Friday, 13 July 2012
Rolling Stones "Sticky Fingers" (1971)
The Rolling Stones “Sticky Fingers” (1971)
Brown Sugar/Sway/Wild Horses/Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?/You Gotta Move//Bitch/I Got The Blues/Sister Morphine/Dead Flowers/Moonlight Mile
“Gold coast ship bound for cotton fields, sold in a market down in New Orleans, scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ alright, you shoulda heard him just around midnight” “Did you ever wake up to find a day that broke up your mind, destroyed your circular notion of time?” “Childhood living is easy to do, the things you wanted I bought them for you, graceless lady you know who I am, I can’t let you slip through my hands” “No sweeping exits or offstage lines could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind” “I know I’ve dreamed you, a sin and a lie, I have my freedom but I don’t have much time, faith has broken and tears must be cried, let’s do some living after we die” “Feeling so tired, can’t understand it, just had a fortnight’s sleep, I’m feeling so tired, I’m so distracted, I ain’t touched a thing all week” “Every night you’ve been away I’ve sat down and prayed that you’re safe in the arms of a guy who will bring you alive, won’t drag you down with abuse” “If you don’t believe what I’m singing at three o’clock in the morning, babe, well I’m singing my song for you” “The scream of the ambulance is ringing in my ears, tell me sister morphine how long have I been lying here?” “Well it just goes to show things are not what they seem, please sister morphine turn my nightmares into dreams” “Sweet cousin cocaine, lay your cool hand on my head, come on sister morphine, you better make up my bed, ‘cause you know and I know in the morning I’ll be dead” “When the winds blow and the rain feels cold, with a head full of snow, in the window there’s a face you know, don’t the nights pass slow?”
The Rolling Stones seem to be everywhere this month, courtesy of their 50th birthday (well, the day they count as their birthday anyway – their first Marquis Club performance with Charlie Watts on drums). In many ways it seems more than 50 years since the band started, given how different the world was back then, when r and b and rock played by white English teenagers was frowned upon and the scariest sight Western eyes could see was a man with big lips dressed as a woman and incanting sympathy to beezelbub (nowadays we get scarier sights than that with every party political broadcast, never mind the news reports that the Spice Girls are re-forming). I’m surprised and a little pleased to see so much fuss being made (more even than the 50th anniversary of Lennon and McCartney’s meeting in 2006), but then the Stones deserve it: scorned by punks, laughed at by today’s hip hop and rap stars, without the Stones none of the people we think of today as shocking would have stood a chance getting their songs across. Rumour has it the band are rehearsing for another tour later in the year – given the fights Mick and Keith have had since the latter’s book was published I was deeply sceptical of a reunion ever happening (until I saw four of them back together for an ‘anniversary photograph’ outside the Marquis Club, now a Santander bank!) In case it doesn’t happen, here’s our AAA birthday bash for the Stones, with a review of ‘Sticky Fingers’, the best Stones album we haven’t got round to tackling yet. Long may the Stones roll on!
Being a music collector inevitably leads to debates with other collectors about what the best albums of certain eras are. It used to be easy for collecting, say, The Beatles’ records: soon after the split ‘Sgt Peppers’ was seen as the fab four album to end all others, with later collectors switching to ‘Abbey Road’ ‘The White Album’ and ‘Revolver’ (although like many collectors there’s no room for debate in my mind at all – anyone who doesn’t think ‘Revolver’ is the peak of The Beatles’ work just isn’t listening to the album properly!) There’s a similar split among Stones collectors causing every bit as much tension and discussion: back in the early 70s ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ was held up as the fab five’s best album before general opinion shifted towards ‘Let It Bleed’ and latterly ‘Exile On Main Street’. To these ears ‘Between The Buttons’ is the best Stones album in the sense that there’s not a bad track on it and nobody but the Stones could have written its mixture of lilting melodic beauty and fuck-you lyrical kiss offs, but anyway to cut a story short the album that’s never quite made it to the top of fan’s charts, despite being a close second for many people, is ‘Sticky Fingers’. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride – and frankly I’m surprised because ‘Sticky Fingers’ features so many of the key elements of Stonesdom that we’ve come to expect down the years: strutting swampy rock, glistening yearning ballads and a bit of experimentation to keep the whole sound alive. A couple of duff tracks aside this album has it all, with songs that sound more archetypically Stones-like than ever before and yet on the other hand a much more eclectic range than usual, pushing the Stones’ sound to its logical conclusion. More ballad-driven than most Stones albums, with a fluidity of style from new boy Mick Taylor on second guitar, it’s the slower more thoughtful moments that come over best with several majestic group performances from all five Stones and their long list of supporting musicians. ‘Sticky Fingers’ doesn’t break the boundaries of ‘Buttons’ or ‘Satanic Majesties’, it doesn’t have the angry snarls of ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ and it doesn’t have the blurry-eyed wisdom of ‘Exile On main Street’. But what it does have is a winning mixture of blues, rock, country, folk-rock (and even prog rock on the end of ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?’),
Of course, if you were judging this album by its cover you’d have to say it was ‘pants’. Andy Warhol’s clever sleeve of a pair of zipped trousers is so iconic and so fitting for the Stones you wonder why the band hadn’t come up with the idea before, although arguably the sleeve loses something on CD (where you can’t work the zip, unlike the original vinyl editions – let’s hope a deluxe reissue of the album in the same format as the ‘Some Girls’ and ‘Exile’ CDs puts this right some time in the future!) The inner sleeve than features the knees and torso of a boxer clad model friend of Warhol’s, leaving you with the feeling that you’re ‘undressing’ the album when you remove the inner sleeve – again an effect that gets lost on CD (or on the packaging missing trouserless download) but was very clever in its day and ‘fits’ this album’s idea of the Stones letting down their guard after the grand philosophy of predecessor ‘Let It Bleed’.
