Sunday, January 15, 2012

Honky Tonk Women - Evolution of a Song!

The Rolling Stones unleashed the single “Honky Tonk Women” in 1969.  In many ways, it was somewhat anamolous; it has a unique sound among the Stones classics; at the same time, it’s instantly recognizable as the Rolling Stones. Classic Keith riff, Jagger’s party-time vocal, Charlie’s propulsive rhythm.  Add a touch of Mick Taylor’s new guitar and Bill’s steady bass, and there you go. Da Stones.

However, perhaps because the song is so unique it has, more than most of their classics, lent itself to some interpretation over the years by the band.   Some changes in the live performance are subtle, some less so.  As such, I thought it would be interesting to really study the evolution of the song over time and relate it, where it made sense to do so, to where the band was at any given time in their career.  Let’s start with the 1969 single as a baseline, and explore the band’s interpretation over the years on that basis. 

Wherever possible, I used official releases for this analysis. These represent the band’s view of how best to present their music. In a few cases I relied on alternative sources. It’s all indicated below.

One - Honky Tonk Woman (1969): Breaking from standard practice, hits you right off the bat not with Keith’s guitar but with percussion – a two measure cowbell (played by their producer, Jimmy Miller) intro immediately followed by Chariie.  THEN Keith comes in with the well know guitar riff. Mick hits the vocals with a country-drenched, bluesy vocal accompanied only by Charlie and Keith.  There’s no affectation in his voice a la Far Away Eyes, and that makes it work.

 Only as the first verse comes to an end is the lead guitar introduced, mostly played by Keith with Mick Taylor adding a few licks late in the process.  Bill keeps the bass steady and tasteful throughout.  When the chorus comes, with everyone playing and piano and horns in the mix as well, it’s explosive and raucous, and provides an instant contrast to the spare rhythm that propulses the verses. The song continues in this way for a second round of verse and chorus, a slight break, and boom, just like that, clocking in at a perfect three minutes, it’s over.  The song rollicks and swings and you almost don’t know what hit you but man, you were dancing, weren’t you? Come on admit it!

Two - Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out (New York, 1969).  This version hews closely to the familiar studio version but has almost a restrained feel to it. Keith leads the way, not Charlie.  Besides that, the musical arrangement of the original is fairly intact – though the cowbell, sadly, is gone.  One interesting change: Mick introduces a new second verse! Over the years he seems to alternate second verses between variations of the original and this one (“stranded on the boulevards of Paris…”).  The Ya-Yas version is ok, but I think it only hints at the song’s potential for live performance.

Three - Brussels Affair (1973).  WOW. I’m tempted to just leave the analysis at that one word, just…WOW, but let’s just say, potential realized.  The Stones have it going on and they know it. The playing is confident and strong.  Keith starts it up and goes almost into double time and Charlie meets the challenge. A big change: Mick Taylor comes into the mix ALMOST IMMEDIATELY – no waiting for the chorus; he’s a full partner in propelling the verses forward and he provides his signature lead lines throughout.  Interestingly Wyman is also right up front, in on the action, and Jagger is in total command.  It’s a great version that fully captures the underlying good-times spirit of the song itself. Play loud.

Four - Love You Live (1977): On the 1975 and 1976 tours, HTW was the Stones’ opener.  A perfect choice, and the playing here is raucous and somewhat bombastic – this was when Stones performances were over the top affairs, and as you listen you can just assume that the mantra, “think big,” must have been running around in their brains. It’s good though but in all honesty, a bit sloppy! During this period Mick was dropping consonants for whatever reason and his haphazard approach is a minor distraction.  Important note: LYL captures the first tours with Ronnie Wood on lead guitar. He’s not fully come into his own and while his leads are fine, they’re not fully developed.

Five - Fort Worth (1978): Aanother recent official release that gives us a chance to trace the Stones’ live evolution.  Tthe Stones played HTW fairly early in the set and with no bells and whistles.  By now Ronnie has come into his own as the Stones second guitarist.  He eschews the traditional lead role here, instead interweaving his guitar with Keith’s.  That is the trademark of the Richards/Wood partnership, and when they’re both on, it can be transcendent.  Add that to the exuberance of touring their best album in years (“Some Girls”), and you get an enthusiastic rendition of this classic tune.  This is a solid and fun version of the song, perhaps one of the better from this tour.

