Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

The Rolling Stones Let It Bleed (1969)


Review For my money this is the best Rolling Stones album ever, even if it is really not a typical example of their work. I do not think you can find a better opening to a Stones album than “Gimme Shelter” with Mary Clayton providing awesome guest vocals to some apocalyptic lyrics.

The catchy guitar lead suggests bad things are coming this way, a sentiment amplified by the high pitched, wordless vocals and the complimentary piano before the rest of the band crashes in and Mick Jagger starts singing. I also know you can not top “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as the big finale, what with the London Bach Choir lending their voices (not to mention Al Kooper providing the most memorable French Horn work on a sixties rock ‘n’ roll album).

I understand the idea that this is the Stones’ response to “Hey Jude,” but it certainly stands on its own as a classic pop tune, which makes it a most atypical Stones song on that grounds alone. Then there is the philosophical sentiments of the chorus, which again has you double-checking to make sure this is the same Stones who did “Sympathy for the Devil” and were the acknowledged bad boys of rock ‘n’ roll.

“Midnight Rambler,” which originally began Side 2 in those days of vinyl, is another one of those most rare long Stones songs and featured Mick Jagger wailing on his harp. “Monkey Man” is my all time favourite non-Stones hit song with Jagger pointing out ” I hope we’re not too messianic or a trifle too satanic” (I used it for a class assignment once as the music background for a Pat Paulsen speech) and “Country Honk” is a countrified version of their hit “Honky Tonk Woman.”

You also have a couple of acoustic blues tracks with “You Got the Silver,” which offers up the first lead vocals by Keith Richards, and a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain.” “Live With Me” is a solid Stone rocker and the title song is okay, but what is important is that title: it fostered an inherent comparison with “Let It Be,” but since that was the Beatles’ weakest album, the Stones came out ahead on this one. Those were fun days in rock and roll, boys and girls, let me tell you.

Special mention to the efforts of Nicky Hopkins on this album, who plays piano on most of the key tracks as well as the late Brian Jones, who appears on two of the tracks, as does his replacement, Mick Taylor. On top of all that, I love the way the back of the album deconstructs the front. “Beggar’s Banquet” might be the more traditional Rolling Stones album, but “Let It Bleed” still holds the top spot for me and the last time I put together my Top 10 albums of all time list for my Pop Culture class “Let It Bleed” was on it. Finally, as it says at the bottom of the liner notes: This record should be played loud. It should also be played often.

Review The Stones have long been billed as “the greatest rock and roll band in the world”, which is debatable — but there is no doubt in my mind that they are definitely the most dangerous rock band there has ever been.

Let It Bleed is a case in point: even the gentle songs (of which there are what? three?) have a certain element of menace to them that other bands can only pretend to possess (the cartoonish menace of Led Zeppelin, for instance). As to the straight-ahead rockers? “Gimme Shelter” has that dirty, bluesy Stones feel right from the get-go, with Mick Jagger and guest vocalist Merry Clayton blending their considerable abilities to perfection…in fact, Ms. Clayton just about blows Mick out of the studio, and you can hear Mick egging her on in the background — way cool!

“Love In Vain”, their dirge like treatment of Robert Johnson’s classic, has a pathos to it that I love (and Keith’s lovely, mandolin-like sound in the play-out is magnificent). “Country Honk” is a rerecord of the funkier “Honky Tonk Women”, easily as much fun to listen to as the original, with its scratchy violin and Jagger’s down-home vocal.

“Live With Me” is one of the Stones’ better hard rockers, with another great Jagger vocal and truly weird lyrics. “Let It Bleed”, another great country-blues song, has a lovely, foot-stomping feel to it. It also has some of Jagger’s most controversial lyrics since “Sympathy For the Devil” — not just for containing one of the earliest known references to cocaine in rock music, either. Think, really think about what Jagger is saying in the choruses, as they progress from “lean on” to “dream on” to “cream on”, etc.

Harsh stuff for that era, and the Stones pull it off brilliantly. “Midnight Rambler”, a great blues, embodies the album’s undertones of danger better than any other song. Essentially the narrative of a serial killer (“I’ll stick my knife right down your throat, baby, and it hurts”), the song contains some very incendiary lyrics, a down-and-dirty slide guitar riff courtesy of Mick Taylor, some of Jagger’s best harp playing, and one of Charlie Watts’ best-ever pieces of drumming.

From the thrilling time-signature changes to the wicked-little-boy laughter you can hear from Mick and Keith in the background (listen for it just before the “heard about the Bostonnnn…” WHANNGG!! bit), “Rambler” is a true Stones classic. “You Got the Silver” is a minor song, but notable for being Keith Richards’ most beautiful vocal effort…and that’s really saying something. “Monkeyman”, a truly underrated part of the Stones catalogue, has one of the greatest dirty guitar licks ever put down by anybody — and again, some amazing vocals and lyrics by Jagger (“I hope we’re not too messianic/Or a trifle too Satanic/To learn to play the blues!”).

And then, closing the album off, is the crowning achievement of the 1960’s Stones albums: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. Forgetting for the moment that it’s now been licensed for commercial use (for shame, fellas!), this song is one of the best in rock. I like to think of it as, finally, the Stones’ answer to “A Day In the Life”. Don’t follow me? Hang on a minute! The lyrics, when you look at them, seem to be stolen moments from someone’s day (going to a demonstration, the Chelsea drugstore, meeting someone at a reception) — and whereas “A Day In the Life” is world-weary, eerie, and elliptical, “Get What You Want” is straightforward (for the most part), grounded, and, while maybe not happy with the world, at least more willing to settle for the way things are, in a perfect example of idealism vs. realism.

Musically, too, this song seems to provide a riposte to the earlier Beatles classic, choosing a blues-gospel sound over Lennon’s folkier, jazzier direction, and picking a tremendous vocal choir over a massive orchestral track. What’s more, where “A Day In the Life” swirls up into its cataclysmic, even apocalyptic ending (the chaotic orchestra and thunderous final chord), “What You Want” suddenly becomes an eruption of joy, kicking itself up into ever-greater heights of wonder and energy, with the choir’s endlessly-rising voices, and Watts’ drums providing one final thrust of force.

Of course, the rest of the band kicks some tush as well, from Bill Wyman’s expert bass playing, Keith and Mick Taylor’s strident, yet playful guitars, to Ian Stewart (the unsung hero of the Stones!) providing some wonderful barrelhouse piano throughout. This song, and Let It Bleed in general, seem to me to be the Coda for Sixties rock, coming as it did right at the end of the decade. Soon after, the Beatles would break up, the post-Altamont Stones would strike out in newer (though no less dangerous) directions, and many heroes of the era would perish. Let It Bleed stands in that moment, at once celebrating and mourning what has passed, casting its eye uncertainly on what is to come, yet eager to get on with it.

So maybe what I said before was wrong, after all… maybe the Stones are the greatest rock and roll band in the world, at that. (Note: Beatles’ fans, please don’t think I’m denigrating “A Day In the Life” in any way! It is still one of the supreme achievements in rock. I’m only saying that “What You Want” deserves a place right alongside, for the reasons mentioned above. Just wanted to clear the air. Thanks.)


May 4, 2013 - Posted by | The Rolling Stones Let It Bleed |

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