Year in and year out, much is made of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street
(Universal Music Group, 1972/2010) (EOMS) being the "greatest rock and roll album." It is traditionally beaten out in most critics' and readers' polls by either The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
(Parlophone, 1967) or Rubber Soul
(Parlophone, 1965). Even the Clash's London Calling
(CBS, 1979) has made it even or ahead of EOMS in some polls. But EOMS is not the issue here. Released a scant twelve months previously was the phenomenal Sticky Finger
. Acknowledged as one of the finest recordings of the era, the release remains oddly in the shadow of its younger brother.
The importance of Sticky Finger
in the history of the Rolling Stones as well as rock music can be better considered within the environment in which it was recorded and released. Based on discography, the golden era of the Rolling Stones spanned from Beggars Banquet
(London, 1968) through It's Only Rock and Roll
(Rolling Stones, 1974). This era, by no mistake, coincides with the founding member Brian Jones' role in the band flickering out and the last recording his ultimate replacement, Mick Taylor
, played on. With few exceptions, it was during this period that the Rolling Stones brought rock music into their orbit, quickening the sound of the music for the rest of the 20th Century.
The culmination of the 1960s began with the "Summer of Love" in 1967 and the Monterey Pop Festival. The Rolling Stones' contributions to that year were Between the Buttons
(Decca, 1967) ("Let's Spend the Night Together" and "Ruby Tuesday") and Their Satanic Majesties Request
(London, 1967) ("She's a Rainbow" and "2000 Light Years from Home"). Based on the similarities in album cover art, rock critics hailed the latter recording as the Rolling Stones' answer to The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
(Parlophone, 1967) released six months earlier. Music was rich on both sides of the Atlantic, but this was clearly the height of the British Invasion and music was evolving and devolving rapid in several directions.
The rose-colored glasses of the Summer of Love gave way to the swaggering, mirrored Ray Bans of the decade's end. The next year (1968) saw the beginning of the end for both Brian Jones and the Beatles, the band with whom the Rolling Stones shared the popular music throne. The Rolling Stones released Beggars Banquet
(London, 1968) a mere two weeks after the Beatles released The White Album
(Apple, 1968). Both bands were composing and performing darker and more dangerous music that previously heard (the heart of rock and roll). "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and "Sympathy for the Devil" were no "Green Tambourine" or "Midnight Confessions" and were further eons beyond "Monday Monday" and "Good Vibrations."
The Summer of Love began to formally crumble with the death of Rolling Stones founding member Brian Jones. Spottily available for the recording of Beggars Banquet
and largely persona non grata
on Let it Bleed
, Jones' excesses had finally caught up with him and he left the band on June 9, 1969). A month later, on July 3rd, Jones was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool. Jones' death delayed the July release of Let it Bleed
and led to directly the memorable Hyde Park Free Concert two days after Jones' death. Mick Jagger opened the concert reading an excerpt from Shelley's poem Adonaïs
the band released thousands of butterflies in memory of Jones before opening their set.
The Hyde Park concert was filmed for British Television as The Stones in the Park
and included material not previously heard, including "Midnight Rambler" and "Love In Vain" from the forthcoming Let It Bleed
(its release now scheduled for December 1969) and "Give Me A Drink" which eventually appeared on Exile On Main Street
(Rolling Stones, 1972) as "Loving Cup." The concert also heard the debut of "Honky Tonk Women," which the band had just released as a single not associated with any album, the previous day.
Within the miasma of the band's evolution between Beggars Banquet
and Let It Bleed
, a tour had been planned. The Rolling Stones had not been on the road since 1966, and the band was entering a new era of its existence. Of the 1969 tour, critic Robert Christgau thought it "history's first mythic rock and roll tour." It began November 7th in Fort Collins, Colorado, making its way to New York City's Madison Square Garden, November 27th and 28th, concerts from which the band's next release, Get Yer Ya Yas Out
(London, 1970) was derived. This live recording the late Lester Bangs deemed "the greatest live recording."
