While I didn't necessarily have the "personal database" to fall back on then that I have now, I knew right away I had never heard anything like "Gimme Shelter" before. It's still my favorite rock 'n roll song of all time, hands down, so I guess it's fair to say I've never heard anything like it since. From the haunting grab-your-ears-by-the-throat opening to that amazing female vocal to the power of the song itself to the lyrics and to every nuance of the song I've explored so many times over the years, it is indeed a perfect piece of music. I can't think of many other songs where a performance by a background singer (in this case, the amazing Merry Clayton) netted the singer a recording contract, but it did so here. The song was so powerful on first listen that I called the radio station to make sure of the album's title and did the unthinkable; I dipped into the piggybank, zealously hoarded for Christmas shopping, hiked up to the local mall and bought Let It Bleed on the strength of one song.
It was only after getting home and playing my newfound favorite rock song ever about a dozen times in a row that I let the needle continue on to track two... and for the next forty-ish minutes, was given for the first time the gift of my favorite rock 'n roll album of all time. To this day, I remember sitting and listening slack-jawed, astounded over and over and over again; nine perfect slices that embodied everything I wanted out of rock 'n roll, then and always. After the first listen to the complete album, I just sat there in silence, staring at the cover and truly appreciating having been given something astounding, groudbreaking... life-changing. The realization that something had shifted was immediate, and to this day, it's the feeling I always secretly hope for during the first few moments of every new release I hear.
This is the Stones album that has it all. You get welcome peeks into music that fascinated the Stones - blues, with their cover of Robert Johnson's classic "Love In Vain" or country, with gems like "You Got The Silver," the title track and the brilliant album rework of what was already the best single of 1969, "Country Honk" (reworking, of course, "Honky Tonk Women"). You get badass boys with their tales of midnight ramblers flaunting social mores while imploring some chick to live with them. You get the Stones at their darkest and most doomsday-prophetic via "Gimme Shelter," and after we hear songs of love and lust and violence and uncertainty and braggadocio, the album closes with angelic voices and a magnificent tune advising us after all this that, while we can't always get what we want, if we look sometime, we just might find... we get what we need.
For me, this was also the Stones at their most bombastic, coupled with them being at their most creative. It's interesting to note that the band started recording "You Can't Always Get What You Want" in November of 1968 (even before the release of the previous album, Beggar's Banquet); they began work in earnest on recording the album in February of '69 and didn't finish until November of that year. It's almost a perfect storm of circumstances in allowing an already great band to blossom. While the Stones had, no doubt, been aware of the power they held as a great band for a while, certainly the attention they drew from tracks like "Sympathy For The Devil" only stood to magnify that power they held over the rock public's psyche; when you combine creativity, vision, talent and the perception of power, some amazing things can happen. It was also a personally volatile time for the band; the death of Brian Jones and all the swirling circumstances had, perhaps, slapped the Stones in the face with the reality that everything wasn't always going to be perfect and idyllic. Thus, in many ways, Let It Bleed is an insanely transitional record for the band. It's the last time Brian Jones would appear on any Stones recordings, of course, and even his very minimal contributions (congas on one song, autoharp on another) are at least haunting enough in memory to color the intensity of the release. It was the first appearance on record of Jones' replacement, Mick Taylor, but he only appears on two tracks as well; thus, for the most part, this most classic of albums was generated in the largest part by the Core Four of Jagger, Richards, Wyman and Watts. Of course, it's nice to have friends, too, and for a list of pals making appearances on one or two select tracks throughout, how's this for a hall-of-fame list: Ian Stewart, Nicky Hopkins, Byron Berline, Merry Clayton, Ry Cooder, Bobby Keys, Jimmy Miller, Leon Russell, Jack Nitzsche, Al Kooper and, of course, The London Bach Choir all contribute. Jimmy Miller also produced the album, reprising his excellent work from Beggar's Banquet, and it was pretty obvious that Miller understood the band, gave them the creative reign they needed and was able to take a lot of diverse sounds, moods and influences and help shape them into incredibly cohesive releases. His brilliance in the Stones legacy should not be understated.