Six - Phoenix (1981): An unofficial recording but nonetheless pretty reflective of how the song was played during this time: straightforward and “professional” though not particularly distinctive. The 1978 tour was inconsistent; some great shows, some rather sloppy. The Stones wanted to shed these criticisms and came back with a vengeance in 1981, touring on the album that had what was to be their last mega hit single (Start Me Up). They did it, but I think that sometimes they went a bit too far in cleaning up the act, and the versions of HTW reflect that.  Note:  you DO want to watch Keith bash an interloper here:

Seven - Various shows (1989) BIG changes here. Stones reunite after years of bickering that almost broke up the band.  They “reinvented” their live act, going into “big theatrical production” mode as opposed to “killer rock and roll band” mode (others have more cynically said they went “from band to brand”). Not like it used to be – but a strategy that’s worked for them for 20 years now and a lot of the shows are still great, so I guess they’re on to something.  But there’s more uniformity in arrangements, and the template for how HTW would be performed through the last tour (2007) was pretty much established here.  There are SIGNIFICANT changes.  One, the cowbell was back, which I love. Two, backup singers were added to the show, which I do NOT love.  They are too Las Vegas for me.  On HTW they are intrusive and distracting.  Three, a piano break is added that was fun the first few tours but by 2006, when I last saw them, it was just an annoyance. It also bumped the length of the song up to about five minutes, where it used to clock in at a tidy three. So big changes and it’s still an anticipated mainstay of their live act, but the song now sometimes suffers from a lack of spontaneity and joie de vie.

Eight: various tours, mid-1990s.  The template for HTW established in 1989 stayed pretty much the same.  One big change though, is that Bill Wyman left the band to be replaced by Darryl Jones.  Jones is an excellent bassist with a diverse background in jazz, funk, and other musical forms beyond rock and roll. He has a funkier feel than Bill with more swing, and this has apparently rubbed off on Charlie big time (another subject for another blog entry).  As a rhythm section they’ve added a swing to the Stones that was rarely heard in the past, and that is definitely in evidence on HTW during this period.  One nice touch – the Stones started using a small stage on these tours and HTW was often one of the songs performed on that platform. THAT was great and the band sounds tight, happy, and gritty. Love it.

Nine: Live Licks (2001). Another perpetual tour in the early 2000s; the only U.S. tour I’ve missed since 1978, when I saw them in Cleveland.  The five minute formula – the extra piano part, the background singers, etc. – remained largely intact, as did most of the warhorses. I’d assume this is because the Stones delved into their catalog a bit more deeply on this tour, and focused their energies on getting some of the lesser played songs right. In retrospect, I’m sorry I missed it. Ah well.

Ten: Glasgow (2006). The nature of a Stones show changed in 1989, but they can still be exhilirating.  This is an excellent live radio broadcast from the Bigger Bang tour and throughout, including on HTW, the band is in full force.  Mick is “on,” there’s a lot of life in the overall interpretation, and somehow they find a four minute middle ground!  I saw the Bigger Bang show in Philly and then in Baltimore with my man Scott, and they were among the best Stones shows I ever saw. The energy of the tour is captured here – the crowd is manic – and the performance shows just how good the Stones can still be.

Eleven:  2012? I hope so. In my ideal world, the backup singers are gone, the theatrics and pyrotechnics are gone (well hey, maybe a little fireworks, who doesn’t like fireworks?), I’m seeing the Stones in an arena or even better a theatre – and I’m paying under a hundred bucks to do so. These guys agree:

I think they can still put on great shows - I've seen plenty of them.  I know they’ll keep some of the post-1988 accutrements; I’m not as draconian as the liberation front, though if all their demands were met, I’d support completely!  As for me, I’ll settle for a middle ground, with a back to basics ethos and smaller venues.  And when that happens, I’ll be cheering when Keith pounds out the intro to good old Honky Tonk Women. 

1 comment:

  1. Great analysis, and you've got to love the cowbell intro!

    Keep rocking...