Friday 13 July 2012

Rolling Stones "Sticky Fingers" (1971)

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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

‘One day I woke up to find someone that broke me up with a corner of her smile…’

The Rolling Stones seem to be everywhere this month as I write this in 2012, courtesy of their fiftieth 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 fifty 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 on the 50th anniversary of Lennon and McCartney’s meeting in 2006 or ‘Love Me Do’ which was fifty years ago this year too), but then the Stones deserve it: scorned by punks they may have been, laughed at by today’s hip hop and rap stars maybe, but without the Stones none of the people we think of today as shocking would have stood a chance of doing anything. The Stones were the original bad boys that mattered and every band whoever stuck their tongues out at the establishment do so in the shadow of the giant tongue that started appearing on their albums from ‘Sticky Fingers’ onwards. 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 Marquee Club, now a Santander bank would you believe!) In case it doesn’t happen (editor’s note: it did), 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 clearly isn’t listening to the album properly, haha!) There’s a similar split among Stones collectors causing every bit as much tension and discussion: back in the early 1970s ‘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 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 help the Stones still seem like an active musical force. 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 zippered 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!) Along with the inner sleeve’s knees and torso of boxer shorts it features not Jagger as long assumed in publicity puffs, but a 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 Beatles, famously, talked about ‘Let It Be’ as the album that ‘showed us with our trousers off’ though Phil Spector’s eleventh hour overdubs actually makes it a trouserless fab four clad in a cloak three sizes too big; ‘Sticky Fingers’ too isn’t as undressed as the borderline-lewd cover suggests; it’s actually the Stones’ biggest production of all as they enjoy the chance to use new recording studios that didn’t suffer from the perennial mud of the Decca years and no longer have to put up with endless comparisons to The Beatles every time they go for purity and clarity. After this the Stones will find a way of going back to an artificial version of their old sound (they even start doing it here on ‘Sway’, their swampiest song in some time) but for the most part this is the only Stones album that comes in a suit and it’s a sound that, against all the odds, rather suits them.

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 (commissioned by Mick from graphic artist John Pasche after figuring that an easily identifiable symbol would help the band’s image and sales; Pasche won it after submitting a design based on Mick’s thick lips and an establishment-cursing tongue). 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 overshadowing what used to be celebrated as one of the band’s best albums. 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 1970s 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 this perfect). In many ways it’s the last Stones album everyone should own, as opposed to casual fans and collectors.

The band were  really helped by going back on tour a lot 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 at deporting them) and Brian Jones’ ragged fall from grace between 1967 and 1969. This helps a million times over in the studio that sees the band playing live and sparking off each other again: ‘Sticky Fingers’ is a much more down to earth, less overdubbed album than anything they did from the mid to late 1960s and has a real spark in places long missing from their studio albums. 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’ as well as 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 how much they’ve changed across the rest of the album. 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 brightness verses occasional 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 is for instance a 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 away 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, the fading flowers left on a lover’s grave as she fades into memory and the ragged desperation of ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?’, which turns patience into an art form as the narrator very slowly accepts that no one is going to answer his door. Most of all though it’s in the moving finale ‘Moonlight Mile’ where the band find themselves stumbling in the almost-dark, sure that if they just keep continuing down the road they will find their way back to where they need to go. All these characters are the same ragged drop-out low life wannabes that made the Stones records of the 1960s 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. It’s the most Kinks-like of all the Stones albums, full of Ray Davies’ shot-term-pessimism, long-term-optimism that means the band have got the blues and morphine and demon life has got them in its sway, but if they can just hold on a little bit long, if they can just keep heading down an extra stretch of the road, then good things are surely going to happen. For a band who have just been through the bitter darkness of ‘Let It Bleed’, are still recovering from the death of their founder member and who were writing and recording most of this album across 1970 while trying to stop Decca and Allen Klein getting their hands on it, this makes sense. It didn’t help that they were editing the ‘Gimme Shelter’ film of Altamont back to back with the early sessions of this album, a stark reminder of just how out of control things had become. The Stones are still suffering the hangover of the 1960s, but they also know that this will pass and soon they will be back out of their depressed bed and back into life. Why, the cover even shows them in the process of putting their trousers back on!

