Here’s to the Greatest “Beginning of the End” Album in Rock

A few critical notes on the ‘Sticky Fingers’ reissue
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A few critical notes on the ‘Sticky Fingers’ reissue

They expanded Sticky Fingers and I can feel you rolling your eyes already. Another reissue, you’re thinking. “Reissues” are chickenshit excuses for greedy people to sell you the same thing twice, you’re thinking. And from a bunch of greedy dinosaurs, at that.

Pretty much, yeah. These days, most reissues are cash-grabs, plain and simple. Unless, of course, the record company uses the occasion as an honest opportunity to re-contextualize the music in its place in history and/or give us some good new/rare material. Personally, I happen to love the concept of reissues. Two reasons: (1) they’re interesting as barometers of the music’s legacy with consumers and how the dialogue around them has or hasn’t changed over time, and (2) any true music geek will take almost any excuse they can to re-think and/or natter on about any canonized album, since appreciation of good music deepens with familiarity.

Well, at least until the “vinyl remaster” market inexplicably became a thing and any half-decent record from the freaking ‘90s started getting shoved in our faces.

Anyway, they expanded Sticky Fingers. You can get it as a two- as well as three-disc edition. Does it re-contextualize the music and deliver good bonus material? Answer’s a resounding “Ehhhhh….”

Though the Rolling Stones are indeed creaky greedy dinosaurs continually and shamelessly cashing in on glories long past, I say if the second-best rock band of all time attaches a full extra disc of music to one their greatest albums, we should lend some ears. The Exile on Main St. reissue sucked, what with its so-so demo tracks doctored with newly-recorded vocals. And yet the second disc of the Some Girls reissue was damn-near revelatory: 40 minutes of completely different songs that could’ve made a smashing EP if they narrowed down the cream.

The second disc here gives five alternate takes and five songs from two March ’71 London gigs at the Roundhouse. The alternates aren’t anything special. Y’getcher version of “Brown Sugar” with Eric Clapton, which always sounded great in theory but was always in actuality just played too damn messy. Its main attraction is Mick’s unhinged singing in the back half. (“Ahhh, get down to the ground, brown sugar!”) Y’getcher “acoustic version” of “Wild Horses”, i.e. sans the electric guitar licks, and since the electric licks were lovely, who needs this? Y’getcher shortened version of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” without the Latin-psychedelic jam and with more guitar jamming, but it struts hard, especially when you can hear Keith Richards and Mick Taylor already finding their groove as the Stones’ finest guitar duo. Y’getcher extended version of “Bitch” with more outro riffing. And you get a pleasantly drawl-y version of “Dead Flowers”. All these alternates are—you’ll never guess—of some interest to super-fans but inessential for most.

Though the five songs taken from the two Roundhouse gigs were recorded just over a month before Sticky Fingers dropped, all five are older songs. Probably a wise move, splitting the difference between the mild curiosity of the alternate versions and a snapshot of how the Stones were sounding in concert. These live cuts sound great. They’re damned tight despite that the band were playing bigger and bigger venues. Guitars snarl all over “Live With Me” and battle it out with Bobby Keys’ sax. Jagger barks like he’s trying to convert the crowd, then swings around like a confident drunk on “Stray Cat Blues” (changing the jailbait subject’s age from 15 to an even more eyebrow-raising 13). “Love in Vain” is slowed even further down and turned into something different with its Memphis horn pushes. And the 11-minute “Midnight Rambler” is just insane, revving and chugging and already securing its place as the band’s most decadent in-concert beast.

If you go for the “super deluxe edition,” you’ll find another live disc, this one of a full show from Leeds the night before the Roundhouse gigs. Most of this show has been well-bootlegged, but I dunno: maybe it’s partly the stereo conversion from the soundboard and maybe it’s just ‘cause they’re playing too loose for their own good, but my attention wandered through some of these songs, albeit picking up on a keyed-up version of “Bitch” and the closing “Johnny B. Goode” rip “Let It Rock”. Some fantastic guitar squeals toward the end there. Throughout the set, the Stones demonstrate their importance to popular music (along with the Beatles): combining the energy of rock and roll with the seriousness of the blues.

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And there’s also the original album. Here are a few points I’m pretty confident in stating:

1. If Sticky Fingers isn’t as great as Exile on Main St. (or Let It Bleed, Beggars Banquet, or even Aftermath), it’s more quintessential. Put it this way: if someone heard Exile without knowing anything else by the Stones, they’d know the band could do something like “Brown Sugar”. But they wouldn’t suspect they could do something like “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, which moves seamlessly over the course of seven minutes from tight blues rock into a trancelike Santana-ish psychedelic jam, nary a wasted second present.

