The Number Ones

The Number Ones: The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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The Rolling Stones – “Honky Tonk Women”

HIT #1: August 23, 1969

STAYED AT #1: 4 weeks

The worst song on Let It Bleed, the incredible sweaty death-blues album that the Rolling Stones released in December of 1969, is “Country Honk,” a three-minute mostly-acoustic fake-country lope. Mick Jagger, who’d never been averse to singing in fake American accents, pushes his fake-Southern twang into overdrive, doing what amounts to a Hee Haw parody. The Flying Burrito Brothers’ Byron Berline shows up on fiddle, playing circles around everyone else. The song plays like a half-thought-out joke, a vaguely affectionate lampoon of a genre that the Stones didn’t even properly try to understand.

If you’d bought Let It Bleed the day it came out, you would’ve recognized “Country Honk.” Months earlier, the Stones had released a different version of that song as the stand-alone single “Honky Tonk Women.” Keith Richards has gone on record saying that “Country Honk” was basically “Honky Tonk Women” as he and Mick Jagger had originally intended it. Richards isn’t even sure how one song became the other, but it’s a good thing it did. “Country Honk” isn’t terrible or anything, but it’s a forgettable moment, a filler track from a band that wasn’t exactly making a lot of those. But when they turned it into “Honky Tonk Women,” the Stones transformed “Country Honk” into a pretty great rock song.

Jagger and Richards had come up with the idea that became “Honky Tonk Women” when they were on vacation on a ranch in Brazil. Like so many other Stones songs, it’s about sex. It’s also about geography. Jagger starts things off in Memphis, hooking up with a woman in a bar who may or may not be a sex worker. Later, he’s in New York where a divorcée blows his nose and then blows his mind — a coked-up sex reference engineered to get past radio censors. In the third verse, he’s in Paris, where he may or may not hook up with some sailors who are “so charming.” The whole time, through all these escapades, he can’t shake the thought of a mythical and mysterious “you.” He wants that “you” to know that, whatever mischief he gets up to, he’s still sad. But he sure doesn’t sound sad.

The Stones lived in a state of perpetual whirling chaos. But even for them, “Honky Tonk Women” came out during a moment of profound rupture. In June, Brian Jones, who’d been slowly disappearing into a drugs-and-depression hole and who couldn’t keep up with life as a Rolling Stone, quit the band. A few weeks after that, he drowned in his swimming pool. (Jones played on a demo version of “Honky Tonk Women,” and this was his last session with the band.)

To replace Jones, the band brought in Mick Taylor, the 20-year-old guitarist from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Nobody can agree on whether Taylor actually played on “Honky Tonk Women” or whether he just influenced it. In any case, the “Honky Tonk Women” single came out in the UK the day after Jones died. The day after that, the band played a massive free concert for 250,000 fans in London. Taylor made his live debut at that show, and so did “Honky Tonk Women.” During the show, Jagger read Shelly’s elegy to Keats, and the band released thousands of butterflies to honor Jones. They also gave copies of the “Honky Tonk Women” single to all the volunteers who cleaned up after the show.

You could look at that “Honky Tonk Women” moment as the end of something. It ended up as the band’s final UK #1, though they had a bunch more over here. Or maybe that end came months later, in December, when Altamont happened. At that spectacular deadly clusterfuck of a free San Francisco show, the Hells Angels who were working security stabbed a black man to death on camera. There are plenty of persuasive arguments that this was the moment the dream of the ’60s abruptly died.

But if the Stones were operating from this hurricane of darkness, you can’t hear that in “Honky Tonk Women.” In fact, it might be the Stones’ least dark #1 single, though it’s not exactly bright, either. It’s a nasty little slither of a rock ‘n’ roll song, driven by a huge kick drum and a sneery cowbell warily circling each other. Richards’ guitar purrs and struts, and Jagger goes into full reptilian sex-deity mode, reveling in his own debauchery. You can hear distant echoes of the country music that supposedly informed the song, but the Stones were very much off in their own world, riding a groove that nobody else could hope to touch. It’s not the Stones’ best single, but it’s still a hell of a song.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Stones’ occasional tourmates Ike and Tina Turner covering the fucking shit out of “Honky Tonk Women” in 1970:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: During the era of rap music before sampling lawsuits came in and ruined things, the cowbell-heavy “Honky Tonk Women” intro became a pretty common breakbeat. Here, for example, is Kool Keith’s glorious Bronx weirdo crew Ultramagnetic MC’s sampling “Honky Tonk Women” on the 1987 single “Travelling At The Speed Of Thought”:

And here’s Tone Lōc’s 1989 crossover smash “Funky Cold Medina,” which also sampled that “Honky Tonk Women” intro:

“Funky Cold Medina” peaked at #3. It would’ve been an 8.

THE NUMBER TWOS: Johnny Cash’s rendition of Shel Silverstein’s shaggy-dog story-song “A Boy Named Sue,” recorded live at San Quentin State Prison, peaked at #2 behind “Honky Tonk Women.” It’s the only top-10 single of Cash’s entire career, and it would’ve been an 8.