No sooner have we reached the end of the Beatles’ 17 number 1s, than it’s now time to say goodbye to the Rolling Stones. But before we look at the backstory to their eighth and last number 1, it’s time to see what was in the news during their five-week run with Honky Tonk Women.
The day the single usurped Something in the Air, 23 July, saw the debut of BBC Two’s long-running snooker tournament Pot Black. The Beeb had been looking for programmes that could exploit its new colour transmissions, and they struck gold by turning snooker from a minority sport into one of the most popular in the UK. The show ran until 1986, but returned for many specials well into the 21st century.
On 1 August, the pre-decimal halfpenny ceased to be legal tender. The rest of the first half of August’s news was mostly taken up by the start of one of the late-20th-century’s biggest conflicts – The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The Battle of the Bogside began on 12 August in Derry. The Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, Jack Lynch, made a speech the day after the ruins began requesting a United Nations peacekeeping force for Northern Ireland. On 14 August, British troops were deployed to restore order, and by the time they had, eight people had been shot dead, over 750 were injured, and over 400 homes and businesses had been destroyed. It was only the beginning.
Since the Rolling Stones’ triumphant comeback in 1968 with Jumpin’ Jack Flash, they hadn’t released any UK singles, but the album it came from, Beggars Banquet, was a real return to form, and the start of a run of classic LPs. Some of the tracks, including epic opener Sympathy for the Devil, are among the finest rock songs of the late 60s.
In December 1968 they filmed the concert special The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus for the BBC. The line-up included Taj Mahal, the Who, Jethro Tull, Marianne Faithfull and a one-off appearance by supergroup the Dirty Mac, consisting of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell. The Stones withheld the show, believing their appearance to be substandard, though some claim they felt the Who outshone them. It eventually surfaced in 1996, and is worth a watch.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards holidayed together that Christmas in a ranch in rural Brazil, and while there they became inspired to write their next single. There is not an ounce of Brasilia in either version, but it did bring to mind Americana, country and roots. Originally they had in mind the version that surfaced on next album Let It Bleed. Country Honk was, as the name implies, a country version of Honky Tonk Women, with slightly different lyrics (the first verse is set in Jackson, Mississippi rather than Memphis, Tennessee) and Byron Berline on fiddle.
Multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones featured on the demos for this track, recorded that March. It would be the last material he performed on. By the time the band regrouped in June, they had met with Jones at his home. Increasingly paranoid and drug-addled, the former bandleader had been contributing less and less, and couldn’t compete with Jagger and Richards’ growing control any more. He left the band.
Seeking a replacement, their keyboardist Ian Stewart and bluesmith John Mayall recommended a 20-year-old guitarist called Mick Taylor to Jagger. He had replaced Peter Green in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1967 when he left to form Fleetwood Mac. The Stones invited Taylor to a session, and he believed he was only wanted as a session musician, but they were impressed and he was asked to continue. He overdubbed guitar on to Country Honk and the new electric version they were planning to release as a single, called Honky Tonk Women.
Richards later claimed that Taylor had transformed the single, but the newest member of the group insisted his contribution was minimal. Whatever he actually did, he’s listed with Richards as lead guitarist. Richards also provided the rowdy backing vocals and rhythm guitar. Along with the usual roles for the rest of the band, the single featured backing vocals from Reparata and the Deltrons, who had a hit in 1968 with Captain of Your Ship, Nanette Workman (slyly credited as ‘Nanette Newman’) and Doris Troy, later to be best known for her orgasmic wailing on Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky. Steve Gregory and Bud Beadle duetted on saxophones, and producer Jimmy Miller was the man behind the cowbell.
The Rolling Stones really know how to write brilliant intros, and Honky Tonk Women is one of their most memorable, thanks to the cowbell, and Watts’ raunchy drumbeat. Jagger begins to tell his tales of sexual conquest in a louche drawl, boasting about picking up a ‘gin soaked bar-room queen in Memphis.’ They’re pretty risqué lyrics for the day, with references to ‘a ride’ and laying divorcees, but Jagger gets around it by ramping up the accent to a comical degree, making some of the words almost intelligible. I love the lyric ‘she blew my nose and then she blew my mind’.
Musically, it’s not too adventurous, throwaway even. It’s not up to the standard of most of their number 1s, and sees the start of the Rolling Stones settling into their role as the ultimate good-time rock’n’roll band. Only two verses and it’s over in under three minutes, but it’s still a lot of fun.
But just before its release, the fun stopped for Brian Jones. He was found dead in his swimming pool on 3 July. Death by misadventure was the official reason, but his liver and heart were both enlarged from his pursuit of drink and drugs. He was 27, that infamous age that many rock stars have died at.
The Stones were scheduled to perform a free televised concert at Hyde Park on 5 July. Planned in part to unveil their new guitarist, it became a wake for Jones. In an example of pure black comedy, butterflies were let out into the crowd, but many had died, so they were simply banged out of boxes onto the floor as the band got started. It’s what Jones probably wouldn’t have wanted.
