The Sticky: The Rolling Stones, “Honky Tonk Women” (1969)

I call “sticky” the sensation of not being able to separate from something when you thought you would. What, it’s still on me? It’s an unpleasant experience, usually, except in two great domains: the erotic (which I’m too shy to discuss) and the aesthetic. It’s wonderful to be stuck to something if it’s the very thing you want contact with—you’re getting more of it than you bargained for. In music, the obvious sticking strategy is to prolong a big ravishing sound, but there’s also a kind of phantom sticking produced simply by playing notes a little late. For example, if the felt beat of a song were


and the drummer (the great Al Jackson, say, in Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood”) were to hit the snare backbeat just slightly late, at this rate:


“Knock On Wood”

then you would experience the snare hit as a thickened event, a combination of the hit in your imagination that should have been and the hit you actually heard; and the tardily arriving and departing actual hit would make the whole event feel sticky (although, when “swinging” in the jazz sense, uneven accents on notes can produce an elastic sense of whipping forward that overrides the sense of being pulled back when the notes are slightly late—a very tangy effect altogether).[1] If the hit came much later it might just further articulate the rhythm or syncopate it—


or imply a polyrhythm, as in a shuffle:


Otherwise the lateness would just be supersticky, disagreeably so—in short, bad:


Who am I to say that anything is bad?  But Charlie Watts’ typically sticky backbeat for the Rolling Stones gets provocatively way-late as “Let’s Spend the Night Together” progresses—or else everyone else is rushing faster and faster, increasing the tension as he pulls back against them.[2]

“Let’s Spend The Night Together”

You can turn stickiness into syncopation or into a tempo shift by gradually increasing lateness. You can feint at this, messing with your listener’s mind. (Some of the most interesting experiments I’ve ever heard in this vein are on Deerhoof’s 2007 album Friend Opportunity).[3]

Any player’s or singer’s notes can be sticky-late. Obviously everyone can’t be late at the same time or you’d have no point of reference for lateness. But a group could contrive to sound massively sticky by swapping lateness around its various parts.[4]

Which brings us back to the Rolling Stones. The album title Sticky Fingers was a gross sexual joke by the Stones, complete with a guy in jeans with a working zipper on the Warhol-designed cover. I won’t get into that. But “sticky fingers” is also the perfect expression for a highly desirable aesthetic quality in the Stones’ playing, part of what is called their raggedness or inspired sloppiness. And stickiness does abound on Sticky Fingers. “Brown Sugar” and “Bitch” are among the best of all Stones’ tracks to hear Watts’ classic slightly-late backbeat. During “Sway” you may wonder at times whether the guitars and voices are on any schedule at all; in “Sway” even more than in the similar-feeling “Wild Horses” and “Moonlight Mile,” sticky shades into sloppy, a sense of coming unglued.

But it’s “Honky Tonk Women,” a single made a year and a half before Sticky Fingers, that puts on the best Stones sticky clinic. In the verses, lots of the faux-hick notes of Keith Richards’ guitar part get plucked just after the beats, as though it takes a little extra effort to pry each one loose (setting up the on-time notes in the chorus to sound more fluent and fiery in contrast);[5] this and the sticky interplay between Watts’ drum part and a cowbell by Jimmy Miller are crucial hooks in the song, perfectly under control and balanced for an effect that is paradoxically tight. “Honky Tonk Women” is a staggering drunken barroom-bordello experience that rocks impeccably.

“Honky Tonk Women”

More Outstanding Sticky

Feel the drag in D’Angelo’s “Ain’t That Easy” (2014) – due partly to delayed answer-beats on 2 and 4, partly to the whole vocal track being shifted slightly late.

“Ain’t That Easy”

The groove of Brandy’s “What About Us?” (2002) seems to land the beat a whole 16th note late–and so heavily that the sticky here is jarring, alarming.[6]


[1] You might, on the other hand, experience the slight delay before Al Jackson’s notes as a kind of tiny bonus of free fall before being caught, the experience of being “in the pocket.” This emptiness effect can coexist with the thickness effect, though it seems opposite.

[2] Listen to the late bass-and-organ notes when the main groove of Deep Purple’s “Hush” starts up; this might be the most powerfully sticky pulling-back ever recorded.

[3] For example, in “Believe ESP.”

[4] Or a group could sound ineffably elegant by flexing a consistent pattern of barely perceptible delays, as in the microsticky wonderland of The Meters’ “Cissy Strut.”

[5] Another notable example of effective contrast between stickily plucked country-boogie guitar notes and on-time fiery leads breaking out is Z Z Top’s “La Grange.”

[6] Tiger C. Roholt points this out in Groove. A Phenomenology of Rhythmic Nuance (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 10.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Time and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Sticky: The Rolling Stones, “Honky Tonk Women” (1969)

  1. professorofpop says:

    Very revealing and brilliantly done, thank you. This also explains why when I was trying to play drums to HTW in the pubs and clubs of southern England I never could get my head around that groove! The guitarist tried to explain it to me, but even then I was never able to nail it, not even remotely. Brown Sugar, a track I would *never* even attempt to play, is for me the best Stones song/groove ever. Again, thanks for explaining exactly and very precisely why that is.

  2. Steve Smith says:

    There’s major sticky in G. Love & Special Sauce, “Leaving The City.”

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