'Sticky Fingers' By The Rolling Stones: Album History, Meaning, And Stories

Music | April 23, 2020

Mick Jagger & Keith Richards performing live onstage on March 9, 1971 (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

Sticky Fingers had to be a defining album for the Rolling Stones. Going into the 1970s broke, down an original member, and with the travesty of the Altamont festival behind them, the group had to prove that they were worth listening to. With their backs against the wall the Stones put out one of the best rock ’n roll albums ever made.

The first Stones album of the ‘70s doesn’t have the rambling excess of Exile on Main Street, instead it features some of the sharpest writing of the Keith Richards and Mick Jagger’s catalogue propelled by the group’s need to leave everything on the table. It’s a focused and daring album and it almost didn’t happen.

Rolling Stones Records was created to get the band out of debt

source: wikipedia

By the end of the ‘60s the Rolling Stones had accrued a fortune that was estimated to be worth around £100,000,000 but they never saw a farthing of that princely sum. After ending their relationship with their label ABKCO Jagger turned to Prince Rupert Loewenstein, a Bavarian aristocrat and merchant banker who took on the role as the group’s financial manager. Loewenstein realized that the band was owed the UK government millions in back taxes and that they needed to make a lot of money if they were going to be solvent again. Jagger later said:

I just didn’t think about taxes and no manager I ever had thought about it, even though they said they were going to make sure my taxes were paid. So after working for seven years I discovered nothing had been paid and I owed a fortune.

To fill their coffers and get out of debt the band did what they do best - play live. By all accounts the group was burnt after the ‘60s but they had to go on the road to make some much needed cash. To make sure that they held onto their money this time around the group decided to found their own label, Rolling Stones Records, and they licensed their recordings through Atlantic Records. Marshall Chess from Chess records was hired to run the business side of things and the band prepared to enter the next stage of the Rolling Stones.

Three songs were recorded in Muscle Shoals

source: Muscle Shoals Sound Studio

When the Stones toured America in 1969 they decided to make a stop at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama, where they recorded “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses,” and “You Gotta Move” in three short days. According to Keith, the band wanted to check out the studio because so many of the songs that they loved were recorded there. It turned out that it was just the right place for the band to start laying down tracks. He said:

[The session] one of the easiest and rockingest sessions we’d ever done. I don’t think we’ve been quite so prolific… ever. Those sessions were as vital to me as any I’ve ever done. I mean, all the other stuff we did – ‘Beggars Banquet’, ‘Gimme Shelter’, ‘Street Fighting Man’, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ – I’ve always wondered that if we had cut them at Muscle Shoals, if they might have been a little bit funkier.

As quickly as these songs came together, the recording of Sticky Fingers stretched on for more than a year.

The rest of the album was recorded in Hampshire, England

source: rolling stones

From Alabama to England, the Rolling Stones got out of the studio while working on the rest of the record. In March 1970 the group decamped to Stargroves, the manor home owned by Mick Jagger in East Woodhay in Hampshire. They used a mobile recording unit that allowed them to work whenever they wanted which allowed for the tracks to have different takes with guests who dropped by throughout summer and autumn. The sessions were so good at Stargroves that pretty much every song that the band recorded was used in one way or another. If something didn’t end up on “Sticky Fingers” it made its way to “Exile on Main Street.”

“Sticky Fingers” is a return to form for the band

source: far out magazine

In the late ‘60s the Stones experimented with different kinds of instrumentation for a rock band like the autoharp, congas, and fiddle, but “Sticky Fingers” was strictly a rock ’n roll album. The band: Mick Jagger. Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and Mick Taylor are considered to be the best line up of the group and while their two guitar, bass, drums, and vocal attack make up most of the tracks they do bring in guests for the keys and horns. Saxophonist Bobby Keys and keyboardists Billy Preston add to the atmosphere and take already top notch songs and infuse them with a bluesy excitement.

The biggest impact on the album is the introduction of Mick Taylor as an official member of the group. Pulled from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to replace Brian Jones in 1969, Taylor is a player that’s unlike anything heard in a Rolling Stones lineup. His lead lines are clean and smooth, and they articulate Jaggers’ vocal lines as if they’re being pulled through his pickups. “Sticky Fingers” is a killer introduction for Taylor, but his greatest moment is on the live bootleg “Bedspring Symphony” from 1973.

