Sticky Fingers is without a doubt my favorite album by The Rolling Stones, for unlike the delightfully eclectic Between the Buttons, this is a real Stones album. One of the great guitar riff collections of all time, it also features two timelessly beautiful ballads and a solid foundation combining R&B, blues, soul, country and fiery rock ‘n’ roll. I enjoy every single track on this album, something I can’t say about any of their other works. While it’s not absolute perfection (the drug references are a bit overdone), Sticky Fingers gives me everything I want from The Stones: great rhythms, kick-ass guitar, lust-drenched vocals sharpened with wit and bluesy, soulful intensity.
“Brown Sugar” gives us The Stones at full power, totally into the groove and having a great time with both the music and the message. The message of the song is beautifully clear: the desire to fuck trumps everything else in life, even the anti-miscegenation gospel of a “scarred old slaver.” The Stones have fun exposing that hypocrisy, and by extension, all sexual hypocrisy generated by our common puritanical heritage. The conflict between primal urges and social appearances, celebrated most vividly in the line “Drums beating, cold English blood runs hot,” echoes Conrad’s theme of the conflict between prudish, denial-ridden Victorian civilization and the pull of the “dark” primeval forces of the mysterious but compelling jungle. But all of these interpretations, including the added ambiguity of “brown sugar” as a drug reference, take a back seat to the sheer sexuality of the song, with its hot and heavy guitars, boozy saxophone and blatant celebration of licking pussy. I could have saved a lot of blog space by just writing “Fuck, yeah!” and let that stand as my commentary on “Brown Sugar.”
Thick guitars also open “Sway,” a classic Stones soul-rock number with great hooks, a wonderfully energetic performance from Mick Jagger and those perfectly simple Keith Richards harmonies that encourage even the tone-deaf to try to sing along. Mick Taylor’s fade-out solo is an added bonus, giving him the opportunity to make his mark right at the outset of his first appearance as a full-time member of the band.
When I first seriously listened to the album in my teenage years, I was already in love with Sticky Fingers after the first two songs, but “Wild Horses” transformed love into an intense passion. Probably the most beautiful song Jagger and Richards ever wrote, its special combination of sweetness, soulfulness and vulnerability hits me in the gut every time I hear it. The arrangement is both disciplined but extraordinarily sensitive to the feel of the song, creating a gorgeous flow that absorbs the listener from beginning to end. The version on Stripped is even better, and the film of their studio performance on the Stripped DVD is an absolute knockout.
Another thing I love about Sticky Fingers is that it is absolutely fucking relentless. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” gives us over seven glorious minutes of The Stones at their rocking, sexy best. After the riff-driven opening passage, the song shifts into an extended jam recorded by accident that’s the best extended instrumental piece The Stones ever did. Bobby Keys blows the shit out of that sax, and when Mick Taylor takes over towards the end, he seals the deal with a seriously hot piece of fingering.
Whew! I love that phrase, “seriously hot piece of fingering.” Sometimes I even surprise myself!
The Stones then continue to keep building credits towards their status as one of the great cover bands ever with their version of the gospel standard, “You Gotta Move.” Performed in Delta blues style, The Stones treat the song with tender respect, modernizing it only slightly with the electric slide solo in the middle. Then it’s get-up-and-shake-it time with “Bitch,” a song that keeps the foot firmly pressed on the gas pedal from start to finish. I love displays of male vulnerability, and the lyrics contain some of my favorite lines on Sticky Fingers:
Sometimes I’m sexy, move like a stud
Kicking the stall all night
Sometimes I’m so shy, got to be worked on
Don’t have no bark or bite
Yeah when you call my name
I salivate like a Pavlov dog
Yeah when you lay me out
My heart starts beating like a big bass drum
That’s what I’m talkin’ about!
Mick gets into Otis Redding mode with the original, “I Got the Blues,” featuring period-perfect horn backup and a great organ solo from the ubiquitous Billy Preston. At this stage, The Stones still approached arrangement with a sense of discipline and taste, something that would continually elude them during the recording of Exile on Main Street, where they’d go for a more “let’s pile it on” approach. This sense of restraint is also apparent in “Sister Morphine,” giving their signature piece on drug addiction a feel that combines both a sense of bleakness and the nervous tension of an addict. “Dead Flowers” also deals with drugs, but in the sentimental-tragic mode of a classic country tune, a choice that makes the song much lighter than “Sister Morphine.”
Sticky Fingers ends with one of the most neglected songs in The Stones’ catalogue, “Moonlight Mile.” The first verse has something of a Japanese flavor, opening the doors to a series of clever mood shifts in one of The Stones’ most inventive arrangements. Charlie Watts does a remarkable job handling the various ebbs and flows with soft cymbal crashes and oscillations between pounding toms and steady snare and high hat. The use of strings here is also particularly effective, combining smooth supporting glides with occasional staccato bursts. “Moonlight Mile” continues the theme of the loneliness of the long-haul traveler that previously found its best expression in “Goin’ Home” on Aftermath. That earlier song’s expression of separation primarily dealt with unquenchable sexual craving; “Moonlight Mile” echoes that theme but expresses more clearly the sense of isolation one can experience even when surrounded by human beings:
The sound of strangers sending nothing to my mind
Just another mad, mad day on the road
I am just living to be lying by your side
But I’m just about a moonlight mile on down the road.
Sticky Fingers passes the Alt Rock Chick’s infallible test for a great album: I hate it when it ends. This is The Stones at their peak, confident, infused with energy, driving it home like a great fuck and hitting all the sweet spots on the way.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, someone is waiting for me in the bedroom, hoping to demonstrate some seriously hot fingering skills for my pleasure. Ciao!