The band were also back touring in the ‘Sticky Fingers’ eras after a long hiatus caused by the band’s various drug busts (which caused immigration officials everywhere to salivate with anticipation) and Brian Jones’ ragged fall from grace between 1967 and 1969. ‘Sticky Fingers’ is a much more down to earth, less overdubbed album than anything from the mid to late 60s and has a real spark in places long missing from the band’s sound thanks to their desire to play live. The cover has come to overshadow the contents down the years but even this colourful image seems to be forgotten nowadays in favour of the rather ugly and corporate tongue logo,. The same could be said for the music, what with the hype and drama surrounding the making of both ‘Some Girls’ and ‘Exiles’ as re-issued by the band recently. As ever with Alan’s Album Archives, we don’t go in for artificial re-writing of history: ‘Sticky Fingers’ encapsulated everything it meant to be a Stones fan in the early 70s and it remains one of their most complete and rounded albums, with a good half of the album reaching iconic status, unlike both ‘Some Girls’ (best for a while but not that good) and ‘Exiles’ (which is only a quarter of the way to being perfect).
Like follow-up ‘Exile On Main Street’, this is an album that sounds like it was recorded late into the night, with the recordings getting gradually blurred around the edges as tiredness and substances cause one song to transmute into the next. Producer Jimmy Miller, who worked on all the albums people think of nowadays as ‘Stones classics’ and a couple of duff ones, is at his bleary-eyed best here, with the mix of instruments poured into the same space sounding deliberate and exotic (whereas in the Decca years it just sounded like a bad sonic mess). When the Stones finally hit their ‘traditional’ sound on ‘Dead Flowers’, all lightness and adrenalin rushes as before, it comes as something of a shock. Later Stones albums try this same effect to decidedly underwhelming effect (‘It’s Only Rock and Roll’ or ‘Black and Blue’ for instance), but for this album – and arguably this album only– the material seems to suit the sonic murk, with the kind of half-theme across the album of people lost in shadows trying to stagger their way forward into the light. There’s drug addicts pleading for the next fix while trying to work out where it all went wrong, a newly married couple suddenly realising they don’t ever want to be apart after years of running from each other, the guilty narrator whose just realised his wrongdoings and asks for his wounded girl to find happiness with someone who treats her better than he does and the ragged desperation of ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?’, which turns patience into an art form. All these characters are the same ragged drop-out low life wannabes that made the Stones records of the 60s such a delight, but they’re all trying to better themselves in some way on this record and the songs are shot through with guilt and trepidation as well as the usual sneering arrogance and put-downs.
Perhaps the band are still feeling guilty for the loss of Brian Jones, the condition of Marianne Faithful and for the whole Altamont fiasco. Fans can and have argued for years that Brian’s dismissal from the band he’d founded, however necessary, sent him over the edge. For the record I think his death in his own swimming pool was a tragic accident, despite the talk of suicide and the suspicious circumstances behind his death (stoked up again when the builder who lived in Brian’s house, Frank Thorogood, allegedly confessed to the murder on his deathbed). Keith’s guilt over ‘stealing’/’saving’ Brian’s girlfriend Anita Pallenberg (depending on whose side you’re on) may also have played a part in pushing Brian over the edge. It must have hit the other Stones hard too, not least because they’d hoped that the firing might have woken up Brian enough to get him back into making music (he certainly was beginning to turn things around when he died). The reported incident of the band hearing the news while recording the end of ‘Let It Bleed’, leaving a shaken Jagger to mutter for the next hour ‘it goes on...it has to go on’ tells you everything you need to know about how and why the Stones story should by rights have ended (and how many people expected it to). As for Altamont, the murder of a festival goer by the Hells Angels’ security at their band-organised festival actually affected predecessor ‘Let It Bleed’ the most (specifically the song ‘Gimme Shelter’), but three of this album’s songs actually date back further (‘Brown Sugar’ ‘You Gotta Move’ and ‘Wild Horses’) and the memories must have still lingered at the back of the band’s minds during the making of this album, not least because they were overseeing the editing of the ‘Gimme Shelter’ concert film of the event around this time (certainly the band will never write anything as relentlessly dark and satanic again, fearing that their ‘bad vibes’ may have caused the whole event). And Marianne? Her much publicised drug overdose seems more like a cry for help and attention from a singer with quickly shifting priorities – certainly this is the point where he and Keith start heading in different directions, Mick all but cleaning up his act and Keith getting deeper and deeper into his. It’s no coincidence that Mick marries Bianca the month after this album’s release, although just as he felt a bit of remorse and guilt at leaving longterm girlfriend Chrissie Shrimpton for Marianne, so in private he may have felt guilty about this move too.
