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 in 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 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’ catalog, “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 altrockchick’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.