Sticky Fingers is the third of the trilogy of Rolling Stones albums that, in our opinion, comprise the heart of the band’s prime. The first two were Beggar’s Banquet in 1968 and Let It Bleed in 1969, from which three of the songs on this album originated.
However, Sticky Fingers stands out from the rest by being a distinctly transitional album. It is the band’s first “independent” album on their own Rolling Stones label and it bridges the gap between their hit-making, English-sound of the 1960s and the more urban-American sounding Stones that would develop through the 1970s. Also, it is probably the first rock album that is a bit reflective of the sixties culture and attitudes, something that would be repeated by many others throughout the seventies. The large number of (mostly) negative references to drugs shows an awakening in response to the recent deaths of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison and morbid wondering if there may be some among this band that will be next to the grave.
But the main reason for this transition is due to a major shift in personal, away from the band’s original leader Brian Jones, who was dismissed from the band in 1969 and then died mysteriously a few months later. Jones’ replacement was 20-year-old guitarist Mick Taylor, who makes his mark on Sticky Fingers as a suitable counterpart to Keith Richards.
The song that elevates Sticky Fingers from a good album to a great album is “Wild Horses”. Recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama in December 1969, this ode to heartbreak contains sweet excellent interplay between the electric and acoustics of Richards and Taylor, along with some of Mick Jaggar‘s finest lyrics ever;
“I’ve watched you suffer a dull aching pain / now you’ve decided to show me the same…”
The song was allegedly written about Marianne Faithfull, who played another large role on this album, as co-writer of the dark “Sister Morphine”, the oldest song on the album, dating back to March 1969, when Jaggar and Richards backed up Faithfull on what was originally a song of her own.
“Sister Morphine” is the first of the three songs that close the album with similar drugs n doom lyrical themes. The next is “Dead Flowers” which, although just as dark lyrically, is a nice upbeat and light departure from its melodramatic predecessor, even though Jaggar’s country voice is less than convincing. His voice is much more suited for the album’s fine closer, “Moonlight Mile”, a moody, melancholy, and slightly dark ballad that eases the listener out of the album. Like much of the album, it was recorded in March 1970 at Jaggar’s home at Stargroves and is the product of an all-night session between the singer and guitarist Mick Taylor after Keith Richards mysteriously disappeared from the sessions.
Aside from the country feel of “Dead Flowers”, the band experimented with a few other genres on Sticky Fingers. “You Gotta Move” is an attempt at 1930s Delta Blues, obviously in response to some of early work by Led Zeppelin. Another song, “I Got the Blues” is a better effort that tilts towards sixties soul and contains some excellent organ by guest Billy Preston.
The glue that holds the album together is three solid rockers built around Richards’ signature riffs. “Brown Sugar” and “Bitch” are quasi-twin songs that open each side to the upbeat, catchy vibe that made this band so popular in the first place. In fact, this was played out in real time as the opener actually hit #1 on the pop charts. And then there is the classic “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, a hybrid that goes from a rocker hitting on all cylinders that suddenly relents into a wild, five-minute instrumental section with guests Rocky Dijon on congas and Bobby Keys on saxophone, and a spacey, droning guitar section by Taylor.
Models of longevity, the Rolling Stones surely did some fine and interesting work over the years and decades that followed 1971. But they would never quite reach the level of Sticky Fingers again.
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.
Let’s get the controversy out of the way. There is no way in hell that Sticky Fingers is a better album than Let it Bleed. I believe this so strongly that I’m willing to launch a worldwide political campaign promoting this view. Both albums are overwhelmingly great of course, and among the finest albums that Mother Rock ‘n’ Roll has granted Her children. So my strong feelings about this is practically moot. But humor me, anyway.
