Monday, 21 August 2017
The Rolling Stones "Let It Bleed" (1969)
The Rolling Stones “Let It Bleed” (1969)
Gimme Shelter/Love In Vain/Country Honk/Live With Me/Let It Bleed//Midnight Rambler/You Got The Silver/Monkey Man/You Can’t Always Get What You Want
'Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away! But love, it’s just a kiss away!’
And so, The Rolling Stones took the ‘salt of the earth’ and decided instead to have their cake and eat it. Yay, cake! Well, this is a celebration of sorts I suppose: the end of an era as we review our very last Rolling Stones LP before we hang our satanic reviewing hat up for good (don’t worry readers, there’s still enough articles to publish until the middle of next year, you aren’t getting rid of us that easily!) And how tasty it looks too as we get the ‘pudding’ that comes after the high-water mark that was ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ from 1968 – look how delicious that front cover looks, with a then-unknown Delia Smith getting the commission straight out of catering school to make a juicy top-layer of cherries, grapes and cream and five cute little Rolling Stones figurines on top, working to orders by her ‘boss’ Robert Brownjohn (best known for the title sequences of various James Bond movies). But somehow, lurking underneath that creamy goodness are a few things less appetising and much less good to eat: a film canister, a clock, a pizza and even a rubber tyre. While that little lot does sound remarkably like my own culinary skills (what a shame this album cover didn’t have a pie-crust too!) it also reflects the contents better than perhaps any other Stones cover. On the surface this is a continuation of the gradual sweetening and stream-lining that has gone on in the Rollers’ sound ever since the left psychedelia behind for something earthier, with this a second successful accessible distillation of their sound. And on the other it’s a much darker record even than ‘Beggars’ full of riots, murder, class, denial, drugs and an extraordinary seven minutes celebrating a rapist that really wouldn’t be allowed nowadays.
In other words ‘Let It Bleed’ may well be the most Rolling Stones album ev-uh, the record that most reflects their sound in all their satanic glory. Aside from parts of ‘Banquet’ and sections of much-delayed sequel ‘Sticky Fingers’ it’s kind of the only Stones album that sounds the way people think of when they picture The Rolling Stones: swampy, earthy and rocky, rather than bluesy like the band’s early days or the curious mixture of raunchy funk and slow ballads that makes up most of their last recordings. In a sense every record except this one is an ‘experimentation’ – an opportunity to see how far the Stones can roll away from their natural sound, going either playful or darker or more contemporary. But this album is the Stones’ zenith for better or worse: the one record that sounds completely like them from first note to last. That’s the reason why many fans consider this their best album. It’s also why we’ve saved it till last because there isn’t honestly that much to talk about (though as usual we’re going to give it a very good go!) as it’s just The Stones being The Stones, not The Stones being The Who, The Kinks, The Beatles, The Bee Gees or (God help us) The Black-Eyed Peas. For here, at the end of the 1960s, with the decade dying out and the hippie dream almost over, The Stones can go back to being themselves and this is maybe the last album where people truly take note of what they say as a ‘contemporary’ band, rather than an ‘aging band struggling to stay contemporary’ (although you could make the same claim for ‘Sticky Fingers’ I guess).
There are a few reasons why no other album turns out to be quite like this one. First up is the fact that this is the band’s last album for Decca – and therefore the last album of newly record material that suffers the indignities of Decca’s signature sound: lots of echo, muddy sound and murky merging of instruments. It’s a sound this band have made their own down the years and which only they could really have thrived on, making everything sound dark, blurry and claustrophobic, even the occasional happy stuff. There’s a moment on ‘Live With Me’ that’s the epitome of this sound for the last time where the bass, guitar and drums all keep playing the same deep note and all the instruments ‘bleed’ together, with only a twinkling piano for colour: in anyone else’s hands this simple sly song would have been a comedy number but here even the comedy sounds like a tragedy in Decca’s studios. The Stones will set up their own label ‘Rolling Stones Records’ in 1970 (where the famous tongue logo comes from) but their problems were less with Decca (who don’t even reject their planned album cover this year, for the first time in many a long album) but more with manager Allen Klein. Not content with splitting up The Beatles far more than Yoko ever did, Klein had dug his claws deep into the Stones’ contract and demanded money with menaces from everything they recorded for Decca before their contract runs out in 1970 (which is why there wasn’t an LP that year as the Stones got crosser at his greed). By starting afresh, though, The Stones first attempt a new clear engineering sound (on 1971’s ‘Sticky Fingers’) before trying to go back to the ‘old’ sound and coming up with something even murkier (on 1972’s ‘Exile On Main Street’). This, though, is the last twirl of their signature swampy sound and for only the second album they’ve learnt how to write the sort of swampy sounds that suit it.
