According to the accepted narrative, the utopian hippie dream of the 1960s ended in a bloody mess on December 6, 1969 at the Altamont Free Music festival; when a member of the Hell’s Angels fatally stabbed a concert goer during the Rolling Stones’ set. While the tragedy at Altamont, may well have ended the hopes of a coming age of universal peace and love, it wasn’t enough to deter the Rolling Stones in their continued pursuit of sloppy grooves and bluesed out rock and roll.
The tragedy at Altamont aside, the Rolling Stones were actually in the middle of one of the greatest hot streaks in the history of recorded music. Beginning with the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” single released in May of 1968, the Stones began their historic partnership with the drummer and producer extraordinaire, Jimmy Miller. The two singles and five albums the Stones made with Jimmy Miller are the peak of their recorded output. While Mick, Keef and the boys had recorded some stone cold classic tunes before and after this run, only the 1978 record “Some Girls” came close to the gloriously nasty swagger the Stones achieved from ’68-’72.
The Stones were coming off two of their best albums when they began work on Sticky Fingers at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound in Alabama. Altamont was still four days away, giving the Stones plenty of time to take in the vibe of the Muscle Shoals studio. So much of the music the Stones admired had been recorded in that place backed by the unknown but legendary Swampers rhythm section. Records like Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man the Way That I Loved You,” and Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,” are just a couple of examples of the extraordinary music created in that humble studio in a tiny Alabama town.
Muscle Shoals was a special place. Located deep in the segregated south, it was a place where white and black musicians came together to make some of the 20th century’s greatest recordings. For the Stones, five white guys from England who worshipped at the altar of black American music, it had to be a thrill to be making music in that space where Etta James and Wilson Pickett had been. Three songs were recorded for the album; the raunchy, controversial, but irrestibly catchy “Brown Sugar,” the weepy countryish ballad “Wild Horses,” and the deep gospel blues of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move.”
With three songs completed the boys headed to Altamont to perform a set at what was billed to be the West Coast’s answer to Woodstock. Instead Altamont became the symbolic end of 60s idealism leading into 70s cynicism. Video footage from the Stones set that night shows Mick hopelessly pleading with the crowd to cool down, apparently unaware that the scuffle the Stones were witnessing was about to culminate in the murder of Meredith Hunter, at the hands of a member of the Hell’s Angels who in a haste of poor judgement had been hired as security for the event. Despite the bad vibes and chaos, the Stones managed to finish their set, reasoning that ending the show would cause further chaos if not an all out riot. At set’s end, the Stones rushed from the scene shaken and a little traumatized, but focused on that next record.
The darkness of that night couldn’t help but influence the sound of the Stones coming record. Recording continued through 1970 with Sticky Fingers eventually turning up in record stores on April 23, 1971. The record’s sleeve, designed by pop artist Andy Warhol was a close up view of tight black denim jeans barely concealing a visible bulge just to the right of a working zipper. The cover was raunchy, sleazy, and masculine; in other words a perfect visual representation of the hazy world of sex, drugs and rock n roll that the Stones had been perfecting over the past decade.
Sticky Fingers began a new era for the band, as the five core members supplemented their sound with bluesy piano and soulful horns. The previous two albums were mostly created by four out of the five Stones, as the contributions of guitarist Brian Jones were becoming much more sporadic and minimal. Keith played over ninety percent of the guitar parts, both lead and rhythm, on the last two Stones albums. This time around the Stones had added a new lead guitar player to replace the recently deceased Jones. Mick Taylor quickly made his presence known, as his fluid lead playing beautifully contrasted and complimented Keef’s rhytmic chops. Tunes like “Sway” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’,” contained flashy lyrical solos from Taylor unlike anything that had ever been heard on a Stones recording.
Over the past two years in making recordings with Jimmy Miller, a change had happened in the Rolling Stones. The Stones were no longer a British band imitating the American blues and rock n roll of their heroes, they themselves had become an authentic blues based rock n roll band. They now produced a sound that could’ve just as easily come from the swamps and cotton fields of the deep American south as opposed to the British upper / middle class suburbs they hailed from. The Rolling Stones had become the sound they emulated.
With the possible exception of 1972’s “Exile On Main St,” “Sticky Fingers” is probably the best example of the Stones newfound rootsy authenticity. It is a record of ugly beauty and grimy soul. It displayed a confidence that had the Stones rightfully claiming the crown of “world’s greatest rock n roll band.”
