Having both revived and redirected their career with their previous two studio albums, the Stones continued their hot streak with an acclaimed live album and then this, their first on their own label. It’s easy to look at them now and see a bunch of caricatures, living off a reputation for rebellion and going on way past the sell by date and overlook that once, when your parents were young, they were a really exciting, high quality rock ‘n roll band.
The most famous track here is the opening “Brown Sugar” in which Jagger seems out to horrify the establishment by addressing as many scandalous topics as possible: rape, slavery, cunnilingus, hard drugs and miscegenation to start with. This may be the most politically incorrect song of all time.
The other classic is the memorable and convincing acoustic ballad “Wild Horses”.
The good news is that these, as good as they are, aren’t even the best moments on the album.
They advance the sound they introduced on “Let It Bleed” into something bigger, frequently fleshing out the tracks with keyboard players (mostly Nicky Hopkins and Billy Preston) and making good use of the fine horn pairing of Bobby Keys and Jim Price. Indeed Keys gets put in the soloing spotlight on occasion and would become a key member (sorry) of the Stones touring ensemble.
It’s slicker, more calculated, and it totally kicks ass when the band rock out. The Stones rhythm section completely justifies their reputation on this album, and at last Mick Taylor is completely integrated into the recording process and adds silky skills and the sort of big guitar solos that were essential in the arena rock MO of which the Stones had been notable pioneers and which confirmed their transition from a band you could dance to and scream at to a band you could sit and listen to.
“Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” rides an unstoppable Keith Richards groove (underpinned by a fine Charlie Watts drum part) before morphing into a latin-tinged platform for fine extended solos by Keys and Taylor. “Bitch” (referring to love rather than any particular lover) is the relentless off-spring of hard rock and soul underpinned by the Keys/Price horns and with Keith soloing.
Bill Wyman gets to play all the bass parts this time around, and he gets to show that whatever Keith’s habit of picking up the bass is about, it’s not about a lack of ability on the part of the band’s designated bass player.
Actually it is Keith who is occasionally absent on this album, and so Mick Jagger gets to play guitar on two numbers and he’s actually more than competent – though perhaps owing quite a lot stylistically to the other Glimmer Twin.
There’s a superb guest spot, recorded some years earlier, by Ry Cooder on “Sister Morphine”. That they could afford to leave that track off of Let It Bleed hints at the quality of material they were amassing.
There’s still a raw, acoustic homage to Jagger and Richard’s blues roots with a cover of Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move”, the sort of thing that marks them as serious blues scholars and aficionados rather than superficial dilettantes.
“Moonlight Mile”, one of the Keith-less tracks, with an engaging acoustic guitar part by Jagger, builds to a great climax courtesy of a Paul Buckmaster string arrangement and a great electric guitar part by Taylor and brings the album to a very satisfactory conclusion.
Most of all it’s a BAND record. A very well oiled band at the top of their game. Their recording method at the time (a great sounding room for a great overall sound rather than hi-fidelic individual instruments) and Jimmy Miller’s production give it an exciting live in the studio feel.
If you don’t understand what all the fuss was about, or have forgotten, then Sticky Fingers is the record to correct any misperceptions you may have.