Let it Bleed began with that incredibly ominous and atmospheric opener “Gimme Shelter.” That’s one of the very few songs in existence that puts me on the edge of my seat, anticipating everything that is to follow even though I heard it so many times that I’ve memorized it note for note. Sticky Fingers’ opener “Brown Sugar” is more of a straightforward dance song. It’s a great dance song of course and it’s terribly infectious and about as exciting as they get, but it doesn’t quite dig into my soul like “Gimme Shelter” does. Let it Bleed also had an epic closer, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” whereas Sticky Fingers ends with a more underwhelming ballad “Moonlight Mile.” Never mind that “Moonlight Mile” is one of the greatest ballads of all time; it just doesn’t give me that wholly awe-inspired feeling that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” gives me. My biggest argument against Sticky Fingers is the inclusion of two relatively underwhelming blues songs, “You Gotta Move” and “I Got the Blues.” They’re perfectly good, but they don’t have the engaging, earthy quality as a similar Let it Bleed song called “You Got the Silver.” And with that, I wrap up my opening statement.
Come to think of it, as I was writing that, I can understand why so many rock fans prefer Sticky Fingers to Let it Bleed, and it’s not because they like to look at men’s crotches. Sticky Fingers seems to take itself much less seriously. At this time, The Rolling Stones had basically achieved what they set out to achieve; they created not one but two great rock ‘n’ roll albums for the ages. And, now, all they wanted to do was ROCK. “Brown Sugar” might not have an “atmosphere” to speak of, but it does ROCK LIKE A BASTARD. And, really, that’s the whole point of rock ‘n’ roll anyway. Crank up the volume, and let ‘er rip!
As far as dance songs go, you’ll rarely run across anything as kick-ass as “Bitch.” You don’t really think of The Stones as a band that you’d want to dance to in the same place you’d dance to KC and the Sunshine Band, but “Bitch” will have you shaking your bottoms more quickly than a gas cannister can catch fire. It’s freaking infectious, too, with just about the catchiest, most powerful, and tightest riff ever conceived by mankind! “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” also features one of those brilliant riffs that only The Rolling Stones could have made seem so effortless. That song even progresses into a rather laid-back jam that I actually find interesting to pay close attention to. I usually don’t care very much when bands jam like that, but The Stones had the mojo.
And don’t let my words mislead you into thinking this album is all about ROCK. That was a pretty dumb thing for me to say, come to think of it, since there are only about three genuine rock songs here. Sticky Fingers also has some of the most incredible ballads of all music-kind. I already brought up the Japanese-tinged “Moonlight Mile,” but his has also got “Wild Horses.” Holy Mother of Tootsie Pops, that an incredible song. It is extremely beautiful and tuneful with some of the most gut-wrenching lyrics I’ve ever heard. That heavenly slide guitar that melts into the background, and Mick Jagger truly outdoes himself with those passionate vocals. “Sister Morphine” is also psychologically affecting but in a different sense; it’s a startlingly convincing tale about the desperation felt by drug addicts. Man, o man!
“Sway” is yet another unquestionably great song from this album. It’s gritty and bluesy with Mick Taylor making that guitar riff sound like the meanest bully of the playground. They also didn’t forget to give it a good vocal melody! The melody is an integral part, you know! The only song I didn’t mention yet is “Dead Flowers,” a country song that’s so catchy and pleasant to listen to that you won’t find too many full-time country musicians come close to matching it. Songs like that make me want to embrace country-western, even though that’s a little difficult to do after hearing jerks like Toby Keith and Garth Brooks curse every speaker they come out of… Blech… “Dead Flowers” is what country music is supposed to sound like. Great slide guitar, engaging piano textures, a sweet melody… The lyrics are even thoughtful! I didn’t even think it was physically possible for country-western to have thoughtful lyrics!!
Indeed, The Rolling Stones were such rock gods at this point of their career that they could do no wrong. Even the would-be uninspired sloppy blues songs “You Gotta Move” and “I Got the Blues” have their priceless qualities. I might not find this to be as rock-hard brilliant as Let it Bleed, but it’s still pretty rock-hard brilliant in its own right. Plus, the original vinyl sleeve had a cool zipper that you could play with.
