Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed – London Records (1969)/ABKCO Records 0018771900412 180-gram, audiophile stereo vinyl, 42:13, *****:
(Mick Jagger – vocals, harmonica; Keith Richards – guitars, slide guitar, bass, vocals; Brian Jones – autoharp, percussion; Bill Wyman – bass, autoharp vibes; Charlie Watts – drums; Ry Cooder – mandolin; Nicky Hopkins – piano, organ; Ian Stewart – piano; Leon Russell – piano; Mick Taylor – guitar, slide guitar; Bobby Keys – tenor saxophone; Merry Clayton – vocals; Jimmy Miller – drums, percussion; Al Kooper – piano, organ, French horn; Madeleine Bell/Doris Troy/Nanette Newman – vocals; The London Bach Choir)
Chasing the Beatles is no easy task. Despite maintaining their blues essence, The Rolling Stones were to some extent relegated to the shadow of the Fab Four. As 1969 drew to a close, it was The Rolling Stones whose star was ascending, not the Beatles. As a consistently active touring band, their proprietary brand of rock was the most formidable in the genre. Coming off the success of Beggars Banquet, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were established as a brilliant songwriting duo. But in the summer of 1969, the concert tragedy at Altamont Raceway in California cast a pall on the greatest rock & roll band in the world. However, this band was in the midst of one of the most amazing album successes in the annals of popular music.
Let It Bleed was released in December of 1969 (though they had been laying down tracks for nearly a year). This album made superstars of the group. Even with the first personnel change (Mick Taylor), the music soared to new heights. With all all-star line-up of session players, these nine songs include some unforgettable standards. Opening Side One is the mesmerizing, “Gimme Shelter”. After an ominous vocal/guitar introduction the jam explodes as Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman (talk about a tight rhythm section) coalesce this urgent, violent storyline. Jagger’s gutsy vocals are visceral, but when Merry Clayton screams “rape, murder….it’s just a shot away…” the song becomes transcendental. In a bit of misguided lore, “Gimme Shelter” is closely associated with the stabbing at Altamont, even though “Under My Thumb” was playing at the time. Changing gears immediately, “Love In Vain” is pure blues. They capture the utter sadness of Robert Johnson in Richards ’expressive guitar lines. Ry Cooder’s mandolin adds just the right acoustic shading.
When an unexpected country version of “Honky Tonk Women” (titled “Country Honk”) follows, it is clear that the creative process is percolating. Mick Taylor’s slide guitar and veteran Byron Berline’s fiddle resonate with organic charm. At this juncture in time, playing on a Rolling Stones album was an honor. “Live With Me’ is evidence of that. In a once in a lifetime moment, both Nicky Hopkins and Leon Russell play piano on the same track. Russell also arranged the horn chart, as future Stones sideman Bobby Keys wails on tenor saxophone. This group has an accessible and edgy raunchiness. The title cut features the funky hooks of Richards and the motley imagery of Jagger.
Side Two doesn’t let up at all. “Midnight Rambler” is in the quintessential Stones blues groove. Jagger is gritty and expressive on vocals and harmonica. Richards’ blues riffs are well-known and these are among his best. The tempo shifts, and energetic flourishes are brilliant. Richards contributes a rare lead vocal on “You Got The Silver”. Sounding like a high-register Bob Dylan, his singing is effective and moving. Brian Jones (who was at the end of his tenure with the band he named) is barely audible on autoharp. “Monkey Man” is archetypal Stones. Nicky Hopkins’ delicate touch on piano is a nice counterpart to the hard-rocking intensity. The finale is the symphonic masterpiece, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. In an ingenious arrangement, a heavenly gospel choir opens a capella. Then an acoustic guitar and Flugelhorn (Al Kooper who also plays piano and organ) flow gently into the first verse. Jagger’s vocal style is broad. The narratives of ‘60s socio-political mores and philosophical ruminations are enveloped in a multi-textured instrumental glow.
Abkco’s re-mastering of Let it Bleed is triumphant. It is the epitome of prominent mixing and precise separation. The lower-end power of the mix (especially on the bass and drums) is powerful. The density of the instrumentation never overpowers the acoustic tonality of the guitars or piano. Jagger’s voice is ragged but clear. The sleeve and vinyl disc proclaim: This Record Should Be Played Loud. And when you do, Let It Bleed sounds even better.
Side One: Gimme Shelter; Love In Vain; Country Honk; Live With Me; Let It Bleed
Side Two: Midnight Rambler; You Got The Silver; Monkey Man; You Can’t Always Get What You Want