Forced Creativity: The Rolling Stones song Mick Jagger called “naive”

Gentle Disclaimer: What follows is simply a story of how to push two twenty-something-year-old kids to get their jobs done while ensuring they had food and water at their disposal. I know you must be pretty confused and wondering what I am even talking about, and how this is even related to what the headline suggested. Well, here’s the story behind that one song the iconic Mick Jagger wrote but had very mixed feelings about.

It started with “I want a song with brick walls all around it, high windows and no sex”, which is a pretty specific demand as far as songwriting goes. However, that was just how it was for the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who were practically locked in a kitchen by their manager Andrew Loog Oldham until they came up with a decent song together. A comically aggressive action on Oldham’s part, but he saw that as the only way to get the job done — and it did, at least there’s that. The final product was the song that came to be known as one of the top hits by the Rolling Stones – ‘As Tears Go By’ released on the group’s studio album December’s Children (And Everybody’s).

Surprisingly, though, The Rolling Stones weren’t the first artists to release the song, even though Jagger and Richard wrote it. ‘As Tears Go By’ was given to Marianne Faithfull, who recorded the original version and released it in 1964. A year following this, the band covered and released their own rendition of the song. While Faithfull’s cover included percussion and rhythm instruments to go with the melody, the Rolling Stones’ version saw the very deliberate absence of the percussions, with only Richards on a 12-string acoustic guitar, Jagger on the vocals, and Mike Leander behind the string arrangement, thereby giving it an almost ballad-like sound, quite unlike the usual Rolling Stones material.

Fast forward to a 1995 interview with Richards relating the story of how the song came about. As he said regarding Oldham’s idea to lock the two up in their kitchen, “That was such a flatulent idea, a fart of an idea, that suddenly you’re gonna lock two guys in a room, and they’re going to become songwriters. Forget about it. And it worked.” To be fair, if you think about the plethora of songs that the duo came up with, Oldham’s idea actually did work. Totally surreal, right?

Mick Jagger, on the other hand, was more introspective about his own contributions to the song. An amateur lyricist, Jagger was still learning the ropes of songwriting when the whole kitchen incident happened. Naturally, looking back on it almost three decades later, his outlook towards the song changed quite significantly. It’s true that ‘As Tears Go By’ wasn’t one of his favourites among all the Rolling Stone songs, but it was still, as he himself said, “One of the first things I ever wrote.” And that certainly left a mark: “It’s a very melancholy song for a 21-year-old to write,” he added.

Regarding one of the lines in the song, which went like “the evening of the day, watching children play”, Jagger said: “It’s very dumb and naïve, but it’s got a very sad sort of thing about it, almost like an older person might write.” According to Jagger, ‘As Tears Go By’ may have been dumb, naïve and melancholic, but it is also “a relatively mature song considering the rest of the output at the time.”

Jagger’s thoughts were quite contradictory when it came to looking back on the song, but it was refreshing because he didn’t disregard it as the rantings of an angsty young adult but chose to look at it from a personal yet distant point of view. As a songwriter – or any writer for that matter – it is essential to give yourself the space to grow, learn and evolve and, most importantly, to have faith in your own abilities no matter how dumb they might seem. Mick Jagger did it, and so can we all.

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