Rolling Stones: The Grisly Death-And-Drugs Filled Story Of ‘Sticky Fingers’

Barry Nicolson speaks to insiders about an album born from tragedy, addiction and the threat of financial ruin

December 6th, 1969: the day the wave of hippie idealism broke on the hills of northern California, 60 miles east of San Francisco. Originally envisioned as a kind of mini-Woodstock, the Rolling Stones’ free concert at the Altamont Speedway had begun with Mick Jagger being punched in the face as he made his way to the backstage area, climaxed when an 18 year-old fan, Meredith Hunter, was fatally stabbed in the neck and ended with the Stones and their entourage sitting in stunned silence, feeling like they’d just been kicked in the stomach. Culturally if not chronologically, it was the moment the sixties ended, three and a half weeks premature, like a “mad bull that’s lost its way”, as Mick Jagger sings on ‘Gimme Shelter’.

“Nobody said anything,” remembers Ronnie Schneider, the Stones’ on-the-road financial manager, of the helicopter ride – it was really more like an escape – away from the site that evening. “Everybody was basically in shock, and they all went off into their own world when we got back to the hotel. When they told me Meredith Hunter was dead, I was still running around trying to locate the ambulance. The cops told me, ‘Don’t bother running anymore; he’s gone.’ But you could feel the evil in the air from the moment we got there. All around the stage, there was this incredible negative energy.”

Just 48 hours earlier, the vibe in the Stones camp could not have been more different. With their hugely-successful US arena tour at an end and a few days to kill before heading to California, the band had begun work on what would be their first album of the 1970s, and the one on which so much of their myth and mystique would be built upon. At the not-yet-legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama, they cut three tracks – ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘You Gotta Move’ – in three days, all of which would subsequently appear on the band’s ninth LP, ‘Sticky Fingers’. In the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals, Keith Richards remembered the session as, “one of the easiest and rockingest sessions we’d ever done. I don’t think we’ve been quite so prolific… ever. Those sessions were as vital to me as any I’ve ever done. I mean, all the other stuff we did – ‘Beggars Banquet’, ‘Gimme Shelter’, ‘Street Fighting Man’, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ – I’ve always wondered that if we had cut them at Muscle Shoals, if they might have been a little bit funkier.”

They were sufficiently enthused by what they’d recorded at Muscle Shoals to give ‘Brown Sugar’ its live debut at Altamont, where it followed ‘Under My Thumb’ – the song during which Meredith Hunter was killed – in the set. Yet the recording of ’Sticky Fingers’ itself would drag on for more than a year, through all manner of organisational upheaval, uncertainty, burgeoning addiction, messy litigation and one of the most riotous rock ’n’ roll tours ever staged.

When considering the Rolling Stones’ imperial phase of 1968 – 1972, one is tempted to recall the time-worn maxim coined by the great Hunter S. Thompson: “I’d hate to advocate drugs, alcohol or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” The turmoil with which the band struggled through the remainder of the 1970s – Keith Richards’ descent into full-blown, drug-addled uselessness, coupled with a run of underwhelming albums that only ended on 1978’s ‘Some Girls’ – is often overlooked in the rush to romanticise the elegantly-wasted manner in which they sauntered through this gilded age, creating some of rock ’n’ roll’s most enduring odes to sex, death and debauchery along the way. It’s true, drugs, alcohol and insanity sometimes worked for the Rolling Stones. But the decidedly un-sexy concepts of brand management, business acumen and sound financial advice would prove far more reliable in the long run.

‘Sticky Fingers’ was a make-or-break record for the Stones, and it’s easy to forget just how much was riding on its success. Not only was it their first album of the new decade, it was also their first since the death of Brian Jones and the first to feature new guitarist Mick Taylor as a full-time member. Their deal with Decca had expired, and they were in the midst of a protracted legal battle to sever their ties with former manager Allen Klein and his ABKCO publishing company. Most pressingly of all, even though they’d generated a fortune during their first ten years together – conservative estimates put it somewhere in the region of £100,000,000 – the band members themselves were desperately short of cash.

In 1968, Jagger had been introduced to Prince Rupert Loewenstein, a Bavarian aristocrat and merchant banker who, in his 40-year tenure as the Stones’ financial manager, would mastermind the transition from Rolling Stones Incarcerated to Rolling Stones Incorporated. Upon going through their books, Loewenstein had discovered something alarming: the Stones owed the UK government a potentially ruinous amount in unpaid taxes, and the band spent much of 1970 mulling over his suggestion of going into tax exile before the start of the next financial year. “I just didn’t think about taxes,” Jagger later admitted, “and no manager I ever had thought about it, even though they said they were going to make sure my taxes were paid. So after working for seven years I discovered nothing had been paid and I owed a fortune.”

