Classic Rock Review

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The Rolling Stones Let It Bleed (1969)


All right – if bleed we must, then let it bleed, guys! This album is bleeding so strong that it gets my vote for the best Stones album ever and one of the greatest rock albums ever made by mortal man. Brian Jones was already gone by that moment (he’s credited for harp playing on ‘Midnight Rambler’, but that’s an embarrassment), and Mick Taylor still hadn’t quite arrived, so Mick and Keith get the praises for this album. Nine songs on here, each one a small independent world, and even if the album is structured as close to a rip-off of Beggar’s Banquet as possible, it’s no big problem.

What I like about it especially is that everything is taken in the right proportion, every single idea is developed up to complete perfection and never overdone. The long songs are not boring, the short songs are not over lengthened, the sexy show-off and obscenity is still limited to a fairly sufficient amount (at this point they were still using metaphors to conceal the Rude and the Raunchy), and the melodies are even more well-crafted than those on Banquet!

First of all, it features two of the darkest and dreariest songs ever. ‘Gimme Shelter’ is a song about storms and floods (very convenient at the time, too, since everybody took it as an anti-Vietnam War protest song), set to a spooky Keith guitar line and backed up with scary vocals, plus Mick is aided by Mary Clayton whose angry, gospelish vocals on the chorus really give this song an epic feel. Indeed, the Stones aren’t really known for their ‘epic’ renditions, but if there is one definite epic to the Stones’ catalog, that would be ‘Gimmie Shelter’, the most ominous, dreary and shiver-sending piece of music they ever did – in fact, it might as well be the spookiest, the most dread-inducing piece of music I’ve ever heard. Black Sabbath can kiss my ***; compared to this, all their Satanism and darkness sports a blatantly goofy and fake character. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the Stones never mastered a truly impressive live rendition of it – because it is hardly possible to imagine the song without its storm-imitating production.

‘Midnight Rambler’, on the other hand, is a much more ‘intimate’ song: it features almost seven minutes of pure thrill, during which Mick sings some mean lyrics about a maniac killer, plays some terrifying harp lines, and leads us through a slow mid-section punctuated by acute drum bursts before speeding up again and ending up with the lines: ‘…I’ll stick my knife in your throat baby and it hurts!’ Cute, isn’t it? Just don’t play this song around midnight if you’re one weak-hearted person! This one, on the contrary, got several quite superior live renditions, primarily the one captured on Ya-Ya’s. Here, however, it again sounds different, with a spooky ‘midnight’ atmosphere: the harp lines often end up sounding like a wolf howling, and the dreamy, subtle guitars are frightening! How atmospheric!

Ballads-wise this is one super album, too. ‘Love In Vain’ is a great old blues cover, with Ry Cooder (wasn’t it?) on mandolin, and it’s oh so oh so oh so beautiful. Keith unearthed it from the Robert Johnson archives, and somehow perceived the beauty of it – but, while I haven’t heard the original, I may have to suppose that the true potential of the song was only unearthed by these Brit boys. The mandolin is tear-inducing, and its interaction with the gentle, soft slide guitars creates one of the most hard-hitting emotional masterpieces the Twentieth Century has seen. And if that’s not enough, there’s also the very first song featuring Keith on lead vocals for all its entirety: ‘You Got The Silver’ is a touching and nice ballad, tons better than all the weird wailing stuff he’s been throwing at us since Goats’ Head Soup. This one is really catchy and memorable, and not any less heartfelt or moving.

Then, just to remind you that this was still 1969, and not 1998 or anything, there is still that old psychedelic line hanging around. ‘Live With Me’, for instance, is a terrific rocker with simply crazy lyrics. Some say that the lines ‘my best friend he shoots water rats/And feeds ’em to his geese’ refers to some of Keith’s habits at his Redlands residence; regardless of this, the song features a ferocious bass line and the first ever saxophone solo by Bobby Keyes whom you still can see walking around these RS fellows even now. And ‘Monkey Man’ lyrics wise belongs to Satanic, not here; however, Keith’s riffing is so mature here compared to those earlier days! Ronnie Wood is said to have admitted the riff on ‘Monkey Man’ is his favourite Keith riff of all time; I may not agree with him, but I sure can understand him, as it was somewhere around this time that Mr Richards really turned into that aggressive riffage machine that we all know and love him for.

Any social comments? Sure! There’s the title track, which says anybody can bleed on Mick if he’s not feeling right, and the closing ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ is probably a bit overlong because of the lengthy chorus section in the introduction, but it really don’t matter much to me: yet another great song, ’tis all. And to top it off – we have a re-mastered ‘Honky Tonk Women’ presented as a country ditty (which, by the way, was the original design; as far as I know, the ‘hard rockin” version owns its existence to Mick Taylor)! And it works, even with the silly fiddle replacing the guitar: it’s a pity they never tried this version onstage. Due to the lack of fiddle, perhaps?

Any further proof that this is the Stones’ finest moment? Well, see, this album is so great there is no obvious classic on it, no outstanding piece overshadowing all the others. Beggar’s Banquet? ‘Sympathy For The Devil’! Sticky Fingers? ‘Brown Sugar’! Exile? ‘Tumbling Dice’! All of these tracks symbolize the entire record. While no track from Let It Bleed ever entered the Stones’ ‘golden stage dozen’: occasionally, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ entered their encore set, but I wouldn’t call it a ‘crowd-pleasing’ number all the same. But that’s not because they’re inferior: it’s just impossible to choose. Still, most of these tracks (except ‘Country Honk’, naturally, and, for some strange reason, ‘You Got The Silver’) got enough onstage play – even ‘Monkey Man’ was unearthed for the 1994-5 tour, and it was great!

