While fans of The Rolling Stones may have different opinions which is the best album by the ‘Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World’, I think most agree Sticky Fingers ranks among their top records. If I would have to pick one, it would be this gem that was released on April 23, 1971. This Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the record by a band that has existed for some 59 years and whose key songwriters became childhood friends in 1950. It’s just mind-boggling!
Sticky Fingers, the ninth British and the eleventh American studio album by the Stones, was the first they released under Rolling Stones Records. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts decided to form their own label in 1970 after the band’s recording contract with Decca Records had expired. Ten additional Stones albums appeared on that label until its discontinuation in 1992 when the Stones signed to Virgin Records.
Sticky Fingers also had a few other firsts. It became the Stones’ first studio album without any contribution from founding member Brian Jones who had been fired in June 1969 over his increasingly erratic behavior due to drug use. As we know, the story didn’t end well. Less than one month thereafter, Jones was found dead in his swimming pool – yet another great music talent tragically lost to drugs! Moreover, Sticky Fingers introduced the iconic tongue and lips logo of Rolling Stones Records, which has appeared on all Stones albums ever since.
The album’s original cover art work depicting a close up of a jeans-clad male crotch with a visible outline of a penis was conceived by none other than Andy Warhol. Unlike many fans assumed, it wasn’t Jagger’s crotch. Instead, Warhol “superstar” Joe Dallesandro claims to have been the model, though apparently this hasn’t been confirmed. Initial editions of the cover had a working zipper and perforations around the belt buckle that opened to reveal a sub-cover image of cotton briefs. Following complaints from retailers that the zipper damaged the actual vinyl records during shipping, the zipper was slightly pulled down toward the middle of the record to minimize the problem. Later reissues eliminated the working zipper and simply showed the outer photograph of the jeans.
In terms of the music, Sticky Fingers marked a return to a more basic and traditional Stones sound that mostly relied on guitar, bass, drums and percussion provided by the band’s key members: Mick Jagger (lead vocals, percussion, rhythm guitar), Keith Richards (guitar, backing vocals), Mick Taylor (guitar), Bill Wyman (bass) and Charlie Watts (drums). Long-time collaborators included Bobby Keys (saxophone) and keyboarders Billy Preston, Jack Nitzsche, Ian Stewart and Nicky Hopkins. The album was produced by Jimmy Miller, who had started to work with the Stones for Beggars Banquet from December 1968 and produced all of their albums until Goats Head Soup released in August 1973.
Time for some music. Unless otherwise noted, all tracks are credited to Jagger and Richards. Here’s the opener Brown Sugar. Songfacts notes that while the tune comes across as “a fun rocker about a guy having sex with the black girl,” the lyrics written by Jagger are actually “about slaves from Africa who were sold in New Orleans and raped by their white masters.” The Stones recorded the tune in Sheffield, Ala. in early December 1969 and performed it for the first time live during the fateful Altamont Speedway concert on December 6 that same year. Brown Sugar backed by Bitch also became Sticky Finger’s lead single on April 16, 1971.
Wild Horses is one of my long-time favorite tunes by the Stones. Referencing the liner notes from their 1993 compilation Jump Back, Wikipedia quotes Jagger: “I remember we sat around originally doing this with Gram Parsons, and I think his version came out slightly before ours. [It did, in April 1970 on The Flying Burrito Brothers’ sophomore album Burrito Deluxe – CMM] Everyone always says this was written about Marianne [Faithfull – CMM] but I don’t think it was; that was all well over by then. But I was definitely very inside this piece emotionally.” Added Richards: “If there is a classic way of Mick and me working together this is it. I had the riff and chorus line, Mick got stuck into the verses. Just like “Satisfaction”, “Wild Horses” was about the usual thing of not wanting to be on the road, being a million miles from where you want to be.” Wild Horses, with Sway as the B-side, was also released separately as the album’s second single on June 12, 1971.
Another highlight on Side One of Sticky Fingers is Can’t You Hear Me Knocking. At 7 minutes-plus, this is an unusually long track for the Stones. One of the song’s distinct features is a lengthy saxophone solo by Bobby Keys. Rocky Dijon and Billy Preston contribute percussion and organ, respectively. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” came out flying,” Richards said, as quoted by Rolling Stones fan site Time Is On Our Side. “I just found the tuning and the riff and started to swing it and Charlie picked up on it just like that, and we’re thinking, hey, this is some groove. So it was smiles all around. For a guitar player it’s no big deal to play, the chopping, staccato bursts of chords, very direct and spare.”
