This December marks the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones’ seminal 60s record, “Let it Bleed.” A record which, with its accompanying American tour, marked, and more broadly encapsulated, the end of an era: the 1960s.
The 60s was defined by its youth, aestheticized by the carefree hippie counterculture movement that made pilgrimages to music festivals and experimented with psychedelics. The end of the decade, however, saw the political and social climate become increasingly turbulent. Domestically, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Riots followed. Less than three months later, JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy met a similar fate. In 1969, a string of brutal murders in California by members of the Manson family followed by a deadly stabbing at a Rolling Stones’ concert at the Altamont Speedway further rocked the nation. Overseas, in Southeast Asia, America’s entanglement in the Vietnam War was at its peak. Meanwhile, in Europe, democratic, liberal reforms in Czechoslovakia were crushed under Soviet tanks as the Communists rolled through Prague.
While the world around them was on fire, the Rolling Stones themselves were, by the end of the decade, on the brink of collapse, brimming with financial woe and internal conflict. They hadn’t toured since 1966 (except a few European shows in ’67) and under the new management of Allen Klein, had seen whole swaths of their royalties funneled into Klein’s pockets. Meanwhile, the band’s founder, Brian Jones, had been slowly deteriorating for years, succumbing to his worst, most self-destructive vices. He had been absent for most recording sessions, and, even when present, was barely able to function. While this was happening, his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, left him for Keith Richards. And bassist Bill Wyman was going through his divorce, while Mick Jagger’s relationship with his girlfriend, Marianne Faithful, deteriorated as she spiralled down the rabbit-hole of addiction herself.
It was against this dark and disorderly backdrop that the Rolling Stones began sessions for their 8th U.K. studio album. The bulk of the record was recorded over six-months, beginning in February 1969. What resulted was a record that reflected not just the era in which it was recorded, but the internal state of the band recording it. Rather than allowing themselves to be consumed and destroyed by the turbulence and chaos surrounding them and boiling within, the Stones instead channelled that dark aura onto the grooves of their 1969 magnum opus, “Let It Bleed.”
With Brian Jones’ mental state, weighed down by his addiction, not to mention the bevy of arrests on his criminal record hampering potential U.S. tours, the band had no other option but to replace the founder of the group. On May 30, 1969, Mick Taylor from John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers played his first session with the Rolling Stones in Olympic Studios.
It was around that time that the band recorded the opening track, “Gimme Shelter.” There’s a reason Martin Scorsese used this song in three of his gangster films (“Goodfellas,” “Casino,” and “The Departed”). It starts with a subtle, foreboding guitar riff. Next, as the drums kick in, a new layer is added: a creepy, brooding background vocal, those haunting “oohs,” coupled with the creaking sound of guiros, leading up to Jagger’s vocals. The song is composed and structured to convey the dread of an impending storm, as well as its impact. It’s like a hurricane that starts with a trickle and builds to a thunderous pour. The opening lines, “A storm is threatening my very life today,” were written by Richards in his London apartment, staring out into the dreary, stormy skies and pouring out his anger and frustration at Mick Jagger over a suspected affair he was having with his then–girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg.
The entire composition is elevated, rocketed through the stratosphere in its second half by the soulful Merry Clayton. Her gospel cries, pushing her vocal prowess to its breaking point as her voice cracks on the third iteration singing, “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away,” animate the aesthetics of the era – the late 60s – the racial tensions, the anti–war protests, et al. In those few minutes and simple lyrics, “Gimme Shelter” sends genuine shivers running down your spine.
If “Let it Bleed,” as a record, marked the transition period from the Stones’ Brian Jones era to the Mick Taylor era, then its second track, “Love in Vain,” a Robert Johnson blues cover, is where Keith Richards officially replaced Jones as the blues engine of the band. The tragic irony of this track is that Brian Jones, the man who formed the band with intent to import the blues to Britain, was completely absent from these sessions where the Stones played the purest, most earthly blues they’d done yet. Richards, apart from playing his guitar parts, played all of Jones’, including Jones’ signature slide guitar. While covers are sometimes put on records as filler to make up for lack of material, the Stones’ “Love in Vain” is far from facile. Richards, influenced by Gram Parsons at the time, made the song entirely his own, rewriting it as a country-blues arrangement.
The Stones’ latest single at the time was “Honky Tonk Women.” When it came to putting it on the record, Jagger and Richards stripped the grease and slickness clean off the twangy single, exposing its acoustic, country-blues underpinnings, and releasing it in all its rawness. “Country Honk,” the resulting track, isn’t showy or grand. Whereas “Honkey Tonk Women” is electric, refined, and written for concert venues, “Country Honk” is relaxed and laid-back. It exudes that country aesthetic of southerners sitting back in wooden rocking chairs and strumming their guitars at the ranch, off, somewhere in Jackson, Tennessee.
Lucifer, from “Sympathy for the Devil” in their previous album, “Beggars Banquet,” makes his reprise in the dark, rugged blues epic, “Midnight Rambler.” But here, rather than presenting the devil as some abstract idea – reappearing throughout different moments in history, i.e. around St. Petersburg in the Russian Revolution – the Stones personify the devil. They make evil real, channeling it in the form of the Boston Strangler – a serial killer who raped and murdered 13 women in the early 1960s in Boston, Massachusetts. When Mick Jagger croons, “I’ll stick my knife right down your throat baby,” you can feel the strangler’s presence as it creeps up behind you. Opening the album’s B-side, “Midnight Rambler”features some of Jagger’s best blues harp playing overtop a pure Chicago blues shuffle from Richards, to create that spooky hook.
