I wanted to start a little dialogue on what makes the Rolling Stones so great, so I challenged Matt Fogelson of Fine Tuning to talk about his favorite album, Exile on Main St, while I talked about Let it Bleed. Matt writes a hell of a blog, and you should check out his thoughts here.
Why are the Rolling Stones the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World? Is it because they’re all old as dirt and still touring 50 years after they first got together? No. Is it because Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have transcended their human forms and become archetypes in their own lives? No.
It is simply because they play rock & roll better than any other band. They are not the fastest, they are not the most talented, and they are not the flashiest. But as a band, they have the best handle on what rock & roll music is supposed to sound like: organic, slightly sloppy. Rollicking, a touch boozy, hopped up on sex and cigarettes. They are the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World because they may actually be the Only Rock & Roll Band in the World.
The Beatles played rock & roll, but not much after Rubber Soul. Led Zeppelin played rock—rock & roll’s heavier, angrier cousin. But the Rolling Stones have always just done rock & roll, and on this one album, 1969’s Let it Bleed, they not only played rock & roll, but played it with all its possible shadings: melancholy country, speed-freak blues, symphonic excess.
It is my favorite Rolling Stones album, and maybe even my favorite album ever.
And when I say it’s my favorite album, I mean that both a set of songs and as a physical object: the disc, the cover art. The cover is weird, to say the least. Cake toppers in the shape of the band, a clock, pizza. Hmm. Then flip to the back. The whole arrangement is wrecked. Record broken, tape pulled out, cake toppers scattered all to hell. One slice pizza, one slice cake removed. The message is clear: take your twee, ordered existence and shove it. Oh, and give me a slice of that damn pizza.
Then, the inside sleeve, black ink printed on lavender paper, a color so delicate that it can’t help but seem decadent. And what does it say, after the credits and right under the “boys in the back room?” All caps, bold type: THIS RECORD SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD.
Before we even get to the music, the Stones have just done a master class in rock & roll aesthetics. It is a both a sneering, over-the-top, caveman product coupled with a self-consciousness, chummy and informal.
1. “Gimme Shelter,” the album’s opener, has rightly been pegged as one of the 60’s definitive songs. It captures the zeitgeist at the end of an era, where innocence and optimism were starting to give way to darker impulses and excesses—rape, murder, as background vocalist Merry Clayton screams. What I think is a little under-celebrated about this track, though, is the intro. It actually seems to fade in, which is an unusual choice even today, and gives the listener the impression that they have opened a door and interrupted an elemental something that has always been in progress.
My favorite moment, though, comes at 3:03. Right after Merry Clayton’s famous voice crack at about 3:01-3:02, you can hear Mick Jagger in the background go “Whoo!” (Listen on headphones and turn it up—might take you a couple passes, but I promise it’s there.) That’s the kind of organic, slightly sloppy detail that makes this album such a winner.
2. The next song cuts a beautiful contrast to the scope and power of “Gimme Shelter.” That’s another part of this record’s appeal, at least for me: each track presents something a little different from its predecessor, and that contrast heightens the appeal of each new song. “Love in Vain” is one of the most sensitive, intimate performances the Stones ever laid down. It’s not so much a rock & roll song as pure country blues, a tribute to rock & roll’s roots and just one of the ways that the Stones manage to keep touch with those elements on the record. The Beatles put out Abbey Road just days before Let it Bleed was released, and from this microcosm, it’s hard to imagine two more different records—“Love in Vain” is resolutely traditional rather than modern.
3. The case of “Country Honk” is a curious one. It would appear to be a re-working of “Honky Tonk Women,” which was released in July 1969, but in reality, this country-rock version was recorded first, back in March. After “Honky Tonk Women” was released as a single, this prototype version found its way onto Let it Bleed. Why?
The simple answer is that it was probably intended as album filler. But its inclusion offers a great window onto the band’s creative process, and plays around with the notion of an “unplugged” version a good twenty years before MTV started using the term. It’s an atmospheric track that almost convinces you that it was recorded on a Mississippi street corner, an illusion helped by another great off-the-cuff Mick Jagger performance in the introduction.
4. When I first deciphered the lyrics to “Live With Me” in my tender pre-teenage years, I knew without a doubt that this was not one I should play in the car with my parents. This song is unrepentantly dirty, with a nasty, strutting groove. The bass intro alone is enough to loosen your belt, and you expect to discover a hickey on your neck by the time the song explodes in a fearsome Bobby Keys saxophone solo. Like some much of this album, it’s a lesson on another part of rock & roll’s DNA: sex is ingrained in the music (just look up the origins of the term “rock & roll,” why dontcha?), and the Stones provide a potent reminder here.
5. If I have to admit that there’s a weak song on this album, I’ll throw “Let it Bleed” to the lions. Like “Country Honk,” it was probably intended as filler. It’s fine, but not exceptional, and seems like it was written just so the album could have a title track. There is, though, one redeeming moment. The lyric “I was dreaming of a steel guitar engagement/when you drunk my health in scented jasmine tea” has always struck me as a weird and beautiful piece of imagery. I think it’s something about the contrast of metal and tea—inorganic and organic. Make of it what you will.
Phew! That’s it for side one–tune back in next week, and I’ll flip the album over and discuss side two…serial killers, monkeys, and a boy’s choir await!