Talking of Mick and Keith going their separate ways the pair seem to have hit a bit of a dry writing patch for this album, not least because Mick and Keef are working with so many other people (an uncredited Mick Taylor on ‘Sway’ and ‘Moonlight Mile’, an uncredited on their version but not his version Gram Parsons on ‘Wild Horses’ and an uncredited then but credited now Marianne Faithful on ‘Sister Morphine’; the Jagger-Richards mania for keeping credits to themselves gets really complicated in this period!). Notably these songs are pretty much all the best on the album and certainly the most forward-looking , suggesting the Jagger-Richards partnership was hitting the first of many problems in this era (apart from The Who and The Kinks, the Stones are the only band from this era to have lasted so long with most of their original members intact and like most bands seem to have started imploding long before they reached their first decade) – certainly its the first album largely divided into ‘Keef’ and ‘Mick’ moments (even if, notably, Keith doesn’t get to sing one lead vocal on this album for the first since ‘Aftermath’ five years before). Notably some of these songs seem really poor when you read them on the lyric sheet (‘I Got The Blues’ especially), as if the pair have better things to do than sit down together and make their songs work, although the sheer togetherness of the performances and the majestic band performances get round most of these problems.
If anyone deserves credit for this album then it’s the most overlooked Stone, Mick Taylor. A couple of sessions aside, this is the first real Stones album to have been completed with Mick in the band and after Brian’s death and it carries on ‘Let It Bleed’s template for what the Stones mark II sound is going to be like. Taylor plays a lot more guitar on this album than Richards does and his solos are some of the best instrumental passages on any Stones release: his sublime performance on the second half of ‘Sway’ lifts the whole sung up a gear and its largelky his playing that makes the extended coda of ‘Knocking’ so thrilling, while his accompanying performance on ‘Moonlight Mile’, though less in the spotlight, is equally exciting. Taylor fitted in ridiculously quickly into the Stones’ sound, despite being a much ‘cleaner’ more sonically bright player than Keith or Brian (or his replacement Ronnie Wood), filling in not only the part of Brian Jones but Keith Richards too, the guitarist’s dominance of the band sliding slightly in the early 70s (the main reason ‘Exile’ was recorded in his French Villa not Jagger’s was to make sure he turned up!) Of course, personality wise you couldn’t think of anyone less able to fit in with the Stones: the other band members may only have been seven or eight years older in terms of physical age (barring Bill who was more like 12), but the Stones had been through more in the 60s than most people their age had experienced and their recent problems had made them much sharper and haggard than most late 20-somethings. An 18 year old teetotaller who had never tried drugs when he joined the band, Taylor was a wreck by 1974 when he left, completely incapable of living their lifestyle despite fitting musically into the band with total ease. Many fans are upset that the four Mick Taylor Stones albums don’t contain the usual tried and tested ancient Stones art of ‘weaving’, but for me this album’s two-pronged attack, with Richards’ gruff angry stabbing rhythm and Taylor’s quicksilver solos (not so much weaving as wrestling with each other) remain the peak of the band’s career, complementing rather than competing in sound. It’s a crying shame that we only have four albums with Taylor on board to enjoy – and that the last of those albums, ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll’ uses him (and indeed the rest of the band’s talents) so badly, with Taylor all but disappearing from view after he leaves the band in 1974.
That said, its something of a bonus that we have those albums at all. Along with the incidents outlined above there were several good reasons for fans assuming that before releasing this record the Stones were dead and buried. Their main competitors The Beatles were no more (who’d have guessed mid-60s that the fabs would have gone before the punch-up Stones?), The Beach Boys a pale shadow of their former selves, The Kinks reduced to releasing great anglicised albums that an Americanised market didn’t hear and the general feeling among music fans in general was that the 60s generation of rock and roll musicians would have to become all respectable and middle of the road if they carried on in their music careers at all in the wake of all the new groups with new exciting sounds passing through. Approaching 30, it just didn’t seem possible to a lot of people that any of the bands of the 60s would continue at all. Add in the Stones’ extra-curricular affairs, from Charlie Watts’ jazz albums to Mick Jagger’s acting career (three films released in 1970 alone; Mick’s good - they’re not) and you wonder how the band had any time for music anyway.
