The Rolling Stones are possibly the most fiscally fit rock band in history, so it’s wildly out-of-character that they’ve been so lax about digging into their voluminous vaults. While everyone else was cleaning out their closets during the halcyon boxed set era of the 1990s, it’s only in the very waning years of the CD age (i.e. the past few) that they’ve been upgrading the stuff that’s been circulating on bad bootlegs for decades: the stunning, long out-of-print concert film of their 1972 U.S. tour, Ladies and Gentlemen the Rolling Stones; the stunning documentary of their 1965 Irish tour, Charlie Is My Darling; a beautifully expanded version of the 1970 live Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out album; and now, finally, a deluxe version of their 1971 masterpiece Sticky Fingers that includes a bounty of concurrent outtakes and live material, along with a companion DVD/CD release of a live-for-TV performance (which is available separately or as part of the pricey $150 “Super Deluxe” 5-disc boxed set version).
While it’s nice to have a re-re-re-remastered version of the album (which indeed sounds better than ever), there’s not much left to say about Sticky Fingers itself that hasn’t been said at length already: A swaggering and cocksure collection featuring “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses,” “Bitch,” “Sister Morphine,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” and more — not to mention an Andy Warhol-designed cover with a real zipper that was to wreak mayhem on record collections for decades to come — it’s indisputably one of the greatest albums of 1970s, if not the entire the rock era. The end.
What’s interesting here are the extras. On the studio outtakes, we get a romp through “Brown Sugar” with Eric Clapton on slide guitar recorded on Keith Richards‘ 27th birthday; a smoking early version of “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'”; a strikingly different take of “Dead Flowers” with slightly altered lyrics; and early run-throughs of “Wild Horses” and “Bitch” — all cool, all nice to have. But things get really interesting with the live material.
Hamstrung by Britain’s debilitating tax laws at the time, the Stones became rock’s first tax exiles, decamping to the South of France in the spring of 1971 — but not before playing a nine-city “Farewell Great Britain” tour a few weeks before Sticky Fingers‘ April release. The jaunt saw them returning to many of the same couple-thousand-capacity theaters that they’d played in the mid-1960s — in other words, venues a fraction of the size of the sports arenas they stormed in the States and Europe on their more recent tours. The tour concluded with a TV special filmed at London’s Marquee Club, which, to use a time-warped analogy, was like a CBGB for the early ’60s British rock scene and the site of the Rolling Stones’ first-ever gig in July of 1962. In other words, intimacy was key at these gigs.
And that intimacy comes across in spades on these recordings. Unlike Springsteen, the Velvet Underground or the Grateful Dead, the world’s greatest rock and roll band is surprisingly unspontaneous on tour: They lock in the setlist after the first couple of dates and rarely deviate from it, so what sets one show apart from others is just how locked-in this preternaturally tight band is on a given night. Given that the band had already played 15 shows (two per night) over the preceding nine days by March 13 — the date of the complete 13-song Leeds gig on the Super Deluxe edition; five songs from the London show the following night are also on the Deluxe version — they were pretty damn locked in.
In fact, they’re barely two minutes into the opening “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” before that hypnotic groove sets in — the inimitable laid-back tension that this band can still conjure on a good night. While that’s largely due to the telepathic interplay between Keith Richards’ rhythm guitar and Charlie Watts’ whipcrack drumming — Richards has always spent half of the band’s live sets with his back to the audience, facing his drummer — this recording continues the belated recognition of the Stones’ eternally underrated bassist Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor, their lead guitarist from 1969-1974. Both this recording and the 2010 remastered version of Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out find them in their prime: particularly on bluesier songs like “Love in Vain” and “Dead Flowers,” Taylor unleashes pristine, quicksilver solos. A top-flight British bluesman from the Clapton/Peter Green mold — it’s no accident the three succeeded each other as lead guitarists in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers from 1965-69 — his work added a lyricism and stateliness to the band’s songs they’d never have again. Conversely, Wyman shines on the simpler songs, particularly the two Chuck Berry numbers included here, their primitive riffs providing him with a foundation to zoom up and down the neck of his bass, taking over, if only for these songs, as the band’s soloist. The way the two of them lock in with Watts propels the band with a uniquely British combination of modesty and flash — those two warring impulses fueling the band’s inimitable groove, pulsating slightly behind the beat, a combination of intensity and laid-back-ness you’ll never hear anywhere else quite this way.
The From The Vault: The Marquee Club Live in 1971 set is a bit stiffer, which isn’t surprising given the circumstances: It was filmed and aired as a BBC TV program called Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones (confusingly, it’s completely different from the feature-length concert film) that saw the band performing before the glare of TV lights and an invited, standing audience, with long pauses between the songs, several of which were played multiple times; given the absence of crowd noise on certain songs, it seems some of the versions were recorded during a rehearsal. Be that as it may, it’s still hard to find anything disappointing about a front-row view of the Rolling Stones in 1971: Clad in a ridiculous sparkly halter top and, on the first song, a shiny multicolored cap (which may be the real reason why this footage sat in a vault for 44 years), Jagger is in fine form and voice. Richards, on the other hand, is unshaven and looks like he hadn’t slept in in several days — although according to a photo in the liner notes, he actually took a nap on the stage during rehearsals — but none of that gets in the way of his playing: he jukes and lurches across the stage, filled with that trademarked move where it looks like his riffs are giving him electrical shocks.
Early 1971 was in many ways the beginning of the classic Rolling Stones image that the band has been riding into the sunset for the past three decades: the jet-setting, establishment-accepted bad boys who are also multimillionaires in firm control of their music, their business and their destiny. And as many times as one might have heard these songs before, there’s still a thrill of hearing them when they were new, played by a band whose preternatural groove can still mesmerize.