In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Some of our favorite songs with “year” in the title.
“2000 Light Years From Home,” one of the highlights of The Rolling Stones’ brief psychedelic phase, is a trip through the far reaches of what we’ll call inner outer space—the classic science-fiction metaphor of the infinite, exotic unknown as a mirror for feelings of loneliness and isolation. It’s said that Mick Jagger wrote the lyrics in his cell at Brixton Prison, where he ended up very briefly following one of the many drug raids that hounded the Stones at the peak of their early fame. As Brian Jones’ Mellotron wheezes out taped samples of strings—which sound like stars stretched out into ribbons by hyperdrive—past the chugging and rumbling of guitar, bass, and drums, Jagger sings of “freezing red deserts turn to dark” and other distant sights. It’s a damned spooky tune, one of the doomiest and eeriest the Stones ever recorded.
Space rock didn’t have a name then, and bands were only beginning to explore the cosmic end of the rock soundscape, mostly by dicking around. Pink Floyd’s first albums notwithstanding, the best early examples come from outtakes, like the alternate version of the Beatles instrumental “Flying.” That, and “2000 Light Years From Home,” the penultimate track on the Stones’ atypical and perennially overlooked Their Satanic Majesties Request, an album that seems radical in part because it sounds like, well, a collection of outtakes and experiments. The only album self-produced by the band, Their Satanic Majesties Request is usually described as the Stones’ answer to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which hit record stores while Satanic Majesties was being recorded.
It’s true that Satanic Majesties was as close as the Stones ever get to working as a pure studio project; its unusual textures and sonic spaces were pointless to try to reproduce live, and the band wouldn’t perform a single song from it in concert until the late ’80s, when they briefly added “2000 Light Years From Home” to their sets. But it is also a fundamentally alienating and alienated album. (“Please come see me in my citadel,” goes the chorus of one song.) At the time, the band was beset by legal and personal problems; their longtime producer and manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, had just quit, and multi-instrumentalist Jones’ relationship with the rest of the band had severely deteriorated. The recording process for Satantic Majesties was long, sporadic, and, by most accounts, frustrating.
“Why don’t we sing this all together / Open our heads let the pictures come” go the first words of opener “Sing This All Together.” But unlike the other elaborately conceptual introductions of the psychedelic studio experiment era (including the one to Sgt. Pepper’s), it sounds more ritualistic than inviting—a sinister summons, not unlike the album’s title. If Their Satanic Majesties Request is anything, it’s an esoteric self-exorcism, the band trying to work through a difficult period—where it lost cohesion as both a creative unit and a business—using unusual rhythms, instruments, and production techniques. And, of course, by going to space, into the sonic and lyrical territory of sci-fi—a trip that feels all the more necessary coming from a band that made its name on bluesy swagger.