Digging into the anniversary box commemorating Let It Bleed
I have a friend whose English wife, in the middle of a wide-ranging musical conversation, once spontaneously and instinctively exclaimed, “I loved The Beatles, but the Rolling Stones scared the hell out of me.”
Excuse me dear lady but that, as they say, was the point. If one group was a shooting star, a not-so-merry band of pop geniuses; the other, grounded in the blues, the dirtier the better, rose from the muck of drug busts and legal wrangling—and a founding member who was sinking fast—to become the biggest rock band ever.
When Keith and Mick made the turn, focused on success, and got serious about songwriting —as The Beatles dissolved—the result was a run of four albums from 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet, through Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1970) and finally, Exile on Main Street (1972) that stand as their richest burst of creativity. They remain ageless collections, rock art masterpieces that will forever resonate.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Let It Bleed, the final studio album owned by ABKCO Records, that label has again produced a classy, fantastic sounding reissue. Available on CD, LP and digital download/stream, this collection comes with a reproduction of the 1969 7” mono single of “Honky Tonk Women”/ ”You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” in a picture sleeve, three 12” x 12” hand-numbered replica-signed lithographs printed on embossed archival paper, and a full-color 23” x 23” poster with restored art from the original 1969 Decca Records package. After the remastered sound, the best part of this reissue for collectors is the 80-page hardcover book with photography from Ethan Russell that comes with the Deluxe Edition. The only fault here lies in the lack of outtakes, live tracks or other unreleased material.
But that doesn’t obscure the original album’s genius. Nor the old tussle over which of the classic four is truly the finest Stones studio album. The preceding album, Beggar’s Banquet, is certainly the rawest of the four. Plagued by drug busts and court dates, Beggar’s with its original cover art of a nasty public toilet and aggressive tunes like “Stray Cat Blues” and “Street Fighting Man,” was the sound of the band—to use a uniquely Stonesian term—getting their Ya Ya’s out.
While it may contain exotic instrument’s like tanpura and table thanks to Brian Jones who was rapidly working his way out of the band thanks to tragic demons and the rise of Jagger and Richards as a songwriting team, it also makes the risky move, once the schtick of American bluesman Robert Johnson of explicitly connecting the band with old scratch himself in “Sympathy for the Devil.” If innocent English girls weren’t scared before, they certainly were after hearing lines like, “When the Blitzkrieg raged/And the bodies stank.”
After the legal storm had passed and Brian was eased out in favor of Mick Taylor, the Glimmers settled in to write songs—anthems even. The album was anchored by “Gimme Shelter,” and in contrast to the outright debauchery of “Sympathy for the Devil,” a bit of sound advice to live by set to music: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Thought by many to be the Stones most transcendent number, the one with the most universally meaningful message—my candidates for that honor all reside on Exile but that’s for another day—”You Can’t Always Get…” does display a new seriousness that seems to fit their then growing ambitions to reach the same rarified poetic heights as John and Paul.
At the same time they reminded everyone of their bedrock influences with a gorgeous cover of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” which contains one of Jagger’s finest vocal performances ever recorded and their own sprawling blues opus, “Midnight Rambler.” Opening with a line about “bad habits,” the randy “Live with Me,” is a fresh example that reaching for artistry hadn’t dulled their appreciation for bad boy pleasures. And “Monkey Man,” with the piano flourish to start, chunky guitar riff and Jagger’s mad barking like an enraged chimp at the end is just savage genius.
Followed by Sticky Fingers and the glories of Exile on Main Street, Let It Bleed at 50 remains a masterpiece that defines the timeless endurance of this band.
AUDIO: Rolling Stones Let It Bleed (full album)