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Hard Knox and Durty Sox: A Peek at the 50th Anniversary “Let It Bleed” Box Set

let it bleed

The year 1969 was a great year for music. It saw the release of numerous classic albums, such as the Beatles’ Abbey Road, the Who’s Tommy, and Led Zeppelin’s first and second albums, as well as the label debuts of Santana, King Crimson, Chicago, the Stooges, and many other seminal bands. Not to be outdone, the Rolling Stones unveiled their eighth studio album, Let It Bleed, one of their greatest albums. On November 15, ABKCO Records will celebrate the album’s 50th anniversary with the release of a deluxe box set containing a brand new remaster of the original 1969 stereo mix of the album, mastered by the multiple Grammy-award winning legend Bob Ludwig (Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, etc. etc. etc.).

Related: “Marianne Faithful’s ‘Negative Capability’: Pursuing Spaces In Between”

Recently, I paid a visit to ABKCO’s offices to get a preview of the Let It Bleed box and to listen to the new master. When I arrived, I met the Grammy-award winning Teri Landi, ABKCO’s label archivist and Chief Audio Engineer. She showed me to her studio, every inch of which was covered in albums, tapes, books, CDs, knickknacks, and research notes. For the next three hours, we had a fantastic time talking about the new release and listening to the album.

Landi came to ABKCO in 1989 when she was hired by Jody Klein, current CEO of ABKCO and son of its legendary founder Allen Klein. As Chief Audio Engineer, Landi is responsible for “digging into the vaults” to uncover and identify original audio sources, and she is meticulous about keeping detailed logs of timelines, tape stock, song takes, and more. She is also in charge of mixes and pre-mastering for ABKCO’s music and films, although she typically defers to engineers like Bob Ludwig for the final mastering work. Landi is also in charge of ABKCO’s archives – not just the Rolling Stones, but Sam Cooke, the Animals, Cameo-Parkway artists, and more. She acts as restoration producer, helping oversee all ABKCO’s releases, and she is a participant in the group that works with the art department on design.

(Photograph by Jacob Blickenstaff)

When it comes to the Rolling Stones, Landi is passionate about their work. “No matter how many thousands of times I’ve listened to these recordings,” she told me, “I still hear different things each time. There are always more things that get revealed.” Landi’s attention to detail, her enthusiasm, and her love of the music make her the ideal person to be looking out for the music of the Rolling Stones and other ABKCO artists.

1969 was a year of tremendous change for the Rolling Stones. It began just after they filmed and then canceled their TV special, Rock and Roll Circus. It ended with their infamous performance at Altamont that resulted in the stabbing death of a concertgoer by members of the Hells Angels who were supposed to be guarding the stage. In between, Brian Jones was kicked out of the band that he helped create and died not long after. These events, along with the previous year’s assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Manson murders, and the ongoing Vietnam war, helped mark an end to the days of flower power.

Work on Let It Bleed began in February 1969 with recording sessions for the album’s finale, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Working with producer Jimmy Miller and engineer Glyn Johns, the Stones began the song at Morgan Studios before moving to Olympic Studios. The Glimmer Twins, Mick Jagger (vocals) and Keith Richards (guitars), were now the clear leaders of the Stones, as well as being the group’s primary songwriters. Charlie Watts (drums) and Bill Wyman (bass) continued to be the rock-steady rhythm section for the group. It was during this period that Brian Jones was fired, and guitarist Mick Taylor, formerly of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, was invited to join. In July, work on the album paused while Mick Jagger left to film Ned Kelly in Australia. In October, Jagger joined the other Stones in Los Angeles to complete overdubs for the album. With its title serving as a snide parody of the Beatles’ forthcoming Let It Be, Let It Bleed was released on December 5, 1969.

stones let it bleed

 Although Let It Bleed was recorded and released in 1969, it was all over the radio in 1970. Its songs contain lyrics filled with extreme sex and violence, and its hard-edged rock and roll is angry, even terrifying, at times. There are moments of humor, but they are offset by an extreme sadness that foreshadows the end of the Sixties. Consequently, many consider Let It Bleed to be the first important album of the 1970s.

David Fricke sums it up perfectly in his liner notes to the new box set. “Love and peace, wanton sex and bloody murder; churning blues, country sorrow, locomotive rock and gospel-army sermon; ruptured brotherhood, diligent labor and unique, inspired performance; personal trial, profound change and, somehow, out of it all, enduring triumph: No other rock & roll album of the late Sixties so embodied and bound the contradictions, turbulence and, yes, satisfaction of its time, creation and the band that made it than Let It Bleed.”