With Mick Taylor’s muscular yet fluid guitar tone now firmly entrenched as an essential part of their sound, and with the Jagger/Richards axis writing an outstanding set of varied songs, Sticky Fingers stands as arguably the band’s finest hour.
Despite being recorded with the band in turmoil – people were pissed at them for Altamont, Jagger was dumped by Faithfull and subsequently replaced her with the polarizing Bianca, Keith was clearly a junkie, and they were trying to extricate themselves from Klein’s clutches – the drug addled, death obsessed end result somehow still turned out to be one of their signature works.
The band’s first U.S./U.K. #1 album, the first album on their own Rolling Stones Records label, and the first album on which their signature lapping tongue band logo appeared, Sticky Fingers was as famous for its Andy Warhol designed zipper cover (which has to be obtained on vinyl to get the full effect) as its great music.
But consistently great music it does contain, both hard rocking and more often laid back. Increasingly, r&b elements were being seamlessly interwoven within the Stones’ sound (the album was partially recorded in Muscle Shoals and the Stax-y horn section of saxophonist Bobby Keyes and trumpeter Jim Price are all over the record), and the album also included a pair of classic country numbers.
Perhaps no song better epitomizes the classic Stones sound than “Brown Sugar,” the lewd, lustful party anthem that leads off the album, and the next track, “Sway,” a great guitar showcase for Taylor (Keith doesn’t even play on it), is definitely one of the great “overlooked gems” in the Stones catalogue. “Wild Horses,” a beautiful country ballad containing one of Jagger’s most affecting vocal performances, is easily one of the greatest Stones songs ever (I’d rank it #4, with “Paint It Black” rounding out the top 5 for those who are curious), and it’s followed by “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” one of the band’s longest (7:16) and most ambitious songs.
Starting with those memorable stuttering riffs and moving onto a soaring Keith-led chorus, the song controversially morphs into an extended, jazzy jam, with moody organ from Billy Preston (a significant contributor to the album), Santana-styled Latin percussion from Rocky Dijon, and some groovy soloing from Keyes and Taylor that’s either “inspired improvisation” or “pretentious noodling,” depending on your perspective (I definitely vote for the former though this is far from a unanimous opinion).
“You Gotta Move,” a Fred McDowell cover that’s by far the weakest of the blues covers on their last three albums, is the albums weak link in that is seems almost like a blues parody rather than the real thing, but the ship then gets righted on “Bitch,” a tough, attitude soaked hard rocker that’s a veritable feast of memorable riffs (Keith’s imprint is all over this baby), punchy horns, and sneering vocals.
Though not a standout considering the competition, the self-explanatory “I Got The Blues,” presumably about Faithfull, features a heartfelt, impassioned vocal from Jagger and some soulful accompaniment from Preston/Keyes/Price, and the bummer portion of the album then continues with “Sister Morphine,” a haunting drug tale whose lyrics were at least partially co-written by Faithfull, who recorded it in 1969.
So did the Stones, even if it wasn’t released then, and the song’s sparse yet effective instrumentation, including some stellar bottleneck guitar work from Ry Cooder, yielded another terrific album track, on which Mick’s ghostly vocals are most memorable. Fortunately, things then briefly brighten on “Dead Flowers,” a catchy, lighthearted (despite being another obvious drug song) country number on which Stewart plays boogie piano and Richards chimes in with some flavorful backing vocals. Finally, “Moonlight Mile,” also recorded without Keith, provides a grand finale that stands as one of the Stones’ most evocative efforts, in no small part due to Paul Buckmaster’s string arrangements (which had also appeared on “Sway”).
Thus ends the classic Sticky Fingers, the album on which the band’s loose, ramshackle sound was arguably at its most perfect, as the best Stones lineup settled into its unstoppable prime.