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Exploring Marianne Faithfull's hit song 'As Tears Go By'

‘As Tears Go By’ is a glorious song. One of Marianne Faithfull’s most enduring singles, it was actually something of a team effort. The song was written by Rolling Stones partners in crime, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, in tandem with their manager, the eccentric Andrew Loog Oldham. Although The Stones would enjoy success with the track, it would be Marianne Faithfull who really made it her own. Released in 1964, ‘As Tears Go By’ peaked at number nine on the singles charts and helped to confirm the British vocalist as one of the most unmistakable figures of the era. 

Interestingly, ‘As Tears Go By’ was one of the first original compositions written by Jagger and Richards, stemming from the period when the band were making their transition from an R&B covers outfit to a group who wrote original songs. One of the most heavily mythologised efforts in their back catalogue, it is claimed that Oldham locked Jagger and Richards in a kitchen and forced them to write a song together. 

Oldham is alleged to have even told the pair what kind of song he wanted: “I want a song with brick walls all around it, high windows and no sex”. This song was initially entitled ‘As Time Goes By’, lifting its name from the song that Dooley Wilson sings in the classic flick Casablanca. Oldham took the executive decision to replace ‘Time’ with ‘Tears’. In his 2010 autobiography Life, Richards explained: “We thought, what a terrible piece of tripe. We came out and played it to Andrew (Oldham), and he said ‘It’s a hit.’ We actually sold this stuff, and it actually made money. Mick and I were thinking, this is money for old rope”.

Per an account by Mick Jagger biographer Philip Norman, it was Jagger who was mainly behind the song’s creation, in co-operation with London’s premier session guitarist, Big Jim Sullivan. However, this has been dispelled by Jagger himself, who has always maintained that he wrote the lyrics and that Richards wrote the melody. 

Later, Oldham handed over the ballad to the 17-year-old Faithfull to record as a B-side, playing her the demo, which had Jagger singing and Sullivan on acoustic guitar. She recalled: “He handed me a scrawled lyric sheet, and I went back into the studio and did it. As soon as I heard the cor anglais playing the opening bars, I knew it was going to work. After a couple of takes, it was done. Andrew came and gave me a big hug. ‘Congratulations darling. You’ve got yourself a number six,’ he said.”

Decca, both Faithfull and The Stones’ label, switched the recording to an A-side after it became a popular song, regardless of it being a B-side. Faithfull truly arrived after she performed the song on NBC variety show, Hullabaloo, in a segment presented by The Beatles manager, Brian Epstein live from London.

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One strange facet of the song’s existence is the debate over why the song was written in the first place and, more importantly, if Oldham had always had the starlet lined up to record it when locking Jagger and Richards in the kitchen. At different points, Faithfull has sat on both sides of the fence. In the biography As Tears Go By, Mark Hodkinson backs up this claim. Faithfull told Penthouse in 1980L “All that stuff about how Mick wrote it for me was awfully nice but untrue”. However, Hodkinson also documents: “Ten years later, on the sleeve notes for the Blazing Away album Marianne contradicted herself by referring to the record as ‘the song that Mick Jagger and Keith Richard wrote for me'”.

Faithfull has had her own say, though. In the 1994 autobiography, Faithfull, she said: “‘As Tears Go By’ was not, contrary to popular folklore, written for me, but it fitted me so perfectly it might as well had been”. She explained that Decca intended the A-side of her first single to have been a song written by composer Lionel Bart, ‘I Don’t Know (How To Tell You), but the song was “awful” so it never saw the light of day. Faithfull built on her account by saying: “It was one of those showbiz songs that needed the proper register. My voice was just plain wrong! We did take after agonising take… but I could not simply do it. In desperation, Andrew got me to try the song that originally had been planned for the B-side, ‘As Tears Go By’.”

Either way, Faithfull “was never that crazy about ‘As Tears Go By'”. She concluded her account: “God knows how Mick and Keith wrote it or where it came from… In any case, it is an absolutely astonishing thing for a boy of 20 to have written a song about a woman looking back nostalgically on her life”.

The Rolling Stones would finally release their own version of the hit in 1965, changing Faithfull’s arrangement and stripping it down to the basics. It would enter the deep pool of Rolling Stones songs where the provenance is unclear. I like to think that between Jagger and Faithfull’s account, we know exactly where it came from, but you just never know.

Listen to Marianne Faithfull’s ‘As Tears Go By’ below.