The power of The Rolling Stones isn’t particularly difficult to ascertain: for the most part, they played live. Vocals and guitar overdubs were common, but for a band as rooted in groove and feel as the Stones were, that kind of cohesion could only come with the musicians in a room playing at the same time. It’s why they can get so funky or so raucous without ever sounding like they’re trying too hard. They have chemistry, and even their most placid live concerts still have that same energy.
But what happens when rock and roll and rhythm aren’t at the forefront of a song. Just like most bands, the Stones have a fair few ballads in their catalogue. When the volume and feeling come down a notch, there’s still vital importance to play live as a group. It’s how they recorded tracks like ‘No Expectations’ and ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, and it’s how they made the backing track for what is perhaps their most essential ballad, ‘Angie’.
Deconstructing the song through its individual tracks, the dynamic between the band becomes clear: Keith Richards is the leader, with Charlie Watts playing off his fills and rhythm. Everyone else falls into place before Mick Jagger swoops over the top with his vocal. It’s a delicate balance, but the Stones nail it time and again. ‘Angie’ is no exception, and you can tell how the band works through their gradual layering in of instruments.
In your left ear, you get Richards’ iconic acoustic guitar, which leads off the song in all its melancholic minor-key glory. As he switches over from precise picking to gentle strumming, occasional chromatic notes that are otherwise buried in the mix start to become more clear. These minor mistakes actually dot the entire Rolling Stones’ discography, and it’s what makes them bluesier, dirtier, and rougher than most rock bands. They recorded live and weren’t afraid of going with a take that wasn’t technically perfect if the feeling on it was solid.
This being a ballad, the piano plays an essential role in bringing the beauty and sadness that makes a folky coffeehouse song into a grand tragic tale. When the band needed precise playing in their songs, they often turned to one man: session ace Nicky Hopkins. He’s played the samba backing of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, the saloon barrelhouse style runs on ‘Loving Cup’, the Chicago-style chords of ‘Ventilator Blues’, and the psychedelic leads on ‘She’s a Rainbow’. He’s versatile and can add the perfect amount of colour to any song, even in a tune where he’s meant more to be felt than heard distinctly.
Backing up Richards once the song kicks into gear is Mick Taylor’s acoustic guitar. This is one of the rare instances in their partnership where Richards and Taylor actually achieve the “weaving” effect that Richards pioneered with Brain Jones and perfected with Ronnie Wood. During his tenure, Taylor almost exclusively played the lead, but on ‘Angie’, the two acoustics trade occasional blues licks and revert to strumming to create the song’s signature country-tinged feeling.
Over to the rhythm section, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts have a pretty easy task on ‘Angie’: don’t get in the way, and that’s exactly what they do. Wyman avoids flashy runs, sticking mainly to the given chord’s root with occasional octaves thrown in when they’re not obtrusive. As he did for his entire tenure within the band, Watts is the rock that stays ever-so-slightly behind the beat to make the track more languid. But neither plods, and they collectively drive the song once the choruses necessitate an added jolt of energy.
Over the top of it all sits Jagger’s vocal. Jagger has always been more of a great frontman than a great technical singer, but the way he handles the melodic trills on lines like “you can’t say we’re satisfied” prove that he had great control over melody. Even when he goes big, Jagger is relatively restrained throughout ‘Angie’, never once shouting and even whispering at one point. In the video, Jagger gets an additional piano part from Hopkins on his track, and the duo makes a compelling case for playing the song as a strictly vocal and piano duet.
Ultimately though, it’s all the combined contributions from the Stones and Hopkins that makes ‘Angie’ such a beautiful ballad. One part that the video doesn’t cover is the string arrangement from Nicky Harrison, which adds that wistful layer of perfection without ever going into schmaltzy territory. That’s the key to ‘Angie’: it sounds heartfelt without ever getting too cheesy. That is down to the interplay between the musicians on the track, and the chemistry between the Stones as players. They mixed and matched personnel throughout the years, but it’s hard to argue against these five being the height of The Rolling Stones’ magical musical mojo.