By 1969, The Rolling Stones were in total disarray.
From page 61 of Classic Rock Magazine April 2005
Hounded by the establishment, they had also turned on themselves: Mick and Keith’s personal lives were tearing the band apart. Then came the death of Brian Jones. Yet out of the chaos and tragedy came Let It Bleed – possibly the best album they ever made.
WORDS: SEAN EGAN
was a wretched year for The Rolling Stones. It would see them sack founder member Brian Jones and then learn mere weeks later that he was dead. It would also see a suicide attempt by Mick Jagger’s girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, endless problems with their unscrupulous and constantly absent manager Allen Klein, drug busts, and finally a concert at Altamont, California, at which several members of the audience died, including a man killed by one of the Hell’s Angels hired as security in front of the stage.
On top of all that, at the beginning of the year more than one band member must have wondered whether the group even had a future: in late 1968, on the set of the movie Performance, Mick Jagger had callously embarked on an affair with Keith Richards’ partner Anita Pallenberg that had inflicted severe damage on the relationship between the band’s chief songwriters.
Yet somehow, from this seemingly endless series of traumas, trials and tribulations, the Stones snatched a stunning artistic victory: Let It Bleed, the album they made during this period, and companion piece, single Honky Tonk Women, are for many not only the Stones’ greatest aesthetic achievements, but also high-water marks in rock history. In fact, it may even be the case that without those traumas the record would not be the masterpiece it is.
As Keith Altham, music publicist/journalist and long-term band friend, observes of Richards: “I think you can hear him bleeding on Let It Bleed. I think a lot of the unhappiness that [the affair] caused him went into that record, a lot of the angst went into his playing. It’s probably what makes it the great album that it is.” By September 1968 Jagger and Richards were best friends and – after Lennon and McCartney – had been the second-greatest composing partnership in rock for several years.
But it was in that month that Jagger began the affair with Anita Pallenberg. It was humiliating and hurtful for the two people closest to them: Jagger was Faithfull’s partner, and Richards was his best friend; equally Richards was Pallenberg’s partner, and Faithfull her best friend.
Furthermore, Jagger and Pallenberg had hardly concealed their affair: their exertions in bed – for real – on the set of Performance were later entered by the director into a porn festival competition. It won top prize.
Amazingly, both the friendship of Jagger and Richards and the relationships with their partners survived, and any tensions were channelled into songs that were taking on an increasingly darker hue.
A case in point is You Can’t Always Get What You Want.
This seven-and-a-half minute epic was the first track to be recorded for Let It Bleed, and closed the album quite spectacularly. Jagger’s lyric was a mixture of the personal and the political, in one verse observing – with the same sympathetic but detached manner that characterised Street Fighting Man – the social upheavals of the time, in others lamenting the descent into hard drug abuse by those close to him, which included Faithfull and Richards (the latter had started dabbling with heroin in anguish at Jagger’s affair with Pallenberg).
On the finished track, however, the sometimes tortured subject matter was offset by a backdrop that featured sweeping musical accompaniment and the vocal frills of the London Bach Choir.
The basic track of You Can’t Always Get... was laid down Checking in/checking out: Mick and Marianne Faithfull turn heads at Heathrow airport in 1969.
at the Stones’ favourite studio, Olympic, on November 16, 1968. A converted cinema, Olympic was located in leafy Barnes, west London, and its main studio had an 80-foot-high ceiling. The producer of the album was Jimmy Miller, the son of a Las Vegas impresario who had first worked with the Stones on 1968’s Beggars Banquet. Olympic engineer Alan O’Duffy describes Miller as “a marvellous chap, a wonderful, entertaining, enthusing man... He was a great fellow to have in a studio. He was from a different planet in a way.
He was a Californian boy and a horse rider and an athlete and a fit man, and he’d pretend to do cocky moves in the control room and he’d dance around. He was hilarious.” O’Duffy was one of several Olympic engineers who would work on Let It Bleed, due to the occasional absences of the band’s preferred main engineer, Glyn Johns.
Another Olympic engineer, George Chkiantz, was less overwhelmed by Miller’s abilities than
O’Duffy: “I always thought Jimmy Miller’s enormous problem with the Stones was that he was a Stones fan before he became their producer, and he couldn’t cope with it,” he says.
“He found it very, very, very hard. Jimmy wasn’t a tough producer. He found it very difficult to contradict.”
