“Brown Sugar”: It begins with some magical raunch chords on the right channel. In the tradition of great guitar intros (“All Day and All of the Night,” “Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown,” and “Satisfaction” itself) it transfixes you: instant recognition, instant connection. Suddenly the electric guitar is joined by an acoustic guitar on the left channel, an acoustic that is merely strumming the chords that the electric is spitting out with such fury. It washes over the electric to no apparent purpose, stripping it momentarily of its authority and intensity. and so, in the first 15 seconds of the albums first cut we are presented with its major conflict: driving, intense, wide-open rock versus a controlled and manipulative musical conception determined to fill every whole and touch every base.
As soon as the voices come on, the acoustic recedes into inaudibility: on “Brown Sugar” wide open rock wins by a hair, but it is a hollow victory. Opening cuts on Stones albums have always been special, fro the early ones — “Not Fade Away,” “Round and Round,” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love: — with their promise of rock and roll to come, to the tour de force openings of the later albums — “Symphony for the Devil” and “Gimme Shelter” — which served as overwhelming entrances into a more complex musical world view.
At their best these opening cuts were statements of themes that transcended both the theme itself and the music that was to follow. As I listened to “Sticky Fingers,” for the first time I thought “Brown Sugar” was good, but not that good. I certainly hoped it wasn’t the best thing on the album. As it turns out, there are a few moments that surpass it but it still sets the tone for the album perfectly: middle-level Rolling Stones competence. The lowpoints aren’t that low, but the high points, with one exception, aren’t that high.
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As to the performance itself, the chords, harmony, and song are powerful stuff. The instrumentation however, is too diffuse, occasionally undermining the vocals instead of supporting them. But when Richards joins Jagger for the last chorus they finally make it home free.
“Sway”: Vaguely reminiscent of “Stray Cat Blues” but not nearly so powerful. The sound is characteristic Rolling Stones messiness enhanced by the unusual degree of separation in the mix. Charlie Watts bashes away with the smirking abandon that made him such a delight on songs like “Get Off My Cloud” and “All Sold Out.” But unlike early Stones messiness, “Sway” lacks intensity. It never reaches a goal because it doesn’t seem to have one. Rather, it remains a series of riffs whose lack of content is obscured by prolonged and indifferent guitar semi-solos and a fine string arrangement that suddenly enters towards the end.
“Wild Horses”: A good song with lots of good things in it that doesn’t quite come off. The acoustic 12-string stands out over everything else in the arrangement — perhaps a little too far out, as the rest of the instruments sound like mere fragments, wandering in and out of the track at arbitrary intervals.
Jagger’s vocal is clearly audible for the first time on the album and I don’t care for it. It is mannered, striving for intensity without being wholly convincing. Musically, the more complex the Stones get the m ore inadequate he sometimes sounds. The man is a stylist as opposed to a singer. He has always lacked power and range: on 15 albums he has never really grabbed hold of a note and let it ring. At his best, he sings around the notes — plays with them — dancing in and out with precision.
Or, he can let himself go entirely, with no attempt at stylistic posturing and thereby achieving an almost incredibly naturalism. But, on “Wild Horses,” there is a pint in which the only thing that will work is a good note, well sung, sustained and sufficient to stand on its own. It is not to be found. A musical attitude is not a replacement for a musical style and style is not a replacement for essential technique, which is what is missing here.
The longing of the song’s lyrics coupled with its ultimate hope constitute as much of a theme a there is on this record. Typically (since “Between the Buttons”) the Stones’ statement alternates between aggressive sexuality and warmer, more subtly erotic statements of emotional dependence and openness. The flirtation with social significance of the last two albums has been almost wholly abandoned in what appears to be something of a recommitment to more personal subject matter.
“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”: Years ago, when I first heard that the Stones had recorded something 11 minutes long, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it, thinking it was sure to be the definitive rave-up and hoping it would finally put the Yardbirds and Them in their place. When I finally heard “Going Home” I realized the Stones couldn’t conceive of a long cut as anything but a vehicle for Jagger to project through. Given the time to stretch out, they went for the mellow down easy side with the emphasis on the voice rather than the instruments.
Now they have done something with a long instrumental break in it and it ain’t bad. On the other hand, I can’t see what it really has to do with the Rolling Stones. The song is good but once into the solos there is a touch of R&B, a touch of Santana, but nothing to really identify with. So maybe they had the right idea the first time. For old times sake I do hope that the really boring guitar solo is by Mick Taylor and that those great surging chords in the background are by Keith Richards, the original Sixties rock and roll guitarist, and mast of Chuck Berry music, and the soul of the Rolling Stones.
“You Gotta Move”: Anyway, for the present, Mick Taylor’s electric slide guitar is absolutely exquisite. Combined with Richard’s fine work on the acoustic they create one of the album’s few real moments. Charlie Watts’ bass drum holds it together perfectly, while Richard’s harmony smoothes off the more outrageous edges of Jagger’s lead vocal. In the end, all the pieces fit. A small but important triumph.
“Bitch”: Jagger in one of his most popular poses: demonic. here he flaunts naughty words and naughty thoughts as if he still thought they were naughty. The arrangement is straight-ahead. The horns sound great here as they are used primarily for purposes of syncopation and rhythm. The bass and drums — the Rolling Stones bottom that has driven its way through over 200 cuts and which is the true instrumental trademark of the group — burns like a bitch.