There’s another more cerebral reason we never get an album quite like this again: look at the release date, December 5th 1969. In The Stones’ plans their big ‘celebration’ of this album came the next day during a free festival they’d organised at Altamont Speedway which was the single biggest gathering of youngsters in one place since Woodstock in August. This time though the festival was going to be very much organised to promote one band and everything was catered to plug The Stones’ latest chart-topper. Which was, as it turns out, a tragic move, especially the decision to bring in motorbikers The Hell’s Angels as the ‘security staff’ – apparently after a tip-off from the Grateful Dead that the bikers in San Francisco were cheerful and cheap, bought for the price of booze. However this really wasn’t Woodstock but Altamont where the bikers were nastier and the booze made them nastier still and they picked on members of the crowd, apparently for pleasure. Everybody says it was The Stones’ satanic vibe that killed the mood, but actually it had been bad from the start. The crowd were surely and restless, numerable technical delays causing them to be less patient than the Woodstock elite and the weather in December was always going to be more of a problem than Woodstock’s blessed out Summer (rainshowers aside). The day was a difficult one: Byrds spin-off band The Flying Burrito Brothers didn’t go down that well with the crowd. Crosby Stills Nash and Young turned in a poor set by their standards, suffering lots of sound issues. The Jefferson Airplane performed a rousing set that kept being interrupted by kerfuffles in the audience and at one stage lead singer Marty Balin – the hero of the hour – got bashed on the head by a Hell’s Angel with a pool cue for trying to intervene during an attack between a biker and a teenage girl (Paul Kantner’s dryly sarcastic response: ‘To the guy who just bashed our lead singer on the head…Gee, thank you so much for that!’) The Grateful Dead, due to play next, took one look at the carnage and refused to leave their helicopter, making the crowd ever more restless and surly. And then The Stones played, dressed to kill and singing some of their darkest songs so that what happened next seemed inevitable (as captured in ‘Gimme Shelter’, the tour film planned as a way of celebrating the event – which ended up as a weird sort of tribute instead). A Hell’s Angel took a dislike of a black kid named Meredith Hunter dating a white girl and resented his trendy clothes. He barked out some orders. The kid got out a knife to warn them off his girlfriend. He was stabbed multiple times and died before he even made it to hospital. Legend has it the Stones were playing ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ at the time and that on this night the devil ‘won’; actually they were playing the less satanic but more misogynistic ‘Under My Thumb’ at the time but the story was too neat to not go down in music folklore. Here, twenty-five days before the calendar end of the 1960s, the 1960s spirit died in the most spectacular way as unlike Woodstock millions of youngsters got together and proved that they couldn’t look after themselves (well, not with pool cue wielding bikers anyway). Even though their didn’t weild the knife themselves, The Stones naturally got all the blame that day and their reputation never truly recovered even if as the highest profile band still going from the 1960s their sales remain strong for another decade and more. Even so, it’s the end of an era and the ‘real’ Stones’ died that day every bit as much as The Beatles did at the same time (with the ‘announcement’ coming in April 1970, though Beatle fans all knew by this point three months on from ‘Abbey Road’). The Stones would never be allowed to be quite so ‘dark’ as they are on this album again – and may well have been afraid to go there themselves, if the haunted looks on their faces in the ‘Gimme Shelter’ film are anything to go by. In the future only ‘Brown Sugar’ will be truly as, well, ‘rude’ as people assume the Stones always were (it is a song about the rape of a black slave on a Southern plantation after all) and that song was probably written before this album was released anyway.
There’s one other big reason, though The Stones may not have thought much of it at the time. ‘Let It Bleed’ is the ‘crossover’ album between the Brian Jones era and the Mick Taylor one. Officially Mick plays guitar on two songs and Brian only plays the maracas on ‘Midnight Rambler’ as his last ever contribution to The Stones’ handiwork, but even so it’s another end of an era as the founder Stone plays his last notes before his tragic death on July 3rd 1969. By then Brian had known that he was no longer a Stone – the group he’d formed, lived and breathed through thick and thin for nearly a decade – after his drug addiction and inter-band rows (such as Keith Richards ‘saving’ his girlfriend Anita from domestic abuse by wooing her himself) caused him to slow down and take less interest in the band’s activities. Officially he’d left before these album sessions began (‘Midnight Rambler’ is an older song re-jigged when the band got desperate for material – another Stones template to come!) and was there-but-not-there at all the 1968 sessions anyway, tending to sit in the studio read or stare while the music got made around him and only occasionally leaping to his senses to make a contribution (the thrilling out-of-synch mellotron solo in the middle of 1967 single ‘We Love You’ is his last fully functioning moment as a Stone – and what a way to bow out that is!) Brian’s loss is a tragedy, still unexplained – though the people around Brian him half expected news about a drug overdose one day, nobody expected the former champion swimmer to drown in his own swimming pool in mysterious circumstances (did the builder hired to work on his house kill him after endless goading or out of jealousy for his rich lifestyle or was it a tragic accident? We’ll never know. I’m pretty sure though that had Brian stayed indoors all that day he’d have lived to have a fascinating career making world music decades before it was fashionable and maybe even getting his act back together enough to make more rock and roll, with or without the Stones). Of all the tragedies that fall in the Stones’ story, his loss is surely the worst and without Brian the Stones turn into just another rock band (albeit a good one) rather than pioneers of the art, always going somewhere new. The band learn of his death while deep in the middle of sessions for this album though, which must have really added to ‘Let It Bleed’s dark and eerie feeling; the band actually got the news while recording it’s outtake, a cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Don’t Know Why I Love You Babe’ (later released on Decca rarities compilation ‘Metamorphosis’) where Mick Jagger has never sounded so emotional, so haunted, so desperate. ‘It goes on!’ he’s said to have fumed through gritted teeth to everyone in the studio that day ‘It doesn’t end here, it goes on!’ And yet in many ways it does end here: never again will The Stones’ be quite so daring on the high-wire after losing one of their own from such a great fall.