In any case, Jagger and Richards were ultimately the producers of the Stones’ records by this point. Jagger dominated, but Richards had a quiet authority, as Chkiantz recalls: “Mick was a loudmouth, but when Keith said ‘No’ it was no. It was quite funny, but I can remember Keith lying behind the desk, apparently asleep. [Mick] was going on about trying to get somebody to play something or other. This one eye suddenly opened, like a lizard, and Keith said ‘No’ and suddenly it was all forgotten.”
Also present at the session for You Can’t Always... were percussionist Rocky Dijon and American keyboardist, guitarist and sometime producer Al Kooper, the latter much in demand through his organ work on Bob Dylan’s epic Like A Rolling Stone.
Although it had been Brian Jones who got him on the session, Kooper was surprised to find that, despite being present, Jones took no part in the recording.
Kooper: “He didn’t participate at all, musically. He lay on his stomach on the floor of the studio and read an article on botany, as a matter of fact.” Jones’s inclination to employ his multi- instrumental talents on Stones records had ebbed increasingly the preceding couple of years, with him heartbroken after losing Pallenberg to Richards, and the leadership of the group to the burgeoning songwriting team of Jagger and Richards. In addition, Jones had been shaken by drug busts that saw him narrowly escape going to prison.
Though the Stones’ women would often be at band sessions, on this occasion a hospitalised Faithfull was absent. She was suffering complications with her pregnancy, and would shortly lose the baby she was expecting with Jagger.
Al Kooper was not overwhelmed by the methodology of his fellow producer Jimmy Miller. “To my ear, he didn’t really add anything,” Kooper says. But here he disagrees with Chkiantz: “It seemed to me that Mick and Keith were producing the record... with an emphasis on Mick.” Kooper’s estimation of Miller went down even further when Jimmy, apparently frustrated in his attempts to get the right drum sound for a track, approached Charlie Watts. “Charlie was having difficulty playing the part that he wanted him to play,” Kooper recalls, “so Jimmy said: ‘Can I sit at the drums for a minute, and I’ll show you exactly what it is?’ And he sat down and he played it for Charlie. And Charlie said: ‘Well why don’t you just play it?’ – and didn’t play drums on the take. He did it with no emotion whatsoever. I thought it was a terrible thing that Jimmy Miller did. I was a producer and I would never do that, especially to someone so talented.” Not that Charlie minded (see box, left).
That was the last Stones recording session of the year. In late 1968 Jagger and Richards and their ladies went on a journey to South America. The trip gave rise to one of the highlights of their career.
Staying on a ranch in Brazil, they began writing Honky Tonk Women. That now classic song was a central part the Let It Bleed sessions, but did not appear on the album due to the then prevailing practice of having stand-alone singles. In its place they put Country Honk, an acoustic lateral version – actually closer to Richards’s original vision of the song in Brazil.
When the group reassembled in the new year, the Stones rehearsed songs for Let It Bleed in their rehearsal space in Bermondsey, south-east London, before going back to Olympic.
By 1969 The Rolling Stones had drifted into the decadent recording modus operandi for which they would become famous and which can only occur when a group is indisputably part of the rock aristocracy – rich enough to waste both time and money.
“Stones sessions were pretty bizarre events,” Chkiantz recalls. “Charlie would probably turn up within three-quarters of an hour of the official start time of the session. Most of the rest of them normally wouldn’t turn up for two or three hours. So Charlie would have his drums set up, and he’d play them and bash them around – drums need to be ‘warmed up’ for a bit – and so on, and we’d just be milling around or chatting. Then Bill Wyman would turn up. The thing would ramble together.” Naturally, the last to arrive would be Jagger and Richards.
Recorded in February 1969, You Got The Silver was a lovely acoustic song of devotion, almost certainly written by Keith alone and therefore almost certainly about Anita Pallenberg. The quasi-worship underpinning the song perhaps gives an indication of why Richards was able to forgive Pallenberg her transgression. Its vulnerability is certainly a refreshing counterpoint to the macho mentality of so many Stones songs. Although it was Richards’s pleasantly reedy voice singing it on the finished album, a version with a Jagger vocal exists. You Got The Silver also has one of the few contributions to the album by Brian Jones, who played autoharp with his car keys.
On February 23 to 25 the band made their first attempts at a song they were still calling Give Me Some Shelter. Eventually released as Gimme Shelter, lyrically it was a song of fear and foreboding, talking of storms and streets of fire threatening the narrator’s life. Musically it was a brutal and gargantuan extrapolation of the blues, teeming with burning guitar lines and driven by slashes of harmonica. It would become the opening track of the album, and to this day it is in many people’s opinion the band’s masterpiece.
