Masters of the Form: The Rolling Stones, 1971 – Sticky Fingers

One tongue. One set of lips. One titanic album, and the Rolling Stones had changed the course of rock and roll forever. Again.

When the Rolling Stones released
Sticky Fingers in 1971 they had already surpassed the expectations of most rock and roll bands. They had proven themselves to be masters of the form with the release of 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet and its 1969 follow up Let It Bleed, the first two in a series of what could quite possibly be the four best successive rock albums released by any band in history. The two superlative discs were musical dictionaries that defined the concept of rock and roll for generations of aspiring musicians. In 1971, the Stones published a new dictionary called Sticky Fingers which defined the concept of rock and roll super stardom. Beggar’s Banquet was a lesson of simplicity, Let It Bleed was a lesson in authenticity and Sticky Fingers was a lesson in audacity.

The Stones never suffered from a shortage of bravado, and with
Sticky Fingers, “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World” taught the world how big balls had to be when they lived on a slab of vinyl housed beneath a working zipper. They made it clear with the album’s artwork that the biggest band in the world was the one that had the biggest set of stones. The Stones also introduced their new logo, the now iconic red lips and tongue and taught another lesson. The biggest band in rock and roll is the biggest brand in rock and roll, and with the release of Sticky Fingers, the Stones became more than a rock band. They became more than masters of the form. They became rock’s answer to Coca-Cola, an instantly recognizable brand enjoyed by millions worldwide. With their previous two releases the group clearly illustrated what it meant to sound like “The Stones”. With Sticky Fingers they illustrated what it meant to be “The Stones”, and “The Stones”, like Coca-Cola, were huge.

Sticky Fingers is big in every respect. It is an album recorded by rock stars at the peak of their powers and every track is filled with a palpable confidence. On Sticky Fingers, the Rolling Stones don’t play roots music with the appreciation they did in 1968 and the authenticity they did in 1969. The Stones attack every track as though the components of rock music are ones they created and strut through the album like rock gods refusing to rest on the seventh day. And the creation itself? It is a collection of some of the biggest, raunchiest and fullest tracks ever recorded.

The album’s bold agenda is showcased in the opening riff of its opening track. The riff that introduces “Brown Sugar”, easily one of the best Keith Richards has ever composed, is so distinctive that guitarists have been trying to rewrite it for decades. The song that follows — the sex of it, the questionable taste of it, the driving rhythm, the howling vocals, the percussive propulsion of the piano, the fullness of the saxophone — is one of such electric vitality that it’s beyond blues, pop or rock and roll. “Brown Sugar” isn’t a rock song at all. It’s a “Stones” song and it introduces an album full of them.

“Sway” is a musical anvil dropped from the roof that is perfectly content to take its time dropping. It’s heavy, it’s in no hurry and it causes immediate damage upon impact, like a girl who can break you “with a corner of her smile”. “Sister Morphine” is a junkie set to music opening coyly, with one vocal and an acoustic guitar, asking nicely for a fix but the request gets louder as the slide guitar echoes through the second verse and louder still as the both the narrator and the slide guitar beg to score. “Moonlight Mile” is an exquisite ballad, combining falsetto vocals, strings and piano, a swan floating by the end of the album after the ugly ducklings have all passed. The best ballad though is “Wild Horses”, a country masterpiece of agony punctuated by the pained perfection of Richards’ background vocals, proof that the Stones were too big to write country songs because they were too busy writing prairies to ride upon.

“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” is a rabid beast, all snarling guitar and vocal claws that go for the jugular immediately and refuse to let go, playing with listeners like their prey through the extended jazz of the ending. It showcases the Stones at their toughest and Mick Jagger, who sings like a man possessed throughout the entire album, is particularly effective hear, screeching and yelping like he’s in competition with Keith Richard’s guitar lick to prove which is tougher. The competition continues during “Bitch”, which could be the biggest song in an album full of them. “Bitch” is a rock and roll sprint, a raging collection of horns, guitar, bass, drums and vocals with so much energy moving so fast that it would be tiring to listen to if it wasn’t so exhilarating. The song is a colossus, a perfect summation of the sheer audacity of the album itself, a perfect portrait of a band that moves from song to song “like a stud kicking the stall all night”. In one year’s time the studs would stop kicking, pack up their shiny new logo and go into Exile…