From the darkest period of the Rolling Stones’ history comes this, one of their finest albums. The recording of Let It Bleed, sporadically spanning most of 1969, coincided with Brian Jones’ dismissal from the band in June following increasing antagonism over his drink-and-drug-induced inability to function. The flaxen-haired founder had contributed to just two tracks on the record.
By the time it was issued, he was dead. On July 3rd, he was found at the bottom of his swimming pool. The coroner’s verdict was “accidental death”, though rumours of suicide abounded, even a few murder conspiracies. His funeral was a quiet affair in his hometown of Cheltenham, but the Stones’ already-scheduled Hyde Park show two days later, inevitably, became “Brian’s Wake”.
Almost simultaneously with the LP’s release in December, and with Mick Taylor in Jones’ place (as on much of the album), the band played the last gig of their US Tour: the disastrous Altamont Free Concert. The Gimme Shelter movie documents the lack of control and violence that culminated in a man being stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels “Security”. As the end of the decade drew near, the ideals of the Peace Generation seemed to die there and then.
Along with ex-Bluesbreaker Taylor, there are a host of other guest artists on the album; a trend which the group would continue to exploit in the early 70s. Let It Bleed was their final studio release on Decca, before sealing their own recording rights with that big red tongue. Production, engineering and arrangements credits on Let It Bleed are also extensive, reflecting the drawn-out nature of the proceedings and the shit goin’ down around the band.
There’s a wide diversity of musical styles on the disc: a little blues, of course, some distinctively country twangs (largely Keith Richards’ influence), holocaustic rock and a choral epic. The title was an ironic nod to the Beatles’ already-recorded but then-unreleased epitaph, Let It Be.
The bizarre construction displayed on the sleeve (the work of photographer Robert Brownjohn) echoes the sense of turmoil: a can of acetate for the album, a clock, a pizza and a bike wheel are all stacked precariously on the spindle of an old gramophone. And, the icing on the cake, five tacky Stones figurines amidst a sea of cream and glacé cherries.
On the back cover, the whole thing’s as trashed as a hotel suite after a post-gig party. The ‘Mick’ figure has changed its hair colour, the remaining blond (Brian?) lies face-down in the cream. And just to add to the chaos, the tracklist is completely out of order.
Oh yes (as if you need to be reminded), make sure you follow the instruction printed on the inner-sleeve: “This record should be played loud”.
The Rolling Stones — Let It Bleed: Track-by-track review
1. “Gimme Shelter”
Jagger may sing that “the storm is threatening”, but by the time Let It Bleed was hitting the record stores, the clouds had already burst. The sacking of Brian Jones and his subsequent death had clearly been an enormous blow for everyone who’d known him. The chaos of their Altamont concert, the film of which bears the same title, remains one of the lowest points in the entire history of rock.
The ominous intro sets the scene well enough: spooky ringing guitar, the persistent scratchy percussion, the sinister ‘oo-ooing’ vocal; bass and piano gradually building up to the riff and the verse. For godsake get us outta here: “if I don’t get some shelter, I’m gonna fade away!”
There’s no respite, however. The rhythm rumbles relentlessly, distorted guitar screams like Anastasia and, as the outstanding guest-singer Mary Clayton points out: “war, rape, murder” (and all manner of other unmentioned but implied atrocities) are “just a shout away, just a kiss away…”
2. “Love In Vain”
Although credited as ‘Trad.’, “Love In Vain” is actually a cover of a song by the legendary Delta blues guitarist Robert Johnson. The man who’d allegedly sold his soul at ‘the crossroads’ in the 30s was one of Keith Richards’ favourite players; though realising there was little point simply trying to emulate his style, the arrangement here is very different from the original.
Keith’s intricate picking and Mick’s whistful vocal lead this lament for a lost lady. Slide guitar sounds the whistle and the drums slowly chug her train out of the station, leaving us “so sad, so lonesome” on the platform. Ry Cooder’s exquisite mandolin compounds the melancholy:
It’s hard to tell, it’s hard to tell
When all your love’s in vain
3. “Country Honk”
A reworking of the non-album single “Honky Tonk Women”, the title says enough about the style. Ex-Byrd Gram Parsons had been immersing Richards in country music, and it was also he who recommended fiddle-player Byron Berline for the track. There’s actually some dispute over which came first, the ‘Honk’ or the ‘Tonk’.
Mick adopts a deep-south drawl (direct from the Dartford Delta!) for this playful version, with its singalong chorus and honkin’ car horn ambience. The bar-room’s in Jackson, not Memphis: but go where you will, them goddamn gals will still blow yer mind!
4. “Live With Me”
The hefty bass intro is the work of Richards, not Wyman, with Mick Taylor doubling with him on guitar. There’s double piano too (Leon Russell and Nicky Hopkins), pounding alongside Charlie’s frenetic drumming. The fruity sax is provided by Bobby Keys: his first collaboration with the band, a partnership which continues to this day.
