The turbulent soundtrack of the end of the '60s.

By Sergio Ariza

As 31 December 1969 approached, more than the end of the decade it seemed like the end of the world, mainly because the United States was caught up in a spiral of violence from which it seemed they might not emerge. The corpses of their young continued to arrive in coffins from Vietnam, their leaders were shot, like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the hippie dream of "peace, love and music" was beginning to see its dark side when in early December 1969 the 'Manson family' was arrested for several murders. The people in charge of putting a soundtrack to all this turbulence was the Rolling Stones, who were also immersed in this crazy spiral and, at the same time, reaching their peak moment as a band.    

1969 was the most important year in their tumultuous history: in 1968 they had begun splendidly with the magnificent Beggar's Banquet and Jumpin' Jack Flash, and 1969 was their confirmation. Earlier this year they began recording Let It Bleed, however during the sessions they realized that Brian Jones was barely in a state to contribute anything, so he was fired in June. A month later he was found dead in his swimming pool and the Stones transformed their free concert at Hyde Park, which was scheduled for two days later, into a tribute to its founding member. It was also the presentation of his replacement, the young Mick Taylor, and the first time they performed live in almost three years. Additionally it was the first time they used the famous phrase "the world's biggest rock & roll band" to introduce themselves. The day before, another of their most mythical singles, Honky Tonk Women, had appeared on the market.


It was the perfect preparation for their American tour. From there would come one of the first bootleg albums in history, Live'r Than You'll Ever Be, one of the best live albums of all time; Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!; and a documentary film that explains the end of the 60s better than any other, Gimme Shelter. Besides, this was the tour that consolidated all the roles in the band, Keith Richards became Keith Richards, the rock pirate, Mick Jagger showed that there was no other frontman like him, Bill Wyman didn't give away a single smile, Charlie Watts didn't lose his tempo once and Taylor showed that with his guitar on board the band had never sounded better before. Much had to do with the improvement in the equipment at the end of the decade that allowed them to overcome the crazy screaming of their fans. The teenage stage was behind us, this was serious and people went to concerts to listen to music, not to contemplate pop idols. And at the end of the day was Altamont, a disaster that represented the definitive loss of rock innocence, and its conversion into a business. This was already anticipated in Gimme Shelter, "rape and murder are only a shot away...".

As if it were a prophecy, Let It Bleed was released on December 5, 1969, a day before the Altamont performance. Furthermore it was two days after they recorded Brown Sugar, which they would play for the first time in Altamont, and Wild Horses at the Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama; two songs that would not see the light of day until 1971 but showed that it was not that the Stones were on a roll, but that they were at the peak of their careers.


The album opened with the apocalyptic Gimme Shelter; never has a song exemplified a year better than that year, 1969, as the idea that ‘storms are approaching and we must seek shelter’ was the song that ended that incredible documentary of the Stones American tour made by the Maysles brothers. Keith Richards put all the guitars in the song, ‘in the face of Jones' non-existent presence’ and Taylor's late appearance, but it was another guitarist from whom he would learn the tuning that would become his trademark and be the core of the 'Stone sound' for the rest of their existence. Ry Cooder participated in the Let It Bleed sessions, although in the end he only appears playing the mandolin on Love In Vain. But during the recording Cooder was doing 'jams' with the rest of the band as can be seen on the album Jamming With Edward that the Stones themselves released in 1972. There Cooder uses his well-known open tuning for slide that Richards would turn into the foundation of his rhythmic style. One of the first examples was in Gimme Shelter, whose well-known beginning riff is one of the best of his career. For this recording Richards used a Maton Supreme Electric 777 that someone had left at home to "look after". Richards took it to the Let It Bleed recording and recorded with it two of his most remembered songs, Midnight Rambler and Gimme Shelter, before the guitar fall to pieces after recording the latter. For the rest of the album Keith used other guitars like his Les Paul Black Beauty or an ES-330TD.


After the initial storm comes the calm with Love In Vain, their wonderful rereading of a Robert Johnson song, which they turn into a kind of country blues with the help of two musicians who will have enormous importance on their new sound, Ry Cooder, on mandolin, and Gram Parsons, Richards’ new best friend, and one of the parents of country rock with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers (not in vain, he would appear with the latter in Altamont). The shadow of Parsons is still appreciated in the next song, Country Honk, the version that shows how Honky Tonk Women was originally composed, with excellent work by Byron Berline on fiddle; it contains one of the two appearances of Taylor on the record, here playing the slide, and an aboslute country feeling.

The following song is fundamental when it comes to forseeing the sound of the Stones in the following decades, with Taylor and Richards giving the guitars that dirty, boastful sound, and the first appearance of another fundamental element of the Stones, saxophonist Bobby Keys doing a splendid solo. The title track is another of those swagger tracks that the Satanic Majesties do so well, with a nod and a wink to the Beatles in the title. On this song Richards demonstrates perfectly what he has learned from Cooder and his slide, and there is a spectacular contribution on piano from the ‘Stone in the Shadow’, Ian Stewart.


Midnight Rambler
opens the second side on a high, as it is a spectacular blues rock number that was destined to become one of the essential cornerstones of their live performances, in which Keith plays all guitars, using a normal tuning for the main guitars and the open E tuning for the slide. You Got The Silver, Keith's first lead vocal song, is an acoustic declaration of love for Anita Pallenberg, an irony considering it was the last song Brian Jones, her ex, participated in with the Stones. Monkey Man is another adrenaline rush in which Jagger sings things like: "Well, I hope we're not too messianic or a little too satanic, but we love to play blues.”

The album closes with one of the few rays of hope on the album, and one of the best songs of their career, You Can´t Always Get What You Want, with Keith on the acoustic and with the backing of the London Bach Choir. It's a perfect summary of the clouds that were being noted after a decade of dreams, "you can't always get what you want But if you try sometimes you might find, You get what you need". And, in the inner folder, the band provided the key as to how to experience this wonder: "This record should be played loud”