Growing up, I was always a Beatles fan. Unlike in cut scenes from Pulp Fiction, I don’t believe you’re either a Beatles or Elvis man. Instead, like most, I think you’re either a Beatles or Stones man. While I still love the Beatles, my Libran scales have tipped more towards Jagger and Richards, especially after hearing the majesty that is Let it Bleed.
You can’t talk about this album and not relate it to the time it was released, nor talk about the prophetic nature of the earth shattering opening track, “Gimme Shelter.” Crawling out of the gate stealthily with an echo guitar, then the eerie `ooooo’s’ of the background vocals, and the Latin percussion sound (guiro?) that pervades, the song picks up speed and volume to lead into some of the most, and I’m sorry for this adjective as it has been used again and again to describe this song but there’s not many synonyms for it, apocalyptic lyrics ever written. With the album being released just one month before the fated Altamont concert, amidst the ultraviolent images of fighting in Vietnam being shown on television, and the body count following each news broadcast, the song quickly and permanently became part of the soundtrack of that time and generation. Rarely are images of Vietnam, Kent State, Altamont, or any other violent tragedy of the sixties and early seventies shown without having “Gimme Shelter” played over them. Mary Clayton’s high register accompaniment of the choruses lends the perfect sense of desperation and pain. Having been released in November of 1969, Let it Bleed was both literally and figuratively the signal album of the end of the sixties and the end of what the decade represented.
“Love in Vain,” a classic Robert Johnson blues song follows, maybe so as to not overload the listener after such a monumental track as “Gimme Shelter.” The track is fantastic, but in a completely different way and cannot be compared with even the songs surrounding it. “Country Honk” is just what the title suggests, a fiddle heavy countrified version of their classic “Honky Tonk Women.” “Live With Me” continues the Stones’ dirty blues and gets all `sexified’ as Jagger sings of threesomes and the butler and the maid doing it in the pantry. “Let it Bleed” goes further in that vein and has become one of the Stones’ best and most recognizable tracks. Jagger’s drunken delivery is more convincing than Jackie Chan’s as he invites the `rider’ to bleed, cream, and come all over him. Yikes. I’m blushing as I type. References to `coke and sympathy’ add the drugs with the sex and make it a song for the ages, invoking the holy triumvirate.
“Midnight Rambler” became another staple for the band. Angry and violent, even more so than the famous opener, the song is serial killer fantasy fodder set to varying speeds of blues riffs. “You Got the Silver” is the first song in which Keith Richards takes over vocal duties, and sounds like a combination of Bob Dylan and his Glimmer Twin, Jagger himself. While his singing may leave a little something to be desired, his slide guitar work, making the song a little country mixed with the requisite blues, is excellent. “Monkey Man” is a vastly underrated song and one of my favorites from the album. Bill Wyman’s vibes are part of what makes this song so powerful. Add in Richards’ staccato guitars and Jagger’s penchant for the dramatic and the song gains further elevation. The lyrics are more of the same found throughout Let it Bleed, namely referencing violence, drugs, and sex.
I’m a fleabit peanut monkey
All my friends are junkies
That’s not really true
Well, I hope we’re not too messianic
Or a trifle too satanic
We love to play the blues
Just as “Gimme Shelter” became synonymous with particular images from the period, “Monkey Man” was used to great effect in the movie Goodfellas, played during a coke preparation scene.
Finally, time has to be given to one of the best songs ever written, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. Starting out with the London Bach Choir singing the first verse and chorus before Jagger echoes it, the song resonates with restrained energy. As the acoustic guitar joins Jagger, we sit in his presence to listen to the story he is about to tell. The emergence of Al Kooper’s organ, which can also be found on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, turns the song into a spiritual, with Jagger playing the part of the vigorous preacher, warning us about the realities of life. The lyrics act as the second part of “Gimme Shelter”, although more of the uplifting and hopeful side. Thank you Stones for placing it at the end!
I went down to the demonstration
To get my fair share of abuse
Singin’, `We’re gonna vent our frustration
If we don’t, we’re gonna blow a 50-amp fuse
The truly transcendent moment of this song comes at 4:30 into the song, after a buildup of instruments and then the choir comes back in like a ray of hope. Then again at 6:15 when the choir comes back yet again and Kooper’s organ goes crazy, leading the choir into escalating notes that seem to stretch up to heaven as then the drums kick in faster before the song starts to fade out. We can finally relax as we know we have ended on the best note possible, the end of seven and a half minutes of glory that are difficult to forget and make us want to push play yet again, either listening to the last track on repeat, or listening to the whole damn album all over again.
This album, the sister to the equally great Beggars Banquet, was the last that Brian Jones would contribute to, having recorded only two of its songs before his death and replacement by Mick Taylor. That fact combined with the troubled times of the late sixties made this a fairly dark yet brilliant album. Never have the Rolling Stones sounded so concise, sinister, and crazy. Some may say that the combined genres that made up Exile on Main Street lent it to become the Stones’ best album, but for me, it’s Let it Bleed, being specifically Jagger’s shining moments, and turning him into a true sex symbol frontman with a dark side.
Similar Albums/ Albums Influenced:
The Beatles- Abbey Road
Derek & the Dominos- Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs
The Rolling Stones- Beggars Banquet