Recorded in Muscle Shoals in December of 1969 while on the triumphant U.S. tour that cemented their "greatest rock and roll band in the world" status, "Wild Horses" is a classic Jagger-Richards collaboration, with Keith providing the chorus and riff and Mick providing the verses. It's a perfect pop song, managing to drain the cliche out of a cliche and providing sentiment without ever curdling into the maudlin. The Stones may not be often thought of as making beautiful music, but they've made a lot of it, and this might be their most beautiful song of all.
19. “Torn And Frayed” (1972, from Exile On Main Street)
One of their druggiest songs during one their druggiest periods, “Torn And Frayed” is built on three simple chords and the littered reverie of Keith, Anita, Gram Parsons and a boatload of hangers on, leeches, and people looking for a little taste of Glimmer, which as Keith later said, is more addictive than smack. Keith’s background vocals sound like they’re coming from a man’s who’s drowning, which in a way, he was, even though he was at his creative peak.
18, “Dead Flowers” (1971, from Sticky Fingers)
By Peter Ramos
It’s hard to tell how seriously Mick or the Stones took their country-fied song “Dead Flowers” when they recorded it. British musicians playing the blues was one thing, but country? Of course we know now that Keith was hanging around, trading secrets and habits with Gram Parsons. As well, the song acquired vocal gravitas, and official country legitimacy, when Townes Van Zandt covered it. Still, whenever I hear Mick starting to sing in that low, slightly exaggerated Southern twang, I can’t help but think, “He’s kidding, no?” Later, Mick would officially push the act over the top when the band recorded “Far Away Eyes,” too defensively, perhaps, against the criticism that he—a Brit who went to the London School Of Economics for Christ-sakes!—had no business singing God-fearin’ American country.
I grew up in the suburbs in the 80s. I went to private schools and then a liberal arts college, and though this didn’t completely determine the kinds of music I liked, it seems in some ways no surprise that I listened to classic rock, pop, new wave, punk, and, on rarer occasions, soul and R&B. Hair-band heavy metal couldn’t be taken seriously or even ironically. And country—including the original “classic” kind—was out of the question. And so I must confess, though I’m sure I’m not alone, that hearing “Dead Flowers” for the first time (during the summer of 1990 and right before what should have been my senior year at college) was my first taste of country music. By this I mean, as I’ve already implied, not that I hadn’t heard country music before, but that I hadn’t yet taken it seriously. However outrageous and artificial Mick’s vocalizing might be, it was the Stones, and not Billy Ray Cyrus (very popular at that time), after all. Thinking back now, I realize I had already heard “Wild Horses”—in fact it was on a Greatest Hits album I’d owned since middle school—but somehow that song never struck me as being Country in the strict sense, never announced the musical genre it borrowed from in such a loud, self-proclaiming, italicized way. “Wild Horses” has a country feel; “Dead Flowers,” from the first bar to the last, is Country! I also suspect that because I’d heard the former so often growing up, on popular radio stations, at mixers and parties, it had become for me naturalized into the genre of “standard classic rock”—not that there’s anything standard about that extraordinary, lovely song. Or maybe, along similar lines, because I’d heard so little real county music growing up—outside of the kind from people like John Denver—I never noticed the influence.
If it matters what and where I was when I first heard “Dead Flowers,” or what state of mind I was in, then I’ll simply state I was with some friends in a field in the middle of summer, very drunk and feeling sorry for myself because of a recent break-up I’d had with my girlfriend of two years. She was not my first girlfriend but my first “true love.” I put the phrase in quotes now to signify that that is how I felt then. So. Your typical suburban college student on summer break, working a shitty job with lots of free time and just enough money to pitch in for and help drink a couple of cases of National Bohemian: sentimental, maudlin, and very drunk.
