Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers (1971)


The album that made it obvious for everybody The Rolling Stones were intent on surviving the Sixties and making the necessary impact on the Seventies, too. It featured something new, too: the good news was that Mick Taylor had finally arrived and took his cool solos from the hot atmosphere of Ya-Ya’s into the more moderate studio atmosphere, where he could work on them and tighten them up until they became completely devastating. The bad news was that the new decade brought new freedom, especially with the establishment of an independent record label, and Mick was finally free to litter the lyrics with obscene lexicon, while the front cover, featuring a pair of jeans with a real zipper, was their most raunchy to date.

Now look here: I’m not a purist, and I really don’t mind obscenity in rock music, but I just think that dirtying up their image was a really cheap trick for The Stones. After all, Let It Bleed was just the same as this one, but back then ‘dirty’ things used to hide behind metaphors, and that’s what looks like true artistry to me – all these ’empty places in my parking-lot’ and ‘brain-bell janglers’ sound oh so cool. Starting with Sticky Fingers, they began to dirty up their records more and more, until it all resulted in Undercover which was really only made for the sake of making a totally dirty record, and its musical value was not thought of. Of course, I understand they had to fuck up their image when faced with the new ‘dirtiness’ standards, especially later, with the punk scene and all that. But did they really have to shift their priorities in such a drastic way? Sacrifice good music for the sake of not looking like old farts? ‘Tis a serious question, indeed; but nevertheless I am decreasing the rating of Sticky Fingers by a whole point as a punishment. So there! Oh well, if you want any reason – ‘I Got The Blues’ sucks, but that’s another story.

The album is approximately divided into a ‘hard’ and a ‘soft’ side, with two exceptions: ‘Wild Horses’ is put on Side A and ‘Bitch’ is put on Side B probably to mess things up a bit. Anyway, the ‘hard’ side is terrifying, with the rockers threatening to beat the very life of you. The classic ‘Brown Sugar’ features some of my beloved Keith chords and enters the Golden Dozen of the band’s favourite stage numbers. Much has been said about the song’s lyrics depicting slave rape and other nasty things, but at least this time around Mick felt the need to mask the ‘fruity contents’ under allegories such as ‘brown sugar how come you taste so good’. Never mind the lyrics, though – the opening distorted, sloppy riff has oft been called the great signature lick of the Stones, and this is probably true. ‘Sway’ has Jagger adopting a unique ‘nasal-barking’ way of singing which really emphasizes the general lazy-depressed feel of the song, plus Mick Taylor solos like a demon; it’s not exactly my favourite, but the song truly has a great, unique, ‘muddy’ atmosphere of despair and quasi-lethargic melancholy to it. Not so with the rip-roarin’ ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin”, a seven-minute groove, starting with some raunchy lyrics and turning into a powerful jam soon afterwards, with Taylor’s famous Santana-like soloing.

The Stones rarely jammed on their records to oblivion, and when they did, like on ‘Goin’ Home’, it mostly put off people, but this is one rare case of a Stones jam where you’ll be asking for more: the brass section and Taylor’s Latino licks give the song a scary Voodoo mood that no ‘Dancing With Mister D’ could ever hope to capture. ‘You Gotta Move’ is the obligatory old blues cover set to a very weird acoustic guitar tone (I’d say it’s the hardcorest blues arrangement I’ve ever heard). Finally, ‘Bitch’ has the best riff on the entire record, and Keith really takes delight in chucking out some outchucking Chuck Berry-licks, the only thing letting this number down being Jagger’s silly obscene lyrics (‘sometimes I’m sexy, move like a stud’, really!) Throughout, the playing is so tight, the melodies are so great, the arrangements so impressive and the atmosphere so sincere and straightforward that it’s just plain incredible. Incredible. In the immortal words of Dave Weigel, ‘I want a written excuse why nobody’s writing such songs today’.

But, after all, these guys weren’t just your intelligent analogy of AC/DC. Nossiree. The ‘soft side’ here is not any less attractive. ‘Wild Horses’ is their greatest ballad they ever put out in both the 70-s and the 80-s (never mind the 90-s), with Mick turning in a great vocal performance (since this song is likely to be dedicated to Marianne Faithfull’s return to life after her coma, it might as well be emotional). I still can’t really guess whether the message is more optimistic or gloomy – the verses seem to be terribly depressing, while the chorus has something uplifting about it: ‘wild horses couldn’t drag me away, wild horses, we’ll ride ’em someday’. But who cares? You might just as well take both sides of it.

On the other hand, ‘Sister Morphine’ is, simply put, the most frightening song they ever made – ‘Gimme Shelter’ might scare the pants off you, but this is one tune I’m simply afraid of listening to. It ain’t heavy or devilish or anything, but the atmosphere is so dang creepy… This may be silly, but I’d highly recommend the song for junkies: no other song depicts the drug horror more vividly and convincingly than that one. And what’s the effect achieved with, I ask you? Well, take just some simple, but ‘well-tuned’ vocals, acoustic guitar and some spooky electric lines from Ry Cooder, plus Charlie’s drum part later on, and you’re all set up. And don’t you ever think of listening to ‘Too Much Blood’ after this one, you’ll never want to put that silly Undercover on again. Consolation and relaxation comes up with ‘Dead Flowers’, a very nice country song, again combining some joyful music with lines about death and needles and graves and all that other stuff. And the closing ‘Moonlight Mile’ overdoes the coda a bit, but in general it’s an incredible song, with Jagger rising to the kind of majestic height only The Who could master.

The only real letdown is the pretentious, bombastic ‘I Got The Blues’, which is where Mick really overdid the matter: his ‘heroic’ style of singing here is really fake. If you get deceived by it, you might enjoy it, though. I don’t. It evokes visions of soul singers before my eyes, and I could never picture Mick as a true soul singer. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s a tribute to the Great Old Black Musicians of the days of yore, but gimme ‘Rip This Joint’ over this tripe any time of day.

In other words: this is a mighty solid effort. A truly great album. A record that defines its epoch and defies time. BUT… but this is also the beginning of the end. It’s not an ounce better than Let It Bleed, and rather several ounces worse (I’ve said what ounces, already). Musically, It’s still perfect, but it also shows to what extent they were dependent on Taylor’s guitar. As soon as Taylor departed, music started to decline, and obscenity and mannerisms started to grow.

April 5, 2013 - Posted by | The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers |

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