Raleigh, N.C. — "Sticky Fingers" has always been a smash. When hungry wolves first lifted filthy muzzles to howl at the moon, they raised the kind of ruckus that would eventually send millions of us rushing to record stores. Ancient pagans moved and grooved to unholy rhythms that must have keened very much like those a future band of barbarians would commit to vinyl millennia later.
An overblown claim? Well, of course. But then, rock’n’roll is where the modern homo sapien bathes anew in the glory and muck of myth. The 1971 album that the redoubtable Rolling Stones will celebrate and draw from for large chunks of their Carter Finley bacchanalia on July 1 is both of its time and timeless.
Its collection of songs is arguably the strongest top to bottom from rock’n’roll’s definitive band. While primordial in its intensity, it is nuanced and probing, winking and heartbreaking. Its moods swing as nimbly as the fabled Charlie Watts-Bill Wyman rhythm section. Freshly reissued with bonus tracks, “Sticky Fingers” is a cultural landmark -- a bitter one, perhaps, but with lasting import.
By 1971, the Summer of Love was dead, staked through its paisley heart by the Hell’s Angels goons who killed a fan just the flick of a guitar pick from the Stones on their Altamont stage. In the wake of the fiasco, the towering, terrifying anti-anthem “Gimme Shelter” seemed to enshrine the end of hippie history.
What would come next?
On “Sticky Fingers,” Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the Stones seemingly answered with a hip thrust and a hit of whatever illicit substance was handy. Others followed suit, though often less artfully, and the seventies would largely be about the hellhound pursuit of pleasure and treasure.
“Seemingly answered” because ambivalence haunts the album’s swagger, befuddles its raging riffs.
The opening salvo is pure provocation. We’ve all heard “Brown Sugar” so often that it’s easy forget the song was the most explosive kick off to a major event since Pearl Harbor. And like a military assault, it’s a carefully calibrated campaign. Field Marshall Mick commands an unstoppable riff and a ruthless blitz of rhythm.
Over-familiarity may also blunt “Brown Sugar”’s libidinous lyrics. Which is just as well. By the cultural lights of the 21st century, there may be no redeeming the song’s slave ship storyline – except to note that it is considerably more imaginative than most party starters and to accept that part of the Stones’ continuing appeal is that they are so damned unrepentant.
But on the next track, “Sway,” before the spitfire riffs of “B---h” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” arrive, Jagger drops his ringmaster leer to rue dead friends and the “demon life” that might well kill him, too – and probably should have taken Richards many times over. It’s at this juncture, locking into the wicked ups and desperate downs of “Brown Sugar” and “Sway,” that “Sticky Fingers” becomes legend.
“Sister Morphine” is among the rock cannon’s most brutally honest junky laments. A nod to the hangover of the sixties, it is almost journalistic in its coverage of personal ruin. “Wild Horses” is equally detailed and intimate, but blessed with a transcendent chorus that legions of musical acolytes have tried and mostly failed to reproduce. It’s not unfair to trace the much derided “power ballad” back to this song. The problem for Stones clones has been a failure to recognize that the ballad’s “power” derived not from musical muscle but from soulful surrender. “Dead Flowers” accomplishes quite a different trick, transposing the Stones’ trademark sneer from the rock wallop of, say, “Get Off My Cloud” to the sweetly rolling strains of early alt-country.
The album closes with “Moonlight Mile,” one of those fan favorites the band began playing live only in its twilight -- which is fitting, given the tune’s elegiac feel. Jagger and Richards grew attached to the blueprint established by “Sticky Fingers”: opening albums with furnace blasts and sending them out with ghostly chills. “Dirty Work,” “Steel Wheels” and “Bridges to Babylon” picked up the tradition. But few of their ballads opt for the majesty of “Moonlight,” with its desolate lows and shimmering highs.
The closer also features a signature musical move: the slow dissolve or utter collapse of a song three quarters through followed by its gradual, almost magical resurrection. On this score, the Stones would do themselves one better the next year with the shambolic “Tumbling Dice.” The band may serve up both at Carter Finley, and listening for how they handle this delicate dance is a good gauge of their musical health.
Speaking of vital signs, it’s de rigueur for some – ‘haters’ in the current parlance – to diss the Stones as ‘dead men strumming.’ True, and vividly so; the original sultans of snark have grown very old. But in the greasy grooves of “Sticky Fingers,” the band itself, even in 1971, recognized its destiny. “Moonlight Mile” is enduringly poignant because it’s clear the vagabond narrator, despite his longing, will never ever arrive home.
Like Gilgamesh, Orpheus and Lancelot, the band marches on, fueled by the caterwauling of long forgotten rituals and the yearning behind every silent swipe of today’s Tinder app, bending their brittle bones into eternally limber licks.