Here is another obscure Rolling Stones album deep cut notable for being not your typical Rolling Stones. It’s been one of critics’ favorite laments that the Stones lean too heavily on the same formula, churning out an endless supply of generic ‘Stones rockers’ without branching out or experimenting. While it’s true that they do churn out the rockers (because they’re smart fellows and they know what sells) it’s also true that a listen to any of their album beyond the hit singles reveals a voracious appetite for branching. It’s the ongoing teeter-totter of Mick Jagger’s polyglot restlessness against Keith Richards’ traditionalism.
In the case of Fingerprint File, it’s one of their earlier forays into dance music, incorporating wah-wahs, phase effects and a slinky funk groove. For me, it’s always brought to mind Thriller-era Michael Jackson. It’s in the insistent groove with roots on the disco floor and Motown, a combination that was Jackson’s calling card. Also, the they’re-out-to-get-me sense of paranoia is Jacksonesque – a boy who lived 44 of his fifty years with a microphone and/or camera shoved in his face can’t help but feel persecuted. But particularly the high pitched YOWs Jagger unleashes at the end sound just like Michael Jackson. Jackson, of course, was fourteen when It’s Only Rock’N'Roll came out and had not yet developed the sound he’d become known for later in life, so it’s a prescient coincidence. Listen to the studio recording to get the full effect. Jagger is in upper-register throughout, alternating yelpy with breathy in an eerily close approximation of what Michael Jackson’s vocal style would evolve into. The more subdued concert outing sticks closer to classic Stonesiness.
As far as the paraniod theme of the song, it’s not so outlandish. Today the famous and infamous can expect to be imprisoned in a glass bubble of constant scrutiny, but that’s not what Jagger is talking about here. He’s talking about government persecution and he’s not far off. At the height of their ‘bad boy’ notoriety in the sixties, The Rolling Stones (and other rock stars) were subject to surveillance and wiretapping by Scotland Yard, which in the end resulted in the famed Redlands bust. In that event it is believed the police had tapped Keith’s phone line and the phones of his friends. Clearly, illegal phone intrusion has a proud and storied history. (In that event also, the now scandalized and defunct News Of the World played a significant role.) It was partly to get away from that hostile environment that the Stones fled to France at the close of the sixties. In the seventies things weren’t much better for rock stars. It’s well known that the FBI conducted a long-running investigation of John Lennon before finally granting him a greencard. Mick Jagger was absolutely right to feel edgy and paranoid – he was being monitored, followed and eavesdropped upon.