Counterbalance No. 43: The Rolling Stones' 'Sticky Fingers'

Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn have watched you suffer a dull aching pain, but wild horses couldn't drag them away from talking about one more Rolling Stones album. This week in Counterbalance—Acclaimed Music’s 43rd All-Time Greatest Album. Have your needle and spoon at the ready.

The Rolling Stones

Sticky Fingers

Label: Atlantic
US Release Date: 1971-04-23

Mendelsohn: Klinger, what can I say that hasn't already been said about the Rolling Stones? They are debauched and disturbing and they've written some of the deepest, sweetest rock and roll to ever grace our ears, and Sticky Fingers is just more of the same. This record is an odd love letter to American country and blues, like something a junkie scribbles on the wall before nodding out. It's twisted and lewd and shows off a band hitting on all cylinders, a run up to their magnum opus, Exile on Main St. And then, just like that, as quick as it had begun, it was all over.

Well, not really. The Stones are still alive and touring, which, when you think about it, kind of boggles the mind. I mean, out of all the groups to emerge from the 1960s, think about the long odds these guys had to beat to survive not just the decade but into old age. Maybe we should all be doing copious amounts of opiates and stimulants.

Klinger: I'm not a medical doctor, but I think their survival owes more to their ability to afford their vices/habits than the curative benefits found therein. But yes, I am quite sure that this is the druggiest of all the Rolling Stones' '68-'72 purple patch. Not groovy drugs, either; more the depressing kind. And maybe that's why of all these Stones albums, this is the one I reach for the least.

Think of it this way: Beggars Banquet is the start of the party, where you feel like anything can happen and if things get a little witchy then so much the better. At the other end lies Exile on Main St., where you're exhausted and you've been through hell, but it's dawn and you just beat the night. In between you get some awesomely deranged fun (Let It Bleed) and a part you don't remember but you're told you got a little crazy (Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out). Sticky Fingers is strictly 4 a.m.—the room smells like smoke and puke, a fistfight just got broken up, and someone's crying in the bathroom.

Mendelsohn: When you put it that way, Sticky Fingers sounds really unappealing. And now I'm wondering what exactly is on those fingers to make them sticky. Anyway.

I'm just going to toss this out, but I think, while Sticky Fingers might get lost in the '68-72 run, this record is incredibly influential on two different sides of the rock spectrum. With two songs, the Stones managed to create the template for the rock ballad as well as set the stage for Pink Floyd's spaced-out funk/rock mash-up that would take over the world a few years later with Dark Side of the Moon (1973).

I could be completely wrong about the rock ballad thing, but if "Wild Horses" isn't the predecessor for tripe like Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn", I don't know what is. Is that fair? (I'm essentially comparing the Rolling Stones to Poison. I feel awful about it. No band should ever suffer the indignity of being compared to Poison. Unless it’s Mötley Crüe. But then only in the context of which band was a greater disservice to humanity.)

Klinger: I'd say the main distinction between "Wild Horses" and intolerable 1980s/’90s power ballads is the lack of booming power chords that served as a default for Poison, Skid Row, et al. Those they more likely nicked from Led Zeppelin. But you do have a point that "Wild Horses" serves as a canny reminder that beneath the Stones' dissipated exterior beat the hearts of sensitive souls who longed for some measure of security. "Home Sweet Home", if you will. And the fact that it's a joint composition between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards further drives the point home that these bad boys are maybe just a little misunderstood.

Mendelsohn: I'm going to go on blaming the Stones. On the flip side, though, is "Can't You Hear Me Knocking". It starts off as one of the Stones' better rock songs with an opening riff to rival almost anything they have ever written but then, about two and a half minutes in--where they probably could have ended the song--it turns into this funky, spaced-out jam session and we get treated to five more minutes of the Rolling Stones doing their best Pink Floyd impression. Which really doesn't make sense because the Floyd didn't hit upon its winning formula until Dark Side of the Moon. So maybe we owe the Stones a small thank you for showing Pink Floyd the way.

