In doing my research for this post, I was pleased to learn that upon its release, Let It Bleed temporarily knocked Abbey Road out of the #1 spot on the U. K. charts. These little bursts of human sanity are tiny treasures I cherish to temper my general skepticism about the aesthetic perceptions of the species. Let It Bleed is clearly the better album once you throw sentiment to the wind.
Many listeners consider Let It Bleed a rather dark album, in part due to content, in part due to its association with Altamont (more a matter of bad timing than anything else) and in part due to Martin Scorsese including “Gimme Shelter” in three of his cinematic bloodbaths. While “Midnight Rambler” is about as dark and creepy as it gets, I think the overall impression of “apocalyptic” is overstating the case. Except for their brief detour into the flower power scene in 1967, The Stones had always been more realistic about the world as is, and some of their best songs contain insightful social commentary. To me, the fundamental message of Let It Bleed is, “Get off your cloud and get real. The world isn’t as pretty as you’d like it to be.”
Let It Bleed also reflects the band’s growing belief in their renewal and in their future direction. There is no question in my mind that the decreasing presence and mid-recording departure of Brian Jones significantly improved group dynamics, as by this point he was an unreliable distraction. Jones only appears on two tracks, and neither contribution is particularly significant. When The Stones asked him to leave shortly before his death, they were simply giving in to the evidence that the relationship wasn’t working anymore. Making a break with the past is always an act of liberation, and much of Let It Bleed is infused with a breezy confidence that balances the occasional forays into darkness and realism (and some poor choices here and there).
“Gimme Shelter,” with its marvelously arranged introduction calling up images of the moonless nights and whistling winds that heighten human anxiety before a gathering storm, is fundamentally existentialist at heart. What I mean by that is that Jagger and Richards present the human race with a stark choice: we can live in a world where rape, murder and war are just a shot away, or where love is just a kiss away. What kind of world do you want? The lyrics lean strongly towards the violent aspect of the choice at first, in part because of the violence of the times and in part to shock people out of naive idealism. Producer Jimmy Miller’s insistence that the song called for female vocal support resulted in the brilliant decision to bring in Merry Clayton, whose vocal adds even more fire to the throbbing rhythms that drive the track. “Gimme Shelter” has lost none of its relevance over the years; the same stark choice stands before the human race today. Lately, with all the gun violence in America and the transformation of war into a sick video game, I find myself feeling more than ever the need for shelter from all the craziness that surrounds us. “Gimme Shelter” is really resonating with me right now.
If they hadn’t floored me with “Gimme Shelter,” they certainly would have accomplished that with the best cover of a Robert Johnson song I’ve ever heard, the mournful “Love in Vain.” They handle this song as gently as a mother handles a newborn baby, something rare and precious. The arrangement is simple and supportive; the urge to add a few frills that would ruin some of their later efforts in this genre is completely suppressed. It’s a moment of love and respect for a simple and beautiful sliver of poetry and for the man who wrote it.
“Country Honk” follows, a hillbilly version of the recent hit, “Honky Tonk Women.” While it’s not bad, they would have been better going with the original version, because this song crosses a line into the region of “cute,” a place where no serious musicians should go, and certainly not The Rolling Stones. Fortunately, they snap out of it with the sharp cuts, hard rhythms and chaotic lyrics of “Live with Me.” This song features Bobby Keys on tenor saxophone, providing a touch that works well here and will work later on “Brown Sugar,” but also opens the door to the overindulgence in horns of all shapes and sizes that would mark much of Exile on Main Street.
But I’m getting ahead of my story. Next up is “Let It Bleed,” a fun and boozy tune where Jagger takes his vocals to the edge of silliness but restrains himself from crossing the line, remaining light and playful throughout. This is followed by the aforementioned “Midnight Rambler,” a dark song indeed. It’s also another piece of evidence feminists present to prove that the The Stones have a fetish with violence against women. Do feminists ever have any fun? My take on “Midnight Rambler” is that its darkness is more campy than serious, sort of like the current obsessions with zombies and vampires. It’s really designed to be a show tune where Jagger can use his acting skills on stage to play off the common human paranoia about the boogieman.
