The band’s first album of the 1970s, Sticky Fingers was the ninth British and 11th American studio album by The Rolling Stones. Released in April 1971, it became the first Stones album to make #1 on both sides of the Atlantic and in many other countries around the globe.
Sticky Fingers was a landmark album for the Stones: it was the first release on the band’s newly formed label, Rolling Stones Records, (having been contracted since 1963 to Decca Records in the UK and London Records in the US), it was Mick Taylor’s first full-length appearance on a Stones album, it was the first Stones album not to feature any contributions from founding guitarist Brian Jones and the first one on which Mick Jagger is credited with playing guitar. The album also featured the first usage of the band’s ‘tongue & lips’ logo, which was originally designed by John Pasche.
Sessions for Sticky Fingers began in earnest in March 1970, although the Stones had recorded at Muscle Shoals Studios in Alabama in December 1969, laying down Brown Sugar and Wild Horses. Sister Morphine, cut even earlier during the Let It Bleed sessions earlier in March of that year, was held over for this release. Much of the remaining recording for Sticky Fingers was done during the summer and autumn of 1970 with The Rolling Stones’ mobile studio at Mick Jagger’s Stargroves mansion in Berkshire, UK. Early versions of songs that would appear on Exile On Main Street were also rehearsed during these sessions.
Throughout Sticky Fingers, narcotics are a major theme, with well over half the songs explicitly mentioning drug use, but emotions of loss, frustration and incredible world-weariness are also explored. Opening cuts on Stones albums have always been special, and the Stones repeated this with Brown Sugar. It had a simultaneous release as a single and topped the American charts for two weeks, although surprisingly it only made #2 in the UK. Sticky Fingers stayed at #1 in the UK for four weeks, at a time when Knock Three Times by Dawn was the single chart-topper. Most people would probably say that Brown Sugar has more ably stood the test of time.
Wild Horses was another single in the US, but not in Britain. Elsewhere, the Mississippi Delta serves as a touchstone for some of Jagger’s most heartfelt emoting, as on I Got The Blues and You’ve Gotta Move. Moonlight Mile, a coked-out, somnambulant drift through an era’s last days, closes the album, a beautiful end to a beautiful journey.
The album’s artwork, designed by American pop artist Andy Warhol, emphasises the suggestive innuendo of the Sticky Fingers title, showing a close-up of a jeans-clad male crotch; the cover of the original (vinyl) release featured a working zipper which caused retailers problems, finding that the zipper was causing damage to the vinyl from stacked shipments of the record. To combat this, the zipper was ‘unzipped’ for shipping, slightly to the middle of the record, where damage would be minimised.
The vinyl release displayed the band’s name and album title along the image of the belt; behind the zipper the white briefs were seemingly rubber stamped in gold with Andy Warhol’s name. The cover photo of a male model’s crotch clad in tight blue jeans was assumed by many fans to be an image of Mick Jagger, but the people actually involved at the time of the photo shoot claim that Warhol had several different men photographed (Jagger not amongst them) and never revealed which shots he used. Among the candidates, Jed Johnson, Warhol’s lover at the time, denied it was his likeness, although his twin brother Jay is a possibility. Those closest to the shoot, and subsequent design, name Factory artist and designer Corey Tippin as the likeliest candidate.
In Spain, the original cover was censored and replaced with a ‘Can of fingers in treacle’ cover, and Sister Morphine was replaced by a live version of Chuck Berry’s Let It Rock, recorded at Leeds University and released on single as one of the ‘B’ side tracks of the Brown Sugar single.
In 1992, the LP release of the album in Russia featured a similar treatment as the original cover, but with Cyrillic lettering for the band name and album name, a colourised photograph of blue jeans with a zipper, and a Soviet Army uniform belt buckle that shows a hammer and sickle inscribed in a star. The model appears to be female.
Sticky Fingers uses the support cast of Bobby Keys on saxophone, Ian Stewart, Jack Nitzsche, Jim Dickinson and Nicky Hopkins on piano, Billy Preston plays organ on Can’t You Hear Me Knocking and I Got The Blues, Rocky Dijon, congas on Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, Jim Price, trumpet, (and piano on Moonlight Mile), Jimmy Miller on percussion. Ry Cooder plays slide guitar on Sister Morphine, and both Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane provide backing vocals on Sway.
Sticky Fingers spent a respectable 25 weeks on the UK chart, and 26 weeks on the US chart. With its offhand mixture of decadence, roots music, and outright malevolence, balancing on the knife edge between the 1960s and 1970s, Sticky Fingers set the tone for the rest of the decade for the Stones.