Drunken late-night debates between rock enthusiasts about the age-old question of who’s the better band, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, have seemingly existed before the dawn of time, or rather, post-1970. Before these impassioned arguments inevitably spiral uncontrollably into metaphorical galaxies of wildly-unrelated topics, many seem to settle their differences in terms of pure semantics. While The Beatles relayed the wise whispered words of their mums in a sweet lullaby fashion in the song “Let it Be,” the Stones theorized that we all need someone to cream on in the song “Let it Bleed.” Perhaps unfairly, the two songs seem to symbolize the vast differences in attitude and subject matter between the two super-groups in the minds of many fans.
By 1969, the extremely naïve, idealistic pseudo-utopian hippie world was rapidly coming to an end. Chaos was imminent. Beloved social and political figures were falling by the wayside, The Beatles were on the verge of disbanding, the U.S. was losing an unwinnable war in Vietnam, Charles Manson and his followers were terrorizing upper-class citizens, Hendrix and Joplin would die a year later, and Tyler Perry was being born. Around this time, The Stones had their own problems on the homefront to contend with. Brian Jones, one of the principle founders of the group, was kicked out of the band due to his myriad drug addictions and inability to attend mandatory band functions. He would die later that year under foggy circumstances (murder or overdose?) that have yet to be confirmed. Additionally, a day after the album’s release, The Stones would hold a much-publicized free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, resulting in three accidental deaths and one homicide, perhaps a fitting end to nearly a decade of flower power.
Let It Bleed opens with one of the Stones’ most widely recognized songs, “Gimme Shelter.” No other song from that bygone era more accurately captures the general mood of the Sixties: oral promotions of love and positive vibes are juxtaposed with an overwhelming sense of terror. The Vietnam War undertones are clear, but there is much more to the song itself in an atmospheric sense. In 1995, Mick Jagger would later explain to Rolling Stone magazine the intended aura of the track, and subsequently, the entire album in general: “That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that.”
Inexplicably, musicians are rarely able to properly describe their own records in a grand thematic and conceptual sense, but in this case Jagger is correct. Aside from two easily forgettable tracks (“Live with Me” and “Monkey Man”) the album is truly a masterpiece, both lyrically and sonically. Although it is often perceived as blasphemous when a person prefers the cover to the original, in the case of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” the Stones win by unanimous decision. As is often the case with a successful cover, The Stones immense admiration of Johnson comes across in their meticulous attention to the details. The Jagger/Richards syncopation train is in full-force here, as they match up perfectly on this plodding bluesy rock track, and it ultimately rivals the seminal “No Expectations” off Beggars Banquet in terms of the best Stones’ songs about unrequited love.
“Honky Tonk Women” was a monster hit for the Stones earlier that year, which explains why they decided and somehow managed to improve the song by morphing it into a melodic country song, complete with accompanying “car noises,” appropriately titled “Country Honk.” The second version not only sounds better, but the euphemisms and censored colloquialisms denoting raunchy sexual encounters in the original are substituted for the authentic lyrical counterparts. The overall effect is akin to a drunken uncle rehashing familiar stories about sexual rendezvous that he has told over and over again on Top 40 radio, if that drunken uncle has the tantalizing voice of Jagger in his golden years.
“Let it Bleed,” the title track, is a standout song on an album chock full of standouts. If one were to rank the most explicit songs in the entire Stones catalogue (a seemingly impossible task) then one would undoubtedly have to include this song. The Beatles and Dylan had their own ways of telling a gal how much they admired her, and then there were the Stones, who preferred to express these sentiments in not so flowery diction, but rather terms of body excretion. Arguably, there is no better phrase of genuine endearment than telling someone you love “you can bleed all over me.” “You Got the Silver” and “Midnight Rambler” are the only two songs to feature Brian Jones, the former of which is notable for being the first time Richards would provide sole vocals on a song, and the latter of which is notable for being quite possibly the greatest fucking song of all time.
It has been well-documented ancient rock literature that teenage-twenty year old girls went crazy over this song when it was performed in concerts, which is surprising for one glaring reason: the vocals of the song are told through the viewpoint of the infamous Boston Strangler who was charged with killing and raping thirteen women. But upon close inspection, it is not difficult to recognize why both sides of the gender coin appreciate this song. The chaotic tempo changes and unorthodox melodies excellently mimic the act of sexual intercourse. Additionally, Jagger employs such a rich and varied timbre of vocals that he comes across as a man possessed, or a group in-and-of himself. The sex comparison cannot be easily denied, partly because in the concluding moments of the song, as the tempo reaches the height of climax, the instrumental suddenly comes to a halt and Jagger threatens “I’m gonna stick my knife right down your throat baby…and it hurts.”
Much has been written about the final track, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and you would be hard pressed to find anyone born before the year 1990 who hasn’t heard it already. Suffice it to say, the song is a great closure to one of the greatest rock albums by the world’s greatest rock band.