Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers boasts an underrated complexity

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Most of the accolades from Mick Taylor’s time with the Rolling Stones have inevitably gone to 1972’s Exile on Main Street. But that double album often comes off like a wearily complicated morality play, all of a piece.

Sticky Fingers, released prior to that on April 23, 1971, still boasts an intriguing complexity — moving from cocksure rockers to paint-peeling soul shouts to somnambulant ruminations to simmering blues. And on the album-closing “Moonlight Mile,” almost all of the above.

We dispatched our own S. Victor Aaron, Nick DeRiso and JC Mosquito to investigate ahead of a planned June double-disc reissue of Sticky Fingers. They try to answer the question: Have we been overlooking the best Taylor-era Rolling Stones album all of this time?


JC MOSQUITO: By 1971, of course, the Beatles had already broken up. Consequently, in many people’s minds the undisputed title of “Greatest Band in the World” now fell into the waiting arms of perennial second-place finishers the Rolling Stones. The mostly benevolent reign of the Fab Four as the Princes of Pop had started to crumble near the end of the 1960s. The counter-culture that naively promoted peace, love and unity suddenly had to confront some harsh realities: the continuing war in Vietnam; the Kent State shootings; the Manson family murders; the deaths of major rock and roll icons like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix (and the Stones’ own Brian Jones); and of course the free concert fiasco at Altamont. Eventually, as the Who’s Pete Townshend would observe on the 1971 album Who’s Next – “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.” In other words, this was a perfect time to ascend the throne of rock stardom if one knew how to play up being the rock and roll version of The Prince of Darkness. Into this context stepped the Rolling Stones, who as their career progressed seemed to actively promote this image anyway. So, in spite of the tragic loss of founding member Brian Jones, the band seemed quick to fill in the vacant guitar spot with guitar wiz Mick Taylor, who made his first live appearance with the Stones two days after Jones’ death.

NICK DERISO: As the dream of the 1960s died, something changed in bands like the Rolling Stones, too. The broader loss felt by dreams deferred played out in microcosm as they struggled to overcome the death of Jones, extricated themselves from their old management in order to found their own label, and tried to move on after the disastrous aftermath of Altamont. That the Stones would put out what was, for me, their best album during this time of transition seems almost laughably unlikely. They did it by swinging, alternately, between a kind of reckless abandon and this devastating introspection — perfectly in keeping, actually, with the decade to come.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: The full-on, balls-out ‘Some Girls’ was perfectly uncluttered, meaning the ‘Live in Texas ’78’ DVD could build off that latent energy, rather than try to match it.]

S. VICTOR AARON: The Rolling Stones aren’t an album band, but they’ve unwittingly made plenty of good albums and this one great one. With Mick Taylor on board full time they now became dangerously stacked at guitar, and even Jagger was picking up a six-string. But one of the most iconic frontman in all of rock was never more in command on a gloriously beaten down, strung out record. Moreover, the Stones’ prior forays into country and Southern-fried R&B turned into a full command of the styles, and they incorporated it fully into their own. Rock ‘n’ roll would have been much deprived to be without an album in the canon that celebrated the sex and the drugs parts with just as much vigor.

JC MOSQUITO: Taylor played on a few tracks here and there in 1969, and was featured on 1970’s live set Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out. But he didn’t get a chance to make a full contribution to a studio album until Sticky Fingers saw release in 1971. It’s interesting how the Stones had received rave reviews for their last studio albums of the 1960s, Beggar’s Banquet and Let it Bleed – both had some great songs, but both really felt like the band was trying too hard to establish their street cred in the blues and roots-rock categories, possibly to make up for their weak stab at psychedelia known as Their Satanic Majesties Request from back in 1967. But Taylor’s presence forced the Stones to abandon their tentative testing of which genre they were going to tinker with next; instead, they consolidated everything they knew about rock, pop, culture, and history — and then, like true royalty, went right up to the front and led the troops into unknown territory. Oh — and incidentally — in the process, they made an album many consider to be one of the first truly modern rock albums, and also one of the best …


S. VICTOR AARON: A cocksure, sleazy stomp with guitar riffs that can’t be more perfect. The archetypal Rolling Stones song.

JC MOSQUITO: Lyrically dark, and perhaps racist and sexist from some perspectives, but only the Stones could make a song about the slave trade so darn catchy. In a 1995 Rolling Stone interview, Mick Jagger was quoted as saying, “All the nasty subjects in one go … I never would write that song now. I would probably censor myself.”

NICK DERISO: Absolutely — so nasty. So Stones. A prototypical, booty-call — I mean, roll call of salaciousness, with Jagger’s rooster-tail innuendo only bested by the riffing, bacchanalian guitars of Richards and Taylor. There are those who would say it pales in comparison to then-recent album openers like “Symphony for the Devil” or “Gimme Shelter.” I’d counter that, in its own way, “Brown Sugar” is similarly definitive. You don’t have the Rolling Stones without some sex. Actually, without a lot of it.


JC MOSQUITO: Believed to be mostly the work of Jagger and Taylor (uncredited), it has a different sort of feel than what one might have expected two songs into the album.

