(#91: 8 May 1971, 4 weeks; 19 June 1971, 1 week)
Track listing: Brown Sugar/Sway/Wild Horses/Can't You Hear Me Knocking/You Gotta Move/Bitch/I Got The Blues/Sister Morphine/Dead Flowers/Moonlight Mile
We know why the regeneration worked so well. The group shot on the inner sleeve says it all; Mick is standing apart from the others, facing the camera, half howling with laughter, half yawning. To his left Keith has his defiant back to Mick, his mouth and fingers roaring with joy at a “mine’s as big as my HAT!” self-confession, Charlie grins knowingly at us, another Mick smiles happily as any new staff recruit would do on their first morning, eager to please, while Bill, looking remarkably like Patti Smith, smirks at us, his face half-hid, as if to say, conspiratorially, “he’s not going to be here for long.”
The overall picture is one of untouchable sauce, of a group completely confident with their newly-refound ambition, eager to laugh and revel but also keen to become a more and more powerful juggernaut, to conceal a deadly seriousness under the wagon wheels of their flotilla of fun. Warhol’s artwork, the logical phallic extension of the Velvets’ pink banana, was a red, gold (don’t the Stones deserve a golden zipper?), and monochrome herring. Sticky fingers? Everybody noticed the wetly licking double entendre of the Rolling Stones Records logo, but the Stones’ genius – and with Sticky Fingers we could arguably narrow it down and talk about Jagger’s genius – was that they had more to offer than Carry On Rock And Roll, even if that had always been their mission. They were free of outdated entanglements; the album was apparently ready to go in mid-1970 but they had to deal with Decca and Allen Klein before they could speak of true freedom.
And what is “Brown Sugar” if it is not about freedom? For the rebirth, the first track (and lead single) had to be a killer, better than any rock 45 that decade (and so few had been released, which did help). Actually it had been recorded in late 1969 – and, at Mick Taylor’s insistence, the song was premiered at Altamont – but the holding back seems to have increased its latent power a thousandfold; so effortless and surrenderable is its groove, its pink-jacketed cheek, that it’s only after a thousand listens, and dances, that one realises what Jagger is doing, namely to engineer a pop song which systematically incorporates every subject hitherto deemed taboo from a pop song (incest, rape, cannibalism, racism, misogyny, most of the Kama Sutra, and that’s just for starters), and yet because of the record’s irresistibility – Jimmy Miller’s meticulously dirty production, Jagger’s maracas and “Wooooooo!”s, Watts’ sidestepping of the central beat so that the song seems to expand and flex at will, Bobby Keyes’ tenor rasping at just the right moment – and what we already know about Jagger, it doesn’t sound exploitative or reprehensible. What it does sound is juvenile, but we can forgive it in Jagger because it’s such a central part of his being; his right to be petulant and boastful is balanced by his thoughtful knowledge of his role in culture – there is something in his delivery which makes us think that he’s examining himself, how he measures up in terms of black culture and of women, how he relates to either, where the symbiotic features are hidden, or exposed.
More crucially, the darkly good humour of “Brown Sugar” masks the song’s cunning, lingering structural similarity to “Gimme Shelter” and indeed the former is a happy bookend to the latter’s extended sigh of apocalypse-taunting desperation; “Brown Sugar” told us that the Stones had made it through, were back in business, returned to the front of all lines.
“It’s just that demon life has got me in its sway,” Jagger goes on to sing in the next song, and the midtempo blues crawl of “Sway” defines the Stones, above everything else, as anti-death: “Ain’t flinging tears out on the dusty ground/For all my friends out on the burial ground.” After the second chorus, Jagger utters a parade ground “1! 2! 3! 4!” and after Taylor’s first bottleneck slide solo, he rasps, exasperatedly, “PAIN! PAIN!!! EEEOOOOOYYOOOOUUUU!!!” before ushering in a fine second solo from Taylor – already sounding as though trying to turn the Stones into Derek and the Dominos – which is bolstered up towards the fadeout by Nicky Hopkins’ wriggling high register piano figure and the dramatic two-minutes-to-midnight entry of Paul Buckmaster’s imperious string section. The Devil is still there in their sight, all right, but they’re patiently unready to deliver themselves just yet.
