The Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed

The Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed
Released December, 1969

Our story starts back in the olden times, 1950s England, where to young’uns by the names of Michael Phillip Jagger and Keith Allegedly-No-Middle-Name Richards became chums. Their families moved apart, but a chance reunion at a train station years later saw them renew pleasantries, and discover a mutual love of the same music. Naturally they formed a band, as everyone in the 60s did, taking bassist Dick Taylor with them. They found a young Brian Jones playing slide guitar in an R&B band, alongside Ian Stewart and Charlie Watts, who would later become members of the Stones. They started rehearsing as a band with a few peripheral members, but by 1962, the lineup had been set: Jagger, Jones, Richards, Stewart, Taylor, and Tony Chapman hitting the drums. Evidently the band wasn’t named after the Bob Dylan song ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, but after a Muddy Waters’ track, ‘Rollin’ Stone’. When Brian Jones was asked the name of the band during a phone interview, he saw the Muddy Waters’ album on the floor and went with it.

The Rollin’ Stones played their first gig at the Marquee Club in 62, and by January 63, the Stones’ stalwart rhythm section, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts had joined. The band was signed to Decca records (the label that passed on The Beatles. Yeah. Sucks to be them), and released their first single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Come On’ in July of 63. Later that year, the Stones did their first tour of the UK, supporting Bo Diddly, The Everly Brothers and Little Richard. Encouraged to write their own songs, but not exactly succeeding, the band’s first album, The Rolling Stones, was mostly covers, with only three originals.

Unfortunately, due to word constraints, I have to skip a lot of events in the Stone’s timeline, including an unsuccessful tour of the US, a VERY successful tour of Australia and New Zealand, and eight more studio albums, to make sure I’ve got enough words left to rabbit on about this cracker of an album. And you don’t need to take my word for it when I say “Let It Bleed” was good. It made it to number one in the UK. Ok, that’s good, so what? The album it knocked off? “Abbey Road”. Yeah. And moreover, it contains two of my favourite Stones songs: ‘Gimme Shelter’ and ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’. In ‘Gimme Shelter’, I really dig how Merry Clayton’s voice cracks after really pushing hard. She’s giving it everything, and there’s even a celebratory “Woo!” in the background. I can’t imagine this song without her vocals in it. The only song Stones I like more than ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ is ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, and at this point it doesn’t exist. The choral intro has made it an iconic song, instantly recognisable. It even has organ that I don’t hate! The lead guitar is spot on (though when isn’t it?) and Jagger’s vocal is raw as always, but it’s not pushed too hard. These two are outstanding, but it’s not to say there isn’t weak points to “Let It Bleed”.

I bring your attention to ‘Country Honk’. You listen to it, and you know it, but not like this. The band transformed this bizarre, redneck, fiddles-and-all drawl into the guitar driven rock classic we know as ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ just after “Let It Bleed” was recorded, though ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ was released as a single, with ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ as the B-Side. It’s like they knew we would be listening to this album straight after listening to Robert Johnson, so they threw in a cover of one of his songs. I think we got a good idea of all of Johnson’s songs, and this is far preferable, though it’s not Jagger’s finest vocal moment. Long clear notes are not his friend.

“Let It Bleed” was a refreshing change after a bit of a patch with some testing albums. Even its weak spots weren’t all that weak! And even now, fifty years after it was first recorded, it doesn’t sound at all dated. “Let It Bleed” is an everlasting classic that’ll always be around.

