
In 1967 the Beatles and the Stones seemed to be in each other’s studios quite a bit. (Indeed, it is reported that Paul McCartney and John Lennon had joined in on Sing This All Together.) The Beatles’ All Together Now, which was recorded about the same time, but released on the Yellow Submarine album in January 1969, bears a family resemblance as well. The differences are striking however. All Together Now is really a silly children’s song appropriate for Sesame Street (which began airing in 1969). Sing This All Together is an adult song alluding to metaphysical questions ("where we all come from"), and masking as a child’s innocence.
Looking at the lyrics to Sing This All Together shows the tension between adult and children’s consciousness of the song’s meaning. It appears that Jagger is inviting to listener to “picture” himself in certain situations-beating a drum, circling the sun, etc. (This idea of “picturing”, borrowed perhaps from the Beatle’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, owes something to the belief among enlightened freaks that visualizing a thing is a step toward bringing that thing into reality.) The pictures vary but the chorus of Sing This All Together, repeated invariably, leads in another direction. The chorus invites an adult interpretation that when we see “where we all come from” it will be out of darkness, out of nothing. The end line (of the chorus)—repeating the LSD insight that “We’re all one” thus takes on a more complex meaning than the usual psychedelic bromide. Yes, we’re all one in the sentimental sense of children, that is, as human beings—but we are also “all one” in that we come from and will return to an unknown blank. In the first sense, we are bound by fellow human feeling; in the second, by our mortality.
Near the time of the album’s release, Jon Landau of Rolling Stone magazine wrote of Sing This All Together that “What bothers me about the cut musically is the archetypical (for this album) instrumental break which, in a word, is the superficial masquerading as depth. The quick guitar runs in the middle are brilliant. Unfortunately, no meaningful musical context has been created for them. They lie suspended over some musically irrelevant piano doodling and an absence of directed rhythm. For those who want to tell us that this cut contains anything startlingly new, I would point out that the break ends with the oldest rock cliché in the hook, a single chord repeated first in half notes, and then accelerated into quarter notes as in Hang On Sloopy.” It is true that the break (without "meaningful musical context") in this first cut proves archetypal for the album, reappearing especially in the reprise and the song Gomper. This formless “freak out” I admit is a trial, but is at its best a short wandering, as in this introductory cut, even if the only way the Stones seem capable of stopping it is through a cliché that wraps it up. In the 21st century with the availability of MP3s, I am able to edit out on the computer the longer “jams”. Back in the day, I just suffered through them if I didn’t feel like getting up and moving the needle, knowing my patience would be rewarded with a good song shortly.
Another thing that MP3 edits allow is the possibility of moving the mellotron’s flute-like introduction from before the reprise to the beginning of Sing This All Together. In this manner it introduces the recording much as the Beatles had used the instrument to introduce Strawberry Fields Forever. To my ear, the Stones’ mellotron introduction is more developed than the beginning of the Strawberry Fields. I especially like the voice-over that sounds as if we are engaged in a party, with someone demanding suddenly “Where’s that joint?” before launching into the meat of the song. But its downgrade to preface the Reprise suggests that, according to the psychedelic aesthetic, improvement on a form was not favored; rather, sounds were valued that were unique and without precedent.