Richards wrote the country love ballad “You Got the Silver” for his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg. However, that Keith, for the first time, took the reigns as lead vocalist on this track, was mere happenstance. While trying to overdub different parts to the song, producer Jimmy Miller and the engineer accidentally deleted Mick’s vocals. Unfortunately, in 1969 – when the recording process was entirely analog – the nifty, lifesaving Control + Z undo operation was still a dream of the future. And with Jagger being abroad shooting a movie, the only solution was to have Richards fill in. In the end, it was a happy accident, as anyone who’s heard the bootlegged version (available here) with Mick Jagger on the vocals, can confirm it’s a bona fide Richards song.
It’s hard to classify anything the Rolling Stones have recorded, let alone anything on this record, as underrated. But “Monkey Man” is as close to that marque as anything in their canon. Ask someone their favorite Stones riff and they will undoubtedly mention, “Satisfaction,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Brown Sugar” or “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” just to name a few (some might even suggest “Rocks Off” or “B****”) but everybody seems to forget the grooviest riff of them all: “Monkey Man.” This is about as good as The Rolling Stones ever got. Instead of opening with the main guitar riff, the song begins with a mischievous and enigmatic piano lick by Nicky Hopkins – added xylophone effects accentuate the aura of mystery – laid over a groovy bass line. In a similar, teasing manner, Keith Richards’ guitar starts playing along, slowly getting into the groove before finally ripping into this suave riff. And on top of that, did I mention some of the finest lyrics Jagger ever sang? “Well, I hope we’re not too messianic or a trifle too satanic. But we love to play the blues.” It’s a real shame the Stones themselves overlooked this gem because it wasn’t ever played live until decades later in their Voodoo Lounge tours in the 90s.
By 1969, the Stones had already recorded what would be the last track on the record, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Opening with the lush harmonies of the London Bach Choir, leading into Keith Richards’ acoustic guitar interwoven with Al Kooper playing the French horn, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” creates a sense of cinematic scale and beauty that transcends anything they had ever done prior. The choral ballad’s title verse – “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – is a fitting a mantra to the end of the 60s. Where the love-and-peace hippie youth of the sixties were vying for idealism, the Stones offered realism. The anti-war hippie activists advocated for a future where war, nuclear weapons, and conflict didn’t exist, popularizing by the slogan, “Make Love not War.” What the Stones offered was alternative to naivety. They were never ones to advocate for a radical revolution. In their ostensible salute to protest, “Street Fighter Man,” (off “Beggars Banquet”) the Stones sang about overthrowing regimes, “I’ll kill the king and rail at all his servants” only to follow it up by jettisoning the call-to-arms, stating, “well, what can a poor boy do except play in a rock and roll band?” Effectively, the sentiment is that while you might feel rage and distaste with the status quo, a violent revolution isn’t going to solve anything. They hinted at this same thing in “Sympathy for the Devil,” when the devil, who was the song’s narrator, professed to being present at the Russian revolution when the Tsar was overthrown. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” suggests a similar point, that, in the end, things will work out. You may not always get the idealistic, perfect outcome you envision; life doesn’t work that way. But you can get what you need.
Wrapping up final mixes and overdubs on “Let it Bleed” in November, the Stones embarked on their first American tour in more than three years. Mick Taylor would take Brian Jones’ spot, who, after being fired from the band he founded, tragically died in July.
Concluding their 1969 American Tour, the Stones played their last show on December 6. As a response to reams of complaints from fans disgruntled with soaring ticket prices, the Stones, together with Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Santana, and the Grateful Dead organized a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in northern California, billed as “the Woodstock for the west.”
Organizing Altamont was a lot like playing Tetris blindfolded, with twice as many blocks dropping and at three times the speed, while you were literally on speed. After a slew of back-and-forths between organizers, the Altamont was finalized as the venue on the night of December 4th – less than two days before the concert was scheduled to take place. The venue, built for a capacity of 7,500, was host to a crowd of over 300,000 hippies, almost all of whom were zonked out on myriad psychedelic drugs. For security, the Hells Angels motorcycle gang was recruited in exchange for $500 of beer (good luck declaring that on your tax forms).
The Altamont was the perfect storm for a disaster. And the storm made landfall during the Stones’ set. When a drugged-up attendee, Meredith Hunter, drew a revolver as he approached the stage – while contrary to mythos which theatrically has the Stones playing “Sympathy for the Devil,” the Stones were playing “Under My Thumb” – the Hell’s Angels stepped in, stabbing him to death. The infamous Altamont Speedway stabbing, in conjunction with the spate of violent murders by the hippie denizens of Charles Manson’s commune, were the harsh winter that ended the summer of love.
The counterculture youth of the sixties wanted the summer of love to continue forever. They didn’t want a Nixon presidency, and they wanted the war in Vietnam to end. With “Let it Bleed,” the Rolling Stones captured all of their woes and worries in one record, and they wryly responded, “you can’t always get what you want.” And they were right. The summer of love was over, and Nixon was president. But they got what they needed: the war ended, and heck, we all got a pretty damn good Stones album.
Follow Harry Khachatrian on Twitter