Alright then, so that cake on the front cover is looking less like a celebration and more like a commiseration with every passing paragraph. The fact remains that ‘Let It Bleed’ is a more interesting album to talk about than it is to listen to. Though many fans call it the best thing The Stones ever did I’m never been that sure I quite agree: ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ has the better songs by far, ‘Sticky Fingers’ has the better production and ‘Exile On Main Street’ has the better, badder attitude. Taken individually there are only two songs that make my heart soar as a Stones fan – and unusually for this band these are the most famous tracks that bookend the album and sound better on compilations anyway. ‘Gimme Shelter’ is so like the aura post-Altamont that it’s scary to think it was recorded months before and released a mere day before the event that turned the hippie dream on its head because it’s all here: the screaming desperate guitars, the muscly rhythm section that physically beats up a lost and lonely sounding Mick Jagger and lyrics that scream about how the world is only one bad move away from self-destruction and nihilism (and remember this is decades before Donald Trump got into office!) ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ is also a very clever update on ‘Satisfaction’, an older, wiser, more broken band turning up with a new philosophy for the ages that we have to make do with what we get, no matter how bad it is and maybe that’s enough. The Beatles left us in the 1960s with the similarly titled ‘Let It Be’ (I’d love to know if The Stones’ heard an advance copy as the song had been around since January 1969 but the album it was named for isn’t out until four months after this one!), a tale of how we can make things better by believing in fate and letting things alone to work themselves out, that a higher power is watching over us (many people assume it’s a Catholic song but actually ‘Mother Mary’ is a dream Paul McCartney had about his real mum). The Rolling Stones leave us with a double entendre-filled song that leads to a much more depressive and caustic tale of how we all need someone we can abuse and treat badly. As much as I remain a hippie at heart, idealistic to a fault and believing that the madness of the last half-century is a ‘test’, you sense that The Stones’ caught the mood of the future world they couldn’t yet see more accurately. *sigh*
The rest of the album though is unremarkable – at least, compared to the highs of ‘Beggar’s Banquet’. ‘Love In Vain’ strains hard to be another beautiful ballad like ‘No Expectations’ gone or ‘I’ve Got The Blues’ to come but just sounds like a pale impression of both. ‘Country Honk’ is the original inferior version of lesser Stones single ‘Honky Tonk Women’. ‘Live With Me’ is delicious fun but ridiculously simple, the sort of thing a band could get away with in 1964 but not in 1969. The title track is forgettable, a sly acerbic tune masquerading as a forgettably pretty song which doesn’t work anywhere near as well as the first batch of songs that try this trick back on ‘Between The Buttons’. ‘Midnight Rambler’, rated as an all-time classic by many fans, always make me slightly nauseas with its celebration of lust and rape of a hapless victim – admittedly several other Stones songs skirt near this danger area too, but this one is particularly graphic and at least in the others you can convince yourself that the girls involved have given some sort of ‘permission’ for things to happen to them. Only the under-age sex of ‘Stray Cat Blues’ makes me blush more as a Stones fan and that one’s supposed to – you get the feeling the Stones genuinely think this song about a whipping rapist sounds like fun. ‘You Got The Silver’ is the closest the album comes to a third classic – but even this sleepy weary Keith Richards ballad (the first song he sings all the way through) never quite rises out of its drug stupor for long enough to become the sweet pretty romantic ballad it yearns to be. And ‘Monkey Man’ is the single stupidest song in the Stones’ canon, one where Mick Jagger does his gorilla impressions for four minutes and pretends he can get away with this because he’s singing about ‘drugs’. While Jagger has such swagger he can get away with all sorts of stupid ideas down the years (particularly on his solo albums), this one make him sound like he’s gone temporaily mad, orang-u-tangoed perhaps.