“The Triumph amplifiers were the key to Gimme Shelter,” says engineer George Chkiantz, referring to the fact that Richards had discovered an interesting quirk about the sonic qualities of some new amplifiers the Stones had recently acquired. “What they discovered was that these amps would produce this amazing crunch once they’d just got to a certain stage of overheating, just before they’d turn themselves off or blew up. You had to have them at just exactly the right volume, and they had to be going like that for just the right amount of time, then suddenly they would produce this extraordinary sound –
the core to that track.”
On March 9 the group tackled the song Keith had begun to cook up in South America, Honky Tonk Women. It was one the band would come back to again and again during the sessions.
On March 15 the Stones were doing more work on Gimme Shelter. On the same day, Olympic Sound Studios was visited by the London Bach Choir, whose unlikely presence had been requested to provide ‘decoration’ on You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Composer Jack Nitzsche, a friend of the Stones, had prepared a choral arrangement.
Chkiantz recalls a real contrast of cultures at the session: “That was hilarious,” he says.
“Totally strange. The hardy rockers one end, swathed in billowing smoke in the control room, and then 50 feet of no-man’s land with the choir at the other. Every time something needed changing, a lone brave
person was detailed to go across no-man’s land and talk to the arranger. It really was like they almost needed white flags.”
From March 24 to 27 the group worked on Love In Vain, written by semi-mythological blues figure Robert Johnson. It was the only track on the finished album that would feature a contribution by session man Ry Cooder. And Cooder’s presence at the sessions would lead to one of the more contentious episodes of the Stones’ recording career. Departing the sessions early, he claimed that the band had stolen his licks – including the riff to Honky Tonk Women – and denounced them to Rolling Stone magazine as “a reptilian bunch of people”.
Cooder was still around when the group worked on Sister Morphine (written with Marianne Faithfull and originally released by her) in late March. The final version was a powerful and haunting performance with some fine slide work from Cooder, and it would have made a great inclusion on the album. Instead it was held over, and appeared on Sticky Fingers, released in 1971.
At some time during this period, Jagger and Richards took a holiday in
the Italian hill town of Positano. There they came up with some powerful new songs: Midnight Rambler – a slinky, hypnotic song about a menacing figure, with allusions to the serial killer known as the Boston Strangler – and Monkey Man. The band began recording the latter when they reconvened at Olympic on April 17, although initially the song was given the title Positano Grande. Dripping with playfulness and decadence (reflected by the line ‘All my friends are junkies/Well that’s not really true’), like many songs on Let It Bleed its lyric seemed to be a two-fingered salute to the band’s elderly detractors (‘I hope we’re not too messianic/Or a trifle too satanic’). Despite the track’s grubby ambience, its arrangement was rather glossy. This may have been because engineer George Chkiantz had to give way to the more experienced – and in some ways more mainstream – Vic Smith after the group became dissatisfied with what they were hearing from the monitors. Chkiantz was furious, both at the decision and the results Smith came up with.
A dogged perfectionism marked the development of Midnight Rambler.
Although the recording of the basic track went smoothly, the instrumental passages were worked and reworked obsessively. “I did a lot of work on that,” Smith says. “We spent a whole week doing the guitar solo, which was all done in one take. Night after night, just Keith would come in the studio with Jimmy Miller, and we’d be doing the Midnight Rambler guitar solo, and if the atmosphere wasn’t right or the vibe wasn’t right for that night we’d jack it and come back another night. I think it took about five nights to get the final take.” On May 28, Mick and Marianne were busted at their Chelsea home. It was later alleged that the police had offered to drop the case if Jagger bribed them.
Jagger was up for this – another bust might put him in the same bracket as Brian Jones: unable to get a visa into America, scuppering any chance of the Stones touring there – but the deal supposedly fell through. After the case (thankfully, for the band, held after the American tour) Jagger was merely fined for cannabis possession and Faithfull was acquitted.
Meanwhile, at Olympic, the long, torturous process of perfecting Honky Tonk Women was continuing. Ultimately the basic track would be recorded five times. For both Smith and Keith Richards, the song underwent its most important transformation when Mick Taylor joined the group as a permanent member.
Taylor’s first session with The Rolling Stones was on May 31. It was an underhand move by the band, who had not yet told Brian Jones that his services would no longer be required. It’s conceivable that the Stones would have hung in there for Brian – waited to see whether he could get his creative juices flowing again – were it not for the necessity to get some money flowing into the coffers, the surest way to do that being to tour America. And as already mentioned, Jones would not have been allowed into the US because of his drug convictions.
