Celebrating 45 years of a true classic, Getintothis’ Del Pike revisits the seminal Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers and assesses why it is still topping the best album polls after all these years.
This month marks the 45th anniversary of one of the most enduring albums by The Rolling Stones, so good Bill Wyman named a restaurant after it. Famous as much for its provocative Andy Warhol cover than the fine collection of songs therein, it still stands as a powerful and truly classic album. A trip back to 1971 should place it into context and give us an opportunity to revisit the great album track by track. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you… Sticky Fingers.
The controversy surrounding the cover of Sticky Fingers, unleashed into record stores on April 23 ’71 cannot be understated; a bulging close up of a crotch, bursting out of tight fitting jeans with a real zipper, just tempting buyers to peek inside. Open up the gatefold and we are greeted with an even more protuberant shot of a pair of briefs. The back cover displays a tight bum in the same jeans. It’s easy to surmise that the model is Mick Jagger, already infamous for his tighter than tight attire, regularly popping buttons on stage, but publicity shots from the time show all band members posing with the album cover across their lower halves. It has since been revealed that the actual model was one of Andy Warhol’s bank of male models, but it is still unclear which one, a whole bunch posed on the day and Andy made his final choice in private. Joe Dallesandro was one of the models on the day, an actor whose naked upper torso was to fill the cover shot of The Smiths’ self-titled debut album in 1984.
Remember this was the era of letting it all hang out, only 18 months prior to this release was John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Virgins, a sonic love story wrapped in a white sleeve, the pair of them naked as the day they were born on front and back. If you were a hipster at the turn of the 70s then this was no doubt a hoot and a firm finger in the face of Mum and Dad, but the majority weren’t quite ready for such a swell of genital waving. Subsequently both albums were released in shrouded covers in selected stores. Spanish versions of Sticky Fingers show a murky can of fingers as some sort of alternative, which in fairness is equally as wrong.
Part of The Stones’ appeal has always been controversy, and oh how they enjoyed it, and their previous albums leading up to Sticky Fingers were not free of establishmental frowning. 1968’s Beggars Banquet featured a sleeve that pushed the boundaries of bad taste to new limits, a dirty toilet with a graffiti scrawled wall, really quite shocking for the time. The image, taken by Barry Feinstein and reportedly taken in the bathroom of an L.A. Porsche repair shop was quickly replaced with an elegant white sleeve in the style of a party invite. 1969’s Let It Bleed was surrounded by controversy following the tragic events at the Altamont Free Festival in California that December. An altercation at the front of the stage during The Stones’ performance, led to 18 year old Meredith Hunter being stabbed and killed by a Hell’s Angel. The event is captured in the 1970 concert film, Gimme Shelter. This single event marked the end of the 60s dream for many music fans. Violence loomed large in the early 70s with the Viet Nam war shaping the lyrical output of Woodstock-generation artists and post-Hays code films like Soldier Blue, Get Carter and A Clockwork Orange presenting a new era of Ultra-violence on screen. Racial hatred was an issue too with Enoch Powell’s 1969 River of Blood speech inciting mass marches of The National Front onto British streets in the intervening years.
With a new decade however, came a new chance for The Stones to put Altamont behind them and 1970 was the first album-free year in the band’s career. It quickly became apparent that they were working on something special. Recording had started as far back as December 1969 in the week leading up to Altamont at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield Alabama. The impact of the murder on the band is evident in the lengthy recording period, not returning to the studio until February and taking an unprecedented whole year to finish at Olympic and Trident Studios in London.
The pain of their experience can be felt in some of the music on the album, but definitely not in the lead single Brown Sugar, released as a taster just a week before the album release, an absolute return to form and a template for the very best of The Rolling Stones. Whilst the subject matter would be ridiculously problematic now, at the time it was fitting for the era in some ways. Jagger, with his constant stance of one foot in the Thames and the other in the Mississippi, somehow got away with the most risqué of topics whilst others got stung. At the core of Brown Sugar is an inter-racial sexual relationship in a New Orleans brothel, contentious enough in the early 70s against the backdrop of Enoch Powell’s militant Right Wing sloganeering, but with added themes of slavery, oral sex and all manner of deviancy this was chart music that was entirely unprecedented in the UK.
Take any line from that song and see boundaries of decency and taste being stretched, “Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright, Hear him whip the women just around midnight” proves the point. Jagger’s take on the content of Brown Sugar after the event was “God knows what I’m on about on that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go… I never would write that song now”. He put its success down to being a “Good Groove” and it’s impossible to disagree, taking in funk, blues, hard rock and a catchy pop chorus, this was a band who knew exactly what buttons to press in order to create a classic single. It’s a great album opener too, straight in with all guns blazing, this is The Rolling Stones that fans had waited a long time for (in those days a year and a half was a long time between albums, take heed Arctic Monkeys).
As with most of their work, it is rare for the bombast to continue for too long as they call in on just about every music genre on their journey. No sooner has Brown Sugar finished and Sway enters the frame. Still heavy, but pure blues with its killer “It’s just that Demon Life that’s got me in its sway” repeated throughout. This is the sort of Stones song to be listened to at the end of a hazy summer’s day with the windows open and nothing but a bottle of Jack Daniels to keep you company. It’s also the checkpoint to hear some of Keith Richard’s finest guitar playing. The strings at the close belie any sense of 70s sag and recall the tight experimental mid 60s sound of The Stones and The Beatles.
