CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD recalls the shambolic genesis of the Stones’ masterpiece
At about eleven on the Monday morning of 9 March 1970, a somewhat distressed-looking olive green, midsized BMC lorry of the kind typically used to haul heavy goods around the country, crunched up the gravel driveway of a sprawling manor house located just outside the village of East Woodhay on the Hampshire-Berkshire border. The driver of the truck was a burly 31-year-old with the uncompromisingly Scots name of Ian Stewart, and he was there not to deliver industrial equipment but to help record a rock and roll album.
For the next several hours Stewart and two assistants threaded dozens of multicoloured cables through the home’s heavily studded front doors and into the entrance hall, in due course installing drum kits and guitar amplifiers, knocking together crudely fashioned isolation booths like the old sensory-deprivation chambers in TV’s Double Your Money, and plugging in a forest of microphones against a backdrop of musty chandeliers and ancestral portraits that stared down in silent reproach at the cast of shaggy-haired residents gradually emerging from all corners of the home, whose doll-like smallness gave them the air of elves curiously inspecting a room in an advancing state of preparation for a party.
The somewhat implausible name of the house was Stargroves, and at that time it was owned by Mick Jagger. Jagger and his band the Rolling Stones – for it was they – had elected to record in this manner in order to relieve themselves of the tedious 9-5 restrictions of a traditional commercial studio. By doing it their way the five band members and their auxiliary musicians could plug in whenever the mood took them, and the 8-track console installed in the back of the truck parked outside would capture the results.
It was a good idea, and it almost worked. Jagger himself, along with his colleagues Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and Mick Taylor duly spent much of the next six weeks cutting the basic tracks for what became the group’s ninth British LP, and the first to be released on the band’s own label, and which, after toying with the likes of Sour Grapes and – for some compelling reason – The Vagina Album, they named Sticky Fingers. For his part, the Stones’s narcotically-inclined guitarist and on his day leading creative force Keith Richards sometimes made it to the recordings, and sometimes didn’t. If a session was called for, say, ten o’clock at night, Keith might stroll in around three in the morning accompanied by his entourage of spliff-wielding Rastafarians, waif-like young women and sundry other advisers and assistants notable for their heavy use of mascara and the leather satchels clutched in their arms.
Before long, certain other challenges inherent to the concept of a group of young rock musicians working without external supervision also asserted themselves. As the weeks wore on, there were frequent arguments and absences throughout the band. The rhythm section of Wyman and Watts were both married men with children, and more than once they expressed their distaste for working through the night in a colleague’s remote country estate located some 80 miles from their own suburban-London homes. Several witnesses later noted that even the consummately professional Jagger would periodically down tools, if the phrase weren’t so inappropriate, whenever one of his specially favoured female companions appeared at Stargroves. “Suddenly”, Ian Stewart once told me, “there were days when Mick disappeared upstairs”.
Perhaps all rock and roll albums should be made with comparatively primitive technology installed in the back of a truck parked outside the door, with creative differences being not so much aired as shouted out, because the result of the Rolling Stones’s labours, as buffed up by the band’s wunderkind producer Jimmy Miller at various locations over the course of the next twelve months, and formally released on 23 April 1971, remains arguably the masterpiece of their long career.
It would require a life of more than mere detachment from the whims of popular culture, and devoted instead to the most austere monastic seclusion, for the reader not to be on terms of at least passing familiarity with the album’s opening number ‘Brown Sugar’. A – or the – classic frothy Stones raveup, it had curious origins. In the summer of 1969, hard on the heels of events such as the firing and almost immediate death of the Stones’s founding genius Brian Jones, and the band’s perhaps ill-advised free concert in front of 300,000 fans in Hyde Park just two days later, Mick Jagger had flown to Australia with his girlfriend Marianne Faithfull to take the lead role in Tony Richardson’s film Ned Kelly – the idea presumably being that one rebel, no matter how slight his screen-acting experience, should play another. The production got off to a bad start when Jagger was forced to walk a gauntlet of protesters on arrival at Sydney airport, indignant that their nation’s 19th-century outlaw hero should be portrayed by, as one of the signs had it, a “pommy faggot”. Following that there was the near-fatal overdose of Jagger’s costar and travelling companion, which again saw the words ‘Stones’ and ‘drugs’ deployed in close proximity to one another in the world’s tabloid headlines. Tony Richardson promptly dropped Faithfull from the cast of Ned Kelly, which would go on to grace all the ‘Worst Movies in History’ lists following its limited release in June 1970. Adding injury to insult, Jagger was badly hurt when, once out on location, a prop pistol exploded in his hand. The unit nurse stitched him up and told him to keep his right arm immobile. Preferring to doctor himself, Mick instead picked up a guitar one afternoon and idly strummed a two-bar phrase around the C, G and F chords, then threw in some hurriedly improvised bondage-fantasy lyrics. This happy collision between boredom and physical therapy would be the best thing to come out of Ned Kelly. Once back in London, Jagger and Richards swiftly worked up the riff into ‘Brown Sugar’.
