Gimme a Reason takes classic albums celebrating major anniversaries and breaks down the reasons we still love them so many years later. Today, we celebrate 50 years of The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed.
In 1969, four British bands recorded four prophetic albums with enduring quality. Like all good prophets, these groups weren’t looking to foretell the future as much as give voice to the state of their present world. Led Zeppelin was the voice of the sexual revolution on their second LP with such erotic performances as “Whole Lotta Love”. On their ambitious rock opera Tommy, The Who represented the spiritual excursions of the ‘60s as they related the teachings of Meher Baba. Meanwhile, The Beatles continued to push the boundaries of rock and roll production while holding on to optimism in a tumultuous world on Abbey Road.
In 1969, more prominent than the influence of spiritual awakenings and sexual revolutions, however, was a promise of blood. The Manson Family murdered innocent Hollywoodians; political tensions escalated to deadly riots in Northern Ireland and protests in America; and the war in Vietnam raged on, leading thousands of troops and civilians to lose their lives.
Despite newly elected President Richard Nixon’s promises to pull out of Vietnam, a draft lottery was held on December 1st for the first time since World War II. Four days later, The Rolling Stones, who suffered the loss of founder Brian Jones five months earlier, released a record that photographed the attitude of the moment with a sanguinary earthiness their peers, and even their past selves, hadn’t yet captured.
Violence, death, and distress often necessitate maturation, a time of coming to grips with life’s horrors and deciding how an individual allows it to change them. Let It Bleed finds The Rolling Stones in the midst of that process. On its nine tracks, you hear anger, sexual outbursts, longing for relationship, despair, and ultimately, comfort. The Stones, once fed up that they couldn’t “get no satisfaction,” finally take solace in the truth — that if they look around at the hurting world around them, they just might get what they need.
Click ahead to see why Let It Bleed still gives us so much satisfaction.
01. While guitarist Mick Taylor joined the Stones mid-recording in 1969, Keith Richards handles the fretwork almost exclusively on Let It Bleed. The instantly recognizable riff of “Gimme Shelter”, a descending blues lick, kicks off the rootsy Americana approach of the entire record.
02. The song’s intro is one of rock’s finest examples of slow-building production and layered textures. The initial guitar riff is first joined by Charlie Watts’ sparse drumbeat, a scratchy guiro, and frightful vocal harmonies. Bill Wyman’s thumping bass soon follows, adding gravity to the increasingly menacing track just before Nicky Hopkins juts in with a thunderous piano chord, the last element in The Stones’ threatening storm.
03. The Stones have one of rock’s greatest catalogs of opening lyrics (“I was born in a crossfire hurricane”). Mick Jagger’s cry here, “Ooh, a storm is threatening/ My very life today,” is among their greatest.
04. The Vietnam War era bore much of the 20th century’s most impactful protest music from Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” to Edwin Starr’s “War”. But it’s “Gimme Shelter” that embodies the era’s violent conflicts most urgently, reminding us that war, rape, and murder are “just a shot away.”
05. The Stones are perfect on “Gimme Shelter”. But this song belongs to Merry Clayton, the soul singer who steals the spotlight in the song’s climax as she wails with such righteous passion that her voice breaks, prompting Jagger to whoop off-mic if you listen closely.
06. As the song comes to a close, Jagger’s vocal is launched to the front of the mix as he delivers the hopeful exhortation that “love is just a kiss away.”
07. A favorite of Martin Scorsese, “Gimme Shelter” provides the perfect brooding soundtrack to Ray Liotta’s coke dealing (Goodfellas), Joe Pesci’s murderous exploits (Casino), and Jack Nicholson’s intimidation tactics (The Departed).
“Love in Vain”
08. As with Robert Wilkins’ “Prodigal Son” on Beggars Banquet, The Stones remain faithful to the stripped-down approach of ‘20s and ‘30s Americana with their rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain”. The raw production stands in stark contrast to the grandiose album opener.
09. While the Stones’ “Love in Vain” holds fast to Johnson’s spirit, they don’t attempt to replicate his delta blues stylings, opting instead for a Hank Williams-like country treatment complete with the cries of a lonely slide guitar.
10. Multi-instrumentalist Ry Cooder’s frantic mandolin performance interplays with Richards’ cool, porch-swing strumming, creating tension which mirrors the distance between the song’s narrator and his train-riding lover.
11. “Love in Vain” is a heartbreaking song of contrasts, as Jagger highlights in the final lyrics: “When the train left the station/ It had two lights on behind/ Whoa, the blue light was my baby/ And the red light was my mind.” The line’s lasting picture evokes so much emotion with just the use of two colors.
12. “Honky Tonk Women” was released as a single five months prior, and to this day remains one of the Stones’ biggest fan-pleasers. While the single is a high-energy song made for subpar barroom karaoke, album cut “Country Honk” is a campfire sing-along with, honestly, a lot more character.
13. Despite being recorded in London’s Olympic Studios, the song sounds as though it were performed in a dusty honky tonk around a single microphone while cars honked and rumbled outside.
14. Fiddle player Byron Berline really doesn’t seem to care what the Stones are playing on “Country Honk”. He improvises all the way through, bringing a bluegrass spirit to this simple folky ditty.
15. Contrasting against other ‘60s hits like The Beach Boys’ “California Girls” and The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR”, which jubilantly praise women around the world, Jagger and the Stones find the more they travel and the more women they meet, the more heartbreak they endure.
“Live with Me”
16. “Live with Me” is a classic lustful rock song, in many ways a forerunner to the sound of the ‘70s. But there’s something a little off-kilter about it all. In the third verse, Jagger describes his debauchery-filled house to the woman he’s wooing. The question “Don’t you want to live with me?” in the context of the album sounds tongue-in-cheek, as though he’s trying to revolt the woman. Or maybe she just really likes a man with “nasty habits.”
17. Richards, already known for his guitar riffs like “Satisfaction” and “Paint It Black”, lays down one of rock’s great thumping bass riffs in the song’s opening.
18. Richards also trades guitar licks with new guitarist Mick Taylor. Here, the two begin a musical dialogue that would become a staple for the Stones in the ‘70s.
19. Legendary musician Leon Russell adds the bounce of a honky tonk piano to this swaggering song, his only collaboration with the Stones.
20. The bluesy saxophone solo performed by Bobby Keys hearkens to rock’s early hits by Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, and the like, creating a blueprint for ‘70s rock sax performances by the likes of Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band.
“Let It Bleed”
21. The innuendo-filled “Let It Bleed” paints a dirty, lust-filled city of “sex, drugs, and rock & roll” with a grit reminiscent of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
22. While the song begins, like Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me”, with an invitation of brotherly love, Jagger’s mocking delivery gives away the punchline that if you open yourself up to someone, you’re liable to get hurt.
23. It’s subtle, but Wyman’s autoharp in the song’s first verse adds a cold, sharp texture to the instrumentation, as though pinging off the walls of a “dirty, filthy basement.”
24. The double entendres evoking both sexual and violent imagery, while perhaps not intended by the Stones, offer a nuanced commentary on the fetishization of violence in the late ‘60s. Jagger sounds a little too happy, or at least nonchalant, as he sings, “Why don’t you bleed on me.”
Click ahead for more reasons Let It Bleed still gives us so much satisfaction.