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The Story Behind The Rolling Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’

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The Story Behind The Rolling Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’
*By Marcelo Sonaglioni


June 12, 1971: Release of the WILD HORSES / SWAY 7″ single in the USA (Rolling Stones Records RS-19101)

The story of ‘Wld Horses’ goes back to the very late ’60s, but the song wasn’t released until 1971, even though it was recorded in 1969. Keith Richards had written the song with the intention of it being about missing his new son, but Mick Jagger took it over and changed it to be about a relationship that had burned out. Such drama has never been out of the ordinary for the Stones. The fact that they overcame everything and produced a masterpiece like “Wild Horses” took the song to burden with all of the aforementioned difficulties, is a testament to their talent, chemistry, and unfailing ability to rise above all of the chaos, both self-induced and otherwise.

rolling stones the story behind wild horses

As history has it, the Stones managed to record three songs in three days at Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama in December 1969, which included “Wild Horses” (along with early takes of You Gotta Move and Brown Sugar) Keith Richards, whose first child Marlon was born in August 1969, started writing this somber ballad after feeling guilty about leaving the boy behind while on the road.

Keith in his book Life : “It was one of those magical moments when things come together. It’s like ‘Satisfaction.’ You just dream it, and suddenly it’s all in your hands. 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.”
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Richards basically composed the chorus and the music using a 12-string acoustic guitar to really bring out the melancholy in those chords. He then gave the song to Mick Jagger, his writing partner, who finished the verses. And that’s when the song started to diverge from Marlon and possibly head in the direction of Marianne Faithfull, Jagger’s on-and-off-again lover at the time.

In the liner notes of the 1993 Stones compilation Jump Back: The Best Of The Rolling Stones, Jagger remembered his contributions to “Wild Horses”. Mick remembered, ““I remember we sat around doing this with Gram Parsons, and I think his version came out slightly before ours,” Mick said. “Everyone always says it 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. This is very personal, evocative, and sad. It all sounds rather doomy now, but it was quite a heavy time.”

Throughout the entire song, that heaviness permeates the air. It can be heard in Charlie Watts’ thudding fills, in the languid guitar strumming of Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, and Richards’ perfectly pitched electric solo. When Ian Stewart asked to stop playing the sad chords on the piano, Jim Dickinson filled in. With his weariness and frustration blending seamlessly with his unwavering devotion to the wayward girl he is addressing, Jagger, for his part, keeps his histrionics in check and plays it straight.
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rolling stones wild horses ad the story behind

“Childhood living is easy to do/ The things you wanted I bought them for you,” the first line of the song suggests, alluding to a more carefree time in the couple’s relationship. But as minutes go by, their agony becomes indissoluble as well: “I watched you suffer a dull aching pain/ Now you’ve decided to show me the same”.

No matter how bad things are, the narrator’s devotion remains unwavering. At the conclusion of the first verse, Jagger sings, “You know I can’t let you slide through my hands” He describes his steadfastness by comparing it to the stage, perhaps alluding to the drama in her life: “No sweeping exits or offstage lines/ Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind” The chorus follows, with Richards and Jagger combining for soaring, lonesome harmonies that go beyond the cliché and convince you that no amount of power could sway them from their course of action.
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Jagger alters the song’s kicker line in the chorus’ last line. He sings, “We’ll ride them someday,” rather than having the horses drag him away. Some people might consider it to be a hopeful conclusion, but it also has the air of something one might say to a loved one they won’t see again as parting words. We don’t typically think of The Rolling Stones when we think of poignancy like this. However, “Wild Horses” shows that Jagger and Richards’ songwriting is capable of both delicately and bombastically glistening.

Another one of Jagger’s longtime lovers stated in an interview with The Observer that “Wild Horses” was her favorite Stones song, which led to the development of other theories. Which is less likely because Jagger didn’t actually meet Bianca until 1970.

rolling stones keith richards gram parsons
Keith Richards and Gram Parsons

Mick Jagger sings beautifully while maintaining his rock star status. His tone in the verse is so expressive, real, and earthy.
Given that the Stones’ Sticky Fingers was released in 1971 (where they had fully embraced their brand of country music, or as much as they could have, then leading to 1972 in their follow-up, Exile on Main St., or as much as they could have) the first recording of the song was actually came out a year before by Gram Parsons with the Flying Burrito Brothers (on Burrito Deluxe, the band’s second album), who at the time referred to the song as “a logical combination between their music and our music”) unfounded rumors that he should have received songwriting credit surfaced.

Parsons had moved in with Richards at his Redlands estate, and Richards recalled the time: “We played music nonstop. Simply sat around the piano or with guitars and listened to the country song collection”. “Gram taught me how country music worked and the distinction between the Bakersfield and Nashville styles”, Keith said.
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Mick Taylor, who had recently joined the group after Brian Jones was fired, played acoustic guitar in Nashville tuning, which has the first four strings (E, A, D, and G) all tuned an octave higher. Richards used a twelve-string guitar on the record and experimented with tunings in his usual manner. “‘Wild Horses’ nearly came to life. Richards stated in Life that “I found these chords, especially doing it on a twelve-string to start with, which gave the song this character and sound. It was really a lot to do with, once again, fucking around with the tunings. The open-tuned string can sometimes emit a sense of desolation”.

“I think I started off on a regular six-string open E”, he said, “and it sounded very nice, but sometimes you just get these ideas. What if I open-tuned a twelve-string? All that would have done was convert Mississippi Fred McDowell’s twelve-string slide into the five-string mode, making a ten-string guitar”

Richards also pointed out that that Jagger and Richards’ special method of writing their biggest hits at the time was used to write the classic. “This is the epitome of how Mick and I typically collaborate. Mick started working on the verses after I finished the riff and chorus. “Wild Horses,” like “Satisfaction,” was about the typical issue of not wanting to be on the road and being extremely far from where you want to be, according to Richards.
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