“War, children / It’s just a shot away.” Rarely has an album’s first track contained such a direct, visceral chorus. Still, when it echoes the sentiment of a world torn apart by the events in Southeast Asia, the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” almost seems like a cultural inevitability. It’s the opening track that greets the listener on the band’s seminal album Let It Bleed, which is now out in a sumptuous new boxed set to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
In the late 1960s, protests were raging against the war in Vietnam. But there was also plenty of tumult within the world of the Rolling Stones at the time. Brian Jones, the band’s co-founder and multi-instrumentalist (not to mention the guy who gave them their name), was slipping further and further into drug abuse. His behavior, which was erratic during recordings of Their Satanic Majesties’ Request (1967) and Beggars Banquet (1968), rendered him virtually useless by the time the band began recording Let It Bleed in earnest in 1969. As a result, the man who was seemingly at home on any instrument and whose credits within the Rolling Stones’ catalog up to that point include everything from guitar to marimba to the recorder to Mellotron to saxophone was reduced to playing on two occasions on Let It Bleed. Jones played percussion on “Midnight Rambler” and autoharp on “You Got the Silver”, not exactly the standout segments of either of those songs.
As a result of Jones’ unreliability, recording sessions were truncated, and Jones was fired, dying less than a month later in July 1969 by drowning in his swimming pool. Guitarist Mick Taylor replaced Jones, and the recording sessions continued. The album, which was originally slated for a July release, was delayed until December. Despite the tensions and delays, Let It Bleed is routinely considered a masterpiece and is part of an unassailable four-album run that includes Beggars Banquet, Sticky Fingers (1971), and Exile on Main St. (1972).
Due to the constant backdrop of Vietnam, the ever-growing, counterculture-influenced chasm between generations, racial strife, and the horror of the Manson murders, it’s not surprising that Let It Bleed is an album infused with danger and madness. Right from the start, the wicked strut of “Gimme Shelter” assaults the listener like a knife-wielding stranger in a dark alley as guest vocalist Merry Clayton hollers the unforgettable chorus. In a 1995 interview, Jagger describes the era as “very rough, very violent…violence on the screens, pillage, and burning”, and calls Let It Bleed a study in “apocalypse. The whole record’s like that.”
As far as Let it Bleed‘s deluxe edition goes, the one major caveat for fans here is that there is zero bonus material. But that hardly makes this an unworthy expense. The lavish box includes two LPs and two hybrid SACDs (both formats in mono and stereo versions), a mono 7″ single of “Honky Tonk Women” b/w “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (with original single art preserved), three hand-numbered replica-signed lithographs of Robert Brownjohn’s album cover sketches, a full-color poster and an 80-page hardcover book that includes an essay by journalist David Fricke, and never-before-seen photos by the band’s tour photographer Ethan Russell. Both diehard and casual fans have heard all this music before, but this particular package is still a completist’s delight.
Despite being born and raised in the United Kingdom, the Stones have always been heavily influenced by American music, particularly the blues. Let It Bleed‘s lone cover is a luminous, respectful take on Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain”, including gorgeous slide guitar courtesy of Keith Richards and understated mandolin from guest musician Ry Cooder. The blues angle subtly shifts to a lighthearted mood with “Country Honk”, a loose, country adaptation of “Honky Tonk Women” that includes Taylor on slide guitar – the first of two of his appearances on the album – as well as lively fiddle playing from Byron Berline.
The informal vibe of “Country Honk” is something of a gentle relief for the menace that permeates so much of the album. The epic “Midnight Rambler” follows, to some extent, the template the band created on their previous album with “Sympathy for the Devil”, dark and bluesy and full of material heretofore unexplored by pop and rock bands. Fueled by Jagger’s inspired blues harp wailing, the band is positively on fire, Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts providing a tight rhythm section alongside Richards’ razor-sharp guitar. It’s a bona fide blues epic, with the song’s shuffle tempo breaking down to make room for a slow burn interlude – including a winking reference to the Boston Strangler – before the band barrels back in at the song’s thundering conclusion. It’s essentially what the Doors wanted to do on “The End”, two years earlier.
The lusty “Live With Me” may not deal with murderers or hardened criminals, but it certainly has the air of a toxic relationship, as it’s told from the point of view of a man who may not be someone you want to spend time with, let alone live with. “I got nasty habits,” the song begins, as Jagger lists off a variety of unusual and sketchy peccadillos. He then adds, “Don’t you think there’s a place for you / In between the sheets?” The song’s recording is propelled by a stellar cast, including Leon Russell and frequent Stones collaborator Nicky Hopkins on piano, in addition to saxophonist Bobby Keys – the staple of many future Stones albums and tours – and Richards’ own steady bass playing, taking over for inexplicably absent Stones bassist Bill Wyman. Elsewhere, Let It Bleed veers between the bluesy singalong of the title track to the languid, vaguely psychedelic “You Got the Silver” – Richards’ debut solo lead vocal – and the sneering guitar funk of “Monkey Man” (the song that launched a thousand Scorsese soundtracks).
But Let It Bleed would be a far lesser album without the inclusion of its regal coda, the puzzling “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. The song fuses an anthemic folk/boogie hybrid with an actual classical chorus; in this case, the London Bach Choir. Hearing this venerable group of classically trained vocalists begin the proceedings with a formal recitation of a Jagger/Richards chorus is an odd combination, to be sure. Still, the song is so deeply embedded in the rock and roll lexicon that only the odd music fan who’s never heard the song will find it out of place.
Madeline Bell, Nanette Workman, and Doris Troy sing the more gospel-flavored backup vocals, Rocky Dijon handles the furious percussion runs, and session musician Al Kooper is all over the place with piano, organ, and a French horn figure that lands on the opening rhythm guitar intro like a beautiful sigh. Additionally, producer Jimmy Miller – a staple of this fertile period in the Stones’ recorded output – handles the drums that Watts couldn’t quite get the hang of. The choir brings up the rear during the song’s fadeout, a recording that combines rock and roll tropes and elegant balladry so expertly that it could almost be considered the Stones’ answer to “Hey Jude”.
Speaking of the Beatles and the Stones, it’s important to note the status of each of those bands in 1969. While the Fab Four were winding down their careers with Abbey Road and less than a year away from a breakup, the Stones were entering a complicated but artistically rewarding phase. They were able to take the tension and ennui of the late 1960s and parlay it into a viable combination of blues, folk, and experimentalism. The departure of Jones was a loss, but also an opportunity for reinvention and rejuvenation. Always the bad boy yang to the Beatles more clean-cut yin, Let It Bleed saw the Stones transform their dark reputation into something more complex.