The Rolling Stones have long established their resiliency, but perhaps the most impressive artistic testament to their endurance is having top-rated albums a decade apart, in both 1968 and 1978. It’s not just the time between the acclaimed releases of Beggars Banquet and Some Girls, but the dramatic differences in those respective eras of popular music that the Stones were able to somehow dominate.
In 1968, the American sound of Bob Dylan and The Band were the rage, with Dylan coming off a string of electric albums that revolutionized the genre and The Band graduating from backing Dylan to orchestrating their own towering musical achievement with their debut, Music From Big Pink. A decade later, the pop landscape was in the midst of the disco craze while rock was overthrown in Britain and New York by an ascendant punk movement, with classic-rockers like the Stones seeming hopelessly out of step.
Read: The 15 Best Albums of 1968
But the Stones managed to adapt to 1978 as deftly as they had 10 years earlier by co-opting the prevailing disco sound and somehow making it cool for rock fans. As imprressive, they captured both the sound and tone of the punk scene in downtown Manhattan, which may as well have been a thousand miles from the pulsating and chic Studio 54. Songs like “Shattered” and “When the Whip Comes Down” successfully established the Stones’ continued relevance. The former song, written by Jagger in the back of a cab, is the greatest rock song ever written about New York City, The Ramones’ own turf. “When the Whip Comes Down” sounds influenced by Dee Dee’s male prostitute confessional “53rd and 3rd.” It’s openly gay, as Jagger explained at the time, somewhat uncomfortably. But Jagger’s singing actually channels Sex Pistols leader Johnny Rotten, who ironically would call the Stones “one of the most notoriously inept bands in music.”
On Beggars Banquet, the Stones had clearly been influenced by Dylan and The Band. In fact, the famous bathroom graffiti on the cover included the words, “Music From Big Brown,” a sly reference to the Canadian rockers. Note that the Stones on their 1968 opus were working for the first time with an American producer, Jimmy Miller. Dylan comes through most clearly (though not entirely convincingly) on the slide-guitaring “Jigsaw Puzzle.” And “Parachute Woman” echoes Dylan’s Basement Tapes, which had been recorded in 1967 and, though not released until 1975, was heard by 1968 by everyone who mattered in rock.
While released a decade apart, Beggars Banquet and Some Girls, and even individual songs, are easily connected beyond trying to channel rock’s cutting edge. Both albums are salacious to the point where teenagers at the time could never listen to them with their parents in the room. “Stray Cat Blues,” from Beggars, and the Some Girls title track are unapologetically misogynistic. Both make you wince today. Incredibly, Jagger wasn’t even content to make the girl at the center of “Stray Cat Blues” 15, as on the album. On the 1969 live album Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out!, he changed her age to 13. But it’s too over-the-top to take too seriously. It’s just Jagger strutting. In “Some Girls,” he sings about women who are seemingly of appropriate age, but sexualizes possessing them while also making it clear that they are sexualizing and trying to possess him and Keith, too. “Some Girls” is the evil twin of The Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” lumping women together by race and region.
“Street Fighting Man,” like “Shattered,” tried to capture the essence of urban despair in its era. But neither offers answers, which would be too preachy and idealistic for the Stones. While that can leave listeners of “Street Fighting Man” cold given the stakes at the time, with
Civil Rights on the line and a war raging in Vietnam, it actually works on “Shattered,” where laughing at the madness of the Carter era seems the most appropriate response.
Watch the Stones perform a jumpy “Shattered” on their 1981 Tattoo You tour, an exclusive clip from the Paste Vault.
“Sympathy for the Devil” and “Miss You,” the tentpole songs on Beggars and Some Girls, respectively, are relentless dance grooves. Jagger said of “Sympathy” at the time, “It has a very hypnotic groove, a samba, which has a tremendous hypnotic power, rather like good dance music. It doesn’t speed up or slow down. It keeps this constant groove.”
Ditto “Miss You,” of course, but the lyrics here are closer to “Dear Doctor,” on Beggars, a country-rock song (before the term really existed) with a spoken interlude. The longing is also more funny than sincere. “Miss You” reaches a higher level though in mastering the disco genre so completely that it seems completely their own.
The parallels continue with the albums’ respective cover songs. “Prodigal Son,” on Beggars, is a retiled version of Robert Wilkins’s “That’s No Way To Get Along.” “Some Girls” similarly nods to music crafted by black Americans with a cover of the Motown hit “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” written by Whitfield-Strong and originally performed by The Temptations. While that cover version is fine, the Stones actually wrote a better soul ballad than that original. “Beast of Burden,” from the groove right down to the Eddie Kendricks-inspired falsetto, is a masterpiece on par with “Miss You.”
While those assessing the entire Stones canon inevitably place these two albums next to one another in the top 5—often behind Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street and Let It Bleed, it’s almost always Beggars Banquet over Some Girls. Yes, their 1968 effort set the stage for arguably the greatest stretch of recording excellence in rock history. But the public voted with record sales and made Some Girls the best-selling Stones album of all-time. Could the public be right in ranking Some Girls over Beggars Banquet?
Their 1968 LP has three to five essential tracks: “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Stray Cat Blues” and probably “Salt of the Earth” and “No Expectations.” The rest of the album grades passable to okay—not filler, necessarily, but nothing historic. Some Girls is stronger up top with “Miss You,” “Beast of Burden” and “Shattered,” and then adds “When the Whip Comes Down” and Keith Richards’s “Before They Make Me Run,” about his heroin bust in Canada.
In his autobiography, “Life,” Richards explained: “For sheer longevity—for long distance—there is no track that I know of like ‘Before They Make Me Run.’ That song, which I sang on that record, was a cry from the heart. But it burned up the personnel like no other. I was in the studio, without leaving, for five days…”
Here’s Richards singing it in 1989 in, of all places, Toronto.
If you include “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” from the Beggars Banquet sessions, then there is no quarrel with ranking that album higher. But it’s not on the LP, having been released earlier as a stand-alone single, rising to No. 3 on the U.S. charts. The rest of Some Girls is stronger with the title track and the funnier (and far less offensive) “Far Away Eyes.” Some Girls has a stronger cover song and “Lies” is a more conventional, throwaway Stones rocker, while “Respectable” is another punk-inspired, snarling song that Jagger and the band pull off. Richards said of “Respectable,” “This is a punk meets Chuck Berry number…”
While it’s arguably hair-splitting, Some Girls is not only stronger at the top but the deeper album, too.