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.
25. If there was any question of the Stones’ intentions on “Let It Bleed”, they’re squashed on following track “Midnight Rambler”, a sinister Chicago blues murder ballad based on the Boston Strangler who raped and murdered women in the early ‘60s.
26. The Stones take the blues for a spin here, sliding through tempo changes from the shuffling beginning to the racing beat of the bridge to the way-slowed-down breakdown, which finally gives way to the song’s initial blues shuffle.
27. Jagger’s harmonica playing is crunchy, soulful, and rowdy as it interweaves with Richards’ slide guitar
28. The fourth verse, the one without drums, is scary. Everything slows down, and Jagger tells his ghost story: “Well, you heard about the Boston…” he breaks off with a jump and a moan, unwilling to invoke the full name of the evil he warns his listeners about.
“You Got the Silver”
29. Richards’ lone vocal on Let It Bleed, rootsy country ballad “You Got the Silver” offers a welcome reprieve from the brutal darkness of its predecessors.
30. In his last performance with the band, multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones recorded a swelling autoharp that adds just enough atmosphere to lift the song into the heavens.
31. Though Richards pours out his soul to his love interest (his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg) here, there’s a hint of paranoia and fear of her leaving in the lines, “What’s that laughing in your smile?” and “You got your love, just leave me blind.” Perhaps the paranoia was warranted, considering Pallenberg had also been romantically involved with both Jagger and Jones.
32. The warmth of the organ and bounce of the piano, both performed by Hopkins, add a jolt of energy to Richards’ pining at the most opportune moment, saving the ballad from becoming drab.
33. “Monkey Man” sounds like luxury rock, pulling from funk, soul, and gospel styles, and contrasts nicely against the spartan Americana of much of the record.
34. Wyman’s twinkling vibraphone and Hopkins’ chimey piano offer the album’s brightest musical moments as they rise above the steady chug of Wyman’s bass.
35. Perhaps the most surreal song on Let It Bleed, “Monkey Man” takes a satirical look at the Stones’ public persona with Jagger contradicting himself: “I’m a fleabit peanut monkey/ All my friends are junkies/ That’s not really true.” The Stones’ approach here brings to mind Taylor Swift’s Reputation, an album full of tongue-in-cheek caricatures of Swift’s lifestyle.
36. The lines “Well, I hope we’re not too messianic/ Or a trifle too satanic/ We love to play the blues” perfectly sum up the Stones’ desires to just play rock and roll, not change the world, while making reference to their 1967 album, Their Satanic Majesties Request.
37. Jagger’s absurd, falsetto chanting at the song’s end is fantastic, bringing to mind Janis Joplin and James Brown.
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
38. Things turn from satirical to serious in an instant on the album’s closer, beginning with the beautiful performance by the Jack Nitzsche-arranged London Bach Choir.
39. It’s a brief moment, but studio musician Al Kooper’s French horn line over simple guitar chords fills the song with so much hope.
40. As the beat explodes, percussionist Rocky Dijon works the same magic he concocted on “Sympathy for the Devil” with congas, maracas, and tambourines to create a rhythm we’ll never forget.
41. The sentiment of the chorus — that you’ll get what you need, even if it’s not what you want — is a mark of maturity for the Stones that builds on the frustration of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and decides that life will carry on anyway.
42. All four of the song’s verses are excellent. But the way Jagger and Richards connect the imagery of the first and last — the wine and the blood, the footloose man and the bleeding man — is immaculate.
43. Verse two summarizes the ‘60s — a decade of protests for civil rights, for the end of the Vietnam War, among many social issues. Jagger offers an encouragement to keep venting, even though many issues weren’t resolved by the decade’s end.
44. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is expertly mixed, considering its maximalist approach, and ends on a perfectly peaceful note as the angelic choir engulfs the band’s rhythm in heavenly light.
45. Let It Bleed is by no means a concept album. But after eight tracks of darkness, grit, violence, and sex, the choice to close with a gospel-inspired anthem feels like baptism — saying goodbye to the decade past and looking forward with hope to the one impending.
46. Musical and stylistic cohesion in an album is typically a desirable trait. Let It Bleed rejects reason, however, with its gospel, blues, country, and rock and roll songs arranged in no particularly pleasant sequence. Yet, it’s somehow perfectly executed.
47. The different influences and styles which create the building blocks of Let It Bleed offer a snapshot of The Rolling Stones in transition between the austere production of Beggars Banquet and the swaggering strut of Sticky Fingers.
48. Losing a founding band member, especially one as versatile as Brian Jones, can be detrimental to a band’s chemistry. While his ear for songcraft is certainly missed, The Stones shifted gears with ease and created one of their greatest records.
49. The Rolling Stones’ grasp on American roots music in 1969 was honestly better than most of their American contemporaries. Their importance in carrying on the country and blues tradition in rock music is immeasurable.
50. Robert Brownjohn’s cake-tire-pizza-clock album cover is surreal enough. But the album’s back cover, which depicts the cover’s disintegration with a sinking cake-topper band, broken record, and eaten food, highlights the violence and disturbance hiding within Let It Bleed.