This, more than anything, was the reason behind their decision to return to the live circuit in 1969, following two years where they hadn’t played at all. “They were broke, and what money they had was tied up in litigation with my uncle,” remembers Ronnie Schneider, Klein’s nephew, who left ABKCO in 1969 to continue working with the band. “The touring was being done entirely to generate cash. That was what they said to me – ‘Ronnie, we need some money.’ They certainly weren’t desperate to go back on the road, but they were desperate to make money.”

To that end, they also decided against finding like-for-like replacements for Klein and Decca. Instead, in early 1970, they founded their own label, Rolling Stones Records, and made a deal to license their music through Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic Records. The task of running the label itself fell to Marshall Chess, the 28 year-old scion of Chess Records, the Chicago blues institution where the Stones had recorded during their first US tour in 1964. For Chess, “‘Sticky Fingers’ wasn’t just an album – it was a relaunch of the Rolling Stones. They were starting a whole new chapter. After their years with Decca and Allen Klein, they were facing the reality that Klein was the sole publisher of a lot of their songs, and they definitely needed a fresh input of cash. They had Prince Rupert, who was setting them up in a whole new way, another guy called Peter Rudge who was responsible for our tours, and I was handling the creative outlet with Atlantic and the label. There was no manager – they didn’t want someone like Klein or Andrew Oldham being in control anymore. It was a very experimental way for a band like the Rolling Stones to work, almost more like a corporation – everyone had their own little area, and we all worked together.”

In many ways, ‘Sticky Fingers’ was the start of the Rolling Stones as we know them today – the biggest rock ’n’ roll brand on the planet. Every brand needs a logo, and the Stones were no different in that regard, paying graphic designer John Pasche the princely sum of £50 to come up with the now-iconic tongue and lips motif, based on an idea of Jagger’s. “I was looking for a logo when we started Rolling Stones Records,” the frontman remembered. “I had this calendar on my wall, it was an Indian calendar, which you’ll see in Indian grocery stores, and it’s the goddess Kali, which is the very serious goddess of carnage and so forth. And she has, apart from her body, this tongue that sticks out. So I took that to John Pasche and he ‘modernised’ it somewhat.”

Pasche’s logo would eventually be slapped onto every piece of licensed merchandise imaginable – badges, t-shirts, keychains, shoulder bags, lunch boxes, underwear, even skiing equipment. To this day, it’s an instant visual shorthand for the Rolling Stones themselves, but it began as the logo for their label, the plans for which had originally been far grander than the reality. “Part of the deal was that we were going to find other artists and put them out on the label,” explains Chess. “I remember Mick had even talked to Jimi Hendrix about coming on board before he died. We were going to give each artist their own logo, something like the tongue and lips. We had a whole plan. But it soon became apparent that we didn’t have the budget to sign or record anyone else.”

The coffers were swelled in September 1970, when the band went back on the road, this time in Europe, where they hadn’t played since 1967. The American jaunts of ’69 and ’72 have long since become the stuff of rock legend – Altamont! Truman Capote! William Burroughs! Orgies at the Playboy mansion! – but the ’70 European tour was, in many ways, the moment where the Stones hit their stride, not only as a live band, but as a live spectacle. Integral to this was Chip Monck, a renowned lighting designer who had been the master of ceremonies at Woodstock and had joined the Stones’ road crew ahead of their US comeback tour. Despite the critical and commercial success of those dates, Monck had been unimpressed by the band’s laissez faire attitude to production when he first flew to California to pitch his ideas. “Jagger and I went out to the pool and I put rocks on all my sheets of paper to keep them from blowing away. As I’m explaining it all to him, I could see his eyes glaze over. Then the wind blew everything in the pool and he turned and said to me, ‘Oh, just fucking do it!’ His Ladyship and I, we always had a major adversity to each other. But, you know, when it came time for, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the Rolling Stones…’ it all worked like clockwork.”

By 1970, however, Monck had more time to prepare, more money to work with, and had even devised a system whereby he was able to predict exactly where and when the individual band members would move around the stage during each song. Monck had been at Altamont, where he’d had teeth knocked out by a pool cue-wielding Hell’s Angel, but even he was shocked by the intensity of the crowds the Stones were playing to. “I have pictures of the total destruction of Stockholm arena – every window in the place was broken, cops in helmets were standing around surrounded by nothing but open windows and broken glass,” he says. “The other one that sticks out was the Deutschlandhalle in Berlin, where more people entered from through the ceiling than through the door: they came repelling down on sheets! It was absolutely hair-raising.”

