By Dave Thompson
Has anybody else noticed how quickly anniversaries come around these days? How it barely seems a few years since we celebrated whatever album’s 40th, yet here we are at the 50th, and we’ll barely have time to make a pot of tea before we’re girding up for the 60th?
The Beatles are the gravest offenders, simply because they have so many dates to remember. Concert performances and record releases, naturally, but who else could bring North London traffic to a standstill to commemorate half a century since the last time they crossed a road together?
The Rolling Stones, on the other hand… well, they’re still crossing roads, and the last time, it appears, is still nowhere in sight. So, how do they mark off the milestones that are now falling like autumn leaves across their lives?
They don’t, really. Yes, there was that grandiose boxful of memories served up to mark the 50th anniversary of the band’s formation. But whereas most of their peers of similar vintage are now subject to all manner of Brobdingnagian super-deluxe resurrections, the Stones have remained almost lackadaisical on the subject.
Which isn’t a bad thing.
Commemorative editions of one’s favorite albums can be exciting. But they can also grow a trifle wearisome, because how many more superlatives can truly be added to the next edition of anything before deluxe… super deluxe… ultimate super deluxe… begins to feel redundant?
Before it becomes nothing more than fancy-schmancy hyperbole designed to justify another $100 or so being syphoned from your collecting budget for the sake of another book written by the same people who wrote the last one; another poster, slightly larger than the one they gave you with an earlier edition; another digital remastering job, still trying to get back to the way the album sounded the first time it was released on vinyl. Oh, and some out-takes that you may or may not have owned on bootleg forever.
All spread over half a dozen different editions that completist collectors will feel duty to bound to buy in their entirety. You can grow very cynical about the whole business… something along the lines of, “We’re not even collecting these bands’ music anymore. We’re hoarding their baubles.” And just wait until the marketing men decide that a 10-year-anniversary cycle isn’t enough. Albums this great should be celebrated at least twice in every decade.
And then there’s the Stones.
Interviewed back in 1995, Allen Klein had little time for questions about the lack of unreleased Rolling Stones material on the reissue market. Indeed, his response was short and very succinct. “Collectors,” he said, “want every scrap to come out. I don’t.”
He only wanted them to hear what was worth hearing. And if it wasn’t released at the time, then it probably wasn’t of value.
It was a contentious viewpoint even then. The Beatles Anthology series of out-takes was imminent at the time, and Klein himself was about to crack the vault open a little, with the upcoming first ever release of the Rock and Roll Circus video. “Wait till you see it,” he enthused. “Never been touched, never been edited. It’s a rough cut. I went and rescued all the footage. The color looks incredible. Just wonderful.”
Twenty years earlier, he oversaw the Metamorphosis collection of out-takes and demos, and a reissue of that was on 1996’s new release sheet. (“But I’m not really pleased.”) More than that, though, he was unwilling to offer.
Because did we really need to hear umpteen takes of “Sing This All Together”? The construction of “Sympathy for the Devil,” from first drum pattern to final “whoo whoo?” Keith recording his first notion of “Satisfaction,” half awake in a darkened hotel room?
Beyond satisfying idle curiosity, what possible benefit did either listener or, most importantly, artist gain from having rough sketches and doodles thrust into the public arena, to compete for our attention alongside the finished, unimpeachable, masterpieces?
He had a point. Remember when CDs first came along, and record labels started adding bonus tracks to the albums we’d known and loved forever? Remember what a jolt it was if you didn’t move fast enough at the end of what used to be side two, and suddenly found the climactic album closer fade, to be immediately followed by a demo for track four?
Remember, too, that awful moment when you realized that the vast majority of bonus tracks not only added nothing to the original record, you would probably never play them again?
Klein understood that. But, more importantly, he also understood that a lot of the people buying these things were not collectors; were not familiar with the album. Were, in fact, first-time buyers who, unless they read the small print, would not realize that the crappy sounding B-side, the ropey live recording, and the piano demo taped in a barn full of sleeping pigs was not part of the artist’s original vision. And their appreciation of the album was as important in his eyes as anyone else’s. Why, he asked, would he want to spoil things for the majority of listeners, in order to satisfy the dot-connecting demands of a minority?
“You can put more on, but you want a diluted… Listen to the SAR Records box set (1994’s Sam Cooke’s SAR Records Story 1959-1965 2-CD anthology). We had 56 songs, but there are 250 [in the vault]. I don’t want to put it out in volume. I want to tell the story.”
Oh, we could argue about this all night, but let’s not. Suffice to say, almost a quarter of a century on from that conversation, and 10 years after Klein’s death, his opinion remains watertight around that corner of the Stones catalog that his ABKCO company controls. Which is, everything they recorded under the terms of their contract with London/Decca, between 1963-1970. No out-takes, no off-cuts, no scrapings off the floor. Just tell the story.
The Stones themselves hold the rights to their post 1971 output, and they too have scarcely proven obliging when it comes to bearing their cast-offs.