All that makes for an oddball album. There’s much to love about this record of course: that cover artwork is absolutely fantastic and so very Stones, taking what in other hands would be a very sweet idea and adding literal ‘layers’ of dark humour as they throw all sorts of unsavoury inedible material into the contents. It beats looking at a model pretending to be Mick Jagger in his underwear on ‘Sticky Fingers’ or the boring beige of ‘Beggar’s Banquet’s ‘invitation’ card anyway. The Stones play together superbly across this album. ‘Monkey Man’ aside Mick has never sounded better than he does on this album, living the darkness of ‘Gimme Shelter’ alongside singer Merry Clayton giving surely the best guest performance on any Stones album, sounding deliriously sarcastic on ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, strutting with feeling on ‘Midnight Gambler’ and owning ‘Live With Me’, laughing at himself about all his ‘real’ bad habits he hides behind for this faux respectable song. Even his vocal on ‘Monkey Man’ isn’t as stupid as it would have been for anyone else – at least he commits to this song and lives it. Keith too is on great form as the chief guitarist finding new ways to make Chuck Berry riffs sounds contemporary and pours out his soul on the sad suffering of ‘You Got The Silver’. New boy Mick Taylor doesn’t get much of a chance to shine but is already the Stones’ secret star, instantly getting the ‘ancient art of weaving’ so central to the Stones’ sound to come even though it’s a million years away from the dashes of exotic colour we’re used to hearing from Brian Jones. However this is in many ways the best Stones album for the rhythm section of Bill and Charlie who only sound better than here on live album ‘Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!’; there’s a crackle and fire between them as Bill sounds smug and upper class and Charlie sounds like an energetic brat, both chasing each other to hell across the album songs (in real life, of course, their characters are more the other way around!) ‘Gimme Shelter’ is their ultimate performance during their quarter century together in the same band, knocking lumps out of each other and sucking out all the ‘fun’ in a way that no other rhythm section could. The songs that work on this album also work very very well indeed and have become Stones standards, played more nights than not for the next forty years or so, for a reason.
However ‘Let It Bleed’ only sounds like an album to lean on as a milestone in Stones history: scratch under the surface and you have actually quite a messy inconsistent album by a band who should be on top of the world but for so many reasons feel crushed, under the weight of expectation, a world where The Beatles’ departure makes them the new de facto most important band in rock, just as inspiration is beginning to wane. Complete collapse is, across this album, only a few days away – and unwittingly ‘Let It Bleed’ ends up painting a far better portrait of a world in disarray than they perhaps expected. The least classics of the ‘classic’ era Stones albums, this one piggybacked on the fame and focus of the bookending tracks and if you scrutinise it fully is probably their weakest album since ‘Out Of Their heads’ as long ago as 1965. But then, the bands were out of their heads a lot during the making of it and in retrospect the shock is not that the Stones faltered but that they will be able to regain so much of their old swagger after the events behind-the-scenes whilst making this album despite a new line-up, a new record label with a whole new studio sound and a whole new decade that suddenly won’t seem as made for the Rolling Stones as the 1960s had been. Sometimes a record is entitled to be slightly less than parr – with a catalogue as bright as the Stones’ we can afford to let this one ‘bleed’.
‘Gimme Shelter’ – oddly mis-spelt as ‘Gimmie Shelter’ on original copies (The Stones were bad boys in all sorts of ways but they always knew how to spell!) – is the album’s masterpiece, a stunningly gritty song of doom, gloom and disaster. Usually when The Stones do depressing they do so with a cheeky smile, the lyrics of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ or the it-won’t-happen-here laughter of ‘Street Fighting Man’. But this is the one Stones song where there is no redeeming feature at all; this world is a dark and scary place where anything can happen and usually does. This song might just feature the best Keith Richards guitar riff after ‘Satisfaction’, those chords slashing futilely and powerlessly against the heaviest bass-drum interplay in Stones lore. There is no turning against this side as the listener gets swept along, even when a second Keith part (unusually playing lead) comes in and echoes the first. And that’s just the music: in terms of lyrics this song is despair and desperation personified: a storm is coming, war, rape and murder are ‘just a shot away’, mankind needs shelter from the dark forces that govern us. It feels like a Viking-style of dark forces is imminent and in a troubled 1969 hit by Vietnam protests and marches and Nixon acting like Trump’s older brother this song perfectly encapsulates the turbulence and restlessness of the times. The generation gap is no longer a gap – it’s a war – and as the 1960s comes to an end, with protests still ongoing, this is a last desperate struggle against the darkness. In an update of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ Beelzebub doesn’t need our sympathy anymore because he’s ‘won’ and there’s no way back from this. Even a last verse attempt to put a hippie twist on things (where love is ‘just a kiss away’) is fooling no one: this is a world where the darkness has won. In the middle of all this noise and confusion stands Mick, usually the loudest thing in the room so brash and confident but here scared and awkward, powerless to do anything to stop the madness he sees over the horizon. He’s joined by the quite brilliant Merry Clayton (not ‘Mary’ as she’s accidentally credited on first pressings) who scream-sings her way through the song as a scared, scalded cat, using her blues stylings to good use as she sounds like a scalded cat pleading to be put out of her misery. On any other song her singing might be over-the-top but here it ups the stakes even more as Mick tries to downplay things to sound like he’s trying to hold onto his sanity and it’s a shame both that the Stones never use her again and that she never had another ‘lead role’ with another band to match it (Merry is, though, an accomplished backing singer and one of the best in the business; a film was made about her life in 2013 named ‘Ten Feet From Stardom’). It’s a really hard part to get right and none of the numerous female backing singers who’ve attempted it in concert with the Stones have ever quite got it right, sounding either awkward or histrionic. This pair, though, are living the song as is everyone else in the room. This dark and evil song really starts this album off with a bang and it’s an incredibly prescient take on the dark days to come, recorded before both the death of Brian and Altamont, the storm clouds skittering round the band’s horizon that came to pass.
