6 December marks the golden jubilee of an album that encapsulated the dusk gathering on the horizon of the late 60s and helped define the definitive sound and enduring stature of The Rolling Stones. Let it Bleed stands shoulder to shoulder with the finest LPs the Stones ever produced and gave credence to their self-ordained status as “the greatest rock & roll band in the world.”
The album was written, recorded and released at a time of turbulent upheaval, both for the band and their cultural backdrop. Progress had been imprinted in the lunar sand by Neil Armstrong’s one small step and flower-power had bloomed to its most radiant apogee at Woodstock. Yet ideological war raged in the agent orange decimated jungles of Vietnam and the voices of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been silenced by assassin’s bullets.
Death had also come knocking at the Stones’ door. Brian Jones, the band’s wayward founder, had been discovered dead in his swimming pool, aged 27, on 3 July 1969. His expulsion from the band three months earlier scarcely dampened the devastating blow of his death on its remaining members. The free concert the Stones had arranged to play at Hyde Park three days later to showcase their new guitarist, Mick Taylor, was rebranded in honour of Jones’s memory.
Let it Bleed’s recording sessions began in February 1969 and continued through to November. The sessions featured Brian Jones’s last contributions as a Rolling Stone, and Mick Taylor’s first, but most of the album’s guitar work fell into the capable hands of Keith Richards. The album’s style harks back the predecessors of rock & roll: blues, country, gospel, and even splash of choral, all given fresh voice by the Stones’ signature ramshackle grandeur.
The darkness lying within and without the band dominated the sound reflected in Let it Bleed’s sonic mirror. Gimme Shelter, Let it Bleed’s opener and Keith’s standout contribution, details the encroaching proximity “just a shot away” of the menace coming to overshadow the era’s increasingly erstwhile optimism. Mick Jagger’s You Can’t Always Get What You Want offers something of wistful suggestion of the passing of the hippie generation’s rose-tinted nativity. Midnight Rambler, an epic collaborative effort courtesy of both Glimmer Twins, relates a foreboding vignette of the Boston Strangler which nods to the Manson Murders of August that year. All three quickly ascended to the canonical echelons of the band’s—even then—extensive back catalogue, and remain fan favourites and live set stalwarts.
Let It Bleed was released on 5 December 1969, towards the end of the final, American leg of the Stones’ world tour of that year. Upon release, the album achieved immediate critical and commercial success. It usurped The Beatles’ Abbey Road from the number one spot in the UK charts and peaked at number 3 on the US billboard 200.
But the era would soon spite the Stones for the praise and success they’d garnered from recasting its image in sound. The cacophonous exuberance of the Stones’ tour was due to reach its crescendo a week after Let it Bleed’s release at a huge free concert at California’s Altamont Speedway. Touted as the ‘Woodstock of the West,’ the show that ensued was anything but. Violence marred the event from the off and reached a grim nadir with the fatal stabbing of a young fan, Meredith Hunter, in front of the stage by Hell’s Angels hired as security.
50 years on, Let it Bleed remains a timeless testament to its age—an album of beautiful beginnings, and violent endings.
A fitting swansong for a fraying decade.