One of my favorite songs on Let It Bleed is Keith Richards’ first full-time bit as lead singer, “You Got the Silver.” Featuring Brian Jones’ final contribution on autoharp, Keith’s vocal is both sweet and understated, mingling nicely with the acoustic-dominated mix. I love it when he goes into belt-it-out mode in the last two verses, as if he was just dipping his toe in the pool during the first few verses before deciding, “Fuck it,” and doing a cannonball in the cold water. On the other hand, I’m not particularly fond of “Monkey Man,” which seems stylistically out of place with the other songs on the album.
One subtext of the story of The Rolling Stones is the constant battle between discipline and overindulgence. Let It Bleed provides excellent examples of both tendencies: “Love in Vain” is discipline; “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is shameless overindulgence, one of the few songs in The Stones catalog that I absolutely loathe, for several reasons. For one, I hate that fucking choir, a terrible choice reeking of celestial pomposity. Two, the song isn’t that good to deserve the excessive length or the over-the-top layering of vocals and instrumentation: it features a boring and unsurprising melody supporting awkward lyrics wrought with fake significance. Finally, I will always associate the song with that awful movie The Big Chill, which featured Baby Boomers at their self-important worst. Didn’t think you were going to die, fuckheads? Get over it!
Despite the pffft at the end, Let It Bleed is a pretty solid effort, not as holistically strong as Beggars Banquet, but more than enough to keep the faith alive, as my beloved Baby Boomer father always likes to say.
Although Beggars Banquet is itself a pretty significant release in the history of The Rolling Stones, an even more important event took place five months prior to its release.
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash!”
After bombarding the listening public with ill-conceived psychedelia and flower power mish-mash, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” must have come as a tremendous relief to Stones fans who thought the band had succumbed from too many trips to acid heaven. It was essential that the bad return to its strengths, and boy, did they ever! Although still experimenting with sound (Keith Richards messed with tuning and a pile of shitty little cassette recorders), “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” provided the listening public with the baseline kick-ass, hard-driving R&B-based rock that no one plays better than The Stones.
As Mick Jagger said, “There was nothing about love, peace and flowers in ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash.’”
Thank fucking God for that!
The adjective “earthy” is a good one for Beggars Banquet, especially in contrast to the ethereal wanderings of Their Satanic Majesties Request. Good old-fashioned acoustic guitar is the dominant instrument; the songs are a combination of blues, country, folk and basic rock ‘n’ roll. With all the weird noises coming out of recording studios at that time, this commitment to simplicity must have sounded fantastically fresh. More importantly, The Stones are singing and playing with breezy confidence, a quality that would mark their next three albums as well. Beggars Banquet was so good that people listened to it for thirty years without realizing they were hearing all of the songs at the wrong speed!
It certainly didn’t matter with “Sympathy for the Devil.” If anyone had any doubts about The Stones regaining their mojo, this song must have vaporized any lingering traces of uncertainty. Mick Jagger, one of the most intelligent and cultured artists in our beloved genre (something many people fail to grasp about Jagger), wrote the Baudelaire-influenced lyrics, combining a broad but carefully selective approach to history with the age-old truth that all evil is human evil, and as much as we’d like to pin responsibility for that evil on figures real or imaginary, the responsibility lies within (“I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’/Well, after all—it was you and me.”). After the muddle of the psychedelic period, the lyrics here stun you with their clarity and depth. Keith Richards’ brilliant suggestion to change the rhythm to a samba (Jagger had written it as more of a folk song) added a primitive feel that played off the association between the darker arts and the devil.
No wonder the white paranoiacs of the time accused The Stones of becoming devil worshipers! It’s all there, just like the JFK conspiracy theories! They’re playing voodoo music! In a Rolling Stone interview from 1971, Keith Richards commented on this phenomenon with far more intelligence and insight than his accusers could possibly grasp:
Before, we were just innocent kids out for a good time, they’re saying, ‘They’re evil, they’re evil.’ Oh, I’m evil, really? So that makes you start thinking about evil… What is evil? Half of it, I don’t know how much people think of Mick as the devil or as just a good rock performer or what? There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer and others who think we are Lucifer. Everybody’s Lucifer.
