The magnificent triumph that was Beggars Banquet had redefined the Stones as a serious rock band, as distinguished from their earlier incarnations when they were unsure whether they were rock, blues, soul, or psychedelic. The followup album, 1969’s Let It Bleed, extrapolated the themes from “Sympathy For The Devil,” “Street Fighting Man” and “Stray Cat Blues” and further clarified the band’s identity. Sinister, druggy, decadent, licentious…these are now well-established views of the Stones, but at that time it was a revelation.
At a time when the Beatles were exhorting everyone to come together, and the Youngbloods were advising us all to smile on our brother, the Stones emerged with a more realistic and darkly visionary look at the Sixties. The Stones had briefly bought into the psychedelic movement with all of its silly hippie nostrums, but it never suited them. Let It Bleed was the antithesis of the hippie movement. “Everybody get together/Try to love one another/Right now,” sang Jesse Colin Young in one of 1969’s biggest hits. The Stones countered with “Rape and murder/It’s just a shot away.”
If music can truly be described as sinister, it is the music that opens the leadoff track, “Gimme Shelter”: the lightly picked guitar, the scratched percussion, and those oh-so-haunting “ooohs” that sound like beautiful demons enticing you into their lair. “A storm is threatening,” sings Jagger in one of the best vocals of his career. “War is just a shot away,” and over the course of four and a half minutes the listener experiences nothing less than the soundtrack to the apocalypse. From the fire sweeping down the streets like a red coal carpet, to the image of a mad bull that has lost its way, to the life-threatening floods, “Gimme Shelter” paints a picture that is downright terrifying. Add in the chorus and Merry Clayton’s brilliant vocal about rape and murder, and the effect is both beautiful and brutal. All is not lost, though, as Jagger reminds us that “love is just a kiss away.” The music matches the lyrics, grinding and vicious. Other leadoff tracks on other albums may be as good, but the opening salvo on Let It Bleed has never been surpassed.
Perhaps trying to mimic the pace of Beggars Banquet, “Gimme Shelter” is followed by the acoustic/slide blues of Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain.” With fantastic mandolin from Ry Cooder, the song is one of the best Stones blues covers, with Charlie Watts laying down a solid slow shuffle beat.
“Country Honk” follows and it’s a misstep. The third song is a country pastiche, again following the pace of Beggars Banquet. Where “Dear Doctor” worked on every level, the countrified version of the earlier single “Honky Tonk Women” doesn’t quite succeed. It’s not a total failure, and it’s certainly listenable, but it’s an embarrassment compared to the magnificent single which was inexplicably left off the album. Supposedly influenced by Gram Parsons, who had befriended Keith Richards, “Country Honk” lies lazily on the turntable. The lyrics were tweaked slightly, and the music is entirely different from the single: a light acoustic strumming and a down home country fiddle from Byron Berline give the main punch of the song, which is otherwise notable for one reason only: it is the first appearance of Mick Taylor on record with the Stones. Brian Jones, by this time, was dead though he turns up (barely) on two songs from Let It Bleed, and his replacement had not yet been fully cast when the album was recorded.
Side one continues with a fierce bass line played by Keith Richards. “Live With Me” is the “Stray Cat Blues” of Let It Bleed. Blessed with riches and success beyond their wildest dreams, Jagger proves that he’s still the decadent guttersnipe he always claimed to be. The song is an invitation to a woman who Jagger seems both to want to employ as a nanny for a “score of harebrained children” and also take to his bed. “You’d look good pram pushing/Down the high street,” Jagger sings. “Don’t you wanna live with me?” Jagger’s home needs “a woman’s touch” and comes across as an X-rated version of Upstairs, Downstairs. The cook is “a whore” who is apparently making it with the butler in the pantry and stripping to the delight of the footman. The Lord of the Manor, meanwhile, has “filthy habits” and a friend who shoots rats and feeds the carcasses to the geese on his property. It’s quite an invitation. In many ways, this is part two of “Sympathy For The Devil.” It’s the same character, different scenario.
Musically, “Live With Me” is a tough rocker, with Keith’s bass leading the way through the verses with stabs of guitar from Keith and Taylor and piano from Nicky Hopkins and a rock steady beat from Charlie who rarely deviates except to punctuate with brief fills in the chorus. This song is also notable for being the first time the Stones recorded with Bobby Keys, who plays the great saxophone solo.