Wow, I floved the hell out of this album! There’s too much to even talk about so I’ll summarise by focusing on my two favourite tracks which I feel epitomise the album. Fittingly, they are the opening and closing tracks of the album, respectively.  Firstly, ‘Gimme Shelter’. From the opening bar of Keith Richards’ rhythm guitar riff, this song just grabs me. I could have just listened to this song over and over. This is a song that really encapsulates the overall vibe in 1969. To me, it inspired the same kind of thoughts that CCR’s ‘Fortunate Son’ did; images of the Vietnam War, of an impending sense of doom and disillusionment with the government(s) involved. It’s a social commentary on how screwed up the world seemed at the time (‘Rape,’s just a shot away’). Also, I love the addition of the female vocals (by Merry Clayton), it totally takes the song to another level by having that dramatic  wail above Jagger’s lead vocal.  The anthemic ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Qant’ is another corker on the album. It has a bit of everything, soaring vocals of the London Bach Choir, the congas and maracas, the French horn, piano solos. In theory it should have been a disaster, but all of the elements work so well, and it’s far from contrived. I think it’s the lyrics that balance it out, with their blatantly honest message about themes relevant to the late 60’s, such as drug use, politics and of course, love. The rest of the album has a distinct blues-rock flavour to it and provides the perfect balance to the more intense numbers. Overall, I would say this was one of my favourite albums of the 60’s and will definitely remain on popular rotation in my collection.

This Stones album was the last to feature the late Brian Jones, although his contributions were minimal. It’s also the last studio recorded long player that the Stones released on the Decca label before forming their own in 1971. Lastly, it’s the final Stones album of the 1960’s, so it seems fitting that it opens with the apocalyptic rocker ‘Gimme Shelter’. This classic track has gone on to represent the end of the decade, thanks in no small part to the tragic events at the Stones’ free concert at the Altamont Speedway, and its namesake documentary. Despite this legacy, it is one of my absolute favourite songs. Merry Clayton’s wonderful guest vocals lift this above almost any other Stones track. The worst thing about this album is that it follows such a glorious opener with the most boring song here, a cover of Robert Johnson’s ‘Love In Vain’ (what amazing afyccim timing, huh?). It gets worse as we are then subjected to a pointless country version of the overplayed ‘Honky Tonk Woman’, dubbed ‘Country Honk’ here. Thankfully they kick it up several notches with the sexually-charged ‘Live With Me’, another big highlight for me. The title track is pleasant enough and I like ‘Midnight Rambler’ more than I probably should. ‘You Got the Silver’ is a lovely moment for Keith to share his special blend of vocal stylings and the rockin’ ‘Monkey Man’ is an overlooked classic. I love that guitar riff and the fabulous piano work in the instrumental bridge, courtesy of Nicky Hopkins. Bill Wyman’s use of vibraphone in the intro gives it a cool, spooky feel. I think we’ve all heard final track ‘You Can’t Always Get What Your Want’ enough times. I much prefer the single version which omits that wanky choir start. This is a pretty great album with the highlights more than making up for the average moments.

“Let It Bleed” announces itself with one of the strongest opening tracks of the 60s with ‘Gimme Shelter’. For quite some time now I’ve been of the opinion that there just isn’t enough guiro in music these days. God bless The Rolling Stones I say. Released in December of ’69 “Let It Bleed” only just gets the nod for the 60s list, for which I am thankful as it really is the perfect summation to the 60s. With a stack of albums under their belt, The Rolling Stones knew exactly what they were doing here.  “Let It Bleed” is a melange of a decade worth of influences, both musical and life experiences, from a group of self-assured musicians who, after many missteps on the way, knew who they were and the music they played. From the cooing opening in ‘Gimme Shelter’ with its whip crack refrain declaring “war children, it’s just a shot away” and piercing vocal from Merry Clayton to epic closing track ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ with its reflection on everything the 60s stood for – love, politics and drugs. There is very little not to like about “Let It Bleed”. Even the quieter, almost twee moments on songs ‘Love In Vain’ and ‘Country Honk’, you can’t help but tap your foot to the beat as they are so bloody endearing. What holds this album together for me though is the brilliant musicianship of each band member and how cohesive it sounds. I listened to “Let It Bleed” a dozen or so times over the course of the week and never once tired of it. We’ve had a few tough albums to get through recently with afyccim and whilst I really enjoyed some of them, “Let It Bleed” is one that I will be revisiting on a regular basis.

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