All these things have been written before, not least during our review of ‘Let It Bleed’. However there’s another factor at work across 1970 which doesn’t get the recognition for inspiring the album the way it should: the increasing drug dependency of Marianne Faithful. The girl who once saved Mick from a fate worse than being seen with [112] ‘Yesterday’s Papers’ has by now herself become someone Mick wants to hide away and disconnect himself from. She was by now turning into the most dangerous drug addict in the Stones camp, a world away from her original schoolgirl innocent image and rightly or wrongly (mostly rightly) The Stones were getting attacked for corrupting her. Marianne had suffered a miscarriage of her and Mick’s child in 1968, the drugs coursing through her system an obvious thing for society to waggle their fingers at, while she’d also had a much publicised suicide attempt. This seems, in retrospect, more like a cry for help and attention from a singer with quickly shifting priorities than Chrissie’s overdose had been but nevertheless must have struck Mick as so much déjà vu, the girl he dated to escape from the drama of his ex doing the same thing all over again. The relationship, which had started with such a bang in 1967, whimpered out with a quiet split in May 1970 that oddly didn’t seem to make many of the papers. Even though she was long gone by the time of Sticky Fingers’ release, though, Marianne haunts this album like a ghost: she’s surely the evil woman of ‘Bitch’ the incommunicative girl in ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?’, the cause for Mick to wail ‘I Got The Blues’, their relationship is celebrated with ‘Dead Flowers’ and ‘Wild Horses’ (mainly a Keith song) must have struck Mick as painful to sing, everything he once felt for a woman who was now a stranger to him. Marianne also provides her most lasting contribution to the Stones on this album, the band covering her song ‘Sister Morphine’ as a favour to get her some much needed money; unfortunately she was in a court case with her agent at the time and blocked from releasing her own compositions – choosing not to be credited but to get the royalties, Jagger and Richards came in from a lot of stick from people who assumed they were pulling their usual ‘no one else gets credited on a Stones song’ stunt, when actually it was a rare act of kindness on their part (the matter long since resolved, most Stones CDs now credit the song between the three of them though Mick and Keith had little to do with it except speeding it up a little and sticking in a guitar solo). Mick has a reason to feel happy too though –he’s already met next paramour Bianca and shocks everyone by committing the way he never did to Chrissie or Marianne by marrying her a mere month after the release of ‘Sticky Fingers’.

