The Rolling Stones weren’t exacting taskmasters. Sessions for their songs would often be loosely-assembled jam sessions, where songs were tried out in different tempos, styles, and structures until the final product was achieved. If it wasn’t, songs were often thrown to the side. The Stones were intent on capturing magic and weren’t terribly concerned with getting exact tunings, harmonies, or lead lines exact.
If there was one element of the Stones’ sound that was reliable, it would have been drummer Charlie Watts. Virtually a human metronome, Watts could be counted on to keep the more wayward Stones on the straight and narrow, at least when it came to compositions. There were only a small number of times when Watts didn’t appear on a Stones record, most notably replaced by producer Jimmy Miller on the songs ‘Happy’ and ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, but on one of the band’s most iconic singles, the tour percussionists actually worked together.
‘Honky Tonk Women’ was the Stones at their sleaziest and best. After having recorded a country version of the track entitled ‘Country Honk’, the band decided to beef up the sound and record a new electric version, complete with recent addition Mick Taylor on lead guitar. Watts and Miller were tasked with performing an intro to the song, with Watts on drums and Miller on cowbell. According to Watts, the two didn’t quite link up rhythmically.
“We’ve never played an intro to ‘Honky Tonk Women’ live the way it is on the record,” Watts explained in the book The Rolling Stones: All the Songs. “That’s Jimmy playing the cowbell and either he comes in wrong or I come in wrong – but Keith comes in right, which makes the whole thing right… It’s actually a mistake, but from my point of view, it works.”
If you’ve ever listened to the introduction on the studio version of ‘Honky Tonk Women’ and thought that it was a little off, now you know why. Ultimately, the live take captured with Watts and Miller’s gaffe was too good to pass on, so their brief bit of rhythmic confusion was kept in place. True to Watts’ recollection, if you look up any live version of the song on YouTube, the intro is never played the same exact way that it is on the record. Chalk it up to unintentional studio magic.
Check out the studio version of ‘Honky Tonk Women’ down below.