True, they have approved an ever-lengthening array of vintage live recordings, including some genuinely crucial performances (alongside a few that really don’t leap off the shelf at you).
They also allowed us those so-called “deluxe” editions of Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St. and Some Girls, each appended with selected highlights of the accompanying sessions; while the 45-disc box set of singles that appeared in 2011 at least rounded up all the non-album B-sides and remixes that we might otherwise have suggested they use as bonus tracks.
But the Stones were always cool about the things that other people got over-excited about, and that includes their own output. A drawled “it’s okay” from Mick. A declamatory guitar chord from Keith. A bored glance from Charlie. Ronnie might grin if he’s in the mood, but that’s about as good as it gets — and besides, it’ll be 2025 before his Golden Anniversary rolls around, so why should he even care about the earlier stuff? Especially the bits that were never released.
Nevertheless, there’s probably not a Stones fan on earth who could not reel off at least an album’s worth of “legendary” out-takes that are as good as whatever the band released officially, and some that are vastly superior… that version of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” that was recorded during the sessions for It’s Only Rock’n’Roll. The original takes of the Black and Blue rejects that were subsequently repolished for Tattoo You. And what about “English Summer”… the Stones’ all but mythological response to The Beatles “Carnival of Light,” a ’67 vintage number that everyone seems to have heard of, but which has never seen the light of day.
Could it be that it’s just not very good? Sacrilege!!!!
All of which is a very long-winded way of saying how ironic it is that the last few years have offered the Stones’ vault keepers the greatest ever excuse for finally giving the fans… the collectors… what they wanted.
Again, the Stones themselves had already made moves in that direction with the aforementioned deluxe editions of albums from 1971, 1972 and 1978. But those releases did not really mean anything. The last decade or so has seen countless acts revisit classic albums for the purpose of creating birthday editions… 50 years of this, 40 years of that. Ten years of something that you’d swear only came out last week.
Even the most generous interpretation of the anniversary cycle, however, could not make much of the Stones’ decision to deluxe-ify Sticky Fingers in time for the 44th anniversary of its release; and Exile on Main St. for its 38th.
The band’s entire mono LP output was boxed up in 2016, but there was no mention of that being tied to any occasion at all; likewise the similarly cased round-up of their complete post-1971 career in 2005. And again in 2018. Oh, and while the singles box did mark the 40th birthday of the first disc in the set (1971’s “Brown Sugar” 45), Goldmine doesn’t remember anyone mentioning that fact.
No, milestones come and milestones go, but The Rolling Stones just steamroller through them. There was a 40th anniversary box for Get Yer Ya Ya's Out, arguably the greatest live album of all time, but the bonus material really didn’t add anything to the glory of the original. It just made it last a little longer.
But it was with the news, back in 2017, that a 50th anniversary edition of Their Satanic Majesties Request was in the works that the speculation went into overdrive. The Beatles had already shown the way with Sgt. Pepper’s similarly themed reissue, swamping the original LP with a host of bonus extras — a brand new remix, a host of out-takes, and so on and so forth. Surely the Stones would….
No. They wouldn’t.
Last year, The Beatles eponymous "White Album" arrived with even greater glories, more out-takes than you could shake a bobblehead at, and a fab new surround sound offering. The Stones’ Beggars Banquet gave us the album, a mono 12-inch single of “Sympathy for the Devil” and a spoken word flexidisc. A flexidisc!!!!! In 2018!!!!!!!!
What bonus goodies are they going to give us for Let It Bleed this year? A quadraphonic 8-Track?
Sadly, no. Well, sad if you collect Stones 8-Tracks. No, what they’re giving us this year are…the remastered album in both stereo and mono on vinyl and hybrid SACD; a picture sleeved 7-inch of “Honky Tonk Women ”/“You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” lithographs, a poster, and an 80-page hardcover book with unpublished photos.
Which really isn’t bad, as these things go. It’s a fantastic looking package, after all. Like its predecessors, it’s difficult to come up with ways they could have improved on the presentation; indeed, Let It Bleed might well boast the best 50th anniversary design and execution of them all.
It’s hard to criticize the contents, either, at least if one accepts that we are, for all the reasons outlined above, accustomed now to the fact that we are not suddenly going to be showered with session out-takes.
Let It Bleed itself is surely the Stones masterpiece, and boasts some of the finest material the group would ever record. Most bands could spend their entire career struggling to write songs the caliber of “Gimme Shelter,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Midnight Rambler” and “Let It Bleed” itself.
What is even more remarkable is the fact that Let It Bleed’s entire contents were banged out across the same 18-month period in which the Stones also lay down the rudiments of their next two LPs, Sticky Fingers and the double Exile On Main St., plus the off-the-cuff Jamming With Edward, swathes of Metamorphosis, and a brace of non-LP 45s (“Honky Tonk Women” and “Memo From Turner”). And still they left some 30 songs on the shelf to bedevil the dreams of collectors and archivists.
