I’ve been listening to The Rolling Stones‘ 1969 LP “Let It Bleed” for the past week. Each week, I give attention to an album widely considered great in order improve my own craft as a songwriting musician. I’m also getting to hear a lot of great music as a result. “Exile on Main Street” had its turn a couple of months ago. I’ve been into that album for a few years already, but “Let It Bleed” as an album is new to me. I’ve enjoyed some familiar tracks and been introduced to some I hadn’t heard before. Though overall not as good as “Exile,” there’s a lot to appreciate on “Let It Bleed”.
The opening guitar riff of “Gimme Shelter” has long been one of my favorites. It’s an oddly muted and gently picked arpeggio on a clean electric guitar through either a tremolo or Leslie, with a simple solo of sparse notes played on a slightly overdriven electric guitar. I love this amazing and highly unusual sound. The strange chord progression (I-VII-VI) adds to the urgent yet eerie atmosphere. Normally, a descending progression would continue to the fifth to provide a natural sounding return to the tonic, but that doesn’t happen in this song.
With it’s a chorus of “War, children, it’s just a shot away; It’s just a shot away”, this song has appropriately been used in countless documentaries and movies, especially those dealing with the Vietnam War. The very sound of the intro conjures of those images; since I wasn’t born until after the Vietnam War, I can’t say if the documentaries are the reason or if it is the song itself. Generally speaking, the lyrics of these songs reflect the hopes and anxieties of the late 1960s, including serial killers.
This dark topic is explored in “Midnight Rambler“. As a narrative, the song progresses like the classic spooky tales where the murderer keeps getting closer and closer. The perspective of the lyrics changes throughout and we wonder who is speaking. Mick asks “Did you hear about the midnight rambler?” suggesting that he is an innocent gossip spreading a warning tale. As descriptions grow more detailed and the murderer gets closer, the speaker becomes the assailant. This leads up to the final verse, where all is violent confusion:
Did you hear about the midnight rambler?
He’ll leave his footprints up and down your hall.
And did you hear about the midnight gambler,
And did you see me make my midnight call,
And if you ever catch the midnight rambler,
I’ll steal your mistress from under your nose.
I’ll go easy with your cold fanged anger .
I’ll stick my knife right down your throat, baby, and it hurts.
The song’s V-IV-I chord progression (though it might be I-VII♭-IV) drives along with a slightly menacing bluesy eight-note groove. In keeping with the lyrics, the accompaniment builds slowly in intensity until dropping to a near-crawl at the half-way point. From there the tempo gradually ramps up in speed again rising in crescendo to the stabbing at the end.
There’s a bit of country influence on these songs, but the worst example is “Country Honk“. It’s a country reworking* of their great song “Honky Tonk Women” which had been released as a single earlier. Unfortunately, they really just made a mockery of both country music and their own song. It’s the weakest moment of the album. Better is the old blues song “Love in Vain“, which is a cover of a song by Robert Johnson. Because I’ll be getting to Robert Johnson in a later week, though, I’ll hold on discussing it
The strong title track “Let It Bleed” uses a regular I-IV-V-V7 chord progression. The feel-good sing-along first chorus says “Well, we all need someone we can lean on and if you want it, you can lean on me” with later choruses playfully replacing “lean” with “dream”, “cream”, and “bleed.” I’m not sure how much sarcasm we can read into the chorus, but the verses seem to tell a much different tale. Notice here also the rhyme scheme as well as the repeated use of slightly similar sounding three word phrases.
I was dreaming of a steel guitar engagement
When you drunk my health in scented jasmine tea
But you knifed me in my dirty filthy basement
With that jaded, faded, junky nurse oh what pleasant company
My favorite track “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” opens with a boy’s choir singing the first verse. I believe removing this intro would be an improvement. Then the song repeats a I-IV chord progression almost the whole way through, with the choruses ending with a II-IV-I cadence. The sound of Mick Jagger’s clean vocals up-front with a lone acoustic guitar is a great opening to the song. With the last line of the first chorus, a piano and organ add to the accompaniment. A choir of voices join Mick to sing “You get what you need”.
Like other songs on the album, the verses are narrative with the chorus providing a message or lens through which to see the verses. The chorus of “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” provides a great way to close the album about the turbulent 1960s. This bumper-sticker type of philosophy usually makes me roll my eyes, but the way they work with the verses makes it OK. The fourth verse is probably my favorite; I love the narrative of a small moment through which we get a glimpse of a character’s life.
I went down to the Chelsea drugstore
To get your prescription filled
I was standing in line with Mr. Jimmy
And man, did he look pretty ill
We decided that we would have a soda
My favorite flavor, cherry red
I sung my song to Mr. Jimmy
Yeah, and he said one word to me, and that was “dead”
* Correction: After writing this, I learned that “Country Honk” was the original version of the song and the Rolling Stones thought it would be interested to redo the Hank Williams style song as a rock song. I still think that “Country Honk” is an embarrassingly bad attempt at country music that borders on parody.