50 Years Later – The Rolling Stones Set Blistering Career Tone With Infectious ‘Sticky Fingers’

With the release of Sticky Fingers fifty years ago (released 4/23/71), The Rolling Stones effectively set the tone for their career for the long-term future. And they did so in more ways than one, not the least of which was the reality that the issuing of new music became almost anticlimactic in the wake of publicity prior to that event (and sometimes subsequent to it: see Steel Wheels in 1989).

In this case, the first Stones studio album of the Seventies marked the launch of their own record label including the debut of its now instantly recognizable red lips and tongue logo. Headed for business purposes by Marshall Chess, son of Chess Records founder Leonard, and distributed through Atlantic Records, home of esteemed soul figures such as Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, the lineage of the British band’s business operation allow them to also reaffirm roots in the blues and r&b upon which they had, by this point, built one of the most distinct styles of contemporary rock and roll.

Add to that enterprising initiative the Stones’ almost equally-well established penchant for outrage and controversy, including a generally insouciant, lecherous group persona as well as police arrests and trial for alleged drug possession. In the case of this particular graphic design collaboration with pop artist Andy Warhol, the Stones gave early hints of the social-climbing and faux celebrity that would ensue in later years, not to mention a growing level of self-indulgence, in the most practical terms: the front cover image of a male crotch came festooned with a real working zipper, inside of which, appropriately enough, was a well-endowed figure in tighty-whiteys). As the Rolling Stones had learned long before–dressing in drag for promotion of “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?”–the more innuendo the better, especially so for a record with this title.

On a more substantial front, the ten-track record was the first to fully feature guitarist Mick Taylor. One of John Mayall’s former Bluesbreakers had joined the band two years prior but contributed only slightly The Stones’ Let It Bleed. In the interim since, however, he had fully integrated himself into the group, as documented on the live album Get Your Ya Ya’s Out, and his influence lent as much professionalism as an invention to a band continuing to evolve since their return to the concert stage as documented on the aforementioned concert release. 

The 2015 reissue of the Sticky Fingers was expanded to various lengths (as may also be the case with one teased for 2021), but is perhaps most revealing (and less redundant) in its two-CD form. A valiant and fully-justified effort to restore the significance of the album,  which has suffered over time in comparison to its followup, Exile on Main Street, the initiative is legitimate to be sure, despite the reality that, working with producer Jimmy Miller for the third of five times total, the quintet drew a distinct line of demarcation with their previous discography: they ended up juxtaposing some of the best material and studio productions in their history with songs and arrangements bland in almost equal proportion. 

It matters less whether those end results have to do with the protracted recording sessions or various sites thereof (including Muscle Shoals studios in late 1969 as depicted in the Gimme Shelter film, photos from which appear in the enclosed booklet). Five decades after its release, Sticky Fingers only reaffirms an impression of a band so subservient to its collective ego that, despite the iconic status to which the Rolling Stones were ascending, they remained artistically erratic. 

Remastered audio doesn’t do much to eradicate the purposefully murky sound quality of the original recordings. Yet if the swagger of the opening chords of “Brown Sugar,” personified by vocalist/songwriter Mick Jagger’s deliberately garbled singing, communicated anything it was that the earthy (borderline crude) persona the Stones had cultivated was now fully formed (and perhaps even taken to overly literal lengths). It’s arguable the diamond-hard chords at the foundation of “Sway” were any more obvious as pure contemporary Rolling Stones, but there is really no mistaking “Bitch” as none but theirs, the muscular horns simultaneously emphasizing drummer Charlie Watt’s and bassist Bill Wyman’s steadfast timekeeping and punctuating Jagger’s enervated account of his physical and psychic restlessness.

In marked contrast of style, “Moonlight Mile”‘s bleak but picturesque balladry, accentuated by stark strings that illuminate the yearning lyrics, make it one of the highlights of the Rolling Stones’ entire discography, albeit in a much more sophisticated style than its corollary, the folk-cum country likes of the aforementioned”Wild Horses.” Here Jagger once again reminds us what an effective singer he can be both with and without affectation and he’s almost as trenchant on “I Got the Blues.” The derivative nature of the song itself, however, reduces the track’s impact as upon close listening (and comparison to the live version elsewhere in this set, it sounds like nothing so much as a slight rewrite of Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain”. 