In doing my research for this post, I was pleased to learn that upon its release, Let It Bleed temporarily knocked Abbey Road out of the #1 spot on the U. K. charts. These little bursts of human sanity are tiny treasures I cherish to temper my general skepticism about the aesthetic perceptions of the species. Let It Bleed is clearly the better album once you throw sentiment to the wind.
Many listeners consider Let It Bleed a rather dark album, in part due to content, in part due to its association with Altamont (more a matter of bad timing than anything else) and in part due to Martin Scorsese including “Gimme Shelter” in three of his cinematic bloodbaths. While “Midnight Rambler” is about as dark and creepy as it gets, I think the overall impression of “apocalyptic” is overstating the case. Except for their brief detour into the flower power scene in 1967, The Stones had always been more realistic about the world as is, and some of their best songs contain insightful social commentary. To me, the fundamental message of Let It Bleed is, “Get off your cloud and get real. The world isn’t as pretty as you’d like it to be.”
Let It Bleed also reflects the band’s growing belief in their renewal and in their future direction. There is no question in my mind that the decreasing presence and mid-recording departure of Brian Jones significantly improved group dynamics, as by this point he was an unreliable distraction. Jones only appears on two tracks, and neither contribution is particularly significant. When The Stones asked him to leave shortly before his death, they were simply giving in to the evidence that the relationship wasn’t working anymore. Making a break with the past is always an act of liberation, and much of Let It Bleed is infused with a breezy confidence that balances the occasional forays into darkness and realism (and some poor choices here and there).
“Gimme Shelter,” with its marvelously arranged introduction calling up images of the moonless nights and whistling winds that heighten human anxiety before a gathering storm, is fundamentally existentialist at heart. What I mean by that is that Jagger and Richards present the human race with a stark choice: we can live in a world where rape, murder and war are just a shot away, or where love is just a kiss away. What kind of world do you want? The lyrics lean strongly towards the violent aspect of the choice at first, in part because of the violence of the times and in part to shock people out of naive idealism. Producer Jimmy Miller’s insistence that the song called for female vocal support resulted in the brilliant decision to bring in Merry Clayton, whose vocal adds even more fire to the throbbing rhythms that drive the track. “Gimme Shelter” has lost none of its relevance over the years; the same stark choice stands before the human race today. Lately, with all the gun violence in America and the transformation of war into a sick video game, I find myself feeling more than ever the need for shelter from all the craziness that surrounds us. “Gimme Shelter” is really resonating with me right now.
If they hadn’t floored me with “Gimme Shelter,” they certainly would have accomplished that with the best cover of a Robert Johnson song I’ve ever heard, the mournful “Love in Vain.” They handle this song as gently as a mother handles a newborn baby, something rare and precious. The arrangement is simple and supportive; the urge to add a few frills that would ruin some of their later efforts in this genre is completely suppressed. It’s a moment of love and respect for a simple and beautiful sliver of poetry and for the man who wrote it.
“Country Honk” follows, a hillbilly version of the recent hit, “Honky Tonk Women.” While it’s not bad, they would have been better going with the original version, because this song crosses a line into the region of “cute,” a place where no serious musicians should go, and certainly not The Rolling Stones. Fortunately, they snap out of it with the sharp cuts, hard rhythms and chaotic lyrics of “Live with Me.” This song features Bobby Keys on tenor saxophone, providing a touch that works well here and will work later on “Brown Sugar,” but also opens the door to the overindulgence in horns of all shapes and sizes that would mark much of Exile on Main Street.
But I’m getting ahead of my story. Next up is “Let It Bleed,” a fun and boozy tune where Jagger takes his vocals to the edge of silliness but restrains himself from crossing the line, remaining light and playful throughout. This is followed by the aforementioned “Midnight Rambler,” a dark song indeed. It’s also another piece of evidence feminists present to prove that the The Stones have a fetish with violence against women. Do feminists ever have any fun? My take on “Midnight Rambler” is that its darkness is more campy than serious, sort of like the current obsessions with zombies and vampires. It’s really designed to be a show tune where Jagger can use his acting skills on stage to play off the common human paranoia about the boogieman.
One of my favorite songs on Let It Bleed is Keith Richards’ first full-time bit as lead singer, “You Got the Silver.” Featuring Brian Jones’ final contribution on autoharp, Keith’s vocal is both sweet and understated, mingling nicely with the acoustic-dominated mix. I love it when he goes into belt-it-out mode in the last two verses, as if he was just dipping his toe in the pool during the first few verses before deciding, “Fuck it,” and doing a cannonball in the cold water. On the other hand, I’m not particularly fond of “Monkey Man,” which seems stylistically out of place with the other songs on the album.
One subtext of the story of The Rolling Stones is the constant battle between discipline and overindulgence. Let It Bleed provides excellent examples of both tendencies: “Love in Vain” is discipline; “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is shameless overindulgence, one of the few songs in The Stones catalog that I absolutely loathe, for several reasons. For one, I hate that fucking choir, a terrible choice reeking of celestial pomposity. Two, the song isn’t that good to deserve the excessive length or the over-the-top layering of vocals and instrumentation: it features a boring and unsurprising melody supporting awkward lyrics wrought with fake significance. Finally, I will always associate the song with that awful movie The Big Chill, which featured Baby Boomers at their self-important worst. Didn’t think you were going to die, fuckheads? Get over it!
Despite the pffft at the end, Let It Bleed is a pretty solid effort, not as holistically strong as Beggars Banquet, but more than enough to keep the faith alive, as my beloved Baby Boomer father always likes to say.