“Wild Horses” had already been previewed in 1970 on Burrito Deluxe, the second album by the Flying Burrito Brothers – Gram Parsons had heard an advance tape of Fingers and asked the band if he could do a cover; the band consented as long as he didn’t release it as a single – and although, socially and aesthetically, Parsons was as much of a shambolic aesthetic rejig of a jigsaw puzzle as Jagger, the shivering nakedness of his delivery of the song provides an interesting balance to Jagger’s knowing sincerity. As a performance, “Wild Horses” is deservedly rated as one of the Stones’ greatest ballads – although it is still not the greatest Stones ballad on Sticky Fingers – with Jagger finally allowing himself to display real vulnerability, his voice slipping and sliding into the song like Duane Allman’s premature ghost brother, the band displaying a subtle dexterity which really no one else in 1971 could touch – Jim Dickinson’s Greek chorus of a piano, for instance; doing so little, yet opening up the lines of communication for so much. Jagger has said that the song is definitely personal in nature but denies that it’s about Marianne Faithfull – the couple having broken up, messily, in early spring 1970 – but as it progresses (“unlike”) he sings as though he doesn’t know how to sing, as if having to learn all over again. The second “lie” in “I dreamed you a sin and a lie” is delivered with a plaintive hoarseness, while Taylor – clearly the musician doing most on this record to push the Stones forward – ponders somewhere between Clapton and Peter Green (note the uncommon denominator of John Mayall in respect of all three). There is a pain deep within “Wild Horses” which outdoes even the sadly wise couple in Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” in that the doomed couple seem unlikely to make it beyond the garage door; still, they have each other, and there are regrets and not a few tears, but nothing that can stop them from breaking the door down, or even bothering to open it, with time and belief.
“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” pits Keith’s fuzzed riff against an attentive, unhurried Meters strut. Mick hollers to be let in – first to a girl, and then to the world – but the Stones aren’t going to be hurried, nor is their dot-dash horn section. Yet in the course of the song’s seven-and-a-half minutes the Stones do things they haven’t done before; Taylor’s guitar slowly rises up in the mix, midway through the second chorus, and as the intensity builds up the song quite unexpectedly moves into a Stax shuffle, Taylor’s guitar and Miller and Rocky Dijon’s percussion taking up the riff’s slack. Then Keyes’ tenor sax shudders in before settling, even less expectedly, into a modal Coltrane drift (Billy Preston turns up at this point on organ as a sort of Alice Coltrane surrogate). Taylor gets a Carlos Santana thing going on – Abraxas having been such a huge record in late 1970 – before hitting on a riff, with which everyone goes, before the track once again recedes into reflection. Is this really the Stones, a group now happy to relax the accelerator, to allow drift and ambiguity to drift into their fiercely enclosed universe? Watts’ tom-toms roll wave-like under Keyes’ tenor, and for a while we are virtually listening to Third/Fourth-era Soft Machine, before the track comes to an end – without going back to the original riff.
Side one finishes with “You Gotta Move,” the old Fred McDowell/Rev Gary Davis blues vehicle (although it’s likely that Jagger was more familiar with Sam Cooke’s 1963 reading). Keith twists his nylon acoustic into woolly freakout, and both Keith and Mick do a unison behind Jagger’s 100-year-old blues shouter vocal. Watts’ deadpan side drum and cymbal flourishes raise the prospect of the New Orleans funeral, and unlike Anne Boleyn Secondary School days, Jagger’s attempt to be Muddy Waters actually (almost) comes off; you know that it’s Mick being Mick, but no longer do you feel the need to giggle – instead, you marvel at how broad the group’s vocabulary has now become.
“Bitch” served as another of the UK “Brown Sugar” triple A-side 45 release (the third, not included on the album, was a live version of Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock”), and it is indeed Mick being Mick (“Sometimes I’m so SEXY!/Move like a STUD!”), but the song’s main interest is in the music; the uncommon rhythmic construct (12/8 verses, 4/4 choruses), the comb and paper horn unisons (and the way in which the horns, developing some antiphonal riffs towards fadeout, uncannily resemble the Brotherhood of Breath) and, once again, Taylor’s rational, patient guitar.
