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The Rolling Stones – Let it Bleed deluxe 50th ann. box (ABKCO)

5 December 2019

The rivalry between the Rolling Stones and the Beatles may have been almost entirely fictional (Paul McCartney has called it “fake news” at concerts since the 2016 presidential election), but that doesn’t mean the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band would allow the Beatles 50th anniversary celebration of Abbey Road to go unanswered. The landmark Let it Bleed turns 50 on December 5, and the band celebrates with this prestige-format box set that offers a deep dive into many Stones fans’ favorite album.

Let it Bleed is bookended by two of the Stones’ most enduring songs. The apocalyptic tension of opening cut “Gimme Shelter” was inspired both by internal tensions between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and public unrest surrounding the Vietnam War. Richards’ moody guitar riffs remain effective in evoking fear of disasters both man-made and natural, while Merry Clayton’s vocal climax howls with the force of a crossfire hurricane.

The LP concludes with the Gospel-choir crescendo of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” as the burnt-out anthem soars to a finish with Rocky Dijon’s ecstatic conga. The album version runs for an epic seven and a half minutes. John Lennon and Jagger both remarked on the song’s influence taken from the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”

The album is the Stones’ final record with founding member Brian Jones (in minor roles on two songs) and the first to feature guitarist Mick Taylor, who is heard most prominently while sparring with Richards on “Live with Me.” Taylor had been first heard by the public on the Stones classic “Honky Tonk Women,” recorded as a standalone single during the Let it Bleed sessions. The box set includes a replica 7” single of “Honky Tonk Women,” paired with original B-side “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” “Live with Me” also serves as a showcase for Bill Wyman’s steadying force as a bassist, and features a hot saxophone solo by Bobby Keys in his Rolling Stones debut.

The band pays homage to blues’ dark legend Robert Johnson with his desolate “Love in Vain,” while steering the song’s acoustic arrangement further into the realm of country music. Jagger shines in the song’s devotional performance. Jagger is at his edgiest during “Live with Me” and “Monkey Man.” He also demonstrates his substantial acumen for blues harmonica on “Midnight Rambler.” Drummer Charlie Watts pushes and pulls the tempo in sympathy with the song’s sense of urgency and danger.

As the sole guitarist for much of the album, Richards’ already-substantial presence gets a boost on Let it Bleed that endears the album to many Keef fans. The album’s “You Got the Silver” remains a popular solo feature for Richards at Stones concerts. The album benefits from fine piano playing by Nicky Hopkins, Leon Russell, and Al Kooper (who also plays the French horn on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”), but the most prominent keyboard feature goes to founding member Ian Stewart on the lusty and rambling roots-rock title cut.

The lavish anniversary package includes three frame-worthy lithographs showing development of Robert Brownjohn’s cover artwork, individually numbered in a run of 27,000 (as is the box itself). The album’s remastered monophonic mix is presented on LP and Super Audio CD with the band’s UK-based Decca Records label in maroon, while the remastered stereo versions bear the US-based London Records label in blue. An 80-page hardbound book is loaded with previously unpublished photos by Ethan Russell and includes an essay by David Fricke describing the transitional period during 1968-1969 that led to Let it Bleed’s creation. Major episodes include the Rock and Roll Circus, Jones’ final contributions as a Stone, and the band’s first US tour in three years. It’s a fitting tribute to the “last great rock and roll album of the ‘60s.”