Alas ‘Love In Vain’ undoes much of that song’s hard work, being an overly pretty song by blues king Robert Johnson that’s in the country-rock vein of many of the band’s recent worst songs. Keith was clearly inspired by his growing friendship with ex-Byrd Gram Parsons in this period and adds many a country-rock twinge to this old blues song, but oddly it’s his triple-tracked acoustic, balalaika and steel guitar parts that all sound a bit ‘off’, as does Charlie’s too-simple drum track’; it’s Mick who lives this song and almost makes it work. The melody is clearly at one with the old blues songs the band started out playing (it’s an even slower variation of ‘Little Red Rooster’) and may have started life as a tribute of sorts to Brian. However the arrangement really doesn’t suit it: the country-rock twinges put this song too far from the authenticity of blues into the oddly exaggerated-ness of country music and even Keith pretending to hoot like a train on his slide guitar doesn’t add enough levity to make this song work as well as the tongue-in-cheek original. What ended up on the album is just a pale forgettable re-tread of ‘No Expectations’ where the narrator’s lover ends up leaving instead as he follows her to the station, where ‘suitcase in her hand’, she begs him to come home. Maybe the band had Brian in mind here, choosing a song he would surely have known and pleading with their mentor to ‘come home’ where he belonged out of his drug stupor, although as Mick and Keith were the ones who effectively threw him out this seems unlikely. They clearly knew where it came from too, so it seems odd that yet another mistake on the record’s original packaging credited this to ‘public domain’ – Robert Johnson’s estate sued the band for a pretty hefty sum the following year. The result though isn’t worth even a small share of the money and is a rare period Stones song that really drags, feeling like a lot longer than its 4:22 running time.
Everyone looked puzzled when the album came out with ‘Country Honk’ on it. This country version of the current Stones single out five months before (‘Honky Tonk Women’) was so obviously inferior many wondered if the band were making a joke. Actually the truth is a bit weirder than that: this is how the song sounded first and it was only after listening back to this cute but not very memorable song and realised that they could give more whallop that Keith and Mick made this song their next single. Worried about including their single on their album, against unwritten 1960s code, but wanting to promote both the band figured that they would release both versions simultaneously in July – only for rows with Allen Klein to rear their ugly head and delay this album till December when the single had long disappeared from the charts. There’s a charming version of Mick and Keith singing this in rehearsal for their Latin American tour of 2016 (as seen in the ‘Ole Ole’ documentary film), two voices and one guitar having a lot of fun and this so-so song sounds fabulous: pretty witty and gritty all at once. This version though sounds like a demo that nobody cared much for and overdubbed over the top is a most off-putting fiddle part from the usually excellent Byron Berline (an honorary member of Stephen Stills’ Manassas). Nobody seems to care for this version of the song which is slower and brings out all the clichés about honky tonk bars and good time country girls and far from wondering ‘how to ever get you off my mind’ is about as forgettable as the 1960s Stones ever became.
