Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones song that was inspired by the cowboy way of life

The Rolling Stones were one of the most original, and engaging, bands of the 1960s. Six decades later, they have proven their longevity with a collection of stormy riffs and introspective works. The band have always prided themselves on boasting an in-house songwriting group, which was alien to The Yardbirds or The Hollies, and created a body of work that stemmed from inside the band’s ranks.

Mick Jagger was their frontman, but Keith Richards is also notable, not least because he held so much sway over the melodies. It would be prescriptive to say that Jagger wrote the words, and Richards came up with the music since both men chipped into the other areas of their songcraft. But between them, they were greater than the sum of their parts, which likely explains why the music was so dense and dynamic in its resolve.

The band were capable of creating music from the most likely and unlikely of sources. Although little of their output would pass muster in this day and age, the band’s sleaziest number came in the form of ‘Honky Tonk Women’, which was done on the pretence of a cowboy number. The recording is wet with whistles and percussive instruments, giving it a Latin texture that is completely in keeping with the jaunty nature of the tune.

Elsewhere, the band create a dense, plodding backdrop from which guitarist Mick Taylor could wail over. For Richards, the tune stemmed from a trip the band took to a ranch in South America.“Went to a ranch and wrote ‘Honky Tonk Women’ because it was into a cowboy thing,” the guitarist recalled. “All these spades are fantastic cowboys. Beautiful ponies and quarter horses. Miles from anywhere. Just like being in Arizona or something.”

The finished recording certainly recalls the ranches, horses and trots that go into founding a farm full of wild animals, brimming under the tremendous weight of a pummelling, piercing guitar hook that barrelled deep into the heart of the rock effort. The song is entirely dependent on the beat in question, where the rhythms are as pertinent as the pounding guitars in question. And so it was bound to become a mainstay for the band, no matter what iteration they presented themselves as.

“We’ve never known why,” he noted. “There’s always been a few songs that do that. If they weren’t dancing by then, you’d know you weren’t getting it on. The guitar is in open tuning on that, I learned that particular tuning off Ry Cooder.” Opening tuning has been used on several of the band’s most fiery tracks, which likely explains why the band had no compunction in creating a backdrop that made it easy for musicians to dive into.

Despite being the superior band, The Beatles never had the riffs or the beats that the Stones had, although they were often more sensitive in their depiction of women. The Rolling Stones tended to portray females as objects they could wrap themselves around, never sensing that there was more to their artillery than one night hookups or fornication. Many of their peers behaved shabbily towards women, but little of it affected their work. The Stones had no such issues, for better or worse.

Yet as a cowboy song, ‘Honky Tonk Women’ is a minor triumph, capturing the raw, rollicking milieu. The sandy coated riffs soak up the tune, and the shimmering, scintillating production design only helps to seal the possibilities of the record in question. It sounded striking on audio and sounded better on stage, where it was met by a collection of delightful silhouettes and circus routines.

If anything, the song perfectly captures the sleazy world of rock, complete with a hummable chorus line that distracts from the sexually charged urgency of the tune. Jagger’s vocals exhibit the appropriate levels of carnal and creativity, creating an angular, semi-aggressive, vocal delivery that is particularly challenging in its delivery and danger. Measured on that term alone, the recording shows the five men, playing as if their lives depend on every note, every riff and every lick.

Richards took a liking to the area, feeling that it reminded him of America. “It’s just like New York,” he opined. “Lot of good guitar players down there. All over South America, it must be the most widely played instrument.” He walked away from the continent with an appetite to improve his guitar playing and to write in a style that was decidedly closer to their form of music to the ballads he fashioned in his native England.

The Rolling Stones might not have waved the banner for Women’s Rights, and some of their language, particularly Richards’, hasn’t aged the best over the years. But there’s something so primal and urgent to the recording of ‘Honky Tonk Women’ that makes it such an exhilarating listen. And it all came from a trip to a ranch.

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