“I Got The Blues” is clearly an attempt to do Otis (and specifically his “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”), with pitch-perfect Stax horn lines and build-up tactics, but again Jagger’s performance is faultless, moving confidently from low-wattage concern (“Won’t drag you down with abuse”) towards hysterics (“I’m gonna TEAR MY HAIR OUT JUST FOR YOUUUU!!!”). In the meantime Preston’s organ roars out of its paddock for an urgent solo and the detail is pretty well realised, certainly a lot more than it would have been in, say, 1965.
“Sister Morphine” is a big setpiece but I’m not sure that it measures up to the inescapable authenticity of the version Marianne Faithfull recorded with Jack Nitzsche producing in 1969 (and which a scared Decca summarily buried on a B-side). Ry Cooder, his guitar swimming through the song like a mourning alligator, is present on both versions, as are Nitzsche, Jagger (on acoustic guitar) and Watts, but despite the terrible echo of a ghastly void which follows Jagger’s “score” and “last,” Jagger can’t really convince us of any death wish dependency, any passively wrathful acceptance of imminent mortality – whereas Faithfull sounds as though she’s clinging onto life with the last of her rapidly disintegrating fingernails (and with a more touching harmonic structure which is rather simplified in this reading). Nitzsche’s piano plays like a ghost, distorted in the middleground, everything sounds as though coming from the bottom of a well, or a mineshaft. The song terminally descends into a Morse code drip, following crevices of Cooder guitar, but this doesn’t approach the very visible (or at any rate audible) pain of the late 1969/1970 John Lennon. It is as though Jagger is still playing, idly, with the concept of waste and early end.
“Dead Flowers” works much better, despite or because of Jagger’s hilarious Merle Haggard-out-of-Isleworth drawl, which helps to conceal the most disturbing lyrics on the record, which happen to be about a heroin addict quietly expiring in his basement, trying to reach a former lover (when he’s not self-pityingly bitching about her); you laugh so much at the surface and ride along so gladly with the band’s natural swing – Ian Stewart’s quivering piano towards the end giving the only real musical indication that something is wrong (and Watts is quick to add a Don Partridge ride cymbal crash at the end to reassure us) – that you scarcely notice the horrible hole into which the song’s protagonist has dug himself.
The closing “Moonlight Mile,” however, is unquestionably the record’s second masterpiece, and maybe the greatest of all Stones ballads in that it doesn’t strive for effect or arrive at easy answers. Jagger is no longer rambling the midnight streets; he does not seek to cause harm, but is simply lost. On the surface it is yet another in the unending line of seventies songs about the loneliness of life on the road, but most of the others presuppose the existence of a home. With “Moonlight Mile,” there simply seems to be an absence; the “head full of snow” leitmotif may be a cocaine reference but Jagger sounds too lost even to attempt drug escape; he sees a face that he knows at the window, but doesn’t acknowledge it, stop or drop in, probably because it’s his own reflection. “Made a rag pile of my shiny clothes…silence on my radio”; this world appears unpopulated. The music is a wasted, tumbleweed drone, even though Jim Price’s piano subtly alters in tone throughout the song, starting as saloon tack before gradually filling in and becoming three-dimensional. “Roa-o-wah-oh” wails Jagger at the road set to devour him. Then the picture builds; Buckmaster’s strings – was there ever a better use of orchestration on a Rolling Stones record? – sweep in at the end of the second verse, Watts’ tom-toms and cymbals quicken in the third verse (“I’m MOVIN’! I’m RIDIN’!!”), Taylor’s guitar barks out a solo and interacts with the strings, the scope of the view widens towards the loneliest of climaxes, Jagger wondering whether to hide or dream, confused about whether the two things are the same. The music finally opts for the dream and dissolves; piano and guitar four years ahead of Eno’s Another Green World – or perhaps it’s simply “Albatross” from a different perspective – and Buckmaster’s oboe mourns over the reddening orchestral carpet; he just looked around, and he was gone, or better still, coming back, with Jagger’s deceptively subtle paraphrasing of Mel Tormé’s “Comin’ Home Baby.” The Stones never close the door on themselves, or at least Jagger wouldn’t let them – Keith Richards was particularly adept at being Keith Richards at the time, and so isn’t on the album that much – and although there is no real conceptual bent to Sticky Fingers, it stands simple and proud as an example of what rock music, at its best, was, and is, capable of delivering at its peak, despite death, wind, illusions and sugarings.