Keith Richards was slipping into heroin addiction during the recording

source: New York Times

Richards has always been known for his exotic intake, but by 1970 he was completely out of control. His heroin addiction lead to takes being ruined or just put off completely because he couldn’t perform. He wrote in his autobiography:

[It was] the periods with nothing to do that got me into heroin. It was more of an adrenaline imbalance. You have to be an athlete out there, but when the tour stops, suddenly your body don’t know there ain’t a show the next night. The body is saying, ‘What am I gonna do, leap out in the street?’ It was a very hard readjustment. And I found smack made it much easier for me to slow down very smoothly and gradually.

He slowed down so much that he doesn’t even play on one of the album’s standout tracks “Moonlight Mile.” Instead, Mick Jagger plays the acoustic guitar on the track while Mick Taylor plays lead.

"Wild Horses" was recorded by Gram Parsons a year before it appeared on “Sticky Fingers”

source: Morrison Hotel

There are few rock ’n roll friendships that are as important as that of Keith Richard and Gram Parsons, the country troubadour who essentially created the genre of country-rock. Richards and Parsons were both keen songwriters who loved to do drugs, so it’s not a shock that they spent a lot of time together in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s before Parsons’ death.

Parsons most certainly influenced the new country leanings of the Rolling Stones, but by all accounts Jagger and Richards were the primary songwriters behind “Wild Horses,” the group’s ode to being on tour and the lost love a good woman. The song is one of the top 10 tearjerkers of all time, so why let Parsons release his version with The Flying Burrito Brothers first? Pamela Des Barres, author and former rock and roll groupie, says that Parsons was under the influence that the song was a gift. She writes:

Gram added the obviously countrified element to songs such as ‘Send Me Dead Flowers’ and ‘Country Honk.’ SOME even say that Gram actually helped write ‘Wild Horses.’ Most of it, perhaps? Mick’s brother told Uncut mag back in ’13 that it was definitely a Parsons composition… Either way, when Chris and Gram invited Miss Mercy and me to A&M studios to the recording session for this glorious composition, Gram proudly insisted that Mick and Keith had given it to him for the Burritos to cover.

Jagger has spoken about the recording of the track and in the liner notes for the ’93 compilation “Jump Back” he says:

I remember we sat around originally doing this with Gram Parsons, and I think his version came out slightly before ours. Everyone always says this was written about Marianne but I don't think it was; that was all well over by then. But I was definitely very inside this piece emotionally.

The album art is just as important as the music

source: rolling stones records

It’s impossible to think of “Sticky Fingers” without imagining the suggestive album cover showing a man in a pair of tight jeans, his zipper at the ready. The suggestive cover comes from a collaboration between Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol. The earliest pressings of the record feature an actual zipper that can be pulled down to show a pair of underwear.

To this day no one is certain exactly who the model is on the front of the album. Initially people believed that it was Jagger, but people involved with the photo shoot say that Warhol used multiple models and nome of them were the iconic singer. Warhol never said which shot was used for the photo but the most likely possibilities are Jay Johnson, the twin brother of Warhol’s lover at the time, Jed, and Corey Tippin. Although Joe Dallesandro also claims to have been the model for the shoot.

“Sticky Fingers” is the first use of the tongue logo

source: rolling stones records

The Rolling Stones red lips and tongue logo may be as well known as the actual band at this point, but they didn’t start using it until 1971. Prior to the release of the album Jagger realized that the key to turning a profit was to treat the band like a corporation, and every corporation worth their salt has a good logo. He explained:

I was looking for a logo when we started Rolling Stones Records. I had this calendar on my wall, it was an Indian calendar, which you’ll see in Indian grocery stores, and it’s the goddess Kali, which is the very serious goddess of carnage and so forth. And she has, apart from her body, this tongue that sticks out. So I took that to John Pasche and he ‘modernized’ it somewhat.

The lips and tongue logo is the Rolling Stones boiled down to one image. It’s sexy, playful, loud, and brash.

The album was a hit in spite of mixed reactions

source: BBC

“Sticky Fingers” was a massive hit. That shouldn’t be a surprise, it’s a Rolling Stones that opens with “Brown Sugar,” but at the time of its release the critical set was underwhelmed by the record. A New York Times review wrote that it was no longer clear whether or not the band was “relevant,” and Jon Landau’s review in Rolling Stone said that the band sounded “detached” and calculated.

Listening to the album today, it sounds anything but detached. “Sticky Fingers” injected the juice the band needed to take over their second decade and looking back it’s one of the most consistent albums in the band’s catalogue, something that seems impossible when you think about the circumstances surrounding the group at the time. With “Sticky Fingers” the Rolling Stones left death, bankruptcy, and the preconceived notions of what they were in the ‘60s and moved into a more decadent era.

Tags: Classic Albums | Keith Richards | Mick Jagger | Sticky Fingers | The Rolling Stones

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.