For a time there it looked as if the Stones had just quietly retired, what with the two year gap between singles from April 1969 to April 1971(‘Brown Sugar’ being the first from ‘Sticky Fingers’) – an unheard of gap in the day when four months between singles and six to nine between albums was the norm. Actually there was a more basic reason the Stones were keeping a low profile at the time, but it wasn’t one they felt they could talk about. Signed to Decca in 1962 deliberately to counteract EMI’s success with The Beatles, the Stones realised as early as their first few singles that it was probably a mistake, what with the label’s sonic murky sound and their rejection of several Stones ideas along the way. By the time 1969 came around Allen Klein had had his icy grip on the band a few years more than he had The Beatles and the band were simply ‘sitting out’ their contract until the magical date of July 31st 1970 when they could do what they liked. Their decision was to do an ‘Apple’ and create their own label just for them where they could do what they liked with both music and packaging, selling their rights to the highest bidder (EMI in Europe and Atlantic in America, although they’re now owned by Richard Branson’s label Virgin). However, legally Decca had a claim on a good percentage of these recordings, made before that date, and the band had to keep their recordings quiet (they even created possibly the first ‘mobile recording unit’ owned by a band and rented out to others; The Who will do the same a few years later). In fact Decca do try to counter-act the sales of this album with their ‘Stone Age’ hits-and-rarities compilation; fans aren’t convinced and either buy both or none at all. No matter the cause though: to fans the Stones seemed eerily quiet in 1970 and until the band finally toured Europe at the end of 1971 it looked like that Altamont gig at the end of 1969 might have been their last.
So, all these years on, is ‘Sticky Fingers’ a good return by the band? Yes indeed, its a more thoughtful record than most Stones ones, with more care taken with the arrangements and hitting the best balance between their characteristic swampy rock sound and the clarity that makes so many moments on this album (the segue from song to jam on ‘Knocking’; the eerie opening to ‘Sister Morphine’; Mick’s delightful vocal on ‘Wild Horses) jump out from your speakers and hit you in the face. There are too many dull moments to make this the Stones classic it might have been (‘Brown Sugar’ is easily the worst Stones song that everyone knows; ‘You Gotta Move’ the worst of their handful of faithful blues covers; ‘Dead Flowers’ is a good two years out of date, etc), but equally there are times when the Stones can get away with their argument of being ‘the greatest rock and roll band in the world (when The Who aren’t playing)’. Given the circumstances, it’s amazing anything on this album works as cohesively at it does at all – the fact that so much of it does is a decided bonus.
Had I been there at the time I certainly wouldn’t have been wowed with the ‘comeback’ of ‘Brown Sugar’, easily the most derivative and nasty of Stones singles. Most fans seem to miss the point in the lyrics, but this is a slave owner from New Orleans singing in the first person about how great it is to rape and beat his black slaves captured in the ‘gold coast’, before the narrator turns into a 16-year-old fresh faced kid in awe at what the slaves are made to do. Sure the Stones are picking characters in this song and like many of their more risqué moments there’s more than a bit of tongue-in-cheek about the whole thing, but the fact remains: ‘Brown Sugar’ is an uncomfortable song to sit through in 2012 and even in 1971 it must have sounded like the Stones hadn’t learnt one bit from the problems of their ‘darker side’ breaking through at Altamont in 1969 when a black kid was killed to the strain of the Stones’ ‘Under My Thumb’ (its also similar to the uncomfortable experience of watching the rape-story of ‘Midnight Rambler’ the same year). The main reason this song became such a big hit is undoubtedly the main riff, a classic piece of Keith Richards primitivism, although even this is a pale imitation of the many riffs that had gone back to the band’s songwriting breakthrough ‘Satisfaction’. Frankly, no one in this song seems to be caring what they’re doing, with the murkiest production of the whole LP to endure.
