THE NEW Rolling Stones album was released two weeks ago and seemed like a pretty important event at the time. Since then, however, I have been down in Washington making little quasimilitary skirmishes in what is undoubtedly the Pig City capital of the world. In that context, the significance of Sticky Fingers has paled considerably in my mind.
Now that's strange because, when cultural radicals try to defend the political importance of rock and roll, the Stones are one of the groups most frequently cited. (The others would probably be the Airplane and John Lennon.) The idea of the Stones as a political rock and roll band seems to stem from "Street Fighting Man" and a few other cuts on Beggar's Banquet. But the words of "Street Fighting Man," aside from the title, are just the bored and decadent musings of a spoiled rock star and, under analysis, have political perceptions about as acute as "Okie From Muskogie" or "Please Please Me."
Outside of their music, in their public life, the Stones have never projected any ideology beyond jaded anarchism. They never make statements of commitment, as Aretha Franklin did when she pledged to supply Angela Davis' bail. They never even play political benefits. (The Beach Boys, believe it or not, showed up at the Mayday rally in Washington. The Stones didn't.) On the rare occasions when Mick Jagger does play Revolutionary, it is just another pose he has assumed in order to sell records.
(Parenthetically, there are those who say that the political content of rock is in the music, not the words. I really don't understand what that means. Although the associations we have with rock are more revolutionary than those we have with Montovani or Frank Sinatra, to say that the music itself is innately more radical seems like cultural chauvinism.)
The Stones also must be criticized as the most sexist major rock group. (Led Zeppelin and the Stooges may in fact be more sexist, but it's hard to believe that anyone would ever take them seriously.) In their stage act and in most of their songs, the Stones glorify all the worst forms and aspects of current sexual behavior. Their particular kind of macho, which has at various times seemed either appealing or offensive, has by now merely grown insipid with repetition.
The cover of Sticky Fingers, for instance, is a picture of the groin of somebody's blue jeans and has a real live zipper. The big joke is when you pull the zipper down, you get to see the guy's underpants. Pretty lame.
But enough of this down criticism. If it hasn't been clear so far, I really love the Stones and think that they are the world's best rock band, despite their politics, (Besides, no rock group has good politics as yet, so it is somewhat silly to rate them on that standard.) And Sticky Fingers, which has the first new Stones songs to be released in a year and a half, is a great LP, probably better than Let It Bleed or Get Your Ya-Yas Out.
What is particularly strange is that only three out of the ten cuts on the record could really be considered rock and roll songs. There is a blues, a country song, and five ballads. This is an unprecedented preponderance of slow material for a Stones album and is rather surprising for a band that is famous for playing the hardest of rock.
Sticky Fingers opens with "Brown Sugar": as the first Stones 45 to be released since "Honky Tonk Woman" came out in July 1969, this song has already become number one on the AM radio stations. While it is hardly as epochal as "Honky Tonk Woman" or "Gimme Shelter," it is a damn fine song to dance to, filled with those old Chuck Berry-style guitar licks that sound so good on a car radio. Fortunately the vocal is somewhat garbled so that one can avoid listening to the lyrics which, besides being rife with the Stones' usual sexism, are racist to boot.
"Sway," the second cut, sounds like a slowed down "Stray Cat Blues" and it is not particularly impressive or memorable. It is followed, however, by "Wild Horse," a beautiful ballad that is the one real standout in a uniformly fine album. The Flying Burrito Brothers did a good version of this song last year, but the Jagger-Richard vocal is unbeatable. This is clearly one of the two or three best ballads the Stones have recorded.
"Can't You Hear Me Knocking" opens with a couple of minutes of the finest rock guitar I've ever heard, before moving into a slightly disappointing five-minute jam. The side closes with "You Gotta Move," a traditional blues reminiscent of "Come On In My Kitchen" and "Sittin' on Top of the World." The Stones use Mississippi Fred McDowell's arrangement; it is by far the most primitive blues they've cut. It's great, even if it was very likely intended as a goof.
"Bitch," which sounds a jot like "Live With Me," is a good rock song that opens side two of the album and is also on the flip of the American 45. (In addition to "Brown Sugar" and "Bitch," the British single includes a remake of Chuck Berry's "Let It Rock," which is not available in the U. S.) "I Got the Blues" is a good imitation Otis Redding song, but Jagger should know better than to put himself in a position to be compared with Otis.
"Sister Morphine," like "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses," had been in the can at least a year and a half while the Stones straightened out their contract hassles. In the meanwhile, Marianne Faithful put it out as a single, and Jagger does not really improve on her version; by now, being a drug song, it seems a little outdated. It is followed by "Dead Flowers," the Stones' most listenable country and western imitation to date.
The record closes with another excellent ballad, "Moonlight Mile." I just don't know what to make of this song, although I love it. It's a bizarre cut, with words that are inaudible and music that sounds like the theme from Sayonara.
The level of the music on Sticky Fingers is consistently fine. I only wish that, as people, the Stones would wise up; but, as the movie Gimme Shelter proved, they are rich, contemptuous, and irresponsible. They've moved to the southern part of France now, for income tax purposes, and the shift will probably just isolate them even more from the people that make up their audience. It's a shame: it seems unlikely that the Stones will be with us in a few years when we boogaloo up the steps of the Capitol to seize state power.