The Rolling Stones: Christians or Communists?

For me, Beggars Banquet is the greatest Rolling Stones album there is. A lot of record nerds will say that Exile on Main St. is better, or that Sticky Fingers produced better singles. These are just detached judgements build on party lines; Sticky Fingers for the radio people, Exile for the hipsters. Thematically all the songs on the album are about poverty and suffering (hence the title) but all of them offer some sort of glimmer of hope. To this day I’m still not sure if the Stones are singing about God or Socialism. Is ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ really about the devil or is it about historical materialism? Is prodigal son about Jesus or Lenin? It depends on my mood.

Both sides of the coin have their sympathy with the worker’s movement, often serving as the material and spiritual counterparts to each other. A Chinese national I once worked with told me that ‘Jesus was a communist’, by this he meant that their doctrines were the same. Reagan Youth has a song that explains the same idea. I often think of Communism as being Christianity without magic. They have similar morals and values, which is surprising considering how much time they spent trying to kill each other.

I think the point of the album is that it’s ambiguous. It could be Christian, which in the socially conservative times it was released in made it acceptable. Or it could be a communist propaganda, snuck in beneath the nieve parent’s noises who thought it was about Jesus. The two face nature of it makes it more dangerous then the more direct political music within this trajectory around this time (MC5, Janis Joplin, CCR). The fact that the meaning is masked meant that kids who were on the fence about these kind of things could listen without guilt or stigma. The mystery of this album’s message is like the Mona Lisa smile of rock and roll. Something with no real answer for us to contemplate forever, each listener choosing their own interpretation.

Not all of the songs are overtly about politics. ‘Dear Doctor’ is a country song about a women leaving her husband, but from the man’s perspective. ‘No Expectations’ is about the temporality of everything and the permanent state of change. ‘Stray Cats’ blues is about sex and culture. While some of these tracks elude politics directly, they all do play towards the changing nature of the culture at that time. ‘Jigsaw Puzzle’ is one of the longer songs on the album, the song is about outsiders and each verse pays tribute to some kind of outcast (criminal, the homeless). One verse casts the band as outsiders:

“Oh the singer, he looks angry
At being thrown to the lions
And the bass player, he looks nervous
About the girls outside
And the drummer, he’s so shattered
Trying to keep on time
And the guitar players look damaged
They’ve been outcasts all their lives”

Some of the songs that carry the workers message more flamboyantly are Street Fighting Man, Factory Girl, Salt of the Earth, and Prodigal Son. You can more or less infer the message from the title with these songs. ‘Salt of the Earth’ is an especially good closer, and I think it serves as one of the most interesting songs on the album. The song starts of with acoustic guitar strumming and the mumbling voice of Keith Richards singing the opening lines.

“Lets drink to the hard working people
Lets drink to the lowly of birth
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
Lets drink to the salt of the earth”

The piano comes in with Jagger taking back vocal duties. The whole song has a slow build up feel to it, and in a way it kinda contrasts with the opening song ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ which was a faster, more upbeat piano driven bar song. Jagger was quoted as saying he wrote the song out of “…total cynicism. I’m saying those people haven’t any power and they never will have.” I suppose this suggests the album is Christian not communist, the song is basically a solute to the working class without any call for change or action.

What do you think? Is the banquet the band is referring to given to the workers in the afterlife, or shall it be built on this earth? Here is Axl Rose ruining the song: