Friday, January 5, 2007

The Rolling Stones – 'Let It Bleed'


Rating: 10 on a scale of 10, A on an A-B-C scale

By the mid-60s, the Stones had really hit their stride. Jagger and Richards had shed the safety of souped-up rhythm n’ blues covers, discovered their songwriting talents and proceeded to release albums that took British invasion rock to dirtier, dingier and more downright unsavoury places than the usual smattering of teenage romance and them old rhythmic blues cover tunes. Their original material had sounded stronger than the covers ever since 1965’s Out Of Our Heads – the album that debuted their signature tune, (I can’t get no) Satisfaction. 1968 saw the release of their first bona fide masterpiece, and a strong contender for best Stones album of all time – Beggar’s Banquet. For my money, though, the follow-up, Let It Bleed, is even better. It’s virtually a carbon copy of its predecessor, but with the added benefit of one more year’s worth of creative development – which, for a band at the peak of their growth curve, means a lot. The melodies are sharper, and the balance of ambitious ‘epic’ tracks (which is not to say proggy – the Stones never showed the slightest hint of prog aspirations, but sometimes a song will be pretty long and sometimes it has more than two parts and a mid-8), groovey rockers and ballads (Stones-style, of course) is even more well-crafted. That’s a subjective summation, of course, and you should really go buy Banquet as well, and also 1971’s Sticky Fingers for a solid gob of the Stones at their best.

But let’s return to the album at hand. It starts off with the dark, paranoid-hysterical track Gimmie Shelter, in which Jagger’s misanthropic vocals are augmented by one Mary Clayton’s searing, gospel-in-a-hurricane backing vocals. Jagger sings - ‘Oh, a storm is threatening my very life today’, and the production makes the music sound like that storm! There’s something about love being just a kiss away at the end, but we can ascribe that to the general hangover of existing in the 60s and chalk this up as one of the Stones’ truly epic tracks. It helped that the lyrics about war and unrest gave it some sort of resonance as an (accidental?) anti Vietnam song, but let’s label that interpretation as another 60s hangover and move on.

The blues were always as important an element of the Stones’ sound as fat Chuck Berry-esque rock n’ roll, and the next song is, appropriately a cover of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson’s ballad, Love In Vain. Johnson is pretty much a revered and renowned roots genius now, with Eric Clapton devoting an entire album and DVD to playing his material, all of which is also available in lovingly remastered editions, but in 1969, to mine this gem of a song from the vaults was an unprecedented act of love, dues-paying and a strong statement that probably speaks most of Richards’ love for the rootsy blues and rock music and his vision of how it could be incorporated into a new musical context. This cover fleshes the song out with better production than old Johnson could ever dream of, a full-band arrangement and some superb mandolin playing by Ry Coooder. It’s a plaintive song, filled with timeless heartache and a great follow-up to the more rock-y darkness of Gimmie Shelter.

Next, we’re in cowboy territory with the rollicking Country Honk, a different version of the more rock n’ rolling single, Honky Tonk Women. Mick Taylor’s slide guitar and Byron Berline’s farm fiddlin’ make this song nicely stomp-worthy while Jagger swaggers about various conquests. The single version is more classic, but this is a fun side-light.

Live With Me is a grooving rocker, propelled by driving basslines from Keith Richard, who usurps Bill Wyman’s post on this track. More honky tonk piano than you’d find in a street full of Gold Rush gambling dens, courtesy sessions men Nicky Hopkins and Leon Russell and a great sax break from Bobby Keyes add to the spice in this slice of the Stones’ pie. The lyrics are a bit of a psychedelic stroll, with Jagger describing a truly surreal and unsavoury household and inviting his lady love to move in with him, anyhow.

The title track has Jagger spouting out a very different universalist message from the somewhat-similarly-titled track by The Beatles (you know the one I mean), pointing out that we all need someone we can bleed on, and inviting anyone who wants to, to bleed on him. Then he gets a little more explicit, but the song mostly sounds pretty gorgeous with Richards crafting some fine slide guitar lines and frequent collaborator Ian Stewart playing that boogie piano.

The sound gets meaner and more electric with the harmonica-embellished Midnight Rambler, another nasty Jagger ditty recounting the exploits of a serial killer, patterned after the Boston strangler, in creepily exultant detail. There’s a really nasty bit where the groove builds and Jagger chants ‘Oh don't do that, oh don't do that’ and the music suddenly stops – only to start all over again for a few speeded-up verses of gratuitous misanthropy and menace. Brrr. No one ever said the Stones were nice lads.

As if to calm us down a bit, Richards steps in with a ballad, You Got The Silver, one of his best vocal performances over the years. It’s slide-y and piano-filled and genuinely tender, and at this point in the proceedings you feel like welcoming it as if it was a long-lost sibling. Keith Richards’ vocal contributions to Stones albums are often regrettable, but sometimes they work, if oly because he always conveys a heart-felt sincerity that contrasts well with the Mick The Lick’s swaggering. This is one of those times.

The pace quickly picks up with Monkey Man, a song which features one of Richards’ best riffs ever. The song’s just about how Jagger’s a monkey man, and he’s glad you are a monkey woman. What, you want profundity too with your groovy riffs? It’s only rock n’ roll, and it isn’t being written by Pete Townshend in any case.

And then there’s the closing track, still a concert favourite - Can't Always Get What You Want. There’s a choral intro by the London Bach Choir which is probably pretty but also a little tacked-on. Anyway, it’s a great way to bow out, with the whole band in fine form (except Charlie Watts, who for some odd reason is replaced on the drum stool by one Jimmy Miller for the occasion), Richards cranking out the guitar parts that would later fill out arenas and stadiums across the land, Jagger bawling out the anthemic lyrics that have become a platform for audience interaction in latter years and guest Al Kooper doing wondrous things with pianos, organs and French horns. In keeping with the balance of moods on this album, it’s a relatively optimistic finale to the general dreariness of sentiment elsewhere.

This was, in one way, a transitory album for the Stones – it was released when Brian Jones, considered an important force in the band had died, and new Stone Mick Taylor was still in the process of being inducted into the band. It’s amazing that they took this in their stride, releasing an album that actually exceeded their previous album – itself a high point in their careers – and is still one of the best platters of rock n’ roll available for your aural pleasure. While the thought of bleeding onto Sir Mick continues to be a rather repulsive one, the non-literalists among you can be assured of a fine interlude of dirty rock by simply inserting this album into the player of your choice, following the album sleeve’s injunction to play it loud, and letting the sounds wash over or pound you, as the case may be. It’s what you want, really.

The Eiderdown-Stuffing Bottomline: The Stones really were the best rock n' roll band in the world for a while. Here's evidence.

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