Wild Horses is another of those songs that dismisses any claims that The Stones should have thrown the towel in alongside the Fabs. This is song-writing par excellence that guarantees that this new decade will be as rich as the last for Mick and Keith. The single received a rare US only release which makes sense, it has a definite Stateside feel and the themes of being lost and alone on the road also tie in with the whole ideal of Americana.
Can’t you hear me knocking is the anomaly on the album in that we start off with the now established dirty blues, reminiscent of the bulk of Let it Bleed, all grinding riffs and Jagger wailing, but this can’t sustain the 7 plus minutes so turns into an elongated jam that mischievously hints of the funk blues that will follow on their epic Exile on Main Street the following year. Bobby Keys’ sax adds boozy jazz to the piece in an instrumental workout that also includes Billy Preston on keys and the unmistakeable Ry Cooder on guitar. Jack Nitzsche and Jimmy Milller also call in and somehow this run of the mill blues track almost becomes the album’s centrepiece ending on a cheeky Doors vibe.
If Can’t You Hear Me Knocking was a taste of things to come, You gotta move was a step back in time. This is where The Beatles and The Stones stood apart. McCartney’s Rocky Racoon sounded like a pastiche of a cowboy song and Honey Pie a further pastiche of a Music Hall act. When The Stones take on a genre, this is no pastiche, they mean it. Even as far back as Little Red Rooster, Jagger sounded like he was born on the farm, Almost a decade on and they are breaking the blues just like their heroes. Credited to Fred McDowell and Gary Davis this African / American Gospel blues song had been recorded by many since the 1940s notably by the Rev Davis himself. Its an unusual song which almost paints God as the villain, suggesting when you’re time is up, “You gotta move” ‘cause their aint no escape from the Big Man. Jagger and Richards’ own Sympathy for The Devil from Beggar’s Banquet had already posed questions about the validity of Heaven and Hell, and this choice of song furthers their questioning. The replication of olde time recording and Jagger’s vocal blacking-up add an authenticity to the track which is beautiful. The song could almost be a bizarre companion piece to The Who’s Heaven and Hell from the previous year’s Live at Leeds album.
Bitch tears open Side two, already heard on the B side to Brown Sugar, and reintroduces a powerful horn section and more sexually frank lyrics. It’s basically another sex song in the same vein as it’s A side with a tired and weary Jagger demanding to be sexually awoken and yearning to “Salivate like a Pavlov dog” no less. There is no deeper message here, just deep down dirty blues that The Stones do best. It’s a Bitch!
I got the blues is the blues by numbers. Mick has been a bad boy and lost his woman to a better man and now in a moment of remorse he is hoping her new man will bring her alive and not bring her down with abuse. It’s a moody piece lifted by bursts of Hammond organ courtesy of Billy Preston who had brought life to the looming death Knell of The Beatles’ Let it Be sessions the previous year. It also recalls some of Robert Plant’s more bluesy moment from the first couple of Zeppelin albums also from this era.
Sister Morphine is the one song on the album that captures the zeitgeist of the post-Altamont period more than anything, yet was recorded way before the Sticky Fingers Sessions back in the Spring of 1969. It had already appeared as the B side to Marianne Faithfull’s Something better single in 1969 with Faithfull on Vocals and pretty much the same personnel as Sticky Fingers elsewhere, including some dreamy slide guitar from Ry Cooder. After much legal wrangling, Faithfull managed to have her name added to the writing credits in 1994.It’s as grim a drug song as Lennon’s Cold Turkey, also released in ’69, both serving as codas to the swinging 60s and an entry point to the comedown 70s. Sister Morphine finds the protagonist lying in a hospital bed waiting for the next hit from the Doctor with no face as an ambulance screams in his ears. This is no sugar coated lament, it’s as in your face as the period will allow and remains a harrowing snapshot of the time.
Dead flowers is not as gloomy as the title would have you believe and is in fact light relief from the previous grind of Sister Morphine. It’s a “remember me when you’ve gone” story with a good humoured chorus. The sing-a-long “Take Me Back Little Susie” line is unashamedly as catchy as hell and could well have led to the track being a successful single were it not for the “needle and spoon“ lyrics. The “Say it with Dead Flowers” line is a bleak crack at the famous Interflora advertising slogan, reminiscent of the barbed attack on advertising in 1965’s Satisfaction.
The closing track, Moonlight Mile is a typical album closer with its sad refrains that beg you to flip over for the sonic assault of Brown Sugar again. Picking up on the themes of Wild Horses and being astray on the road, this is Jagger whiling away his journey home, mile by moonlight mile. The string arrangements set the standard for many album closers to come, full of melancholy and emotion, U2’s Euphoric All I Want is You springs to mind as a very similar closer on Rattle and Hum. Much of that album along with The Joshua Tree owes its dues to Sticky Fingers, they certainly share much of the same influences.
To pinpoint what it is that makes Sticky Fingers so unique in its appeal is a difficult task. There are no dramatic barriers being broken musically, although lyrically this is a challenging piece of work with extremely dark and taboo issues being addressed. To really appreciate its worth it is essential to place it in the context of what has come before and after. Altamont has a lot to answer for and the album as a result is crisp and tidy, despite its blues and jazz workouts. The sprawling Exile on Main Street (1972) with its excessive 18 tracks, sees The Stones back to their old tricks and is often out of control in comparison. Throughout the ten tracks on offer here there is not a single wrong step, and this could well be The Stones’ most perfect album in that respect. What is more difficult is playing the album and resisting that urge to flip it over and start again, the experience of listening flies by and the joy never diminishes. Happy birthday to a true classic.