It’s fair to say that despite filling each of the last six years of its existence with scandals and controversies, pt. the Rolling Stones, 1969 was undoubtedly their most dramatic year to date. Sessions for what will become Let him bleed had begun, but largely without guitarist Brian Jones, whose perpetual stoned state rendered him useless when present. Inevitably, something had to give. In May, the band auditioned and hired 20-year-old guitarist Mick Taylor. In June, Brian, who had founded The Stones, was asked to leave the band. A month later, he was found dead in his swimming pool.
Brian’s death hit Mick Jagger’s girlfriend, Marianne Faithful, hard. After the couple flew to Australia, missing Jones’ funeral in the process, Faithfull fell into an overdose-induced coma. Then, in August, Keith Richards became a father for the first time – his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, giving birth to their son, Marlon.
Listen now to “Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones.
Meanwhile, in October, the ramifications of the Stones’ release from their management deal with Allen Klein revealed the gravity of their financial situation. Fortunately for the group’s livelihood, without Jones and his criminal record barring him from entering the country, the Stones were now free to tour the US for the first time in three years.
While the prospect of returning to singing for American audiences was a blessing for the Stones, it came with its drawbacks. Keith didn’t want to leave his newborn son. “I knew we were going to have to go to America and start the job all over again, get me off my ass and [I didn’t want] to go, Keith said. “It was a very delicate moment; the baby is only two months old and you are leaving. Millions of people do it all the time, but still…”
This separation anxiety was on Keith’s mind when he picked up his 12-string guitar and found himself playing an abandoned minor-key chord progression. As he was modeling the chorus, two words suddenly presented themselves: “Wild horses.” “It was one of those magical moments where things come together,” he said. “You just dream and suddenly everything is in your hands. Once you have the vision of the wild horses in your mind, I mean, what’s the next phrase you’re going to use? Must be “couldn’t pull me away”.
After conveying to Mick what he conjured up, the song acquired its lyrics. In her autobiography, Marianne claims that waking from her six-day coma, she assured a fearful Jagger that “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away”. Although Mick was naturally relieved that Marianne had made it through, the incident did little to help the rift that had developed between them, ending their four-year relationship. While the Stones toured America in November, the papers back home reported that Marianne had left Mick for Italian artist/director Mario Schifano.
It’s hard to imagine that this wasn’t woven into the soulful invocations of “Wild Horses” (“You know I can’t let you slip through my hands,” swears Mick), but it’s an assumption Jagger has discredited previously. “Everybody always says that this was written about Marianne,” he said, “but I don’t think it was; this was well over by then. But I was definitely very inside this piece emotionally. This is very personal, evocative and sad. It all sounds pretty cheesy now, but it was a pretty tough time.”
Mick’s breakup woes are all too palpable in the song’s candor, as he sings to the “graceless lady” causing such “dull, aching pain.” His voice is perhaps the most tender he’s ever sounded, so warm and yearning in the verses and so tender in the choruses, with an added emotional edge from Keith’s lonesome harmonies. “Well, that’s what you’re dealing with with these kind of songs,” Mick said of the track’s sensibility. “You have to make emotions, otherwise it doesn’t make sense. When I wrote those lyrics, I was feeling vulnerable, so take it.”
A few days after their tour ended in Palm Beach, Florida on December 2nd, The Rolling Stones entered Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Florence, Alabama. The newly opened venue was founded by four musicians who had been members of Rick Hall’s house band FAME Studios, revered for their work with Etta James, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. Here the group stopped to work, recording three songs in three days.
“It’s one of Keith’s things to go in and record while you’re in the middle of a tournament and your game is in good shape,” Charlie Watts said. “Muscle Shoals studio was really special though – a great studio to work in, a very modern studio where the drums were on a pole up in the air, plus you wanted to be there because of all the guys that worked. in the same studio.”
With engineer Jimmy Johnson at the helm, the Stones embarked on their usual process of creating a song: tirelessly going through and gradually refining it over hours. By the end of the first day, they had managed their cover of Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move” and by the second, they had “Brown Sugar”. On the third day they approached the “Wild Horses.”
