In 1969, the Rolling Stones went where the Beatles feared to tred: back to the concert stage. The Stones hadn’t toured in three years (a lifetime back then), so the shows were greeted as the return of conquering heroes. The fact that the Stones were also riding on the enormous wave of both Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed helped considerably. They had just released their two best albums to that point, and the technology and their audience had matured to the point where they could actually be heard in the concert halls.
The 1969 tour is considered by many Stones fans to be one of the best they ever did (the 1972 tour usually gets the #1 ranking), but the entire tour was completely overshadowed by the final show, at a little place we like to call Altamont, where a fan named Meredith Hunter pulled a gun in front of the stage and was subsequently knifed and beaten to death by the Hell’s Angels as the Stones looked on. The murder at Altamont, enshrined forever in the magnificent movie Gimme Shelter, cast a pall over the Stones that lasted for years.
What gets lost in the tale is just how good the rest of the tour was. This era was the peak for the band both as a recording unit and a live band. The extra musicians, blow-up phalluses, giant inflatable women, football jerseys, etc. were still years away and on the stage was a young band with a lot to prove.
The Stones had released an earlier live album called Got Live If You Want It, but that was a poorly recorded travesty where the band was largely drowned out by the screaming of teenyboppers. The album for the 1969 tour, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! The Rolling Stones In Concert was an entirely different beast.
It is on the very first track where the Stones used a delay effect of over-lapping introductions to announce themselves by the title that would stick: The Greatest Rock and Roll Band In The World. From there the band launches into an incendiary take on “Jumping Jack Flash” that hits all the right notes for a live rock album: it’s looser than the studio version and the guitars especially have even more muscle.
“Carol,” one of two Chuck Berry covers, is a nice reminder that the Stones of 1969 were not that far removed from the Stones of 1965. That loose vibe, pressing up against but never crossing the border of sloppy, is fully evident as Keith rips into a great solo that would make Berry proud. “Little Queenie,” the second Berry cover unearths a little-known gem and provides perhaps the definitive take on the song. Both of the Berry songs are helped enormously by the boogie-woogie piano of the “sixth Stone,” Ian Stewart. His piano runs on both songs rival those of Berry’s great sideman, Johnny Johnson and give Keith a solid foundation for his guitar solos to achieve orbit.
From Banquet comes the salacious “Stray Cat Blues,” slowed down and raunched up even more than the malevolent studio version. The 15-year-old jailbait of the studio version is now a downright twisted 13-year-old. One of the things that sets this version apart from the studio version is Mick Taylor, who steps up throughout the album as the only true virtuoso to ever play in the band. Taylor’s genius is a magnificent counterpoint to the rawness and earthiness of the rest of the band. In many ways such a combination of prodigy and guttersnipes shouldn’t work, but it does. This is the first Stones album on which Taylor plays on every song, and he is the unsung hero throughout, along with the indispensable Charlie Watts.
The slide guitar Taylor plays on “Love In Vain” counters Keith’s delicate picking and lifts the songs above the more gentle version on Let It Bleed. Where Robert Johnson’s blues get a fantastic, acoustic reading on the studio album, it is this live, electric version that reaches deep into the heart of the Delta.
“Sympathy For The Devil” gets a radical overhaul, from the slow samba that graced Beggars Banquet to a sped up, raw blues with a dueling Richards/Taylor solo that nearly blinds the listener with brilliance. Bill Wyman also nearly steals the show here with his busy, sinister bass rumbling throughout the song. While it lacks the classic status of the studio version, this live version is hotter than a flamethrower. And it wouldn’t be complete without the plaintive cry from a girl in the audience requesting “‘Paint It Black’…’Paint It Black’…’Paint It Black’, you devils!” just before the chugging guitar introduces “Sympathy”…a live album moment so iconic that the Stones sampled it on their 1990 live disc Flashpoint as a joke.
Also sped up and raunched up is the already over-the-top “Live With Me.” One of the highlights of Let It Bleed, the live version is one of the highlights here. Mick Taylor simply owns the song, and Watts shines brilliantly throughout. It’s ramshackle and rough, but that’s what makes the song so compelling.
In contrast to most of the songs, “Honky Tonk Women” gets slowed down and put in touch with its blues roots. This is the version that really sounds like it belongs in a small, Southern honky-tonk, played on a stage hidden behind chicken wire. The studio version of the song is classic Stones, but this version sounds like it’s straight from the swamp.
The album closes with an extended, fully electric version of “Street Fighting Man” that Taylor dominates. It’s downright filthy compared to the studio version, and once again the Stones slow the song down a notch in order to increase the power behind the music. Where the studio version was all treble, with the acoustic guitars pushed into the red and flourishes of sitar providing an odd touch, this version is just plain mean…bottom-heavy, with Taylor’s lightning bomber runs soaring over Keith’s scorched earth rhythm.
Of all the songs on the album, it is the final track of side one that provides the centerpiece of the album, as well as creating a character for Jagger to inhabit with the same intensity that his London rival Roger Daltrey was inhabiting Tommy on stages at the same time. “Midnight Rambler” was a good, but anemic, track on Let It Bleed. On Ya-Ya’s it is all blood and blues, a truly harrowing performance that lets Jagger play the part of a sociopathic murderer with great conviction. Live, the song becomes so much more than it was on Let It Bleed that it became the standard version of the song for Stones fans. Forever after, when the Stones played “Rambler” it was the Ya-Ya’s version they trotted out. From the extended harmonica solos to the wicked guitar bump-and-grind of the slowed, thunderous middle section, this version helped solidify the aura of “evil” that had surrounded the Stones since the baleful video they made to promote the “Jumping Jack Flash” single.
The dirty little secret of live albums is that most of them aren’t very good. Most of them are just live versions of the band’s greatest hits, played with a great deal of professionalism and not a whole lot of passion. It is passion that makes a live album worth hearing, and there is plenty of it on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! As live albums go, it is much more than a souvenir from the 1969 tour, it is an essential part of the Stones discography and one of the greatest live albums ever released, opening the door between the Stones of the 1960s and the band they would become in the 1970s.