This, too, was not a first. In high school, I would also have been drunk, maudlin, sentimental, possibly heartsick, and listening to music—say The Smiths—with this important difference: when I was 16, I really believed my feelings were truly unique to me and that by some miracle Morrissey understood my personal sadness and alienation and articulated it back to me. In college, one comes to understand, more and more, just how typical one’s intense feelings really are. Not that this makes those feelings any less poignant, but it is a relief to finally get beyond the maddening solitary agony of high school narcissism. (Editor’s note: As far as I’m concerned, no one has ever articulated the regrettably long-lasting appeal of Morrissey better than in the sentences above.)
And this last point brings me back to the song itself and to the actual genius of Mick’s performance in it. He knows, as we do, the role drunken heartbreak plays in the economy of country music—it’s a standard, a convention. There’s a tear in my beer. Rather than sing HIS version of country music, his personal take on it, he gives us country music as it is. He uses the standards themselves. Like any art form, jazz or blues, for example, the standards or conventions of the form, far from inhibiting an artist’s style, personality, uniqueness or originality, are the very media through which his/her personality expresses itself; there is no other way. The Stones are from England, as everyone knows. It’s 1970, not 1955. If they’re going to play country, they’re going to play it according to its terms, its rules and traditions, and they’re going to do that with the kind of unassailable confidence, that sexy arrogance they’ve had ever since they realized how silly it was perform psychedelic British rock in the wake of Sergeant Pepper’s. Once they’d gotten “2000 Light Years From Home” out of their system, they were ready to become the Stones we’ve come to love ever since. They would do country, but on country’s terms. Consider the alternatives: if they’d tried, out of a lack of confidence, to insist they were actually playing British “roots music,” some kind of cornball “skiffle” version of country; or imagine if they insisted on there being a connection between country music and Ancient Anglo-Saxon mythology-in the way Led Zeppelin, at their goofiest, sought to establish themselves and their credibility in the genre by drawing parallels between Delta Blues and "The Lord of the Rings." No, that would not do. (Editor’s note: That one sentence sums up Zeppelin’s greatest flaw.)
And yet, Mick is also kidding, after all. Or at least half-kidding. He is capable or being serious when it comes to country. “Wild Horses,” as I’ve implied, is a serious song, a love song, in which the speaker/singer—Mick, obviously—professes his unwavering affection for and dedication to his beloved. But “Dead Flowers,” lyrically at least, has no such heights of passion. Here the speaker/singer addresses an X-lover. Love has turned to hate: send me hate mail, and I’ll bury you. But even this passion doesn’t really amount to much; far from being a story of two lovers intent on killing each another, it’s more like, you’re a bratty Southern debutante who looks down on me and my rough neck friends; you also keep sending me these literal reminders that you hate me, but they only show how much you can’t forget me. I, on the other hand, find you annoying, yet neither can I move past you, since I’m a junky and a fuck-up. In fact, I’ll show up at your funeral with flowers but only to finally achieve the ultimate though petty revenge of outliving you. Again, the banality of this lyrical drama only serves to locate the song more precisely in the very tradition with which the song seeks to align itself. Traditional country music had already created the story of the lamenting, lovesick-blues singer, endlessly and in so many ways—“If my drinking don’t kill me, her memory will”—it had become itself one more convention of the genre.
And it’s the genre itself, far from restricting the Stones, that allows them to shine through it. Consider the song: the loose and lazy backbeat behind that acoustic guitar’s opening open chords, narcotizing and comfortable, the rhythm guitar and honky-tonk piano, and then, a little splash, just the first hints, of that brilliantly whining slide guitar. In the chorus we hear, just behind Jagger’s low twang but harmonizing with it, unmistakably, Keith’s voice—wonderfully flawed, cracked, but high and lonesome as a bluegrass tenor’s. And then, best of all, after the second chorus, when the song has completely established itself—Mick Taylor’s solo, a seamless combination of country and blues licks, elegant and tasteful, lowdown and dirty, all at once. It hits me now that a fine lead guitar solo can make a bad song good (Peter Buck’s on R.E.M.’s silly and otherwise forgettable “Stand") and a good song sublime (Robby Krieger’s on The Doors’ “Moonlight Drive”). And Taylor was new, just finding his way, musically, into the group. This was the first Stones record on which he plays, officially, and on every song. Most amazing of all, he was just out of his teens, “just a lad, nearly 22,” as Hank Williams, himself, sang.