Decca's release of Get Yer Ya Yas Out
was precipitated by the almost contemporaneous release of the bootlegged show recorded in Oakland, CA November 9, 1969 known as Live'r Than You'll Ever Be
. Formally released in December, this recording was one of the first commercial bootlegs coming on the heels after two other notable boots, Bob Dylan's The Great White Wonder
and the Beatles Kum Back
. It charm is largely because of its lack of overdubbing when compared to Ya Yas
, making it a sought after artifact of this tour.
But the ascension of the Rolling Stones in 1969 was not to be without its controversy. It was the Rolling Stones that presided over the definitive end of the Summer of Love when 18-year old Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, December 6th, the last date on the Band's American Tour. The Woodstock Music & Art Fair
was held the previous fall, possessing a harder, more radical edge than Monterey. The Rolling Stones opted not to appear at Woodstock due to Mick Jaggers' previous commitment to appear in the largely forgotten movie, Ned Kelly
(United Artists, 1970). Instead, the Rolling Stones elected helping to sponsor their own "free concert" at the Altamont Speedway, between the towns of Tracy and Livermore in Northern California.
Along with Santana and the Jefferson Airplane, the Rolling Stones were to appear as headliners and scheduled their concert for the day after the formal American release of Let it Bleed
(London, 1969). For perspective, the Beatles had made their last public performance on the roof of Apple Records that previous January, formally disbanding almost exactly a year later. Abbey Road
(Apple, 1969) was released in the United States, October 1st and Let it Be
(Apple, 1970) May 1st the next year. Get Yer Ya Yas Out
was released September 4, 1969, allowing the Rolling Stones to properly assumed the title "Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World."
If all of this history was not enough, just previous to Altamont, the band spent December 2nd through the 4th in North Alabama in Muscle Shoals. The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was founded by "The Swampers," the FAME rhythm section, who had serviced Rick Hall's FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals between the late 1950s through 1969, when they broke off to form the their own studio. It was this studio and house band that produced the seminal music of Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, the Staple Singers, Bobby Womack and Paul Simon. American music would have not been the same without this studio.
During these two December days and before the apocalypse of Altamont, the Rolling Stones recorded three songs: "Brown Sugar," a tune beginning with an open-G guitar riff imagined by Mick Jagger while filming Ned Kelly
(second only to the riffs of "Honky Tonk Women" and "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" in recognisability), "Wild Horses," the most perfect rock ballad every recorded, and the North Mississippi Delta's Mississippi Fred McDowall's "You Gotta Move." They would become the foundation for the band's next album, Sticky Fingers
, the first to be released on the newly established Rolling Stones Atlantic label imprint. The remainder of the recording took place after the '69 US Tour, beginning in earnest in March 1970 and splitting their time between Olympic Studios and Trident Studios, both in London.
Released April 23, 1971, Sticky Fingers
Sticky Fingers hit number one on the US charts within days of release, staying there for four weeks. In Great Britain, the recording rose to number one in May 1971, remaining there for four weeks, returning to number one again in mid-June. The album yielded two 45-rpm singles: "Brown Sugar" (b-side "Bitch") released April 16th and "Wild Horses" (b-side "Sway") released June 12th.
A Slight Aside
When this impressionable parochial school 'tween first heard "Brown Sugar" he could not believe he had heard something better that Mountain's "Mississippi Queen" (b-side "The Laird," 1970) or something equal to the band's "Honky Tonk Women" (b-side "You Can't Always Get What You Want," 1969). "Brown Sugar" opens with a timeless guitar riff from Keith Richards (first imagined by Jagger) on his five-string Telecaster tuned to a G major chord. The sonic success began on "Honky Tonk Women" was magnified into a blues-inflected double-entendre juggernaut fading in and out from the antebellum slave trade through the metaphor of heroin. As a rock masterpiece theme, "Brown Sugar" would only be bested by "Tumbling Dice" (b-side "Sweet Black Angel," 1972) from EOMS
After Altamont, the Rolling Stones inhaled deeply, and swaggered into what would he their decade of decadence the '70s, shooting the '60 the bird over their shoulders. Elegantly stoned, the Rolling Stones would best the Jefferson Airplane for clever, drug-intoxicated imagery, all stirred into the fatback and greens of the blues and deep country. On the album, after the opening salvo of "Brown Sugar," the band continues with the chunky "Sway," an ode to the Original Sin of pleasure:
"Did you ever wake up to find / A day that broke up your mind Destroyed your notion of circular time... It's just that demon life has got you in its sway..."
