CK Retro Review: Sticky Fingers by The Rolling StonesPosted: November 2, 2015
Their chief rivals might have imploded with the 60’s, but The Rolling Stones sailed into the 70’s at their absolute peak. Sticky Fingers, released in 1971, is a musical tour de force by the band, as they leave practically no genre of roots music untouched or unconquered. While the previous two albums seem to be concerned lyrically with the crazed world around them, these songs seem to look internally at the physical and emotional price one must pay for decadence and indulgence. If you’re judging Stones albums by the sum total of great music available, you probably go for Exile On Main St. If you’re looking for a flawless record, it’s hard to argue against Sticky Fingers.
10. “You Gotta Move”- Back when album-sequencing was an important deal, this brief cover of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s staggering blues was perfectly-placed after the extended jam that ends “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” It isn’t meant to be a knockout, so you can forgive it being the least thing on this incredible assemblage of great songs.
9. “Sway”- This is one of several songs on the album far more concerned with the hangover than the good time. Mick Jagger assesses the damage of the decade gone past, including “friends up on the burial ground”, and shrugs his shoulder: “It’s just that demon life has got me in its sway.” He then allows Mick Taylor to soar above it all with one his finest solos in the band, while some strings add a layer of ironic grandeur. It’s a bit of an odd duck of a song, but strangely affecting.
8. “Sister Morphine”- How much Marianne Faithfull wrote depends on whose book you read. What matters is how compellingly the drama builds here, making what could have been a depressing slog into an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Ry Cooder’s slide is the musical MVP, but the band as a whole deserves credit for leaving enough space for the song to breathe. Jagger’s acting skills come in handy here, as he captures both the allure of the drug and the terror of knowing that it’s killing him.
7. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”- The jam is what it is, accomplished but far from transcendent. It knocks this one down a star for me, because the song is a non-stop rip-snorter until that point. The air practically crackles with the kinetic energy created by the melding of Keith Richards bruising riff and Charlie Watts’ peppery beat. Anything after that is gravy, but the harmonies of Jagger and Richards, two miscreants right outside your house calling up to the window like Romeo’s dirtbag cousins, are worth the price of admission as well. They’re coming up, and if there wastrel charm doesn’t get you to open up, Keith’s battering ram of an electric guitar will bust that door down.
6. “Bitch”- No need for a fancy open here; the groove is so tasty the band just launches into it, inviting you to hop aboard if you can catch it. Then the horns jump on, and suddenly there’s soul to go with the grit. Speaking of soul, Jagger’s one-liners have Holland/Dozier/Holland’s cleverness and a junkie’s desperation. Richards allegedly provided the spark in the studio for this one, coming in late and immediately juicing up the tempo until the thing really hummed. Don’t expect to catch your breath, but expect to love every heart-racing moment of it.
5. “I Got The Blues”- Nobody’s going to be able to sing like Otis Redding, but you can capture the spirit of his performances if you’re inspired, and Jagger manages to get there on this one. There’s a weariness that he projects here that’s crucial to the interpretation; had he just come out and sung his lungs out it wouldn’t have fit the gutted emotional state of the narrator. Bill Wyman and Watts keep the thing moving in slow motion, which is no easy feat, while the horns glide along gracefully. And, since The Beatles had left the rooftop, Billy Preston was free to come aboard to lend the other leading lights of The British Invasion his talents, going to town on an organ solo. Hurts so good.
4. “Dead Flowers”- Jagger, that old cowpoke, strikes just the right balance here between good-natured hokum and genuine heartbreak. The structure may be country, but the details and lingo of the lyrics certainly sound like Mick’s. How good is Taylor on this song? All of 22 years old when the album came out, he sounds here like he’d been playing sessions in Nashville for at least that long. Richards nails the harmonies, Ian Stewart adds a little boogie to the groove on piano, and the refrain’s hook is potent. Jagger tends to gets country either spectacularly right or embarassingly wrong; we’re safely on the good side here.
3. “Wild Horses”- There’s no doubt that Gram Parsons had a huge influence on this one, but it’s far from a Parsons copy. Jagger, who wrote the lyrics, deserves the credit for the tender lyrical tone here, as he sticks by this girl even as she hurts him and prepares to leave. That benevolence is offset by the music’s despair, evident in the minor chords, the funereal pace, and Richards simple yet wrenching solo. Watts’ fills provide just enough forward momentum to get us to the end of the tale, where that final wish to ride the wild horses into the sunset lingers tantalizingly unfulfilled.
2. “Moonlight Mile”- The inner life of a Rolling Stone turned out to be a lot more profound than any of their detractors would have suspected when they began. Jagger created this one out of a mesmerizing, Oriental guitar riff, then figured out where Taylor could work his magic in the margins. There’s an absolutely thrilling musical section featuring Taylor’s yearning guitar, Watts thumping toms, and Paul Buckmaster’s surging strings that I’d take over the jam on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” without hesitation. It may be on the surface a rock-star-on-the-road lament, but it digs much deeper, reaching anyone who’s ever found themselves on an endless journey to return to someone who just keeps getting further away.
1. “Brown Sugar”- It figures that this was Mick’s riff, since it starts off the album, and this album kind of belongs to Mick a lot more than Keith. It also figures that we begin with a Chuck Berry homage, because they had done it so many times in the past. Only now they have complete possession of the sound, just nodding to Chuck as a way of thanking him while they hit their own unique heights. And you can read the whole story literally, and good luck following the narrative if you try, or you can also read it as the Stones showing gratitude, in their own mischievous, lascivious way, to all of the black artists who provided the foundation upon which they built. If they’d try to record it today, they’d probably be tarred and feathered, so score one for the pre-PC age. There are too many great elements to name them all, but let’s give a shout-out specifically to Bobby Keys scorching sax solo, one of the finest in rock history. It’s a song which fearlessly dives into some pretty complicated racial waters. You can dive in there with it, or you can just grab your castanets and maracas and shake along.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For much more on the Stones, check out my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, which comes out this month and can be pre-ordered at the link below.)