There was plenty about Mick Taylor to be suspicious of when he first joined The Rolling Stones in 1969. For one, the guitarist was only 20 years old, barely spending two years playing in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers before being called up to the Stones. Taylor also had to fill the shoes of Brian Jones, the well-known and beloved original guitarist that first assembled the Stones back in 1962 when Taylor was barely 13. Jones’ contributions to the band had dwindled in his final years, but he was still a major pop star in the rock world.
What Taylor brought to the Stones was a fiery lead style that was rooted in precision and fluid movement, something that expertly played off of Keith Richards’ riff-heavy rhythm style. Whereas Richards and Jones, and later on Richards and Ronnie Wood, would trade lead guitar licks throughout songs, Taylor was such an astounding lead player that Richards largely ceded the spotlight to him. It was a distinctive combination that helped catapult the Stones into their most critically acclaimed and commercially successful era.
Taylor didn’t need all that much time to make his mark: his very first recording with the Stones was on ‘Live With Me’, the foot-stomping album cut from Let It Bleed. Soon, Taylor’s lead lines found their way onto classics like ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ and ‘Brown Sugar’, and by the time Taylor reached his 24th birthday, he had already recorded the classic album Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street.
It was a Sticky Fingers cut that Taylor himself later singled out for praise. “’Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ … is one of my favourites,” Taylor claimed in a 1979 interview. “[The jam at the end] just happened by accident; that was never planned. Towards the end of the song I just felt like carrying on playing. Everybody was putting their instruments down, but the tape was still rolling and it sounded good, so everybody quickly picked up their instruments again and carried on playing. It just happened, and it was a one-take thing. A lot of people seem to really like that part.”
‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ is really two songs fused into one: a punchy rock track punctuated by one of Richards’ all-time best riffs and a nearly five-minute improvised jam which highlights both Taylor’s lead guitar and Bobby Keys’ southern-fried soulful saxophone playing. Taylor gets plenty of chances to show off, picking new riffs and motifs out of thin air as the rest of the band rises and falls to his dynamics.
Keith Richards concurred with Taylor’s assessment in his 2010 autobiography Life. “‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ came out flying,” Richards observed. “I just found the tuning and the riff and started to swing it and Charlie picked up on it just like that, and we’re thinking, ‘Hey, this is some groove.’ So it was smiles all around. For a guitar player it’s no big deal to play, the chopping, staccato bursts of chords, very direct and spare.”
Charlie Watts complimented Taylor’s contributions to the track specifically in 2003. “As a lead, virtuoso guitar, Mick 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 at the end,” Watts shared. “He had such a good ear, and I would help push him along.” Mick Jagger compared the playing to Carlos Santana, saying in 2002 that “Mick Taylor plays a bit of that style, I think. I don’t think we meant that, but somehow it added on and I think this was done really quickly, too. I remember very clearly doing it.”
For all involved, ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ proved to be a high point in the Stones’ career. But for Taylor, it proved that he was more than just a hired gun or a replacement player. Instead, Taylor was a fully entrenched member of The Rolling Stones, adding contributions to their music and elevating their material in ways that no other guitarist could.