If Exile on Main St. is considered the Rolling Stones' creative peak – and it often is – then Sticky Fingers helped get them most of the way there.

Unlike Sticky Fingers, Exile was recorded piecemeal, using leftovers from the previous album's sessions at Olympic Studios in London and at Mick Jagger's Stargroves manor in Berkshire. They added some druggy, somnolent stuff later recorded at Keith Richards' villa in France, then completed things in Los Angeles. But it was never meant to be a statement, like Sticky Fingers, and doesn't hold together as well as a tight, focused song cycle. And without Sticky Fingers to provide a foundation of ideas – including "Tumbling Dice," "Sweet Virginia," "Shine a Light" and "Stop Breaking Down" – it's arguable that Exile would be so critically celebrated.

Not a moment is wasted on Sticky Fingers; every riff lands. And as the first Rolling Stones album recorded completely with Mick Taylor, it heralds a new musical beginning. His ideas sharpened, and broadly expanded, their sound. Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed, the Rolling Stones' two preceding LPs, are no doubt brilliant. But in some very important ways, they sound nothing like this project. Here's why, as we offer a track-by-track guide to the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers.

"Brown Sugar"

Mick Jagger's instantly controversial "Brown Sugar" is the most popular song you've ever heard about drugs, rape, cunnilingus and slavery. It's got more triggers than Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch.

Everything about its genesis happened in the blink of an eye. The Rolling Stones recorded "Brown Sugar" during a remarkably productive three-day session on Dec. 2-4, 1969 at Muscle Shoals in Sheffield, Ala., with Jagger completing the lyrics over a 45-minute span – then quickly stepping up to the mic. They debuted it two days later on Dec. 6 at the infamous Altamont Speedway show.

But Let It Bleed had just arrived on store shelves, and the band was descending into legal wrangles with its soon-to-be former manager. So "Brown Sugar" didn't finally arrive as the lead single from their long-awaited follow-up LP, Sticky Fingers, until April 1971.

The track shot to No. 1 in the U.S. and Canada, while hitting No. 2 in Britain and Ireland, but certainly hadn't gotten any less controversial. Along the way, "Brown Sugar" has been called "something out of a dystopian horror film or a tale of 19th century-era evil," one of the most racist songs in music history, a moment that "gleefully backstrokes through toxic waters."

It's complicated. "God knows what I'm on about on that song," Jagger bluntly admitted in a 1995 talk with Rolling Stone. "It's such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go." So, some editing has taken place over the years.

He'll change the line "just like a black girl should" to "young" girl in concert – though that's somewhat problematic, too. He'll also apologize when the subject comes up: "I didn't think about it at the time," Jagger told Rolling Stone. "I never would write that song now. I would probably censor myself. I'd think, 'Oh, God, I can't. I've got to stop.'"

 

"Sway"

Guitarist Mick Taylor's career-altering departure from the Rolling Stones can be traced back to this song, the first recorded at Jagger's Stargroves home.

His five-year run included contributions to three of their very best albums – with 1972's Exile on Main St. as the centerpiece – but Taylor felt he was never given his due for creative contributions on tracks like "Sway," where his outro pushes a slow, drawling Jagger-Richards blues to soaring new levels.

"Let's put it this way: Without my contribution those songs would not have existed," Taylor told The Guardian in 2009, while threatening to lawyer up. "There's not many – but enough things like 'Sway' and 'Moonlight Mile' on Sticky Fingers and a couple of others. Mick had promised to give me some credit for some of the songs, and he didn't."

Taylor's simmering anger finally boiled over during sessions for 1974's It's Only Rock 'n' Roll, which the guitarist said included two songs ("Till the Next Goodbye" and "Time Waits for No One") with significant unacknowledged contributions. A sense of unfinished business would permeate his tenure, and that plays out in microcosm on "Sway."

The song fades before reaching the four-minute mark, presumably leaving some choice Taylor asides on the cutting-room floor. He later offered a scorching seven-minute version on a 1991 live collaboration with Carla Olson, Too Hot for Snakes. Taylor wouldn't perform "Sway" with the Rolling Stones until their guest-packed 50 & Counting tour in 2013, having apparently patched things up over songwriting credits.

 

"Wild Horses"

Keith Richards had a melody, and the title. Jagger did the rest, walking a fine lyrical line that kept the melancholy country lope of "Wild Horses" from slipping into the banal. "I like the song; it's an example of a pop song," Jagger told Rolling Stone, adding that he was proud of "taking this cliche 'wild horses' – which is awful, really – but making it work without sounding like a cliche when you're doing it."