"Can't You Hear Me Knocking" may be the strangest thing I've ever heard the Stones play (not counting the stuff they released in the ’80s). It just seems so out-of-character for a band built around the three minute blues groove like in "You Gotta Move".

Klinger: I'd chalk the extended jammery of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" up to Mick Taylor, who makes his full-fledged debut on this album. Taylor was really the closest thing to a lead guitarist that the Stones ever had. Brian was more of a polymath bent on extending the group's sound, and Ronnie Wood mainly meshes his playing with Richards', to the point where I doubt they could pick their own parts out of a recording. Neither of which is a judgment—all three iterations of the Rolling Stones made some terrific albums. But Taylor brought a guitar virtuosity to the proceedings that makes Sticky Fingers a really different listening experience.

Of course, like most Stones records, there a couple of tentpole songs that define it, at least in the minds of FM radio programmers. On Sticky Fingers, they’re "Brown Sugar" and "Bitch". And in much the same way that Sticky Fingers is far from my go-to Stones album, these are two numbers I mostly love in theory. The Bill Wyman/Charlie Watts rhythm section propels both songs along beautifully, but there's something about them (beyond their overplayed-ness) that keeps me from coming back to them all that often. Jagger's cynical toying with notions of race and sex, perhaps?

Mendelsohn: Perhaps. But it's not just the radio singles that contain questionable material; this entire album is brimming with transgressive lyrics. If it isn't rampant drug use it might as well be race and sex. I'd like to pretend like I'm just as offended by Jagger's posturing and race-baiting, but isn't that the part of rock and roll we all secretly love? Singing about morally questionable subjects is the essence of rock. It's built into the feedback and meant to shock the establishment. That's the appeal. If you don't like it, why don't you ask Keith to turn down his guitar and tell the rest of the Stones to get off your lawn?

Klinger: Sure, call me an old codger. You wouldn't be the first. But in listening to a ton of Sticky Fingers over the last few weeks, I couldn't help finding its non-stop name-checking of hard drugs more than a little dispiriting. This isn't the needle and the damage done; it's practically a celebration of the lifestyle that had already killed one of their circle and was about to do in a few more. Not to mention that one of the most explicit of these songs, "Sister Morphine", was pretty much written by Marianne Faithfull, who later had to sue to receive any credit at all. So not only did Jagger pinch lyrics from his own girlfriend, he seems a little too willing to overlook the fact that the song is a cry for help from a woman whose addictions would very nearly kill her over and over again.

Look, I've learned not to expect good behavior from my rock stars, and really I don't want to sound any more moralistic than I already have. I'd guess I'll say that I'm more disappointed than I am offended. Tut-tut, Rolling Stones. And also tsk-tsk.

Mendelsohn: Klinger, you must be delusional. Being disappointed in the Stones is like being upset that your pet cobra bit you when you tried to kiss it. You should know better. These guys weren't role models, they were junkies and philanderers. Name-checking every Schedule I drug over the course of an album is a minor offense on the Stones' rap sheet. Not that it can't ruin a listening experience so I guess your complaint is completely justified. Maybe I'm just completely desensitized to this kind of thing. It takes a lot to shock me these days and the Rolling Stones' antics on Sticky Fingers seem downright quaint by today's standards.

Klinger: You know, their debauchery is all laid out so explicitly that it somehow seems more disturbing than what gets made today, kind of like when you hear Archie Bunker casually toss out racial epithets. But despite all the grubbiness that coats every surface of Sticky Fingers, I will say that there are moments of real beauty. Jagger and Richards do some very sweet harmonizing (never really recognized as their strong suit) throughout the album and especially on "Dead Flowers". And then there's "Moonlight Mile", with that gorgeous string arrangement from Paul Buckmaster. The album closes with the promise of a sunrise over the horizon, signaling that the Stones will endure to fight another day—whether they've earned it or not.

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