‘Wild Horses’ remains one of the best-beloved songs created by The Rolling Stones. A ballad that has long been thought to have been written about Marianne Faithfull actually has a complex creative history. When it was first released by the band in 1971 as part of their classic record Sticky Fingers, that wasn’t even the first time the track had been unleashed to the world.
In actual fact, a version of the iconic song was released in 1970 by the pioneers of ‘Cosmic American Music’, The Flying Burrito brothers. Led by ex-Byrds member Gram Parsons, the band were good friends of The Rolling Stones and came across the track thanks to Mick Jagger.
In the liner notes to the Rolling Stones compilation Jump Back, Jagger revealed: “I remember we sat around originally doing this with Gram Parsons, and I think his version came out slightly before ours. Everyone always says this was written about Marianne, but I don’t think it was; that was all well over by then. But I was definitely very inside this piece emotionally.”
One of the counterculture’s most polarising figures, David Crosby, credits Parsons with the song, although the provenance of his take is questionable. Allegedly, handwritten copies of the lyrics were found in a notebook of Parsons’, as well as in a letter to his sister, Avis. It is said that after the death of their parents, Parsons felt personally responsible for his sister, and felt guilty for leaving her at home.
Parsons first bumped into The Rolling Stones around 1968 after his brief stint in folk-rock legends The Byrds. A 1972 report in Rolling Stone even asserted that Jagger actually wrote the song “for and about” Parsons. In 2021, the publication also claimed that Parsons first heard ‘Wild Horses’ after Jagger played him a demo of it. It is said Jagger sent Parsons the master recording and asked him to add some of his iconic steel guitar to it.
Parsons said at the time: “And we went into the Record Plant… and somebody came in with some sort of strange dust and things just went haywire… the engineer forgot where he was and things like that. So they didn’t use that track, and I asked Mick if we could put it on our mixed album if we didn’t release it as a single, and he thought about it and said alright.”
The Stones recorded their unforgettable version of ‘Wild Horses’ at Muscle Shoals Studios in Alabama, December 1969. In his tell-all autobiography, Life, guitarist Keith Richards explained: “‘Wild Horses’ almost wrote itself. It was really a lot to do with, once again, fucking around with the tunings. I found these chords, especially doing it on a twelve-string to start with, which gave the song this character and sound.”
Building on how the song came about, Richards said: “Once you’ve got the vision in your mind of wild horses, I mean, what’s the next phrase you’re going to use? It’s got to be couldn’t drag me away.”
Another story favoured by fans is that Faithfull said the song’s famous phrase to Jagger after he’d woken from a drug-induced coma, shortly before they had ended their romantic relationship. However, given it was the 1960s, and that no one seems to know for certain where the song comes from, it remains a mystery. Although the “graceless lady” line has long been thought to have been about Faithfull.
It seems as if ‘Wild Horses’ came about as a culmination of factors. Gram Parsons and Marianne Faithfull probably influenced the song, even if only subliminally, as Jagger and Richards’ accounts vary. Richards wrote the song, and then Jagger finished it off, taking out some of Richards’ parts and adding his own. Classic Rolling Stones.
Listen to ‘Wild Horses’ below.