Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
There are so many good reasons for returning yet again to the Rolling Stones discography for another Full Album offering, the foremost being that they have written and performed so many damn good songs and have had so many of these covered so broadly and widely, encompassing all genres. The choice, thus, is immense. I was actually surprised we hadn’t done Let It Bleed before, given it contains so many songs indelibly etched on my consciousness. OK, as a an older white male, that isn’t surprising, but most of these songs will be known to all generations, either through knowledge of the band, or from soundtracks and, even, if briefly, from advertising. I think the album’s one of their best, and an infinite number of online polls show I’m not alone.
Hailing from an astonishing 1969, Let It Bleed saw the Stones at a turning point. They were gradually easing the increasingly addled Brian Jones out of the band, and were continuing down the row Beggar’s Banquet first hoed. They eschewed the sophisticated pop-rock tropes of their mid-to-late 60s run of singles in favor of the simpler and bluesier sound that had originally inspired them. Jones appears, in the backing instrumentation, on a couple of tracks; his replacement Mick Taylor, who joined after the original sessions were complete, showed up on a couple more tracks, thanks to post-production afterdubs.
So it is essentially a four-piece band, the bulk of guitar parts courtesy Keith Richards, augmented by the keyboard playing of regular sidemen Ian Stewart (the true sixth Stone) and, on most of the tracks, Nicky Hopkins. Cameo appearances come from other notables such as Al Kooper, Leon Russell, Ry Cooder, and Byron Berline. Bobby Keys, swiftly to ensconce himself as Richards’ main partner in narcotic hijinks, makes his debut on saxes, and producer Jimmy Miller gets himself well into the percussion.
Released in December, it must have been a delight for the Stones to see Let It Bleed topple the Beatles’ Abbey Road from the top of the UK chart, if only temporarily. Across the pond it peaked at number three. Whilst it didn’t contain many singles, many of the songs have remained concert staples to this day. Of course, if you consider “Country Honk” to be, essentially, the same song as “Honky Tonk Women,” it included their biggest and best-known song ever (save perhaps “Satisfaction”), if in a somewhat different setting. Touted as amongst their best, Let It Bleed has inestimable legs and lasts as the legacy that enabled them to assume the title of the Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band in the World.
Jimmy Somerville & Voice of the Beehive – Gimme Shelter (Rolling Stones cover)
Is there a better opener on any album than “Gimme Shelter”? Is there a better Stones song? Both key questions that can hardly reduce any sense of expectation around the versions that exist aplenty, almost the most widely covered of all the songs on this platter. The riff and the shared lead vocal between Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton (whose own solo rendition cuts no mean mustard) are both sublime. But it is the intense thrust of anticipation that is the crux of the song, and few deliver it to the standard of the original. This one, by the unwieldy seeming collaboration of Jimmy Somerville, the HI-NRG small-town boy, and Voice of the Beehive, the alt-rock anglo-american Madness offshoot band. Starting off in a lower register than his usual, it isn’t long before he is swooping and soaring into falsetto. The voices of Beehive singers, sisters Melissa Belland and Tracey Bryn, slot in alongside with aplomb. It comes from a UK 1993 charity EP, for the homeless, wherein other odd bedfellows share the same song.
The Pretty Things – Love In Vain (Robert Johnson cover)
The perfect comedown, the venerable Robert Johnson song “Love In Vain” came from thirty years before the Stones’ rendition, making it very much more recent to them than theirs to us, which seems astounding now to comprehend. I couldn’t resist including this almost current version, not least as it comes from erstwhile fellow travellers The Pretty Things, appearing on their final release, towards the end of last year, and following the death of frontman/singer Phil May. As well as both being bands vying for attention in the early to mid-’60s of London, there is a greater link, the guitar player being one Dick Taylor, himself an early member of the original Stones. Here, singer and guitarist, both septuagenarians, display a fragility that engages and adds to the poignancy of the lyric. I’d love to hear Mick and Keef do this now, stripped back in the same way.
The Flying Burrito Brothers – Honky Tonk Women (Country Honk)(Rolling Stones cover)
So, is this a cover of “Honky Tonk Women” or of “Country Honk”? Given the same lyric and the same authorship, few resources beg the difference. Trying, therefore, to find a country hue to the song, who better than Gram Parsons, himself drawn like a moth to the flame of the Living Riff, his soon to be buddy in badness, Mr. Richards? Arguably responsible for the country influences sweeping into the Stones, here’s Parsons with his own band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, in one of a series of rehearsals and outtakes pulled together for the compilation Sleepless Nights. The fragility of the vocal and the spikiness of the backing gives a wonderful contrast to the confident strut of the Stones. Who knows, might it have been the catalyst for “Honky Tonk Women” to become a “Country Honk”? I like to believe so. And spot the switch of Memphis to Jackson!