Let It Bleed was originally released on CD in 1986. Back then, audio software worked at 16-bit resolution, and audio had to be saved to videotape. By 2002, 24-bit audio and DSD (Direct Stream Digital) audio was state-of-the-art. With these significant improvements in audio technology, Landi tracked down the first-generation album masters and transferred them to DSD 64 digital audio to create a new version of the album.

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“It’s really, really tough assembling this stuff,” Landi explained. “I would never treat this lightly. I look at Ethan [Russell]’s photographs that are all dated. I look at Bill Wyman’s diary entries. I look at the tape boxes for the multi-tracks. The tape stock can also be an indicator of the studio used to record or mix each song when exact information is missing. Sometimes, it’s impossible to narrow down exact dates. For example, just clarifying which are the first-generation tapes can be difficult. There’s a lot of information out there, and it often conflicts.”

The goal of mastering is to make the overall album sound cohesive and as good as it can. Since Let It Bleed’s songs were recorded on different tape stock in different studios, this was no small task for Ludwig. His masters were featured on the 2002 Hybrid SACD release of Let It Bleed.

For the 50th-anniversary box set, Ludwig began with the same 2002 mixes. However, since audio technology has continued to improve, he created a new set of masters. When I spoke with Ludwig, he explained the difference in his mastering approach this time around:

“Back in 2002, we tried to pay homage to the original recordings and to stay in the ballpark of what was done before. And fans were really pleased with those 2002 releases. But now, I am using a SPL [Sound Performance Laboratories] board, a state-of-the-art console that allows a lot of additional headroom without distortion. It’s quiet and incredibly transparent. This time, Landi’s mandate to me was not to worry about the original vinyl but to make the recordings sound as good as they could. So, that’s what I set out to do.”

stones let it bleed

Landi spent time walking me through the contents of the box set, including the beautifully designed book that accompanies the albums. Finally, it was time to listen. She cued up the original vinyl (on a Technics turntable with a Goldring cartridge), the 2002 CD, and the 2019 masters, and off we went.

From the first notes of “Gimme Shelter,” it was evident that Ludwig had done magnificent work. The song feels more open, every instrument more distinct. Wyman’s bass, Nicky Hopkins’ piano, and the entire lower mid-range sounds more prominent. The tension built by the song’s arrangements, the Stones’ performance, and Jimmy Miller’s production seems even more profound than it did on previous recordings. And the “Rape! Murder!” vocals of Merry Clayton, a former member of Ray Charles’ Raelettes, sound even more terrifying.

Ludwig explained what I was hearing this way: “I didn’t slam the level. It is a little louder, but I did it in a very musical way. The songs sound more ‘together.’ They are ‘punching’ in a way that earlier versions never did.”

[Editor’s note: Listen to the shading and differences in mastering on “Gimme Shelter”]

2002 mastering 00:00 – 00:10   2019 mastering 00:10 – 00:21

  2002 mastering 00:21 – 00:29     2019 mastering 00:29 – 00:38

2002 mastering 00:38 – 00:51    2019 mastering 00:51 – 01:04

2002 mastering 01:04 – 01:15     2019 mastering 01:15 – 01:26

“Gimme Shelter” leads directly into the Robert Johnson cover “Love In Vain,” and Richards’ acoustic guitar sounds like a breath of fresh air after the chaos of the previous song. “That was a discovery we made when looking at the first-generation masters and how they were cut together,” Landi explained. “There were no [tape] leaders. It was intentional. They wanted everything to flow together.” Ry Cooder had a guest spot on this song playing mandolin. On the new release, it sounds like he is sitting right next to you.

“Country Honk,” the country-fied version of “Honky Tonk Women,” features the fiddle of Byron Berline, recorded outside along with some L.A. traffic. Jagger directed Stones tour manager Sam Cutler to honk his horn during the recording. The new master puts you in the middle of this hootenanny. Byron’s fiddle reveals new texture, and there’s room around the drums that you don’t hear in previous versions.

“Live With Me” has more rumble in the bass and sounds more menacing. “Live With Me” was the first Let It Bleed track that Mick Taylor played on (although his debut with the band was on the single “Honky Tonk Woman”), and the guitar interplay between Taylor’s slide and Richards’ Maton sounds amazing. For this song, Leon Russell sat in on piano. There’s much more detail in Russell’s rocking piano part, but it doesn’t take away from any of the other instruments. And the brass section (Bobby Keys on sax and Jim Price on trumpet) sounds better than ever.

