Classic Album: The Rolling Stones ‘Let It Bleed’

The ambassadors of the counterculture

Saturday December 6, 1969: Altamont Speedway, California. As darkness falls a heavily made-up Mick Jagger halts the 300,000-strong crowd halfway through ‘Under My Thumb’. Distressed and panicked, he tries to diffuse the seething stew of violence erupting before him: “Please, just cool out, everybody, let’s get it together,” he pleads as his band look on in fear and disgust.

Earlier that day as eighteen-year-old Meridith Hunter left for Altamont he did not know he would be stabbed to death in front of his favourite band. For The Rolling Stones, this was a tragic end to a polarised year and a devastating error of judgement. For Meridith, it was the end.

The Altamont gig was one of many controversies of this time and it is this, alongside drug busts and a mysterious swimming-pool death that The Rolling Stones are remembered for during 1968-1969, despite a return to musical form that produced two of their greatest records – ‘Beggars Banquet’ and ‘Let It Bleed’.

The post-Summer of Love fallout flummoxed the band. It contrasted their highest achievements with their lowest failures, seeing them trail-blaze their way back into the spotlight after ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ was disregarded as a poor imitation of The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’.

Speaking of ‘Beggars Banquet’, the album recorded after ‘Majesties’ in May ’68, Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine announced: “The Stones have made the great comeback of their career.” At the same time, the single, ‘Street Fighting Man’, was banned from radio stations across America, sparking a malevolent change of mood that was out-of-step with the previous year’s heady Summer of Love.

The UK Establishment shared this anti-Stones sentiment, making the band ambassadors of the counterculture and allowing them to soundtrack a despondent society’s anger as the Sixties ground to a juddering halt. But life was to imitate art with a number of drug busts about to throw the band into chaos.

In September 1968, cannabis was found during a raid on the home of an already fragile Brian Jones. But it wasn’t only the broken Brian having his collar felt. Mick was charged with unlawful possession of cannabis after a raid at his flat. Both of these incidents contributed to existing media sensationalism, fuelling the bad-feeling surrounding the band.

The recording sessions for ‘Let It Bleed’ ran from February to November 1969. The album continued in the same stripped down vein as its predecessor but was also heavily-influenced by country music after Mick and Keith spent time in Brazil in 1968. The country-feel intensified after Keith bonded over Hank Williams with The Byrds’ Gram Parsons.

In July of that year Brian, now a hopeless liability, was fired from the band. Already sensitive, the years of sustained drug abuse had taken their toll. Plagued by depression, he became bloated and unkempt. After a brief spurt of post-Stones creativity Brian was found dead in his swimming pool on July 3rd 1969 with alcohol and sleeping pills in his bloodstream.

‘Let It Bleed’ was released as the financially successful but ultimately tragic US tour drew to a close. The band decided to do a free festival as a thank you to the fans. The festival was to be staged at Altamont Speedway, California, and was billed as “a mini Woodstock”.

When the band hired the Hell’s Angels to provide the security on the advice of The Grateful Dead, they should have known a mini Woodstock was highly unlikely. Mick took the stage as a tense darkness enveloped the track. The band had delayed the gig by hours, intending to work the crowd into an electric frenzy. However, before his eyes the frenzy grew into an uncontrollable inferno and, as 300,000 kids blazed, the Hell’s Angels doused them in metaphorical petrol.

Mick Taylor, who had recently replaced Brian Jones in the group, witnessed events through virginal twenty-year-old eyes, describing the violence unfolding before him as “barbaric” as the Angels butchered students with bats and knives. Meridith Hunter was stabbed to death after attempting to deter the Angels by pulling a revolver.

As the boy bled to death in the arms of his sister Gwen, the Stones left Altamont’s battlefield by whirring helicopter. It had been a terrible day. Allegedly the sound of the churning blades cut through a silence heavy with reflection and guilt onboard.

However, this couldn’t have lasted too long. After all, the musicians inside had released an album seven days earlier, aptly called ‘Let It Bleed’, which needed promoting. As the press stoked the fires of moral panic, and commentators spewed bile about ‘occult’ and ‘satanic’ references to anyone who’d listen, there was no time for the band to do anything but revel in their status as the ultimate bad boys of rock.

Perhaps for the same reason, it was said that the Hunter family were never contacted by the Stones about the death of the boy described as “softly spoken and educated” on what will always be remembered as ‘the day the sixties died.’

Words by Christopher Monk

Released: November 28th 1969
Producer: Jimmy Miller

‘Gimme Shelter’
‘Love In Vain’
‘Country Honk’
‘Live With Me’
‘Let It Bleed’
‘Midnight Rambler’
‘You Got The Silver’
‘Monkey Man’
‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’

Mick Jagger – vocals, harmonica
Keith Richards – guitar, bass, vocals
Brian Jones – autoharp, percussion
Mick Taylor – guitar
Charlie Watts – drums
Bill Wyman – bass
Ian Stewart – piano
Nicky Hopkins – piano, organ

1969: In The News
John Lennon returns his MBE in protest of the Britain’s support of the US war in Vietnam.
Midnight Cowboy debuts in cinemas.
The Beatles perform live for the last time on the roof of their Apple offices.

1969: Albums
Pink Floyd – ‘Ummagumma’
Stevie Wonder – ‘My Cherie Amour’
Elvis Presley – ‘From Elvis In Memphis’
Grateful Dead – ‘Aoxomoxoa’

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