By Dave Thompson
Let It Bleed was finally released Dec. 5, with the American tour all but at an end — by which time the Stones had already put the record behind them. Those same recording sessions in Los Angeles in October/November 1969 saw the Stones sketch out early versions of “All Down The Line” and “I’m Going Down.” They continued recording while they toured; in Florence, Ala., in December, they spent a day working on “You Gotta Move,” before moving onto “Brown Sugar,” “Loving Cup,” and the demo of “Wild Horses” that would be passed onto Gram Parsons as a blueprint for the Flying Burrito Brothers’ own version. It was these sessions that formed the backdrop for the Maysles brothers’ “Gimme Shelter” movie, an effort that was originally intended as nothing more than a simple document of the Stones’ return to live action — but found a lot more than a simple finale when the cameras arrived at Altamont. Before that hit the screens, however, the Stones’ own document of the outing made its appearance.
The group’s second long-playing in-concert souvenir (following on from 1966’s Got Live If You Want It), Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out was famously conceived at the next to last minute, to try and counter the flood of bootlegs pouring out of the band’s late 1969 US tour. The fact that its reputation subsequently became inextricably bound up with the Altamont festival and the accompanying “Gimme Shelter movie” only added to its cachet. But when the band is welcomed on stage with the words “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world,” and piledrives straight into “Jumping Jack Flash,” it’s easy to see why Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out remains many critics’ choice for the best live album of all time, a ranking that will certainly be confirmed by the upcoming 40th anniversary SACD remaster.
Light years apart from their performance in Hyde Park just four months previous, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out drove between recent album favorites and older R&B staples (“Carol,” “Little Queenie,” and a superlatively road-worn “Love In Vain,” with Taylor now shining bright enough to burn), but was highlighted by the songs that, after one glimpse at the track listing, you would expect to dominate — a brutal “Stray Cat Blues,” a frenetic “Sympathy For The Devil” and a positively scarifying “Midnight Rambler,” Jagger accompanying his confession with the thwack of his belt buckle on the wooden stage.
The closing salvo of “Honky Tonk Women” (with its legendary “Charlie’s good tonight” preamble) and “Street Fighting Man,” meanwhile, takes us out on such a high that it’s hard to resist simply returning to the beginning, and playing the whole thing through again.
Yet a lot of Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out‘s clout had already been predicted, if not quite dissipated, by Let It Bleed. The live album, after all, simply reminded us that, at the end of the 1960s, the Rolling Stones really were “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.” It was Let It Bleed that allowed them to take that accolade in the first place, eclipsing the Beatles, the Who, the Dead, the Airplane, and all the other countless claimants that the title would ordinarily have attracted.
Even today, 40 years after it was recorded, Let It Bleed remains astonishing. At the time, however, it was devastating. If Beggars Banquet opened the door to the end of the world (or at least, the ’60s – which for many people remains the same thing), then Let It Bleed held it wide for everyone to stare inside. Let It Bleed remains a record that stands so far outside the traditional rock/pop continuum that, not only is it no exaggeration to describe it as timeless, such a term might even be doing it a disservice. It is also ageless, and that despite history having firmly nailed its intentions and expectations to the precise time and place in which it was conceived.
Is it even possible to hear the opening riff, fading into the thermonuclear crash of “Gimme Shelter,” without at least a chill of ? Likewise “Midnight Rambler,” with its chilling blow-by-blow confessional and a string of tempo changes that dodge about as much as the strangler himself ever did; likewise “Live With Me,” a dysfunctional blues masquerading as a love song in the same swampy backwaters that spawned the last album’s “Prodigal Son.”
And then there’s “Let It Bleed” itself, an anthem to sleazy debauchery, shot through with so much promise and glamour that, deep into the 1970s, an entire generation of Keef look-alikes were dreaming a life licked out of its lyrics. And all set to a country vibe that still demands you sing it round the campfire – and a lot of people did that at the time.
Occasionally, Let It Bleed does feel incomplete. For all new boy Mick Taylor’s expressiveness, the lonesome blues of Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain” would not truly come to life until the band took it onto the road – where “Midnight Rambler,” too, took on a whole new life of its own. “Country Honk,” a prototype for the hit “Honky Tonk Women,” similarly suffers by comparison with its better-known sibling.
But, far from damaging the album, this roughshod raggedness adds to its magic, lending Let It Bleed precisely the kind of down-home rootsiness that one seeks in vain among the more acknowledged giants of that particular arena (the Band’s Music From The Big Pink, for example). Even the massed chorales of the closing epic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” sound like they’re soaring from a downtown street-corner, and the song’s subsequent adoption as some kind of all-purpose anthem is undermined every time you take another look at those lyrics. “All You Need is Love” it most certainly isn’t.
It would be foolish to describe Let It Bleed as the Rolling Stones’ best album, because such a determination can change with the moods. But, in terms of confirming everything we wanted to believe about them, and anticipating all that we wanted to know in the future, it is certainly their most important.
“I think it’s a good record,” Mick Jagger agrees. “I’d put it as one of my favorites.”