Likewise, “Dead Flowers” suffers because the band, especially the singer, don’t take the country-style seriously enough (or don’t satirized it as broadly as they did on “Far Away Eyes,” seven years later on Some Girls). Certainly, Jagger, Richards, and company are more sincere, perhaps even reverential, on the pure country-blues of Fred McDowell and Rev. Gary Davis’ “You Got to Move,” the acoustic bottleneck of which recalls the return to roots of Beggars Banquet.  But the extended coda of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” is something else again, a bit too reminiscent of early Santana, with saxophonist Bobby Keys’ wailing spotlight giving way to a liquid solo from Taylor, before he intertwines his lines over, under, around and through the incessant and insistent rhythm chords of fretboard partner Keith Richards. 

“Sister Morphine” is likewise enthralling despite itself. The jagged slide guitar from Ry Cooder combines with the ominous boom of bass and drums to chilling effect, a veritable death rattle The instrumental break might better have gone on longer to cement that impression of danger the band also conjures up on the live version of “Midnight Rambler” appearing on the second compact disc in this set. As is, it’s a stark exception to the rule of how effectively producer Miller worked with this band.

Those relatively lackluster portions of Sticky Fingers seem only slightly less so in retrospect. Meanwhile, the highlights retain their brilliance, even in comparison to the studio outtakes and concert culls of the period comprising the other disc in this set. Guitarist Eric Clapton renders the take of “Brown Sugar” to which he contributes (almost) as valid as the official cut, suggesting contributions of his to other numbers may have improved the Stones’ performance(s) and the album itself: imagine Slowhand’s blues passion on “Flowers” or his participation in an even more extended improv on “Knocking” that wouldn’t owe sound so derivative.

Nonetheless, the man once called ‘God” might well have been nothing but superfluous had he joined the Rolling Stones on stage at the Roundhouse during their 1971 tour stop at the London venue. Joining Keys, trumpeter Jim Price forms a horn section belying its two-man size, while pianist Nicky Hopkins interjects melodic sheen to the otherwise dirty grind of the core quintet on the likes of “Live with Me,” “Stray Cat Blues” and “Honky Tonk Women,” Taylor’s lead guitar scalds on the latter, but his self-discipline directs his playing to burn as deeply as the song demands. Meanwhile, Richards, contrary to later statements on their respective roles, outdoes himself functioning as a rhythmic fulcrum indirectly navigating the band.

More importantly in the context of this reissue, these stellar concert cuts, juxtaposed with the high art of studio craft, posit the theory the group’s never been better than at this juncture of their career. Alternate studio versions of Sticky Fingers numbers further that notion by suggesting what an abundance of creative juices were flowing through Jagger, Richards, and company during this period –ironically foreshadowing the prolific likes of the subsequent double album—that is, as long as they were paying close enough attention as when inhabiting the stage. The final track sequence, however, belies real focus (or becomes muddled via an otherwise hidden agenda such as Keith’s advocacy on behalf of Faithful for co-writing credit  to “Morphine”?)

Sans written content except for the appropriately-detailed musician and production credits, with historical perspective otherwise supplied by an array of photos from the stage, studio, and public appearances at the announcement of the recording, this expanded Sticky Fingers suggests how intent on image-making were the Rolling Stones at this juncture of their career. And rightly so, even if that seems a somewhat disingenuous not to mention presumptuous choice, at least at first: having survived the ignominy of the tragedy at Altamont (for which they were roundly criticized by Rolling Stone Magazine, usually their staunchest media advocates), the group came to realize that the style with which they comport themselves may very well always outweigh the very substance of their songwriting and musicianship. A half-century after its original release, Sticky Fingers makes a memorable statement on its very own terms to be sure, but it’s never been more open to wider interpretation. 

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