Updated: Feb 9, 2022
"I was sitting by the window of my friend Robert Fraser's flat in London's Mount Street with my acoustic guitar when suddenly the sky went dark and an incredible downpour of rain fell, sending people scurrying around for shelter. That's where the concept for 'Let It Bleed' came from, says The Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, and they dug deeper until they were just a stone's throw away from the topic of rape and murder. The unpredictable horror of it all was a counterpoint to the state of the Rolling Stones at the time, with the needle-jumping guitarist putting the band in a precarious position, and as the album cover so ironically suggests, the cake sculpture looks gorgeous at first, but ominous in reality. It's as if they're saying that a misaligned structure better is shuffled before it's too late, or else the needle won't see the light of day, and with the slightest activation all will be lost, and no one will get what they want.
In 1969, The Rolling Stones released their eighth studio album, Let It Bleed, with a relatively unpretentious sound influenced by African-American music, such as gospel, country blues, and hard rock, and symbolizing the Stones' return to their pre-Aftermath sound, as did their 1968 album Beggars Banquet. Aftermath' and 'You Can't Always Get What You Want.
The band was in turmoil during the recording of 'Let It Bleed', with founding member and initial leader Brian Jones becoming increasingly unreliable due to an overdose, often absent from recordings and struggling to make a meaningful contribution when he did show up, so he was sacked during the recording of 'Let It Bleed' and replaced by Mick Taylor as the new guitarist. Taylor brought a harder rock sound, while Brian Jones' playing only appeared on two songs on the album, and a month after losing his job, he accidentally drowned in his swimming pool.
Mick Jagger initially asked artist M. C. Escher to create the visuals for 'Let It Bleed', but M. C. Escher declined and asked Keith Richards' good friend Robert Brownjohn to design the album visuals instead. Originally titled 'Automatic Changer', Robert Brownjohn enlisted the help of home cook Delia Smith (later to become a famous British cookery writer and TV personality) to bake a gorgeous record player cake. In his memoir Rolling with the Stones, bassist Bill Wyman quotes Delia Smith as saying, "I was working part-time as a housekeeper for a food photographer who did commercials and magazines, and I would cook anything they needed. One day they said they wanted a cake for the cover of the Rolling Stones and baking the cake was extra work, they wanted it to be very flashy, and the more flashy the better.
Robert Brownjohn based his idea on the 'auto-changer' concept and ended up with a surreal cake sculpture, with an album cover image consisting of an antique gramophone, an auto-changer, and a buttercream body, with a 'Let It Bleed' record playing on the arm and a central stack of objects such as a film tin labeled 'Stones - Let It The top of the cake is the only one that is actually edible, decorated with cherries, grapes, pink whipped cream and a variety of cute little band figures, all in a flurry of glitz and glamour.
But when you turn to the back cover of the album, this bizarre record player cake is in a state of disrepair, with the Rolling Stones figurines tumbling around, Keith Richards still playing diligently, the tires in the foundation flattened and leaking, the pizza falling to the bottom and even the all-important vinyl cracked and damaged, the damaged structure a blatant provocation: once the record is played, the interpersonal and sonic arrangements will be turned upside down.
The Rolling Stones liked these two odd images so much that they stuck with Robert Brownjohn's design, even though the album was retitled Let It Bleed. Years later, the album cover was selected as part of the 'Classic Album Covers' stamp series issued by Royal Mail in January 2010; in 2013 the MoMA Museum of Modern Art in New York presented the cover of Let It Bleed in the exhibition Designing Modern Women 1890-1990, as well as the Robert Brownjohn-designed James Bond. Robert Brownjohn's James Bond: Goldfinger is a testament to its artistic iconography.