Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (1971)
The Rolling Stones
Of the scores of articles that examine “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” – one of the mainstays off the album Sticky Fingers – none mentions the unmistakable imprint of the Stevie Winwood-led group, Traffic.
As much as reviewers might jawbone about the pervasive presence of Carlos Santana during the lengthy jam at the end of the song, they are mistaken that Santana defines the song. A close listen will convince most ears that they are hearing a different, jazzier turn than Blues-based Santana attained. And the rhythm section fairly reeks of the London music scene of the 1960s and ‘70s.
“Can’t You Hear Me Knockin?”
Indeed, the Rolling Stones’ Brooklyn-born producer Jimmy Miller, who played percussion on “Knocking,” produced records for Winwood’s first two band efforts, the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic. (His sound influence as producer and sometime percussionist is also all over Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Exile On Main Street and Goat’s Head Soup. Miller also produced super-group Blind Faith’s lone album.)
A listen to Spencer Davis’ “I’m A Man,” as well as Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright,” “Shanghai Noodle Factory” and “Glad” provides solid evidence. So do countless other records from the era.
“I’m A Man”
This was the tangible high-tide and green-grass period for the Rolling Stones.
Not merely coincidentally they are the same years that Mick Taylor was their “second” guitarist. Although Taylor’s solo career never fully blossomed, he is among the solid greats, having begun his ascent with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, as did Eric Clapton. (Listen to the up-tempo parts of “Bare Wires – Suite” from the 1968 album [also called Bare Wires] to catch Taylor’s seminal sound found later on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”)
After Keith Richards opens “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” with a specially tuned guitar (open-G, for those who care; the innovation produced the fabulous opening riff of “Brown Sugar,” as well); after Charlie Watts steps up the groove a thousand notches with blowback submachine-gun tats on the drums; and after Mick Jagger gets a few lines into his gnarly vocals, Taylor and Richards join in one of the greatest electric guitar duels in Rock-N-Roll history.
They are two ace players, both able to play fast and loud, but also with a certain refinement that contrasts engagingly against Jagger’s raggedy attitude.
Mick’s snarling, begging, defiant vocals rank high among his best efforts. The drug-soaked, addled year of 1971 whipped up the frenzy in his voice as he chases a girl as hip and high as he is:
Yeah, you got satin shoes
Yeah, you got plastic boots
Y’all got cocaine eyes
Yeah, you got speed-freak jive
Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your window
Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your door
Can’t you hear me knockin’ down your dirty street, yeah
Help me baby, I ain’t no stranger
There’s no disputing that we’re being taken down a dirty, dirty street. But, this being London, eventually we are taken down a “gaslight street,” too.
Drug-fueled, chasing the fleeting girl down the old streets, there’s no doubt what brother Mick wants from the girl. He smells sex.
He’s a dog, a wolf, possessed, deep into a mania. He’s pushed on by an ensemble that cooks, slaps and bangs, hotter and hotter, using multiple rhythms and multiple layers of instrumentation.
Organist Billy Preston had spent time working with The Beatles before the break-up. Think “Get Back” and much of the rest of the Let It Be album as well as on bits and pieces of Abbey Road. Preston keeps the inner-city organ pumping. (He also backed Sam Cooke in 1963, Little Richard occasionally, and was in Ray Charles’ house band for a number of years.)
Saxophonist Bobby Keys lends the flavor of mid- to late-1960s Traffic work. His fluttering, honking and howling serve not only to create sub-melodies; they add another dimension to the sizzling rhythms. But back to the lyrics and Jagger:
Can’t you hear me knockin’
yeah, throw me down the keys
Hear me ringing big bell tolls
Hear me singing soft and low
I’ve been begging on my knees
I’ve been kickin’, help me please
Hear me prowlin’
I’m gonna take you down
Hear me growlin’
Yeah, I’ve got flatted feet
Now, now, now, now
Hear me howlin’
As the vocal section ends, a chorus made up of Satan’s demonic host joins with Jagger’s clawing voice. There’s only one way out of the lusty dementia: let the music take over.
Keys knocks out the greatest saxophone solo in all Rock history on “Knocking.” He eventually yields the front of the band to the two guitarists. And yes, here there are some Santana-ish raindrops to Mick Taylor’s solo, but it is just a tone and that mist soon blows away. Meanwhile Richards echoes and varies his opening riff repeatedly but as a rhythm guitar part. The interplay between the two is magnificent, perfect.
The listener can sense the end of the song coming, and in that, the arrangement, as ad hoc as the jam may seem, can be identified as pitch-perfect in terms of effect. Everyone, from the musicians to the engineers to the band to the listener, is split in his or her feelings.
This is the kind of song – even at 7:15 – that intellectually we want to continue forever. But, emotionally, we want it to stop. Please! Stop! No, no… go on…
When it stops, it stops with a screech of the brakes just as it enters the hallowed halls to take its place as one of the greatest Rock classics of all time.
Here’s the band performing the song live with the incomparable Bobby Keys on sax:
- Stones drummer Charlie Watts said of the song: “As a lead, virtuoso guitar, Mick Taylor was so lyrical on songs like ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’, which was an amazing track because that was a complete jam, one take in the end. He had such a good ear, and I would help push him along.”
Also by The Rolling Stones on SongMango.com:
- SatisfactionThe ultimate point behind the song? A guy who can’t get laid no matter how hard he tries. And he tries, and he tries!
- It's All Over NowJohn Lennon told Keith his guitar solo sucked. Springsteen says it is brilliant. Chuck Berry loved the update of his sound.
- Paint It BlackA tangle of eastern and western music coupled with African dance and drum rhythms and a tale often told.
- Salt Of The Earth"Let's think of the wavering millions who need leading but get gamblers instead." Some songs grow truer and truer.