The 1960s is forever known as the era where musical geniuses inspired the world into a new age. But only a few artists were immortalized as the faces of the dynasty they started. At the height of their fame The Rolling Stones enjoyed an uninterrupted wave of successful albums. As one of the forerunners of The British Invasion, their legion of fans followed their music obsessively into the new decade. But as the times were changing so were the artistry and ideals of the peace and love movement. The band’s 1969 performance at the Altamont Festival marked a close to this chapter of the counterculture movement. For the Stones, it was the start of a new tale to their legacy as they would create the greatest landmark in recorded music.
For the first time in their career the Stones had finally gained creative freedom over their music. The end of their contract with Decca Records allowed the band to produce and release music to their own satisfaction. No pun intended. The idea of returning to their roots style lingered amongst the band members for some time. Up until that point, they’d been known to change and evolve their looks and music. From clean-cut jacket and ties to edgier clothing with a dysphoric, cynical sound. But the group looked to cover familiar ground with the start of a new album that could show-off what led them to being dubbed as “one of the greatest bands in the world”. The timing seemed right for the group. Keith Richards was at his guitar riff peak, Mick Jagger’s voice aged perfectly and the latest addition of blues-guitar wizard Mick Taylor was excellent. The stars aligned and the Stones began their synergy which led to the birth of what millions considered to be their best album: Sticky Fingers.
Recording began in late 1969 at the famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. But most of the production would take place at Jagger’s English manor, Stargroves. The album would contain everything that inspired the group and became synonymous with their sound. Hard rock, roots, folk and every other subgenre of rhythm and blues. Their iconic opener, “Brown Sugar”, encompassed all the major styles of blues-rock that fascinated the band with American music. When delving into the lyrics of the track, though, there are signs of a different kind of euphoria behind the music. Narcotics and other addictions would be themes that showed no hidden identity as they made their presence obvious.
The album comments on the stereotypical sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle but also shares what emotional loss is. “Wild Horses” is just another among a list of examples on what made the songwriting team of Richards and Jagger so innovative. Its conglomerate undertaking of country-folk music exhibits the duo’s versatility to create the most heart-rending track ever heard. Richards has stated, “If there is a classic way of Mick and me working together this is it. “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.” Jagger’s own pain had encapsulated the track as he said, “I was definitely inside this piece emotionally.” The albums dynamics and memorable tracks would set them up as paragons once again. But something was missing from this vexation of artistic performances. A cover. Luckily, Jagger knew who the right man for the job would be.
Jagger had become close to pioneering artist Andy Warhol who suggested to the singer his different ideas on an album cover. What followed was the design for one of the most controversial covers ever displayed on an album. The image of a black and white close-up of a man in jeans featured a real zipper that could be pulled down. Warhol’s former manager would state, “Andy was sensible enough to know not to be pretentious when doing album covers. This was a realistic attempt at selling sex and naughtiness. It was done cheaply, without the pretentions of seem to go with other covers.” But another design felt needed on the cover and what resulted was the Stones’ iconic tongue and lips logo by John Pasche.
The album was released in April 1971 and what followed was an outpour from critics and fans. The combined innuendos of the album’s cover and songs created a mania of acclaim leading to high sales. Among the admirers would be touted reviewer Lester Bangs who praised it for being his most played album of the year. The group’s album would chart No. 1 in the US and their native UK simultaneously for the first time in their career. Reissues of the album would still be considered superior amongst the band’s extensive catalog of hits before it went triple platinum. Numerous publications would continue retrospective reviews of the Stones’ definitive work of art and annually include it as one of the greatest albums ever made. For many others this was just another reason to apply them as the best to ever record an album. For the Stones, it was just an ode to their roots.
Written by Trenton Luber