This is also, however, the period of Mick and Keith’s first serious falling out. The two schoolfriends had been so close they’d even toppled Brian from his perch as king Stone together and the Redlands drug bust, something not shared by the other three Stones, had only made them closer. There wasn’t any major incident the way there will be during ‘World War III’, just a general sense that they were growing apart: Keith was by now well established with Anita with the family that Mick craved for during his end days with Marianne. The pair had always bonded and hung out together in between tours and albums but suddenly they began to have different interests: Mick was sworn off drugs after his near-brush with prison and the death of Brian and near-death of Marianne seem to have sobered him up for good in this period while the posh Bianca allowed him access to the hoi polloi he’d always dreamed of being accepted by. Keith, by way of contrast, was further spiralling into drug dependency, the near-arrest making him more keen than ever to give the establishment something to arrest him for, whilst he was hanging around heavy drug users (such as his new best friend Byrd/Flying Burrito Gram Parsons, their meeting the one good thing to come out of Altamont). The unthinkable if inevitable finally happened: the Glimmer Twins began to write apart. Mick J struck up a close writing partnership with Mick T, working closely on ‘Sway’ and ‘Moonlight Mile’ together, even though a last-minute decision to reverse the album credits back to Jagger and Richards on everything will sour this really promising writing partnership. Keith, meanwhile, wrote more than many fans assume with his new pal Gram, with ‘Wild Horses’ a pretty much straight 50:50 collaboration between the two. They were ultimately in different places: just compare ‘Wild Horses’, very much a Keith song, to ‘Moonlight Mile’, very much a Mick one (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 it carries on ‘Let It Bleed’s template for what the Stones mark II sound is going to be like. Basically Mick T came along at just the right time for the switch from Decca and the lapse of The Beatles: younger, more innocent and much clearer than Keith, who had spent years working out how to play swamp blues to its height and didn’t have the time or patience to re-learn how to play for this new sound, it’s a whole new palette to play with. It’s the perfect sound for the new-look Stones too, with Mick now the long-term optimist to Keith’s feather-spitting short term pessimist, offering up a bright new Beatles-like future while Keith still huffs and puffs in a corner and keeps these songs suitably Stones-like and edgy. This gives the recordings her an extra dimension, almost as if with The Beatles gone and The Rolling Stones now the undisputed premier rock and pop band of the day they have combined the two styles, doing what they always did but with a slight warm Beatles glow. As fond as I am of Brian and as good as Ronnie Wood can be in the future, this is the peak Stones sound for me, with two excellent but very different guitarists given the space to play against each other and push themselves and the rest of the band on. Taylor plays a lot more guitar on this album than Richards does in fact 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 largely 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, perhaps the best instrumental work of any Stones album. The only problem is 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 twelve), but the Stones had been through more in the 1960s than most people their age had experienced and their recent problems had made them much sharper and haggard than most late 20-somethings. An eighteen year old teetotaller with a brief but great stint in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers who had never tried drugs when he joined the band and was a vegetarian, 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.

That said, it’s 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-1960s that the fabs would have gone before the punch-up Stones?), The Beach Boys are a pale shadow of their former selves, The Kinks are 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 1960s 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 thirty, it just didn’t seem possible to a lot of people that any of the bands of the 1960s would continue into middle age 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 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 release 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.

Thank goodness it wasn’t as the Stones’ most memorably titled LP ‘Sticky Fingers’ breathes new life into an old sound. This is a much 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. The packaging, the title, the promotion, even the tongue logo before it got bland and boring  – all came together nicely as the band’s year off gave them the time to really think hard about this album and what they wanted to do with it. There are in truth 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) and compared to ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ there’s nothing here that revolutionary or important. However this is to my ears the best performed of all The Stones’ albums, with a real sense of band bonhomie and a casual brilliance that no other band album can approach – certainly not the early ones with a bored and scared Stones in the studio for the first time, or the ones where Brian is fading and Keith is interacting with his own overdubbed shadow and there’s no way Ronnie Wood can compare with what Mick Taylor can bring to the band. 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 and this album also hangs better together than almost any other Stones album (except perhaps ‘Satanic Majesties’) is a decided bonus. Overall ‘Sticky Fingers’ record is a great Stones album to start your collection with – it sounds great and when you scratch blow the surface most of the songs are great too, so much more so than the lacklustre and bitty ‘Let It Bleed’. I still miss the touches Brian Jones once brought to the band’s colouring though and already the new less bleary sound is wearing a bit thin…

The Songs:

Had I been there at the time I certainly wouldn’t have been wowed with the ‘comeback’ of [166a] ‘Brown Sugar’, along with [154b] ‘Honky Tonk Women’ 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 favourite black slave captured in the ‘gold coast’, before the narrator turns into a sixteen-year-old fresh faced kid in awe at what sexual antics the slaves are made to do. Yes, I know, it’s the Rolling Stones and not a band you look to for being prim and proper, but it’s not what happens in this song that’s off-putting so much as the glee with which the band perform it and expect you to join in with at home. 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’ [93] ‘Under My Thumb’ (it’s also similar to the uncomfortable experience of watching the rape-story of [157] ‘Midnight Rambler’ the same year). Cheering consenting sadism is one thing, but these are slaves without a choice and there’s no sense that anyone is enjoying this forced oral sex except Mick’s slave-owner, who never sounded as smug and unlikeable as he does in this song. The main reason this track 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 [79] ‘Satisfaction’.  Frankly, no one in this song seems to be caring what they’re doing either, with the murkiest production of the whole LP to endure. It could have been a lot different as this piece 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 doesn’t sound it and the rest of the movie falls short) mostly 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 down under 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, without his usual cleverness or sense of something bigger going on.  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 sixteen’ making the girl ready for picking, with the older female slaves all paired up with white ‘boyfriends’, raises some fascinating juxtapositions about rights and whatnot, but two good ideas don’t make for 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 this first attempt 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 after all, realising it was better than they thought it was. Only it isn’t, without the band’s usual swagger and confidence and being even uglier when you start thinking about it beyond the riff. The result remains one of the band’s most uncomfortable songs, 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.