1- Brown Sugar- It’s hard not to address the lyrical content of the album’s opening smash hit. Controversial, a bit misogynistic and frankly a little racist, done tongue in cheek, but no less nasty, it is a song that Mick claims he couldn’t write nowadays, because he would’ve censored himself. The lyrics are as Mick called them “all the nasty subjects in one go.” In hindsight it’d probably been better if Jagger had come up with some different lyrics, but what’s done is done. Lyrics aside, there is no denying that “Brown Sugar” is a spectacular song that swings and grooves like a mother fucker. The riff is classic Keef as the whole band comes together with the help of a fire starting saxophone solo from Bobby Keys. It’s a sound that gets asses shaking despite the ugliness of the lyrics. Say what you want about the words, Jagger sings the hell out them.
2- Sway- The album’s second tune and the first to display what the Stones had gained in aquiring Mick Taylor. His mid song bottleneck solo and his soulful outro solo faintly accompanied by a string section, are the highlights of this rough Mick led rocker about the perils of the demon life. Empty promiscuity, drugs, drink, death and more drugs are what has Mick caught up in a sway. The tune is unique in that Keith’s guitar is nowhere to be found. The song’s introductory riff is actually played by Jagger, but very much in line with the kind of riff Keef probably would’ve played had he been present for the song’s recording.
3- Wild Horses- The Stones move into country territory with this ballad sung by an uncharacteristically vulerable sounding Mick Jagger. The rest of the band does an excellent job of creating an authentic sounding country song.
4- Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’- The song opens with a growling filthy riff from Keith as the rest of the band drops into an equally filthy groove. Mick’s vocals match the snarl of the guitars as he gut punches the listener with every syllable he pushes out. Keith’s high pitched background vocals add a touch of raw and bloodied soul as the song reaches it’s seeming conclusion. However the Stones surprise us by not ending the song. Instead of we hear a fill played on the congas that leads into something rarely heard from the Stones; an off the cuff jam. Keith continues strumming a rhythm as the band settles into a relaxed groove that allows a tasty Bobby Keys saxophone solo. Mick Taylor is up next playing a guitar solo that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Santana record. Taylor’s solo carries the tune to it’s eventual conclusion.
5- You Gotta Move- Closing out side one, the Stones musically find themselves in the Mississippi delta, where Charlie stomps a primitive beat on his bass drum accompanied by the acoustic rhythmic strum of Keith and the electric slide of Mick Taylor. Jagger’s vocal is an attempt to capture the distinctive singing style of a black Mississippi bluesman. While some critics have accused Jagger’s blues singing as akin to the racist minstrel shows of the 1930s and 40s, where white actors donned in black make up spoofed, mocked, and imitated African American citizens, Jagger seems sincere in his attempt at capturing the beautiful pained humanity of the original delta bluesman. There is no mockery in Jagger’s tone as once again, Keith provides a high harmony vocal, giving the song a feeling of urgency to move away from the coming of a possible judgement day.
6- Bitch- Anxious not to lose the momentum of the album’s excellent first side, side 2 opens with a balls rocker in “Bitch.” While the title seems to imply another slightly misogynistic rant from Mick Jagger, the tune is actually about love itself being a bitch. Another swaggering vocal from Jagger is complimented by an excellent guitar riff that is doubled by the horns of Bobby Keys and Jim Price. The groove leads into one of the better and rare examples of Keef’s lead playing as he takes the solo pushed on by the band’s propulsive drive.
7. I Got the Blues- Things cool off a bit as the Stones play an achingly slow tempoed soul song. Once again the song finds the Stones hanging around below the Mason-Dixon line, but instead of the blues, it’s Otis Redding styled soul that Stones attempt and achieve. Keys and Price’s horns are powerful throughout, but the real highlight is the mid song organ solo performed by Billy Preston. The solo is bluesy with a touch of gospel.
8- Sister Morphine- Things get dark on this tune about the dark side of hard drug addiction. Mick gives an appropriately stoned and woozy vocal as Ry Cooder guests with some truly haunting slide work. The song effectively captures it’s mood with ugly precision.
9. Dead Flowers- Things lighten up a bit on Dead Flowers. Sure, the lyrics find Mick in a “basement room with a needle and a spoon, and another girl to take his pain away,” but he’s singing them in an exagerrated drawl as the band plays an upbeat country melody highlighted by the twangy tone of Mick Taylor’s telecaster. “Wild Horses,” gets more praise, but to my ears “Dead Flowers,” is the superior example of the Stones underrated talent for country music.
10- Moonlight Mile- Sticky Fingers comes to a close with a lush symphonic ballad. It’s a lonely song featuring only Jagger, Taylor, Charlie, and a string section. The song has Mick singing is a world weary near falsetto tone. The sound and words seem to paint a picture of a lonely and cold winter night. Everything builds to a beautiful string led climax concluding the album’s exihilarting rock rush on an appropriately somber and wistful note. Moonlight Mile is the sound of coming down and finding some peace in the darkness. It is perfect.
Score: 11/10. (Not a typo. That is an 11 out of 10.)