Darkness at the Edge of the Decade: The Rolling Stones Masterpiece Let It Bleed at 50
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
I'll go smash down all your plate glass windows
Put my fist through your stairway doors
Well I'm a-talkin' bout the midnight rambler
The one you never seen before
Dread is universal.
Dread doesn’t have a special preference for generation, race, gender or economic standing. Dread is a deep-seated and all-encompassing part of the human psyche. We know dread when we see it, hear it, feel it. It is both a slow burn and a flash. It will not be ignored. It demands its time and it will find its mark. Dread works across all fields of human emotion and thus creativity, genre, art form. In the realm of rock and roll there is but one searing example of the music, lyricism, and branding of dread that stands above the rest. It was and remains the soundtrack for a tipping point in the most tumultuous period of the late twentieth century and it would be a blues band from a suburb of London, England that aroused its spirit through overridden amplifiers, distorted mouth harps, dark, jungle drums and defiant howls above the din. On the fifth day of December 1969 the Rolling Stones packaged dread in nine songs and called it Let It Bleed. During the album’s nearly yearlong making the band’s founding member would be found dead at the bottom of a swimming pool and one day after its release, in the mist of the frozen northern California hills, the demons were loosed in a death knell to the decade that had begun with so much promise.
Let It Bleed opens with perhaps the most devastating music made by modern composers. The dread is saturated into its opening notes. A haunting guitar arpeggio creeps from a distant echo, interrupted slightly by a concussive drum roll and then a hypnotic Cuban güiro that denotes the building storm to come. Serenaded by eerie angelic voices reminiscent of a Greek chorus warning of approaching terror, a deep pulsing bass warms to the growing volume, which increases with each pass, accented by a single piano chord from a lost requiem. It is witchy, intense, terrifying stuff. And that’s before the tormented cry of a blues guitar lead fills the remaining aural space. The beat coalesces, driving this swarm of badness into a voice of guttural ruination, “Ooooohhh…a storm is threat'ning / My very life today / If I don't get some shelter / Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away”.
“Gimme Shelter” is the funereal clarion that shuttered the feel-good 1960s and sounded more like a ragged voice crying out from the primeval wilderness than anything resembling rock and roll. It may well be the finest opening salvo of a record offered in the golden age of the rock album. For certain it is the purest distillation of the band that made it and a rude examination of the time in which it simultaneously expresses and bottles in all its bitter angst. The song’s refrain, “War, children, it's just a shot away / It's just a shot away” is sung as if a tantric mantra, summoning darkness with each note. An incantation of horrors, not unlike Poe’s raven crowing out its soot black “Nevermore.” The second verse, pairing the natural disasters of flood with fire, describes an uncontrollable blaze sweeping over streets like “a red coal carpet,” a premonition of the second chorus of “Rape, murder! / It's just a shot away.” All the while the drums, now calling to mind the death and destruction of the lyrics, thunderclap with fierce burrs, as a slithering guitar solo conjures gods and monsters. Yet none of it fully prepares the ear for a woman’s voice, so visceral, so commanding, so unerringly naked with raw brimstone of the bloody pulpit its anguished screams of all the rape, murder, and war overwhelms her. Her voice cracks under the searing pressure of its sound, followed by a background yelp offering its plaudits in time for a final verse of “…gimme shelter / Or I'm gonna fade away.”
The song’s final lines, “Love…it’s just a kiss away,” appear hollow in the wake of it all. It may be far too late for any of that, but the reminder is stark. More times than not love is not “all you need.” Shelter. Safety. Survival. These are the essential aspects of life against the torrent outside. There is no escaping it. The song lives inside of it. The music reflects it. With this chilling overture, Let It Bleed has already begun to change the narrative from a decade awash in unlimited freedom to a world with the hourglass running out. You can hear day turning to night. And it portends to be a long period of darkness – dreary and foreboding. What the hell is happening?
I saw her today at the reception
In her glass was a bleeding man
She was practiced at the art of deception
Well, I could tell by her blood-stained hands
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
By the winter of 1969 the counterculture, which had boomed during the youth explosion of the early part of the decade, fueled by a post-war euphoria that had been building in the Western world for some time, had fractured into deep divisions. The Summer of Love, just two years past, with all its hippy solidarity, color-rich fashions, free love and psychedelic mind expansion had turned into a mishmash of itinerant political myopia, much of it the result of a senseless war in Vietnam taking hundreds of young American lives a week, an exacerbated racial and communal strife, and the blunt realization that the wide-eyed reverie of changing the planet for the better may have been more folly than naivete. Street riots, drug overdoses, radical underground anti-establishment fury began to overshadow the great egalitarian dream of a global village. As a metaphor for this disintegration, The Beatles, an aural and visual monolith that altered the DNA of the period in the early 60s, was coming apart at the seams due to insular jealousies and personal differences that by year’s end resulted in a phalanx of lawsuits. The voice of this upstart generation, Bob Dylan, who preceded The Fab Four in redefining youth entertainment as social defiance disappeared into the woods after what was rumored to be a near-death motorcycle accident to emerge with a trite country album. For a few weeks in August men walked on the moon, while in Los Angeles, a bizarre desert cult brutally murdered strangers spreading bloody messages borne of Beatles lyrics all over, followed days later by nearly a half-million refugees from the movement decamped in a sleepy hamlet in upstate New York for three days of music, libations and mud.