Recording the song
Being in the Deep South, the Stones couldn’t help but feel inspired. The walls were saturated with the sound of R&B. As Mick Taylor tweaked his acoustic guitar into a Nashville tuning, the song began to take on a distinct country flavor. “Being there inspires you to do it slightly differently,” Jagger once admitted.
Ian Stewart, the Stones’ loyal pianist/road manager, had excused himself from the piano chair, insisting he didn’t want to play minor tunes. In his place was Jim Dickinson, a producer friend who was visiting from Memphis. “Jim was in the back where we put the guitar amps,” Jimmy Johnson recalled. “[We had a] tack piano, an old upright piano; we put frets on the hammers so it sounded like a honky tonk. Anyway, Jim was there just messing around, playing with what they had settled on as the groove, and Keith came over and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to play this!'”
Mick completed the lyrics as they worked, and once the vocals dropped, the song was complete. In the Maysles brothers’ 1970 documentary film Give me shelter, we can see the Stones listening to a rendition of the “Wild Horses” master, basking in its delicate glory. After that, they were done.
“When the session was over and they had rough mixes, Jagger stood there and shredded the tape, except for the masters,” revealed Jim Dickinson. “He deleted every shuffle and every out that they didn’t take with them. And he shredded the eight rails, except the masters, and took the tape out on the floor. There is no contraband in that session.”
In the wee hours of December 7, the Stones were in their San Francisco hotel coming to terms with what they had just been through. Their free concert at Altamont Speedway that day was intended as a token of gratitude from the Stones to their fans for a successful tour, but it was cursed with violence from the start (thanks to Hell’s heavy security Angels) and culminated in a fan being stabbed to death in front of the stage. After safely escaping, the Stones were relaxing with friends, incl Gram Parsons from Flying Burrito Brothers.
Gram Parsons first encountered the Stones in 1968 when, as a member of The Byrds, he met them in London. A friendship blossomed with Keith based on a shared love of country music. Florida-born Parsons had just steered the former folk-rock Byrds in a purely country direction, but was soon fired from the band when he chose to hang out with Keith in London instead of continuing their tour. He went on to form The Flying Burrito Brothers with Byrds bassist Chris Hillman, and the band played third on the bill at Altamont.
“We were all shaking from the whole experience and leaving the next day,” Parsons recalled, “and [Mick] said, “I want you to hear this song, man, because I think it’s something you might be interested in. And he performed “Wild Horses” for me.
Soon after, Gram reportedly received the master tape of “Wild Horses” with the intention of either him or Burritos’ steel player “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow adding a part to it. Whatever they added, the Stones didn’t use, but time allowed Gram and the band to learn it, and they recorded a version for their second album.
Burrito Deluxe it was released in May 1970, nearly a year before the world heard the Stones’ version of “Wild Horses,” leading many to believe that Gram was involved in the song’s creation. The truth is hard to decipher. What is clear is this: as sweet as Burritos’ rendition is, it lacks the punchiness of the Stones’ version.
The Rolling Stones wanted to get their affairs in order before releasing any more new material. Allen Klein’s contracts stipulated ownership of all Jagger/Richards tracks recorded by the group in the 60s, including “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses,” and his dismissal was to be terminated. Their own label, Rolling Stone Records, was launched in 1970, and in April 1971, they released Sticky fingers.
The third track on the album, “Wild Horses” was immediately praised for its bittersweet beauty. Released at the time as a single only in Canada and the US, it fared better in Europe as an updated version by the Stones. Naked the album was released in 1995.
Over the years, those who have offered their own interpretations of “Wild Horses” on stage and in discussion span a diverse range of artists and styles. The Sundays’ ethereal indie version, Alicia Keys’ R&B piano ballad, Guns N’ Roses’ blistering guitar duel, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings’ vintage soul rendition and, yes, even Susan Boyle’s rendition are all testimonies of the facility of the play. heart touching.
Perhaps due to its delicate charm, it is not a staple in the Stones’ setlists, appearing infrequently. When performed, “Wild Horses” is treated with the dignity it deserves and has even been graced by special guests worthy of its impassioned delivery. Dave Matthews, Eddie Vedder and Florence Welch they all shared a stage with the Stones, matching Jagger’s flawless vocals with their own responsive reading, each affirming the timeless appeal of the Stones’ most intimate ballad.
Listen now to “Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones.
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