Is it their best song? Maybe not. But it’s damn good, and more importantly, it opened a door for me into other kinds of music, other traditions within music that deserve attention for their authority, influence and long-lasting beauty.
17, “All Down The Line” (1972, from Exile On Main Street)
To promote their 1975 U.S. tour, the Stones played "Brown Sugar" on a flat-bed truck down Park Avenue in New York. It was Charlie's idea, lifted from New York jazz bands of the 30's who would promote their gigs that way. "Brown Sugar" may have been the "right" choice, but "All Down The Line" would have been the more appropriate one.
When the Stones were at their best, they embodied strut and swagger combined with a devastating uptown elegance, almost as though they were a 1970's version of the Count Basie band - swinging hard with an irresistible and sensual gleam. They'd ravage your town and take your woman - and do it with impeccable style. Nowhere was that more present than on "All Down The Line."
Towering and majestic, lowdown and dirty, this is the music of men at the peak of their powers; musical, sexual, and every which way. "Hear the women sighing," Mick sings, and you know it's true. But even at this peak, this being the Stones, there are no unqualified celebrations. "I need a sanctified girl with a sanctified mind to help me out now," sings Mick, lonely at the top, and way too smart not to notice that all is not well with the Exiles. But judging from the devastating groove, you'd never know that there's a problem. That would come later.
16. “Saint Of Me” (1998, from Bridges To Babylon)
It’s January, 1998 and I’m with my friend John at Madison Square Garden to see what turns out to be a pretty great Stones show. By now, I’ve seen enough Stones tours behind mediocre albums (Steel Wheels, Voodoo Lounge) to know that when Mick introduces a song by saying, “Here’s a new one…,” I’ve got five minutes or so of downtime. On this night however, I hear some interesting drum loops, a cool riff and as Mick starts singing, it dawns on me that this is not the usual paint-by-numbers late-period Stones song, a la “You Got Me Rocking” or other such dribble. I don’t catch all of the lyrics, but “you’ll never make a saint of me” in the chorus comes off loud and clear. The song rocks, the band slashes its way through it, and when it ends, the applause in the Garden is louder than usual for a new song. John and I look at each other, nod, and say simultaneously, “Good song.”
So I go back to the song, and it immediately becomes clear that this is not just a good song - it's a great Rolling Stones song, with every element of the arrangement working magnificently. Actually, it's really a great Mick Jagger song, as Keith is nowhere to be found on it. The guitars are courtesy of Ron Wood and Waddy Wachtel; the bass is from Me'Shelle N'Ddgeocello; the keyboards are from Mick and Billy Preston and the background vocals are by Bernard Fowler and Blondie Chaplin. Keith may have disparaged the Dust Brothers production on Bridges (he recorded most of his contributions with Don Was), but on this track he's just dead wrong; their modern touches work perfectly, giving Mick some vindication in his continued pursuit in keeping the Stones at least a little au currant.
And unlike many Rolling Stones songs post Exile, the lyrics don't sound like they were written in a cab on the way to the studio. The religious imagery alludes to "Sympathy For The Devil," but since by now it's clear that Mick ain't Lucifer, it's essential that he establish that he's not going to grow old gracefully either, which the semi-mean spirited bastard does rather well. Their last great song.
15. "Sweet Virginia" (1972, from Exile On Main Street)
Beyond the sex and violence, the Stones are also a party, and "Sweet Virginia" is the party. When you're out with friends, at someone's home or out at a bar, there's a look that passes over people's faces when "Sweet Virginia" comes on: it's a wry smile, recalling bad things done and bad things yet to be done.
14. "Waiting On A Friend" (1981, from Tattoo You)
Few partnerships/friendships have been more questioned, dissected and speculated about than the one between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It's easy to understand why; they're such an aesthetically pleasing partnership - in look, sound and in the contrast of their personalities.