The Rolling Stones were the last British band to have a number 1 in the 60s. They have never topped the singles charts since, and it’s unlikely they will until perhaps Jagger or Richards die… so, some time in the 31st century, perhaps. The classic albums kept coming for a while though, with Let It Bleed their final LP of the 60s, released 5 December, featuring Gimme Shelter and You Can’t Always Get What You Want.
Unfortunately the 60s came to a tragic end for the Stones. A day after its release they headlined the Altamont Free Concert. It was a bad idea to have the Hells Angels providing security, and several scuffles between them and the crowd ended with armed fan Meredith Hunter stabbed and beaten to death, during, of all songs, Sympathy for the Devil.
The 70s began with the band having left Decca records to set up Rolling Stones Records. The first material released, Sticky Fingers (1971), contained Brown Sugar and Wild Horses. They became tax exiles, moved to France and recorded the double album Exile on Main Street. Raw and ragged, it’s considered by many to be their last classic, as the rest of the 70s saw commercial success but lukewarm reviews from critics, starting with Goat Head’s Soup in 1973.
Miller departed as producer, and then Taylor left after the release of the Glimmer Twins-produced It’s Only Rock’n’Roll in 1974. Faces guitarist Ronnie Wood had contributed to the title track, but his group were still taken by surprise when he took up an offer to join the Rolling Stones. But frustrations over numerous drug offences affecting the group’s abilities to tour meant this wasn’t the best period for Wood to be joining them.
Fortunately things picked up again in 1978 with the release of Some Girls, which featured their last classic, the disco-influenced Miss You. Despite the Stones being on top again, a rift developed between Jagger and Richards. Nevertheless, 1981’s album of outtakes contained Start Me Up, another huge hit.
Jagger became too busy with a solo album to concentrate much on the Rolling Stones, and their output suffered, like many 60s/70s legends, from substandard material recorded with bombastic production techniques.
In 1985 Jagger had a number 1 single with David Bowie for Live Aid, featuring one of the stupidest, most unintentionally hilarious videos of all time. I am of course referring to Dancing in the Street. That same year saw the death of the Stones’ keyboardist Ian Stewart, who had been there from the start. With both of the Glimmer Twins releasing solo albums, these were lean years for the Rolling Stones.
They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, along with Jones, Stewart and Taylor, and this helped thaw the frosty relationship of Jagger and Richard, who put aside their differences and began work on their first album in three years, Steel Wheels. It was the best they’d made in a while, though nowhere near their best, which was now a distant memory.
Bassist Bill Wyman decided to leave in 1991, but the news was kept secret until 1993. He went on to form Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings. We won’t go into his love life, because as we all know, he’s on extremely dodgy ground there. Darryl Jones has been their bassist ever since, yet for some reason he isn’t given recognition as a ‘full’ member of the band. I just hope it has nothing to do with the colour of his skin. And that isn’t an insinuation, just a genuine hope.
The Stones took a break after touring and then released Voodoo Lounge in 1994, which was their most critically acclaimed in years, followed in quick succession by the half-decent Stripped (1995). They brought the 90s to a close with Bridges to Babylon (1997).
Their last album of original material to date, A Bigger Bang, was released in 2005. 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the band’s formation, so the Stones embarked on yet another mammoth tour off the back of their 1000th greatest hits compilation.
In 2013 Michael Eavis finally got his wish and they headlined the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury Festival. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I was lucky enough to be there, and they surpassed my expectations, playing a set of classic material. What really stood out was how much they seemed to relish the opportunity. They didn’t phone their set home, they attacked it with all the energy of a band more than half their age. It’s truly incredible how they can still have so much passion, really.
It’s a long, long time since the Rolling Stones were known as the most dangerous band in the world. You could argue they are just a money-spinning brand now, and to be fair, I’ve made that argument before. But seeing them at Glastonbury changed my opinion. Granted, we haven’t needed most of their recorded output since the early 80s, but it became clear to me that they actually get a kick out of still performing, even after all this time. Jagger recently had heart surgery, and is back on stage after a few months. The man is 75. He must have sold his soul to the devil to carry on the way he is. Look at Keith. He definitely has.
Their tally for number 1 singles may not match the Beatles or Elvis Presley , but the Rolling Stones outlasted them, through drug addictions, prison and deaths. They will come to an end one day though, and it may take that for people to realise not only that the Glimmer Twins were once one of the most talented songwriting teams of all time, but that we have lived through a true musical phenomenon, the like of which we’ll never see again.
Written by: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards
Producer: Jimmy Miller
Weeks at number 1: 5 (23 July-29 August)
Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson – 26 July
Bounty hunter Domino Harvey – 7 August
Joe Swail – Northern Irish snooker player – 29 August
Physicist Cecil Frank Powell – 9 August
Novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett – 27 August