So go ahead – if you don’t own this record, rush out to buy it and you’ll be glad you did. This album closes off the Sixties, and still stands as one of rock music’s greatest accomplishments.

May 6, 2013 Posted by | The Rolling Stones Let It Bleed | | Leave a comment

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 | | Leave a comment

The Rolling Stones Let It Bleed (1969)


Is there really any doubt that Let it Bleed is a rock ‘n’ roll masterpiece from beginning to end? I know there’s always going to be weirdos who claim this album isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I appreciate that I live in a society where we are allowed to freely express our opinions, but anyone who says that deserves a good pop in the kisser. I don’t want to bully them or anything; I just want to smack some of the rock ‘n’ roll into them! Just like with electronics, sometimes you have to smack them to get them to work properly.

Although this album isn’t pure rock ‘n’ roll. It’s very similar to The Stones’ previously unstoppable rock album, Beggars Banquet. It’s so similar, in fact, that you might be justified calling it a ‘clone.’ That album began with a beautiful and scary opener “Sympathy for the Devil,” and this album begins with a beautiful and scary opener, “Gimme Shelter.” That album ended with an epic closing track, “Salt of the Earth,” and this album ends with an epic closing track, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” They both also had an array of pure blues tunes, pure country tunes, and each had at least one token riff rocker planted in the middle (“Street Fighting Man” replaced with “Monkey Man”). But as Frog is my witness, they did nothing but improve that already-great album’s formula to create what’s undoubtedly one of the best albums ever made. The melodies are insanely catchy, and they’ve improved their instrumentation standards to the point where they’re a well-oiled machine, chugging away at some of these songs as though they were a freight train.

It’s funny this happened, too, because they had lost their most creative member at this point. Brian Jones was fired from the band for turning into a useless drug junkie, and he wouldn’t live much longer thereafter. Keith was now totally in charge of the guitar licks, and I swear this guy was a genius at it. Every single thing he does not only fits the mode of the song perfectly, but reeks of pure personality. It’s tough to say, but his best work probably can be heard in “Midnight Rambler,” which would have been a terrific song even without the guitar! Listen to the song where that freight-train groove comes to a halt, and he starts to play those atmospheric, bluesy notes. Aren’t those affecting? And Mick Jagger turns in a growlingly convincing vocal performance there, playing some sort of vicious rapist on the “prowl.”

“Gimme Shelter” is a good example at how perfectly developed these songs are. It begins with an ominous opening with a scary, tight guitar riff and absorbing calls of “oooo.” Gradually, the other instruments start to come in, slowly building up what turns into the one of the most brilliantly constructed, hard as a rock, grooves that have ever been constructed. They even bring in a powerful gospel female singer to wail over Jagger, and it couldn’t have sounded better. From beginning to end, this screams “GREAT ROCK ‘N’ ROLL.” This is what it’s all about. “Monkey Man” might not be as recognizable, but I guess that’s because there were too many famous songs here, and there wasn’t room for anything else. Again, it starts rather spooky and ominously before delving into a rollicking bit of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s great fun from beginning to end.

They even nail the blues here, perfectly. The problem that most rockers have when it comes to blues is they have a hard time making them seem original and genuine. But The Stones own the blues. “Love in Vain” is an old blues cover that is convincing from beginning to end. Jagger turns in a great bluesy vocal performance, and those gorgeous electric guitar riffs of Keith’s is enough to bring a tear to the eye. Even “You Got the Silver” is excellent even though Keith sings the lead vocals on that! It’s not a very pretty voice, but he sounds like a regular person, and that seems to add an extra dimension that I like.

As I secretly predicted, I’ve spent the majority of this space ranting and raving about only a handful of songs on Let it Bleed! That’s the sort of album this is; everything is a well-oiled masterpiece! I’m just going to mention the others, but they all deserve a full paragraph of ranting in their own right. (And, they have it, because I wrote pretty substantial track reviews!) “Country Honk” is a country-rock song, and it’s great fun. “Live With Me” is a danceable rock song; it was a popular tune the Stones played at concerts, and that’s for great reason. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is probably the most recognizable song of the lot (and therefore I don’t need to spend a lot of time talking about it), and captures me right from that heavenly choral beginning until it slowly builds up to create one of the most epic rock ‘n’ roll songs that have ever existed.

Oh god, this is a great album. I checked my bathroom scale, and I’ve lost about three pounds in the course of writing this review from all the drool that’s been running out of my mouth! I’m very dehydrated, so I’m going to get a drink of water after I’m done writing this paragraph. Let it Bleed is unquestionably one of the greatest rock albums of all time. It’s probably bad form to make sweeping, overarching generalizations like that especially since I haven’t even come close to listening to every rock album on the planet. But this is a perfect album. The only way for anyone else to surpass it is to create a more-than-perfect album, and that can only happen in science fiction movies.

March 23, 2013 Posted by | The Rolling Stones Let It Bleed | | Leave a comment