Then there was the nature of the sessions themselves. “Tumultuous” is the word. Brian Jones was more or less out of the band already; they just hadn’t told him, or admitted it to themselves yet. Vast chunks of the new LP were 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.
Out he went, then, to be replaced by Mick Taylor a month later — Jones ultimately appeared on just two of Let It Bleed’s nine tracks. And if you think the album sounds astonishing today, 50 years after it was recorded, imagine what it sounded like at the time. 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.
An album that began with the death of Brian Jones and ended with the murder of Meredith Hunter (the Altamont festival took place in the same month as Let It Bleed was released), 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 foreboding – and that’s long before the chorus predicts the war, rape and murder that, in both song and reality, were just a shot away.
Likewise “Midnight Rambler,” with its chilling blow-by-blow recounting of the Boston Strangler’s confession, 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 still dreaming a life licked out of its lyrics. And all set to a country vibe that 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 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. You might also argue that “Country Honk” suffers by comparison with its better known Honky Tonk 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.
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.
“‘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.”
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.
Sonically, the new vinyl sounds great. It was back in 2002 that Bob Ludwig last remastered Let It Bleed, meaning technical advances alone demanded a fresh approach to the album today. Of course such elements are subjective — what one ear loves, another might recoil from.
But while some bands authenticate their anniversary reissues by inviting the original tea-lady’s grandson to cater the remix session, the only concern in the Stones camp seems to be, making it sound even nastier than it ever did before. And that’s “nasty” in a good way. “Nasty” as in an album you’d not want to meet in a dark alleyway once the bars have closed. But you hang out there just in case.
It’s harder to make a case for the mono remastering, but we’re not going to complain. It is only three years since the mono set box appeared, and Let It Bleed already stood proud among the highlights of that package. No matter that the sound was nothing more than a fold-down of the stereo masters, still Let It Bleed in mono packed a visceral punch that readily bore comparison with any earlier “true” mono Stones album. It still does.
The SACDs are also a welcome touch. In stereo, Let It Bleed appeared in this format back in 2002; the mono version is unique to this collection And while one might mourn the lost opportunity to take the album into surround sound, that too is a dream too far. This box is about the Let It Bleed that we know and love, in the form that the Stones approved at the time… not some fancy reimagining by latter-day ears. We should be thankful.
As for the out-takes? Klein’s words make sense. Maybe one could make a case for a few bonus tracks (but only if they’re placed on a separate disc). Maybe we do deserve, after all these years of hoping, to see a light shone into the Stones’ most productive era ever.
But the best of what we would ordinarily call out-takes were released long ago on the next two albums, and early versions of the finished songs are seldom more than curios. And as for the rest, did we learn nothing from listening to Metamorphosis? Klein himself admitted that that album, collecting out-takes and demos from the '60s shelves, was poor. But, he insisted, it was not as poor as the Stones’ own proposal.
“They were supposed to give us an album and Bill Wyman prepared a f*cking album that was all instrumental, just about. I rejected it.” Metamorphosis, with close to half of its body weight derived from the Let It Bleed sessions, was what he replaced it with on the schedule.
But when “Jiving Sister Fanny” is the best “new” song in sight; when Jamming With Edward is considered indicative of how the musicians spent their down time, maybe Klein was right to lock the door to the vault. Do you really need to hear the Stones rehearsing “Downtown Suzie”?
The answer is probably no. There’s no need. Let It Bleed is perfect as it is — more would detract, much more would dismiss. An album is the length it is, with the contents it has, for a reason. Sometimes we may not agree with those reasons… sometimes, the band might disagree, too.
But Let It Bleed is one of those moments when all the stars were in exquisite alignment, when all mood and momentum came seamlessly together; when they could not have made a better album if they’d been given three years and all the wax they required.
This box tells you all that you need to know.
LET IT BLEED 50TH ANNIVERSARY LIMITED DELUXE EDITION
2-LP SET – STEREO AND MONO
Love In Vain
Live with Me
Let It Bleed
You Got the Silver
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
7” vinyl single – (Mono)
Side A – Honky Tonk Women
Side B – You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Reproduction of graphic designer Robert Brownjohn’s sketches for his original cover art. Two 12” x 12” lithographs, hand numbered, replica-signed and printed on embossed archival paper. A third lithograph of the finalized art, sans titles, completes the set housed in a foil-stamped envelope.
Reproduction of the full color 23” x 23” poster that came with the original 1969 Decca Records U.K. version.
Engineer Bob Ludwig remastered this edition, working from Direct Stream Digital files taken from the original tapes at a 2.8 MHz sampling rate.
“When we did the first Let It Bleed remaster in 2002, our intention was to pay homage to the original work,” said Ludwig. “When we did this new version, the purpose was to make it as great as it could possibly sound. If you listen on a good set of speakers or good headphones, you’ll hear subtle things in the background that are now much more clear that were somewhat hidden before.”