Let It Bleed

The Rolling Stones

Abkco Records, 1969


REVIEW BY: Gus Rocha


The ending played like rock n’ roll. The end was rock n’ roll. It was sardonic laughter and the vanishing reflection of juvenile angst and longing. In a way, the end mirrored the beginning, unfolding in a specific and singular moment: December 1969: a last consequential flash in the pan in this final winter of the last American decade, when both the music scene and the culture at large feel insufferable. And there's a good reason.

Culturally, everything seems stuffy and dense, so much so that breathing suddenly feels like a laborious act, unpleasant and not unlike swallowing large quantities of Styrofoam. It’s as if everyone had woken up one morning and found the day exceptionally clear, everything shamelessly exposed for what it was: inescapably decadent and spurious, cosmetic and dull.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the social and political movements that had gained momentum just a few years prior presently appear anemic and weak, while out West, just about every progenitor of the hippy movement seems burnt-out and fed up with the whole thing. In the heartland, the ongoing political referendum on social progress begins to yield a predictably discouraging outcome, as scores of citizens abandon the political parties of their parents as they flee the cities of their childhood. And in the amorphous landscape of space-age suburbia, ambitious types begin to sedulously set their sights on the potential cornucopia of technological achievements that would ultimately spark the information revolution and define our present world.

Against this increasingly disjointed backdrop, GDP growth takes an unexpected tumble as the nation slides into its second recession in less than ten years, while all across the country, TV sets bring the harrowing images of a divisive and seemingly interminable war into millions of American living rooms.

Far from the rosiest picture. Gesellschaft and solipsism make for a potent cocktail, and by December of 1969, a lot of people are downright tossing it back. For many, the pendulum appears to be swinging in the opposite direction, away from a counterculture whose antics have grown stale, and the crummy feeling you get when you’ve just been dumped or fired begins to feel pervasive.

This looming threat of impending cultural malaise explains why for millions of young people, there’s a sudden experience of dread and perceived betrayal related to them losing all that they’ve ever had, which is the privilege that comes along with carefree detachment and pie-in-the-sky idealism. Following the public assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, failed student protests across Europe and the US; and Richard Nixon’s election as president, youth and optimism no longer feel like adequate protection from the grim reality of life. In December of ‘69, the real world came knocking, and the youth needed a second, a moment of fresh air to gather their thoughts and take it all in.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

But what they got wasn’t a second, it was forty-five minutes of one of the last true statements rock n’ roll would ever make. A dissolute and angry shout whose echo technology and the insulating fabric of capitalism have preserved so that fifty years later, it retains the same candid feeling of disgust at having to grow up: Let It Bleed, the last album the Rolling Stones would ever release in the 1960s. The last record to feature founding member Brian Jones and the first to showcase guitar virtuoso, Mick Taylor, Let It Bleed stands as the Stones’ artistic pinnacle, crafted during a time when the group truly lived up to their reputation as “the world’s best rock n’ roll band.”

Few albums since have approached the Stones’ penchant for caustic honesty. Throughout, the album is morose and crude, lacking the childish sentimentality so prevalent among their contemporaries. It pairs well with a bottle of bourbon, as it sees the Stones make their first successful foray into the world of country-rock: “Love In Vain,” “Country Honk,” and “You Got The Silver” stand as lively homages to that other quintessential American sound. The album is also darkly sentimental as the band makes peace with a growing cultural sense of resignation, which in turn, makes it seminal.

Times may have changed, and perhaps, not necessarily for the best. But the Stones don’t care for politics. Playing the blues is their social commentary on America's longstanding racial issues, their nod to Black-American music and culture. “We all need someone we can bleed on” and “you can’t always get what you want” are the group’s guiding philosophical mantras.

 In an album that heralds the sociopolitical hangover and self-absorbed hedonism waiting just around the corner, the Stones wail casually but powerfully through the twelve-bar blues. In Mick Taylor, the group finds the talent, nuance, and musical fluency that had eluded them since their early days so that for the first time, one can appreciate tasteful guitar work at a Rolling Stones concert. Not one to be outshone, Keith Richards takes a few pages out of Taylor’s book, most notably during the group’s rendition of the Robert Johnson delta-blues ballad “Love In Vain” that showcases an admirable blend of the down-home brio and outlaw swag that would come to characterize Richard’s style over the next decade.

This is also the album where we get to see Mick Jagger come into his own as an astutely entertaining, if not dazzling songwriter, credited as the author to all but one track on the record. For their part, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts appear as stolid and nonchalant as ever as they cycle through fast and demanding syncopated blues-rockers like “Midnight Rambler” and “Monkey Man.” And of course, we get a final contribution from Brian Jones, who by then was a tragic shadow of his former self, but who would still manage to provide auxiliary percussion and autoharp embellishments in several numbers (he would also be fired from the band halfway through the recording sessions and eventually drown in his swimming pool five months before the album’s release at the age of 27).

Through all nine of its tracks, there’s an unmistakable sense of urgency that permeates. Equally palpable is the feeling that the band understood their place in history, and that it was theirs and no one else’s job to close out the decade in a way that reflected the gravity and severity of a cultural milieu falling apart at the seams: by playing their unique brand of fast, loud, and debauched twangy English blues-rock right up until the ship sank, bringing them and everyone else down with it. It would be another decade until the same crucial element of defiance would once again resurface prominently in popular music.

It’s in Let It Bleed that the Stones would cement their image as the prototypical rock band, soon to be copied by scores of posers and hacks over the next half-century. And testament to life’s many ironic twists, fifty years later, that last honest moment of youthful causeless rebellion is pristinely preserved in the most impersonal and stalest of media: the internet. It’s true that “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”   

Rating: A

User Rating: A


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