Even though my favorite Rolling Stones songs are Let It Bleed‘s “Gimme Shelter” and “Midnight Rambler,” my favorite Stones album has always been Sticky Fingers. Aside from being loaded with great songs that rank among the Stones’ best (“Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses”), this album features probably my favorite guitar track from the Stones in “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” as well as my favorite Rolling Stones album closer, “Moonlight Mile.” But it’s the little things that make Sticky Fingers an all-time classic, like the acoustic slide guitar work by Keith Richards on “You Gotta Move,” which is so bluesy it makes you feel dirty. The horn flourishes on “Bitch” and “I Got the Blues” are amazing, too, but my personal favorite is that ambient piano that creeps in two minutes and sixteen seconds into “Sister Morphine.”
I can’t say enough about how they recorded that damn piano. It sounds like it’s coming from down the hall and around the corner, but it comes through as clear as a bell, even with that drugged-out shimmer. To be quite honest, the Rolling Stones sound very tired throughout Sticky Fingers, but the music is anything but lethargic. Usually when artists are described as tired or weary it’s a sign of plunging quality, but the Stones take that weariness and turn it into a positive, and I have always found that Sticky Fingers carries a certain weight in that way that their other albums can’t. There’s a sense of character in these songs that’s brought on by that weariness. It’s hard to describe. As someone who plays the guitar a little bit, I can’t help but notice an abundance of harmonics — those high-pitched, ringing pops — on “Wild Horses” and “Moonlight Mile.” You play them by muting the string(s) — instead of pushing down all the way to the fretboard — and doing a very well-timed pull-off as you hit the string. It’s pretty tricky to execute, but the results are often glorious, as they are on Sticky Fingers.
Guitarist Brian Jones, a founding member of the band, had been dismissed from the Stones shortly into the recording of Let It Bleed in 1969, and he was replaced by twenty-year-old Mick Taylor, who had played with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Taylor’s appearance on Let It Bleed was fairly slight, as Keith Richards ended up recording just about all of the guitar parts himself, but he’s all over Sticky Fingers, especially with those harmonics. On December 6, 1969, four months after Woodstock, a free concert was held at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California, and though it drew a crowd of some 300,000, it couldn’t have been any more different from Woodstock. The crowd was horrifically violent, and four people died. (Though in a strange twist of dark humor, four births occurred during the show, as well, giving the concert a plus/minus of zero.)
The Altamont concert is considered one of rock & roll’s darkest disasters, as it abruptly erased whatever gains the hippie movement had made during the Summer of Love and Woodstock as the ’60s came to a close. The Rolling Stones headlined that concert and were the ones who put it together, and one of the mistakes they made was arranging for the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang to handle some of the security, reportedly paying them $500 worth of beer so they could act as a barrier between the crowd and the stage. Well, that didn’t exactly work, to no one’s surprise, and in fact, a Hell’s Angel stabbed a Black audience member who approached him with a gun. It was just craziness, apparently, and it’s chronicled in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, which I have been meaning to see for some time. The concert was an unmistakable failure, and there was some concern regarding how the Rolling Stones would move on.
As if the Altamont concert weren’t enough to deal with, the Stones also spent much of 1970 in a legal battle with their manager Allen Klein, who was granted copyright ownership of their work in the 1960s, leading the band to famously flee the country when they didn’t have the money to pay their taxes. There’s no question that much of the Stones’ omnipresent fatigue on Sticky Fingers is due to those aforementioned struggles, but the Stones definitely dig deep here, and in the process they deliver my all-time favorite Rolling Stones album. Unfortunately, Keith Richards and Mick Taylor never got along particularly well, but at least they got Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. under their belts before Richards got busted multiple times for drugs and Taylor quit the band in 1974.