There was more than a sense that the forward motion of a new world order of peace and love had wandered aimlessly into several and varied dead ends. A generation of seekers found refuge in like-minded separatists, a distinction more comforting than universality: The Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, Women’s Lib, the Yippies and the Hippies hunkered down with their battle plans. The fingers once pointed squarely at the antiquated and unhip, who oppressed the tuned-in crowd, had discovered enemies within the ranks. Paranoia. Despair. Dread. Where there were once infinite possibilities, now seemed a cruel trap.
As for The Rolling Stones, this is where they had existed, some may argue thrived in long before the whole thing went off the rails. This was their sweet spot.
Well I hope we're not too messianic
Or a trifle too satanic
But we love to play the blues
Now considered something of an institution and for decades the greatest rock and roll band in the world, The Rolling Stones were for most of the 1960s riding the second wave of the rock and roll era in the shadow of the aforementioned Beatles and Dylan. Mostly content to be turned into villains by their young manager, Andrew Loog Oldman, lead singer Mick Jagger, a razor thin, swollen-lipped economic school dropout and his rotten hovel mates, Keith Richards, a pimply faced greased-topped Chuck Berry freak and the band’s founder, Brian Jones of the coiffed blonde mane, sharp suits and an alarming number of illegitimate children from several women, formed the perfect brat-cool trio. The band’s impenetrable rhythm section was made up of the less photogenic and quieter ones, Bill Wyman on bass and Charlie Watts, a jazz drummer slumming for side cash. Sold to London clubs as blues purists, The Stones began slowly recording their own songs, some early ones were actually kind of good, always featuring raunchy, backing tracks with macho bloodletting lyrics. But there was more notoriety from pissing on gas stations, flicking boogers at photographers and causing riots at concerts than making groundbreaking musical statements or even radio hits.
“There was solace in [the blues’] menacing laments – wicked women, oppressive surroundings, a love affair with danger, evil drink and the devil himself.”
When The Beatles hit America, it was the most important cultural event of the century. No one noticed when The Stones showed up here, which they duly embraced, running to record their second album entirely in the confines of Chess Records in Chicago to capture the grit and vibe of the old masters like Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Etta James and Muddy Waters, after whose song they would name the band. In the blues, The Stones found their raison d'être. There was solace in its menacing laments – wicked women, oppressive surroundings, a love affair with danger, evil drink and the devil himself. Approaching the middle of the decade Mick and Keith wrote their own defiant musical statement, this one about trying and failing miserably to get laid. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was not “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “The Times They Are a Changin’,” affirmations of innocent romance or a progressive future, it was a raucous, fuzz-raw bitch-fest about the decay of society through media, advertising, and women enduring that time of the month. It went to #1 across the Western hemisphere and dominated the summer of 1965. They did it again almost immediately with “Get Off My Cloud,” which duly ignored Flower Power and all the “Everybody get together and love one another…right now!” stuff and replaced it with a shut the fuck up and get out of my face you pain in the asses rollick.
When The Stones finally gave in and began to use the late-sixties sonic edict of combining exotic instrumentation with wispier themes, “Ruby Tuesday” told the story of a femme fatale’s rather blasé soul-crushing habit of disappearing. It well may be the coldest depiction of a woman not particularly interested in hanging with you in pop music history and ushered in the sort of grimacing melancholia as the relentlessly mocking “19th Nervous Breakdown,” commentary on parents on drugs, “Mother’s Little Helper,” and the hypocrisy of the burgeoning counterculture, “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing in the Shadows?” with the prescient doom-struck line, “You take your choice at this time / The brave old world or the slide to the depths of decline.” This period of pouring ice water all over the groovy set culminated in what was either the work of pure genius or a disjointed self-absorbed flop, and since its release has been heralded as both. Regardless, Satanic Majesties Request did one thing for The Rolling Stones; it marked the end of one period where they were bouncing in and out of the musical spotlight and heralded the most prolific run of any rock band ever, cementing a damn fine legacy.
