The Class of 1971: ‘Sticky Fingers’ — The Rolling Stones

Consider this run of seven albums in seven years:

1968  Beggars Banquet
1969  Let It Bleed
1970  Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out
1971  Sticky Fingers
1972  Exile on Main St.
1973  Goats Head Soup
1974  It’s Only Rock ’n Roll

There simply is no other band in the rock era to deliver such brilliance album after album after album. There was a two-year gap between studio albums by The Rolling Stones from Let It Bleed to Sticky Fingers, with that great live album filling in 1970.

Album sleeve

Sticky Fingers was released in the U.S. on April 23, 1971, and it sold like hot cakes. For one thing, there was that zipper! This was an Andy Warhol cover, following his Velvet Underground masterpiece. It was a functional zipper belonging to the blue jeans on the model on the front cover, and, yes, you could see cities and skin and, uh, other stuff if you peeled back the cover far enough. You don’t get that on your CD or your digital copy!

Sticky Fingers was also defined by those first two notes of “Brown Sugar.” That’s all you had to hear to know the party was ON! It was also the first album on the new Rolling Stones record label, a subsidiary of ATCO, a division of Atlantic Records, Rolling Stones COC 59100. And it was the first Stones album to hit the top of the charts in the U.S. and the U.K. And it was the first time we saw the new logo: that mouth and tongue!

Album sleeve

The album was recorded between March of 1969 and October of 1970 in four locations: Muscle Shoals Sound (Alabama), Olympic (London, Trident (London), and Stargroves (Newbury). 

The Rolling Stones: Mick Jagger, lead vocal, backing vocals (2–5, 9), acoustic guitar (9, 10), castanets (1), maracas(1), electric guitar (2), percussion (3); Keith Richards, electric guitar (1, 3–7, 9), acoustic guitar (1, 3, 5, 8, 9), backing vocals (1-7, 9); Mick Taylor, electric guitar (1, 2, 4–7, 9, 10), acoustic guitar (3); Bill Wyman, bass guitar (all but 5), electric piano (5); and Charlie Watts, drums.

Additional personnel: Paul Buckmaster, string arrangement (2, 10); Ry Cooder, slide guitar (8); Jim Dickinson, piano (3); Rocky Dijon, conga (4); Nicky Hopkins, piano (2, 4); Bobby Keys, tenor saxophone (1, 4, 6, 7); Jimmy Miller, percussion (4); Jack Nitzsche, piano (8); Billy Preston, organ (4, 7); Jim Price, trumpet (6, 7), piano (10); and Ian Stewart, piano (1, 9).

Engineers for the project included Glyn Johns, Andy Johns, Chris Kimsey, and Jimmy Johnson. Doug Sax was the mastering engineer. All songs were penned by Jagger/Richard except “You Gotta Move,” written by Fred McDowell.


Sticky Fingers


“Brown Sugar” (3:50) [1] is an iconic rock track. It was the band’s first number one single since “Honky Tonk Women” (the next would be “Angie”). It was released a week before the album came out, by which time it had sold millions and been played almost as many times on rock radio everywhere. 

If there is one other aspect that defined Sticky Fingers, it was the raucous saxophone work of Bobby Keys, giving the album a fabulous new dimension. He had appeared on Let It Bleed on “Live with Me,” but his presence here defines the song, and elsewhere on the album he killed.

Those opening notes are unmistakeable, and Richard’s rhythm guitar (especially on acoustic) matched with Taylor’s lead proved magical. This was Taylor first full studio album with the band. Watts drives the beat, and you have to love Jagger’s maracas and castanets! Ian Stewart’s New Orleans piano adds great color. And then there is the subject matter, which never seemed to pose a problem:

Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in a market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright
Hear him whip the women just around midnight

Brown sugar
How come you taste so good?
Brown sugar
Just like a young girl should

Drums beating, cold English blood runs hot
Lady of the house wonderin’ where it’s gonna stop
House boy knows that he’s doing alright
You shoulda heard him just around midnight

Sticky Fingers — U.K.