In May 1969, Mick Taylor was a 21-year-old guitarist who had been playing in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers for two years. Vic Smith reports that Taylor didn’t seem nervous when he began playing with the Stones. Perhaps that was due to the fact that when Taylor turned up at Olympic on that first day he had no idea that it was anything more than session work.
For Smith, Taylor’s contribution to Honky Tonk Women was the track’s coup de grace. “He joined only on the last version,” he says. “When Mick [Taylor] and Keith developed that guitar line leading into the chorus, the music just lifted, and I think that’s where the whole track kicked into sounding like an amazing single; it just added so much magic. I very much remember when they were rehearsing those lead lines that come before the chorus – twining together, duet guitars, it was gorgeous.” The raunchy rocker Live With Me was another up-yours to conventional morality and the establishment, possibly partly inspired by the outraged reaction to Faithfull’s pregnancy. In 1969, a couple ‘living together’ was a concept that was almost repulsive and barely comprehensible to the generation running Britain and the media. Jagger’s lyric milks this to the utmost.
With Taylor having been formally asked to join the Stones, they were left with the
unenviable job of informing
founder member and one-time close friend Brian Jones that he was no longer in the band. Jagger, Richards and Watts journeyed together to Jones’s country house to do the deed.
“We were all very quiet,” Richards recalled of the drive there. He also said that Jones seemed to know what was coming as they beat around the bush, explaining that there was a tour coming up and that he was in no state to go on it. “We offered him the chance to stay, but it was an offer that we knew was going to be refused,” Richards claimed. Watts later recalled that Brian actually seemed relieved: “It was as if a whole weight had been lifted from his shoulders, and he said: ‘Yeah, I want to leave’.” Nonetheless, Watts also said that the sacking was “the worst thing so far that I’ve ever had to do”.
With that matter taken care of, the only remaining hurdle for a new Rolling Stones was the drugs charge and a possible visa-denying conviction hanging over Jagger’s head.
he Stones certainly felt they were on a creative roll. In June an announcement was made that the band would be releasing two albums in 1969: one (which would be Sticky Fingers) in September, and another in December. It almost actually happened (an eight-track acetate of the former was prepared), and it’s possible that only a disinclination to let Allen Klein’s publishing company have so many of their songs when they were trying to disentangle themselves from him prevented it happening. Meanwhile, a free concert by the Stones in London’s Hyde Park was scheduled for July 5, the day after the release of their new single Honky Tonk Women, their first UK 45 since Jumpin’ Jack Flash more than a year previously.
On the flip of Honky Tonk Women was You Can’t Always Get What You Want, albeit, for space reasons, minus the choral introduction that would appear on the album version. The track now also had a melancholy French horn part played by Al Kooper.
Just as the dawn of the new Rolling Stones was arriving – two days before the Hyde Park gig, and one day before the release of the new single – the news came through that Brian Jones had drowned in his swimming pool.
On the evening of July 2, Jagger and Richards were in Olympic doing some overdubs. As was usual, recording spilled over into the following morning, and it was then that they received tragic news. “I was working with the Stones for this particular week,” engineer Alan O’ Duffy says.
“What was the most extraordinary thing is that however they took the news – which was appalling – we carried on recording. We carried on
doing the vocals, which we had stopped doing. I don’t have a comment on that. I just think it’s an extraordinary event.” On the afternoon of July 5, 1969, the Stones walked out on to the stage at Hyde Park in front of a crowd of approximately 250,000 people (some estimates say half a million), the largest crowd the Stones had ever played to. In an effort to respect Brian’s memory, the band released thousands of butterflies in a poetic gesture, and Jagger preceded the music by reading a eulogy from Shelley’s poem Adonais. They then kicked their set off with I’m Yours & I’m Hers, an obscure Johnny Winter number that may have caused nothing but blank looks in the crowd but which had been chosen because it had been Brian’s current favourite song.
The gig was quite a live baptism for Taylor, and quite a comeback show for a band that had not played in public – an NME poll winners’ concert and the Rock & Roll Circus excepted – for more than two years. Not surprisingly, they weren’t too hot. As well as I’m Yours & I’m Hers, the Stones played Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Honky Tonk Women, I’m Free, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (the latter two the Stones’ hedonistic, libertarian anthems), Mercy Mercy, Down Home Girl, and four tacks from Beggars Banquet: Stray Cat Blues, No Expectations, Street Fighting Man and Sympathy For The Devil. They also premiered three still unreleased tracks: Loving Cup was attempted during the Let It Bleed sessions, but would not see the light of day until 1972’s Exile On Main Street; the two other new tracks, both of which did end up on Let It Bleed, were Love In Vain and Midnight Rambler.