"Wild Horses" redefined the country music ballad only for the country music ballad to be redefined later on the album by the staggering "Dead Flowers." In these songs, The Rolling Stones were warming up for their masterpiece tour through Americana on EOMS
. "Can't You Hear me Knockin'" proved to be a rock Christabel
so jarring that it was hard to remember that its spiritual predecessor, "Midnight Rambler" had only been released two years previously. It illustrates the importance to Mick Taylor to the Rolling Stones. The theme would show up again in rock music, most notably on John Cougar Mellencamp's "What if I Came Knocking" from 1993's Human Wheels
(Mercury). Side one closes with Como, Mississippi's Fred McDowall's "You Got to Move," with Richards and Mick Taylor overlaying National Steel Body slide guitar with electric slide to a defining organic effect. It would take four years and the release of Led Zeppelin's "In My Time of Dying" (from Physical Graffiti
(Swan Song, 1975) before a more definitive rock-blues statement would be made.
And that was just Side One...
In 1971, a song entitled "Bitch" was racy indeed, not considering that it was also the b-side of "Brown Sugar." It is a chugging piece of R&B set on fire, propelled by Bobby Keyes and propelled by the abbreviated horn section of saxophonist Bobby Keyes and Trumpeter Jim Price. "I've Got the Blues" is a sophisticated outgrowth of the band's performance of Robert Johnson
's "Love in Vain" with a nod to Otis Redding
's "I've Been Loving You Too Long," with well-arranged horns and a deft and soulful organ solo courtesy of Billy Preston.
Perhaps the darkest rock ballad, "Sister Morphine," is a depraved description of trauma, relief, and damnation seasoned with Ry Cooder's sinister slide guitar. The sheer terror perfection of this song shows exactly how silly, lame and redundant Bloodrock's "DOA" (Bloodrock 2
(Captiol, 1970)) was. "Dead Flowers" is the Rolling Stones tribute to American country music. Beautifully tongue-in-cheek and abrasively sarcastic, this was the band's love song to they sang as they swaggering into the 1970s. If there ever was a perfect end to a perfect recording it is the dystopic and beautiful "Moonlight Mile," replete with stings and incense. It is a homage to being away from home. Richard's said that this song was all Jagger with Mick Taylor pushing it along:
"Oh I'm sleeping under strange strange skies Just another mad mad day on the road My dreams is fading down the railway line I'm just about a moonlight mile down the road..."
And with that coda, Sticky Fingers
ended the 1960s.
The Technical Stuff
This release as a deluxe set is superior to that released for Exile on Main Street
released in 2010. While remastered, how does one clean up a wrestling cage match in a swamp? All of the extras had been available in bootleg form since the year of its original release in 1972. Sticky Fingers
is superior in its deluxe form because of its intelligent programming and it did benefit from its remaster. All of the extras: Live at the Roadhouse
and the many-times bootlegged Get Your Leeds Lungs Out
, available for years, are presented in their complete forms intelligently assembled. This and the subsequent commercial release of From the Vault: The Marquee Club Live in 1971
(Eagle Vision, 2015) make the present a fruitful time for vintage Rolling Stones and there is no reason not to rejoice.
That is the positive part of the commercial discussion. This year marked the Golden Anniversary "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." Doubtless in five years there will be another greedy ejaculation of "deluxe sets" to be consumed the teetering baby-boomers (of which I am a most proud member). They will have, doubtless, more "unpublished" photographs and previously "unreleased" live and studio recordings. But believe me. Everything that exists is available right now. The present edition sports a fabulous book and other trinkets from the period that are like a fond memory of one's youth. And regardless of intention, how can that be faulted.