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‘Let It Bleed’: Why the Stones’ Nastiest Masterpiece Feels Right on Time

Their 1969 classic remains the band’s darkest LP, and that’s why it sounds perfect right now

Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones performs during the band's 1969 Hyde Park Concert in memory of deceased founder Brian Jones.

Ray Stevenson/Shutterstock

December 1969: The Rolling Stones are capping off their decade of triumph with a new album. It’s called Let It Bleed. The songs ooze doom, death, darkness, and destruction. Right from the start, it’s an album full of bad news, from the opening guitar shivers of “Gimme Shelter.” “That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that,” Mick Jagger told Jann S. Wenner in his 1995 Rolling Stone interview. “It’s a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War. Violence on the screens. Pillage and burning.”

Fifty years after it came out, Let It Bleed sounds timelier than ever. Amid all the chaos, the Stones made a masterpiece that holds up as the ultimate rock & roll album for bleak times, which is why it feels like the most 2019 album of 1969. Their darkest album, yet also their funniest — not to mention their greatest. They dropped Let It Bleed in the final days of a decade that didn’t turn out the way they or anyone else hoped. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Monkey Man,” “Midnight Rambler” — these are warning shots, serving notice that the Sixties’ dreams are about to cannonball into Brian Jones’ swimming pool, never to return alive.

The Stones spent the summer of 1969 making it with producer Jimmy Miller, starting in London but wrapping it up in L.A., where Mick and Keith Richards crashed at Stephen Stills’ Laurel Canyon mansion. It captures the L.A. moment Quentin Tarantino depicts in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, with lost souls roaming the streets. The Stones caught the sordid desperation in the air like nobody else. On the album, as in the movie, you never know when the wrong acid-dipped cigarette might explode into a late-night orgy of awaaay-we-go violence. And you never know when the guitars will turn into a flamethrower blast: The Fourteen Fists of Keith.

The Stones made Let It Bleed in a cloud of bad vibes — in other words, their comfort zone. It’s their Keith-iest album, the one where he plays nearly all the guitars. The drugs were getting deadlier. (As Keith told Rolling Stone in 1971, “Don’t take my example. Take Jimi Hendrix. Or not.”) The wars. The riots. The assassinations. It’s all just a shot away.

The essential new 50th-Anniversary Limited Deluxe Edition tells the whole story of the album, with stereo and mono remixes that reveal new nuances in the music. The new version enhances the details, from Merry Clayton’s gospel screams in “Gimme Shelter” to Bill Wyman’s autoharp at the start of “Let It Bleed.” There’s also a reproduction of the original “Honky Tonk Women” single, plus an 80-page book with a David Fricke essay and previously unseen photos by Ethan Russell. But however you hear it, Let It Bleed never stops giving up fresh chills and surprises.

The Stones never planned it as a tombstone for the decade. They were just trying to crush out a record in time for their fall U.S. tour. For the tour’s climax, they announced a free show in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. What better place to top Woodstock and sum up the Sixties’ hopes and ideals— right down the street from Haight-Ashbury? But the dream was over. At the last minute, the concert got relocated to Altamont Speedway and turned into the Hells Angels bloodbath seen in the film Gimme Shelter. The Stones dropped Let It Bleed the day before Altamont. If they’d given another listen to their own album, they probably would have known better than to show up.

Brian Jones was no longer around to clutter up Keith’s action with dulcimers or marimbas; he plays on only a couple of songs, adding barely audible percussion. Tragically, Brian was finally falling apart after constant attacks from the London cops, who broke this butterfly on a wheel. In one typical bust, they claimed they found hash in his flat, hidden in a ball of blue wool. Brian’s courtroom defense was classic: He testified, “I’ve never had a ball of wool in me life. I don’t darn socks.”

But he could no longer function musically. He didn’t even play on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” — he showed up at the studio, yet couldn’t be bothered to get up and plug in. As organist Al Kooper told Rolling Stone, “He was just sort of lying in the corner on his stomach, reading an article on botany.”

While making “Honky Tonk Women,” Jagger, Richards, and Charlie Watts drove straight from the studio to Brian’s house and officially axed him. The week “Honky Tonk Women” hit Number One, Brian died in his swimming pool. As Pete Townshend told Rolling Stone at the time, “Oh, a normal day for Brian.” “Honky Tonk Women” became the final Number One U.S. hit of a radio summer that began so cheerfully with “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In.” The late, great Nick Tosches described the shock of first hearing it, on an Avenue A bar jukebox: “It strutted its indolence, like one who nods off while fucking.”

You can see Brian on the album cover, smiling on the cake even though he was already dead. You can also see his 20-year-old replacement, Mick Taylor, on the turntable a few inches under Brian. The Stones officially debuted Taylor at their July 6th free concert in London’s Hyde Park, which became a Brian memorial; butterflies were released into the air while Mick read Shelley’s poem “Adonais” to the crowd. They figured it would be easy to play the same kind of free show on the West Coast a few months later. But California wasn’t London, the Hell’s Angels weren’t butterflies, speed wasn’t grass, and December wasn’t July. By Altamont, the Age of Aquarius was already buried right next to Brian.

“Let It Bleed” remains the Stones’ funniest sex comedy: Mick tarts it up with his schoolgirl gasps over Keith’s slide guitar. The songs hit all kinds of emotional extremes: Keith’s ragged vocal on “You Got the Silver,” Mick’s high-lonesome blues in Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” the aristocrat burlesque of “Live With Me.” But if anything sums up the mood, it’s the horror show “Midnight Rambler” — the blues epic where Mick rants about all the bad news coming for all December’s children. The song hit harder than ever this summer, as the 12-minute climax of the band’s U.S. stadium tour. Everybody got to know, because everybody got to go.

Famously, when they played Atlantic City in 1989, the Stones refused to go on when they found out the casino boss was at the gig. Keith pulled out a knife, slammed it on a table and declared, “One of us is leaving the building — either him or us.” The owner backed down and left. Thirty years (and a few bankruptcies) later, he’s now the president, playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at campaign rallies. The names and details change, but every cop’s a criminal and all the sinners saints. That’s why Let It Bleed sounds so timely — no matter what disaster is going down, Mick sings like he saw it coming.

These days Let It Bleed might not have the same marquee value as Exile or Sticky Fingers, but it’s ripe for rediscovery. As Greil Marcus wrote in his original Rolling Stone review, it’s about “this era and the collapse of its bright and flimsy liberation.” In a way, the Stones save the scariest moment for the finale: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” This song has aged into such a beloved standard, it’s easy to sleep on how dark it is. (Especially since the London Bach Choir’s camp vocals make it seem more saccharine than it should.) But seeing the Stones play it onstage this summer, in a stripped-down four-man version, was a welcome reminder of the song’s hardcore spirit. It’s the same apocalypse as “Gimme Shelter,” but it’s the kind you have to keep living with when the song is over, constantly striving and failing to get what you want, face to face with the compromises and betrayals of everyday life. Fifty years later, that’s a story that never gets old. And that’s why Let It Bleed stubbornly refuses to fade into the past — like the Stones themselves.