If “twilight of the gods” seems a fitting way to describe the current era in the six-decade history of the Rolling Stones, it certainly has been a long sunset, and one with no sign of ending. The three septuagenarians, Jagger, Richards, and Watts, plus 68-year-old Ron Wood, have just embarked on another North American tour, a year after a 14-city Asia Pacific outing that began in Abu Dhabi and wrapped up in New Zealand. Though the old wildness and unpredictability — will tonight’s show be brilliant or a chaotic mess? — are long gone, replaced by solid professionalism, the quartet, plus backup players and singers, still can rip it up on stage.
Past tours have been timed to coincide with album releases, but the Stones haven’t released an entire album of new material since A Bigger Bang in 2005. (Though padded with some lackluster tracks, that underrated record had some of the band’s best work since Some Girls.) Ten years later, they’ve re-released one of their greatest works, 1971’s Sticky Fingers in time for their ZIP Code tour of 15 cities in the US and Canada. The tour’s name, of course, alludes to the album’s famous cover photo of a man’s bluejeaned crotch complete with a working zipper. The cover, conceived by Andy Warhol and executed by Craig Braun, was a problem when the original LP was released, and technical issues with it delayed this year’s re-release of Sticky Fingers.
Or should I say, re-releases. You have to give it to the Stones, they sure know how to monetize their back catalog. In the past decade, they have reissued Exile on Main Street and Some Girls, fattening the original recordings with outtakes of varying quality. (They’ve also been selling old live tracks via their website.) The music consumer has no less than nine versions of Sticky Fingers to choose from, in various CD, vinyl, and download configurations, ranging from a remastered version of the original LP to “deluxe” and “super-deluxe” boxed sets complete with booklets and DVDs. Here, we’re talking about the Super Deluxe Edition: the original album, outtakes, and live tracks recorded during 1971 shows at Leeds University and the Roundhouse, during the band’s last UK tour before relocating to the south of France.
Do you need all of this? Probably not, unless you’re a Stones completist/fanatic. With one exception, the alternate takes are of interest only if you want to hear what “Bitch” or “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” sounded like early in their creation. On both, Jagger hadn’t finished the lyrics, and his vocals mostly are guides, with him throwing out any old words that scan. “Knockin'” hadn’t gelled at all; the great Keith Richards’ riff that opens the tune sounds tentative, lacking the punch of the finished version. On the other hand, the re-mastered versions of the original album tracks are fabulous.
Take “Bitch”, for example. From the snap of Charlie Watts’ snare that kicks it off to the closing “hey-hey-hey” chorus, with Richards’ spiky solo in the middle, this is peak Stones. Jagger’s wittily self-mocking lyrics rank high in the master ironist’s oeuvre: “Sometimes I’m sexy / Move like a stud / Kickin’ the stall all night / Sometimes I’m so shy / Got to be worked on / Don’t have no bark or bite.” The blazing live version, from a show at Leeds University, features Richards’ and Mick Taylor’s dueling guitars and an extended, perfectly paced solo by Richards.
The Richards/Taylor pairing often produced astonishing results that no other guitar-based rock band has equaled, and certainly not the post-Taylor Stones. (In their shows these days, Ron Wood capably handles Taylor’s lead parts, but let’s face it, he’s a solid journeyman, not a master.) Richards, of course, is the riffmeister, the rhythm-as-lead guitar genius; Taylor, the lyrical soloist with a dazzling command of the blues. (Sometimes, though, they reversed roles, as on “Bitch”.) In the re-mastered versions of the original Sticky Fingers tracks, their parts come across with clarity and definition.
“Brown Sugar”, the opening track on Sticky Fingers and one of the Stones’ biggest hits, has some of Jagger’s most outrageous, genuinely transgressive lyrics. It provoked no little controversy when it came out in the politically volatile year of 1970, with the Vietnam War raging and the US government waging war on the Black Panthers and other radicals. In fact, much of the song’s power comes from the tension between the irresistibly funky, black music and Jagger’s words, which gleefully parody the history of American slavery and racism while implicating Brits like him in those horrors. Jagger had said that he probably wouldn’t have the nerve to write anything like “Brown Sugar” today, and no doubt he’d be engulfed in social media outrage if he did.
The remastered “Brown Sugar” highlights the song’s somewhat overbaked production: it didn’t really need the acoustic guitar or the castanets. Less definitely would have been more — less clutter, more muscle. An alternate version, featuring Eric Clapton, is looser and raunchier, but the mix buries Richards’ indelible riff and the track goes on too long. The live version is this reviewer’s favorite. Jagger is in great form, and the band, with Nicky Hopkins on piano and Bobby Keyes and Jim Price on horns, churns and stomps, blending Chuck Berry motorvatin’ boogie and Muscle Shoals R&B, and Taylor turns in a solo that outshines Clapton’s.
The Stones are Berry’s most apt pupils, as they demonstrate on live versions of two of his compositions, “Little Queenie” and “Let It Rock”. Richards does Berry better than Berry (onstage, at least), Taylor meshes impeccably with him, and the Stones’ original rhythm section — bassist Bill Wyman and the great, irreplaceable Charlie Watts, student of the beboppers and New Orleans’ R&B drummer Earl Palmer — provide that trademark Stones strut and swing.
The Stones, as devotees of the blues, absorbed and reflected in their original material the genre’s candid, unsentimental, and sometimes harsh views of women, sex, and romance. (They also could tune in to the more playful and humorous side of the blues, on songs like “The Spider and the Fly” and “The Under-assistant West Coast Promo Man”.) But they always had a tender side, and they displayed it most affectingly on the country ballad “Wild Horses”. The alternate version on the Sticky Fingers re-release is the only one I prefer to the official track. Jagger sings unaccompanied, without Richards joining him on the choruses, and he sounds more vulnerable, the heartache more palpable.
Sticky Fingers was the third in a series of four great Rolling Stones albums that began with Beggars’ Banquet (1968) and ended with Exile on Main Street (1972). You could call it an album of Americana. It has blues (“You Got to Move”), blues-inflected ballads (“Sister Morphine”), soul (“I Got the Blues”), country (“Dead Flowers”, “Wild Horses”), jazz-rock (“Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’) and R&B (“Brown Sugar”, “Bitch”). But there also are genre-defying gems like “Sway” and the closing track, “Moonlight Mile”, an Indian-tinged ballad with a string section that makes the song sound both meditative and cinematic.
The Stones are performing “Moonlight Mile” (along with other Sticky Fingers numbers) on their ZIP Code tour, but one wonders how well such a delicate piece will come off in the big venues — stadiums and festivals — they are playing this time around. The remastered version on the reissued Sticky Fingers sounds better than ever, and it affirms that during their peak years, the Rolling Stones indeed were the world’s preeminent band.