Look, I’m biased. I absolutely love the Rolling Stones, in fact they’re my favourite band, but it became abundantly clear that it would be boring to write (and for that matter read) yet another review of “Let It Bleed”, “Beggars Banquet”, “Sticky Fingers” or “Exile On Main St.” They’ve all been done to death by the written word. Enough. Just put them on and listen.
As a succession of albums, other than any four in a row you care to choose by the Beetles, those Stones albums belong at the very top of an era many consider to be the zenith of contemporary music – the late sixties to early seventies. Most of the great albums from this period have been written about excessively, and in my opinion completely over analysed and contextualised. We can all do without great music being plagued this way, especially great music that everyone, well almost everyone, has experienced, likely in a vacuum, long after the fact.
As a medium that’s entirely subjective, once music is discovered the opinions of others cease to become truly relevant. An opinion can of course influence you to try something, or for that matter dissuade you, but after you experience it, what you like about it and how it interests you is all that matters. You certainly don’t want to read a preaching article condescendingly telling you if you don’t own and appreciate the finer nuances of “Led Zeppelin IV”, “Exile On Main St.”, “Aladdin Sane”, “Electric Warrior” or the “White Album”, to name but a few, that you’re someone strange, or, at best, someone whose taste and or judgment is to be distrusted.
Of all the bands from this era The Stones’ output has always interested me the most. They lasted the longest (somehow) and their catalogue, particularly up until “Tattoo You”, stands up against anything. This means they’ve made more music than most of their contemporaries, and as such – stating the obvious here – there’s more of it. And when I say more of it, I don’t just mean studio albums.
What’s always separated them, in my opinion, is as a live act. Great as they are, their aforementioned great four albums listed above, like all studio releases, don’t transmit this fact. Therefore you’re missing an essential ingredient of their greatness. And what captures that best, other than seeing them live? Bootleg releases of gigs and studio sessions.
Bootlegs are one of the last vestiges of musical discovery of well represented and known acts. Above all else they provide an insight into how a band’s greatest songs evolve from studio or session development to the final mastering you’re more familiar with on the albums.
Without question “Let It Bleed Sessions” is the best Stones bootleg out there, or of the ones that I’ve come across. There will undoubtedly be others I haven’t heard of, and that in itself is part of a bootleg’s appeal, because there’s always a chance you’ll find an undiscovered gem, or a new version of one of the Stones classics.
I’d say “Let It Bleed Sessions” is important artefact to Stones fans, as it offers an intimate view of the Stones at their creative peak. It shows the heart of the song writing process, the backbone of the songs are taking shape, and compositional decisions on a song’s direction are taking place. Sessions encompasses most of the material that would form the majority of “Let it Bleed” and “Exile On Main St.” Sadly, despite being released between these two albums “Sticky Fingers” isn’t represented, as the material for it was developed separately to the “Let It Bleed Sessions” due, you suspect, to a dispute with Decca records. Yet, despite the wrangling and god knows what else, “Sticky Fingers” was still a great album, they just couldn’t help but make great music at this point.
In Keith Richards’ autobiography he often talked of how finding the right surroundings to create the right pitch, tone or effect for each instrument was far from a scientific process. It was appropriately spontaneous; find a space, close to wall, confined or in an open space, and give it a go. See if the sound reverberates just right.
Most of the songs on the sessions reflect this insouciant approach, and of course foments an ambience that’s inevitably and lazily associated with the mythologizing of the Stones. It’s the music of booze, drugs, swelteringly hot claustrophobic studio surroundings and musicians hanging loose, or something. What you can truly extrapolate from listening is that at this stage they’re unconcerned with perfection, or if a song’s incomplete due to missing certain instrumental elements – they may not have thought to add them at this point.
‘Hip Shake II’ is indicative of this. There’s no brass, just the two guitars; one rhythm, one lead, while the drums have persistent tapping to make up for the shortfall in other instrumentation. My description and perception of how the drums are utilised is jaundiced, as initially I had difficulty assessing this version on its own merits, much like any of these alternate versions, as you compare it to the final version, as that’s the reference point. So while on first listen it seemed incomplete, like a jam rehearsal, the guitar work slowly started to charm its way into ascendancy, and there’s a satisfying loud drum snare which signals the start of that guitar solo that won’t fail to get your arse moving. While the final version on Exile is clearly a sharper, bluesy and mellower affair due to the inclusion of the sax, it lacks the vivacity and spontaneity of the Session’s version.
The finest sessions tracks or versions are ‘Stop Breaking Down’ and ‘Loving Cup I’. The griminess is turned up to eleven on both. ‘Loving Cup I’ features the marvellous combination of a Jamaican-esque steel pan drum along with a crescendo of brass near the end. On ‘Stop Breaking Down’ there’s practically no difference in composition from the Session’s version to the final version on Exile. The only thing missing is a few distorted hollers by Mick. Here it sounds as it should – filthy as fuck, out of control, imperfect, shot straight from the hip without any airs and graces.
‘Honky Tonk Women’ is one of the finest songs the Stones penned. The Session’s version is played without any country-esque lead guitar inflections, which are a vital element that really make the song. The lyrics are different in the second verse – ‘Strolling on the boulevards of Paris/As naked as the day I would die/The sinner’s there so charming there in Paris’. This time it’s the final version that’s vital and fleshed out, but this take is interesting for the lyrical changes alone, and two’s better than one, right?