It’s maybe the most typically Stonesy stomper on the album. Jagger struts and crows in his bad-boy role — “nasty habits”, lowlife friends and all. He’s looking for a woman to take care of his “score of harebrained children” and save him from his ensemble of house servants: oh so helpful but completely crazy. But what he’s really after is all too evident: “Dontcha think there’s a place for you in between the sheets?”
5. “Let It Bleed”
The title track, which closes the first side of the LP, once again has a country flavour. Having flirted with the Honky Tonk Hookers and failed to find anybody to “Live With Me”, Mick looks elsewhere for “a little coke and sympathy”.
After all, “we all need someone to lean on/dream on/cream on.” The problem comes when you use ’em (or they use you) to “feed on” or “bleed on”.
The other three surviving Stones take charge of the music, with the ever-dependable Ian Stewart tinkling the ivories. Bill Wyman plays autoharp in addition to his customary bass. It all comes together to accompany one of the band’s most explicit lyrics ever: sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ country music!
6. “Midnight Rambler”
Side two’s opener gets things off to a blistering start. Described by Richards as a ‘blues opera’, Jagger tells the tale of a menacing black-cloaked Boston Strangler/Jack the Ripper-style stalker. The twists and turns which the track takes throughout its close-on seven minutes emulate the prowling and pouncing of the sinister central character. Live performances would often have Mick writhing around the stage, wielding his belt like a whip.
The chunky opening riff — vintage Stones — is counterpointed by Mick’s bluesharp (some of his finest playing on record), which continues, overdubbed, to accompany his vocal. Almost imperceptibly, the tempo increases over the course of the first two verses and solo, Charlie Watts effortlessly controlling the acceleration. He too marks the abrupt rhythm change partway through the second solo, kicking in a more stacatto pattern for Mick’s “don’t you do dat” ad-libbing. Then, just as suddenly, the whole thing drops into an almost sweet guitar/harp blues duet.
And so back to the vocal: “Well you heard about the Boston…” [BLAMM!!!] “Honey, it’s not one o’ those…” [BLAMMMMM!!!] Between the speaker-bending fills, the pace begins to pick up once again as Mick continues to recount The Rambler’s grisly nocturnal routine, building to a tumultuous climax:
Baby, an’ it hurts!!!
7. “You Got The Silver”
This bluesy ballad gave Keith Richards (having penned it for his then-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg) his first lone lead vocal. It was recorded during the first sessions for the album, Brian Jones still being around, and just about together enough to provide the gliding autoharp accompaniment — his only audible contribution to the album. Nicky Hopkins’ double-tracked piano and organ and Charlie’s shuffling drums also help back Keith’s guitars sublimely.
It’s a short-but-sweet declaration of love (less than 3 mins). “You got my heart, you got my soul; you got the silver, you got the gold.” Mr Riff-hard handles the delivery with touching tenderness. They did record a version with Mick singing, but stayed with the composer’s cut for the LP.
Seeing Keef and Ronnie duet it acoustic last year in Spain was an unexpected highlight of the show.
8. “Monkey Man”
The gliding piano/guitar intro (Hopkins and Richards) is lifted by producer Jimmy Miller’s tambourine to an explosive drum barrage.
I’m a fleabit peanut monkey
All my friends are junkies
(That’s not really true)
Not all of ’em maybe, but the vast majority: or at least it was certainly starting to get that way.
“Monkey Man” is a statement of pure primal instinct, however polished the accompaniment. “I am just a monkey man, I’m glad you are a monkey woman too.” Jagger’s voice cavorts like an ape in the treetops as he screams the refrain: “nothin’ but a monkey!” Or, given the weirdness of much of the lyric, maybe that should be ‘out of his tree.’
At times the music swings along with him, at others it scales its own creepers. Mick also throws in what could be taken as the band’s mission statement:
I hope we’re not to messianic or a trifle too satanic
We love to play the blues
9. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
The final number on the LP was actually the first to be recorded, over twelve months previously. (‘Version 1’ was the edited cut which had backed the ‘Honky Tonk Women’ single earlier in the year.)
Here, at seven and a half minutes, backed by the London Bach Choir (arrangement by the legendary Jack Nitzche), with organ, piano and brass (all courtesy of Al Kooper), “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” assumes an anthemic majesty. Curiously, Charlie ceded the sticks to the album’s producer “Mr Jimmy” Miller for the track. It’s often been cited as the Stones’ “Hey Jude”, an analogy which Mick Jagger, for one, has always been happy enough with.
As the choral crescendo climbs to the grand finale, we bid a nostalgic farewell to the Sixties: there’s no way of turning back the clock, “you can’t always get what you want”. Yet, at the dawn of the new decade, there’re sure to be new challenges, new glories, new paths to explore: “you just might find you get what you need!” Or, at very least, what you deserve.
Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones
“Love In Vain”
“Live With Me”
“Let It Bleed”
“You Got The Silver”
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”