Monday, November 8, 2010

The Rolling Stones 'Let It Bleed' remarkable in some ways, confusing in others

The Rolling Stones album Let It Bleed was another tremendous work released during their truly great period from 1968-72. During this period, they produced their four greatest albums (Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street) and their best live album, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! (released in 1970 though recorded in 1969).

The opening cut on Let It Bleed is 'Gimmie Shelter,' and it is one of the great songs of their career. As many have written, the song effectively reflects the time in which it was conceived. The hippie movement had tried and failed to make 'flower power' the defining characteristic of this generation. It was the Stones' job to tell the truth.

Shrouded in a guitar intro that is both spooky and unnerving, the song deals with the turmoil of the time. Rebellion was flowing through the streets of America and Europe. People were tired and scared. Shelter was very much on people's minds, and the song provided it. The greatness of this song is not only that it spoke to the fear of the time, but that it also provided a solution. As Mick Jagger sang: "Love, sister, is just a kiss away."

We live in a cynical age, and the idea that love can carry the weight toward solving our problems seems naïve. However, it is far from naïve. It was not then, and it is not now. 'Gimmie Shelter' is a timeless song because its fear and brutality remains, but the solution does, too. Hopefully, people will look more toward the solution.

The second song is the band's cover of the Robert Johnson classic 'Love in Vain.' Obviously, Robert Johnson was one of the most influential blues artists on the early wave of British rock and roll bands. The Stones and especially Eric Clapton are stamped with his influence. The Stones do the song justice. The song drips with despair, which is the appropriate emotion when we love somebody, but it's not going to work out.

The next is 'Country Honk,' and I have never understood its inclusion on this album. It is the country version of the Stones' 'Honky Tonk Women,' which hit the top of the singles' chart in the summer of 1969. This was five months before Let It Bleed was released. However, both songs were recorded at approximately the same time.

Why include this song? 'Country Honk' is not in the same league as 'Honky Tonk Women.' It comes across like it was the result of an impromptu jam session in which people were a little drunk. Because of this, it clouded their judgment regarding its quality.

Whatever the reason for the inclusion, it was a definite misstep. The fact that it was released so soon after 'Honky Tonk Women' makes it worse.

The title cut is a strong song, but it gets lost in the shuffle on this album. 'Let It Bleed' is a universal song about friendship. It is about helping each other when we are down and just need somebody to cling to ("We all need someone we can lean on").

However, the lyrics rely on overt references to drugs and sex, especially toward the end of the song. Many speculate this is why it was never released as a single. Additionally, I believe this is why it does not get played on the radio as much as it should. In some respects, this makes the song a missed opportunity because it deserves a larger audience.

'You Got the Silver' is a song of firsts and lasts. It is the first song that guitarist Keith Richards sang lead on from start to finish. He had previously sang lead on a few lines of songs (for example, 'Salt of the Earth' on Beggars Banquet), but this was the first time he went all the way. Also, this was the last song Brian Jones took part in, playing the autoharp. He had left the band earlier in the year and died soon after.

The finale is the well-known 'You Can't Always Get What You Want.' A radio staple, it is one of the few successful examples of using a children's choir on a rock and roll song. Other attempts to use this technique have yielded disastrous results (Bob Dylan's 'They Killed Him,' for example).

Lyrically, each verse presents scenarios that lead back to the theme of not getting what we want. This is not a particularly sophisticated theme, but it is performed with conviction. The long fade out is reminiscent of Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Effigy' and The Beatles 'Hey Jude' that were out around the same time.

Simply put, this is a great album. Even casual fans of The Rolling Stones should have this in their collection. It represents some of the greatest rock and roll of all time.

Resource material: 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die; The Rolling Stone Album Guide; The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll; ‘Knocked Out Loaded’ by Bob Dylan; The Essentials (Unpublished)


Anonymous said...

you don`t know anything about the Stones....... Country was the original song.. When Mick Taylor joined the band he came up with the faster uptempo riff... and they recorded it seperately and released it as a single

Chris said...

You completely missed my point. My point is: Why release 'Country Honk' at all? 'Honky Tonk Women' is light years better than 'Country Honk.' Plus, 'Honky Tonk Women' was released four or five months before 'Country Honk.'

'Country Honk' just doesn't cut it and shouldn't be on the album. The song had already been released in a vastly superior manner.

Tenn Irish said...

If I had to name the all time best, or my favorite Stones tune, it would be "Jumpin' Jack Flash." For the Beatles it would be "Get Back."

Chris said...

Tenn Irish, I agree with 'Jumpin' Jack Flash.' It's tough to pick one, and it could change from day to day. However, that is a great one.