‘Live With Me’ might not be very smart, but it is very funny. There’s a terrific opening bass riff from Bill enjoying a particularly strong album before the first recording featuring Mick Taylor sparking off a classy Keith Richards acoustic riff and Charlie playing with the frenzied simplified anger of a punk rocker sometime before 1980. It makes for a great groove, especially when Keith’s pal (born the exact same day) Bobby Keyes makes his first of many Stones guest appearances on one of the few AAA saxophone solos I actually enjoy, twisting and turning and strutting in the song’s sultry breeze. However the lyrics find Mick on a rare off day. He’s playing the part of someone who to the general public in 1969 probably sounded quite threatening but by Stones standards is hilariously tame. This chap eats his tea as early as three o’clock (it’s usually between six and eight for most people, though ‘tea’ is a controversial word in British circles, as for upper class people it means ‘afternoon tea’ with cakes and for working class people it means ‘dinner’; yep we get confused by this too), eats meat that ‘must be hung up for a week’ to get hard and shoots water rats. The implication is that all of these strange customs, as accepted by the middle and upper classes of the day, are every bit as weird if not more so as wine, women and song. However Mick seems to have second thoughts about writing this song and first gets genuinely naughty for 1969 standards (‘Don’t you think there’s a place for us in between the sheets?’ – remember this is only two years after the band were torn a strip for suggesting they would like to ‘spend the night together’) and then gets weird with a ‘Jigsaw Puzzle’ style collage of images that try to paint a wicked picture of upper class society but don’t work quite as well: the butler’s having sex with the ‘whore’ of a cook and the chauffeur ‘flips’ when the maid ‘strips’. Listen out too for a damning verse portraying the off-spring of such debauchery, where children with ‘earphone heads’ (presumably big at the bottom and small on top) are locked in the nursery away from the eyes of the world. Mick’s performance is slightly ‘off’ too: this song would be funny if delivered with his usual big wide grin but he sounds as if he’s singing this one as if it’s all completely serious and he means every word of it, even the stupid ones. It’s a rare song by the glimmer twins where the words and music don’t go together but this one is it, even if one of the best band performances on the record nearly rescues it.
I’ve never quite understood title track ‘Let It Bleed’ either, which starts with an angry bass gulp and then turns into a straightforward singalong with many Beatle-ish overtones. The song starts as a warm, affectionate ballad about offering comfort and support, before turning into a typically cheeky Stones song full of innuendo (as the narrator uses his lover’s breasts to lean on, is told ‘there’ll always be a space in my parking lot’ and the narrator sings about in return their lover being able not to lean but to ‘cream’ on them) and then on again into a wickedly dark final verse about dying in a hospital, bleeding over a ‘junkie nurse’. It’s surely a spoof of The Beatles and their general niceness as so many fans have assumed down the years – but I’m less sure that’s it’s a spoof of ‘Let It Be’ given the dates and the title mibght just be a coincidence. Instead it sounds like a parody of ‘final Beatle statement’ ‘Abbey Road’ and its big extended songs with a crystal clear production (this is about the closest The Stones ever manage over at murky Decca), where the band end by offering their fans the uplifting hope that ‘in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make’; this sounds like a Stones version: the world is mad and we’re all going to end up injured bleeding sex-starved drug addicts anyway so at least band and fans can embrace each other! The oddly lifeless tune, which again sounds suspiciously like ‘Honky Tonk Women’, though knocks the song down a mark or two and this is by far the scrappiest band performance on the album, not light enough on its’ feet to be funny or played with enough care to move us. Maybe the band should have stuck with one idea of what this odd triple-song was meant to become and, err, ‘let it be’ after all.
‘Midnight Rambler’ is either the Stones being the Stones or the biggest example of the band pushing things too far. This song is clearly exciting: the band find a great groove, one beaten perhaps in epic terms only by ‘Can You Hear Me Knocking?’ on the next album, and after a slow start it really picks up speed with some classy Jagger harmonica, a very swampy gruff Keith guitar part and Charlie sounding like a train. Mick and Keith wrote it together during a rare holiday in Italy after reading about the exploits of the Boston Strangler Albert De Salvo who raped and murdered thirteen women in Boston between 1962 and 1964 before eventually confessing to his crimes. In typical spirit, The Stones try and turn this outlaw into a hero – but unlike their smart and educated Devil wondering why God gets all the breaks or the rebel dreaming of mass protest against an oppressive government, this is somehow hard to take. De Salvo wasn’t a strutting lothario who loved pleasuring women, he was a murderer who delighted in making his victims suffer and usually strangled them with their own nylon stockings, a symbol of his fear of their sexiness perhaps (though many of his victims were in their sixties and seventies). Hearing Mick getting into character and whipping his girl, prostrate on the floor, with his belt probably was a turn-on for some, but the lasciviousness and mischievous in Mick’s vocal sounds misplaced, as the band are messing with ‘real’ forces not abstract ones and they van’t get away with this one with a smile and a wink. The song ends on the painful lines ‘I’m going to stick my knife right down your throat baby – and it hurts!’ That’s the biggest problem with this song for me – it’s all so physical and so descriptive that it really does sound like it hurts and must have upset the victims of the real Boston Strangler badly (the band were quite open about where they got the idea, although they admit they don’t know why they wrote such a dark song during a holiday both Mick and Keith say was one of their best). There is, however, a cracking ‘blues opera’ as Keith called it going on here, with multiple stunning melodic sections stretched out to nearly seven minutes on record and the band – still used to recording compact material – do well at stretching out Grateful Dead style. The slow part in the middle where Mick teases his victim and tells her it’s ‘not just one of those…!’ before his whip cracks into her is impressively seductive and unsettling and the way the band kick in from the slow section back to the old groove, but twice as fast, is very much what a Stones song about rape would be doing, re-creating the sexual act in a frenzy of lust and passion. However it is a song that worked far better in concert with two guitarists bouncing off each other than it does in the studio with one overdubbed and the ‘Get Yer Ya Yas’ version from the following year knocks spots off this one. It’s also, perhaps, a song that might have been better kept for private use between consenting Stones couples than unleashed on the world. In retrospect it seems odd that Brian Jones’ last contribution comes here, on a maraca part we can’t even hear, as it’s the least Jones-like song on the album as far away from his original template for the early 1960s band as this album’s songs come. But then again it makes sense that the Stones would be so worried about this track that they’d hold on to it for the best part of a year before dusting it out and finishing it.
