The making of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Let It Bleed’ Part 2

By  Dave Thompson

(Gered Mankowitz/ABKCO Records)

(Gered Mankowitz/ABKCO Records)
Life during wartime

The Stones themselves had no such questions. Indeed, in terms of sinister intent, the band’s first sessions of 1969 delivered several songs of far greater import and impact than anything on the disc they were following up — all the more so since their very subject matter is less descriptive of evil, than pregnant with it.

“Well, it [was] a very rough, very violent era,” Jagger explained in 1995. “The Vietnam War. Violence on the screens, pillage and burning. And Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn’t like World War II, and it wasn’t like Korea, and it wasn’t like the Gulf War. It was a real nasty war, and people didn’t like it. People objected, and people didn’t want to fight it. The people that were there weren’t doing well. There were these things used that were always used before, but no one knew about them — like napalm.”

Early versions of “Gimme Shelter” and “Midnight Rambler” were both cut at Olympic during February/March 1969, with the latter lifting its spoken-word mid-section from the published confession of the Boston Strangler, a revelation that sent the Stones’ tabloid foes into outraged overdrive. The raw debauchery of “Monkey Man” was well-advanced, Keith Richards’ vocal showcase “You’ve Got The Silver” too; while near-finished takes of the epic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (whose demos actually predated Beggars Banquet) and the grueling “Sister Morphine” (a Marianne Faithfull cowrite) were completed at the same time, just weeks after Faithfull completed the vocals on her own version of the song.

“Let It Bleed,” the album’s title track, was already in process, and the band talked later of how Jagger and Miller spent so long working on the drum track that Keith Richards’ fingers started bleeding, he had spent so long strumming acoustic guitar while waiting to be called to record. The song’s title was his bandmates’ tribute to his suffering.

Work also began, however, on the positively hymnal “Shine A Light,” three years ahead of its appearance on Exile On Main Street, while a start was made on three further Exile mainstays “Sweet Virginia,” “Loving Cup” and “Stop Breaking Down,” before the band turned their attention to their projected next single, “Honky Tonk Women” — recorded as both a straightforward rocker and a leering country romp.

The sessions were tumultuous. Brian Jones was more or less out of the band already; Ronnie Wood (who, of course, would replace Jones’ eventual replacement, Mick Taylor, in the group) recalled being introduced to him at Olympic one night. Hanging with keyboard player Nicky Hopkins, Wood recalled, “Nicky said, ‘I’m going to introduce you to my friend Brian,’ but Brian was not making much sense. He was sitting there going ‘urgh, urgh’.” Weeks later, finally tired of similar senselessness, Jagger and Richard braced themselves to confront him, but before that, great swathes of the new LP had already been recorded with Jones barely even present in the studio, let alone in the music.

“He was a pain in the arse, quite honestly,” Keith Richard later said. “We didn’t have time to accommodate a passenger. This band can’t carry any dead weight.” They knew the importance of the music they were making. They knew how important it was to make it count.

Even this early in the sessions, one song stood out as an anthem in waiting. “‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ was something I just played on the acoustic guitar, one of those bedroom songs,” Jagger explained. “[But] it proved to be quite difficult to record because Charlie couldn’t play the groove, and so [producer] Jimmy Miller had to play the drums. I’d also had this idea of having a choir, possibly a gospel choir, on the track, but there wasn’t one around at that point … [so] somebody said we could get the London Bach Chorale and we said ‘that will be a laugh’.”

In fact Watts did play drums on the song, although he admitted that he merely copied what Miller played on the original take. Indeed, he would credit Miller as becoming all but a sixth member of the band; “together we made some of the best records we’ve ever made … thanks to him. Jimmy taught me how to discipline myself in the studio. He would show me things and tell me more. He was a very good producer for our band.”

The sessions broke briefly in early April, while Jagger and Richard filmed their (admittedly brief) cameo performances in the movie “Umano Non Umano!” (“Human, Not Human!”), directed by Mario Schifano and co-produced by Richards’ girlfriend Anita Pallenberg. Then it was back to Olympic on April 17 for a marathon run that would keep the Stones in the studio until the beginning of July.

Again, there was a lot of material to get through. Those two sides of the same song, the fiddle-driven “Country Honk” and its hard-rocking “Honky Tonk Women” doppelganger (with which Taylor was auditioned on May 14, 10 days before he joined the band) were completed; other songs destined for the final album were wrapped up or, at least, taken as far as they could be; and there was time, too, to record three numbers that would lay unheard for the next five years, until the compilation and release of the Metamorphosis collection of outtakes and scraps.

Bill Wyman’s “Downtown Suzie,” Stevie Wonder’s “I Don’t Know Why” and the driving “Jiving Sister Fanny” all came to life during these sessions, while April 23, 1969, saw a loose jam between Jagger, Wyman, Watts, Hopkins and visiting guitarist Ry Cooder (he plays mandolin on “Love In Vain”) itself metamorphose into Jamming With Edward, one of the most intriguing (if scarcely essential) albums in the Stones’ catalog. Released in 1972, as far from the Stones’ own banner as possible (albeit on their own label), the jams say little for the creativity of the sessions that were exploding around them, and a lot for the amount of spare time and spare tape that they had at their disposal. It might not be completely fair to suggest that the curious listener sits through the album once and then files it away alongside George Harrison’s Apple Jam, but at least Harrison gave his jams away for free (as part of the All Things Must Pass triple album).

Continue to Part 3!

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