Why? Because, no matter what was needed within the sound and mood of a song, Miller's production genius helped to get it across. A good song is a good song and the eight originals and one cover here are all good songs, but the individual care and treatment tendered to each track helps, in cohesion with the performances, to transcend them to brilliant. "Gimme Shelter" needs the near-mystic power of Clayton's vocal to drive home Keith's stinging guitar and Mick's half-pleading, half-warning vocal, just as the title track needs the sloppy, boozy rambling treatment it receives to compliment Jagger's purposely comical cloying. "Midnight Rambler" wouldn't have had half the scary power it has without the churning grind of the open and close, Jagger's harmonica doing a surprisingly good job of playing off a typically loose and effective performance from Richards. Of course, "You Can't Always Get What You Want" is perhaps the band's absolute apex as a production piece. It takes more than just a little bit of genius to make Jagger sound convincingly innocent by this point, but everything about the track drives home the atypical wide-eyed optimism offered by Mick and company. For all this, the track which gets very little mention in retrospect is "Monkey Man," and I consider that to be a shame. This is a vintage Stones performance all the way through, from the slinky churn of the basic tune to the surreal and pretty damned funny lyrics within. "I'm a fleabit peanut monkey, all my friends are junkies... that's not really true." Bad boy hilarious! Jagger's vocal is a nice teasing compliment to the mood and tone of the song, but what really makes this a stellar track is Keith's guitar work. For all the guitar highs on this album, and there are plenty of them, this track is strangely my favorite. Especially with the extended instrumental break starting at about 1:45 of the song, this is Richard's at his aggressive, chunky, brutal, soaring and sloppy best, everything I love about his work and pretty much all his trademarks rolled into one nifty little package. That kind of work underneath lines like "I'm a cold Italian pizza, I could use a lemon squeezer... what do you do?" make me answer, "Well... me, I just kinda sit back and listen and chuckle in wonder... how 'bout you?"
If you're going to be the consummate bad-boy band of the sixties, and if you're going to release an album hoping to summarize the hopes and fears, the triumphs and sorrows, the agonies and the ecstacies of the decade before moving on, you best realize you're taking on a Herculean task. Obviously, the Stones met the challenge, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who's life was never again quite the same. I adore this album. I did on the day of it's release, I do now, and if someday I can find a way to take a copy with me to the hereafter, I assure you, I will.
I mentioned in a Strawbs retrospective a while back about that band having one of the most impressive four-album runs in rock history; how about Beggar's Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971) and Exile On Main Street (1972)? I'd say that qualifies for inclusion on any "as good as it gets" list... Here's a line about a classic album you might have easily forgotten; "the album was originally released in the U.S on LP record, reel to reel tape and 8-track cartridge..." Delia Smith is pretty much the British equivalent to Julia Childs, in that she's usually acknowledged as the biggest star television chef in the country's media history. As a relative unknown back in '69, it was she who baked the cake used on the cover of Let It Bleed. As much as I've always liked the cover, I never understood the reasoning behind it until I found out that the cover design was actually for the album's working title, Automatic Changer. Personally, I'm glad they changed the title and didn't change the cover... The cover was, by the way, one of ten chosen by the Royal Mail in England for a set of "Classic Album Cover" postage stamps issued in January of 2010... Re-reading (after all these years; I didn't remember a bit of it) the original review of this album written by Greil Marcus that appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine made me really nostalgic for a couple of reasons. First, of course, it was nice to be reminded about what a great rock critic Marcus was; I loved his writing (even though he comically hates the cover of this album!). Second, it was good to read such a passionate, in-depth review of an instant classic. Marcus obviously had no word limit on the review; it takes the time to explore the potential social significance of the album, and in general is written in a way that reviews are rarely written any more. It was quite a vibrant reminder as to how much all this meant not just to us, but to the changing world and to art and culture. You can find the original review here; it's well worth your time, a nice reminder of how passionate a good critic can be in regards to his or her work.