[167] ‘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 harmony vocal but otherwise doesn’t appear on the song). The root of this song is a hapless narrator having a bad day, but it’s all told in delightful, almost prog-rock verses with a hard-to-hear chorus that actually chants ‘it’s just that demon life that’s got you in its 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, one last great farewell to the Decca sound, with Mick at his best here (his weary ‘one...two...three’ intro  is the perfect scene-setter for the song too). 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, offering the light at the end of the tunnel Mick J craves. 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. The whole song switches on the line ‘coming daaaaahn’ as the song stops sinking and starts levitating on the back of one of the greatest extended musical moments in the band’s catalogue. In fact this happens twice as Taylor plays two solos: his first is rudely cut off by Jagger’s imploring ‘there must be ways to find out!’ as he sinks back to his depressed state again and it’s 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’ and pretending to miss someone they hated in life, when he’s more angry and sad and outraged at the death 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, 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 BBC fee to charity – a side of the Stones you don’t often get to see!) A word too about the tasteful string arrangement: an orchestra on a Stones track had seemed like sacrilege before [160] ‘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. Only an all too sudden fade just as we’re beginning to start a third solo and no real sense of resolution knocks this song down a little. 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 real highpoints of the album; heck scratch that its one of the best things the Stones did ever. What a pity the two Micks only worked together once after this.

[168] ‘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 if not better 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 how deep their love for each other is (my guess this is Keith’s bit); the second verse about ‘pain and suffering’ makes 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, who could well be Marianne as seen through the eyes of Mick; 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’ (which has Gram’s fingerprints all over it). 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 T on electric) that make this song quite unlike any other in the Stones canon. Gram Parsons recorded his own version of his uncredited co-write 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 and caused a lot of fuss at the time as a ‘long lost Stones classic’. 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 – with Nicky Hopkins out of town the band had assumed founding member and sixth stone Ian Stewart would play on the song, only for him to storm off from rehearsals muttering ‘I don’t play minor chords!’ It’s his loss: ‘Wild Horses’ is one of the better slow songs from the Stones in the 1970s and although confusing to ‘read’ there’s no doubting the sincerity in both Mick and Keef’s voices when they sing the chorus.

