The Rolling Stones' 'Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out' Came at a Crucial Moment in History 50 Years Ago

Few rock fans would deny that the Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!—an album which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month—is a classic. Recorded during the Stones’ creative zenith, the album captures the world’s greatest rock and roll band strutting their stuff on stage and working the crowd to the point of euphoria. Signature tunes like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Street Fighting Man”, and most notably, “Midnight Rambler” took on a new life when performed on stage. However, before digging into the music, a little history lesson is in order. After all, a true appreciation of this landmark album can only be attained by exploring the political and social climate in which it was created.

Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! was recorded over two nights at Madison Square Garden at the end of November 1969. The Manson murders were still in the rearview mirror, and the infamous Altamont Festival lurked just around the bend. The darkness that hung in the air as the 1960s drew to a close resulted from a long and painful unraveling of the hippies’ doe-eyed idealism. In 1968, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy shocked the nation and dealt a stunning blow to the civil rights and anti-war movements. That summer, violent clashes between anti-war protesters and police outside of the DNC in Chicago both stoked Middle America’s fear of hippie radicals and convinced many young activists that peace and love had become passe. A wave of disillusionment and despair swept through the counterculture on 5 November 1968, when one Richard Milhous Nixon was elected President.

When Beggars Banquet released in December, it proved that the Stones were in a class of their own when it came to reading the mood on the streets. “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man” (both performed on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!) were indelible reminders that flower power was dead on the vine and a wilder, more dangerous era was upon us. The following spring, when the Stones recorded “Gimme Shelter” for their upcoming album Let It Bleed, the lyrics “Rape, murder / It’s just a shot away” show the band were not anticipating a return to the “Summer of Love” anytime soon.

With that late ’60s refresher course in mind, we can now view Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! with an historian’s eyes. While recording Let It Bleed, the Stones replaced the deteriorating Brian Jones with newcomer Mick Taylor. Fresh from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Taylor’s fiery chops and easy chemistry with Keith Richards gave Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out a shot in the arm. “Jumping Jack Flash” and a reverent cover of Chuck Berry’s “Carol” make good warm-ups, but the album kicks into gear with “Stray Cat Blues”. Originally appearing on Beggar’s Banquet, the tune showcases the band’s swaggering machismo in all its testosterone-drenched glory. When Mick Jagger sings, “I can see that you’re 13 years old / But I don’t want no ID”, you can practically see drool coming out of your speakers. The raunchy, intertwining guitars of Taylor and Richards provide the perfect backdrop for Jagger’s shameless lechery.

Then, a beautiful reading of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” showcases a different side of the Stones. Whereas Cream transformed Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” into a showcase for instrumental prowess, the Stones take a decidedly more reverent approach when performing Johnson’s material. Jagger and Richards were well aware that they weren’t bluesmen from the Mississippi Delta, but delicate guitar work and moaning vocals capture the haunted atmosphere of Johnson’s music. While Taylor gets plenty of room to stretch out on guitar, he never overpowers the rest of the band.

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Outstanding musicianship and morbid timeliness make “Midnight Rambler” one of the album’s most fascinating tracks. The studio version of the tune (from Let It Bleed) is a powerful performance in its own right. Jagger’s amplified harmonica and Richards’ blues-inspired slide guitar work create a perfect musical backdrop for lyrics that seem to pour straight out of the darkest regions of Jagger’s unconscious. While there is no way Jagger could have predicted the Manson murders, the song’s ominous vibe is yet another reminder that the Stones were ahead of their rock and roll peers in sensing impending darkness. The tune explodes like a fireworks shell on stage, with the dueling guitars of Taylor and Richards creating a wall of crunching, distorted riffs while Jagger comes to life behind the microphone. The stop time riffs and shifts in tempo work the crowd as only the Stones could. It’s no coincidence that this version of “Midnight Rambler”—and not the studio take—was included in the greatest hits compilation Hot Rocks.

Another brief history lesson gives the live take of “Midnight Rambler” added bite. On the night of 9 August 1969, Sharon Tate and four friends were brutally murdered in the home Tate and husband Roman Polanski were renting. Because the word “Pig” was scrawled on the home’s front door in blood, the press dubbed the killings a “ritual murder”. The next night, supermarket executive Leno LeBianca and his wife were killed in their home. Among the messages scrawled in blood at this murder scene was “Healter Skelter”, a misspelled Beatles reference. Incredibly, the LAPD initially ruled out any connection between the two murder scenes and assigned each to separate teams of investigators.

When Manson and members of his “family” were arrested in October, it was on charges of grand theft auto. No one suspected a connection between the Manson “family” and the Tate and LeBianca murders until Manson follower Susan Barker began bragging about her role in the killings while in jail on auto theft charges. The indictment of Manson and five of his followers for the Tate and LeBianca murders occurred on 8 December 1969—roughly two weeks after the Madison Square Garden shows featured on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!

With this Charles Manson refresher course in mind, it is astounding to hear the Rolling Stones mesmerize their audience with a song about a serial killer. Were the music and the band’s charisma so powerful that the audience simply didn’t notice the tune’s morbid subject matter, or did the Stones revel in channeling the dark, unexplored id of their audience? Likely, it was a bit of both. As long as we’re on the subject of channeling the audience’s id, it’s a good time to look at the closing track: a no-holds-barred reading of “Street Fighting Man”.

The studio version of “Street Fighting Man”, which appeared on Beggar’s Banquet, and the live take performed at Madison Square Garden are two very different beasts. In the studio, Jagger’s inciting lyrics are tempered by the track’s innovative arrangement and production. As the song fades out, Nicky Hopkins’ ornate piano work and a shehnai (Moroccan reed instrument) played by Traffic’s David Mason create a mysterious, contemplative atmosphere. On stage, with all the studio niceties stripped away, the song became a primal rallying cry. When Jagger sang, “Summer’s here and time is right for fighting in the street, boy” over Taylor and Richards’ wailing guitars, it was a harbinger of things to come.

On 6 December 1969, a haphazardly assembled free music festival at the Altamont Speedway in northern California ended in disaster. During earlier sets by Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills and Nash, tensions between concertgoers and the Hell’s Angels—who were inexplicably hired as security guards and paid in beer—got increasingly ugly. By the time the Stones took the stage after dark, the situation had deteriorated into out and out mayhem. Meredith Hunter (an African American concert goer who had approached the stage with a gun) was stabbed to death by a Hell’s Angel. The ’60s counterculture, once viewed as a curiosity, drew increasing disdain from mainstream Americans. There was fighting in the street, just not the kind that the Stones’ fans may have envisioned. Thus, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! is not only a remarkable live performance by the Rolling Stones but also a snapshot of a crucial moment in history.