Greatest Song At This Moment - The Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women"




Dedicated to those songs that I can't stop playing, humming, or thinking about; the 4+ minutes you fall head-over-heels in love with. Past instances have included Beck's "Timebomb," New Order's "Age of Consent," and Black Sabbath's "N.I.B."

So just for a moment assume that I'm not an enormous Rolling Stones fan who wouldn't love to turn this column into a tribute article, going song-by-song through most of the band's early catalog (1965-1981 to define "early"). Also assume that I'm completely normal as far as Tripwire standards go, and that I've been quite simply possessed by the devil's music. Assume all of this and just listen to this song -- the song you've heard a million times in a million different locations for most of your natural life -- attentively. It's not playing in the background of some crowded bar, or blaring from a passing pickup truck, and you didn't catch it in the middle of flipping radio stations before you zip past it just as quickly. Try to just listen attentively to the song and appreciate the production of one of our planet's greatest pop singles.

It should surprise no one with a minor interest in rock history that such a feat was possible by this band at this point in their career. They had just survived a less-than-successful bout of pychedelia, returning to their bluesy-er roots with Beggar's Banquet. After kicking out Brian Jones and creating the incredibly powerful Let It Bleed, the Stones had found their newest voice. Remarkably, this voice had less to do with them being advertising themselves as "the greatest rock band in the world" and more with pure musical textures, which actually demonstrated that title. "Gimme Shelter" garnered much attention in 1969 as much for it's cinematic turns as for the fact that Jagger -- ego and all -- managed to not only share the vocals with Merry Clayton, but gave her the most dramatic part of the song. One can assume this was all for the good of the song, and that attitude leaked into "Honky Tonk Women".

"HTW" feels like a Stones song more for its attitude than its music. The early vocals are unmistakably Jagger, but with a slight echo representing the first production fine touch. At the third phrase of the first verse, Richards comes in to sing, giving not only a dash of difference for difference's sake but serving to transition us into the chorus and, most powerfully, the upcoming musical break. I've been singing this song for all my life, and I've always taken it for granted that Jagger was singing those higher notes in the chorus. Later I would believe it was Richards. But now, putting myself in the place of analytical examination, I can assume those are back-up singers, piled so much over the top of Jagger and Richards' vocals that you can't make them out any more. "Piling on" seems to be the design strategy of the entire song, from the opening cow bell, to the drum fills, to the sparse guitar on into the chorus, it's as if every musician and instrument being awakened by the preceding. What's glorious about this technique is that you get the thrill of every instrument playing simultaneously and sounding less like a mess and more like a beautiful happy accident. Which is kind of what rock 'n' roll should be all the time.

This brings us to the musical interlude coming out of the refrain of the glorious chorus. The dirty sax finally emerges and does an incredible give-and-take dance with the Richards solo that's so natural and fluid, anyone humming along seamlessly drifts from guitar to sax and back without missing a beat.

Moments like this blow my mind and serve as reminders of how little I know about music production. It would seem to me that this portion would either be dedicated to guitar solos only (or at least predominantly) or saxophone solos only (or predominantly). Instead, we get what sounds like -- under close examination -- exactly 16 different songs happening at once, piled into another spectacular mess where disaster is passed allowing harmony to emerge. Like the Stones themselves, this section is greater than the sum of its parts, and the interplay remains one of the crowning moments of the Mick Taylor Guitar/Jimmy Miller Production era.

But all the stuff they threw into this section isn't even what makes the bit truly great. Not to get too philosophical here, but what makes this section great is what we can't hear at all: Mick Jagger. This section represents the apex of the Stones' stripper-music philosophy of the late 60s and early 70s. And above all, a stripper's gotta dance. I've seen the band live a couple times, watched many documentaries and concert films, but I knew that this section was where Mick Jagger did his thing before I saw any live footage. It's unmistakable, and since with this being your first time in a long time really hearing the song, try to listen to this section and imagine a person on Earth who could listen to this section and not picture the rooster strut. As you listen, your arms will naturally tuck in, your hands hit your hips, your lips pout, and the necks of the world bounce to the side while you all forget that this man was (partly) responsible for the horrible lameness of that "Dancing in the Streets" duet with David Bowie.

The hip-shaking emotion behind this stretch created, packaged and sold the Rolling Stones as an attitude and Jagger as a band leading ring master all because the music of this section became so perfectly Rolling Stones that it moved beyond mere words. It's strictly elemental and for good reason. The proof lives right there in your headphones (the preferred listening means for this rich of a song). And as I reach to repeat the song again, having swaggered my way up and down my hallway once again, I cannot recall another 30 second stretch from any other pop song in history to be as smoothly produced, engineered and performed without allowing the production, engineering and performance to get in the way of that beautifully sleazy stripper-music philosophy. It's easy to imagine how the square community of the late 60s thought rock music was so dangerous because of sections like this. They don't utter a word, but it speaks volumes.

Rounding out the song and coming out of this immaculate section, we return to that same chorus we've heard close to 50 million times over the course of our lives, only this time you notice all the buddies we've found over the course of the song: the cowbell, drums, sleaze guitar, bass, dirty saxophones, backing vocals and the strut. We've heard the chorus, we know the words, but now we know how to sing it with our entire body.

I'm not trying to really convert anyone here, and I certainly don't pretend to know everything about anything, but if I could accomplish anything with this column, it would be to make your lives just a little bit better. The next time you're in a bar on dollar-Pabst night and this song plays for the zillionth time in your life, I hope you can better enjoy three of the most perfect minutes in rock 'n' roll history. Removed a little of the baggage 40 years worth of radio play can create and drown in this world. And if you end up standing on a table leading the rest of the drunks in a sing-a-long of this, the Booze Country National Anthem, with dance steps and all, then all the better. Don't worry; everyone knows the chorus.

Oddly and Ironically Enough, I cannot find a suitable video to accompany this song. I even tried making my own, but it was rejected for copyright reasons. So you either have to seek out one of the most often played songs in the world, or take the accompanying video with a grain of salt. On the whole, it's kind of great: 1969-era Stones doing their thing on Top of The Pops, even if the guitars aren't plugged in. It starts early, ends awkwardly and you get a little louder Jagger on the chorus, which kind of goes against my entire argument. Still, you do get some strut dancing during the aforementioned instrumental section as well as a good look at some amazing Mick Taylor hair, so it's not all bad.




The Rolling Stones

Written By Phillip Mottaz

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Greatest Song At This Moment - The Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women"