S. VICTOR AARON: Taylor shows us why he was brought in, tearing off a lead that could hold its own against Alvin Lee.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: You might have expected the Stones’ 2005 effort ‘A Bigger Bang’ to mirror their more recent generic glossy pop. Instead, the classic mid-period Stones sound returned.]


NICK DERISO: Finally, a no-bullshit country song from a band that always had this kind of unvarnished emotion running somewhere beneath its surface tough-guy attitude. This was the moment when I knew this album would be something different, something more than just a collection of songs.

JC MOSQUITO: Country yet not so country; this is the essential difference between playing country and playing at country — “Country Honk,” for instance.

S. VICTOR AARON: A country-folk tune that’s inconsolable, this time with no hint of irony. They never made a better ballad than this one.


S. VICTOR AARON: A stretched out, funky blues-rock jam that even flirts with jazz during Taylor’s showcase section.

NICK DERISO: Over the course of this track’s brilliant 7-minute journey, there’s a howling lament, an angry plea, a funky-ass sax solo, something akin to Santana, then something spookier, and finally a relentless boisterousness — a groove that seems to grow into an almost unfathomable insistence. By the end, the Rolling Stones aren’t just knocking. They kicking that sucker off the hinges.

JC MOSQUITO: The lengthy jam that ends the song was unplanned, but they just kept the tape rolling and decided to keep it in the end. A true one take affair.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Who had any right to think the Stones, three decades into their famously debauched career, could make something out of the 1990s? If you search around, though, they did.]


S. VICTOR AARON: How did a Rev. Gary Davis gospel blues song get on this sinful record? “You may be high…”

NICK DERISO: Good question. When Jagger snarls anything about moving, it sounds like something sweaty done with the curtains pulled. Taylor’s scalding slide only makes their true intent clear: After a few years of flirting with more socially conscious topics, the Stones have recommitted to what they do best.

JC MOSQUITO: Again, the blues vs. playing at the blues … or maybe not? This song is funny at least.


JC MOSQUITO: A great driving groove on this one. The lyrics are typical early-’70s Jagger. (Well, and a lot of other people as well.)

S. VICTOR AARON: Tough vocal, tough guitar and tough sounding brass. This song is bitchin’.

NICK DERISO: Like “Brown Sugar,” this is dark, brutal, unregenerate — and far more dangerous than all of the put-on revolution talk found on earlier “important” statements like “Street Fighting Man.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Watch as guitar god Eric Clapton joins the Rolling Stones in London for a muscular take on the ageless Muddy Waters tune “Champagne and Reefer.”]


JC MOSQUITO: Maybe the weakest cut on the album, but it fits as a good placeholder.

S. VICTOR AARON: English boys conquer Memphis soul.

NICK DERISO: These desperately sad moments, in some ways, had to follow everything that the Rolling Stones had so forcefully laid out in Let It Bleed and Beggars Banquet. The hope-filled 1960s ended badly, both in general and (after Altamont) specifically. All that was left as the ’70s got underway, really, was the inevitable descent into malaise and then narcissism. Sticky Fingers proved to be one of the first signposts pointing to what lay directly ahead. Before you knew it, we had Jimmy Carter and disco.


S. VICTOR AARON: The desperation oozes from Jagger’s lyrics, Ry Cooder’s slide and even Jack Nitzsche’s piano. Poignant song coming during a time when so many or their peers were going down in drug-fueled flames.

JC MOSQUITO: After some legal wrangling, Marianne Faithful gets a co-writing credit. Hmm ….

NICK DERISO: This is a dissonant theme of narcotic anguish that they’d explore more fully later on Exile, but I’ve always preferred this initial meditation on the twilit netherworld of an addict — both lyrically and, with its languid, echoing atmospheres, musically. Maybe most of all, because it arrives like an enveloping, slow-moving storm, and then it’s gone.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: DJ Benny Benassi has produced a slick new remix of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Doom and Gloom,’ their first new music since 2005.]


JC MOSQUITO: More pseudo country.

NICK DERISO: OK, so we praised them earlier for moving past a fascination with parody, and this one seems to backslide right back into that. But coming, as it does, after a crepuscular dirge like “Sister Morphine,” there is a black humor about “Dead Flowers” that always elicits a rueful cackle.

S. VICTOR AARON: The Stones hadn’t stopped making tongue-in-cheek country songs, and this one is a charmer.


S. VICTOR AARON: The band was going for something majestic here; this sounds like the right job for Paul Buckmaster’s string arrangements.

JC MOSQUITO: A ballad of sorts – Mick Taylor supposedly reworked a short guitar piece by Keith Richards, and again got no songwriting credit for his work. The string parts are interesting.

NICK DERISO: I will never, ever tire of this song’s many nooks and crannies. I hear, in its beginning, the backwoods reverie of early Allen Toussaint — and in its unselfconscious vocals, the rough moral myth-making of the Band. This is, for me, a crowning achievement for Jagger (who now more than ever is content simply to bark and bray) as a singer. Then, as the tune makes its way through a final, spacious cadence, there are elements of a blues, of Elton John, of something from the Far East. “Moonlight Mile” was, and is, a riddle, a wonder — and maybe the perfect ending to an album that proved to be a clarion call for what loomed as the decade unfolded.

JC MOSQUITO: Yep, Sticky Fingers – right up there with Exile On Main Street as the best one-two punch in the Stones’ lengthy and storied career.

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