Friday, April 22, 2011

Couldn't Drag Me Away: The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers is 40

 The Rolling Stones - Sticky Fingers
The Rolling Stones
Sticky Fingers
Rating: **** 1/2

By the end of the 1960’s, the Rolling Stones were one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Despite the loss of founding member Brian Jones, the band was standing strong and touring. In 1971, the band released their ninth UK studio album and their eleventh US studio album Sticky Fingers. It marked the third time the band worked with producer Jimmy Miller and the first full length studio album to feature guitarist Mick Taylor. Today, Sticky Fingers is still praised as not only one of the band’s best albums but one of the best albums ever made by anybody. For me, Sticky Fingers sits at #9 on my list of favorite albums. Since it’s a top ten album, I’ll give it the track-by-track treatment.
            In 1971, the Rolling Stones consisted of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts. The band had already started working on the songs for Sticky Fingers in 1969. This is seen in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, where the band got to hear early versions of “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses”. The album was recorded mainly in two places: Muscle Shoal Sounds Studios in Alabama and Olympic Studios in the UK.  By this time, the band had ended their contract with Decca Records. The band, with the help of Atlantic Records, created their own record label: Rolling Stones Records. Sticky Fingers was the first album to be released on the new label.

Track-by track review

1.      “Brown Sugar”- The opening guitar riff for “Brown Sugar” has become a classic rock radio staple itself. It’s one of those that when you hear the riff, you know what song is coming up. The lyrics for “Brown Sugar” deal with slavery. However, it’s not just about slaves: it’s about white guys having sex with black girls. Isn’t it obvious: “Brown sugar/How come you taste so good now/Brown sugar/Just like a young (or) black girl should now”. The saxophone solo, played by Bobby Keys, is wonderful. The end part of “I said yeah, yeah, yeah, woo!” is fun to hear live. Sessions for “Brown Sugar” began in December 1969. In the Gimme Shelter movie, we see Mick and Keith moving about to a rough finished cut of the song. Originally, Mick was going to call the song “Black P***y” but he thought it was too direct. Mick did the right thing: it’s a Stones classic.

2.      “Sway”- Of the ten songs on the album, “Sway” is one of the more forgotten ones. Still, it’s a solid rock song with an opening, according to Mick Taylor, requires two guitars to play. However, sources show that Keith Richards didn’t play on this song. He’s on backing vocals with Pete Townshend, Ronnie Lane, and Billy Nicholls. Jagger and Taylor are playing guitars and Nicky Hopkins in on the piano. It’s a nice slow rocker that seems to center around “demon life” and having it get you in its “sway”. Mick’s vocals are really great here. When he sings “One day I woke…”, the microphone couldn’t pick up his loud voice! “Sway” remained not played for decades until the band’s 2005-2007 world tour, which meant that every song on Sticky Fingers had been played live at least once.

3.      “Wild Horses”- “Wild Horses” is, without a doubt” one of the Stones’ greatest songs. The song is somewhat of a ballad. The lyrics sound as if the person in the song is going through a hard time in their life and thinks that childhood living was easy to do. There is some speculation that the song was written about Marianne Faithful, the former girlfriend of Mick Jagger. Jagger disagreed with this in 1993, saying that the relationship “was all well over by then”. Jagger does say, however, that he was very emotionally into this song. There is a lot of emotion in this song. The chorus is just beautiful. Keith Richards was actually the one who came up with the phrase of “Wild Horses”. This was recorded in 1969 and like “Brown Sugar”, it can be heard in the Gimme Shelter documentary.

4.      “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”- This bluesy track opens up with a rough and tough guitar lick. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” is a pretty underrated song but seeing how critics and fans have come to love the song over the years, using it in movies and even video games (Guitar Hero II), it’s also a Stones classic. The lyrics to the song are either about one of two things. In the first two lines, Mick sings about a person who has “satin shoes” and “plastic boots”. Mick could be talking about a hooker. But then in the next two lines, we learn they got “cocaine eyes” and “speed freak jive”. A hooker/drug dealer? This song has the credentials to be a Lou Reed song! The person might be begging for another shag or some drugs. The highlight of this song is, of course, the jazz fusion instrumental break. Bobby Keys does his work once again on the saxophone, while Billy Preston is on the organ and Rocky Dijon is on the congas. It’s noted that Mick Taylor is the one playing the guitar solo. Also, Charlie Watts gets to show off his ability to be a jazz drummer. Overall, a classic…and it took the band until 2002 to play this one live!

5.      “You Gotta Move”- If “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” wasn’t bluesy enough for you, “You Gotta Move” should do it for you. This delta blues number, written by Fred McDowell, is the only song on the album that’s a cover. In this song, there aren’t any additional musicians: it’s just the Stones themselves (Mick, Keith, Mick T, Bill, and Charlie). Mick’s vocals on this song are quite impressive. Mick has the ability to change his voice to different styles of music. Keith is playing slide acoustic guitar and Bill Wyman is playing electric piano! An interesting track, for sure.

6.      “Bitch”- I don’t mean to sound like I’m repeating myself but “Bitch” has one of the catchiest openers of any song by the Stones. That guitar lick from Keith and the bass line from Bill are absolutely killer. It’s probably one of the greatest sex songs ever written by the Stones, as well as one of the dirtiest. From the lyrics, we can tell that this guy wants to get laid…badly. When the lyric of “I’m feeling hungry, can’t see the reason/Just had a horse meat pie” comes up, you know what you’re in for. Also who can’t love the chorus: “Yeah when you call my name/I salivate like a Pavlov dog/Yeah when you lay me out/my heart is beating louder than a big bass drum, all right!” This is easily one of the best songs off the album. One of my favorites too.  Keys is on sax again while Jim Price is on the trumpet.

7.      “I Got the Blues”- It should come as no surprise that this song is, well, bluesy. It come as a surprise that “I Got The Blues” actually has some soul music in it. This is definitely one of the most underrated songs off the album and maybe forgotten. About some two minutes in, there’s this outrageous organ solo from the late Billy Preston that just adds more to the feeling of the song. It’s short but sweet. A nice song, with more sax and trumpet work from Keys and Price.

8.      “Sister Morphine”- Of the ten songs on this album I have to say that “Sister Morphine” is my favorite song off the album. Much to my surprise, the song was actually recorded in March of 1969. This was after Brian Jones had left or been fired and before the band found Mick Taylor (also before Brian died in July of 1969). Keith can be heard on acoustic guitar while Ry Cooder is playing slide guitar on this dark and haunting song about morphine and a person who probably overdosed and is in the hospital. Personally, I love the lyric of “Why does the doctor have no face?” The song picks up speed when the drums kick in. Also, Jack Nitzsche is playing the haunting echoing piano on this song. I’ve always loved the sound of this song and how it’s dark and mysterious. While the song is a Jagger/Richards composition, Marianne Faithful gets co-writing credit for the song as well.

9.      “Dead Flowers”- I’ve probably said it more than once: this is another Stones classic. At first, it doesn’t sound like something the band would’ve done but in the end they did it. The song is very country-tinged and has some more great vocals from Mick. I really like how Mick can disguise his voice with different accents (for a much more hilarious example, check out “Far Away Eyes” from Some Girls). “Dead Flowers” is an example: Mick sings with this Southern twang in his voice in the verses. The chorus is awesome and memorable. It’s almost like this song was meant to sing-a-long to. The song’s lyrics get a bit heavy at this point: “I’ll be in my basement/With a needle and a spoon”. Obviously, there’s the heroin reference that comes out of nowhere. The late great Ian Stewart (aka Stu, the sixth Stone) plays piano on this wonderful song. The band took the longest time in not playing this live. 1976 marked the last time the band played the song until 1989 when the band finally got it back in the set list.

10.  “Moonlight Mile”- Sticky Fingers ends with this ballad of some sort. It’s a slow one, for sure, but it’s still a nice little song to close the album with. According to sources, the song was actually recorded in Mick Jagger’s home in Newbury, England using the Rolling Stones Mobile Unit (the band’s own mobile recording studio that had their name on it. Other bands such as Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin would use it as well). Another thing that’s noted is that Keith Richards is not playing on the song for some reason. Mick Taylor is playing electric guitar and Mick Jagger is play acoustic guitar. The song seems to be written about life on the road and how one would feel about being away from home. The lyrics do point out that the one thing connecting the person and home is the moon. A very unique way to end the album.    

Sticky Fingers was another hit album for the Rolling Stones. The cover for the album, however, was a whole other story. Renowned artist Andy Warhol designed the album’s famous cover. Warhol was no stranger to making album art: he created the album artwork for the Velvet Underground’s debut album in 1967 (remember the banana peel?). Warhol was pushing the envelope once again: the cover depicts a person wearing black jeans from the waist down. The model was Warhol’s friend Joe Dallesandro (remember Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”? Little Joe?) despite rumors that it was Mick Jagger who was the model.  At the zipper, there was an actual zipper right there on the cover. To prevent any damage of the vinyl record, a gatefold of a picture of the model wearing nothing but underwear. When Sticky Fingers hit the shelves in April 1971, the cover was deemed as too risqué. In Spain, the cover was rejected and replaced with a picture of a can of sawed off fingers! This just comes to show the Rolling Stones were doing the right thing: pissing people off. It was great.
With the success of Sticky Fingers, the band was able to continue until they were broke…seriously. The band moved to France and recorded their next album in Keith’s house. That album became 1972’s Exile On Main Street. It was also their fourth time working with producer Jimmy Miller. Miller’s last album with the band was 1973’s Goats’ Head Soup. A year or two later, Mick Taylor left the band. Today, the Stones are still rolling. In 2012, the band will reach a milestone that very few bands ever get to reach: 50 years in the music business. Sticky Fingers should be looked upon as a classic album from and great rock n roll band. Even 40 years later, it’s still great. Maybe even better.

Sources: My wonderful memory (or so what people tell me) and a huge thank you to the wonderful Stones site, Time Is On Our Side. I think I can safely say that it’s the best Stones site on the web. If you’re doing research on the band, you have to check out this site.  

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