More than anything the “Let Bleed Sessions” reveals just how prolific the Stones were during this period. As far as I can tell ‘Jiving Sister Fanny II’ didn’t manage to make it onto any of the Stones albums in any guise. Most of the jams are sans vocals, such as ‘Potted Shrimp’, ‘Trident Jam’, ‘Aladdin Song’, none of which were developed into songs. Though in the case of ‘Aladdin Song’, it was developed further for Exile, renamed ‘So Divine’ which you can get on the highly recommended remastered and expanded version of Exile released a couple of years ago. The Exile reissue has an early version of ‘Tumbling Dice’ too, or at least elements of a song which inspired it called ‘Good Time Woman’. The good news is that it’s just different enough from ‘Tumbling Dice’ to be considered on its own merits.
Mick seems largely peripheral on the Sessions going by number of appearances on tracks and lyrics offered within them. Mick still sings of course, but when he does it’s often muted, off key, and in certain instances, as on one of the two versions of Gimme Shelter, Keith provides the main vocal. The other version of Gimme Shelter, ‘Gimme Shelter 2’ is finer than the final version which appears on Let It Bleed. Once again the guitars are grimier, sounding almost overdubbed. The tempo is quicker. There’s clearly no mastering of the sound, so there’s an abundance of extraneous noise that super charges the track and doesn’t allow the intensity or pace to let up. Mick’s singing is languid and lacks focus, which just adds to its appeal, and there’s no backing singing to overpower him or the track beneath. What you get is a slightly stripped down dirtier version of the song, which seems to fit the song’s subject matter better. That’s the consistent theme with the “Let It Bleed Sessions”, in a way it’s an antidote to the gentrified homogenised mastering and cleansing of mistakes, and instead revels in the imperfect atmosphere/circumstances which often inspired the creation of most of the great music the Stones produced.
While “Let It Bleed Sessions” makes the work of the band; Taylor, Richards, Watts and Wyman the focus, the MSG gig in 1972 showcases Mick’s showmanship, particularly if you decide to peruse the video footage to go with the gig. It does of course show the immense control they had over the raw power of their sound on stage, which the band had honed during an intense summer of touring North America.
The New York gig also goes one step further, as a contextual piece, when placed alongside the session bootlegs and studio albums. It offers a concise picture of how a Stones song evolves – from conception, to studio release, to being performed live.
At the top I’ve used the album cover for “The Rolling Stones: Welcome to New York”, disingenuously, it has to be said. The official release of the 1972 gig has a track list only eight long, all live cuts from the gig. But what you really want is the pro-shoot bootleg of the whole gig, and of the rehearsals beforehand, and if you do a bit of digging, or rather, I’m doing it for you, you’ll get all these goodies. Your only stop should be here, to download those links – the filefactory.com ones to be precise. Yes, that’s a whole lot of hard drive space, and waiting, but just trust me, it’s worth it. I want to personally thank the lovely human being who put the effort into editing and uploading this gem. It’s why the internet exists. I’m convinced.
So what are you getting? A mixture of live performed songs, and the pre-gig rehearsals as they were intended to be performed, recorded over two separate New York gigs in the summer of 1972. Audio samples from both are used in conjunction with the video feed from the gig. You’ll spot that some of the video footage from this documentary appears on HBO’s excellent Crossfire Hurricane documentary. If we’re to consider the 1972 gig as a genuine historical document then there is a bit of cheating, as the audio from some of the rehearsal cuts is layered over the audio-less video feed of the gig. But why nitpick? As far as a re-enactment of the event it’s as faithful as it could be, given the material is all sourced from that time, albeit separately and selectively. In the end you get the best of both worlds – quality and authenticity.
Being specific, the audio of ‘Jumpin Jack Flash’ and ‘Midnight Rambler’ are both rehearsal cuts, of sorts, but really they’re the final versions of the songs as they were intended to be performed on stage. In the case of ‘Midnight Rambler’ it was a song designed to be performed at its best live. This specific version is the best I’ve come across. There’s Mick Taylor’s melodic but still potently acute touch during that slow grind in the middle of the song, supplemented by Jagger’s indulgent squealing, while Charlie tries to burst the kit. Then there’s the final build-up, where Jagger’s voice is gravelly and laboured, just as you imagine a midnight rambler’s would be. It’s perfect.
The cuts from the gig or gigs themselves are similar to the sessions in one sense, instead of extraneous noise from the instruments, there’s crowd noise, that and the reverberation of sound from the amps within the cavernous MSG building gives the music an almost supersonic effect. At points you could argue that the visual representation of the gig, with the rabid crowd and Mick Jagger’s on stage theatrics, and I mean that in the sincerest of ways, brings an extra aggression to the songs that listening to the MP3’s or Flac’s alone cannot. This is the case with ‘Street Fightin’ Man’. More than anything this live version exemplifies that a memorable live performance is reliant not only on the band bringing it, but on seeing the feedback and energy of the crowd, and that this often permeates and elevates music. Oh yes, and once again on ‘Street Fightin’ Man’ Mick Taylor owns it like a boss.
I consider “Let It Bleed Sessions” and “The Rolling Stones: Welcome to New York” as more than just, just bootlegs, they’re fitting representations of the variety and versatility that all great songs possess. Owning them won’t make you more of a Stones fan than you are already, they didn’t with me, but as a different slant on the Stones, an insight into their song writing process, or how their songs change when performed live, they’re just the ticket. Just get them. And if that seems a bit preachy, then so be it. Here it’s more than justified.