‘Midnight Rambler’: Behind The Rolling Stones’ Dark “Blues Opera”

uDiscover Music
Oct 15 · 3 min read

Martin Chilton

Photo: Ethan Russell, courtesy of ABKCO

The beautiful Italian town of Positano was a place of inspiration for author John Steinbeck, who wrote: “Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” That Amalfi Coast town also played a part in the history of The Rolling Stones, when Keith Richards and Mick Jagger went on holiday there in 1968. Somehow, being in picturesque, sunny Positano gave them the creative spark to write a dark song about a serial murderer, the “midnight rambler… pouncing like a proud black panther”.

“Nobody else could have written that song”

“‘Midnight Rambler’ is a song Keith and I really wrote together,” Jagger recalled in 1995. “We were on a holiday in Italy. In this very beautiful hill town, Positano, for a few nights. Why we should write such a dark song in this beautiful, sunny place, I really don’t know. We wrote everything there — the tempo changes, everything. And I’m playing the harmonica in these little cafes, and there’s Keith with the guitar.”

The song, which finally appeared on the 1969 album Let It Bleed, was loosely based on the life of the real Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo, who murdered 13 women in that American city from 1962 to 1964. “Midnight Rambler” was a headline that the papers used to describe the killer at the time, and in the song Jagger takes on the persona of a manipulative murderer. Richards called the seven-minute song “a blues opera” and insisted that his unique collaboration with Jagger was such that “nobody else could have written that song”.

“Really gaudy”

‘Midnight Rambler’ was originally recorded as part of the prolific sessions for Beggars Banquet in the spring of 1968, but was held over for Let It Bleed, which was released by Decca Records on 5 December 1969, and which is being reissued in a 50th-anniversary limited deluxe edition.

The cover for Let It Bleed was created by the graphic designer Robert Brownjohn. It features a cake that was made for the photo shoot by a young cookery writer called Delia Smith, who had been told the Stones wanted a “really gaudy” cake. Jagger sent her a framed, signed copy of the album as a thank you.

“I dig to play it”

James Miller’s production helps ‘Midnight Rambler’ blend the sinister overtones of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ with the Chicago blues style of some of the band’s songs from earlier in the 60s. Jagger plays some powerful harmonica licks and Richards’ guitar work is supported by some excellent drumming from Charlie Watts. Bill Wyman played bass on a song that neatly shifts tempos.

‘Midnight Rambler’ is also the last song that Brian Jones recorded with the Stones, contributing congas to the track. Jones, who had helped start the band in the early 60s, had been suffering from drug addiction problems at the time of the song’s recording. He announced he was leaving the band in June 1969 and was found dead a month later, at the age of 27.

‘Midnight Rambler’ became a favourite at Rolling Stones gigs, where Richards would let loose with thrashing guitar solos. “I dig to play it,” he said. “It’s when the audience decides to join, that’s when it really knocks you out.”

The 50th-anniversary deluxe edition of Let It Bleed is released on 1 November. Pre-order it here.

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Originally published at https://www.udiscovermusic.com on October 15, 2019.

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