This December marks the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones’ seminal 60s record, “Let it Bleed.” A record which, with its accompanying American tour, marked, and more broadly encapsulated, the end of an era: the 1960s.
The 60s was defined by its youth, aestheticized by the carefree hippie counterculture movement that made pilgrimages to music festivals and experimented with psychedelics. The end of the decade, however, saw the political and social climate become increasingly turbulent. Domestically, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Riots followed. Less than three months later, JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy met a similar fate. In 1969, a string of brutal murders in California by members of the Manson family followed by a deadly stabbing at a Rolling Stones’ concert at the Altamont Speedway further rocked the nation. Overseas, in Southeast Asia, America’s entanglement in the Vietnam War was at its peak. Meanwhile, in Europe, democratic, liberal reforms in Czechoslovakia were crushed under Soviet tanks as the Communists rolled through Prague.
While the world around them was on fire, the Rolling Stones themselves were, by the end of the decade, on the brink of collapse, brimming with financial woe and internal conflict. They hadn’t toured since 1966 (except a few European shows in ’67) and under the new management of Allen Klein, had seen whole swaths of their royalties funneled into Klein’s pockets. Meanwhile, the band’s founder, Brian Jones, had been slowly deteriorating for years, succumbing to his worst, most self-destructive vices. He had been absent for most recording sessions, and, even when present, was barely able to function. While this was happening, his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, left him for Keith Richards. And bassist Bill Wyman was going through his divorce, while Mick Jagger’s relationship with his girlfriend, Marianne Faithful, deteriorated as she spiralled down the rabbit-hole of addiction herself.
It was against this dark and disorderly backdrop that the Rolling Stones began sessions for their 8th U.K. studio album. The bulk of the record was recorded over six-months, beginning in February 1969. What resulted was a record that reflected not just the era in which it was recorded, but the internal state of the band recording it. Rather than allowing themselves to be consumed and destroyed by the turbulence and chaos surrounding them and boiling within, the Stones instead channelled that dark aura onto the grooves of their 1969 magnum opus, “Let It Bleed.”
With Brian Jones’ mental state, weighed down by his addiction, not to mention the bevy of arrests on his criminal record hampering potential U.S. tours, the band had no other option but to replace the founder of the group. On May 30, 1969, Mick Taylor from John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers played his first session with the Rolling Stones in Olympic Studios.
It was around that time that the band recorded the opening track, “Gimme Shelter.” There’s a reason Martin Scorsese used this song in three of his gangster films (“Goodfellas,” “Casino,” and “The Departed”). It starts with a subtle, foreboding guitar riff. Next, as the drums kick in, a new layer is added: a creepy, brooding background vocal, those haunting “oohs,” coupled with the creaking sound of guiros, leading up to Jagger’s vocals. The song is composed and structured to convey the dread of an impending storm, as well as its impact. It’s like a hurricane that starts with a trickle and builds to a thunderous pour. The opening lines, “A storm is threatening my very life today,” were written by Richards in his London apartment, staring out into the dreary, stormy skies and pouring out his anger and frustration at Mick Jagger over a suspected affair he was having with his then–girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg.
The entire composition is elevated, rocketed through the stratosphere in its second half by the soulful Merry Clayton. Her gospel cries, pushing her vocal prowess to its breaking point as her voice cracks on the third iteration singing, “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away,” animate the aesthetics of the era – the late 60s – the racial tensions, the anti–war protests, et al. In those few minutes and simple lyrics, “Gimme Shelter” sends genuine shivers running down your spine.
If “Let it Bleed,” as a record, marked the transition period from the Stones’ Brian Jones era to the Mick Taylor era, then its second track, “Love in Vain,” a Robert Johnson blues cover, is where Keith Richards officially replaced Jones as the blues engine of the band. The tragic irony of this track is that Brian Jones, the man who formed the band with intent to import the blues to Britain, was completely absent from these sessions where the Stones played the purest, most earthly blues they’d done yet. Richards, apart from playing his guitar parts, played all of Jones’, including Jones’ signature slide guitar. While covers are sometimes put on records as filler to make up for lack of material, the Stones’ “Love in Vain” is far from facile. Richards, influenced by Gram Parsons at the time, made the song entirely his own, rewriting it as a country-blues arrangement.
The Stones’ latest single at the time was “Honky Tonk Women.” When it came to putting it on the record, Jagger and Richards stripped the grease and slickness clean off the twangy single, exposing its acoustic, country-blues underpinnings, and releasing it in all its rawness. “Country Honk,” the resulting track, isn’t showy or grand. Whereas “Honkey Tonk Women” is electric, refined, and written for concert venues, “Country Honk” is relaxed and laid-back. It exudes that country aesthetic of southerners sitting back in wooden rocking chairs and strumming their guitars at the ranch, off, somewhere in Jackson, Tennessee.