The Rolling Stones have often been right in step with their times but never more so than in the final two years of the 1960s. Having dispensed with the psychedelia of 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request, they returned the following year with Beggar’s Banquet, which includes lines like “I shouted ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ / When, after all, it was you and me.” Then came 1969’s Let It Bleed, which appeared at the height of the Vietnam War period and includes at least a few songs that seem to mark the end of the peace-and-love hippie era with predominant images of protest, violence, and death.
“Midnight Rambler,” which is loosely based on the case of the Boston Strangler, finds Mick Jagger singing about rape and murder, as does the lead-off track, “Gimme Shelter,” where he proclaims, “A storm is threat’ning my very life today,” and a chorus adds, “War, children, it’s just a shot away…Murder, it’s just a shot away.” Then there’s the title cut, where Jagger sings, “You knifed me in my dirty filthy basement,” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” where he announces, “I went down to the demonstration to get my fair share of abuse / Singing ‘we’re gonna vent our frustrations, and if we don’t we’re gonna blow a 50-amp fuse.’”
The album appeared on Dec. 5, 1969. The very next day, the Stones performed at California’s infamous Altamont Free Speedway Festival, where what was supposed to have been a sort of Woodstock West quickly turned violent and a Hell’s Angels member killed an 18-year-old concertgoer with a knife. Murder, it turned out, was just a stab away. A little more than three weeks after that, the 60s would be literally over.
Let It Bleed is as musically good as it was societally prescient. The album, which topped charts in the U.K. and made it to number three in the U.S., continues the return (begun in Beggars Banquet) to the blues-based rock that fueled the Stones’ early work. And it features more than a few songs that have now been staples of the group’s concerts and regulars on FM radio for decades, among them the title cut and the aforementioned “Gimme Shelter,” “and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Other highlights include “Country Honk,” a countrified version of the hit single “Honky Tonk Women”; “Love in Vain,” a cover of the vintage Robert Johnson blues tune; and “You Got the Silver,” which incorporates the first-ever solo lead vocal by Keith Richards on a Stones album.
Group founder Brian Jones, who contributes to only two cuts, was fired from the band six months after Let It Bleed’s release (and died just weeks after that). But the Stones have no shortage of notable help here: Jones’s replacement, Mick Taylor appears on two numbers; Ry Cooder plays mandolin on “Gimme Shelter”; Leon Russell adds piano on “Live with Me”; and Al Kooper plays piano, organ, and French horn on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which also features the London Bach Choir. Other accompanists include saxophonist Bobby Keys on “Live with Me,” fiddler Byron Berline on “Country Honk,” pianist Nicky Hopkins on five tracks, and, perhaps most famously, Merry Clayton, who shares lead vocals with Mick Jagger on “Gimme Shelter.”
It’s safe to say that most Stones lovers already own this album; but it’s also a good bet that if your copy is vinyl, it’s rather worn and scratchy after half a century. If that’s the case, the new 50th-anniversary edition offers lots of reasons to upgrade. Unfortunately, it includes no alternate versions or studio outtakes, but this hand-numbered, limited-edition box set does feature nicely remastered versions of the stereo and mono album on two vinyl LPs and two Super Audio CDs (backward compatible for use on any CD player), plus a copy of the “Honky Tonk Women”/“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” vinyl single. Completing the package are a replica of the poster that accompanied the original 1969 Decca album, two lithographs by cover art designer Robert Brownjohn, and an 80-page hardcover book that incorporates numerous period photos and an essay by Rolling Stone’s David Fricke.
The main attraction, though, remains the music. It doesn’t sound a bit outdated. And neither, sadly, do its darkest lyrics.
More from the Stones
The Rolling Stones, Bridges to Buenos Aires. You’d have to be a pretty serious Stones fan to want both Bridges to Bremen, which came out only a few months ago, and this equally fine collection. Each package documents a high-energy concert from the group’s 1998 world tour with 22 tracks on two CDs, and both also feature the same program on a Blu-ray that’s standard definition but delivers good-quality video and DTS-HD Master audio. The sets repeat 19 numbers, including such classics as “Brown Sugar,” “Gimme Shelter,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Honky Tonk Women,” and “Miss You” (which runs long and hot in both shows).
Bremen, however, additionally features “Paint It Black,” “Anybody Seen My Baby?” and “Memory Motel,” while Buenos Aires substitutes “Sister Morphine,” Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie,” and “When the Whip Comes Down.” And there’s one more difference: though both shows offer Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan himself emerges from the wings to play and sing along on that number on Buenos Aires. The audience goes wild, the performance is memorable, and even the usually poker-faced Bob is flashing a broad grin at the end.
Which set to buy? The Dylan appearance argues for Buenos Aires but it’s great to hear the excellent and rarely performed “Memory Motel” on Bremen. Maybe you should flip a coin.