It could have been a lot different and originally started off as a Mick Jagger solo acoustic demo, written on the set of ‘Ned Kelly’ in the Australian outback (Mick’s acting debut where like so many of his films he looks the part but the rest of the movie falls short) as a way of exercising the muscles in his hand (in an event that most certainly wouldn’t happen today the big star of that film was accidentally shot during filming!) Quite why Mick should have ended up thinking about South African slaves while there is unknown, although class is a key part of the ‘Ned Kelly’ film and the workers being forced into working against their will by landowners isn’t a million miles away from the oppression of ‘Ned Kelly’ (an outlaw who made a name for himself killing policeman; like the Stones either a folk hero or a hooligan depending on who you asked). Jagger later recalled that the song ended up a ‘mis-mash’ of all the nasty things he could think of put together in one song – and alas that’s how it sounds if you study this song properly. There are some good lines in the mess though: ‘sky dog slave driver’ sums up in a single sentence what the rest of the song struggles to make sense of and the twist on the old Chuck Berry motto of ‘sweet 16’ with the older female slaves all with white ‘boyfriends’, but two good ideas don’t make a whole song. Even with a fiery Richards riff and a great band performance it was a struggle trying to get this song right: the band actually re-recorded it from scratch a few months later on Keith Richards’ 28th birthday but ended up returning to this earlier version done at Muscle Shoals in December 1969. The result remains uncomfortable, with the slave in the song a commodity to be transferred around like sugar beat and the Stones having far too much fun ordering her around. The stupidest 45 the Stones ever released.
‘Sway’ is much better all round, a very wordy philosophical song that points ahead to the direction the band will take on ‘Goat’s Head Soup’, with a delightfully wasted Jagger vocal set to his own crunching rhythm guitar part and a tour de force performance from Mick Taylor (Keef overdubs a vocal but otherwise doesn’t appear on the song). The root of this song is a hapless narrator having a bad day, but its all told in delightful, almost prog-rock verse with a hard-to-hear chorus that actually chants ‘it’s just that demon life that’s got you in it’s sway’ and an opening verse about how a bad day ‘destroys your notion of circular time’ (which I think means how time drags when you’re doing something you don’t want to do!) In fact the whole song drags and sounds like its playing at half-speed, with Mick at his best here (his weary ‘one...two...three’ intro is the perfect scene-setter). But above it all sits Mick Taylor’s quicksilver guitar, brighter in tone than anything the Stones played in the past and rising above the murk as it spirals ever higher with a frankly ridiculous solo that should have been impossible to play. Many fans forget Taylor’s contribution altogether but here, at his best, he’s the absolute counterpoint of sincerity and optimism this most cynical of bands badly needs and outplays anything Richards will go on to play. In fact Taylor plays two: his first solo is rudely cut off by Jagger’s imploring ‘there must be ways to find out!’ and its his second that goes on and on, happily coming after a verse that seems to implore hope, the ruined ravaged narrator finding happiness with a girl who ‘broke me up with the corner of her smile’. Like many of the songs on ‘Sticky Fingers’ guilt lies at the heart of this song, the narrator angry at all the fakes ‘flinging tears’ on a best friend’s ‘burial ground’ when he’s more angry and sad than they’ll ever know, a moving verse that surely is about Brian Jones. The whole song was recorded on the band’s new mobile recording unit, for this song installed into the kitchen of Mick Jagger’s mansion ‘Stargroves’ in Hampshire – Dr Who fans know it better as the house where Sutekh returns to ‘spread his gift of death’ in the story ‘Pyramids Of Mars’ about five years later (Mick, a sci-fi fan at the time, gave his fee to charity – a side of the Stones you don’t often get to see!) A word too about the tasteful string arrangment: an orchestra on a Stones track had seemed like sacrilege before ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ on the previous album – now the band are using strings like pros, with Paul Buckmaster’s understated arrangement buried in the mix bringing out the right sense of half-heard mumblings. Blurry-eyed and quietly bitter, ‘Sway’ is a majestic song that sounds exactly like its title, swaying from side to side on Mick’s choppy rhythm guitar, and is one of the highpoints of the album.
‘Wild Horses’ is an unusual song for the Stones, who’d recorded plenty of ballads before this but never one so yearning, earnest or seemingly heartfelt. If the first two tracks of the album were ‘Jagger’ songs then this is a ‘Richards’ piece that was a good part co-written by ex-Byrds Gram Parsons, long seen as the inventor of ‘country rock’ (which another Byrd, Gene Clark, has an equal claim to). It manages to work on several layers at once this song: the chorus makes it a song about not wanting to part from someone (Keith said later it was about having to go on tour when his first child, Marlon, was born; Marianne Faithful has another version, claiming it was the first words she spoke to Mick after waking from her overdose-induced coma – whichever story is true the song seems to have a significance for both Stones); the opening verse about ‘childhood living’, however, makes it sound like the couple have a long history and yet have only just realised their love for each other; the second verse about ‘pain and suffering’ make s the subject of affection out to be a difficult and vain figure – a prima donna drug addict who made an addict out of the narrator too if I’ve read the verse right; finally, the last verse makes this out to be a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story, the girl of the song half-dreamt of and dead, with the narrator reduced to wishing for better chances next time around, to ‘do some living after we die’. That’s a lot to pack into a song that’s understandably confused and yet this song is regarded fondly by Stones fans, for both the unusually warm chorus about even wild horses not dragging the pair away from each other and the gorgeous twin guitar work (Keef on acoustic, Mick Taylor on electric) that make this song quite unlike any other in the Stones canon. Gram Parsons recorded his own version for the Flying Burrito Brothers’ album ‘Burrito Deluxe’ where another ex-Byrd Chris Hillman sings a particularly delightful harmony; due to the delays and agonies making this album Gram’s version actually appeared on record a full year before the Stones’ original did. Incidentally, a pianist called Jim Dickinson (now a producer) was hired at the last minute to play on what would be his only Rolling Stones track – the band had assumed founding member and sixth stone Ian Stewart would play on the song, only for him to storm off muttering ‘I don’t play minor chords!’ Its his loss: ‘Wild Horses’ is one of the better slow songs from the Stones in the 70s and although confusing to ‘read’ there’s no doubting the sincerity in both Mick and Keef’s voices when they sing the chorus.
‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?’ is another successful experiment, a song that starts off like a more up-tempo variation on the standard Stones riff before moving into an awkward minor chord that shakes the song out of its strut and into something more emotional before ending with a tour de force four and a half minute instrumental finale. At 7:15 its the longest song the Stones committed to tape outside the jamming session ‘Goin’ Home’ from Aftermath – but unlike that song it doesn’t outlast a second, being a welcome exercise in how to make the most out of every single aspect of the song. To take the sections in order, Mick is at his best barking out the verses, with verse after verse of inverted compliments only the Stones could think were plusses (‘You got satin shoes, Chinese boots, cocaine eyes’) and wondering why he’s, literally, being left out in the cold. The melancholy chorus, reminding the girl that the narrator’s ‘no stranger’ features Keith’s most obvious vocal presence on the album and sounds like he’s having fun, adding a bit of emotional earnestness to Jagger’s swagger. It’s the finale, though, that most fans remember, with the song simple carrying on after it should have ended via a pretty Keith Richards guitar segue and some percussion and sounding more like a Grateful Dead onstage jamming session than anything else the Stones ever did. The highlight is Mick Taylor’s classic Clapton-like guitar runs, finding the riff Keith’s been playing for the past three minutes and toying with it, opening it up and extending it into a more logical starting point for a solo – evidence of how closely matched the two guitarists were. Band friend Bobby Keyes’ saxophone solo is pretty remarkable too and superior to any of his more lauded performances on ‘Exile On Main Street’, being that much looser and better fitted to the song. Billy Preston, too, is on fine form with his organ part, ‘rooting’ the song when the other musicians threaten to abandon the rhythm altogether. After so many years of the band being stuck as a three piece-plus-vocalist in the Brian Jones days, it’s great to hear the extra musicians and Mick Taylor bringing out the fun in the band again. The liner note’s nervy comments that the distortion in the guitar parts is ‘intentional’ and not something up with your stereo at home can be disregarded too: this song sounds fabulous from first note to last and it’s a great shame that the Stones never really made this sort of extended jamming style part of their recording output again. Recently returned to the live act after a gap of 35 years, it seems this track is finally getting its just desserts, thought by many fans to be the highlight of the band’s last tour.
After three superlative songs in a row its something of a shame to hear the Stones going back to their rather tired and generic blues wailing on ‘You Gotta Move’, the latest in a series of genuine blues covers they’d been copying to the letter. Good as Jagger is on the Stones’ R and B-blues-rock hybrids, he’s no match for the original by Reverend Gary Davis (Jerry Garcia was another fan – there are loads of his songs at his solo concerts and the Dead’s) and sounds quite laughably wrong in places, putting on his best Americanised accent which simply doesn’t suit him. Keith’s nylon string guitar part is slightly more authentic although even this isn’t up to Richards’ usual standards, sounding distinctly out-of-tune (but not in a good way as per some Stones recordings) and the end result is a rather trying three minutes. In the context of the band’s recent struggles and this album’s half-theme of guilt this track makes slightly more sense, with the sound of a preacher warning us all to be ready to die and go to the next world at any time (its especially moving at the Hyde Park concert the day after Brian Jones’ death), but then again hearing the pair of songwriters who came up with ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ trying to save our souls with Christianity is a pretty weird experience all round. If the band were trying to get fans interested into the blues then they should have chosen a better track and done the whole thing properly – I’d love to have heard their take on Rev Davis’ ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’ for instance, a track the Dead muffed up just as badly on their ‘Live/Dead’ album of 1969 as the Stones do here.
