HONKY TONK WOMEN, 1969
Lead Vocal: Bobby Cohen
"This song can be a bastard to play ... (but) when it's right, it's really right."
-- Keith Richards
Unlike the Beatles with their provincial roots, The Rolling Stones started in London. Digging Muddy Waters (who wrote the song they named themselves after) and the older blues pioneers, along with crossover artists like Chuck Berry. They established themselves early on as a bluesier, badder and perhaps more worldly counter point to The Beatles. It was a friendly rivalry that they decidedly won in at least one area: longevity. The Stones have survived every trend and cycle in the music industry, and are still rolling more than 50 years after they first started in the blues clubs of London.
They wrote some of the best songs in rock history in their early years (1965 -1972), with Keith Richards creating some of its most iconic guitar riffs from "Satisfaction" to "Jumping-Jack Flash" to "Brown Sugar." Mick Jagger justifiably gets credit as the Stone's front man, but most of their songs were co-written by Keith. The rhythm and feel of Stones songs, to me, comes first from Keith and then from drummer Charlie Watts. Keith has always been the musical director of the Stones, with the rest of the band following his groove and (often unintentional) tempo shifts. He's another 'less-is-more' guitar player, more invested in getting the right feel for a song than in shredding up and down the fret board.
"Honky Tonk Women" was written and recorded during the four years, which I believe were the Stones' musical peak. While the Stones wrote countless brilliant songs, I think they had only 3 consistently excellent albums: Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile On Main Street, which were all released between 1969 - 1972. Perhaps it was Mick Taylor on guitar·. Perhaps it was The Stones rising up to take the mantle as The Beatles were breaking up. Perhaps it was their time. Probably all of the above!
"Honky Tonk Women" was originally written with more of a country feel, while Mick and Keith were vacationing on a ranch in Brazil. The countrified version with fiddles and a car horn ended up on the Let It Bleed album as "Country Honk," while the more familiar version with electric guitars and a cowbell was released as a single.
Many of Keith's signature guitar patterns can be heard on this song, particularly the 'open G' -tuned Telecaster and major chords with added 4ths (C with an F added on after "...bar room queen in Memphis.") The exact same chord formations show up in "Brown Sugar" and "Start Me Up." Just like Chuck Berry, Keith loved to copy himself! (Mark Knopfler has a version of this on "Sultans of Swing" as well).
This song is all about feel, and spacing. Staying wide in the verse, and crowding it in during the chorus. More guitars, more horns, more voices! I had a guitar solo that tried to replicate the feel of the horns. Then I got ambitious and decided to add a second guitar part. Parthiv convinced me that just doing parallel 3rd or 4th notes on the second guitar was boring. And I think I ended up in a better place with his help.
I was also planning to sing this song, but it sounded so bad that I threw this out to Bobby at the end of one of our sessions. He pulled it up on his iPhone, and I believe he was hearing this song for the very first time before we started recording!