The standard rap has become that Keith is the true artist in the band, the one dedicated to the music first, and that Mick is the far more calculated one, the cold-eyed businessman. Keith is the rebel and Mick is the bourgeois social climber with a knighthood, for Chrissakes! And while there's truth to that, the whole truth is far more ambivalent and complicated.
Some of the riffs that are most identified as "Keith Richards riffs," like the one in "Brown Sugar," are Mick's. And no one can be more cold than Keith Richards, who after Mick Taylor's resignation from the band, dismissed him with a one sentence telegram. Mick has written some of the band's greatest music by himself, and kept the band together when Keith was too smacked out to hold up his end of the bargain. The real truth is they need and love each other - more than either would care to admit.
They fight like schoolboys - or an old married couple, and they know where to hit where it hurts. But they're clearly bound together, and women aside, they're obviously the most important person in the others life, a fact that they seem to often resent. And I would assert that it's that resentment, more than anything else, that is responsible for so much mediocre Rolling Stones music in the past thirty five years.
But "Waiting On A Friend," whether about Mick and Keith or not, captures the spirit of the relationship the way we would like to imagine it. It's a gentle and loving, and Nicky Hopkins twinkling piano and Sonny Rollins sax say everything that Keith and Mick Taylor's guitar may have left out. Originally recorded in Jamaica for 1973's Goat's Head Soup, this was one of the songs that Tattoo You associate producer Chris Kimsey recommended that the band rework for the album (it needed lyrics and vocals), and the idea was a stroke of genius on Kimsey's part, as it turned out to be not just one of their best songs, but also one of their most perfectly arranged ones.
13. "Happy" (1972, from Exile On Main Street)
And then there is Keith.
I am not a man who has many heroes. But he's one of them. I love him for the elegance and earthiness of his playing; a style, that while simple to play, no one has ever come close to replicating even half as well. I love how much he loves music; how his face lights up when he talks about Muddy Waters or the effect that hearing rock n' roll for the first time had on him. I love his no bullshit, reality based, anti-pretention, be-your-own-man attitude. I love that the man, deep down, is a romantic of the first order, a believer in chivalry, something of a gallant knight. He's funny as hell and a raconteur of the first order. And he's a man of honor.
It has me forgive his shortcomings: his stubborn and seemingly reflexive dismissal of new sounds; his addictions that no doubt have had an adverse effect on the band; his occasional coldness; and, most importantly, the fact that somewhere down the line, his ability to discern the truly great from the serviceable in his own music went to shit.
"I need love to keep me happy" goes the chorus of his best, most famous, and most beloved song, and it's a truism that sums up the man in some fashion; so simple and yet so affecting. I like living in a world with Keith Richards in it.
12. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (1969, from Let It Bleed)
I've heard this song a million fucking times and every time it comes on, I'm in awe of it. The arrangement is so astounding as to be almost unbelievable; that chorale opening, the acoustic guitar that cuts like a knife in the first verse, the maracas, Al Kooper's organ, Jimmy Miller's drums (Charlie couldn't get the groove on it), and that outro. It's a perfect song.
11. "Jumping Jack Flash" (1968, from Through The Past, Darkly [Big Hits Vol. 2])
The song that launched them into the band we know and love today, getting them off of psychedelic imitations of the Beatles and taking them of their baroque period. The riff works just as well forty-two years later, if not better, and if you can take it out of its "I've heard this song on classic rock radio thousands of times" context, you'll hear, once again, how amazing it is.
When rock magazine's do their lists of the "Greatest Singers Of All Time," Jagger isn't usually mentioned at the top, which is a shame, because he's an original. Even when he was trying to imitate soul singers, he wasn't really trying to imitate soul singers because he was too smart not to know that he wasn't going to sound a black American soul singer. But he's done his own thing - conjuring, threatening, seducing, sashaying. You'll never get all of him the way you'd get all of, say, Redding, Lennon or Springsteen, but at his best, Jagger gives you enough, teasing you and leaving you wanting more.