Side two of ‘Sticky Fingers’ pretends that the last four songs of experimentation have never happened, with perhaps the most Stones-by-numbers song of their whole career. Not that ‘Bitch’ is bad – indeed it’s a lot better than ‘Brown Sugar’ and should have been the A side not the B side of that single – it’s just a collection of every Stones trademark recorded to date without anything new (a ‘Satisfaction’ type riff, Mick barking lyrics, Charlie’s most basic drumming, parping horns). Only on the chorus, when Keith joins in with the harmonies and the song modulates up a key does the tension mount, only to be let down by a rather pedestrian solo, Keith’s work not up to Taylor’s on this record. That said the lyrics are fascinating, not that you can hear them very well given the barking way Mick sings them here. Before I owned this record – one of the last Stones albums I added to my collection – I expected this song from its title alone to be another of those misogynist songs the Stones were into circa Aftermath and Buttons. In actual fact the lyrics to this song are pretty interesting, with ‘love’ the bitch of the title and an opening verse about a tired and ill narrator brought down by his poor love life which, on another album, could easily have passed for being about chronic fatigue. The line ‘when you call my name I salivate like Pavlov’s dog’ is of particular note, Pavlov being a psychologist and one of his experiments involving a dog and a bell that became equated with food, the canine being able to ring it every time he was hungry (thus proving some intelligence and thought processing which could be ‘controlled’ by humans). The ‘conditioning’ hinted at in this line seems to be true of the rest of the song too: this narrator starts off being childishly love-lorn before going to such extremes that you begin to wonder if he’s been brain-washed. It’s a shame that such a genuinely interesting lyric is so overwhelmed by the music, though, and that the song ends on a rather banal ‘hey hey hey yeah’ chorus when the song deserves something more. Legend has it that the band were struggling to record this song during one of Keith’s many absences and only got it together when, exasperated, the guitarist interrupted the song and came up with a new riff. Perhaps the band should have got a third riff because, while interesting in parts, this song is a bitch to listen to in the shadow of the other great songs on this album.
‘I Got The Blues’ sounds similarly bad when you read about it, a generic blues song that seems absolute garbage when you read the lyric sheet. But like so many Stones blues originals it sounds absolutely sublime in performance, with one of Mick’s all time greatest vocals accompanied by Keith’s authentic electric playing and the best use of horns on a Rolling Stones track. Freed of the need to compete with bass, drums and keyboards both Jagger and Bobby Keyes excel themselves on this record, turning a simple song about – would you believe – guilt, again. ‘Burned’ by his girl’s flame and her rejections, you’d expect most Stones songs to look for a form of revenge – but this time round the narrator puts himself in his girl’s shoes, acknowledges how he’s caused her pain too and simply wishes her to have more success next time around, with a man who treats her better than he ever could. The song ends on a typical blues coda, Jagger speaking rather than singing his lines, promising the song is ‘true’ and that its ‘three o’clock in the morning’ and he still can’t let the love of his life walk out of it – its one of the most affecting moments of any Stones records and there might be more than a hint at regret over the split with Marianne Faithful in the lyrics. If true (and it sounds true) then this song is a much more worthy goodbye than ‘Yesterday’s Papers’ was for Chrissie Shrimpton and shows what a large and emotional heart Jagger could have at times. Then again, this song might not be for a girl but for the Stones’ lost comrade, being sung in a much more believable traditional blues style than anything the band have done since their first pair of albums. Brian Jones would, you hope, be proud. Whoever ‘I Got The Blues’ was written about (if anybody) the result is one of the most unfairly over-looked songs in the Stones canon, as raw and yet as elegant as any of their better known recordings.
Equally heartfelt is ‘Sister Morphine’, the best of all the drug reference addled songs the band made in this period, if only because it sounds so sincere. The narrator isn’t some drug peddlar used to being in its clutches but a man on his deathbed, desperate for relief that he’ll never quite get no matter how many injections he gets. Like Neil Young’s similar ‘Ambulance Blues’ from two years later, the scenario is told through the eyes of the sufferer and jumps around both location and time as he drifts in and out of consciousness. Started by Marianne Faithful setting words to an instrumental piece of Mick’s and quite likely about her experiences the night of her near-fatal drug overdose, its easy to see why the Stones picked up on it because despite the slow tempo its a very Stones-like song, prodding at the darker shadows of life. The narrator is a likable figure though, looking for relief from pain rather than an escapist high and with the weight of the world so heavy on their shoulders the only thing they can do is beg for escape. Both Mick and Marianne have claimed that the song is wholly fictional – Marianne did have a drug problem but not till much later, while Mick never took that many drugs despite his image – but the pair conjure up a pretty successful attempt at the eerie, desperate feel that only pain can bring on. After so many years in pain myself from chronic fatigue I can’t tell you how real this song seems – and only pray that you don’t know first hand how real it sounds too. One of the earliest songs to make the album, it was started as early as 1968 and recorded during the ‘mix down’ sessions for ‘Let It Bleed’ before Mick Taylor joined the band - instead its Ry Cooder’s intriguing guitar fills you can hear at key moments in the song, adding to the ghostly vibe of the piece. Cooder plays on Marianne’s earlier version of the song too, released against Decca’s wishes in 1969 where it flopped. Legend has it that she wasn’t credited on the Stones’ version because of Mick’s recent split with her – actually the truth is that Faithful wasn’t allowed per the terms in her contract to write with anyone else so the band took her name off the record but still gave her half the royalties from it (a situation rectified by the time the album appeared on CD). Another song that’s only recently begun to be recognised for the fine recording it is, ‘Sister Morphine’ sounds good for another few generations yet.