More evidence that The Stones have returned to the basics comes with the sweet ballad, “No Expectations,” a song that clearly reveals their passion for Robert Johnson, whose “Love in Vain” they would cover on Let It Bleed. Brian Jones dropped in from the ether to make a strong contribution on the slide, playing nicely off Keith Richards’ acoustic guitar in the opposite stereo channel. Mick sings this simple tune without affectation, and the only percussion is Charlie Watts on claves. Covered by country luminaries such as Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, “No Expectations” can either be considered a blues-country synthesis or a confirmation of the fact that the two genres have common roots.
The Stones lean more to the country side with “Dear Doctor,” playing it perfectly straight and allowing the humor of the story to come through without corny silliness. Jagger does a fabulous job remaining true to the characters, and the random harmonies from Keith Richards add both dramatic excitement and sheer fun to the mix. After that it’s back to the bluesy with “Parachute Woman,” a hot little piece about sex, sex and sex recorded on cassette to give it a primitive feel. My only complaint about the song is it’s too fucking short! I like my sex to last a long, long time, especially if I’ve got a lover whispering sweet nothings like this in my ear:
Parachute woman, will you blow me out?
Well, my heavy throbber’s itchin’
Just to lay a solid rhythm down.
I would have added a minute or two to “Parachute Woman” and subtracted the same from “Jigsaw Puzzle,” which goes on a bit too long, given its lack of variation. And though its lyrics are a bit too Dylanesque for my tastes, the guitar-slide-piano interplay on “Jigsaw Puzzle” is a masterpiece of minimalism.
In days of yore, “Street Fighting Man” would have opened Side Two, giving it more prominence than the sixth slot on a CD. It deserves the best placement it can get. What drives this hard rocking gem is the combination of acoustic guitar and Charlie Watts’ drums recorded through a mono cassette; the only electric instrument on the track is the bass guitar. Talk about “stripped!” While other instruments added to the mix, it’s the foundation that makes this song as much of a get-up-out-of-your-seat dance number as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” That “Street Fighting Man” has remained a favorite to this day has nothing to do with the lyrics, which describe the relative somnolence of the British while the whole world seemed to be exploding all around them in the pivotal year of 1968. It just plain rocks!
Further demonstrating their confidence and attitude that “we’ll play what we want,” The Stones return to their early days as a cover band, tackling “Prodigal Son” by Robert Wilkins, another blues guy rediscovered in the early 60’s. Played with appropriate rawness, this sucker gets my toe tapping every time I hear it. Mick then returns to his naughty boy persona in “Stray Cat Blues,” seducing a back-scratching 15-year old girl with a sort of arrogant enthusiasm. The arrangement is a bit too busy for the song to rank as one of my favorites, but I love the attitude.
The gentle folk tune, “Factory Girl” follows, with ersatz mandolin and a host of guest stars like Dave Mason and Ric Grech. It’s okay, but a bit on the corny side. Beggars Banquet ends appropriately with “Salt of the Earth,” where Keith Richards gets another brief turn at lead vocal in the opening verse. What is remarkable about this song is that most people don’t bother to read the lyrics and assume it’s a tribute to the working class. Guess again! It’s about how the system has created a massive underclass that has no hope of changing their circumstances and are willing to simply go along with the program rather than fight.
When I search a faceless crowd
A swirling mass of gray and black and white
They don’t look real to me
In fact they look so strange
Raise your glass to the hard working people
Let’s drink to the uncounted heads
Let’s think of the wavering millions
Who need leading but get gamblers instead
Spare a thought for the stay at home voter
Empty eyes gaze at strange beauty shows
And a parade of the gray suited grafters
A choice of cancer or polio
”Salt of the Earth” is such a superb piece of rock poetry that it almost wipes the memory clean of every unintelligible snippet they wrote on Their Satanic Majesties Request. I also love the use of Los Angeles Watts Street Gospel Choir on this song . . . but just like “Hey Jude” opened the door for too many piano songs from McCartney, The Stones would soon begin to overuse choirs, choruses and background singers to the point of irritation.
But all that’s in the future. For now, let’s be thankful that The Stones reconnected with their brains, their balls and their intuitive grasp of the basics to give us an extraordinary piece of work in Beggars Banquet.