It’s about time I talked about an album other people have heard of, right?
I dig the Rolling Stones, say what you will about them. I have all of their studio albums, but this one has a very special significance to me, because it’s the first for me. This is where it all began, the crossroads where I went from not knowing who sang “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as an naive and kind of stupid teenager, to being a man. A man who had nothing better to do but listen to Let It Bleed about a hundred times.
Nearly a decade has passed since I first purchased this album after hearing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on the classic radio and needing to purchase it. I have since collected Rolling Stones albums wherever I could get them, and though this album does not contain my favorite Stones song, it DOES contain the 3 runners-up. One of those runner-ups is the opener, “Gimme Shelter“. I can’t explain why this is one of the best rock songs of all time, it just is. You know a song has earned its credibility when rumors go around that Merry Clayton singing backup on this song caused her to have a miscarriage. That’s Rock N’ Roll, my friends.
The song starts the album on a theme of chaos and darkness, though not on a level quite as obvious as the song “Paint It, Black” which appeared on the earlier album Aftermath. Songs like “Gimme Shelter” kind of paint a picture of a war-torn world where everything’s going wrong, “Monkey Man” sort of gives an existential if not nihilistic message that the singer (like the rest of us) is just an ape who’s been abused all his life, and the only right thing to do is party with songs like “Live With Me” and “Let It Bleed”, and then the album ends on the best album-ending song ever. Not too shabby, really.
After “Gimme Shelter”, the band instantly tones it down for not one, but two songs. The Robert Johnson delta blues cover “Love In Vain” and “Country Honk”, the embryonic version of “Honky Tonk Women”, which I consider to be one of the best country songs ever written by an English whitey.
Then the party is back on again with “Live With Me”, which paints a great portrait of the more reasonable side of the free-lovin’ 60′s movement:
Whoa, the servants they’re so helpful, dear
The cook she is a whore
Yes, the butler has a place for her
Behind the pantry door
The maid, she’s French, she’s got no sense
She’s wild for Crazy Horse
And when she strips, the chauffeur flips
The footman’s eyes get crossed
The Rolling Stones were always at their best when just throwing some Blues, Country, and good ol’ Rock N’ Roll out there. It’s really hard to believe that, not two years previous, they were tripping out in psychedelic outer space with the “it’s barely an album” Their Satanic Majesties Request (not to put that album down, the 2 actual songs that are on it amidst the noise are really great). It’s also surprising how well the album turned out amidst the turmoil of original member Brian Jones falling out with and being dismissed from the band and being replaced by Mick Taylor, only to die shortly afterward. His contributions to Let It Bleed, though his final album, are pretty minimal, so pressing on…
“Midnight Rambler” is the only song I’m not super-crazy about, perhaps just for its length of 7 minutes, though that was certainly needed to accommodate the tempo changes that occur. Actually, I’m listening to the song right now and I think not listening to it lately made me like it again. It should stand on the record, though, that usually I don’t care much for the song.
Part-time guitarist and full-time junkie Keith Richards makes his singing debut on the next track, “You Got The Silver”, which features some nice slide guitar and that kind of blues-country blend that the band started up with “Love In Vain” and “Country Honk”. It’s really quite a nice song despite being overshadowed by the next two songs, which, along with the opening track, make up those 3 follow-up favorite songs of mine.
The song “Monkey Man” is a song that, to my own personal sensibilities, is about as perfect as songs get. For one, it starts with a really hot bass-line, which should be well-documented as one of my favorite things in songs. The piano chords played in the background are wonderfully… I don’t know, mysterious… The mystery is solved when we find out that the guitar did it, and the drums helped, because man both of those instruments are in top form for this track. The thing I’ve always said about Charlie Watts is that he is one of the best drummers in rock not so much because he is fast or flashy, quite the opposite, it’s because he plays the song on the drums. It’s as if his drumming has its own hold on the melody, in a way that can only be really told by this fact: once, when Mick Jagger, perhaps due to a slip of the tongue, called Charlie “his drummer”, Charlie punched him right in the gol’dern mouth. THAT’S Rock N’ Roll, my friends.
The vocals in “Monkey Man” can’t be ignored, either (and apparently can’t be shown on Youtube either, so you’ll have to settle for that video up there with the hideous mic-cam). By the end when Mick screams “I’m a monkeeeeeey”, you can try to emulate that in the shower, car, or clothing store changing room, but you will wreck your voice.
Speaking of voices, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, which starts with an all-boy orchestra choir, is the closer to this album. I once considered putting together a list of the all-time best songs to end an album with (and might still someday, even though I am not a fan of objective lists), and of the hundreds of albums I have heard, I am convinced that this would sit at number 1. After everything the album goes through, darkness, parties, love, and being a monkey, at the end of it all, it comes down to the message of this song. The vocals are astounding, from Mick’s own performance and the wonderful backup vocals in the chorus, to the entire choir of young boys bringing the song in and coming back in at the end to crescendo with the song so intensely that all that can possibly happen at that point, in accordance with God’s own law of Thermodynamics, is a fade-out complete with double-time on the drums.
And that is Rock N’ Roll, my friends.
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