After all that eerie melancholy it’s something of a relief to hit the country spoof of ‘Dead Flowers’, a song so upbeat in tempo and retro in style it sounds like it should come from the ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ era. It doesn’t, though, sticking out like a sore thumb on this album full of shadows and regret with its simple tale of ‘Susie’, a girl who ditches her working class boyfriend the minute she enters the world of high living. Written perhaps With ‘Downtown Suzie’ as the starting point, an unreleased song from years earlier released by Decca about the time this album came out, it sports a pretty tune but none of that earlier song’s element of danger – for once in the Stones canon the male narrator is hopelessly wet and unable to stop his girl walking off and leaving him behind. In fact more than that, he still pines after her, promising to ‘put roses on her grave’ no matter how many ‘dead flowers’ she sends him through the post, signifying that their relationship is over. Just to prove this is the Stones, however, he reneges on a good four verses of suffering with the line that he’s retiring to his room ‘with a needle and spoon’ and a bunch of one-night stand girls to help him forget her. There’s a few Americana quotes added in for fun (Mick’s been scolded by a few Stones books for singing ‘Kent-ukky derrrr-by day’ like a local), but the mood of the song is uncertain and shifting, veering from outright spoof to unexpected affection for the couple in this simple tale of shifting priorities. In fact the only thing that doesn’t shift in this song is the rather dull chorus, which is repeated a ridiculous three times in the song despite being almost a minute long.
‘Sticky Fingers’ then gets back to what it does best, with another experimental song quite different to anything else the band will do. ‘Moonlight Mile’ is aslow and dreamy song that again features Mick on rhythm guitar and Mick Taylor on lead electric (with no Keith present), a curiosity that like sister song ‘Sway’ finds the band half-asleep and wasted on the hardship of life. The song drifts past in a kind of drug-addled haze even for the listener, with nothing concrete to attach itself to: most of the players play only half the tune at a time, overlapping each other as if passing the baton on and on in some accursed relay race without end, while Mick’s vocal sometimes joins in and sometimes falls by the wayside, speaking rather than singing part of the song. Buckmaster’s arrangement is again a work of beauty, only really breaking through the surface noise at the end and sweeping the doubt aside with a rush of violins. It’s a shame, though, that this valid experiment doesn’t have a better ending than this, the song sounding like its fallen through a gaping hole rather than drifting out seamlessly into space (if this were a classical piece then its Holst’s Neptune, the part of the Planets suite where the singers leave the stage still singing until they reach the car park, giving the feel of drifting endlessly into space). The ‘tale of another mad day living on the road’, this song is deeper than most Stones songs and has some fascinating images, including the narrator finding nothing on his radio and listening to the static, as if waiting for something to come on and for something to happen in his life, kind of sleep-walking his way into oblivion. Elliptic, confusing and dreamlike, this is quite unlike anything else the Stones ever made and is a fine end to the album.
Breaking news as I write this column is the news that the Queen had to be ‘persuaded’ to give Mick Jagger a knighthood, the only time she’s ever kicked up a fuss about a ‘sir’ wannabe. To be honest Mick is about the only person (along with Paul McCartney) ever granted a knighthood worthy of having one (in John Lennon’s words better that someone whose brought so much good and happiness to the world get a medal than someone who earned their money shooting at other people, whether in the Queen’s name or not) – although I’m still surprised he took one, given that he once referred to Elizabeth II as ‘Queen Of The Witches’! She must have a darned good memory, because it seems like a long time ago now that the Stones were seen as revolutionary and dangerous, rather than part of the elder rock establishment and it will actually help rather than hurt Mick’s reputation, given that more people today know who he is than the Queen anyway. Some fans make a case in point for ‘Exile On Main Street’, I myself previously made a point on this site for ‘Goat’s Head Soup’, but it might well be on ‘Sticky Fingers’ that the band last had the capacity to shock and make the establishment cower in fear. Let’s hope that if the band do get together it’s for moments like ‘Sister Morphine’ and ‘Moonlight Mile’ that they’re remembered, not for taking gongs from the establishment: we can leave that to the people who truly don’t matter and are worshipped now only by people with the principals that this band helped to destroy. Overall rating: ♫♫♫♫♫♫♫ (7/10).