The Rolling Stones in 1972
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
For The Record: Inside The Wild Ride Behind The Rolling Stones' 'Sticky Fingers' At 50
The succession of high-profile drug busts and tragedies that shadowed the Rolling Stones in the late 1960s came to a head with the 1971 release of the band's 11th U.S. album, Sticky Fingers.
Recorded amid the disastrous Altamont concert aftermath and between famously debauched concert tours of the U.S. and Europe, Sticky Fingers is every bit as raw as the band's lives were at the time. The smoky barroom swagger of "Sway," the twitchy riffs and raspy vocals of "Bitch," and the grooving yet grimy "Brown Sugar" reflect just how wild the rock and roll ride had become for the band.
A drug bust in 1967 that ensnared Mick Jagger and Keith Richards was a prelude to the years that followed. Rolling Stones co-founder Brian Jones drowned in his swimming pool two years later, less than a month after the Stones fired him for excessive drug use, which had led to dwindling involvement with the group; he barely showed up to sessions for Let It Bleed, the band's 10th U.S. album, which was released in the months following his death.
Eager for a fresh start and desperate for cash, the Stones played a now-legendary concert at Hyde Park in London and hit the U.S. for their first tour in two years during the latter half of 1969. Chaos followed the band, culminating in a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in the hills between Livermore and Tracy, California. Billed as a sort of West Coast Woodstock, with a lineup featuring Jefferson Airplane, Santana and the Grateful Dead, the concert instead punctuated the end of the hippie peace-and-love era.
Clashes between members of the Hells Angels motorcycle club, which was hired as concert security at the event, and audience members created an atmosphere so charged, the Grateful Dead chose not to perform, even though they had helped organize the event. One biker assaulted Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin while others took aim at concertgoers like Meredith Hunter, who was stabbed to death in front of the stage during the Stones' performance.
The tragedy followed the triumph of the first recording sessions for Sticky Fingers, which had begun four days earlier at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Florence, Alabama.
Opened earlier that year by a group of session musicians known as the Swampers, who had backed Aretha Franklin on "Respect," the studio was hungry for its first hit. With the Rolling Stones, they got two: "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses," the album's two singles, were tracked at Muscle Shoals, alongside a faithful cover of Mississippi Fred McDowell's "You Gotta Move," between December 2-4.
"Brown Sugar" has the distinction of being one of the most controversial songs to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it peaked in May 1971. Musically, the song is a Stones master class that builds on a signature Richards guitar riff. By the time Bobby Keys blows his climactic saxophone solo, the guitars are playing off each other, percussion and piano are clanging away underneath, and Jagger is howling his head off.
The song's lyrics, however, are another matter. Although Marsha Hunt, a British actress of African descent, with whom Jagger fathered a child in 1970, is credited as the muse behind "Brown Sugar," the song is rife with allusions and outright explicit references to slavery, sex and drugs that were indefensible even half a century ago. In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger called the lyrics "a mishmash" that combines "all the nasty subjects in one go." He appears to have cooled on his lyrical concept over the years, though; in the same interview, he said he "never would write that song now."
At the other end of the spectrum, the country-tinged "Wild Horses" and the album-closing ballad "Moonlight Mile" show a more introspective Jagger, wistful and longing on the former and road-weary on the latter. Acoustic guitars provide the foundation for both songs, as well as "Dead Flowers" and "Sister Morphine," while tremulous guitars and ascending horns accent the otherwise sparse, pleading soul of "I Got the Blues."
Sticky Fingers also marked several key personnel changes in the Rolling Stones universe. The ouster and subsequent death of Brian Jones led them to hire guitarist Mick Taylor, of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, who refueled the band's energy.
Taylor stepped into the role fully on Sticky Fingers, providing nuances like the chiming harmonics on "Wild Horses" and setting the jam-band template with his extended guitar solo on the seven-minute "Can You Hear Me Knocking" over a single-chord vamp. He played all the guitars on "Moonlight Mile" after an increasingly unreliable Richards failed to show up to sessions at Stargroves, Jagger's English countryside home, and often nodded off while high on heroin when he did. Taylor would have to step up more in the coming years as his bandmate's habit grew.
The end of the group's relationship with record label executive Allen Klein and his ABKCO label also gave lift to the band and began the modern era of the Rolling Stones. Sticky Fingers was the first album released on Rolling Stones Records, which debuted the iconic lips-and-tongue logo, designed by John Pasche.
Despite landing right in the middle of what many fans consider their golden era—the four-album run from 1968-1972 that also included Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed and Exile on Main St.—Sticky Fingers marked a rebirth for the Rolling Stones; the album's legacy and impact would continue to evolve in the decades to come.
Sticky Fingers reentered the Top 10 on the Billboard 200 in 2015 following a massive reissue campaign. The Deluxe reissue includes alternate takes, such as "Brown Sugar" recorded with Eric Clapton on guitar and an extended version of "Bitch," alongside live tracks recorded in 1971. The Super Deluxe reissue adds a bonus 13-song live recording from a gig at the University of Leeds that same year.
And while the band members' personal habits veered further off the rails in the Exile on Main St. period and throughout the '70s, "the Rolling Stones" as a corporation grew into a recording, touring, promotion, and merchandising machine. By the end of the decade, the Rolling Stones were a stadium act—and they haven't turned back since.