[169a] ‘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 it’s the longest song the Stones committed to tape outside the jamming session [95] ‘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. Keith’s central riff is brilliant, dodging the bullets of Charlie’s drums trying to pin him into place and it is a hook that gives him plenty of scope for variations across the song. As for the song itself, to take the sections in order, Mick is at his best barking out the verses, with line after line 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 by his lover. The melancholy chorus, reminding the girl that the narrator’s ‘no stranger’ and they have a long shared history 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 on what must surely be in part another song for Marianne. 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 as the solos start off timid and then get more and more desperate. The highlight is Mick Taylor’s classic Clapton-like guitar runs, picking up on 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 Keys’ 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 as he mimics the preening dispassionate woman inside, smokily cool while her lover gets more and more heated outside her door. Billy Preston, too, is on fine form with his first Stones guest appearance on organ, ‘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 offer extra sound and Mick Taylor especially brings out the pure fun in the band again on one of the Stones’ finest band performances. The original 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 a million miles away from the murk of the Decca years and it’s a great shame that the Stones never really made this sort of extended jamming style part of their recording output again as it suits them greatly. The sudden ending that somehow magically ties everything up neatly (rather than fading as every other Stones jam seems to do) is quite brilliant too, the narrator’s frustrations and objections spent as if he’s finally come to terms with the fact that ‘no’ means ‘no!’ Recently returned to the live act after a gap of thirty-five 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 it’s something of a shame to hear the Stones going back to their rather tired and generic blues wailing on [170] ‘You Gotta Move’, the latest in a series of genuine blues covers they’d been copying to the letter without ever really quite understanding. 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 and Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukanen were two other fans who covered his songs often) and sounds quite laughably wrong in places, putting on his best Americanised accent which simply doesn’t suit him or this highly authentic song. Keith’s nylon string guitar part is slightly more in keeping, 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. Couldn’t we have had more of the ‘Rocking’ jam here instead guys? 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 when performed at the Hyde Park concert the day after Brian Jones’ death and suits the vibe of ‘Let It Bleed’ so much more than the upbeat ‘Sticky Fingers’), but then again hearing the pair of songwriters who came up with [138] ‘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 [171a] ‘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 really new (a [79] ‘Satisfaction’ type riff, Mick barking lyrics about how awful his latest squeeze is to him, 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 and desperate to romance and woo anyone. 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 at a basic level; Mick too feels driven on by his basic needs – and before you think there’s no way the Stones would have known this there were few writers better read than Mick ‘n’ Keef). 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. There is, at least, a quite glorious unedited mix of this song on the deluxe edition of the album that adds another minute’s worth of histrionics and makes the whole song come alive through sheer force of repetition as the Stones get individually more and more crazed before taking off right at the end into shared insanity. 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 came in and 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 in its original form.

[172] ‘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 single best use of horns on a Rolling Stones track. Freed of the need to compete with bass, drums and keyboards both Jagger and Bobby Keys excel themselves on this record, turning a simple song about – would you believe – guilt, again into something huge. My guess too is that Mick wrote this song wondering what his idol Otis Redding would have sounded like had he not died in a plane crash in December 1967 (Stax had just released a fourth posthumous album ‘Tell The Truth’ in 1971 so he would have been in the news a lot back then). Billy even plays a Hammond organ solo so like Booker T’s on Otis’ recordings it hurts! Full of yearning, passion and soul, it’s amongst Mick’s most likeable songs and even though it’s as simple as they come it feels so much deeper. ‘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 and simply wishes her to have more success next time around, with a man who treats her better than he ever could. The blues comes from not even being able to feel anger at her – a much more mature take on the end of Mick’s time with Marianne than anything he wrote for Chrissie. ‘In the silk sheet of time I will find peace of mind’ Mick concludes, sounding as if he’s slowly coming to terms with his loss. 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’ (much like Otis’ ‘Ol Man Trouble’) and he still can’t come to terms with the fact that this is the last day he will spend with the love of his life– it’s one of the most affecting moments of any Stones records. Then again, this song might not be for a girl but for the Stones’ lost comrade Brian again, being sung in a much more believable traditional blues style than anything the band have done since their first pair of albums (Richards’ harmony part even sounds more than a little like Jones’ here). 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 [173] ‘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 peddler 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, it’s easy to see why the Stones picked up on it because despite the slow tempo it’s a very Stones-like song, prodding at the darker shadows of life that most of us try to keep hidden. 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 no matter how pitying it makes them seem. By the end the narrator has woken up in hospital, surrounded by nurses with blurred faces and crawling across the floor for relief, pleading for a ‘score’. Both Mick and Marianne have claimed that the song is wholly fictional – Marianne did have a drug problem but it got really out of control much later, while Mick never took that many drugs despite his image – but the pair still 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 m.e. I can’t tell you how real this song seems – and only pray that you, dear reader, don’t know first hand how real it sounds too as pain gets its claws into you and leaves you willing to do anything to silence it. One of the earliest songs to be recorded for 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 - its Ry Cooder’s intriguing guitar fills you can hear at key moments in the song, adding to the ghostly vibe of the piece and he’s superb, syuttering his way blindly through panic like a drunk trying to stay upright (why wasn’t he hired both here and in 1974 when Mick T quits?). Cooder plays on Marianne’s earlier version of the song too, released against Decca’s wishes in 1969 where it flopped. Jack Nietzsche also returns for the first time since ‘Aftermath’, providing the ghostly echoey piano that rumbles in the distance like real life trying to break through the haze and making for a good companion to Charlie’s manic drums. The haze still wins though in another return to the Decca haze that really suits the song. Another piece that’s only recently begun to be recognised for the fine recording it is, ‘Sister Morphine’ is now heralded as an out and out classic and sounds good for another few generations yet, brave stuff for a band nearly put away for far lighter drugs just four years earlier.

After all that eerie melancholy it’s something of a relief to hit the country spoof of [174] ‘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, being one of the 1970 recordings and 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 [163] ‘Downtown Suzie’ as the starting point, 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 as in denial he keeps it alive. Just to prove this is the Stones, however, Mick 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 ‘Ken-tukky derrrr-by daaaaeeey’ like a local, but its less irritating than some of his other Americanisms), 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 each time.

‘Sticky Fingers’ then gets back to what it does best, with another experimental song quite different to anything else the band will do. [175] Moonlight Mile’ is a slow and dreamy song that again features Mick J on rhythm guitar and Mick T 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. However this really suits the lyrics which are about somehow keeping going even when you’re stumbling in the semi-darkness ‘with a head full of snow’. Mick’s clothes are getting rattier and his vision of the girl he wants to meet is fading away, while he struggles for inspiration hearing only ‘silence on my radio’. He’s forgotten why he ever started on this journey in the first place. Still he ploughs on, in the hope that things will get better if he just survives this difficult patch on life’s highway. Buckmaster’s orchestral arrangement is a real 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 a void (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 sound of a man sleep-walking against his will into oblivion you could also make the claim that it is the Stones’ psychedelic swansong. Elliptic, confusing and dreamlike, this is quite unlike anything else the Stones ever made and is a fine end to the album even if you miss that one last extra twist in the tale to make it great.

Breaking news as I write this column is that the Queen had to be ‘persuaded’ to give Mick Jagger his recent 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 and the last time a head of state would have refused to knight this band without getting funny looks. This is, after all, one hell of an LP with some of the best things the Stones ever did and certainly their best ever guitarwork, even with a good third of songs that are decidedly below standard. A bit like the last few albums in fact! But somehow, even with these genes, it’s this album of jeans that feels more finished than a lot of the others, the closest the Stones came to releasing a knock out album past the year of psychedelia.

A Now Complete List Of Rolling Stones and Related Articles To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

'No 2' (1965)

'Out Of Our Heads' (1965)

‘Aftermath’ (1966)

'Between The Buttons' (1967)

'Their Satanic Majesties Request' (1967)

'Beggar's Banquet' (1968)

‘Let It Bleed’ (1969)

'Sticky Fingers' (1971)

'Exile On Main Street'(1972)

'Goat's Head Soup' (1973)

'It's Only Rock 'n' Roll' (1974)

'Black and Blue' (1976)

'Some Girls' (1978)

'Emotional Rescue' (1980)

'Undercover' (1983)

'Dirty Work' (1986)

'Steel Wheels' (1989)

‘Voodoo Lounge’ (1994)

'Bridges To Babylon' (1998)

'A Bigger Bang' (2005)

Ronnie Wood and Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings Solo

Rolling Stones: Unreleased Recordings

Surviving TV Clips and Music Videos

Non-Album Recordings Part One 1962-1969

Non-Album Recordings Part Two 1970-2014

Live/Solo/Compilations Part One 1963-1974 

Live/Solo/Compilations Part Two 1975-1988

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