Dan Tillberg/Så Bra Ihop – Live with Me (Rolling Stones cover)
With the distinctive bass riff intro, played by Richards rather than Bill Wyman, there are a lot of facsimile covers of “Live With Me,” so it was good to find this 1979 Swedish cover. It brings a distinct new wave vibe to the song, the organ sound especially, and it would not have been a surprise to hear the voice of Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson. Instead, it is the delightfully wayward tones of one Dan Tillberg. This is from his first record, Gatstenar, and upon which all the songs are Jagger-Richards songs. He later repeated the favor with a set of Bob Dylan songs. History reveals little in English as to his success, but he later made a name for himself in kitchen design.
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – Let It Bleed (Rolling Stones cover)
Did I dismiss some songs above on the basis of being too Stonesy, carbon copies of both the songs and the attitude? Actually, yes, but c’mon, something that’s just what you need. Like here on “Let It Bleed,” where Joan Jett lathers on her Jagger complex in rows of shower blocks. Scuzzy guitars, a rhythm section amped up to eleven, metronome timed to hell, yeah, and undoubtedly all the red leather you can find. Joan’s peculiarly sassy yet anodyne vocals are perfect for “Let It Bleed”‘s sentiments, but it is the backing vocal ooo‘s that make it for me, just the job for when you don’t want anything big or clever. I don’t care, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll.
Larry McCray – Midnight Rambler (Rolling Stones cover)
A showstopper and masterclass in control, “Midnight Rambler” really hit the lodestone in live performance. Onstage, the Stones brought in a sense of dread and anticipation, particularly as they began to play with the time signature. So who knew quite what a funky little number it was? The shimmy here is applied by Larry McCray, who takes it into a different ballgame altogether, swagger trumping threat and winning. No belts needing to be unstrapped here; he sashays in and steals it, effortlessly.
Crooked Still – You Got the Silver (Rolling Stones cover)
Perhaps the least well known song on Let It Bleed, “You Got the Silver” represented the first of the now-compulsory Richards’ lead vocal appearances on Rolling Stones records (“simply because we had to spread the workload,” Richards later claimed). And, as we now know, he is quite the sensitive soul, with a deep love for the forbears of his musical appropriations. A gospely blues in his hands, progressive bluegrass band Crooked Still here give it a glorious Appalachian steer, Aiofe O’Donovan’s gloriously pure vocal soaring over the string band instrumentation, the cello staking a valid claim to be part of the tradition. Unrecognizable, it demands comparison with the original, in turn opening up the intricacies hidden therein. Suddenly, it’s one of the album’s highlights.
Crazy Baldhead – Monkey Man (Rolling Stones cover)
I always expect Let It Bleed‘s “Monkey Man” to be the Toots Hibbert song, and I’m always a bit disappointed when it isn’t. This outlier on the record surely betrays Charlie Watts’ love for jazz in the opening bars and, traditionally, hasn’t had much love, I fear. However, what does exist is this, managing to carry a hint of the Hibbert ambience into the Glimmer Twins thrust. Crazy Baldhead is the project of musician Jayson “Agent J” Nugent, an aficionado of vintage Jamaican sounds and styles. This track comes from a 2008 release called The Sound of ’69, and is a selection of songs, all from that year, performed in the style of Kingston dance-halls of that era, ska, rocksteady, and reggae. Whilst it hasn’t the ’40s swing of its source, it has an engaging presence that had me checking out the rest of the album.
Bill Morrissey & Greg Brown – You Can’t Always Get What You Want (Rolling Stones cover)
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is the song even all Rolling Stone agnostics know. It’s a sprawling mix of the ridiculous with the sublime, the London Bach Choir meeting head-on with drugstore lyrics, where the drugstore may be offering more than just cherry-red sodas. Myriad artists have tackled and failed to fully appreciate the contradictions that lie within. So, without majesty, I went in the other direction, searching for simplicity, looking for the bleak reality that imbues the lyrics with resignation rather than the saber-rattling self-righteousness of Jagger & Co. Bill Morrissey and Greg Brown convey the tragic reality of the lonesome addict, with simple guitars, harp, and voices to carry the hope. Both troubadour musicians on the folk/blues circuit in their own right, this comes from a joint project, 1993’s Friend of Mine. AllMusic calls it “unpretentious.” I’ll take that as a compliment.