The title track, “Let It Bleed” closes out the first side. It’s considered a classic Stones song, and rightly so. The lyrical themes of drugs and decadence are solidly in place, with Jagger slurring his tale of junkie friendship. Or perhaps it’s more subtle than that: Jagger is not singing to or about another person, he is singing about drugs, and how they begin as a friendship, and end badly. The drug dealer says “You can lean on me” and appears in the form of a beautiful woman. “My breasts will always be open/Baby, you can rest your weary head right on me/And there will always be a space in my parking lot/When you need a little coke and sympathy.” But the drugs have a dark side: “You knifed me in that dirty filthy basement/With that jaded, faded, junkie nurse/Oh, what pleasant company!” The lyric changes from the friendly “we all need someone we can lean on” to the considerably darker “we all need someone we can feed on.”
Keith plays a tasteful slide guitar throughout, and Ian Stewart plays great boogie-woogie piano while once again it is the acoustic guitar that provides the steady rhythm. “Let It Bleed” may go on a little long, and it lacks the visceral punch the lyrics deserve, but it’s still an extraordinary song of drugs and dissolution.
From drugs to murder, side two opens with “Midnight Rambler,” inspired by the tale of the alleged serial killer Albert DeSalvo, aka The Boston Strangler. In the song, the killer is nearly a supernatural presence, more akin to Candyman than the Boston Strangler. Jagger’s harmonica provides the musical hook, and while Keith’s main guitar riff and slide guitar are top flight, the song doesn’t really work in this setting. “Midnight Rambler” is considered one of the great Stones songs, a true classic, but for most listeners the definitive take is the live version from Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! The studio version is too long and not particularly interesting. Charlie rides his usual steady beat, but the song never really achieves liftoff, unlike the transcendent live version that was released the following year.
What follows is one of the best Keith Richards performances on record. “You Got The Silver” is one of the three best Keith vocals ever recorded (for what it’s worth, the others are “Happy” and “Before They Make Me Run”). It is the first time he sings lead on an entire track, and his vocal simply shreds Jagger’s heavily bootlegged version. “You Got The Silver” is a modern country blues, the likes of which the Stones started crafting on Beggars Banquet. The great slide and country-fueled rhythm acoustic meet with Nicky Hopkins’ stately piano and Charlie’s simple, sparse, and elegant drums to make one of the Stones’ finest ballads, with Keith’s weathered vocals providing the icing on the cake.
Bill Wyman leads off “Monkey Man” on the vibes, before the rest of the band comes crashing in, with Keith’s raunchy guitar taking the pole position and using the same sinister tone he used on “Gimme Shelter.” The lyric is a bit of nonsense, more druggy decadent myth-making from Jagger, but the music is astonishing. Charlie rolls around the drums, and Nicky Hopkins once again proves himself the best session keyboardist of his time, his duet with Wyman’s vibes underpinning a Keith slide riff that starts tentatively and then suddenly shoots into orbit.
The album concludes as it began, with a seminal statement on the times. Released very late in 1969, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” should be written on the tombstone of the Sixties. Opening with the London Bach Choir singing the first verse a capella before giving way to Keith’s strummed acoustic guitar and a lyrical French horn solo from rock’s own Forrest Gump, Al Kooper. When Jagger enters, backed only by the acoustic guitar, he seems to be standing before the crowd unclothed until he is lightly joined by Rocky Dijon’s percussion. Al Kooper’s descending piano runs herald the entrance of the band when, like a kick to the solar plexus, producer Jimmy Miller comes roaring in on the drums (Watts couldn’t get the piece, so Miller jumped in the drummer’s chair). Suddenly it’s all there: Keith’s stinging lead guitar lines sliding in and around the other musicians, with Kooper doubling on piano and organ, and Bill Wyman providing a rollicking bass line. Jagger surveys the Sixties and finds them wanting. In turn he looks at love, politics, and drugs and reaches the same conclusion about all of them: the Sixties dream was just a dream. Much more realistic than many of his musical peers, Jagger and Richards reach the conclusion that it’s not necessarily a bad thing not to get what you want, because you’ll get what you need.
Of the five album run that started with Beggars Banquet (four studio, one live), Let It Bleed is the weakest link. That says much more about the merits of the albums that surround it, however, and very little about any discernible lack of quality here. Let It Bleed is a flawed masterpiece, providing the jaded riposte to the way the Beatles ended the decade with “The love you take/Is equal to the love you make.” Flaws and all, it is essential listening.