Before any of that, though, were the drug busts. There were more than a few, and all of them major international stories. Brian Jones, once an invisible symbol of fierce, egoist youth, was broken by them, both mentally and physically. It only fueled his Herculean intake of every mind-numbing substance available to sixties rock stars. Mick and Keith dabbled, even celebrated the drug culture, but it served only to allow the British authorities, and the press, to make them easy targets to set up. One major bust landed them in prison. During the trial Richards famously told the judge and all of England he was not “interested in your petty morals.” Jagger wept. One newspaper decided this was madness and published an editorial titled after an Alexander Pope poem about going through a lot of trouble for pretty much nothing. "Who Breaks a Butterfly Upon a Wheel?" accomplished the opposite of the bust’s original intent, to make an example of anti-establishment figures. In fact, it instantly turned the targets into counterculture martyrs. Both Jagger and Richards were set free in mere days and dramatically transformed from faux pop stars into real-life outlaws.
So, it made perfect sense that while the world came apart from London to Paris to Chicago to Memphis with protests, riots, insurrections and assassinations in 1968, The Stones found their footing. “I was born in a crossfire hurricane…and I howled at my ma in the pouring rain!” shouted Jagger over an indestructible guitar riff by Richards and the band was off running with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” who was quite apparently a “gas, gas, gas.” The single reclaimed the top of the charts, but more importantly returned The Stones to their blues-based fist-clench fever strut. Jagger, having been given Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita by actress/pop star girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, wrote a folk song about Satan in the first person. When The Stones were done with it, “Sympathy for the Devil” – all voodoo congas, supple bass lines, screeching guitar solos, and Jagger bellowing apocalyptic yowls from the netherworld – would kick-off their supernatural run of greatness with Beggar’s Banquet, an album filled with country blues and disturbing images of child groupies, booze-addled working class matrons, moonshine goobers, and with “Street Fighting Man,” a revolutionary call to vengeance, “Hey, so my name is called Disturbance / I'll shout and scream / I'll kill the king, I'll rail at all his servants.” And with that, Mick Jagger made another transformation from sex symbol emeritus to fiery demon radical and The Rolling Stones provided the template for the American tour and the album to come the following year.
Yeah, we all need someone we can bleed on
Yeah but if you want it, well you can bleed on me
“Let It Bleed”
Let It Bleed began in earnest at London’s Olympic Studios in February of 1969. The band had recorded what would be the basis for the record’s final song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” late in ’68 but was not considered for the project until later in the year. For all intents and purposes the classic five-piece line-up with silent partner, Ian Stewart on piano, was reduced to four. Brian Jones was almost completely incapacitated throughout the project, shuffling in and out of the studio – when he did show up – as if an apparition from another time; dressed sloppily in now-dated sequins and furs, floppy hippy hats and Carnaby Street boots. His once sheen of blonde hair a matted, frazzled mess. Keith Richards, as he did in the previous record, took over nearly all the guitar duties and, as arranger of most of the material, worked with returning producer Jimmy Miller. A drummer, with a keen sense of the band’s strengths, Miller rode Keith’s preternatural rhythmic mastery like never before. He would stick around to helm the rest of this incredible run of Stones music while slowly becoming a full-blown heroin addict. Keith was already a junkie. And would be for another decade. Added to this, Richards began an obsession with firearms, swords, fast cars, and a general interest in mayhem.
Joining the band for the first time would be Bobby Keys, a Texan sideman saxophonist, who once played with the legendary Buddy Holly and would go on to adorn many of the era’s finest rock recordings and tour with The Stones until his death in 2014. Also bolstering the proceedings was another session master, pianist and songwriter Leon Russell, who would also help arrange the horns for a track, and Nicky Hopkins, who had breathed life into songs on the previous Stones album and would tour with the band through the 1970s before his own drug habit took him down. Slide guitarist supreme, Ry Cooder, sat in, and Al Kooper, whose famous turn as walk-on organist when he couldn’t even play the thing on Dylan’s epic, “Like a Rolling Stone,” took a pass on a French horn part. This group of professional studio cats and road warriors, along with the incredible contributions of a pregnant Merry Clayton, whose incendiary duet vocals on “Gimme Shelter” culminating in her middle-eight high intensity lead that cracked with raw emotion – Clayton later claimed it caused her to miscarriage – provided a wider spectrum for Miller’s vision. The loss of Jones was hardly noticed.
“Same goes for Keith Richards’ ungodly rhythm chops on this record. They never sounded grittier and more effusive. They move beyond mere guitar. They become a personality, a character that would dominate the rest of rock’s evolution.”
