The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers
Released April 23rd, 1971 on Rolling Stones Records
Produced by Jimmy Miller
Peaked at #1 U.S., #1 U.K.
“Brown Sugar” (#1 U.S., #2 U.K.)
“Wild Horses” (#28 U.S.)
From the very beginning the Stones – despite being just as, if not more, English than the Beatles – seemed like the American alternative to Beatlemania. The Beatles played rock ‘n’ roll as a goof, with a grin and a shuffle; when they went psychedelic it was a peculiarly English psychedelia (see “Penny Lane” primarily, but not entirely). The Rolling Stones were blues heads first; they originally bonded over Robert Johnson records and dug into both the electric Chicago scene and the long-running, hard-living rural blues sound. Their early work was harder-edged, touching here and there on some grim subjects; imagine the Beatles trying to do “Mother’s Little Helper.” They had their own fey little psychedelic period, of course; 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request is a jarring outlier in their catalog (although “2000 Light Years From Home” is a great song). The mixed reaction to it convinced them to go back to their roots on Beggar’s Banquet and to an extent that’s what they’ve been doing ever since.
Sticky Fingers was the first album released after the disaster at the Altamont Free Festival, and it was the first since they fulfilled their original contract with Decca Records. They had turned in their live 1970 record, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, but Decca claimed the contract still stipulated one more single from the band. They submitted “Cocksucker Blues”, a filthy toss-off of a single that was designed to be rejected. From then on they were free, and they formed their own record label rather than tie themselves down again. The wisdom of this path was proven doubly so when they parted ways with their manager Allan Klein. Klein took advantage of a distracted band to get them to sign over their entire Decca catalog to his own record company. From then on it would be the Rolling Stones, managing and promoting themselves; Jagger finally got around to putting that London School of Economics time to good use.
That freedom meant being true to themselves, so they reveled in filth and degeneracy. The chart-topping single “Brown Sugar” is a legendarily questionable lyric that works on multiple levels: on the surface it is about raunchy sex with a Black woman; underneath that is a layer about the inherent power differences in a sexual relationship between a white man and a Black woman in the early Seventies; underneath that is a layer about the colonial plunder of Black lives and Black bodies and Jagger’s own relationship with Black-originated music vis-a-vis his own. “Sway” plays with matches over the the thin line between degeneracy and degeneration. “Can You Hear Me Knocking” channels Santana with an extended Latin coda; both it and the brassy “Bitch” provide some of the best riffs of the entire 1970s. The band’s penchant for boozy, bluesy ballads came out the strongest it ever did, with “Wild Horses”, “I Got The Blues”, and “Sister Morphine” showing the extensive soul that lay underneath the sneering and the dirt. My favourite track on the album (and Slash’s) is “Dead Flowers”, a rollicking country-rock number that is fun as hell to sing along to.
The album cover art is by Andy Warhol. The original design for the album featured a working zipper and underwear beneath; it was expensive to produce and the zipper damaged the vinyl when it was stacked (as it would be for shipping). Later copies of the record would feature just the image of the zipped-up jeans and the obvious dick. Franco’s regime couldn’t handle the dick; the Spanish cover for Sticky Fingers features fingers poking out of a full can of treacle, with a can opener in front of the can, treacle dripped suggestively next to it. There is also a whole lot of drug use and abuse going on in this album. Most of the songs reference drug use in one form or another, with at least two specifically about heroin use. “Wild Horses” allegedly has its roots in Marianne Faithfull’s overdose on sleeping pills and subsequent six-day coma in 1969. Faithfull claims that “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away” was the first thing she said to Jagger when she woke up. Jagger has skirted around this idea, but rock ‘n’ roll legends are what they are. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” could be read as trying to get ahold of a dealer; the line “I’ve been begging on my knees / I’ve been kickin’, help me please” is rather suggestive. “Sister Morphine” is rather obvious and “Dead Flowers” has a whole verse about needles and spoons. Jagger’s breakup with Faithfull is all over the record as well, which is of course another interpretation of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and also the admonition that love is a bitch.
The record would be their first #1 in the United States since 1965’s Out Of Our Heads. It was also the first in a string of #1 records that would be unbroken until 1983’s Undercover, which ‘only’ went to #4. It’s also the penultimate record of an incredible run of records that comprised Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, and Exile On Main Street. I think of the Stones as the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band of the era and I go back and forth a lot on which of those four albums is the best. More often than not I land on Sticky Fingers.