They actually finished composing the song in the studio bathroom at Muscle Shoals, Richards said in his autobiography Life, because they were unsatisfied with the way "Wild Horses" originally ended.

"If there is a classic way of Mick and me working together, this is it," Richards later ruminated. "I had the riff and chorus line, Mick got stuck into the verses. Just like 'Satisfaction,' 'Wild Horses' was about the usual thing of not wanting to be on the road, being a million miles from where you want to be."

It immediately attracted the attention of one of music's great wanderers: Gram Parsons was around during the Alabama sessions and ended up releasing his own version of "Wild Horses" on the Flying Burrito Brothers' Burrito Deluxe album before the Stones original arrived as the second Sticky Fingers single more than a year later.

 

"Can't You Hear Me Knocking"

"Generally, I tried to bring my own distinctive sound and style to Sticky Fingers, and I like to think I added some extra spice," Mick Taylor said in 2013's 50 Licks: Myths and Stories From Half a Century of the Rolling Stones. "I don't want to say 'sophistication'; I think that sounds pretentious. Charlie said I brought 'finesse.' That's a better word. I'll go with what Charlie said."

Case in point: "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." As a lengthy instrumental segment begins at roughly 2:43, the session has become a rabble of interweaving, presumably song-closing sounds: Richards' grubby open-G intro has given way to an extended turn on sax by Bobby Keys, some eruptive conga work by Rocky Dijon and a tangled conversation with Mick Taylor. Then the room quiets.

Taylor doesn't so much kick down the door as slip in the back way at 4:40, playing with a serpentine, Carlos Santana-esque quiver. "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" then concludes with a metallic riff so infectious that soon his bandmates are rushing back in.

"Towards the end of the song, I just felt like carrying on playing," Taylor said in 1979. "Everybody was putting their instruments down, but the tape was still rolling and it sounded good, so everybody quickly picked up their instruments again and carried on playing. It just happened, and it was a one-take thing."

 

"You Gotta Move"

Their December 1969 visit to one of the Deep South's legendary studio spaces perhaps inevitably led to an old blues – in this case, Mississippi Fred McDowell's languid hill-country update of the gospel favorite "You Gotta Move."

"We're down in Alabama, we're in Muscle Shoals – we gotta cut some Fred McDowell stuff," Richards said in the documentary Muscle Shoals. "If ever I'm gonna do it, it's gotta be here."

But taping "You Gotta Move" was actually a long time coming. The Stones had been jamming around the song for years, picking up on McDowell's version from a 1965 album of the same name. McDowell followed an arrangement very much in keeping with Walter Vinson's "Sitting on Top of the World," while retaining some more recent lyrical changes from the Rev. Gary Davis.

Same here. What takes this update out of the realm of the ordinary is Mick Taylor. "'You Gotta Move' was this great Fred McDowell song that we used to play all the time in the studio," Taylor told Martin Chilton. "I used a slide on that – on an old 1954 Fender Telecaster – and that was the beginning of that slide thing I tried to develop with the Stones."

They actually started off the Alabama sessions with "You Gotta Move," rounding out this warm-up song turned Side One closer with a very unusual drum pattern from Charlie Watts, Jagger's rustic yowl and a rare turn on a 12-string by Richards.

 

"Bitch"

The B-side to "Brown Sugar" didn't shy away from controversy either. The difference was how much more difficulty they had completing "Bitch."

The Rolling Stones struggled through multiple late-night takes across sessions at both Olympic Studios in London and inside the mobile studio at Jagger's Stargroves estate before finally nailing it. A late riff contribution from Richards sealed the deal.

"When we were doing 'Bitch,' Keith was very late," Sticky Fingers engineer Andy Johns says in 2016's All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track. "Jagger and Mick Taylor had been playing the song without him, and it didn't sound very good. I walked out of the kitchen, and [Richards] was sitting on the floor with no shoes, eating a bowl of cereal. Suddenly he said, 'Oi, Andy! Give me that guitar.' I handed him his clear Dan Armstrong Plexiglass guitar, he put it on, kicked the song up in tempo and just put the vibe right on it. Instantly, it went from being this laconic mess into a real groove. And I thought, 'Wow, that's what he does.'"

The honky brass – provided by Bobby Keys and Jim Price – was overdubbed at Stargroves. As with so much during this period of creative wonder, their presence was pure happenstance. "It's a guitar song, but it's also somewhat dependent on the horn lines; there's a very heavy horn line on it," Jagger later remembered. "There was an upstairs apartment in my house, and we put them up there. I don't know why, but there they were, and they did the part over and over."

