‘Sticky Fingers’ is the Rolling Stones’ pinnacle. It is their third album produced by Jimmy Miller (perfecting the formula) and the first recorded without Brian Jones, and already with Mick Taylor in total guitar symbiosis with Keith Richards, which represents the birth of the Stones’ sound as it would be known since then and to the present. From this point on, each new album by the band (including ‘Hackney Diamonds’) would look no further back than 1971 to find its basic mould, something that is perfectly understood when listening to the album with its spectacular cover by Andy Warhol.
From the start, all the songs are round, perfect, after excellent but not completely excellent previous albums. Perfection is achieved with ‘Sticky Fingers’, which, as is customary at this point in their discography, opened with the most impressive and direct number.
‘Brown Sugar’, with its controversial and questionable lyrics, is perhaps the pinnacle of their ‘rockers’, that dazzling list of canonical Stones songs: ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, ‘Street Fighting Man’, ‘It’s Only Rock and Roll’, ‘Start Me Up’… And another of those songs that you remember as being very powerful and when you listen to them again you marvel at how just two electric guitars and one acoustic guitar can have so much power; That cannon shot has only three or four elements. But it is understandable when there is Charlie Watts’ drums behind it, with its inimitable groove and punch (literally), assembled with Bill Wyman. An irregular rhythmic swagger that Wyman explained consisted of “playing a nanosecond behind Keith,” and that makes the “Stones sound” impossible to imitate when you add to the equation the lethal symbiosis of Taylor and Richards with their open tuning. sun.
On top of all that, Jagger beautifully sings lyrics that problematically mix historical references to plantation owners using slaves as sexual objects and the song’s subject’s enjoyment of having sex with someone black (“brown sugar, what?” How can you know so well? In its historical context the song was tolerated, simply because singing about sex and having a number one hit was still daring, something culturally subversive. But although practically no one questioned it, there was criticism, although in a minority, especially from radical feminism, as with other of his misogynistic songs. Since 2021, the Rolling Stones no longer perform ‘Brown Sugar’ live.
‘Sway’ delves wonderfully into American sounds, with the spectacular addition of a string arrangement by Paul Buckmaster (an Elton John regular) that adds drama to lyrics about drugs, death, crumbling relationships and other gloomy matters: “No I plan to shed tears on the dusty ground / For my friends in the cemetery (…) It just happens that the bad life has trapped me.”
Guitar solos and rock themes aside, the musical essence of ‘Sway’ is very close to what we would call Americana today, and it is interesting to note that from this side of the Atlantic the Stones were the ones who contributed the most to building that term that we use so much decades later. , thanks to the normalization they exerted of the “roots rock” sound within a pop and chart context. If nowadays it is quite difficult to see the legacy of the Stones in their “rocker” aspect – beyond niches such as garage-rock – in songs like ‘Sway’ you can see the prelude to a type of song that groups like Wilco or Big Thief is still alive today.
The same, on a more acoustic level, with songs like ‘Wild Horses’. Again, the “ballad of the Stones” is something completely unique, a type of song whose echoes can currently resonate in songs by Jess Williamson or Angel Olsen, in their romantic (‘Wild Horses’) or existentialist mode (see ‘Sister Morphine ‘ later). Evoking feelings of loss and separation, the song was born as a lullaby for Keith Richards’ son, which Jagger filled out with emotional material of his own and his relationships. The voice that intones that legendary “not even wild horses could drag me away from here” has a delicate fragility, which the microphones of the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound studio in Alabama distorted beautifully when Jagger moved on to more intense phrasing. He completes the piano magic of the great Jim Dickinson.
Side A continues with the usual walk through different stylistic styles: ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ makes you marvel at how from a three or four note guitar riff you can create a groove so exciting that the Stones They intelligently extend to more than 7 minutes thanks to the contribution in the instrumental interludes of Billy Preston on the organ, and Bobby Keys on the saxophone. The most fascinating thing is that the group continued playing for pure pleasure, imagining that the song would end in a fade-out.
The passion for rural blues of the teenage Stones – valid even when they were already musicians in their twenties – leaves as a testament that beautiful ‘You Gotta Move’, an old black spiritual recreated with love, but also precision. Just as happened with ‘Prodigal Son’ in ‘Beggars Banquet’, the group is capable of recreating the genre but providing its own imprint.