Keith’s pretty ‘You Got The Silver’ is a big breakthrough for him as a writer as he learns to stop hiding behind characters (Mick’s included) and write from the heart. It had been a complicated and confusing time for Keith: he was worried for Brian, but not so worried he could stop himself taking his girl away from him, ‘rescuing’ Anita Pallenberg who really didn’t deserve the temper tantrums and physical violence she got from Brian, but who really didn’t deserve losing his one last link to sanity to his best friend in such a callous way either. Typically Keith tries to write her a love song to express how he feels, but typically he can’t quite bring himself to be that direct, so what we get instead is a ‘you’ll do’ song that alternates between being the most romantic song in the Stones’ canon and something that’s deeply dismissive. Keith sings that his new girlfriend has his heart and soul, but also that she helps him find the gold and diamonds lurking inside his own personal ‘mine’, as if he loves her because she makes him feel great rather than because she is. He also adds that she’ll ‘buy some time’ in a line that’s quite cruel and wonders whether her laughter and smile really move him before declaring that he enjoys it whatever it is ‘so I don’t care!’ This song isn’t as openly cruel as Mick’s kiss-off songs to poor Jean Shrimpton (who deserved so much better) but isn’t far behind, ending on a histrionic ending where Keith loses his cool and shrieks at us as if he’s having a panic-attack and isn’t in love at all. The tune, though, really is warm and authentic and oozes romance, everything the words don’t. Worried about how he sounded on his first fully lead vocal on a Stones record, Keith at first handed this song to Mick who sounds a hundred times better on the version out on bootleg, starting warm and then getting increasingly jokey as the song progresses; Keith alas doesn’t have that experience or touch just yet. We don’t know why he took the song back again – perhaps he just couldn’t handle giving over a song about his love to his best friend at a time when his best friend had just agreed up to play her ‘boyfriend’ in the movie ‘Performance’, shot at the end of 1969, unable to hear Mick singing sweet nothings to his girl (actually Anita is one of the few women around the Stones scene that Mick didn’t at least try to woo!) The result is a song that sounds amazing, but isn’t quite the genuine romantic beast it wants you to think it is – and might perhaps have been better if it had come from the heart without so many misogynistic Stones twists inside it.
‘Monkey Man’ also sounds great: there’s a dark throbbing opening that sounds like this song is going to be a deep epic, with another fantastic Keith riff and some brilliantly inspired drumming from Charlie. But dear God those lyrics: ‘I’m a fleabit peanut monkey and all my friends are junkies!…I’m a cold Italian pizza and I could use a lemon squeezer!’Had Mick and Keith just had such a huge role that Jagger was resorting to sabotage one of Richards’ funkiest guitar riffs? Or did Mick just pick up on the comical inner gorilla in this muscly song rather than what he perhaps should have been fixating on, this song’s paranoid (even for this album!) melody which is all darted quick looks and a rising sense of panic? This could, in some parallel land be on a par with ‘Gimme Shelter’ but instead what could have been a major song of drama and angst has become the comedy relief. There is, thankfully, a pretty great instrumental break in the song when Keith’s slide, cut short by his stinging guitar riff, just somehow keeps on going and reaches up to the heavens as if trying to throw off the shackles of the scary world…but then Mick has to ruin it all by screaming ‘I’m a monkey!’ like he’s just puffed several thousand cigarettes that day and has been devolved back to primate stage. The result is a song that sounds good until you start paying attention and realise that, yes, this song really is that embarrassing, one that starts off as ‘2001: A Space Oddysey’ and ‘Planet Of The Apes’ and ends up a cartoon. Shoulda been a B-side.
