Album: Sticky Fingers
. . .
And so 1970 passed without a new Rolling Stones studio record, the first year since since 1962 the world had not been graced with any new Rolling Stones music, not even a single. There was Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, the Stones — like The Who with Live at Leeds — pioneering the live album as both a stopgap between studio albums as well as a response to the nascent bootlegging industry, who had packaged a KSAN broadcast of their San Francisco show as LiveR Than You’ll Ever Be, which got some rave reviews, especially in Rolling Stone.
Given that they’d started recording the follow-up to Let It Bleed even before it was released — an illicit session at the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studios just days before Altamont — the road to Sticky Fingers the longest they’d yet taken. Part of that, of course, was the time it took to get out of their Decca contract, their contract with the evil Allen Klein and set up their Atlantic Records deal to launch their vanity label, Rolling Stones Records.
And in fact, by the time Sticky Fingers came out, they’d already made the decision to become tax exiles in France, which is where … well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Oh, and the Beatles had broken up and Dylan had retreated into upstate New York, leaving the Stones seemingly out there all alone. The point is that there was a lot riding on Sticky Fingers, which announced itself with the Andy Warhol-designed bulging jeans cover and real vinyl-scratching zipper.
So I’m imagining being a Stones fan in 1971, taking Sticky Fingers out of the sleeve and slapping it on the turntable, wondering of the Stones could somehow top Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed. And it would have taken about two seconds for Sticky Fingers to reassure me that the Stones were still on target, as the opening riff of “Brown Sugar” came roaring out of the speakers, Keith in full flight, Charlie and Bill deep in the pocket, Mick Taylor answering with quick licks, and after 30 seconds of glorious music, finally Mick Jagger starts singing, buried in the mix, so I have to strain to hear what he’s singing.
Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in the market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright
Hear him whip the women just around midnight
“Brown Sugar” is Mick Jagger’s most provocative provocation, what he’s called “all the nasty subjects in one go,” set to some of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll music ever recorded — also from Mick Jagger, who came up with the riff as well — and a half-century later, it’s impossible to believe that he got away with it.
Brown sugar, how come you taste so good now?
Brown sugar, just like a young girl should now
So we’re just one chorus in and we’ve already got slavery, underage sex, sadomasochism, heroin and cunnilingus (reminding me of Tony Soprano’s great lament “cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this!”), and of course, Mick’s just getting started.
Drums beating, cold English blood runs hot
Lady of the house wonderin’ when it’s gonna stop
House boy knows that he’s doing alright
You shoulda heard ’em just around midnight
One of the things I love about “Brown Sugar” are Keith’s backing vocals, which on the first two verses come in on the second and fourth lines, adding momentum each time they get to “just around midnight,” and on the chorus where he screams “brown sugah” as enthusiastically as Mick.
When the basic take of “Brown Sugar” was recorded at Muscle Shoals, it included a guitar solo by Mick Taylor, which nobody seemed to be too enamoured with, given that they re-recorded the song with Eric Clapton on lead guitar in London a year later, and then eventually got Bobby Keys — who’d previously done a killer solo on “Live With Me,” come in and replace Taylor’s guitar solo with a screeching, on-target sax solo, which led to Mick’s rephrasing of the chorus.
Ah, get on, brown sugar, how come you taste so good?
Ah, got me craving the, the brown sugar
Just like a Black girl should, yeah
Now at this point, Charlie Watts starts amping up his game, throwing killer fills here and there, as Ian Stewart trills the boogie-woogie piano and Keys sticks around to add commentary while Mick adds maracas and holy shit,”Brown Sugar” is just a fucking party as Mick and Keith sing the final verse together:
Ah, and I bet your mama was a tent show queen
And all her boyfriends were sweet sixteen
I’m no schoolboy, but I know what I like
You shoulda heard me just around midnight
“Brown Sugar” was yet another song that my post high-school band covered, meaning that I was basically a 17-year-old schoolboy who had no idea what he liked when I was singing “I’m no schoolboy, but I know what I like,” but of course nobody gave a shit, not when we got to the coda, which rivals any coda in any song as everybody sings “yeah, yeah, yeah, WOOOOOO” because it’s literally impossible not to sing it.
And in fact, it sounds so fucking great that after the final “yeah, yeah, yeah, WOOOOO,” they just vamp on the riff, Mick Taylor throwing in a few licks but not really soloing because he doesn’t really need to.
By the way, it’s not like “Brown Sugar” came out in 1971 and everybody was all “yeah, whatever Mick.” It was controversial back then, too, as the Greil Marcus Rolling Stone review of Sticky Fingers indicates. It’s just that — for better and worse — it sounded better than anything else around, and so people seemed to come to the consensus that it was satire, parody and a rockin’ good time. Your mileage may vary.
And so “Brown Sugar” became the Rolling Stones’ first Billboard #1 of the 1970s (OK, they only had two), and an instant radio and concert staple that remains in their sets to this day.
“Brown Sugar” on Top of the Pops, 1971
“Brown Sugar” live in London, 1971
“Brown Sugar” live in Texas, 1972
“Brown Sugar” live in Hampton, 1981
“Brown Sugar” live in L.A., 2015
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