 

"I Got the Blues"

"I Got the Blues" isn't really a blues at all. Instead, the Rolling Stones approached this original with a feel – both in emotional import and musical build up – that recalls classics like Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long." Keys and Price return, this time with a sighing sense of heartbreak, while Stones ace-in-the-hole Billy Preston adds a Stax-y Hammond gurgle.

That the Stones were able to maintain this unhurried tempo is no small thing. The tendency, never given into by the old Memphis greats, was to begin to rush – in particular as a song like "I Got the Blues" reaches its stirring climax. But Watts and Bill Wyman hold ever steady, allowing Jagger's barking pain to cut through.

There are a number of small moments on Sticky Fingers – this song chief among them – that seem to directly reference Jagger's difficult and drawn-out split with Marianne Faithful. In some cases, as with "Wild Horses," he's specifically denied a connection. But Faithful's presence simply permeates "I Got the Blues," a song that picks at the scabs of a lost relationship dotted with scandal, drugs, a miscarriage and a suicide attempt.

 

"Sister Morphine"

The Rolling Stones' lengthy contractual disagreements with Allen Klein meant that, once again, a Sticky Fingers cut followed another earlier-released version – this time, cowriter Marianne Faithfull's take on "Sister Morphine." They're substantially similar, with the Jagger-Richards sessions also including Ry Cooder on slide and bass guitar and Jack Nitzsche on keyboards. (Jagger and Watts appear on Faithfull's version, too.)

There followed yet another legal disagreement about songwriting credits: The U.S. version of the single omitted her name; Faithfull wasn't initially credited on the album either. She was finally added to reissues following the Rolling Stones' '90s-era deal with Virgin Records.

Jagger blithely dismissed the whole thing years later: Faithfull "wrote a couple of lines; she always says she wrote everything, though," he said in 2017's The Singer-Songwriter Handbook. "She's always complaining she doesn't get enough money from it. Now she says she should have got it all." He argued that the phrase "cousin cocaine" amounted to her entire contribution.

Faithfull recorded her version during sessions for Let It Bleed, long before the dark pull of illicit drugs that moves through "Sister Morphine" became painfully true: She was an addict by the time the Rolling Stones version appeared.

 

"Dead Flowers"

Unlike so many Stones songs that found their footing through in-studio collaborations, "Dead Flowers" arrived fully formed. Jagger had been working on it at home for some time.

Such was his familiarity, in fact, that Jagger had set-in-stone ideas about how things should go: He demanded they play the country-infused track a step or two faster than the rest of his bandmates would have preferred. He also affected an over-the-top country accent. The finished song tends to make a deeply vulnerable moment anything but.

"I love country music, but I find it very hard to take it seriously," Jagger confided in the 1995 Rolling Stone interview. "I also think a lot of country music is sung with the tongue in cheek, so I do it tongue in cheek."

The setting is actually note-perfect: Richards happily riffs against Jagger's hound-dog warble in the verses, while Taylor draws gorgeous lines through his chorus. The wounded backing vocals also make clear what's at stake, no matter how quickly Jagger tries to turn away from heartbreak. He later admitted that Richards might have been better suited to sing "Dead Flowers," the closest the Rolling Stones ever get to a stumble on this album.

 

"Moonlight Mile"

Another largely solo Jagger composition closes out Sticky Fingers, and – unlike "Dead Flowers" – it's an unfettered triumph. "As far as I can remember," Richards said in Life, "Mick came in with the whole idea of that, and the band just figured out how to play it."

It wouldn't be easy, as Jagger's novice-level guitar talents led him to what he once called "this vaguely Oriental guitar line." He was finally convinced to show the others how "Moonlight Mile" went, after first feeling that the unusual structure and lonesome lyric weren't appropriate for the Stones. Listening as they rode inside a first-class railway compartment on the way from London to Bristol, Taylor quickly followed Jagger's musical train of thought – then built on it.

In fact, Taylor said a subsequent riff that he'd developed inspired the unresolved string arrangement from Paul Buckmaster that billows up to give "Moonlight Mile" its remarkable power. Watts adds to the spooky atmospherics by switching to mallets, adding a rich and subtle rhythm.

Continuing a theme, the Rolling Stones' second guitarist would be given no credit on the track. Still, the results became "a real dreamy kind of semi-Middle Eastern piece," Jagger told Rolling Stone. "Yeah, that's a real pretty song – and a nice string arrangement." Somewhere, Mick Taylor is smashing a perfectly good Gibson Les Paul Standard right now.

 

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