How the Rolling Stones Created a Masterpiece with ‘Beggars Banquet’

With Beggars Banquet, the album with which the Rolling Stones found their artistic footing, everything came into play, from the ambience of the studio to the street protests outside.

Beggars Banquet was the Stones’ first true tour de force. It was recorded between February and June 1968 at Olympic Studios in Barnes, London. It’s worth lingering on that studio, which was, in its way, just as important as any single musician. You can’t listen to Beggars Banquet without imagining the smoky rooms, the people hanging out, sleeping it off, or rousing themselves for one more take. Olympic began as a vaudeville house early in the last century and was later fitted for recording. It was home base for the Stones by 1966, where they were most at ease, where nothing could touch them. One evening, as the band recorded “Dandelion,” the cops burst in. “Mick was smokin’ a big joint,” Glyn Johns said. “Mick was so brilliant. He puts this joint behind his back and says ‘Andrew, what we need on this are two pieces of wood bein’ hit together in unison. Like claves.’ ‘What about these,’ offered the bobbies as they voluntarily pulled out their truncheons. So [Mick] escaped by puttin’ ’em on the record.”

Not long ago, I spent a day at Olympic with Chris Kimsey, who began working there when he was 15. The studio had been remade by the late ’90s. It’s since been renovated into a movie theater and a private club. The hallways are lined with pictures of Mick and Keith—they hover over the place like benevolent deities. Kimsey, burly and kind, pointed out everything with the melancholy of a man who has watched the kingdom fall. He seemed slightly lost as he led me through the theater, which had been Studio A. He talked about the artists who recorded there, Mick and Keith jamming in the bathroom for the echo. “When you listen to the great records, it’s this place you’re hearing,” he told me. “It’s a unifying element. It gives everything that Olympic sound.”

Most sessions began with the Stones sitting in a circle on the floor playing through a tune on acoustic instruments—this was the methodology of Glyn Johns, a famed producer and sound engineer who collaborated on many of the Stones classics. Charlie Watts pounded a kind of pillow drum. Like a read-through for a play, it established tempo, delineated groove, and gave each player time to absorb the mood and the message. In these years, the Stones achieved a seamless correlation between their music and their lives. As the vibe grew out of the studio, the songs grew out of the moment.

Take that signature tune “Street Fighting Man.” In New York, London, and Paris, crowds were protesting the Vietnam war. Jagger joined a throng that marched on the American embassy in London. If you go there today, you will see high walls and narrow windows, barricades, wire, and statues of Eisenhower and Reagan, but on March 17, 1968, you would have seen thousands of people demanding change. For Mick, this flirtation with dissent was an anomaly, a moment of action punctuating an indolent life. A rock star is a status quo figure. He does not want struggle, but its aura. “Street Fighting Man” is not about revolution—it’s about limits. When it comes to protesting, celebrity just gets in the way. Wherever Jagger went, the message changed from “America out of Vietnam!” to “It’s Mick!” The lyric registers this reality with a shrug: “What can a poor boy do, except to sing in a rock ’n’ roll band?” Bruce Springsteen called it one of the greatest lines in rock history. When Jagger brought it in to the studio, Keith added his own signature. The lick that opens “Street Fighting Man” is among his most distinct. It leads to a maraca groove that’s as sinewy as a girl dancing in the jukebox light at a biker bar.

Or “Stray Cat Blues,” the album’s eighth track, which is a rock star singing about a groupie. “I can see that you’re 15 years old . . .” Or “Parachute Woman,” the fourth track, which is about groupies, or record promoters, or possibly both. It’s a slow blues, barnacled by influence—a Bob Dylan lyric, a Muddy Waters riff—remade by the vibe in Studio A, the Stones playing Ping-Pong between takes. On most nights, they did not start till two in the morning. The first takes were walk-throughs, at half speed, Evel Knievel running his bike to the top of the jump and letting it roll back. Then, all of a sudden, they find the extra gear. Phill Brown, who would become an admired sound man and record producer, worked the control board at those sessions. “On rare occasions, usually during an exceptional performance by a musician, a feeling would occur of being transported and becoming unaware of my surroundings,” he wrote later. “This wonderful, detached feeling took over, for example, while I was listening to ‘Parachute Woman’ loud at 3 a.m. with 20 people in the control room, Then it was everything—romantic, happy, and all-powerful—a great rush.”

“Sympathy for the Devil” was being recorded in the wee hours of June 10. Mick was on the floor in headphones, singing. Marianne caught his eye from the booth. With red lipstick, in reverse letters, she wrote on the glass: BURN BABY BURN. At some point, the studio actually did catch fire. Richards believes Jean-Luc Godard had taped tissue paper to hot lights on the ceiling, which, well, you know. “I think we have a fire,” Glyn Johns said calmly. People headed for the exits as Jimmy Miller gathered up the masters. “Within 15 minutes [he] was gone with the tapes,” said Phill Brown. The fire department put out the blaze, but there was a hole in the roof. The Stones continued recording beneath the open sky. Now and then, you think you might hear a plane flying over.

Released in December 1968, Beggars Banquet was immediately recognized as a breakthrough. “The Rolling Stones’ coming of age,” said Glyn Johns. It has ten tracks, each a gem, but my favorite is “No Expectations,” as that’s the last song in which you have Brian Jones at his finest. He was a mess by then. Even when he did show up, he was usually too wasted to contribute. That’s what made “No Expectations” so special. Keith recorded a crisp acoustic track and Mick’s vocal is haunting, but it was Brian who made the tune with his slide guitar, the same sort of bottleneck work that first caught the attention of Mick and Keith at Alexis Korner’s club a lifetime before. It was as if a fog had lifted, and for a moment, there was Brian. “[He] was emotionally very up one night,” Phill Brown wrote, “and played a beautiful slide acoustic guitar.” Haunting and forlorn, like no other sound in music. It makes my mind wander and my teeth itch. I picture shotgun shacks when I hear it, green fields and levees, thunderheads a moment before the rain comes down. The Buddhists talk of a flame so pure it consumes all its fuel. On “No Expectations,” Brian Jones vanished into his playing.

From the Book: The Sun & the Moon & The Rolling Stones by Rich Cohen. Copyright (c) 2016 by Tough Jews, Inc. Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Rich Cohen, a co-creator of HBO's Vinyl, is the author of The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones.