With Let It Bleed, the Rolling Stones carved the epitaph on the tombstone of the 1960s. The decade that began with the hopes and dreams ushered in by the Kennedy Administration ended in a tangle of riots, assassinations, war, drugs, and murder. The decade had started with John F. Kennedy’s election and stirring inauguration where he stated, “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”
Oh well, you can’t always get what you want.
In 1971 the Stones released their first studio album of the new decade and, just as Let It Bleed had provided the epitaph of the prior decade, Sticky Fingers was the signpost for the new decade. The peace, love, and flowers ethos of popular music in the 1960s turned into the murky, drug addicted sounds of the new rock. It’s fair to say that the celebration of drugs and decadence in popular music started in the 1960s, but it became a much darker tale in the 1970s, and Sticky Fingers points the way.
Keith Richards has claimed that it’s not a particularly heavy drug album and that many of the songs had been written over the three previous years, but all of that is beside the point. Sticky Fingers is replete with drug references from the coy double entendre of the opening track’s title (“Brown Sugar” is both a sexual reference and the name of a type of heroin) to the “head full of snow” (i.e., cocaine) in the closing “Moonlight Mile.”
Pigeonholing the album as merely a drug- and sex-fueled collection of songs fails to do it justice. Sticky Fingers also happens to be one of the greatest albums in the history of rock music. The band may have been deep into their addictions at this time, but they were still at the peak of their creative abilities.
The two chords that open “Brown Sugar” are as easily identifiable for rock fans as the entire riff of “Satisfaction,” and the main riff of the song is one of the best the Stones ever did. “Brown Sugar” provides a perfect synthesis of everything that makes the Rolling Stones a great band. The main guitar riff from Keith Richards is one of the best in the history of rock music, and the lyric is one of Mick Jagger’s greatest creations, a heady stew of drugs, sex, and decadence unparalleled in popular music. On paper, the idea that “Brown Sugar” would be a hit single (and it was a number one single) is ludicrous. With lyrics referring to slavery, sadomasochism, interracial oral sex, it would seem unlikely that the song would ever be acceptable to radio. The fact that most of the lyrics are largely indecipherable certainly helped. The only clearly recognizable lyric is the chorus line of “Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good?” with that insistently catchy “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Whooo!” sealing the deal and making the song a perfect fit for arena shows. The Stones pulled off a really neat trick with this song, taking a subject that was completely unfit for radio and marrying it to music that simply screamed, “hit single.” With that riff, overlayed by Mick Taylor’s great lead and the incredible Bobby Keys sax solo, it was a song radio simply could not ignore. I suppose it was a good thing that the Stones didn’t include a lyric sheet with the album.
"Sway" follows the pattern of opening Stones albums with a 1-2 punch that leaves the listener knocked sideways. Unlike "No Expectations" from Beggars Banquet and "Love In Vain" from Let It Bleed, “Sway” leaves the acoustic guitar in the closet and pummels the listener with a tortured heavy ballad. Once again the Stones are reinventing the blues. “Sway” is slow, but everything about the song indicates that it started life as a ballad before it received an injection of steroids. Jagger slurs the words, making the song even more indecipherable than “Brown Sugar,” but the mood is dark. I don’t know whether the song was written about, or for, Brian Jones, but the lyrics can fit. As a troubled soul, that “demon life” certainly had Jones “in its sway,” and there is a verse that clearly indicates the passing of a friend: “Ain’t flinging tears out on the dusty ground/For my friends out on the burial ground/Can’t stand the feeling getting so brought down.”
Through the bad, Jagger is optimistic that love will find a way. “There must be ways to find out/Love is the way they say is really strutting out” he sings before wailing a nearly incoherent scream on the words "Hey, hey, hey, now!" Love seems to triumph in the end, as Jagger sings of waking up next to “someone that broke me up with a corner of her smile” but the demon life in the chorus returns as Nicky Hopkins on angelic piano and Mick Taylor on devilish guitar duel to the death. Indeed, “Sway” is one of Mick Taylor’s finest recorded moments. The solo he plays beginning at about 1:35 into the song is a textbook example of brilliant slide playing, as tasteful and economical as the best of Duane Allman, while the closing solo he plays over the last minute of the song is nothing short of staggering, the first real instance of virtuosity appearing on a Stones studio recording. Taylor rarely gets enough credit for his work with the Stones, being the middleman between the legendary Brian Jones and Ron Wood. On “Sway,” a track on which Keith Richards provides only backing vocals and the rhythm guitar is ably but unspectacularly played by Mick Jagger, Taylor shows just what he was capable of doing, and he elevates the entire song. It is mostly the hard-core devotees who are familiar with “Sway,” but it is one of the greatest of all Stones songs and the reason for that is Mick Taylor.
In 1970, the Flying Burrito Brothers released a song called “Wild Horses” that carried the songwriting credit of Jagger/Richards. The song had been “loaned” to Gram Parsons as a thank you from Keith Richards. Parsons had shown Richards how to use alternate guitar tunings for greater effect. The Burritos never had a hit with “Wild Horses”, but it’s a piece of rock and roll trivia that their version was the first recorded and released version of what, in 1971, would instantly become a Stones classic. I actually prefer the Burritos version of the song, but that doesn’t mean that the Stones version isn’t solid gold. Here the acoustic guitar returns, and it’s some of the finest acoustic playing on any Stones song. Taylor and Richards weave together, with Richards playing the main riff and Taylor interjecting brief finger picking licks, and Jim Dickinson providing tinkling piano notes under the most plaintive, emotional vocal Jagger had ever recorded. Charlie Watts kicks in and while he doesn’t have much to do on the song, what he does is simply perfect. Bill Wyman provides a very elementary bass line, mainly individual notes hit for accent. The lyrics tell a heartbreaking tale of separation and loss: “I know I dreamed you/A sin and a lie/I have my freedom, but I don’t have much time/Faith has been broken/Tears must be cried/Let’s do some living/After we die.” But in the end the song is about reconciliation and redemption. The separation is over, and Jagger reassures his love that “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.” Musically, the secret weapon of the song is the harmony vocal on the chorus. The horrendous attempts at harmony that gave a cheeky charm to Between The Buttons is now a magnificent blending of Jagger’s voice with Keith Richards’ raspier harmony. These harmonies imbue the chorus with an incredible depth of emotion.
Sticky Fingers is not a perfect album, although it’s really close. The reason the album falls short of perfection is the maddening “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Propelled by a classic riff, a snapping drum line from Charlie Watts, a great vocal from Jagger, and a note-perfect (if lyrically repetitive) bridge, the song is 2:41 of the best material on the album. Unfortunately, the song is 7:15 long. Immediately following this incredible performance is four and a half minutes of noodling jamming. Rocky Dijon on congas, Jimmy Miller on percussion, and Bobby Keys on sax start the jam convincingly, but just as “Sway” showed the best of Mick Taylor, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” shows him at his worst, playing a Santana-lite Latin groove that wouldn’t be out-of-place in your local Mexican restaurant. It’s not that’s his playing is bad, it’s just that it’s not interesting. It’s a truly disappointing coda to an otherwise excellent song. I should mention that the jam has its advocates who love it and frankly, I wish I were one of them. To me, the jam takes up the full length of a song, and adds nothing to the album.
There are also those who would disavow the reading of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s "You Gotta Move," but I am not one of them. It’s a blast of primal delta blues, with a blending of slide guitar and vocal melody over a simple blues lyric. The effect of the song, with its rudimentary drumbeat and field holler vocals, is a chant. It is easy to imagine this being sung in the cotton fields. Coming after the cluttered ending of "Can’t You Hear Me Knocking," "You Gotta Move" clears the air with its simplicity and manages to say more in 2:34 than "Knocking" does in its extended running time.
Now that the air has been cleared by a Delta blues blast, side two of the record immediately raises the stakes. The real triumph on “Bitch” belongs to Bobby Keys and Jim Price on sax and trumpet, respectively. Sure the guitar riff from Keith and Taylor is wild, but it’s the horn riff that mirrors the guitar riff that provides the real hook in the song. Jagger’s salacious lyric is excellent, swinging between the boastful and the beaten. “Sometimes I’m sexy, move like a stud/Kicking the stall all night/Sometimes I’m so shy, got to be worked on/Don’t have no bark or bite,” he sings. But as tired and beaten down as he is, he can’t help but respond to the loving call of a woman who knows how to get his blood flowing and his heart “bumpin’ louder than a big bass drum.” But even here, in an ode to sex, the lifestyle choices of the Stones raise a brief appearance. “I’m feeling drunk, juiced up and sloppy/Ain’t touched a drink all night.” It’s one of the many references to intoxicating substances that pepper the album.
On "I Got The Blues" the Stones crafted what is one of their best original blues songs, nearly the equal of the brilliant "No Expectations." It’s a perfect combination of lyric and music. Jagger’s lyrics is touching and heartfelt, and you can hear the resignation in his voice as he acknowledges that the affair is over, but he still wants what’s best for her. "Every night you’ve been away/I’ve sat down and I have prayed/That you’re safe in the arms of a guy/Who will bring you alive/Won’t drag you down with abuse." And just as the vocals give way to the solo, it is not the guitar that takes the lead but rather Billy Preston’s beautiful organ solo.
“Sister Morphine” was co-written with Jagger’s ex-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull (some claim she’s really the sole writer) and it’s one of the most harrowing songs ever written or recorded. Jagger’s half-whispered lyrics, backed by a sparse acoustic guitar, paint a bleak picture of despair. With the second verse, Ry Cooder plays a needle-sharp slide and Bill Wyman has his shining moment on the album with his bass line. A simple drumbeat and a heavily distorted piano herald the third verse, when Jagger’s voice turns pleading. “Please, Sister Morphine, turn my nightmares into dreams/Can’t you see I’m fading fast/And that this shot will be my last.” Listen closely as Jagger sings that last word. He stretches out the vowel sound and mutates the soft “a” sound into a long “i” sound before concluding with a barely audible “f.” The effect, if you listen closely is to blur the line between the published lyric of “This shot will be my last” and the more frightening line “This shot will be my life.” As a portrayal of drug addiction, songs don’t really get scarier than “Sister Morphine.”
It wouldn’t be a Stones album from this era without the obligatory country pastiche, but Jagger and Richards came up with their best such song with “Dead Flowers.” It’s a smart-ass kiss off to a former love, driven by the honky-tonk piano of Ian Stewart, the acoustic rhythm guitar from Jagger, and the great solo from Taylor. Charlie Watts rides the hi-hat like his life depends on it, and Jagger sings in his best phony Southern drawl. The drugs are there, of course. “I’ll be in my basement room/With a needle and a spoon,” sings Jagger, but the lyrical hook of the song is the wickedly funny line, “You can send me dead flowers every morning…/And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave.”
After the Stones ended the 1969 tour, they began working on the songs that would make up Sticky Fingers. “Moonlight Mile” was recorded in May of 1970, nearly a year before Fingers was released, and appears to have been heavily inspired by or influenced by the 1969 tour. Rock music is full of songs about life on the road from the sublime (Jackson Browne’s “Running On Empty”) to the ridiculous (Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive”). I can think of no song that better captures the isolation and loneliness of a life on the road better than “Moonlight Mile.” Is there a better image of the after-party bus ride to the next gig, staring at your own reflection in a nighttime window, than the opening verse?
When the wind blows and the rain feels cold
With a head full of snow
With a head full of snow
In the window there’s a face you know
Don’t the night pass slow?
Don’t the nights pass slow?
The road is a grueling place in the Stones. Fifteen or so years later Jon Bon Jovi would be bragging about seeing a million faces and rocking them all, but for Jagger the adoring crowd is “the sound of strangers” while the band is “sleeping under strange, strange skies” after another “mad mad day on the road.” Underscored by Paul Buckmaster’s beautiful string arrangement and Charlie’s thick drumming, the pace of the song is stately and powerful, punctuated by Jagger’s one howl, “Yeah, I’m comin’ home!” near the end. Mick Taylor also deserves an enormous amount of credit on this song. His beautiful electric and slide playing more than compensate for his sins on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Amazingly, Keith Richards does not appear on the song. This is the Jagger/Taylor show, and it provides both a beautiful coda for the album and one of the true highlights of the Taylor era. “Moonlight Mile” may actually be the best pure song the Stones recorded during Taylor’s tenure with the band.
Sticky Fingers is yet another high water mark for the Stones, and also a clear break in both sound and content from what the band had been the previous decade. The pop songs and occasionally obvious attempts to follow the Beatles were gone. The Beatles no longer existed and the Stones were free to do whatever they wanted. Sticky Fingers, with its accent on sex, drugs, and rock and roll was the template the band would follow, with some minor deviations, for the rest of their career.