“Sway” (3:45) [2] was a mid-tempo song, Taylor stepping up on some fine slide guitar. That’s Nicky Hopkins on piano, with Paul Buckmaster handling the string arrangements. Taylor’s solo makes it clear it’s his band, too.

“Wild Horses” (5:41) [3] was the second single from the album, reaching number 28, with “Sway” on the flip side. It was a ballad like “Love in Vain” before it and “Angie” later. The acoustic guitars, Taylor on slide, and Jim Dickson’s piano all stand out.

“Brown Sugar” is the hit, to be certain, but for many the defining track of the album is “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (7:17) [4], a wonderful jazzy, bluesy song that continues to build to an incredible crescendo. Just that opening line, then the next before Watts kicks in. Wyman lays down a great bass line as well. Billy Preston on organ adds a superb touch. 

The transition from blues to jazz occurs at 2:45 with the percussion out front (Jimmy Miller and Rocky Dijon) before Keys enters. Then you notice Taylor’s magnificent jazz chords. At 4:39 he begins his brilliant solo. Watts is superb here. Keys digs in for a second helping, and finally they give it one last loving kiss. DAMN!

“You Gotta Move” (2:32) [5] is Mississippi Fred McDowell’s tune, so splendidly rendered, with Wyman on electric piano.



Of COURSE “Bitch” (3:42) [6] was the flip side of “Brown Sugar”! (Well, in the States. In Britain, it was “Let it Rock”!?!). That lead guitar stings when it comes in at the beginning. Keys and Jim Price (trumpet) sound like a huge horn section here. Jagger just spits out the words. The title never appears in the song, but the message is perfectly clear (and the song rocks like a, well, you know…):

I’m feeling drunk, juiced up and sloppy
Ain’t touched a drink all night
I’m feeling hungry, can’t see the reason
Just had a horse meat pie

Yeah when you call my name
I salivate like a Pavlov dog
Yeah when you lay me out
My heart is beating louder than a big bass drum, alright

“I Got the Blues” (4:00) [7] conveys exactly that, with Keys and Price elevating this to Stax soul status and Preston magnificent on organ solo.

Sticky Fingers — Spain

The other true gem on the album is “Sister Morphine” (5:34) [8], a song recorded during the Let It Bleed sessions. It begins with Jagger’s plaintive vocals and acoustic guitar. For the next stanza, Ry Cooder changes the song on slide guitar, Wyman jumping in halfway through. Watts comes in as the next stanza is introduced. That’s another pianist with a long history with the Stones: Jack Nitzsche. This is one of the most powerful songs Jagger and Richard have ever produced.

Here I lie in my hospital bed
Tell me, sister Morphine, when are you coming round again?
Oh, I don’t think I can wait that long
Oh, you see that I’m not that strong

The scream of the ambulance is sounding in my ears
Tell me, sister Morphine, how long have I been lying here?
What am I doing in this place?
Why does the doctor have no face?

Oh, I can’t crawl across the floor
Ah, can’t you see, Sister Morphine, I’m trying to score

Well it just goes to show
Things are not what they seem
Please, sister Morphine, turn my nightmares into dreams
Oh, can’t you see I’m fading fast?
And that this shot will be my last

Sweet cousin Cocaine, lay your cool cool hand on my head
Ah, come on, sister Morphine, you better make up my bed
‘Cause you know and I know in the morning I’ll be dead
Yeah, and you can sit around, yeah and you can watch all
The clean white sheets stained red

Sticky Fingers — deluxe reissue

“Dead Flowers” (4:05) [9] is another song, like “Wild Horses” and others before and after, where Jagger works to imitate American country vocals. This is such a change from the nightmare story of the previous song. The guitar work is outstanding, and Wyman and Watts keep everybody in line. Stewart is tinkling the ivories.

The album ends with the unusual “Moonlight Mile” (5:56) [10], augmented again by Buckmaster’s strings and Price, this time on piano. Watts’ drumming defines the deliberate pace here.


What did they mean by Sticky Fingers, anyhow?

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