1971 was a banner year for great rock albums, and one of the best of the best that year was “Sticky Fingers” by The Rolling Stones. On this episode, we take a dive into a key track from that album, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, where the Stones begin with a killer Keef riff and end up 7 minutes later in a completely different place. How did they get there? Let’s take the journey with them… and along the way, we’ll pay our respects to the late, great Charlie Watts.
“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (Mick Jagger & Keith Richards) Copyright 1971 ABKCO Music, Inc. All rights reserved.
Welcome, friends, to the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast, part of the Pantheon family of podcasts. I’m your host, Brad Page.
I was already in the middle of putting this episode together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this landmark album from the Rolling Stones. And then just today, as I record this, we all heard the news that their legendary drummer, Charlie Watts, had passed away.
I don’t think you can overestimate how important Charlie Watts was to the world of drummers and to rock and roll in general. This episode wasn’t meant to be a memorial or tribute to Charlie, but I couldn’t let the episode pass by without mentioning how significant his contributions were to the whole history of music. So keep the illustrious Mr. Watts in your thoughts and let’s let this episode play out.
As we’ve discussed on this show before, 1971– 50 years ago– was an especially brilliant year for music. And there’s a ton of classic albums celebrating their 50th anniversary this year. So, before 2021 comes to a close, I wanted to take one last look back 50 years ago to another landmark album from 1971: the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers”. On this episode, we’ll celebrate that album by digging into one of the Stone’s greatest moments– the song called “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”
By 1971, the Beatles had split, leaving the Rolling Stones with the title of “the biggest band in the world”. “Sticky Fingers” is either their 9th or their 11th album, depending on whether you’re counting UK or US releases, but either way, it was well into their career. But there was still some fresh blood and new life in the band, especially with the addition of new guitarist Mick Taylor. “Sticky Fingers” would be their first full album of new material to feature Mick Taylor, who had joined the band two years before.
By 1970, the Stones had reached the end of their contract with Deca Records, and they had also decided to end their relationship with manager Alan Klein, which was a particularly messy and painful process. So “Sticky Fingers” was a first in many ways: it was their first album for their own record label, Rolling Stones Records; it was the first under their new distribution deal with Atlantic Records, who signed a $5.7 million deal with the Stones; it was their first album to feature that iconic lips-and-tongue logo. And as I mentioned, it was their first studio album to fully feature Mick Taylor on guitar.
Though “Sticky Fingers” was released in 1971, the recording of the album began in December 1969 with three tracks recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. There were additional tracks recorded at Olympic Studios in London. But by March 1970, the Stones had purchased a 34-foot long truck and installed a complete 16 track recording studio inside of it. This became known as “The Rolling Stones Mobile” and it became legendary in its own right. Not only did the Stones use it to record some of their most successful tracks, it was also used by dozens of other artists, including Led Zeppelin on “Physical Graffiti” and The Who on “Who’s Next”. The mobile studio was even immortalized in the lyrics to that Deep Purple classic, “Smoke on the Water”.
The Stones pulled that truck right up in front of Mick Jagger’s home– a mansion, really, called Stargroves. And recording sessions continued there for the rest of the album. They particularly liked to record in the huge entrance hall of Stargroves, because of its great acoustics. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” begins with a guitar riff played by Keith Richards. It’s in Open G tuning, and probably played on either his Gibson Black Beauty Les Paul, or possibly on his Dan Armstrong guitar made of plexiglass.
You can hear someone, probably Mick, let out a little grunt during that pause in the opening riff. Charlie Watts joins in pretty quickly on drums, followed by Bill Wyman on bass.
Here, there’s some particularly nice snare drum work by Charlie Watts right here. Keith changes to the verse riff, and Mick Taylor joins in. Keith is in the right channel; Mick Taylor, playing a Gibson ES345 Semi-hollow body guitar, is in the left channel.
Mick Jagger, when it’s called for, can be a really good lyricist. He definitely has a way with words. But on this song, it’s not the words that are important, it’s the syllables, the rhythm that matters. The lyrics to this song aren’t that memorable, but vocally, this is one of Jagger’s great performances.
Keith joins in on vocals.
Those two hits on the snare drum, they’re are a nice touch by Charlie. It’s the knock on the door during this section. Charlie switches up the groove by hitting the snare drum on every beat, not just on the two and the four. There’s also an organ that comes in here, played by Billy Preston.
And now Charlie’s back to playing the snare on the two and the four.
I’m hearing something a little dissonant in the guitars there. I think Mick Taylor may have fumbled a chord.
Here comes Billy Preston on the organ again. And I think there’s a piano buried in the mix.
Let’s see if we can isolate the vocals here.
Though the Stones have a reputation for being loose, and some might say sloppy, they were never a jam band. They were always much more song-oriented. This is one of the rare occasions where they cut loose and just went where the music took them. Everything fell into place perfectly, and luckily, the recording engineers kept that tape rolling.
After the main section of the song stops, there’s a new groove that’s introduced by congas, played by Rocky Dejawn. The producer, Jimmy Miller is in there, too. He’s playing a guiro. And then there’s Keith Richards, the riff master, coming in with a whole new riff that sets them off on a whole new direction.
Bobby Keys was in the studio that day, but he hadn’t been playing on the track. As soon as he heard them settle into this new groove, he grabbed a saxophone and joined them on the studio floor. He takes an extended solo here. Totally improvised, unrehearsed, done all in one take. And it’s one of Bobby Key’s finest moments on record. Let’s try to bring Bobby’s saxophone up in the mix.
Listen to what Mick Taylor is playing on guitar in the left channel.
Bobby Keys epic sax solo winds down. And what a sax solo that was. Remember, that was all one take and the first take.
But not to be outdone, Mick Taylor is about to unfurl a brilliant solo of his own. Again, totally improvised. Let’s listen to how he instinctively builds this solo to a climax.
Mick Taylor sets up a groove that, very quickly, the whole band picks up on. They are totally in sync. This is what great jamming is all about.
Bobby Keys is back on sax. The song builds to a final, masterful conclusion.
“Sticky Fingers” was the first Stones album to top both the US and the UK album charts. It sold over 3 million copies in the US alone. And by any measure, it’s one of the Stone’s best albums.
This period, from 1969 to 1974, the five-year stretch when Mick Taylor was in the band, that’s my favorite era of the Rolling Stones. When I started working on this episode, I was ready to say that happily, all five members of the Stones who played on this album were still alive and still with us. But then on August 24, 2021, drummer Charlie Watts died. He was 80 years old and playing right up till the very end.
Charlie has been eulogized and paid tribute to by many people much more qualified than me. So, I’ll just say this: there is barely a band on the planet today that doesn’t owe some debt to the Rolling Stones. Even if they don’t realize it. The influence of the Stones runs that deep, and Charlie Watts was a big part of that.
If you enjoyed this episode on the Stones, I suggest you go back and listen to episode 42, where we did a deep dive into the Stones classic, “Gimme Shelter”, which is probably my favorite episode that I’ve ever done. Check it out.
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That’ll do it for this episode. Take a moment to pay respects to Charlie Watts and to thank him for all those years of great music. And thank you for listening to this episode on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” by the Rolling Stones.