Through the winter and early spring, the songs came fast and furious and the late-night sessions got them down on Olympia’s state-of-the-art eight-track board. The band cooked as a live in-studio unit like never before. Jagger’s blues harp playing might be his most mature and evocative. On tracks like “Gimme Shelter” and especially the operettic “Midnight Rambler” he uses the instrument as a mood setter, wailing plaintively just behind the action. What Miller does to Charlie Watts’s drum sound is inspired – a whoomphing kick, scintillating cymbals and a crackling snare drum become the pillars on which each song’s temple rely. What made Watts one of the finest, if not the finest, of rock/blues percussionists is all over Let It Bleed. Listen to the bass drum to snare symphony in “Live With Me,” his instinctively dynamic work on “Midnight Rambler,” the dire cautionary pounding off-beats of “Gimme Shelter,” and what amounts to downright funky shit on “Monkey Man.” Same goes for Keith Richards’ ungodly rhythm chops on this record. They never sounded grittier and more effusive. They move beyond mere guitar. They become a personality, a character that would dominate the rest of rock’s evolution. It would be the first time Richards would use his now legendary open-G tuning that make Stones recordings from this era so unique. Keith becomes Keef the Human Riff on Let It Bleed, from tenacious one-chord pronouncements to ruthless progressions that rip the flesh from your face; the type of playing he would never back away from for the next fifty years. This Keith Richards would create hundreds of thousands of imitators from Aerosmith to Guns N’ Roses and beyond.
Miller’s masterwork may ultimately be on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – a track he played drums on when Charlie couldn’t quite get the groove – with its London Bach Choir, three incredible background soul singers, Nanette Workman, Doris Troy and Madeline Bell, and an arrangement so challengingly unique The Stones dared never play it this way live for decades until they had one of those ten-piece touring ensembles. The song also features Miller’s incredibly rich and sultry recording of acoustic guitars on Let It Bleed, which rivals anything from the era and was studied by country-rock producers in the coming decade. There is an acute sadness and yearning in Richards’ strumming that act as brush strokes to the more aggressive songs. Additional tracks elucidating the softer side of The Stones where the guitars shimmer include a cover of Delta Blues god Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” a wise-ass hootenanny, “Country Honk” and the sleepless dawn ballad, “You Got the Silver.”
The Stones were making their finest record in a then eight-year career, and they knew it. During the sessions that May, a twenty year-old guitarist named Mick Taylor sat in for some overdubs and never left. Formerly of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, an outfit that produced only two of the most influential and spectacular guitar players in England, Eric Clapton and Peter Green, the young Taylor was already a virtuoso, and, most significantly for The Stones and its management not hooked on a cadre of drugs, falling apart, and due to Brian Jones’ series of arrests, which rendered him unable to obtain a visa to tour the United States, free and clear. It is Taylor not Jones who plays on “Honky Tonk Women,” the second of the most important singles released during these halcyon days of the band’s musical resurrection. A more accessible version of the aforementioned “Country Honk” that would remain an album cut, the single was a stirring prologue to the sounds Miller was getting at Olympic in those monumental months – come-hither drums anchoring one of the tastiest licks in the band’s canon, a wonderfully fun vocal and a chorus for the ages. “Honky Tonk Women” cemented the promise of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”: The Rolling Stones were truly back and better than ever. They slid into this period of turmoil and strife as if it was created specifically for them. “Honky Tonk Women” went to #1 on both sides of the pond. And most of all it convinced the rest of the band that Brian Jones absolutely had to go.
When the train left the station
It had two lights on behind
Whoa, the blue light was my baby
And the red light was my mind
“Love in Vain”
Jones’ descent in The Rolling Stones from founder, unchallenged ruler, most popular member, beautiful young star of the swingin’ sixties, the musical genius that could and did play a multitude of instruments on all of their best work into a paranoid, mean-spirited, drug-frenzied volatile basket case was swift. Within a few short years his entire world disintegrated. The societal upheavals surrounding the band permeate every groove on Let It Bleed, but it is Brian Jones’ downfall that underline them. The storms of “Gimme Shelter” had been visited upon poor, shattered Brian; he could indeed be the “footloose man” looking for his drug connection in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and he most certainly fit the description in “Monkey Man” when Jagger blithely sings, “I'm a fleabit peanut monkey / And all my friends are junkies” before hedging his bet with, “That's not really true.” And in a rather on-the-money tell-tale moment, Keith Richards, his fellow guitar slinger, sings with a scowl of disdain in “You Got the Silver” – his first complete lead vocal on a Stones number – “Hey baby, what's in your eyes? / Is that the diamonds from the mine? / What's that laughing in your smile? / I don't care / No, I don't care.” Ironically, it was Richards who rescued Brian’s wild German “It Girl,” Anita Pallenberg from Jones’ incessant physical and psychological abuses on a 1967 Moroccan trip that saw the two become lovers and leave a lasting chasm in Jones’ already damaged heart. ▲
James Campion is an essayist, music journalist, contributing editor to The Aquarian Weekly, and author of seven published works including Shout It Out Loud - The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon and Accidentally Like a Martyr - The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon. His podcast with Adam Duritz, “Underwater Sunshine,” concentrates on new and classic music of all genres; the two hosts curate a bi-annual music festival in NYC each year.