As soon as you hear that cowbell, you know something’s up. The first single following the change in personnel at The Rolling Stones HQ (essentially the sacking of former guitarist Brian Jones) was 1969’s ‘Honky Tonk Women’. Not only was it released just days after Jones’ untimely death on July 3rd, but it also marks the last time the Stones topped the UK singles chart.
A sexual romp through America, Jagger tells us of his exploits with two ‘honky-tonk’ women, the first a “gin-soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis”, the second a “divorcee in New York City”. Yet the song’s birth surprisingly takes place far from the States and the scenes of Jagger’s adventures.
The track began its life under the name ‘Country Honk’. In December 1968, Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithful and Anita Pallenberg were travelling from Lisbon to Rio. The four travellers found themselves living on a ranch for a few days, “sitting on a veranda like cowboys, thinking ourselves in Texas,” recalls Richards. The song was written on an acoustic guitar and thus, was something of a commonplace nod to classic country.
On their time on the Rio ranch, Richards elucidates, “Anita Pallenberg was pregnant with my son at the time. Which didn’t stop us going off to the Mato Grasso and living on this ranch. It’s all cowboys. It’s all horses and spurs. And Mick and I were sitting on the porch of this ranch house and I started to play, basically fooling around with an old Hank Williams idea. ’Cause we really thought we were like real cowboys. Honky tonk women. And we were sitting in the middle of nowhere with all these horses, in a place where if you flush the john all these black frogs would fly out. It was great. The chicks loved it. Anyway, it started out a real country honk put on, a hokey thing.”
It was only when Brian Jones’ replacement Mick Taylor got a hold of the song during recording sessions in ’69 that “somehow by some metamorphosis it suddenly went into this little swampy, black thing, a Blues thing,” Richards explains. Surely, this mystery is owed to Taylor’s inclusion in the recording sessions (‘Honk’ was, in fact, his first appearance on a Stones recording.) Taylor claims to have written the main guitar riff, even though it is Richards who actually plays it.
So ‘Honk’ shifted into something new, something darker, bluesier, funkier, with Taylor now providing a partner for Richards to riff off, and vice versa. Taylor notes the differing styles of the two lead guitarists, with “Keith influence by Chuck Berry and me [Taylor] by B.B. King.” The pair could seamlessly shift from providing rhythm and leading for one another. This chemistry no doubt shines through on the track even today.
The track’s new rockier, funkier sound is further elevated by the hard-hitting and persistent cowbell, the heavy kick of Charlie Watts’ kit, the croon and screech of Jagger and the later crescendo of saxophone wail. This was to become something of a formula for the Stones’ recordings following ‘Honk’s’ release in ’69. The original country version was released a few months later on Let It Bleed.
If there is one song that defines The Rolling Stones’ inevitable immortality, it was this one.