It comes in cycles. You get the shakes. The tremors kick in after a week, and then the craving starts all over again. When you finally give in and go on the three or four-day bender, you realize that it’s worth getting back on the wagon again only to fall off by week’s end. Yes, I’m talking about my addiction with the Rolling Stones, namely the one-two album punch of Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed (non-re-mastered versions), the two greatest albums the band’s (or anyone’s) ever made. Sure, diehard fans will probably go with Exile on Main Street and its genre-hopping majesty, but it’s something they mastered with these two albums in 1968 and 1969, with Let It Bleed an ominous moniker given Altamont was the following month.
The best way to listen to these is at one sitting, or one walk, or something that needs about 80 minutes of your time. And while there are songs on these records that were core staples on the band’s set with the 40 Licks tour, it’s the hidden gems which deserve all the attention. Take Beggars Banquet for example, the last album that truly included Brian Jones as a member. After the six-minute primal diatribe that is “Sympathy for the Devil”, you are swept into a murky Southern blues country feeling beginning with “No Expectations”. Jagger’s faux twang comes across as the real deal as Jones delivers one of his finest slide guitar performances ever (although there is still doubt as to whether his or Ry Cooder’s version was used). It’s the type of song the Black Crowes have tried to recreate to some measure of success, but have never come close to duplicating. “Dear Doctor” takes the piss out of the record somewhat with a humorous take on heartbreak and a “four-legged sow”. But I don’t want to break it down song by song, so…
Of the 19 songs on the two albums, there are two that stand out head and shoulders above anything else. And no, they aren’t the obvious ones most would think of. I’m talking about “Jigsaw Puzzle” and “Monkey Man”. Unfortunately ignored on 40 Licks, both tunes capture the band’s blues rock at its finest. “Jigsaw Puzzle” starts a bit stilted before finding its legs by the second verse and definitely by the initial chorus. Defining the outcasts on the street before later going through the band one by one, the Glimmer Twins nailed Wyman’s persona almost as much as Wyman nailed his hundreds of groupies. “And the bass player, he looks nervous, about the girls outside,” Jagger sings. And again the blues slide guitar is complemented by Nicky Hopkins’s piano touches at the end.
Another aspect of both albums is how they seem to be clones of each other in some respects. Each album closes with a gospel-like finale during “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” but perhaps even more during the Richards-led “Salt of the Earth”. The third track on each is country in nature, particularly considering one is “Country Honk” (aka “Honky Tonk Women”) with the car honks and fiddle that get things rolling. Track four of each are again blues based, with “Parachute Woman” sounding like “Live with Me” without the high-speed dubbing or Watts on double-time. The latter also has Richards’s riffing through the song but allowing just enough space between each to make them precious. And then there is track eight of each one—“Stray Cat Blues” from Beggar’s Banquet and “Monkey Man” from Let It Bleed. Both have Jagger out of control as he really gets into both songs, howling the lines in both and screaming about being a monkey in one. He also tended to let loose during “Love in Vain” live (see Leeds University boot from ‘71!) but keeps it cool.
I could go on for ages about these albums and yet I still haven’t even talked about the lengthy and bruising “Midnight Rambler”, “Street Fighting Man”, “Gimme Shelter”, or “Let It Bleed”, all of which are seen to be “the” songs most fans gravitate to. But for my money, the non-hits make both these albums timeless hits. Choosing between them is like choosing between your children, minus doling the weekly allowances, driving them to practices and games and pleading (begging?) for obedience.