Brian’s funeral was on July 10. Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman attended. Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, meanwhile, were involved in turmoil on the other side of the world that almost resulted in another death. The couple had gone to Australia to begin shooting the movie Ned Kelly. Jagger had the titular role as the outlaw who was sort of Australia’s equivalent of Jesse James, while Faithfull was scheduled to play his girlfriend. Upon their arrival, Faithfull – shaken by her miscarriage, her disintegrating relationship with Jagger and Brian’s death – took a massive overdose of sleeping pills. She was in a coma for six days.
According to Faithfull, during her coma she met none other than Brian Jones who, she wrote in her autobiography, had green hair and Buddhist lightning bolts tattooed on his palms. At first he didn’t seem to realise that he was dead.
When he did, as they strolled along a surreal, pulsing pathway, he asked her to come with him. Faithfull stopped at the point that it was clear was the no- turning-back entry to the afterlife, and awoke to find Jagger by her bedside.
So much for the announcement back in June that the Stones would be releasing two albums in 1969. Not only did the September release of the album that was to be called Sticky Fingers not happen, but also with the first date of the US tour being on November 7 there was no way that the new album would be in the shops in time for it. In fact if the band were to have an album out at all in 1969, there was now no option but to uproot – including Jimmy Miller and Glyn Johns – and finish it on the other side of the Atlantic.
Some work was done in Los Angeles’ Sunset Sound Studios, before the group moved across town to to Elektra studios. The work done at Elektra would be minimal but crucial – for instance, a vocal coup de grâce being applied to Gimme Shelter. Elektra engineer Bruce Botnick: “It was obvious they had to get it done, because they were on tour and they had to have an album to tour behind. So they were running a little late, but when they arrived this album was pretty much in place; everything except for Country Honk was in place and basically sequenced.”
Far from any panic over the fact that they had to finish the record before the week was up, the Stones decided to jettison the version(s) of Country Honk recorded at Olympic and to remake it from scratch.
The new version would feature fiddle-playing by one Byron Berline.
Meanwhile, sax player Bobby Keyes was brought in to add a last bit of raunchy sweetening to Live With Me.
The sweetening – if such a gritty, even elemental, contribution can be termed as such – applied to Gimme Shelter was stunning.
“Mick asked if I knew a singer, and I suggested Merry Clayton,” Botnick says. Clayton’s impassioned vocals can be heard in unison with Jagger through most of the song and – triumphantly – on its own in the middle section (the searing refrain ‘Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away!’). Although Gimme Shelter would doubtless still be a great track without it, Clayton’s momentous contribution helped seal its classic status.
By the time Let It Bleed was released (in a sleeve featuring grotesque and bizarre cake – made, incidentally, by now-celebrity chef Delia Smith), the Stones had again made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Apparently stung by the criticisms of high ticket prices by the American press – led by Rolling Stone magazine, ironically – into giving a free concert to climax their US tour, they played to a huge crowd at the Altamont Speedway in California on December 6.
The Stones may have been expecting this to be a blissful occasion like the festivals at Monterey (1967) and Woodstock (1969). They may also have been expecting the Hell’s Angels employed to take care of the gig to be the relative pussycats the British Hell’s Angels who policed the Hyde Park gig had been.
They were wrong on both counts. One person was murdered, but in total four people died – as did, for many, the dream of the flower-strewn 60s that a new generation could make a better world for itself. By a coincidence, the disillusion, pain and foreboding of the songs on Let It Bleed – stemming from Jagger’s and Richards’s private lives – seemed to be a commentary on the disillusion that surrounded Altamont and the end of the 60s.
The album was released on December 5, 1969 in the UK (where it went to No.1) and the following day in the US (No.3). Arguably, it marked the first time the band had released a better album than The Beatles’ latest. Abbey Road, the Fab Four’s offering that year, was a pleasant pop-rock album that sounded utterly safe compared to the revolutionary and dark-natured Let It Bleed.
Celebrated US rock critic Greil Marcus is among many who think of Let It Bleed as more than merely a fine album: “Along with Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, I still think it’s the greatest rock and roll album ever made,” he says, “and Gimme Shelter is one of a few songs
that, while you’re listening to it, is the greatest single rock and roll
• Sean Egan’s book, The Rolling Stones & The Making Of Let It Bleed, is published by Unanimous Publishing