While all this was going on, ‘Sticky Fingers’ was coming together slowly, in dribs and drabs, recorded between Jagger’s country pile in Hampshire – where the band’s mobile recording unit was set up – and London’s Olympic Studios. This period in the Stones’ history is marked by a colourful cast of characters who all arrived around the same time: as well as Marshall Chess and Prince Rupert, there was also Gram Parsons, the horn section of Jim Price and Bobby Keys, and Jagger’s soon-to-be wife, Bianca. In purely musical terms, however, none of those people came close to having the same impact as guitarist Mick Taylor. Plucked from the relative obscurity of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to replace Brian Jones in the summer of 1969, the 21 year-old Taylor was a working musician who had been parachuted into the biggest, baddest rock ’n’ roll circus on earth, and the transition was tough for him. “He had a very difficult time dealing with being a Rolling Stone,” says Chess. “He had a rough psychological time with it.”

“A very quiet, introverted guy,” is how Ronnie Schneider describes him. “I remember when we were playing New York on Thanksgiving in ’69. I came back to the hotel with all the fixings for a turkey dinner and Mick said, ‘I’m sorry Ron, I’m vegetarian.’ I was like, ‘You gotta try turkey! It’s an insult to my country and to freedom if you don’t!’ So he tried it and he threw up. That’s the kind of guy he was – he didn’t want to offend anybody.”

On a personal level, Taylor may not have been suited to the decadent chaos of life with the Stones – as early as October 1971, Jagger was already bemoaning that “I don’t know what he wants to do” – but on a musical one, he was exactly what they needed. “He was a very fluent, melodic player, which we never had, and we don’t have now,” Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1995. “Neither Keith nor Ronnie [Wood] plays that kind of style. I could sit down with Mick Taylor and he would play very fluid lines against my vocals. He was exciting, and he was very pretty, and it gave me something to follow, to bang off. Some people think that’s the best version of the band that existed.”

“I vividly remember the recording of ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’’, which was one of those magic takes,” says engineer Chris Kimsey, another newcomer, who later went on to produce ‘Undercover’ and ‘Steel Wheels’. “They went into that jam at the end and Taylor started playing this amazing guitar solo – it was completely, absolutely spontaneous. They’d hit the jackpot. As a 20 year-old watching it all, I didn’t even realise he was the new guy. He just seemed like a perfect fit for them.”

That was fortuitous in more ways than one, because by this point, Keith Richards had begun his heroin-assisted slide into unreliability. “[It was] the periods with nothing to do that got me into heroin,” said Richards in Keith Richards: The Biography, about the time he started using seriously in the months following Altamont. “It was more of an adrenaline imbalance. You have to be an athlete out there, but when the tour stops, suddenly your body don’t know there ain’t a show the next night. The body is saying, ‘What am I gonna do, leap out in the street?’ It was a very hard readjustment. And I found smack made it much easier for me to slow down very smoothly and gradually.”

The problem was that he would frequently slow down to a complete stop. “I was shocked by Keith,” admits Marshall Chess. “I came from Chess Records, where my father always used to say, ‘Get three tracks in three hours!’” These guys could take two weeks! And part of that was because of those nights where Keith just wouldn’t show, or he’d fall asleep right there in the studio. I was shocked by that, and I was shocked by how much money they wasted when they were making records. It became my job to keep everything going, to make sure that the tracks got done.”

Though he came up with the song’s central riff (whose working title was ‘Japanese Thing’), Richards doesn’t appear at all on the album’s closing track, ‘Moonlight Mile’, and Jagger doesn’t remember him being around for ‘Sway’, either: “People don’t know that Keith wasn’t there making it,” he told Rolling Stone in 1995. It’s me and Mick [Taylor] playing off each other – another feeling completely, because he’s following my vocal lines, then extemporising on them during the solos.”

“Keith at that time was maybe 60% music and 40% drugs,” laughs Ronnie Schneider. “You start off taking them for your own enjoyment, but eventually you’re taking them just to exist. Keith did it all. There were times when if I wanted to contact him, I’d have to go through his dealers to find him.”

“We were all surprised at the way that album fell together,” Richards would remark to Rolling Stone shortly after ‘Sticky Fingers’’ release in April 1971 – him most of all, no doubt. Yet he had a point. Buoyed by the success of ‘Brown Sugar’ and Andy Warhol’s striking sleeve design, ‘Sticky Fingers’ topped the charts around the world, giving the band – and Rolling Stones Records – the smash-hit they so craved. For sheer songwriting, meanwhile, there’s an argument to be made for it being the strongest, most consistent entry in the entire Stones canon; something of a minor miracle, when you consider the tumultuous backdrop against which it was recorded. The sixties were behind them, and war, rape and murder were no longer just a shot away. But drugs, depravity and ‘Exile’? That was only a short hop to the South of France…