Next up on Sticky Fingers was a hidden gem called ‘Sway’, a solid if largely unremarkable reminder of the band’s blues roots until Mick Taylor suddenly swooped in with a bottleneck slide guitar during the bridge, and a dramatic, virtuoso outro solo that may represent the finest 30 seconds of his five-and-a-half year tenure as a Rolling Stone. Another swift gear change ushered in ‘Wild Horses’, a lovely ballad in its way even if Ian Stewart, doubling as the band’s primary roadie and occasional pianist, had pronounced himself unwilling to perform on any ‘Chinese shit’, as he termed music with minor chords, when called upon to accompany the track. Essentially a love song from Keith Richards to his partner Anita Pallenberg, Jagger rewrote the lyrics as a plea to Marianne Faithfull to rejoin him after she’d stepped out with one of Anita’s exs (all very fraternal were the Stones in those days), the painter Mario Schifano. It perhaps wouldn’t be hard to locate the names of certain rock and roll bands who over the years have embarrassed both their audiences and themselves by their misguided attempts at the romantic air – somehow I’m always reminded on these occasions of the baroque strains of Spinal Tap’s immortal ‘Lick My Love Pump’ – but what’s extraordinary here is that the Stones are at their most convincing when they aim at the sublime.
Next up: the gloriously eccentric ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’, a rock-guitar groove that swerved halfway through into a mariachi jam session. It was pronounced No. 25 on one of Rolling Stone magazine’s incessant lists of The 100 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time, but even without that particular bauble it would be hard for any normally sensate listener to remain wholly unmoved by Keith Richards’s shattering opening guitar bolt and the collective locomotion of his four colleagues and their sidemen – Bobby Keys on tenor sax to the fore – that followed. Side One, as such things were then designated, ended with the Stones’s somewhat frazzled take on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s classic spiritual ‘You Gotta Move’, which they’d initially cut in embryonic form at around three one morning in December 1969 while crouched around a microphone positioned in a toilet bowl (for that ‘shitty sound’, as Keith approvingly put it) at Muscle Shoals studio in rural Alabama.
Flip the disc over, and you had the horn-drenched blowout of ‘Bitch’, after which things calmed down with three songs – ‘I Got the Blues’, ‘Sister Morphine’ and ‘Dead Flowers’ – with seemingly little in common but their border-jumping from the world of roots rock and roll into those of country and soul, and back again, not to mention their assorted drug references and the basic premise of ‘Morphine’ itself, with its gory allusion to Marianne Faithfull’s recent miscarriage.
The whole thing wound down with the soporific ‘Moonlight Mile’, a weirdly insinuating slab of orchestral blues with lyrics one earnest American reviewer described as a “rare case of Mick Jagger letting go of his public persona, offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the weariness that accompanies the pressures of keeping up appearances as a sex-drugs-and-rock and roll star”, and another perhaps overextended himself by comparing to W.B. Yeats. The song had a curious and on the whole less exalted genesis. Keith Richards had first strummed the moody chords to ‘The Japanese Thing’, as the track was then known, while sitting on the kitchen floor, a bowl of cereal in his lap, late one night at Stargroves. Initially there had been something of a skeleton crew present at the moment of creation, with just Charlie Watts on drums and the trumpet player Jim Price improvising on piano. Mick Jagger was upstairs in his boudoir, Bill Wyman had also retired, and nobody knew exactly where Mick Taylor was after his co-guitarist had informed him, “Don’t bother to play on this – you’re too bloody loud”. Six months later, Keith was too stoned to make it to the final session for ‘Moonlight Mile’, which the two Micks put together in his absence. Taylor later expressed a certain surprise to see his name omitted from the song’s all-important writing credit, an early milestone down the road to his decision to defect from the band in December 1974.
Even without the bulging Andy Warhol-designed crotch on the front cover, and the particularly lubricious advertising campaign that met its release, Sticky Fingers could be said to definitively capture the debauched essence of the Rolling Stones in all their strung-out 1970s glory. It was also the first product to feature the band’s iconic trademark, inspired, apparently, by the Thug goddess Kali, and actually drawn by a young Royal College of Art student named John Pasche. Pasche was paid his standard design fee, fifty guineas. That tongue and lips logo, slavering in a cunnilingual leer, would soon be recognisable to millions of people around the world who never bought a rock record or attended a concert: it remains today the ultimate pop-culture accessory.
The last sight that many Britons thought they would ever have of the Rolling Stones was of the band camping its way through ‘Brown Sugar’ on Top of the Pops. Mick Jagger vamped it up in a pink satin suit, Keith Richards’s chugging guitar drove the teenaged audience into a synchronised boogie, and the rest of the band mimed frantically away as best they could. By the time the clip aired on the evening of 15 April 1971, the Stones themselves were already safely ensconced in their new South of France domiciles, either victims of a merciless Establishment backlash, or, more prosaically, of the Inland Revenue’s attentions to their back earnings, depending on which version of events you prefer. Either way, the sessions for their next album moved from Mick Jagger’s relatively sedate Home Counties estate to the more ramshackle charms of Keith Richards’s digs on the Riviera, and the last of the band’s indisputably great albums would duly emerge under the title Exile on Main Street. But that’s another story.
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD’s biography of the Rolling Stones, originally published in 2012, was updated and re-released by Simon and Schuster in June 2022