Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Classic Song Chronicles: "As Tears Go By" (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards)

As Tears Go By

While it perhaps doesn't compare to the more confrontational and mature Mick Jagger and Keith Richards compositions from The Rolling Stones catalogue of the late sixties and early seventies, there has always been something special about the haunting and surprisingly tender first composition from the legendary Glimmer Twins, 1964's "As Tears Go By".
Reports vary from person to person as to the true origins of "As Tears Go By", but all seem to agree that it came about from manager Andrew Loog Oldham's demand that Jagger and Richards start writing songs together to compete with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who had suddenly turned Rock n Roll into a songwriter's field with their work with The Beatles. "As Tears Go By" would be one of the earliest songs, perhaps even the first, from the famed duo of Jagger and Richards and it still resonates today as one of their most enduring compositions.


Richard's offers up probably the most iconic story as to how the song came about in the essential According to The Rolling Stones. The legendary guitar player recalls, "The 1st one we worked on was "As Tears Go By". That was the song where Andrew locked us in the kitchen in my flat up on Mapesbury Road in Willesden. He said, 'You’ve got to try'. He put a guitar in the kitchen and locked the door and we stayed there all night."
Richard's story is the commonly accepted one but it might very well be one of the great Rock myths. Jagger remembers differently in the same book and says, "Keith likes the story about the kitchen, God bless him. I think Andrew might have said something at some point along the lines of 'I should lock you in a room until you've written a song' and in that way mentally he did lock us in a room, but he didn't literally lock us in."

Regardless of whether the locked room story is fact or fiction, the song that Jagger and Richards came up with as their debut as songwriters is a beauty. Originally called "As Time Goes By", which Oldham changed to 'tears' (snagging a co-writing credit in the process), the song's lyrically famous opening beginning with the rather odd, "It is the evening of the day" signaled a songwriting team destined to not play by the rules and who would follow nobody's lead but their own.
Oldham planned to debut the song as a Rolling Stones b-side but he quickly changed his mind and decided the song would be perfect for a seventeen year old singer who had recently come under his wing named Marianne.

It's arguable as to whether "As Tears Go By" would be known at all today as anything other than an early Rolling Stones track had Marianne Faithfull not recorded it in 1964. Her version, a worldwide hit in the fall of 64, made the song an instant classic and announced her as one of the most distinctive and memorable vocalists of the sixties. Faithfull recalled in her autobiography the first time she heard the song that would change her life, "Andrew played me a demo of the tune with Mick singing and Big Jim Sullivan on acoustic guitar. He handed me a scrawled lyric sheet and I went back into the studio and did it." Faithfull's sublimely sweet and strikingly sincere version hit the British top ten soon after and by November of 64 it was in America's top forty and Marianne Faithfull became one of the first major female stars of the British Invasion.

Faithfull perceptively points out that the song is "like a Francoise Hardy song", while Charlie Watts would take it even further, comparing it to the stuff the band Pentangle would be doing a few years down the road and saying it had, "an early English style" and that it was "the beginning of flower power." There is something to what both of them said as Faithfull's version does indeed sound at least a couple of years ahead of its time. It perhaps would have been an even bigger hit had it been released in say 66 rather than 64.

Neither Jagger nor Richards seemed too concerned about Oldham giving Faithful the song. Keith admitted to being perfectly pleased that the song was such a hit for the "ex-nun" and that even though they considered some of their early material rather, "purile and (like) Kindergarten" that they impressively always managed to, "made a decent showing in the charts."

The Stones finally released their own version in 1965 as a B-Side to the incredible "19th Nervous Breakdown". Their original version has not had the resonance that Faithfull's original has, although The Stones version actually performed better that Faithfull's had on the American charts.

"As Tears Go By" would become one of the most recorded Rolling Stones songs of the sixties and within a couple of years from Faithfull's version everyone from Nancy Sinatra (whose subtle and hushed reading of the song on her debut album is one of the definitive cuts of it) to talented Brazilian Bossa Nova singer Nara Leao had released a version.

"As Tears Go By" has been Recorded hundreds of times since Marianne Faithfull's original version, with some of the key covers of it coming from artists ranging from The Primitives to French icon Vanessa Paradis:

The song would turn out to be one Johnny Thunder's favorites and he recorded a number of beautifully bruised versions of it. The doomed and brilliant Thunders continued to perform the song up until his untimely death in the early nineties.

The song also had a surprising effect on two cinematic legends, Jean-Luc Godard and Wong Kar-Wai. Kar-Wai's breakout film from 1988 took its title from the song (and portions of it can be heard on the soundtrack) while Godard went so far as to cast Marianne Faithfull herself in his amazing Made in U.S.A. in 1966, where she can be seen singing the song to Anna Karina.

Faithfull has continued to perform what has become her signature tune, even though she admitted in her book that originally, "I was never that crazy about As Tears Go By" but time has changed her opinion of it, as she now realizes how "astonishing" it was "for a boy of twenty to have written" such a knowing song about a "woman looking back nostalgically on her life."

Among the most noteable performances of the song are when Marianne appeared on David Bowie's mythic 1980 Floor Show in the mid seventies singing it, and another came at a memorial for Linda McCartney where she took the stage with Smith's legend Johnny Marr.

The Rolling Stones all but abandoned the song for quite awhile but began performing it again in 2006 to the delight of fans all over the world. This rather extraordinary clip from that tour showcases not only the song but also celebrates the two extraordinary artists who wrote it nearly fifty years ago...


Neil Sarver said...

This was a cool article. I admit a serious fondness for this song. I dig that recent version a lot, it had kind of a country feel like it might have sounded if they'd recorded it during the Mick Taylor days.

Rev. Fred Phantom said...

This was a great read (and listen)!I've always been a fan of this tune--both the Stones's version and Faithfull's.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks to you both. I love this track and enjoyed putting this together. Plus, anyday I can be writiong about The Stones on here is a good day...thanks again.

Keith said...

Hey Jeremy. That was really cool. I did know the story behind this song. I always loved it. Marianne does such a wonderful job with it. I always think of her when I see something about this song.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith,
I will always love Marianne's version of it...

Steve Langton said...

Great post. I went to see Marianne reading passages from one of her books in a London record store. Must have been 10-12 years ago, and it was like... magic.

Neil Fulwood said...

A nod to the Bob Rivers spoof, 'As Beers Go By', featuring the lyric:

My new-found lifestyle really stinks,
I only order virgin drinks
(Can I get a Shirley Temple, please?)
And I really miss the sound
Of throwing up and falling down,
I sit and watch as beers go by.

RC said...

What a great find. Heard a version of the song last night in a Japanese restaurant in NYC....couldn't figure out who was recording it...the best I could come up with (sadly..though there is as Marianne Faithfull-esque sound to her voice) was Jewel. Having found your site, I'm pretty sure it was a Vanessa Paradis version. Loved discovering all the other versions you provided. Thx, Rob