‘Bitch’ opens side B, another excellent piece of rock with an eminently black sound, that stylistic convergence in which they had met and influenced each other with artists like Ike and Tina Turner, and which in ‘Sticky Fingers’ they sign with special style ( Little Richard himself would cover ‘Brown Sugar’ that same year). It contrasts with the beautiful ‘I Got the Blues’, perhaps the piece on the album most influenced by the sound of the Muscle Shoals Sound studio, but which ironically would be recorded in London. It’s a southern soul ballad with arpeggiated guitars, a totally Stax horn section, Billy Preston’s organ once again, and Jagger singing with that voice that imitates the inflections of a black singer but avoids the clichés and can’t help but sound… like Mick. Jagger singing with a broken heart: “Every night that you’re gone / I’ve sat and prayed that you’d be safe / In the arms of a guy / That he’d bring you back to life and not bring you down by abusing you.”
It has been speculated whether so many of the singer’s lyrics about heartbreak (‘I Got the Blues’, ‘Wild Horses’) were directly inspired by his breakup with Marianne Faithfull. Speculations aside, ‘Sister Morphine’ does have a direct relationship with the artist, because it was co-written by her with Jagger and Richards and in fact her version was the first, in 1969. Perhaps due to her influence the piece does not sound American at all, it is more Well, a type of existentialist folk that contrasts fascinatingly with the rest of ‘Sticky Fingers’ but that acts as an indivisible piece from the rest, linking with the themes of addiction and entrapment from a more ocher perspective. «Here I lie in my hospital bed / Tell me, Sister Morfina, when are you coming back? / I don’t think I can wait that long / You see I’m not that strong.”
The appropriately austere arrangement is a replica of Jagger’s original production for Marianne’s version, to the point that they brought back Ry Cooder on slide guitar and Jack Nietzsche on piano. The result is of enormous thorny beauty, with Mick singing, interpreting, with a brittle voice of despair and the piano wrapped in an oppressive echo in several of the interludes, sonic expressionism for another of the album’s highlights.
Something so disastrous could only be followed in the song sequence by the incredibly delicious ‘Dead Flowers’. Decompression through a country pop song full of humor but (finally!) with a well-rounded composition. Although the Stones of 1971 were already “rock royalty,” this diatribe against an upper-class woman who despises the song’s protagonist works perfectly, preferring to continue “in her silk-covered chair talking to some rich guy you know” rather than socializing. with “my ragged company.” Things take a heroin addict turn with that “I’ll be in the basement with a spoon, a needle and another girl to forget my sorrows,” all wrapped up in that Gram Parsons style of country rock. The chorus (the most gloriously singable of the entire album) concludes with the legendary verses “I know you think you’re the queen of the underground / So you can send me dead flowers every morning / Send dead flowers to my wedding / And I won’t forget to put roses in your grave.”
There is no better possible closing than with ‘Moonlight Mile’, which like ‘Sister Morphine’ moves away from Americana (slides aside) to recall the mystical fog of Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’, with an extra oriental aroma. A masterful acoustic piece that Paul Buckmaster’s orchestral arrangement lifts to the heavens, as Jagger sings exhausted in lyrics that allude to the alienation of life on the road and the exhausted relief at the end: “Just another crazy day on the road, my dreams fade down the train track / When I get home I have made a pile with my rhinestone clothes / I’m going to warm my bones / On my radio… silence. / Let the air waves flow / I am sleeping under strange skies.”
As with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones are a historically unrepeatable English musical anomaly. If those from Liverpool, starting from a selection of basically American ingredients (rock and roll from the 50s, girl groups from the 60s, pop from the Brill Building and soul music) were able to create something new, singular by recombining it (everyone knows what something sounds like if it “sounds like the Beatles”), the Stones did the same with more “roots” elements (rock and roll, blues, country, or southern soul) also creating their particular uniqueness.
After the dalliances chasing the pop of the Beatles in the mid-60s, it is in ‘Sticky Fingers’ where the Stones’ potion reaches the perfect mix, and thus the “Rolling Stones sound” appears for the first time, which would be perpetuated From then on as a brand of the house and even a stereotype: a variety of “roots rock” totally based on the American, but in America they don’t do exactly like that.
It can be argued that they would reach that sonic and conceptual perfection the following year, with ‘Exile on Main St.’, but personally (and “Exile” being another extraordinary album) I think there is no comparison: ‘Sticky Fingers’ created the mold , and established it through ten concise and perfect songs. Even the legendary lips and tongue logo first appeared on the ‘Sticky Fingers’ insert, metaphorically sealing the beginning of the group’s definitive era.