By contrast is ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want?’ even by the same band? Thoughtful, complex and open to multiple interpretations, this song genuinely sounds grand and epic. It even starts with the sound of the London Bach Choir, who were reported before the album sessions to be taking part with gusto, enthusiastic about embracing such a ‘mainstream’ band – however they pretty much wrote off their links after hearing the album and deciding that they didn’t want to be associated with so much ‘evil’ (what did they think was going to happen after ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ alone?!) However this is a rare case of a Stones song you can imagine another band doing (though oddly few people ever have covered this song over the years, perhaps because of its length?) If ‘Satisfaction’ was the band’s anthem for disaffected youths then this is their similar anthem for disaffected twenty-somethings living in a world that doesn’t work the way they thought it did when they were children. The narrator starts the song watching a girl he loves from afar, so unlike the usual go-out-and-grab-‘em Stones philosophy. Knowing that she’s about to leave for a ‘footloose man’ whose going to treat her badly (is this Keith writing about Brian and Anita?), the narrator travels with her one last to a demonstration where they chant about the oppression of society. This time, though, they know that there is no easy fix – all they’re trying to do is make themselves heard so that another faction of society gets shafted for a change instead of ‘theirs’ because there isn’t enough to go around. After that they take in the sight of ‘Mother’s Little Helper’, queuing up for the anti-depressants they need to get them through the day (complete with jokey reference to ‘Mr Jimmy’ who looked ‘pretty ill’ – it’s meant to be producer Jimmy Miller who was indeed struggling with drug addiction after a year of being around the Stones but will be around until 1973).
By the end of the song, though, the narrator realises that what he’s dreamed for all his life – his perfect girl – is no such thing and has only been pretending, breaking his heart with her chameleon skills and her ‘blood stained hands’. No wonder, then, that after every verse the narrator keeps coming back to the same place: that you can’t always get what you want or by the sound of it ever get what you want, but that sometimes you get what you need – that the problem lies not with what you have but with the falseness of what you desire. It’s the old ‘be careful of what you wish for’ philosophy but written in such a way that it sounds big and profound, applicable of all things in life. By 1969 The Stones have learnt the hard way that dreams of stardom and success come at a price: with a dead guitar player, a manager whose guts they hate and a society trying to lock them away on trumped up charged out of fear you can see why this song might sound so heartfelt. By 1970 being in the Rolling Stones comes with a ginormous price tag and as such I’ve always wondered if this was either a ‘farewell’ song to Brian (you can hear a particularly glorious and tongue-in-cheek version of this song performed at the Rolling Stones Circus in December 1968 with Brian playing along and added passionate Jagger screams as he howls this song at the stoned dancing audience like a man possessed) or a ‘warning’ song to Mick Taylor (who arrived too late to do much to this recording but is thought to be on it thanks to the marvel of overdubs – if so, it’s a warning he’ll take to heart, quitting the band in 1974 for the sake of his health after joining the Stones as a tee-total vegetarian and ending it a drug and booze swilling addict). The bill that comes with living for too long in a crazy world without any ‘shelter’, this is a glorious downbeat finale to the album and the 1960s from a band who have several good reasons to be afraid of the future. It is, though, also just a fine song that says much and brings much comfort in a way that few Stones songs ever do, with a stunning tune and a gorgeous performance where even the posh choir ‘fit’, demonstrating that the title phrase applies to us all, rich or poor and that we’re all pawns in a game of fate’s choosing we don’t quite understand. Mr Jimmy’s arrangement on this song is also note-perfect, a mourning trumpet lick the perfect counterpart to the noisy thrash of the solo where even the choir cut loose. The Stones have learnt how to do long songs now, building with every line and verse and have never sounded more evolved or wise.
It’s just a shame that the band had to spend so much of this album when they had so much talent at their fingertips acting like monkeys – literally. The fantastic first and last tracks have really coloured this album for many fans and reviewers, to the point where this record full of monkey noises, poor blues covers and rapists ended up being voted Rolling Stone Magazine’s 32nd greatest album of all time (admittedly they do have a thing about the Stones from the title on down, but seriously? In contrast even other fan favourites‘Beggar’s Banquet’ got to #58 and ‘Sticky Fingers’ only got to #63, while ‘Exile On Main Street’ didn’t make the top 500 list at all. Surely some mistake?! This was, though, The Rolling Stones’ year in many ways, when they were forever in the news thanks to the death of Brian and Altamont, while the end of The Beatles made this album matter more than most to fill the void, not just at the time of release but into a 1970s where the fab four didn’t exist. This album was going to be popular whatever it did as long as it dipped its toes in the black and dangerous waters society seemed to be swimming in across 1969 and the first and last tracks are every bit as epic and career-defining as fans hoped; it’s the filler in the middle that makes this a less exciting Stones sandwich than other offerings. More bloody mess than bleeding heart, this is an album that does what fans wanted it to do, but not much more – unless hearing Mick Jagger as a monkey is your thing of course. Better is to come.