“I’ve Got the Blues”: In the tradition of the earlier R&B Imitations such as “Pain In My Heart,” “You Better Move On,” “If You Need Me,” and best of all their great “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” However, this is the first time they actually added Stax horns. It’s good as far as it goes, but lacks the feeling of the earlier imitations. It all seems pro forma. The worst cut the Rolling Stones ever released was “I’ve Been Lovin’ You Too Long” (which sounds very much like a studio recording even though it showed up on “Got Live I You Want It”). Jagger couldn’t sing it. Here he almost sings up a storm, but in the end its the part he didn’t sing that stays in mind. Somehow, it isn’t complete.
“Sister Morphine”: This was supposed to be stark, intense and realistic. Some hear it that way. I find it lyrically convincing, but labored to the point of being unlistenable musically. Perhaps that is part of the conception: obviously, a song about morphine should not be pleasant to hear. The question is, is the song unpleasant because it makes us uncomfortable emotionally, or simply because it is an awkward and unsuccessful attempt to depict reality through music?
“Dead Flowers”: I suppose somewhere along the line they thought of calling the album “Dead Flowers,” which would have justified this cut’s presence at some level. Despite its parodistic intentions, the mere thought of the Stones doing straight country music is simply appalling. And they do it so poorly, especially the lead guitar. The cut is ordinary without being either definitive or original.
“Moonlight Mile”: From “Brown Sugar” we had to wait all the way to here to get a masterpiece. The semi-oriental touch seems to heighten the song’s intense expression of desire, which is the purest and most engaging emotion present on the record. The sense of personal commitment and emotional spontaneity immediately liberate Jagger’s (double-tracked) singing: it’s limitations become irrelevant and he rises to the occasion by turning in his best performance on the album — the only thing that compares with his singing of “Gimme Shelter.”
There is something soulful here, something deeply felt: “I’ve got silence on the radio, let the airwaves flow, let the airwaves flow.” Paul Buckmaster, Elton John’s arranger, does the best job with strings I can remember in a long, long time, while Charlie Watts only goes through the motions of loosening up his style, as he comes down hard on the nearly magical line, “Just about a moonlight mile.”
The cut contains that rave-up they never gave us on “Goin Home”; perhaps it is just a filling out of the intensely erotic climax that came towards the end of that song (“Sha-la-la,” and all of that). When Jagger finally says “Here we go, now” as Mick Taylor’s guitar (Richard is inexplicably absent) falls perfectly into place with a hypnotic chord pattern, it’s as if he is taking our hand and is literally going to walk us down his dream road. As the strings push the intensity level constantly upwards and Charlie emphasizes the development with fabulous cymbal crashes, the energy becomes unmistakably erotic — erotic as opposed to merely sexual, erotic in a way that the entire rest of the album is not. The expression of need that dominates so much of the record is transformed from a hostile statement into a plea and a statement of warmth and receptiveness.
This cut really does sway and when Jagger’s voice re-enters, it is with none of the forced attempts at style and control present on the rest of the album, but with the kind of abandon that he seems uniquely capable of. And unique is the best word to describe the cut as a whole: after nine songs that hover around the middle, they finally hit the high note and make a statement that is not just original but that could have only come from them.
At least it gives me hope for the future.
AFTER THE BUTTONS
The early Stones were adolescent rockers. They were self-conscious in an obvious and unpretentious way. And they were committed to a musical style that needed no justification because it came so naturally to them. As they grew musically the mere repetition of old rock and blues tunes became increasingly less satisfying. They went from doing other people’s material to doing their own. From doing their own, basic rock & roll material they began to strive for a more contemporary feeling and approach at all levels, especially production (first on Between the Buttons and then on Their Satanic Majesties Request). After the failure of Satanic Majesties they went back to rock & roll to recharge themselves, mixed it with contemporary themes and production styles, and come up with Beggar’s Banquet and Let It Bleed.
Those two albums are responsible for the Stones’ reputation with most of their current audience and comprised the bulk of their material on their tour of America. The darker side of those albums was all but ignored. Where the early Stones had been, if anything, too anarchic and too abandoned, they now became too controlled and manipulative. At their best, on “Gimme Shelter,” they could use the production to break through conventions into pure feeling. But on cuts like “Salt of the Earth” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” they showed insufficient versatility to handle the demands of production. They plodded instead of rocking, seemingly mired down by their conception of what they were supposed to do rather than being involved with what they wanted to do.
On Sticky Fingers, it doesn’t really sound like they are doing what they want to. Play “Brown Sugar” and then play any opening cut from the first five albums. The early ones are sloppy, messy, and vulgar. They are brash and almost ruthless in their energy. And they sound real. By comparison “Brown Sugar,” for all its formal correctness is an artifice. Ultimately they sound detached from it, as they do from all but a few things on Sticky Fingers. The two million hours they joke about spending on this record must have surely resulted from uncertainty about what it was they wanted to hear when they were through. On the other hand, those early records always sounded (whether they were is irrelevant) as if they were recorded in a day, without any overdubbing, comprised mainly of first takes. They reverberated with off the wall spunk and spontaneity.
Obviously the Stones can’t go back to that: it would be redundant and incredibly limiting for them. But perhaps they have now gone too far the other way. If Sticky Fingers suffers from any one thing it’s its own self-defeating calculating nature. Its moments of openness and feeling are too few: its moments where I know I should be enjoying it but am not, too great.