2. Speaking of “Brown Sugar”, it’s kind of amazing that it still gets played on the radio, isn’t it? How much further can you go than a song that describes whipping and raping a slave and enjoying it in evocative detail? (And throws in a double entendre for smack while it’s at it.) Yet it still gets people dancing and — here’s the weirdest thing — feeling good. Its enthusiasm is something broader than Jagger’s singing, the sax, the world-conquering party chants in the last minute, or even the sheer riff-wattage. It creates a feeling of enjoying sex and breaking taboos, adding another layer of breaking the rules and having fun doing it. Thus, it explores the contradictions of its own style. And it has hooks like a motherfucker.

3. “Sister Morphine” is better in theory than in execution. Mick’s singing starts eerie but gets kinda cornball as it goes on. The song’s saved by two things: Charlie’s now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t drumming, and Ry Cooder’s “seething back-alley ambulance lights” guitar.

4. “Moonlight Mile” was always clearly a Jagger-Taylor co-write, a fact made even clearer a couple of years later by the similarly orchestrated “Winter” on Goats Head Soup (a song which I’d argue equals and maybe even betters “Moonlight Mile”). In any case, “Moonlight Mile” remains the band’s most majestic song, stately even, communicating a feeling of distance from physical love (the song’s development simulates slow, erotic sex) and from yourself. The arrangement envelops you, tentative acoustic guitar at the beginning immediately evoking lonely empty highways before the piano and strings even begin. How amazing that they managed to work those strings to such a big release of tension right under your nose, without feeling corny. Okay, the coda’s a little overdone, and the schmaltzy swoon right at the end can either charm or irritate me depending on the night. But usually the glow subsumes such quibbles.


5. “I Got the Blues” is the weak link, and up to this point the band’s worst song on a studio LP since that circusy bullcrap that bookended Satanic Majesties. Mick’s “heroic” attempt at Otis Redding just doesn’t come off. Whenever I hear him sing “Who will brrrriiiiiiiing you to liiiiiife,” I cringe. By contrast, the version of the old blues in “You Gotta Move” is respectable work. But it makes for a dismal comparison with the shorter acoustic tracks on previous albums. Remember “Prodigal Son”?

6. The influence of Keith’s country pal Gram Parsons shows most clearly on“Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers”, both relics of the fading embers of the “spirit of the ‘60s.” “Wild Horses” is one of those songs that, whenever it comes on, I feel like I’m not in the mood for, expecting the song to reveal some unctuous, lugubrious side I’d somehow missed. And then within half a minute I’m inevitably reminded just how unimpeachable it is. At almost six minutes, it’s the kind of ballad that could’ve easily fallen flat, and yet strikes a lyrical balance between being beaten-down by life, and hopeful at the same time — a dim hope, but a real one: “…we’ll ride them someday.” The high pinging acoustic overtones and electric licks into the choruses are strokes of genius. “Dead Flowers”, by contrast, goes for offhand humor, a homespun ditty with one of the band’s most singalong-ready tunes. Because life goes on.

7. “The flashy, dishonest picture of a multitude of slow deaths” is how Lester Bangs described the album, while Robert Christgau said it “appeared to trifle with decadence when some retribution seemed called for” (after Altamont). Certainly Sticky Fingers evokes the murky “Where the hell are we?” feeling of the exhausted early ‘70s when it lets its guard down. “Sway” always seemed representative to me: downcast in a slow, steady guitar spiral (a feeling Taylor gets exactly right in his fills), Mick’s nasal bark slurring his words but fighting the tide. There’s a lethargic melancholy here that edges toward despair, but when Mick goes, “Hey! HEEEEY!!!” out of Taylor’s first solo, I picture someone ripping through quicksand.

8. Sticky Fingers the Stones’ worst best album. As titanic as this material is, it’s also where Jagger stops being darkly classy and starts trying to prove he was still the dirtiest man in rock. The cover art and the lyrics for “Bitch” — plainly raunchy with no subversive metaphors — are the very beginning of his sad quest to prove he was still dangerous, which’d come crashing toward a permanent midlife crisis in the mid-‘70s with his attempt to keep up with the glam artists. (This of course wasn’t helped by Keith, the genius in the band, nearly absent from laziness and heroin.) You can just start to hear the corniness that’d eventually culminate in Undercover. Conclusion: possibly rock’s greatest “beginning of the end” album.

The Sticky Fingers reissue is out now on MP3, CD and vinyl.