“Sticky Fingers” by the Rolling Stones (1971)
Part of the film “Gimme Shelter” shows the Rolling Stones stopping between shows on their 1969 U.S. tour at the famed recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala. There, they started work on some new songs, including one called “Brown Sugar.”
“Gimme Shelter,” of course, also captures the stabbing death of a fan at the Altamont Free Concert in the California desert, just a couple of days after the Muscle Shoals sessions. The fatality occurred during the Stones’ performance of “Under My Thumb,” basically in front of the stage.
The Stones weren’t sure exactly what happened until they saw the applicable footage. They did know something major went down, and they weren’t quite prepared to launch into another tune until guitarist Mick Taylor suggested one of the new songs.
And so came the public debut of “Brown Sugar,” the song that eventually opened the Stones’ first new album of the ’70s.
No one was quite sure what to expect in Altamont’s aftermath, but the band delivered its third straight essential long-player, following “Beggars Banquet” and “Let It Bleed.” Taylor’s full involvement on a Stones album for the first time serves as an added bonus for “Sticky Fingers.”
“Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses,” which also was recorded at Muscle Shoals, still stand as two of rock’s best-known songs. Several others have been stapes of FM radio for more than four decades: “Bitch,” “Sway,” “Dead Flowers” and the extended workout of “Can You Hear Me Knocking.”
Featuring one of Keith Richards’ most memorable licks, “Brown Sugar” reportedly was written by Mick Jagger with his then-girlfriend (and mother of his daughter Karis), Marsha Hunt, in mind. He has been kind of vague on why he sings about a “scarred old slaver” and his women, telling Rolling Stone in 1995: “God knows what I’m on about on that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go … I never would write that song now.”
“Sway” is indicative of Taylor’s influence on the band, putting his guitar talents on full display, particularly during the outro. He also dominates “Can You Hear Me Knocking,” following a stellar saxophone part by Bobby Keys that got him work with the Stones for years to come.
“You Gotta Move,” a blues tune attributed to Mississippi Fred McDowell and the Rev. Gary Davis, also was recorded at Muscle Shoals. That’s appropriate, given the song’s raw, Southern-inspired arrangement.
The second side of the “Sticky Fingers” LP shows the Stones successfully tackling a number of other styles, from the R&B influence of “Bitch” and “I Got the Blues” to the country rock of “Dead Flowers.” The album closes with the ballad “Moonlight Mile,” which references “a head full of snow” and as a result is often thought to be about cocaine use.
“Sister Morphine” is one of the era’s more straightforward songs about drug abuse, with such harrowing lyrics as: “Well it just goes to show things are not what they seem/Please, Sister Morphine, turn my nightmares into dreams/Oh, can’t you see I’m fading fast/And that this shot will be my last.”
Another Jagger ex-girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, won composing credits to “Sister Morphine” after taking Mick and Keith to court. Taylor also has claimed to deserve credits for other material, but so far the legal system hasn’t ruled in his favor.
“Sticky Fingers” might be best remembered among the early ’70s record-buying public for its cover, the Andy Warhol-conceived shot of a male crotch in blue jeans, complete with a workable zipper. The inner sleeve featured the first appearance of the lips-and-tongue logo that have been identified with the Stones ever since.
The album needed no such gimmicks, though. The music continues to sell itself.