Rolling Stones; 1971/2015
By Mark Richardson; June 19, 2015
The story of the Baby Boomers, and their movement from adolescence to adulthood, has been documented and re-told endlessly. And few bands represent that story, and the move from the relative innocence of the mid-’60s into the hedonism and burnout of the ’70s, better than the Rolling Stones. They started out as seemingly polite boys in jackets and ties and they grew and changed in front of the cameras and the microphones. Their music grew darker and more cynical, just like the times. At one of their shows, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, held just as the ’60s came to a close, a group of Hell’s Angels, possibly enlisted as security, killed a man, and the event, along with the Charles Manson murders four months earlier, have long been held up as the symbolic end of the peace-and-love ’60s. Seen in retrospect, the Stones were a Zelig-like band for a while there, somewhere in the mix whenever there was a cultural shift underway.
That post-Altamont moment was the setting for their 1971 album Sticky Fingers, an album reissued many times that was recently released in its most extensive re-packaging yet. From 1968’s Beggars Banquet and the following year’s Let It Bleed on through this album and 1972’s Exile on Main St., the Rolling Stones had one of the great four-album runs in pop music history. This was a time when—on record, at least—they could do no wrong, and Sticky Fingers could reasonably be called their peak. Beggars and Let It Bleed might have had higher highs, but both also had their share of tossed-off tracks; Exile’s tossed-off tracks, on the other hand, were pretty much the whole point—it’s the underground music’s fan’s favorite, but it never had the broader cultural impact of its predecessor. Sticky Fingers is where the myth met the songwriting; Keith Richards’ riffs and melodies were in full flower, Mick Jagger never sang better, their new guitarist, Mick Taylor, was upping the ante musically, and the whole thing was wrapped up in a brilliant packaging concept by Andy Warhol.
“Brown Sugar” launches the record with its quintessential blues-rock riff and lyrics that get more questionable the closer you listen (Jagger has since said it was a bit of a wind-up, “all the nasty subjects in one go”). But words were secondary for the band at this point—Sticky Fingers is about melody, and playing, and style. The Stones were always fascinated with American music, but after the death of Brian Jones in 1969 and their move away from psychedelia, their connection to blues, R&B, and country music grew even more intense. From the loping country-folk of “Wild Horses” and the tongue-in-cheek honky tonk of “Dead Flowers” to a Mississippi Fred McDowell cover (“You Gotta Move”) to the swelling Otis Redding-style R&B of “I Got the Blues” to the crunchy boogie of “Bitch” to the Latin-flavored Santana jams of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, Sticky Fingers is a love letter to these forms, the culmination of obsessions these musicians had had since childhood. But where they once sounded like English boys doing their version of the blues, now their songs felt as lived-in as their inspirations.
By this point, the Stones were so convincing playing rootsy American music it made little sense to compare them to their British peers. Musically at least, the Rolling Stones of 1971 had more in common with the Allman Brothers than they did the Who. Along with the barrelhouse piano, pedal steel, and Stax-like horns, Sticky Fingers was also only the second album to feature the guitar work of Mick Taylor, and his clean, fluid, and highly melodic leads bear a strong resemblance to Duane Allman’s playing from this period.
But ultimately, this is Mick Jagger’s album, the same way Exile is Keith’s. Of all the iconic vocalists in ’60s and ’70s rock, Jagger remains the hardest to imitate, at least without sounding ridiculous. That’s partly because he himself never minded sounding ridiculous, and he turned his almost cartoonish swagger into a form of performance art. Jagger’s voice never sounded richer or fuller than it does here (Exile mostly buried it, to artful effect), but he’s doing strange things with it, mimicking and exaggerating accents, mostly from the American South, with an almost religious fervor.
When the Stones were coming up, the line on British singers is that they sounded American because they grew up listening to those records; on Sticky Fingers, Jagger pushes that kind of mimicry to places that run just short of absurd. His twang on “Dead Flowers” is obviously played for laughs, but “You Gotta Move” is harder to get a bead on, partway between homage and parody and delivered with abandon. “I Got the Blues” is utterly sincere, with Jagger flinging every ounce of his skinny frame into it. Wherever he stands in relation to the material, Jagger is selling it, hard, and by extension selling himself as a new kind of vocalist. “Sister Morphine” and “Moonlight Mile” are the two songs that stray furthest from American music reverence, and they are highlights, showing how well the Stones could convey weariness and a weird kind of blown-out and wasted beauty.
With reissue culture in overdrive, we’re seeing which classic bands kept the most in their vaults. The Stones, like Zeppelin, didn’t keep much. The 2010 version of Exile on Main St. pretty much cleaned out the vault as far as music from this era, so what we have here are alternate mixes, an inferior but still interesting different take of “Brown Sugar” with Eric Clapton, the one true rarity that has long circulated but never been officially issued. There’s also, depending on which version you get, a good deal of vintage live Stones, which is the main thing to get their fans excited. Selections from two 1971 gigs, both recorded well, capture the band in a peak year.
To my ears the Stones’ live prowess has never quite translated to recordings. The best live records are about more: more heaviness, more jamming, more crowd noise, more energy. And their music didn’t necessarily benefit from increasing any one of those things. Their songs were about a certain amount of balance between all of the elements, which is why their recordings sound so platonically perfect. With their live records, you can focus on the grooves and the riffs and the collective playing, but it’s easier to notice moments of sloppiness and mistakes. Still, as far as live Stones on record, the material here is about as good as you will get.
The Stones entered the ’70s still young and beautiful, but they’d have their share of problems just like everyone else; they got into disco and then in the ’80s they dressed like they were on“Miami Vice” and then finally they fully understood what nostalgia for them was really worth and they discovered the power of corporate synergy. Given the weight of history behind it and its centrality to the story of both the Rolling Stones and rock music as a whole, it can be difficult to put on Sticky Fingers and try and hear it for what it was: the highly anticipated new album from one of the biggest bands in the world, a group that at the time hadn’t released a new one in two years (in 1971, that was an eternity). They were called the World’s Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band for entirely too long, but if that designation ever applied it was here.