This brings me to Side Two of the album. The first track I’d like to highlight here is Bitch, a tune with a great guitar riff and horn line. Like many other songs on the album, the Stones recorded it at the Stargroves estate in Hampshire, England, using their mobile recording unit. Songfacts points out Mick Jagger had multiple relationships, so the tune is not about Marianne Faithfull or any other specific woman for that matter. It’s safe to assume the song’s lyrics could not be written today without triggering a political fire storm. “When we were doing Bitch, Keith was very late,” recalled recording engineer Andy Jones, according to Time Is On Our Side. “Jagger and Mick Taylor had been playing the song without him and it didn’t sound very good. I walked out of the kitchen and he was sitting on the floor with no shoes, eating a bowl of cereal. Suddenly he said, Oi, Andy! Give me that guitar. I handed him his clear Dan Armstrong Plexiglass guitar, he put it on, kicked the song up in tempo, and just put the vibe right on it. Instantly, it went from being this laconic mess into a real groove. And I thought, Wow. THAT’S what he does.”
Next up is a track I’ve come to increasingly love over the years, even though it’s not a traditional Stones rocker: Dead Flowers. Nowadays, I would go as far as calling this must-play tune for every bar band my favorite Stones song – so much for a guy who used to dismiss country as hillbilly music for the longest time! Recorded at Olympic Studios in London in April 1970, Dead Flowers was written during a time when the Stones were embracing country and Richards’ writing was influenced by his friendship with Gram Parsons. “The ‘Country’ songs we recorded later, like “Dead Flowers” on Sticky Fingers or “Far Away Eyes” on Some Girls are slightly different (than our earlier ones),” Jagger observed, per Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of The Rolling Stones, a 2013 book by Bill Janovitz. “The actual music is played completely straight, but it’s me who’s not going legit with the whole thing, because I think I’m a blues singer not a country singer – I think it’s more suited to Keith’s voice than mine.” Be that as it may be. What I particularly love about Dead Flowers are the great guitar fill-ins by Richards and Taylor throughout the song.
Let’s wrap things with one more tune: Moonlight Mile, the album’s excellent closer! Another track recorded at Stargroves at the end of October 1970, Moonlight Mile came out of an all-night session involving Jagger and Taylor. Notably, Richards was absent for the recording of this tune, so Taylor handled all guitar work. Songfacts also calls out contributions from Jim Price (piano) and Paul Buckmaster (string arrangements). “That’s a dream song,” Jagger reportedly said in 1978. “Those kinds of songs with kinds of dreamy sounds are fun to do, but not all the time – it’s nice to come back to reality.” BTW, even though Richards was nowhere to been when the tune was recorded, it still was credited to Jagger and him.
Sticky Fingers became the first Stones album to top both the U.S. and the UK albums charts. Based on a January 2020 article by news and entertainment outlet The Talko, it is the band’s best-selling record with about 21.7 million units sold, followed by Let It Bleed (21.3 million) and Aftermath (19.6 million). Sticky Fingers was ranked at no. 63 in Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. While it lost some ground in the most recent revised list from September 2020, it still came in at a respectable no. 104. Sticky Fingers was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
Given the album’s significance, you might think the Stones are celebrating the 50th anniversary with a major reissue. Not so. Instead, in early December, the band announced on Twitter a Red Limited Edition LP: Introducing… the Sticky Fingers Stones Red Limited Edition LP. 500 will be available in the Stones Carnaby Street store from Thursday Dec 3rd & 500 available online later that day at 8pm GMT / 12pm PST. Sign up for reminders: https://the-rolling-stones.lnk.to/StonesSignUpSo. More Stones Red to come! While at first sight, this may be a bit disappointing, it’s important to remember that Sticky Fingers already saw a reissue in 2015. Plus, there’s Sticky Fingers Live At The Fonda Theatre 2015, a great 2017 release the Stones put out as part of their From the Vault series.
How about a little encore? Ask and you shall receive, and it’s a true gem: a killer rendition of Can’t You Hear Me Knocking from the aforementioned Sticky Fingers Live At The Fonda Theatre 2015, which captures a gig before a relatively tiny audience of 1,200 people. It marked the opening of the Stones’ two-month Zip Code Tour in 2015 and also celebrated the above noted Sticky Fingers reissue. The band was truly on fire that night. I would argue that performance reaches the level of the legendary Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out. If you haven’t seen this clip before and dig the Stones, I’d highly encourage you to watch it. This is rock & roll at its best!
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Time Is On Our Side; The Talko; Rolling Stones Twitter feed; YouTube