On the original album, the title track had to drop in volume due to the limitations of cutting vinyl. Although this was addressed in the 2002 recordings, the transition sounds even better now. Wyman’s autoharp, which is hardly noticeable on earlier recordings, can be heard more clearly, especially at the beginning of the song. And like all the other songs on this release, you can more clearly hear Wyman’s melodic bass parts.

stones let it bleed

“Midnight Rambler” is an incredible song to start side two. (I still think in terms of the original vinyl!) The new version of the song is a tad brighter with Jagger’s harmonica more distinct. The whole song sounds like a layer of film has been removed, resulting in cleaner vocals, meatier drums, and a more dramatic mix.

Like the transition from “Gimme Shelter” to “Love In Vain,” the opening of “You Got the Silver” sounds beautiful as it follows the chugging, frantic “Midnight Rambler.” The reversed guitar and cymbals on this song don’t muddy the other instruments. And Richards’ vocal sounds magnificent. (When Glyn Johns was trying to add some reverse echo to the song, he accidentally erased Mick Jagger’s lead vocal. Unfortunately, Jagger was in Australia. So, Richards got to record the vocal for the song. And it is one of his best!)

“Monkey Man” has always been one of my favorite Stones songs. It has a great arrangement like all the songs on Let It Bleed. The benefits of Ludwig’s new master are readily apparent in the twinkling piano arpeggios and vibes that open the song. The low rumble of Watts’ tom-toms alongside Wyman’s bass are more prominent, especially in the instrumental section. I don’t know whether Ludwig made any changes to the relative levels of each section of the song, but the whole song felt more dynamic to me.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is one of the Stones’ most enduring songs, and the new version definitely does not disappoint. For the first time, I heard light tapping during the opening choral section. It’s the sound of the choir keeping time by lightly tapping their feet. The entrance of Al Kooper’s sorrowful French horn along with the acoustic guitar sounds breathtakingly stunning. As the song builds and builds, each instrument and vocal sounds like it is perfectly placed in the stereo spectrum. By the end of the song, the choir and the band are surrounding you. What a magnificent mix to end the album! Both Landi and I got chills.

“It’s one of my favorites,” Landi said about “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” “Really, truly a masterpiece.”

It’s hard to improve Let It Bleed, but the new masters definitely make the listening experience even richer. “If I had to choose only one Stones record,” said Ludwig, “it would be this one.”

The 50th-anniversary box contains the new stereo master on a hybrid SACD, playable by both CD players and SACD players. It also contains a hybrid SACD of the rare “fold down” mono mix of the album, remastered as part of the 2016 “Rolling Stones In Mono” box. Vinyl versions of both albums are included along with the single of “Honky Tonk Woman”/”You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. The poster that came with the original album is also reproduced.

Jagger had originally approached M.C. Escher to create the album cover for Let It Bleed. When Escher turned him down, Richards approached Robert Brown John to create the cover. John designed the cake featured on the cover, and British baker Delia Smith created it to order. The anniversary box included three 12” X 12” hand-numbered, replica-signed lithographs of John’s sketches along with the final album cover printed on embossed archival paper and housed in a foil-stamped envelope.

The included 80-page book contains liner notes from Rolling Stone editor David Fricke, as well as numerous photos from longtime Stones photographer Ethan Russell. “This was really a group effort between Ethan and ABKCO’s creative team,” Landi told me. “They worked together on the layout of the book, which photos were chosen, the text and the quotes, etc. All of us came up with different ideas of what to include, and the art directors made it look great.”

let it bleed 50th

(For those who just want the new stereo master without all the “goodies,” it can be purchased as a stand-alone CD. A scaled-down version of the box set’s book is included.)

I do have one disappointment about the Let It Bleed box. Unlike the anniversary releases of the Beatles’ albums, the Stones have neglected to include any outtakes. That’s a shame since Stones fans and musicologists would love to hear original and early versions of these seminal recordings. Nor is there a surround mix that could reveal even more interesting elements from the mixes. But these are small complaints for an extremely well-designed set and an exquisite remastering job.

Landi summed it up best. “Let It Bleed is a five-star album. It’s as close to perfect as an album can get.” I couldn’t agree more.

-Scott Freiman

Photos courtesy of ABKCO

 

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