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.
The Rolling Stones built a tornado, and then they figured out how to exist within that tornado. That’s a huge achievement. From the very beginning, the band presented themselves as droogy barbarians, sex-and-drug-dazed outlaw figures. And when they became huge stars, they more or less became their image. For years, they lived in a constant state of chaos, a permanent bedlam that would’ve torn most other bands apart. (It definitely tore the Beatles, their closest peers, apart.) But the Stones found ways to feed on that chaos.
On most of the band’s best songs, they sound like they’re channeling all of the ugly, discordant energy around them, turning it into music, howling in the maw at the driving rain. But they also did magical things in the rare moments when they silenced all that chaos around them, when they gave themselves room to breathe and feel. “Angie” is one such moment.
There are truly great Rolling Stones ballads — “Wild Horses,” “Lady Jane,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” — and “Angie” is not one of them. But “Angie” is a very good Rolling Stones ballad, and it’s one that came out when the band’s tornado-rock was slowing down, sounding a little more anemic than usual. This is understandable. The world was wearing the Rolling Stones down by 1973, or maybe the Rolling Stones were wearing themselves down. Goat’s Head Soup, the album that gave us “Angie,” is what happens when a full decade of notoriety starts to catch up with you.
The Stones had been in tax exile for a few years by the time they made Goat’s Head Soup. They’d also been touring heavily, though various drug arrests had gotten them banned from some countries and barred entry to others. They’d just poured all their drug-sweat dread into 1972’s Exile On Main St. And this was after Brian Jones’ death and Altamont and every other fucking thing. The Stones started out recording Goat’s Head Soup in Jamaica, where they farted around for a while and didn’t get much done. They finally finished it up in a few American sessions. It’s not a bad album. It’s fine. But it doesn’t sound like slithering lightning, which means it goes down in Stones history as a failure.
“Angie” is different. “Angie” is a numb-but-sensitive breakup ballad, a plea for everything to be over. Keith Richards wrote the song in a Swiss rehab facility, and he says it came to him when withdrawal started to wear off and he could finally move his fingers well enough to strum a guitar. (The song is credited to Richards and Mick Jagger, but by just about every count, its mostly Richards’.) It’s about the end stages of a relationship, the time when you’re still in love but making each other miserable. It’s written and sung with sad empathy. Jagger sings that he still loves this Angie, that he sees her eyes everywhere he looks. But he’s exhausted: “All the dreams we held so close seemed to all go up in smoke.”
Those lyrics are vague enough that they’ve kicked off plenty of rumors. The most persistent one is that the Angie of “Angie” is Angela Bowie, first wife of David. People think that Angela caught David in bed with Jagger one night — a story that Angela has told a few times — and that the Stones wrote her a song to bribe her to keep quiet about it. Other theories: It’s about Richards’ longtime girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, or it’s about their just-born daughter Dandelion Angela, or it’s about the actress Angie Dickinson. Richards, for his part, says that it was just a generic female name, a word to sing. And it plays like that. It’s not the name that matters; it’s the heart-wrecked weariness that Jagger puts into singing that name.
If there’s a lead instrument on “Angie,” it’s session ace Nicky Hopkins’ piano. But even on a quiet and tender song like this, the Stones brought noise, and there are details and choices within that noise: a quietly murmuring bass that plays its own melody, some perfectly in-the-pocket Charlie Watts drums, a trilling acoustic-guitar riff that shows up a few times, a few muted strings that were dubbed in later. Jagger howls out the title — “Aaaaiiiieee-un-jay” — but then, sometimes, he whispers it too. His own guide vocal, from the song’s demo, is buried in the mix, a spectral harmony. There’s no real structure to the song; it’s just a bunch of phrases repeated and tweaked. So it sounds like a reverie — an echo of the sound inside your head when you’re too sad and tired to form rational thoughts.
“Angie” isn’t the best Stones ballad, but it is the only Stones ballad that hit #1. It’s the song that they needed at exactly that moment. Viewed from a certain angle, it’s a cynical ploy, a song directly targeted to the Stones’ female fans who wanted to view them as broken angels rather than amoral libertine wanderers. But a whole lot of great music has been written for reasons more cynical than that. “Angie” was the song that the Stones needed at that moment. It was also their last grand-scale pop moment for a while; they wouldn’t get back to #1 (or even into the top 10) for almost five years afterward. And “Angie” has held up. It has endured. Tornados don’t last forever. Quiet moments sometimes do.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Tori Amos’ lovely 1992 voice-and-piano “Angie” cover, one of the B-sides from her “Crucify” single: