THE ROLLING STONES: STICKY FINGERS (1971)
1) Brown Sugar; 2) Sway; 3) Wild Horses; 4) Can't You Hear Me Knocking; 5) You Gotta Move; 6) Bitch; 7) I Got The Blues; 8) Sister Morphine; 9) Dead Flowers; 10) Moonlight Mile.
Unlike Exile On Main St., Sticky Fingers does not reflect any particularly cohesive, specially-flavored single moment in Stones history. A large part of the record was written and even recorded before Altamont, and an even larger chunk already after the band had survived Altamont and emerged as the most notorious and still-overpowered survivor from the Sixties, with The Who still on their tail as a close second. Sometime around 1970-71 The Rolling Stones unofficially became rock music's Royalty Incarnate, a band that, from now on, would be granted complete pardon from any artistic sins — I mean, all their albums from 1971 to 1981, no matter how good or bad they were, went straight to No. 1 on the US charts (UK audiences were a bit more discerning, but not by much), yes, even Emotional Rescue. Essentially, of course, it was the 1965-69 legacy that provided them with a decade of full credit (and then three more decades of partial credit); still, for a while, even with the heavy weight of those crowns on their heads, they did continue to work towards paying off that credit rather than sinking in debt.
By 1971, things had changed in many, many different ways. The Rolling Stones had their own label now, their own tongue logo, their complete freedom to do whatever and whichever way they wanted to. They were beginning to see far more money than usual — and more money also meant more drugs for Keith and whoever wanted to follow in his footsteps. And they were also part of that whole new world that saw glam, shock, decadence, and hedonism as the legitimate inheritors of the hippie worldview — heck, if the idea of loving your neighbor turned out so hard to implement, then what about the idea of loving yourself? An idea that, for the Stones, was even easier to implement than for the others, since there was very little about loving your neighbor in their music anyway — unless it's a "brown sugar, how come you taste so good?" way of loving your neighbor, that is.
This is the big reason why I have always felt a little... reserved about Sticky Fingers, regardless of the sheer number of magnificent tunes on that record. Many people might not even sense the thin, but solid line that separates Sticky Fingers from Let It Bleed, but I am fairly sure it is there, in all those little things. The zipper cover. The occasional crude line like "sometimes I'm sexy, move like a stud, kicking the stall all night". The small touches of hedonism and pretentiousness, and the relative lack of subtlety of approach. It has its advantages, too — the sheer sonic depth of the music at its best overrides even the most complex dynamics of Beggar's Banquet and Let It Bleed — but it is a record which is generally easier for me to admire than to make friends with, or to deposit its echoes deep in my bone marrow, as was done with Let It Bleed. In a way, this is the beginning of the end for the Stones, although, in another way, few things can be more fascinating or intriguing than «the beginning of the end» for the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world.
A bit of clarification is in order. As the leading creative forces in the band, Mick and Keith had both reached full artistic maturity around 1966-67, and were at the height of their imaginative powers for the rest of the decade. But as things became easier around them, and less and less was left to be proven with the passing of time, their personal demons began the gradual task of overriding them. For Mick, demon #1 was theatrical narcissism — an unbeatable drive to place himself, or, rather, his stage personality at the center of things, where it could easily end up sounding self-parodic rather than self-ironic. For Keith, demon #1 was simply letting himself go, without tempering his desire to play balls-out rock'n'roll with musical inventiveness and intelligence — and that demon, too, was perhaps stimulated by the arrival of Mick Taylor, whereupon Keith could relax from the challenge of Let It Bleed and think of himself largely as The Riffmeister, whose main duty would be to supply The Crunch and then watch his young disciple throw in additional ingredients. Quite tempting, especially in the light of how much free time such an approach could provide for scoring another shot.
Both of these demons are already quite evident on Sticky Fingers, but here they are still made to behave, if only because Mick's narcissistic tendencies largely work in his favor on songs like ʽSwayʼ and ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, and because Keith's grade-A riffage, combined with Taylor's grade-A blues soloing, cannot be blamed. Like, technically, there might not be a lot going on in a song like ʽBitchʼ — the stereotypical Stones riff-rocker, the kind of song to be praised by the traditional critics and loathed by the "it's only rock'n'roll, so I hate it" type of fans — but the sheer nastiness of that riff, its «we-mean-business, get-out-of-our-way» attitude knows no rivals, and to this must be added the power of the horn section that somehow found itself totally attuned to Keith's message. The climactic moment is the instrumental break, where Keith remembers and reconfigures every Chuck Berry lick, but sets them in the service of the slash-and-bust-and-burn party rather than the high school hop circle — once the man soaks himself in kerosene and lights that match, you just totally forget that this is a song about sex drive, because if it still were, the poor lady would have to be scraped from the ceiling in bits and pieces. (For that matter, while far from all live versions of the song live up to the studio recording, a few actually manage to exceed it in terms of raw viciousness — everybody should check out at least this performance from Feb. 26, 1973 in Sydney: Keith must have been doing cold turkey or something, because he sounded like a total maniac, and the rest of the band got totally caught up in the proceedings).
It would not take long for the exact same approach to acquire a sillier, more harmless entertainment-oriented sheen (think ʽStar Starʼ or ʽDance Little Sisterʼ), but on Sticky Fingers everybody could still get in focus and conjure up some real inflammatory anger — although, come to think of it, it is rather startling that the whole album only has something like two straightahead rockers: ʽBitchʼ is one, ʽBrown Sugarʼ is another, and, for that matter, the original version of ʽBrown Sugarʼ still sounds rather soft and tame compared to what the song would soon become in live performance. (The expanded edition of the album adds a different version, recorded in 1970 rather than 1969, with Eric Clapton sitting in on slide guitar — that one is actually faster and crunchier, beginning with the three-chord rather than two-chord intro, more familiar to Stones show goers, but one reason why they might have wanted to go with the earlier one is to preserve the «studio / live» difference that was always so characteristic of their hits).
Speaking of ʽBrown Sugarʼ, this song, more than anything, symbolizes why this is the end of one phase for the band and the beginning of a new one. The big rock'n'roll hits of 1968-69, starting with the traumatic message of ʽJumpin' Jack Flashʼ and ending with the barroom glee of ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ, were not «just» nasty riff-rockers — there was always a story, a vibe, a positive or a thoughtful feeling behind each of them. The vibe of ʽBrown Sugarʼ, however, is nastiness and nastiness alone: it is a 100% cock-rocker with lyrics that were deeply provocative even for the politically incorrect standards of 1971 (and it is a huge testament to the override-all power of the Rolling Stones that they have performed them unchanged for 45 years, with the exception of exactly one line — "you should have heard him just around midnight" instead of "hear him whip the women just around midnight", although, to be fair, Mick already sang it with the amended lyrics as early as 1971). It is perversely delicious, unbeatable, unforgettable, insulting, and perhaps super-indicative of the arrival of a whole new era, but there is also a certain aura of pointlessness around this song that I could never shake off. Although, considering how "brown sugar" is also a street term for heroin, it is hilarious to hear stadiums choked to the brim with hundreds of thousands of people joining in the "brown sugar, how come you taste so good?" refrain — nobody except Sir Mick Jagger could get away with something like that.
If there is one single overriding topic to the album, it is decay and decadence: about half of the songs are about decaying and falling apart, and the other half is about trying to put the pieces back together and starting anew. This is not how it used to be — even on Let It Bleed, their darkest album to that point, the dangers seemed to come from the outside, and the protagonist seemed strong and healthy enough to fend them off (it is not he who is bleeding, but others who can do it on him). But in 1971, this demon life has finally got the lyrical hero of the Stones in its sway, he got the blues, he watched his loved one suffer a dull aching pain, he's been begging on his knees, he's stuck in his basement room with a needle and a spoon and a head full of snow... in short, life's not too good, and it isn't just a matter of Altamont — it's a matter of rock stardom, whose harsh price had already been paid in full by the first members of Club 27 and was already being paid on a yearly installation plan by Mick and (especially) Keith.
The saving grace of Sticky Fingers is how real all that trouble is made to seem. It is very easy to blame all the Stones' problems on the Stones themselves if you want to play it rough, and it is just as easy to absorb them from all responsibility if you want to play it merciful — but what matters is not the objective truth, but rather how convincingly Mick and Keith are able to plead their cases. The best songs on the album are infused with a dark, perceptive psychologism, and if you concentrate on it long and hard enough, you may, indeed, fall in love with Sticky Fingers for the right rather than the wrong reason — like, for instance, the reason that no previous Stones album ever had a song like ʽSwayʼ on it before. A slow, lazy-moving, introspective self-analysis of a self-destructive rock'n'roll hero? They were too young for that before, but now the time is right to subject themselves to a bit of homebrewn psychoanalysis. Narcissistic, but not unreasonable.
And for all the creepiness of dark horror fantasies like ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ and the overwhelming awe of apocalyptic visions like ʽGimme Shelterʼ, nothing beats ʽSister Morphineʼ as arguably the scariest song in the Stones' entire catalog. Of course, the song was written much earlier, at the end of 1968, and originally given to Marianne Faithfull (more accurately, said to be co-written with Marianne, who is probably responsible for at least some of the lyrics; the most eerie thing about the song is that her single was released in February '69, approximately half a year before she overdosed on barbiturates and narrowly escaped with her life while staying in Australia with Mick). But where Marianne's version concentrated on the pain aspect of the experience — physical and emotional — Mick, ever the playful pawn of Satan, focuses on the demonic aspect of it, and all the carefully orchestrated build-up of the song illustrates the hero's gradual descent into Hell, even if we have little idea of which particular circle would drug addicts be assigned to. Although the recording features one of Mick's finest vocal performances (he gets in character so vividly that the experience far transcends the boundaries of rock theater), and although Ry Cooder turns in an equally disturbing performance on slide guitar, top prize goes to Jack Nitzsche, who plays his specially treated piano as if it were the doorbell on Hell's own gates. In the process, ʽSister Morphineʼ becomes a song about retribution — a Shakespearian soliloquy from the tragic hero's dying bed — and God only knows what was going through the heads of our heroes while they were recording this. I'd be mighty surprised — and disappointed — to learn that no trepidation whatsoever was felt in the studio.
As a sidenote, it would be unjust not to mention Mick Taylor and the difference that his full status made on Sticky Fingers. Taylor, it must be said, was always an outsider to Stones-ism, and this was not only reflected in his image (on the stage, he preferred to side with Bill Wyman as the quietly-standing Stone) but also in his sound — unlike Keith Richards, the highway rogue of rock'n'roll, Mick was a near-academically trained bluesman, more interested in developing the lyrical potential of the blues-rock solo than in creating an aura of roughness, nastiness, and debauchery. The good news is that one did not necessarily contradict the other, as we'd already witnessed on the live performances on Ya-Ya's, and here it is further confirmed in the lengthy instrumental passages on ʽSwayʼ and, most notably, on the record's grandest number, ʽCan't You Hear Me Knockingʼ.
The latter is a particularly fine example of everything that was best in both Keith Richards and Mick Taylor in their prime. The opening of ʽCan't You Hear Me Knockingʼ is what I never get tired of calling «rock'n'roll incarnate» — the twenty seconds of raw, dry, powerful riffage before Mick steps in with the vocals is something that might seem quite simple and generic, yet never in my whole life have I heard a piece of rock'n'roll riffage that would better qualify as a piece of timeless art. Note how, over these few bars, Keith never repeats the same phrase twice — he starts out and ends at about the same chords, but every individual phrase is different, making the passage sound like an improvised, discontented, grizzled, grumbly guitar monolog. It might be a drunken stroll along the alleyway, or an intentionally confusing show-off from a martial arts student, or whatever you'd like it to be, but mostly, it is just an arrogant one-man show of how we set them rules up and then we break them — compare this to, say, a tightly disciplined riff-rocker from AC/DC or Judas Priest, executed with the precision of a well-trained Wehrmacht officer, and that's Keith Richards for you.
The song itself, once the vocals come in, is a classic tale of cocaine-eyes decadence, but its lyrics do not matter so much in the overall context: the band did not initially intend to transform it into an instrumental jam (there's an alternate short version in the deluxe edition), but once this actually happened, almost by accident, the tune became much more than just a blues-rocker about drugs and decay. The groove sustained by the rhythm section is Latin in texture, but Stones-like in spirit, and gives Taylor ample space to shine with a guitar solo that is positively minimalistic for him, favoring tone over complexity. With the first lick coming in around 4:57, even if you were sort of drifting during the brass section interlude, it is all but impossible not to be drawn to the speakers: if anything, it is Taylor's first and last attempt to conjure the Devil on a Stones record, and even though his Devil is far more polished and clean-cut than Keith's, it can sound no less dangerous. The result is one of the most mysterious tracks in the band's catalog — it would be easy to say that they were just trying to produce something long-winded and sophisticated in the era of jam bands and prog rockers, but they really had their own agenda in this, and there's a feeling of suspense, inherent danger, confusion, menace, attack, and terrified flight in this jam that is the logical successor of ʽGimme Shelterʼ and ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ. Imagine yourself knockin' all around your town, late at night, when, all of a sudden, the Mick Taylor Solo Demon swoops upon you right out of the blue. Hey, it can actually get scary.
I have never been much of a fan of the band's interpretation of Fred McDowell's ʽYou Gotta Moveʼ (straightahead blues covers were way past the Stones' primary zone of interest at the time), yet the song's judgement-day sentiment fits right in with the album's message — older bluesmen may have been singing the line "you may be rich, child, you may be poor" with emphasis on "poor", and the Stones may have been singing it with emphasis on "rich", but, you know, when the Lord gets ready, you gotta move. On the other hand, after all these years I am still not attuned to the alleged magic of ʽI Got The Bluesʼ, which seems to me a melodic and spiritual misstep compared to the far more convincing ragged gospel of Exile On Main St. The best thing about the song is probably Billy Preston's inspired organ break, but compositionally, it is way too derivative of ʽI've Been Loving You Too Longʼ (which they'd already covered anyway), and most importantly, Mick's vocal delivery is modeled way too much on formulaic soul singing: he seems too tied up by convention here to come up with a truly moving performance.
Where he is not tied up by convention is on the album's most beautiful song — and no, that is not the overplayed (if still beautiful) ʽWild Horsesʼ, but the closing ballad ʽMoonlight Mileʼ. If there is really at least one fantastic progressive achievement on Sticky Fingers, it is that, for once, the Stones found just the proper grand epic note to bring things down to a close, even if it took them hiring Elton John's string arranger (Paul Buckmaster) to provide it.
What makes these early Seventies' Stones albums so outstanding is how Mick Jagger, despite already being a super-rich, spoiled rock star with (allegedly) not a care in the world, was still capable of convincing you how, behind all these riches, he could be miserable and suffering, and how, beyond that misery and suffering, he could discern salvation — and how he could so effortlessly transfer these feelings to the listener. ʽMoonlight Mileʼ was the first of several great, great Stones songs that could act like soothing balm on one's aching soul, and a large part of that was owed to Mick Jagger, the singer. Here, he is not aping Otis Redding or Solomon Burke — in fact, terrible as it may seem to even suggest this, I would still suggest that here he is being Mick Jagger, honestly complaining about "the sound of strangers sending nothing to my mind", yearning for peace and relief. The song reaches its climax around 4:00, after a series of orchestral «thrusts» that suggest an attempt to throw one's burden down... but it is never really made clear if the final resolution represents true salvation or if it's merely a matter of optimistic vision.
In any case, it is ʽMoonlight Mileʼ that ties together all the loose ends and takes on the function of ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ for this record — something grand, something that transcends the relatively mundane concerns of the rest of the songs, something that offers redemption from the sins of ʽBrown Sugarʼ and ʽBitchʼ. When Mick, having started out with a soft, languid, relatively calm intonation, finally winds himself up to the last ecstatic "just about a moonlight mile... on down the road, down the road, down the road!", it's like the perfect moment we've all been waiting for: the coming out moment, when the mask is removed and the grinning sinner flings himself to the ground in tears, relieving himself of all the built-up pressure. Which also makes ʽMoonlight Mileʼ the perfect song for everybody who'd like to empathize to some soul-blues classic but does not feel guilty enough to put oneself on the same level with afflicted blues dudes — ʽMoonlight Mileʼ is about making you feel good after making you feel bad even if you're a million-dollar-per-day spender. You may be rich, child, you may be poor, it don't matter, Mr. Jagger has just invented his personal confessional genre and opened it up for everybody. Does any of that make sense? Maybe it doesn't, but I've just listened to the song one more time, and one more time, I had tears swelling in my eyes at the conclusion, so at least that much is an objective fact.
Without ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, Sticky Fingers would be a great album and a small step down from Let It Bleed. With ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, Sticky Fingers is still a small step down from Let It Bleed on the whole, but a step up in some particulars — namely, it adds personal psychologism to the table, on the same level as John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band or Joni Mitchell's Blue or any of those other renowned singer-songwriter albums from the early 1970s, psychologism of the same quality, if certainly not in the same quantity. And it is made all the more fascinating if you simply consider the emotional / atmospheric distance from ʽBrown Sugarʼ (the epitome of snarling, grinning nastiness) to ʽMoonlight Mileʼ — no other artist in musical history could muster the same antipodes of ugliness and beauty of such high quality on the same album. (Those American apostles of the Stones, Aerosmith, certainly used the contrast as a blueprint for their own records, but much as I love Rocks, I wouldn't even begin to dare bring the contrast between ʽBack In The Saddleʼ and ʽHome Tonightʼ into comparison: perhaps ʽBack In The Saddleʼ could compete with the cockiness of ʽBrown Sugarʼ, but ʽHome Tonightʼ could never stand up to ʽMoonlight Mileʼ).
Anyway, it is really pointless to ask yourself whether Let It Bleed is better than Sticky Fingers or vice versa, because, as I said, they represent two different stages of the band. Let It Bleed was a record by a band that was not yet 100% sure whether they made it to the top of the world or not. Sticky Fingers is a record by a band that knows for a fact that it is sitting on top of the world, and wants you to know that (a) it quite enjoys sitting on top of the world, thank you very much, and (b) you know, actually, sitting on top of the world can be quite a drag sometime, but (c) it's not really that much different from sitting anywhere else, because all the problems essentially remain the same. Agree with the message? Then it's a thumbs up all the way.