If I had this blog 40 years ago, each Friday I’d be writing about an album. Nowadays, even when I get a new album, I chop it up into pieces and shuffle play the leftovers. You could say that it proves I really love an artist if I actually listen to their albums, as albums. (Hello, Sleater-Kinney.)
A trend in recent years is for artists to play entire albums from their catalog in concert. Bruce Springsteen has done this several times ... I’ve got a DVD of him doing one of his albums, I forget which, maybe Born in the USA. The Rolling Stones are apparently going to tour North America this year, and one rumor is that they will be playing Sticky Fingers in its entirety. Since that album comes from the times when I listened to LPs, I thought maybe I’d take it on for this week’s post. But, in line with how I usually do things nowadays, I’ll look at it track-by-track, without attempting too much overall contextualizing.
First, though, I’ll indulge in a bit of that context. Sticky Fingers is one of my favorite Stones albums, but the best of the best are pretty close in quality. It’s easier to list the albums that aren’t quite as excellent: the debut is a lesser album compared to 12x5, Now!, and Out of Our Heads. December’s Children isn’t quite as good as Aftermath or Between the Buttons. Got Live If You Want It! isn’t very good, Their Satanic Majesties Request is underrated but still below their best, Flowers is as good as Yesterday and Today. But Sticky Fingers sits amidst the best four-album run of studio albums they ever produced: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main St. (Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! is the live album from the period, and overrated.) Suffice to say that Sticky Fingers is sitting in some pretty impressive company.
“Brown Sugar”. Perhaps Jagger gets away with some of the controversial material in this song because there is so much going on, it’s hard to pinpoint anything. As he said, “God knows what I'm on about on that song. It's such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go.” Wikipedia tried to list those subjects: slavery, interracial sex, cunnilingus, sadomasochism, lost virginity, rape, and heroin. Bobby Keys adds a sax solo, which was something different as I recall (not for music, but for Rolling Stones music). The video, taken from Top of the Pops, is interesting for another reason. You’ve got a song that begins, “Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, Sold in a market down in New Orleans”. I’ve already thought it was odd that the inspiration for the song is said to be about a Black girlfriend, Marsha Hunt, or Black singer Claudia Lennear. I hear slavery more than I hear girlfriends. Anyway, the Top of the Pops appearance features the band syncing to the recorded track while Jagger adds live vocals. When the sax solo arrives, Black musician Trevor Lawrence pretends to play the recorded solo of Bobby Keys, white guy. Just another part of the mishmash, I guess.
“Sway”. Where we are reminded that this is the Mick Taylor Era. He lays out some fine guitar work here. Charlie Watts is esp. good, too. And then here come Paul Buckmaster’s strings! The druggy feel could fit right in on Exile.
“Wild Horses”. One of their most successful attempts at country. Video is from their 1995 “unplugged” album ... this song plays well in such an environment. Jagger? I’m reminded of what Xgau said about A Bigger Bang: “Mick ... once again proves capable of relating on what we humans pathetically call a human scale. Not that I credit his ‘vulnerability,’ but I'm touched that he cares enough to lie about it.”
“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”. Prior to this, the one time the Stones ventured into the kind of long tracks that became popular with bands like Cream came with “Goin’ Home”, which appropriately consisted of Mick turning a short song into an eleven-and-a-half-minute track by moaning and cooing and exhorting about his baby that he’s going to see very soon. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, on the other hand, is dominated by Bobby Keys and (especially) Mick Taylor. This is yet another of Taylor’s shining moments with the Stones.
“You Gotta Move”. Oddly minimalist blues. Listen to Charlie’s drums ... this could be a “Kiss”-era Prince recording. Since we’re treating this as an album, I’ll note that this was the last track on Side One. Full circle, you might say ... here, Mick tries harder than usual to sound Black (and for him, that’s pretty hard indeed). I’m touched that he cares enough to try.
“Bitch”. Killer riffs, killer Charlie Watts, this one crushes your skull. Unlike “Brown Sugar”, which was ultimately disturbing, “Bitch”, despite its title and the Stones’ reputation, isn’t a woman-hater in the “Stupid Girl” mode. Love is a bitch, Mick explains, and when she calls his name, he salivates like Pavlov’s dog. Video is from a club date about a month before the album was released.
“I Got the Blues”. The horns have a Stax-Volt feel to them. Nice organ solo by Billy Preston.
“Sister Morphine”. Awesomely moody and depressing, and therefore a highlight of the album back in the day. We didn’t know that Marianne Faithfull had written the lyrics (uncredited at the time), had even recorded it as the B-side of a single that did nothing. It was the first sign of the Faithfull who would emerge with Broken English at the end of the decade. It always seemed ironic, that Marianne Faithfull, of all people, put out an album in 1979 that was better than any subsequent Rolling Stones album. Take that, Mick. I saw Marianne a couple of times in the early-80s. Granted, I get star struck pretty easily, but even so, I was amazed at her charisma. She knew it, too. (Don’t know why, but this reminds me of the movie Mister Lonely, which features aging James Fox and Anita Pallenberg in bed together.) (The video is of her version of the song.)
“Dead Flowers”. I suppose it’s time to mention Gram Parsons, who hung out a lot with Keith and the boys in those days. His influence is clear whenever the band cranks out a country-rock tune. One problem is that Mick’s tongue is always firmly in cheek on these songs ... he says he always thought of himself as a blues singer, so he couldn’t totally give himself over to the country tunes. This sounds almost jaunty, but as with many songs on the album, a peek at the lyric sheet shines a different light: “Well when you’re sitting back in your rose pink Cadillac, making bets on Kentucky Derby day, I’ll be in my basement room with a needle and a spoon and another girl to take my pain away”. Video is from the same club date that featured “Bitch”.
“Moonlight Mile”. What a beautiful exit song. The lyrics aren’t particularly novel ... it could be a more elegant version of “Going Home”, with Mick lonely on the mad mad road, thinking about coming home. But there is precious little distancing in Jagger’s vocals, for a change. Paul Buckmaster’s strings actually add something, and trumpet player Jim Price plays lovely piano. (It’s as surprising as finding out drummer Jim Gordon plays the piano coda on “Layla”.)